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War Crimes in Afghanistan? Time To Investigate

1:34 pm in Foreign Policy, Military by Josh Mull

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

3:22 pm in Foreign Policy by Josh Mull

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. Read the rest of this entry →

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

2:15 pm in Foreign Policy by Josh Mull

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:  . . .  Read the rest of this entry →

Review This: Afghan War Collapses

5:00 am in Foreign Policy by Josh Mull

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.  . . .  Read the rest of this entry →

The Politics of (Ending) the Afghanistan War

3:58 pm in Foreign Policy by Josh Mull

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. Read the rest of this entry →

Afghanistan: No Withdrawal, No Reconciliation

2:12 pm in Foreign Policy by Josh Mull

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. . . . Read the rest of this entry →

No Really, We Should Abandon Afghanistan

2:21 pm in Foreign Policy by Josh Mull

photo: Josh Mull

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.

Finish The Job™

One of the most obnoxious arguments for continuing the occupation of Afghanistan is what I like to think of as the “Charlie Wilson excuse”, referring to the film Charlie Wilson’s War. In one of the closing scenes, just after the character Wilson is told that his Afghan funding will be cut, he stares off warily toward a dark horizon while the viewer’s subconscious is treated to the sound of jet airliners, a nod to 9/11. The message is simple: We abandoned Afghanistan once before and the US was attacked for it. Now that we’ve gone back in, we have to stay and finish the job.

Never mind the fact that 9/11 was carried out by Saudis operating in the United Arab Emirates, Germany, and let’s not forget, US flight schools. No Afghans, no Pakistanis, and nothing at all to do with the Taliban. Ignore that stuff, we have to finish the job in Afghanistan or else we’ll get hit with another 9/11.

It’s stupid, roughly the equivalent of baby talk in terms of having a substantive discussion about the history of terrorism and Central Asia, but that also means it’s really easy for the average war supporter to regurgitate. It’s no wonder it’s the favorite of every politician, especially the White House, whenever they need an excuse for extending the occupation. It’s not as effective anymore, mind you, the majority of the country has turned against the war, but that hasn’t stopped them from hammering this childish myth into our heads. Here’s the latest version from the US envoy to Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke:

Responding to a question, Holbrooke said the United States committed a mistake in abandoning Pakistan and Afghanistan after the Soviet retreat from Afghanistan and it would not repeat the same mistake.

He emphasized that US commitment to this part of the world is long and enduring and would encompass economic development as well.

It’s nice and simple, as long as you know absolutely nothing about history. Here’s the problem: Nobody has abandoned Afghanistan in decades. It’s like they can’t be left alone! The Soviet withdrawal is one of the few highlights Afghans have in their recent history. Everything else is one long, unbroken line of foreign interference.  . . . Read the rest of this entry →

Obama playing games with the War in Afghanistan

2:51 pm in Foreign Policy by Josh Mull

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.

We all know how 11 dimensional chess works: President Obama claims he supports something easily acceptable and mainstream, like removing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell or closing the illegal prison at Guantanamo Bay. His plan for doing so however, involves an ethereal, un-named bill making its way through both the House and Senate, which have almost no incentive, political or financial, to help the President out with anything, let alone an issue that would generate a huge popularity boost for Obama. It will make it through, mind you, because he believes in mythical creatures (moderates, not centaurs) who’ll reach across the aisle and work out some perfect, centrist, solution.

Anyone who dares question this strategy of wishes and high fantasy, specifically progressives, will be treated to a harsh reprisal. High-ranking government officials, including the Vice President, will be sent on cable television to fling insults and question their credibility. And wave after wave of partisan zealots shouting “firebagger!” will be deployed, plastic keys jangling around their necks, against those among Obama’s base who won’t go along with the plan. You know this story already, critics are the fringe far left, need to be drug tested, blah, blah, blah Jane Hamsher and Glenn Greenwald lost the election for Democrats. It’s exhausting, but old news at this point.

But now we’re seeing it increased in the debate over the war in Afghanistan (to the extent that there is a debate – a wide majority of Americans are against it). The President has declared that troop withdrawals will begin in July 2011. Only that’s just the start of the withdrawal, it won’t all be right away. Just how not-right-away? 2014. At least. Read the rest of this entry →

Rethink Afghanistan: Clinging to Guns and Counterinsurgency

2:59 pm in Foreign Policy, Military by Josh Mull

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

There’s been a lot of public debate lately about our counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan. Derrick Crowe looked through the government’s own reports and discovered it’s a giant failure. Steve Hynd wonders if it isn’t stratagem at all, but an ideology. I asked if we even had any idea what’s going on with the strategy. Gareth Porter finds that Pentagon leaders don’t like the Afghan strategy, and Nancy Youssef piles on that the military itself is turning against COIN. And it was in Youssef’s piece that one of the Grand Dragons of the COIN blogosphere, Andrew Exum (Abu Muqawama to the cool kids), appeared to distance himself from the strategy. "I can’t imagine anyone would opt for this option," he said.

Exum later clarified his statement, sort of, but he had a good point here:

If you continue to have a problem with the fact that we are now pursuing a counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan, by the way, you should spend less time whining about the generals and think tank researchers and take the issue up with the president. As the secretary of state said today at USIP, while holding forth on the strategy reviews that took place in the spring and fall, "the president reached a conclusion [after the reviews of 2009] that should be respected by Americans."

Obviously it’s a bit of stretch for Exum to throw all the blame on the politicians, seeing as how he and a host of other COINdinistas built their Beltway careers on aggressively proselytizing counterinsurgency religion to those very same politicians. But our leaders are primarily responsible for the policy failure. For instance, Afghan president Karzai visits Washington with a peace plan, and we just take it as normal that he has to "persuade a sceptical Barack Obama that it is time to negotiate with the Taliban." Skeptical about negotiating? Obama has a Nobel Peace Prize, and he’s skeptical? And Exum’s quote from Secretary Clinton is equally outrageous. We’ve so completely lost sight of our peaceful capabilities, so misunderstood the point of our civilian foreign policy agencies, that even our diplomats demand our military occupations be "respected." Our problem is not picking the right military strategy, but picking any military strategy at all. Read the rest of this entry →

Elections in Iraq and Escalation in Afghanistan: Paying For A “Violent Semi-Peace”

9:30 am in Foreign Policy by Josh Mull

This weekend Iraqis turned out in the millions to vote in their 2010 parliamentary elections. By most accounts, it was a relative success. There were very few instances of fraud or polling issues reported. Several prominent religious leaders, including Moqtada al-Sadr, issued calls for Iraqis to defy "the enemies of Iraq" and cast their vote. And by mid-day, the government actually lowered several security restrictions (although security at the polling centers themselves remained tight).

Oh yeah, and 38 people were killed by violence. 73 were injured.

"Baghdad bore the brunt of the violence, with around 70 mortars raining down on mostly Sunni muslim areas as Iraqis headed to the polls in the second parliamentary vote since US-led forces ousted Saddam Hussein in 2003.

A Katyusha rocket flattened a residential building in northern Baghdad, killing 12 people and wounding 10, officials said, adding that a second blast killed four when another building was targeted by a bomb.

Eight people were killed by mortar attacks or bombs in Baghdad that between them wounded 40. Thirty more were wounded in attacks in the capital and elsewhere in the country."

And that’s only on election day. 14 people were killed on Friday, 27 two days before that. That’s what success looks like in the US occupation of Iraq. That’s what we got for the bargain price of $710 billion, 4700 dead Americans, 30,000 wounded, 100,000 dead Iraqis, and millions of displaced refugees. And that cost is still rising. We still have over 100,000 troops in Iraq until at least 2011, maybe longer, and every day Iraqis are ripped to shreds by car bombs, suicide attacks, rockets, mortars, and IEDs. This is what a New York Times op/ed piece by Michael O’Hanlon and others referred to as a "violent semi-peace."

"As 2008 and the Bush presidency conclude, Iraq has settled into a kind of violent semi-peace. The population-protection strategy initiated by Gen. David Petraeus has been a remarkable success on balance. Its logic continues even though American force numbers in Iraq have nearly returned to pre-surge levels."

So a successful "population-protection strategy" is what leads to a "violent semi-peace." That sounds exactly like the new NATO/ISAF strategy for Afghanistan, premiered in their latest incursion into the village of Marjah, in Helmand province. The Christian Science Monitor reported last month:

Read the rest of this entry →