Seeking Atlas; a Q&A with Telesur on Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria

 

Following the news the US would be expanding airstrikes in Afghanistan I was interviewed by Charles Davis of TelesurCharles’ article, which puts my comments into excellent context can be found here, while my full answers to Charles’ questions are below.

Are airstrikes likely to have a tangible impact?   

-The renewed airstrikes against the Taliban in Afghanistan will have the same effect as the thousands and thousands of previous airstrikes we have conducted against the Afghan insurgency. American airstrikes will make for triumphant press releases from the US military in Kabul, and it will kill many Taliban fighters, and also many civilians, but, strategically and long term, the airstrikes will not significantly weaken the Taliban, and, very likely, may strengthen them by providing more public support due to the civilian casualties the air strikes will cause. Under General Petraeus, starting in 2010, the US initiated scores of airstrikes, as well as dozens of nighttime commando raids, daily against Afghan insurgent targets. Many of these strikes hit legitimate targets, but many more of them hit civilians. The surge in the increase of public support for the Taliban in the areas of the air and commando strikes is undeniable. Similarly, this surge in American attacks only saw an increase in Taliban attacks. Rather than weakening the Taliban, the Taliban’s ability to fight, judged by nearly all indicators (number of Americans killed and wounded, number of assassinations, number of IEDs, etc) increased, year by year. There should be no doubt as to the effectiveness of American air power against the Afghan insurgency in the achievement of strategic and political goals in Afghanistan: at best there is no evidence the air strikes had a positive strategic effect pursuant to American goals, except to provide political cover for the American withdrawal; and at worst the evidence is that the airstrikes were entirely counter-productive. In Afghanistan, during our nearly 15 year occupation, there has been no reliable, non-corrupt, non-predatory, local Afghan forces that have been able to hold ground against the Afghan insurgency, let alone claim the support of the Afghan population, primarily Pashtun, in the East and South of Afghanistan. Without a militarily capable and locally endorsed Afghan ground force, no amount of American air power will be successful.

In concert with local proxy forces they appear to be helping reduce ISIS’s hold on land in Iraq and Syria… does that mean they could work against the Taliban?

-In Iraq and Syria US airstrikes have had a role in pushing back the Islamic State and its allied Sunni fighters, but the overwhelming reason for this has been increased success by sectarian forces, Kurdish in Syria and Shia in Iraq, on the ground against the Sunni forces. It is very important to realize the sectarian nature of this conflict and to note that all sides are committing atrocities, as noted by the UN, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. Those atrocities, in turn, motivate continued sectarian conflict and provide an existential reason for Sunnis, Kurds and Shia to support their respective sides. You’ll note that in the cities in Iraq from where the Islamic State has been forced to retreat from, Ramadi and Tikrit particularly, the cities have been massively destroyed, widely looted and are mostly empty of their previous Sunni residents due to the occupation of the Shia militias. The Shia militias are the primary reason for the success of the counter-offensive against the Islamic State, as the Iraqi Army is still very corrupt and ineffective. American air strikes in Iraq and Syria are a supporting mechanism only and on their own cannot push the Islamic State from the (Sunni) territory they hold.

Is this a slippery slope that will lead to US troops eventually returning to a combat role?

-In terms of US troops going into full scale ground conflict in either Iraq or Syria, I don’t believe it will occur for any military reason, but rather will occur for a political reason such as the American president making a “red line” statement or due to an atrocity, both of which were the reasons offered by the Obama Administration to enter into the Syrian civil war in 2013 (in a manner that would have placed American forces in a position where their objectives and goals were directly aligned with those of al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and other Sunni jihadist groups). Regardless of the rationale, the reasoning will be political and it will be because the US president feels she or he needs to strengthen their display of American resolve in the Middle East, which would be in line with President Johnson’s decision(s) to escalate the Vietnam War and President Obama’s decision to escalate the war in Afghanistan in 2009. By saying there is no military reason, I mean that no mid- or long-term outcome can come out of American troop involvement in the civil wars in Iraq and Syria other than American boys and girls once again patrolling hostile city and village streets in a country half a world away they do not understand while being under constant guerrilla war attack. I think the biggest impetus on US troop involvement would be in protection of the Kurdish oil and gas fields in northern Iraq, particularly if the planned attack on Mosul, by the Iraqi government, Shia militias and Kurdish forces, fails (if the attack ever happens), and the Kurds, and the large number of American and European energy firms resident in the Kurdish capital of Erbil, feel threatened as they did in 2014.

Does the US even have a strategy?

-The US does not have a strategy in any way that any person who has ever put together a plan of action or strategy for a business, construction project or even a kids’ soccer game would expect. Rather the US is simply reacting to events in Syria and Iraq that failed to meet the hopes and aspirations of politicians and politically inspired planners in Washington DC over the last decade and a half. This really has been and continues to be a foreign and military policy based upon allegiance to neoconservative ideology, whether carried out by a Democratic or Republican administration, and propelled by “hope” that things will fall in line with expectations due to an unwavering belief in American superiority and faith in the righteousness of American supremacy. The US has found its role in both Iraq and Syria by unleashing sectarian conflict in Iraq and Syria and then being disappointed when those sectarian forces have ignited civil wars that cannot be controlled. For example, since 2011, in Iraq the US hoped to use the Shia dominated government to control Sunni discontent and to keep the violence of the Islamic State in check, while in Syria, right across the border, the US hoped to utilize Sunni discontent and the Islamic State’s violence to overthrow the Syrian government.

What is apparent is an American strategy in the Middle East that is astonishingly detached from reality, let alone history, both this and last century’s. The success of such a policy as America’s would require the intervention of a determinist deity, such as Atlas, to hold together the badly fracturing Middle East that had previously been held together, in definition, by America’s massive arms and financial support to despotic monarchies, revolutionary groups, and unquestioned support of Israel. Such a house of cards could never stand.

Two People Discuss War; formerly titled: A Marine and an Iraqi Discuss War

Last week, as part of Ralph Nader’s four-day conference in Washington, DC, Breaking Through Power, my friend Raed Jarrar, a Palestinian-Iraqi-American, and I gave a talk on the horrors of war. My perspectives of combat, occupation, colonial administration and war time politics, in Afghanistan, Iraq and Washington, were set besides Raed’s experiences of living in Baghdad following the Gulf War, through the years of sanctions, into the American invasion, yes, the glory of Shock and Awe, and for the first year of occupation. Raed left Baghdad in 2004, but returned to Iraq to help rebuild, before becoming a full-time peace and anti-war activist.

The video is below. I want to thank Ralph Nader and the Center for Study of Responsive Law for allowing Raed and I to share how we both came to the same understanding of our lives, our world, our leaders, our people, our wars and the need for peace, from the different ends of a rifle.

Also, my apologies to the brave and fantastic Alli McCracken for giving the equally brave and fantastic Medea Benjamin credit for trying to, rightfully, arrest Henry Kissinger last year. Thank you Alli and Code Pink.

The remainder of the day’s talks and conversations can be found on Youtube.

Big Sexy Does the Impossible…

 

“Bartolo has done it! The impossible has happened!”

If you’re a Mets fan, a baseball fan, a sports fan, a fan of fellow dudes in their 40s still playing sports with gusto and swagger, or just anyone who is not cynical, miserable or self-loathing, Philadelphia sports fans I am referencing you, you are most likely still smiling and possibly cheering over Mets pitcher, Bartolo Colon, aka Big Sexy, hitting his first professional home run at the age of 42.

In 1969, another Mets pitcher, Tom Seaver, a young man in the midst of just his third year in his eventual Hall of Fame career, still young enough to have more guts than savvy, and more heart than fear, declared:

“If the Mets can win the World Series, the United States can get out of Vietnam.”

The Amazins did beat the Orioles to win the World Series that year, but the Americans stayed in Vietnam for another four years. Over those four years nearly 15,000 US soldiers would be killed in that far away land, tens of thousands would be wounded, many of them permanently, hundreds of thousands would be psychologically injured, and tens of thousands, more likely hundreds of thousands, would die, as they continue to die, by the never ending after effects of war, most especially the Rainbow Herbicides (Agents Blue, Orange, White, etc.) and suicide.

As the Mets did the impossible and became World Champions, President Nixon continued his secret bombings of Cambodia and Laos and escalated the bombing of Vietnam. By the time Nixon, Kissinger, Abrams, et. al admitted the war in Vietnam could not be won millions more men, women and children had been killed and wounded, countless families shattered, and an entire eco-system destroyed. The Killing Fields in Cambodia were set to begin and half the Cambodian population would be murdered.*

As with our veterans of Vietnam here at home, the war still goes on in that far away land. Meant to destroy lives decades ago, bombs and landmines today kill or maim an estimated 1,000 people each year, many of them born after the war ended. And the Rainbow Herbicides with which we soaked and saturated the Vietnamese fields, mountains, rivers, lakes, jungles, crops, livestock, schools, temples, churches and homes? The Vietnamese Red Cross estimates almost 5 million people were exposed to the 20 million gallons of chemicals dispersed aerially over 5 million acres, it was, after all, the largest chemical weapons program in history. Estimates are 1 million people are currently living their lives disabled in South East Asia because of the chemicals sprayed over four decades ago, and that includes 100,000 children. Those children, monstrously deformed, are still being born today. Read and look here and, when your eyes are dry and your stomach settled, please visit Project Renew and the Vietnam Agent Orange Responsibility and Relief Campaign to help, and then call your members of Congress and tell them to support Barbara Lee’s H.R. 2114.

Not long before Tom Seaver contravened conventional and accepted sports and political wisdom another New York sports legend, Joe Namath, famously predicted his New York Jets would defeat Johnny Unitas and the Colts. David and Goliath never played out so theatrically and athletically as Namath, and his long hair and sideburns, made good on his guarantee of victory – the folks in Baltimore had it tough in 1969. Of course, the cultural significance of Namath’s boast and win is not lost on anyone with a knowledge of 1960/70s American societal upheaval and by comparing side by side photos of Broadway Joe and Johnny U.

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The Jets can’t win, the Mets can’t win, overweight 42 year old pitchers can’t hit home runs, the US can’t get out of Vietnam, the hippies can’t win, love can’t win…Peace can’t happen…

From those who know: those in uniform with tin medals; those in residence at Langley, at Foggy Bottom, or in a think tank office paid for by defense industry dollars; and those on the campaign trail who, craven, wicked and desperate, are happy to wave the Bloody Shirt, we hear, with endless certitude and authority, that we can’t get out of the Middle East, we can’t get out of war, we can’t, we can’t…What happens if we don’t?

I am certain, the answer to that is, simply, more death, including here in the US, more suffering, more shattered families, a poisoned world, and, eventually, the end of man.

We can put an end to our wars and we must put an end to our wars. It is possible. We can choose not to aid dictatorships that repress their own people, monarchies that fund terror and massacre neighbors, or democracies that wantonly commit war crimes. We can not send troops and cash to prop up governments that hold fraudulent elections and which are composed of war and drug lords, and we can stop invading and bombing countries like Iraq and Libya. Additionally, we can stop shipping weapons from one war zone to another war zone, and we can stop trying to use terrorist groups, the very terrorist groups our invasions create, to achieve our political objectives. We could even stop being the planet’s largest arms merchant. We may say we want peace and stability, but it’s hard to demonstrate such when we sell the world the implements and ingredients that go into so much chaos, suffering and death.

In 2003 a majority in our Congress and our President thought invading Iraq had to be done. They were wrong. In 2009 a majority in our Congress and our President believed escalating the war in Afghanistan had to happen. They were wrong then too. More recently it has been a disbelief in a nuclear weapons deal with Iran and a cease fire in Ukraine. In both cases, majorities in Congress favored war with Iran and potentially war in Europe over talking with either the Iranians or the Russians. Well, today, we have a nuclear agreement with the Iranians, which the Iranian people endorsed, and there has been a cease fire in Ukraine that, while shaky, has held and has brought levels of violence down quite dramatically over the last 15 months (I am not linking to any polls to prove Ukrainians are happy their family members and neighbors have stopped being killed, although we have people, appropriately referred to as chickenhawks, war profiteers and psychopaths, in Washington, DC who would argue otherwise…).

What if we tried for peace? What if we empowered diplomacy and strengthened our role in constructive engagement, forgetting the boundaries, the ideologies and the allegiances of the past? What if we pursued policies of reconciliation among religions, ethnicities and sects, rather than trying to manipulate them to turn maps the colors and shades we want them? And what if we prioritized our problems at home, worked to rebuild our country and fixed our own democracy? I know, I know, I know, that’s silly, that’s trite, that’s naive….that’s impossible…Such thoughts and ideas, based on the realities of American foreign and military policy failures and rooted in morality and principle, aren’t allowed in Presidential Debates or in Republican or Democratic party platforms.

It appears that no matter who we elect in November our devotion to militarism, measured in trillions of dollars, and interventionist adventurism, measured in millions of dead and mutilated people, will not change, but will continue because to do otherwise is deemed impossible by our ruling political class.

The possibility of peace will not occur unless we force it to occur, until then, we might as just watch Bart defy the impossible. This time en espanol.

*For more information on the petty fear and lies that motivated the Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon administrations to begin, escalate and prolong the war in Vietnam please read Frederik Logevall’s Embers of War, David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest, and Neil Sheehan’s A Bright Shining Lie. Not only do these books illustrate the malfeasance that dominated American policy making in the 50s, 60s and 70s, but they illuminate and illustrate the same gross failures, incompetencies and deceits of American foreign policy decision makers in our current century.

I would not change anything I said about Afghanistan

 

From an interview I did in the summer of 2011 on Afghanistan with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. This may be the most complete summation of my views on the war in Afghanistan, on counter-insurgency, and on American political and military decision making. I do not believe anything I said in this interview differs from what I said in 2009 when I resigned from my State Department position in Afghanistan and I don’t believe I have said anything different in the past four years as I have worked against these policies. Sadly, I think the results of our military and political policies in Afghanistan delivered the consequences I feared so greatly.

I am also horrified, four years later, that my t-shirt was showing during this interview…

The program that aired in Australia can be found here:

In Their Sights…

The web page for the program also has other extended interviews with some of the other commentators on the program, including Major General Nicholson, whom I remember meeting and speaking with a number of times in Kandahar, I always liked him. Please give them a watch and let me know what you think. I am not looking to be told I was right,  I am just looking to be told I am not crazy.

 

 

Insulting America’s Sacred Idols: Helping Veterans Recover from Moral Injury

Back in March, Quaker House in Fayetteville, NC, the home of America’s largest military base, Fort Bragg, hosted me to discuss my recovery from PTSD and moral injury. The full video is below, along with a three minute clip that Lynn Newsom, the co-director of the Fayetteville Quaker House, is using in the talks she gives to military and non-military audiences on moral injury.

During my talk I am not very clear about the correlation, and, yes, I would also say causation, between combat and suicide. However, there is a very clear link between combat veterans and suicide, a link that is obviously very dangerous to cherished American myths of war, with all too familiar, prevalent and false motifs of justice, honor and redemption. To illustrate the connection between war, violence and suicide, a connection that manifests in veterans through PTSD, depression, substance abuse, and moral injury, I have included, at the end of this essay, 15 fairly easy to find studies of the last few decades documenting the prevalence of suicide in combat veterans.

Among the below studies, and among the most recent, dealing with my fellow veterans of the Afghan and Iraq Wars, researchers at the National Center for Veterans Studies have found that veterans who were exposed to killing and atrocity had a 43% greater risk of suicide, while 70% of those Afghan and Iraq veterans who participated in heavy combat had attempted suicide. We spends millions of dollars and thousands of hours to physically, mentally and morally condition each young man and woman who volunteers to serve in the military to travel abroad and kill, but upon their return, in reality, effective and thorough programs to decondition our veterans, help them reenter and reintegrate into society and regain emotional, moral and spiritual balance and health are nonexistent, while care for developed wounds, both physical and mental is underfunded. Continue reading