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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Waist deep in the Big Muddy

"Waist deep in the Big Muddy,
and the big fool said to push on."

In Pete Seeger song, the Captain leads his soldiers into deeper and deeper water. Eventually the Captain drowns and his men turn back, led by their sergeant back to the safety of dry land.

The Captain is convinced they can cross the river despite not knowing its depth. As it turns out, a stream joined the river upstream, one that the Captain didn't know about when he crossed the river before.

In the Vietnam era, Seeger's popular folk song became a touchstone for those who opposed that war. The inclination to charge ahead despite not knowing what we were getting into was the big mistake.

The Captain's dogged determination keeps his troops going forward, even as the water rose to their necks. Without really knowing where he goes, or how dangerous the crossing, the Captain led his men on toward their deaths, an inevitable outcome avoided only by his death.

The parallel to VIetnam is striking, and the metaphor about pushing blindly into the unknown suits American overconfidence.

It's what we don't know about our ongoing occupation of Vietnam that hurt us. If we could see how badly the escalation would go--or how deep the water was--we'd surely have turned back.

Afghanistan is the new "Muddy." We don't know how deep the proverbial water is, yet the Captain--Barack Obama--urges us forward, calling for more men and escalation. These circumstances are virtually identical to Vietnam, with one possible exception: the Taliban's resurgence could theoretically set up a recurrence of 9/11.

Now if you buy into the Official Explanation that no governments other than the Taliban were involved, then I guess a future terror attack could come from al Qaeda if the Taliban return to power. Then again, I think it's equally possible an al Qaeda attack could come from anywhere, not just a cave in Afghanistan if that's where the attacks were devised. (Actually, the hijackers planned their attacks in Hamburg, Germany and Florida--not exactly governments friendly to their cause.)

So war proponents could argue we need to "win"and "get'r'done" but I don't know how possible it will be to eliminate the Taliban. Actually, rather than fight an endless counterinsurgency, it might actually be easier to encourage the Taliban to become a political force, allow them to win seats in the Afghan government, then have them govern.

And if any terrorists then happen to show up on our radar--like Atta did during the Army's Able Danger operation, only to be dropped--somewhere like flight schools in Florida, we can simply go arrest them if we know who they are.

If the Taliban's control of Afghanistan enabled the terrorist strikes, indirectly, then no Taliban should mean no terrorists? Not exactly. As it turns out, the Taliban had nothing directly to do with 9/11 so their control over Afghanistan, or existence as a insurgency, won't matter much to anti-terror efforts in the future.

Like Vietnam, we're caught supporting a puppet regime in Karzai, a former Unocal executive. EU monitors at the Afghan's most recent election found evidence of massive vote fraud.

Rather than take issues with inconsistencies in the Afghan's version of democracy's most fundamental right, to vote, we've chosen to stay quiet. Clearly, if we raise the issue with Karzai, we risk meddling with internal Afghan politics or, more significantly, we'd risk alienating Karzai, our man in Kabul.

Taking sides does reduce military effectiveness because the occupiers identify with the despotic regime by virtue of sharing a common enemy in the Taliban (and the will of the majority as expressed in the suppressed vote count.)

Investigating the fraud would make the Karzai regime harder for the US to manage. Karzai could likely make the US presence more of an issue if he chose to. So we cling on to "our guy" in Afghanistan, even if siding with Karzai means denying the democratic process which our liberation sought to bring--a gift from the West thought to be a panacea for many of the region's woes.

Just like Vietnam, we're in a no-win situation. We can meddle with internal politics, and risk alienating the incumbent regime, upon whose cooperation we depend to execute a war plan.

Typically our generals seek to be as independent of Afghan internal politics as possible but we do have ulterior motives and limits to obeying the popular will of the Afghan people. We do want the regime not to fail of course. Rather than see their role as an intermediary to building an independent Afghanistan, our military seeks to create a client state for American arms, one that will be dependent on US aid for decades.

In Vietnam, our military caught itself siding with corrupt regimes, who became such an embassment that we had no choice but to help arrange their defeat by military coup. Removing the corrupt Diem, President of South Vietnam, in 1963 led to an equally corrupt replacement.

Abdullah Abdullah, Karzai's competitor who's claiming foul of the elections, may not be the friend that we want in Kabul. Yet the more we appear to side with the incumbent Karzai, the less popular we are among Karzai's domestic political rivals, which makes legitimizing the occupation much harder should a new regime come to power, one that would likely be far less friendly to our interests.

The incumbent regime is likely to take on increasingly undemocratic characteristics as the occupation wears on and resistance builds. Collateral damage from bloodshed by US occupational forces translates into political fallout for the incumbents, who tend to turn increasingly towards authoritarian measures to repress the population, which of course amplifies resistance to the regime and bolsters support for the insurgency.

The movie Good Morning Vietnam depicts the growing disaffection of a young Vietnamese named Tran, who sees friends eliminated by the regime. So even if US soldiers are as pacifistic as a Robin Williams, and their hands squeaky clean, they become targets for the insurgency.

The decision crafted by the Washington establishment in the wake of 9/11 to invade Afghanistan has created an expanding war with no end in sight.

The escalation in Afghanistan means we'll spend a lot on our military, at precisely a time when we need the money at home, which creates a vivid contrast of interests. The Right Wing talk about keeping the nation secure through ongoing occupations abroad, and "winning" seems to have its fringe audience here in the U.S.. Still, the recent election victories show the American public has grown weary-recent polls on support for the war in Afghanistan have well over 50% opposed, a dramatic reversal from this spring.

The idea of fighting a counterinsurgency to stop terror is a twist logic that defies common sense as well as international protocols in dealing with terror. Yet while strong opinions are vociferously voiced, most Americans are ignorant about how to fight terrorism.

Political Hangover

With such short memories, Americans tend to forget recent past events, particularly in matters of foreign policy. This amnesia, coupled with militaristic fervor raised from 9/11, amplified by yellow journalism from the mass media, creates a political climate intolerant of weakness in the face of any threat.

The threat of another terror event also makes resistance to war more difficult within the political system. Should a strike occur after de-escalation, stopping the Afghan War will likely be given as a reason for the resurgent terrorism in the post-strike blame game.

We'll never be able to remove the possibility of a strike--whatever the effectiveness of our efforts in Afghanistan. Politicians have therefore consigned themselves to the ugly spectre of endless war against The Others, this time in southwestern Asia, rather than appear to have been doing nothing to stop the "threat" should it materialize into a strike against the Homeland.

Easier it is for a Washington politician to simply tow the War Party line, to go along with the the notion that continuing the occupation is the best way to reduce the risk of terror strikes against us.

Unfortunately, a terror strike could come from anywhere. As a mostly open society ( I don't think we'll ever be capable of shutting our borders, nor want to), we can't take comfort in the idea that if we get rid of so-and-so, that we'll be forever freed of the terror menace.

Now just because we don't know who specifically will strike us (just that sooner or later, it will happen), this isn't to say we shouldn't be going after certain people who hate us and would like to do us harm. Clearly we need to conduct extensive intelligence-gathering and monitoring of threats, and take steps to neutralize threats. I guess that role involves tasks beyond traditional law-enforcement or even counter-terrorism, into a realm considered a grey area under international law.

If for instance, someone in Somalia is planning to strike against a soft target in a friendly country, I don't think the Somali government can complain when we take the threat out (similar to an event that recently occurred, see link.)

First off, the Somali government lacks the resources to identify the terror threats within its borders. Secondly, their governemnt might be sufficiently compromised by radical Islamic forces as to make any interdiction impossible, at least without tipping off the target.

There's a legitimate reason to intervene when in the past what happened in Third World backwaters didn't seem to matter. Then again, it's suspicious how we seem so selective in deciding where to intervene: Afghanistan happens to sit on a much-coveted pipeline route and Iraq the world's second largest reserves of oil.

As much as our War on Terror might call for new strategies, the old game of overseas adventurism and colonialism has emerged as its prime methodology. If indeed terror poses a threat, a big argument could be made that we don't need to fight it conventionally, with thousands of troops trying to win hearts and minds.

Surely we can develop a rapid response capability that can find and destroy real terrorist, whether or not they happen to be plotting in some cave over there, or some apartment down the street. I don't know if we can achieve that by Predator drone hits directed from above, like those inflicted on people in Pakistan.

Lastly, there's a huge economic impact to running a major occupation or worse, trying to expand it. These effects don't show up overnight, but rather gradually start to drain vital cash from worthy expenditures.

Perhaps you've recently seen the closure of a family services agency, school group, or termination of help for the needy in your locality.

Here in Indiana, we just saw the closure of a crisis group that helps with abused children in Indianapolis, consigning those individuals to already overworked social workers. Vital expenses that must be paid like healthcare for veterans or Medicare will in time be reduced by the amount of money we're pumping into the Pentagon and its corporate benefactors.

How bad could it get? The decision to escalate in Afghanistan might even lead to the economic collapse of our country. How can I be so sure? Look at the economic facts.

Look at our debt: we've borrowed our way into poverty. I don't care if our debt belongs to us collectively, or that we might be able to print up dollars. In the end, we'll pay a price for borrowing so much.

If we print up the money to pay for the war, inflation will surely come. Too much spending on aircraft carriers and weapons systems creates illusory demand, as well as a contracting system loaded with bloat and inefficiencies.

Now if we don't just print up what we owe, taxes will have to go up. Recently, I've seen talk of a tax on uninsured as part of health care "reform," a tracking for vehicles designed to tax per mile travelled, and proposals for carbon taxes that will inflate household energy bills.

Assuming we don't inflate, we'll have to cut back, even in defense. Every year, we spend more than the rest of the world combined. A good chunk of military spending is therefore unsustainable, so whatever benefits increased spending brings will be transient.

Much of the response to our economic problems requires the capacity for acknowledging fault and making the prerequisite changes. Clearly, an approach that embraces change requires leaving the comfort zone behind, accepting the need for change, not unlike the process needed to confront addiction.

It's easier to ignore the reality when the ramifications of realizing the truth are so devastating. Easier it is to push on in our daily routines, consigned to our fate of permanent debt servitude--collectively and oftentimes personally.

Facing the economic truth is hard enough to do when credit is plentiful, and the consequences of borrowing now are so far-off. Perhaps one big benefit of the credit crisis is that many of us now know we've been living beyond our means and have started to save. Unfortunately, the way our monetary system works, we've become dependent on borrowing, so we're in a Catch-22: the less we spend and borrow, the slower we grow, and the less we have to spend and borrow.

The roots of our problems are clearly systemic--we've built a giant Ponzi scheme where the only way we can grow our economy is to burden ourselves with more debt, either borrowed from banks who exist by borrowing from the Federal Reserve, or from overseas.

And the status quo doesn't like being told it's wrong. The Establishment reacts to any facts that might contradict the Washington consensus--like the idea that the Taliban willfully hosted al Qaeda--are forcibly excluded from the media dialogue.

There's great risk in any change, a fact Obama now must see quite clearly from inside the White House, an institution at the heart of the system/Establishment/status quo. At some point it won't be enough to simply claim change in speeches and celebratory campaign appearances--something will need to be achieved.


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