Monday, January 23, 2012

Afghanistan: Coffins for the U.S. & NATO; contracts for China

Some bitter ironies in Afghanistan these days: U.S. and French soldiers gunned down by the very Afghan troops they work with. America and its NATO allies, facing huge budget problems themselves, persist in squandering billions in Afghanistan, to defeat Islamic radicals and create a propitious climate for growth and investment. Right now, the largest investments so safe guarded are Chinese.  
Another paradox, it was American engineers who, in the summer of 2010, completed a survey concluding that Afghanistan sits atop one trillion dollars of untapped copper, iron and lithium deposits. If it could just get its act together, the country had a promising future. Skeptics immediately claimed that rosy estimate didn’t take account Afghanistan’s woeful infrastructure: it could cost more to mine those resources than they were worth.
But that’s not how the Chinese see it. A few weeks ago, China’s National Petroleum Corporation became the first foreign company to be allowed to explore Afghanistan’s oil and gas reserves in the Amu Darya Basin. The deal is estimated to be worth more than $700 million. Some speculate it could ultimately be worth ten times that amount to China.
Even before that deal, however, China was already the largest foreign investor in Afghanistan. In 2007 Beijing signed a $3 billion agreement to explore huge copper deposits in Mes Aynak, south of Kabul.
India is the only other country to go after Afghan minerals. Last November a deal was signed giving Indian firms the rights to 1.8 billion tons on iron-ore, one of the largest untapped deposits in Asia.
It’s very unlikely that the Chinese [and Indians] would be making such risky bets without the security provided by the U.S. and its allies. After the copper deal was inked,  2,000 U.S. troops were deployed to provide general security in Logar Province where the Mes Aynak mine is located. They also protected the projected routes of the road and railway which will service the huge development. Another 1,500 Afghan National Police, presumably paid and trained by the U.S. and its allies, were sent to guard the mine itself.

In addition, facing restless Muslim groups in their own country, the Chinese are not at all unhappy about the U.S. and Nato taking on Islamic militants in Afghanistan.

Yet, all the while, China has consistently refused to contribute to the joint Western military force. They even turned down a request to permit NATO to ship non-lethal supplies via China to Afghanistan. 

So why aren’t the U.S. and its allies screaming about the situation?  Because, if they are to have a face-saving way out of Afghanistan that doesn’t disintegrate into chaos, they desperately need China’s huge new investments to continue and prosper.
As things now stand, once the income from opium production is deducted, 97% of Afghanistan’s GNP comes from foreign aid.  A whole new economy is needed.
After China’s National Petroleum Council signed its recent oil agreement with Kabul, experts warned that success was far from a sure thing: it could take five to ten years of expensive exploration to see if the oil fields are really worth developing.
But the Chinese are after more than oil and copper. They see each deal as another foot in the door. The are also determined to reap huge potential profits to come from rebuilding Afghanistan’s shattered infrastructure and economy, among such projects, a high-speed rail system.  In this way, without massive military deployments, China has already become a major player throughout the region. [I’ve written about China’s activities in Pakistan, Iran, Iraq and the Gulf in other recent blogs]  

A particularly insightful comment on China’s tactics in Afghanistan followed an article in The Diplomat:
Achieving a peace agreement is always the number one preference for Chinese government. By nature Chinese are not interested in “beating” other group of people, but are interested in “gaining” concrete benefits. This is due to the Chinese culture and history. In Chinese culture, people believe in “harmony brings wealth”. Therefore, when dealing with a dispute, a Chinese normally do not set his goal as completely beating the others, but rather sequence his goals according to priority, and try to achieve the goal with the highest priority first, and so on. Each disputant may achieve some goal upon settlement of the dispute.”

Case in point: thanks to the Chinese, the Afghans may benefit from a real high-speed rail system before the United States.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Iran, Israel, the U.S: Blind Mans Buff

In a perilous spiral of assassinations, threats and counter-threats, the leaders of Washington, Jerusalem and Tehran keep ratcheting the tension. What is most alarming about the situation, is that the principle players and their advisors are engaged in an incredibly dangerous three-way game of blind mans buff.  
None of them expresses a real understanding of the others: of their motives, their concerns, nor their likely reactions. That’s true even with Israel and the United States:  though the U.S. risks being sucked into any conflict between Israel and Iran, the Obama administration is currently forced to guess what its supposed Israeli allies are planning.
What would America or Israel --or any country-- do if five of its scientists were assassinated by an enemy power?  How would they react if, at the same time, the mightiest country on the planet dispatched its forces towards their borders even as it tightened a blockade to garrote their economy?
Would they kowtow to the demand that they terminate any activities related to the research or development of nuclear weapons [which, of course, both Israel and the U.S. possess]--or lash out in violent reprisal?
A lot of people with important sounding titles pontificate on what lies ahead, but who are they kidding? It’s like we’re watching kids playing around with vials of highly volatile chemicals. No one’s sure when an explosion will come, nor how calamitous might be the chain reactions it ignites.  
What makes the situation even more perilous is the fact that the leaders of the three countries involved—Israel, Iran and the U.S.--are all challenged by strident enemies in their own countries.  Since this current dispute plays front and centre, every move they make is automatically the target of virulent homegrown--and often woefully ignorant--opponents.
In other words, if the leaders and their advisors were more secure on their respective thrones, they might all be able to follow a much cooler, more rational course. They might even be able to sit down and negotiate.  
Worse, is the likelihood that the principle actors, their advisors, intelligence agencies and domestic critics, don’t really comprehend what the others are up to—where they are coming from and what they want to achieve.
If it’s not blind-man’s buff, it’s shadow boxing—sparring with caricatures: In this corner, the deceitful bearded mullahs in Tehran obsessed with obtaining nuclear weapons to exterminate Israel and establish a new Caliphate. In that corner, the  grasping imperialists in Washington, who for decades have used the CIA and American military to put down movements of national liberation, sustain the Zionist State of Israel and the corrupt oil-rich Arab dictators.
Those caricatures become so deeply embedded that even the supposedly objective intelligence agencies of each of the combatants—not to mention the mainstream media--tend to censor, edit out, or shy away from information that runs counter to official “truth”.
I had a personal run-in with this phenomenon in 1980 when I was a producer at 60 Minutes covering the on-going revolution in Iran during the hostage crisis.
Travelling back and forward between Tehran, New York and Washington, I was struck by the total inability of Americans—even at the highest level—to understand the emotions and history that drove the hatred of all things American that had exploded in Iran with the fall of the Shah.
Just up West 57th street from CBS News, for instance, was a huge billboard with the diabolical image of Khomeini glowering down on New York.
I suggested we do a report to give Americans a better idea of what was driving Iran’s revolutionaries and their violent feelings against the United States.
Though certainly encouraged by radical elements in Tehran, that hatred was fueled by real facts: the shameful history of U.S. intervention in Iran, from the CIA’s organizing a coup to oust the democratically elected nationalist leader Mohamed Mossadegh in 1953 to America’s subsequent backing of the Shah of Iran.
That support included the closest of relations between the CIA and the Shah’s infamous secret police, the SAVAK, notorious for torture and brutality. [In the future, of course, SAVAK’s brutality would pale beside the horrific prisons and savage repression of Khomeini and the regimes to follow. ]
To give an idea of America’s relations with the Shah and SAVAK, I stitched together a tough report with Mike Wallace based on a series of interviews in New York and Washington. “You’d have to be blind, deaf and dumb and a presidential candidate not to know there was torture going on in Iran under the Shah,” Jesse Leaf, a former C.I.A. analyst told us.
“We knew what was happening and we did nothing about it and I was told not to do anything about it. By definition, an enemy of the Shaw was an enemy of the CIA. We were friends. This was a very close relationship between the United states and Iran.”
Another former CIA officer, Richard Cottam, also condemned the U.S. and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, for turning a blind eye to the excesses of the Shah, and refusing to have any contact with the opposition groups.
“What you seemed to be saying, Professor Cottam, “Mike Wallace interjected, “is that when the question “Who lost Iran?” is finally asked, Henry Kissinger is at the top of your culprit’s list.”
“I think Henry Kissinger’s idea of diplomacy in this sense is…is intolerable,” replied Cottam.
We also reported on some of the classified U.S. government documents divulged by the Iranians who had taken over the American Embassy. Those documents showed that American diplomats based in Teheran had warned Washington months earlier of the threat of a possible hostage taking--particularly if the U.S. allowed the despised Shah to come to America for medical treatment, as the U.S. ultimately did. Those warnings had been completely ignored by Washington.
In return for releasing the hostages what the Iranian government of President Bani-Sadr was demanding was a pledge by the U.S. not to interfere in the future affairs of Iran and an agreement not to block their efforts to get back the Shah and the wealth of Iran he embezzled. They also wanted an admission by the U.S. of past wrongs. In light of that past, we asked, were those demands so outrageous?
In the context of America’s superheated passions at the time, however, even posing that question was considered outrageous.
Over the next few days, as we were preparing the report, we received calls from many Washington officials concerned about the broadcast. This was capped by President Jimmy Carter himself who called Bill Leonard, the President of CBS News, to try to convince him not to broadcast report. It would, he said, undermine U.S. negotiations with Iran at a very delicate time.
To his credit, Bill Leonard refused to back down. The only thing he requested was to change the title of our report from “Should the U.S. Apologize?”  to a more neutral “The Iran file.”
When questioned by Leonard, we argued that it was difficult to understand how our report could upset the hostage negotiations.  We were not revealing any secrets to Iran. The Iranians already knew well the role of the U.S. in their own history. The people we were informing were 20 million Americans—who didn’t understand what was really roiling Iran.  
And still don’t.


Thursday, January 5, 2012

Iraq-Leave the wretches to their fate..

I get the feeling, with the flurry of bloody new terrorist attacks in Iraq, that we’re watching the smoldering shell of a tanker carrying high-octane fuel that’s just run off the road--waiting for the climactic explosion that will perhaps finally blow the country apart.

The temptation is to blame it all on the Iraqis themselves—those corrupt, grasping politicians and sectarian leaders, those perverse, bloody-minded peoples—they deserve what they get. Enough American lives have been lost. If after all the U.S. sacrifice, the Iraqis still want to slaughter each other, so be it.  We’re out of there.

But the fact is that we in the West—and particularly the U.S. –are as—if not more-- responsible for Iraq’s tragic plight and its foreboding future as are the Iraqis themselves.  

I’m not just talking about the past few years-but—as most commentators refuse to acknowledge--Iraq’s entire sorry, history. 

Case in point:  one of the most chilling reports about Iraq was produced by a group of Harvard medical researchers who found that the children of Iraq were "the most traumatized children of war ever described."  

The experts concluded that "a majority of Iraq's children would suffer from severe psychological problems throughout their lives."

Particularly appalling, that report was published more than 20 years ago, in May 1991—almost twelve years before  America’s disastrous invasion, which resulted in the deaths of more than 100,000 Iraqis.

From the very beginning, course, Iraq was an unstable, totally artificial creation, cobbled together out of disparate remnants of the Ottoman Empire, by the British and French, as the Americans looked on with approval.

Now, fast-forward through sixty years of political turmoil, military coups, constant foreign meddling, the seizure of power Saddam Hussein, and his ill-fated decision to invade Iran.  

 From September, 1980 to August, 1988 more than a million Iraqis and Iranians died in what was the longest war of the twentieth century. As that conflict raged, Saddam also launched his genocidal attacks against the Kurds --which Presidents Reagan and Bush Senior-then Saddam's de facto allies against Iran, did their best to ignore.

Next came Saddam's disastrous invasion of Kuwait in August 1990--there again the U.S. played a hand. -followed by an abortive popular uprising against

Saddam. That revolt, which George H.W. Bush had called for, ended with Saddam's slaughter of tens of thousands of Shiites--as U.S. troops stood by.

At the same time, the United Nations Security Council was implementing a Draconian embargo on all trade with Iraq. Indeed, when the Harvard study cited above was carried out, those sanctions had been in effect for only seven months. They cut off all trade between Iraq and the rest of the world. That meant everything, from food and electric generators to vaccines, hospital equipment--even medical journals. Since Iraq imported 70% of its food, and its principle revenues were derived from the export of petroleum, the sanctions had an immediate and catastrophic impact.

Enforced primarily by the United States and Great Britain, they remained in place for almost thirteen years and were in their own way a weapon of mass destruction far more deadly than anything Saddam had developed. Two U.N. administrators who oversaw humanitarian relief in Iraq during that period, and resigned in protest, consider the embargo to have been a "crime against humanity."

Early on, it became evident that for the United States and England, the real objective of the sanctions was not the elimination of Saddam Hussein's WMD but of Saddam Hussein himself, though that goal went far beyond anything authorized by the Security Council.

The effect of the sanctions was magnified by the wide-scale destruction of Iraq's infrastructure--power plants, sewage treatment facilities, telephone exchanges, irrigation systems-wrought by the air and rocket attacks preceding the war. Iraq's contaminated waters became a biological killer as lethal as anything Saddam had attempted to produce.

There were massive outbreaks of severe child and infant dysentery. Typhoid and cholera, which had been virtually eradicated in Iraq, also packed the hospital wards.

Added to that was a disastrous shortage of food, which meant malnutrition for some, starvation and death for others. At the same time, the medical system, once the country's pride, was careening towards total collapse. Iraq would soon have the worst child mortality rate of all 188 countries measured by UNICEF.

There is no question that U.S. planners knew what the awful impact of the sanctions would be. The health calamity was first predicted and then carefully tracked by the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency. Their first study was entitled "Iraq's Water Treatment Vulnerabilities."

Indeed, from the beginning the intent of U.S. officials was to create such a catastrophic situation that the people of Iraq--civilians but particularly the military--would be forced to react. As Dennis Halliday, the former U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Iraq, put it to me, "the U.S. theory behind the sanctions was that if you hurt the people of Iraq and kill the children particularly, they'll rise up with anger and overthrow Saddam."

But rather than weakening Saddam, the sanctions only consolidated his hold on power. The government's rationing system became vital to the survival of the people, even though it provided less than a third of a person's nutritional requirements. Iraqis were so obsessed with simply keeping their families alive that there was little interest or energy to plot the overthrow of one of the most ruthless dictatorships on the planet. "The people didn't hold Saddam responsible for their plight," Dennis Halliday said. "They blamed the US and the UN for these sanctions and the pain and anger that these sanctions brought to their lives."

But rather than ending the sanctions or modifying them to target those items truly crucial to building WMD, the Clinton administration continued the futile policy: decimating an entire nation in order to destroy one leader.
Neither for the first nor the last time, the people of Iraq were victims of failed U.S. policy.

The Oil for Food program which was introduced in 1996 and expanded over the following years was billed as a major humanitarian measure by the U.S. It allowed Iraq to sell unlimited amounts of petroleum to pay for vital imports, not just food. But Hans Von Sponeck, who also resigned his post as U.N. coordinator in Iraq, condemned the program as "a fig leaf for the international community."

There is no question that Saddam ripped off money during the sanctions regime to attempt to rebuild his military and support his family's lavish lifestyle, but that point hides the basic issue: Iraq's needs were enormous. Even if Saddam had invested everything he skimmed from the sanctions into rebuilding his country and feeding his people, those sums would have never prevented the colossal devastation that sanctions brought about.

By the time the sanctions were finally removed, May 22, 2003, after the U.S.-led invasion, an entire generation of Iraqis had been decimated by the failed policy. A Unicef study in 1999 concluded that half a million Iraqi children perished in the previous eight years because of the sanctions--and that was four years before they ended. Another American expert in 2003 estimated that the sanctions had killed between 343,900 to 529,000 young children and infants. The exact number will never be known. It was, however, certainly more young people than were ever killed by Saddam Hussein.

(In a statement right out of Orwell on March 27, 2003 Tony Blair actually cited the dramatic increase in infant mortality in Iraq to justify the invasion.)

Beyond the death and destruction of infrastructure, the sanctions had another, equally devastating, but less visible impact, as documented early in 1991 by the group of Harvard medical researchers. They reported that four out of five children interviewed were fearful of losing their families; two thirds doubted whether they themselves would survive to adulthood. The experts concluded that a majority of Iraq's children would suffer from severe psychological problems throughout their lives. "The trauma, the loss, the grief, the lack of prospects, the feeling of threat here and now, that it will all start again, the impact of the sanctions, make us ask if these children are not the most suffering child population on earth."

Those sanctions, I reemphasize, lasted for another 12 years after that study --terminating only with the American led invasion of Iraq, which unleashed its own horrific debacle.

It is that generation of "the most traumatized children of war ever described," who have come of age.  It is they who--if they had not fled the country –are the new military and police commanders, businessmen and bureaucrats and political and sectarian leaders and suicide bombers, all now confronted with the calamity that is Iraq .

It is also they, as the months pass, who will be increasingly blamed --along with Obama’s decision to withdraw all U.S. troops --for the next –and perhaps final-- cataclysm that awaits their country.