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Thursday, September 27, 2012

Afghanistan: U.S. out, China surges in.


There’s got to be some symbolism—if not irony--in the fact that just as the last of the 33,000 troops surged by Obama two years ago supposedly to pacify Afghanistan pulled out, the highest ranking Chinese official to visit Afghanistan in almost half a century pulled in—arriving in Kabul for a secret round of meetings with top Afghan officials. .

Question: How will China deal with the country that proved such an expensive and bloody disaster for both the U.S., its NATO allies--and the U.S.S.R before them? 

In a brief visit, unreported until he had left Kabul,  Zhou Younkang, China’s chief of domestic security, met with Afghani leaders, including President Hamid Karzai. They talked about drugs, international crime, terrorism, and developing Afghanistan’s huge natural resources—just as visiting Americans have done for years. 

The result, a cluster of agreements, among them an announcement that 300 Afghan police officers will be sent to China for training over the next four years.

Which is another irony of sorts—coming at the same time as news that the U.S. and its allies have been obliged to scale back joint operations with the Afghan military and police, because they can no longer trust the men they’ve trained. American troops in the field with their Afghan allies now keep weapons ready and wear body armor even when they’re eating goat meat and yoghurt.

So far this year 51American and NATO troops have been gunned down by Afghan military or police:  a startling 20% of all NATO casualties this year.

The off-the-wall video from California ridiculing the prophet Mohammed has only further fueled anti-American hatred.

As the New York Times quoted one 20 year old Afghan soldier, NATO casualties could even be higher.
 “We would have killed many of them already,” he said, “but our commanders are cowards and don’t let us.”

There are still some 68,000 American troops based in Afghanistan, but the plans are for them all to be out by the end of 2014. Which means that China will be confronting serious security problems of its own in Afghanistan. They already have direct investments of more than $200 million in copper mining and oil exploration, and have promised to build a major railroad east to Pakistan or north to Turkestan. [See my January 2012 blog]


But they could pour in billions more if Afghanistan were a secure, well-ordered country, free from the Taliban, free from kleptocratic war lords and venal government bureaucrats, patrolled by well-trained Afghan soldier s and police:  in other words, exactly the kind of country the U.S. would like to have left behind—and didn’t.


Instead, of course, despite America’s huge sacrifice in men and treasure --more than half a trillion dollars since 2001--things haven’t worked out that way.  [For a dramatic, running count of the enormous hemorrhage that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan still represent to the U.S. economy check out costofwar.com.]

Meanwhile, corruption is rampant, and it’s by no means certain that Afghanistan has—or ever will have--a national army and police force worthy of the name.

The U.S. Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, peered into the Pentagon’ s 1.1 billion dollars fuel program to supply the Afghan Army, and concluded that there was no way to be ascertain how much if any of that fuel is really being used by Afghan security forces for their missions. There was also no way to know how much was stolen, lost or diverted to the Taliban and other insurgent groups. Almost half a billion dollars worth of receipts detailing with fuel payments over the past four years have been shredded.

With the Americans heading for the exits, the challenge facing the Chinese—and anyone else, like India--interested in investing in the country--is how to navigate this imbroglio.  

Indeed, the Chinese have apparently already run into problems in Afghanistan. Work at the Mes Aynak copper mine in Lograr Province is already behind schedule, and no work has begun on the promised Chinese-built railroad yet. Various impediments have turned up, like recalcitrant bureaucrats, tensions provoked by the need to displace local populations, the discovery of Buddhist ruins, as well as ramshackle Soviet-era mines that first had to be cleared.

And then there’s the rival, rapacious warlords, who see the country’s resources as a way of fueling their own ambitions—like General Abdul Rashid Dotsum, who the government has accused of attempting to extort illegal payoffs from the Chinese oil company.

However, in their dealings throughout the developing world, from despots to democracies, the Chinese have shown themselves adept at navigating such quagmires. There’s no talk from Beijing of Chinese “exceptionalism”. They’ve been taking on the world as it is—not as someone in a Chinese think tank would want to remake it.

They’ve generally turned a blind eye to considerations of human rights, opted to pay off or work with the powers that be, and used offers of huge new infrastructure projects as bait, steadily increasing their share of the globe’s resources.

Many potential investors still shy away from Afghanistan. They have no idea what lies on the other side of the political abyss after 2014 when the U.S. completes its withdrawal.

China is also wary, but they’re also seriously planning their Afghan strategy for the post-American future.

As Wang Lian, a professor with the School of International Studies at the Paking University in Beijing, put it,

"Almost every great power in history, when they were rising, was deeply involved in Afghanistan, and China will not be an exception."

Unmentioned, of course, was what an unmitigated disaster that involvement turned out to be for the British in the 19th Century, the USSR in the 20th, and the US and its Nato allies --not to mention Afghanistan--to this day.

We’ll see how China fares. 

Monday, September 17, 2012

Sabra-Shatila 1982-Iran 2012?


The outburst of anti-Americanism sweeping much of the Arab world was ignited by an off-the-wall film insulting Mohammed, but the underlying outrage is fed by decades of resentment against the U.S. and its ally, Israel.

Nothing fueled that anger more than the massacre of between  800 to 2,000 Palestinian refugees in Beirut on September 16, 1982 in the camps of Sabra and Shatila,

An Op Ed piece in today’s New York Times detailing U.S. complicity with that slaughter is a must-read for anyone trying to fathom the dynamics between Israeli and American leaders. It is, eerily relevant to the current virulent demands of Israeli Premier Nethanyahu that the U.S. support a military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Recently declassified Israeli files, analyzed by Seth Anziska, a doctoral candidate at Columbia University, reveal the bare-knuckle discussions between U.S. and Israeli leaders thirty years ago, as American officials were essentially bullied and brow beaten to do nothing to prevent the slaughter of the Palestinians, nearly all of them elderly men women and children, murdered, raped dismembered. The slaughter went on between September 16th and September 18th while Israeli troops surrounded the camps, their flares lighting the cramped ramshackle streets and homes within. 

The killings were carried out by fanatical right wing Christian Phalangist militias, allied with the Israelis, who had invaded Lebanon in June, 1982. Israel’s goal was to eradicate the PLO which had set up a state within a state in Lebanon, and to ensure the rule of the country by Israel’s Lebanese Christian allies.  

Ultimately, President Reagan dispatched several hundred U.S. marines to Beirut to help establish a cease fire, and oversee the evacuation of thousands of Palestinian fighters to other Arab countries.

But, after Israel’s ally, Bashir Gemayel was assassinated, the Israelis broke the truce and occupied West Beirut where thousands of Palestinian civilians were still living.   

Israeli leaders claimed the presence of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF)  was necessary because there were still thousands of “Palestinian terrorists” in West Beirut.  But, U.S. officials had helped coordinate the withdrawal of thousands of Palestinian fighters a month earlier. They knew the Israeli claim was false and they feared a massacre if the Phalange were allowed into the Palestinian camps. Many top Israelis had the same fears. 

On September 17, 1982 American Envoy Moris Draper and Ambassador, Samuel Lewis  met with General Ariel Sharon and other Israeli officials to attempt to force an Israeli withdrawal from West Beirut.

According to Anziska,  “The transcript of the Sept. 17 meeting reveals that the Americans were browbeaten by Mr. Sharon’s false insistence that “terrorists” needed “mopping up.” It also shows how Israel’s refusal to relinquish areas under its control, and its delays in coordinating with the Lebanese National Army, which the Americans wanted to step in, prolonged the slaughter.

“Mr. Draper opened the meeting by demanding that the I.D.F.  pull back right away. Mr. Sharon exploded, “I just don’t understand, what are you looking for? Do you want the terrorists to stay? Are you afraid that somebody will think that you were in collusion with us? Deny it. We denied it….

“Mr. Draper, unmoved, kept pushing for definitive signs of a withdrawal. Mr. Sharon, who knew Phalange forces had already entered the camps, cynically told him, “Nothing will happen. Maybe some more terrorists will be killed. That will be to the benefit of all of us.”

“Continuing his plea for some sign of an Israeli withdrawal, Mr. Draper warned that critics would say, “Sure, the I.D.F. is going to stay in West Beirut and they will let the Lebanese go and kill the Palestinians in the camps.”  

“Mr. Sharon replied: “So, we’ll kill them. They will not be left there. You are not going to save them. You are not going to save these groups of the international terrorism….”

“Mr. Sharon exploded again: “When it comes to our security, we have never asked. We will never ask. When it comes to existence and security, it is our own responsibility and we will never give it to anybody to decide for us.”

“By allowing the argument to proceed on Mr. Sharon’s terms, Mr. Draper effectively gave Israel cover to let the Phalange fighters remain in the camps.

Once the extent of the massacre had become known U.S. officials from President Reagan on down expressed their outrage…but writes Anziska, “the belated expression of shock and dismay belies the Americans’ failed diplomatic effort during the massacre. The transcript of Mr. Draper’s meeting with the Israelis demonstrates how the United States was unwittingly complicit in the tragedy of Sabra and Shatila.

‘The Sabra and Shatila massacre severely undercut America’s influence in the Middle East, and its moral authority plummeted. In the aftermath of the massacre, the United States felt compelled by “guilt” to redeploy the Marines, who ended up without a clear mission, in the midst of a brutal civil war.

“On Oct. 23, 1983, the Marine barracks in Beirut were bombed and 241 Marines were killed. The attack led to open warfare with Syrian-backed forces and, soon after, the rapid withdrawal of the Marines to their ships. As Mr. Lewis told me, America left Lebanon “with our tail between our legs.”

“The archival record reveals the magnitude of a deception that undermined American efforts to avoid bloodshed. Working with only partial knowledge of the reality on the ground, the United States feebly yielded to false arguments and stalling tactics that allowed a massacre in progress to proceed.

“The lesson of the Sabra and Shatila tragedy is clear. Sometimes close allies act contrary to American interests and values. Failing to exert American power to uphold those interests and values can have disastrous consequences: for our allies, for our moral standing and most important, for the innocent people who pay the highest price of all.”

What Seth Anziska fails to examine in his Oped piece is the extent to which American officials at the time were not just being confronted by rabid Israeli leaders, but, at the same time, by the powerful pro-Israeli lobby back in Washington. It’s a good bet that  AIPAC and its allies, publicly and behind the scenes—were also demanding that Israel be given a free hand. 

Those same volatile dynamics are playing out today, thirty years later, as  intimidated American officials confront a blustering Israeli Prime Minister demanding that the U.S. join in an attack against Iran



Thursday, September 13, 2012

Libya-The Question not being asked.



Apart from Mitt Romney’s ridiculous slur against President Obama following the murder of a U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens, Americans should be focusing on a much more formidable question:

When was the last time a Chinese diplomat was murdered or even roughed up by an angry mob? When did you least hear about a Chinese embassy burned down or pillaged? We’ll be back to that question.

From Morocco and Tunisia to Libya, Egypt, Yemen and Iraq, anti-American crowds have taken to the streets. The outpouring of hatred is symptomatic of the fact that across much of North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia American policy is in tatters. Probably more than ever before.

The region is strewn with the wreckage of failed U.S. ambitious and disastrous American plans.
Incredibly though, even as the U.S. surveys the shambles of Libya, there are still Americans pushing for the United States to intervene in Syria’s bloody civil war. (In fact, for months now, the US. And some of its Arab allies have been clandestinely doing just that. )

Even the Prime Minister of Israel, supposedly America’s most valuable ally in the region, makes political points by sticking his finger in the eye of the American President.

The reason for America’s obsession with this part of the world, we’ve heard for years, is that its trade routes and resources are critical to U.S. interests.

But hold on—that may once have been true, but, as things stand now, those trade routes and resources are even more crucial to China than to America. China, for instance, gets a greater percentage of its oil through the vital straights of Hormuz—which the U.S. spends billions to patrol--than does the United States.

And, while the U.S. has been lavishing hundreds of billions on bases, the Chinese have been spending their huge wad across Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia buying up mineral deposits, land, forests, petroleum, inking construction contracts for huge infrastructure projects, as well as opening up vast new markets.

Where are the Chinese troops to protect all this? Where are the sprawling Chinese naval and air bases, their drones, killer teams and special forces? Not needed, thanks, the U.S. is handling security.

Which makes for some sad ironies. The fact, for instance, that the murdered U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens had spent months aiding the Libyan rebels during their uprising against Khadhafi—while China was one of the last major allies to continue supporting the dictator. Yet the Chinese are back in Libya wheeling and dealing for construction contracts and oil.

Meanwhile, next door in Egypt, newly elected President Mohammed Morsi, whose country, mind you, continues to receive more than 1 billion dollars in aid from the United States, judged he had more to gain by joining in attacks against the U.S., than by cooling the popular passions. And where was his first trip abroad after winning election? To China.

Yet China would seem a very appropriate target for Muslim anger.
The U.S. may have invaded Muslim countries, but for decades China has been brutally persecuting and repressing millions of its own Muslim minorities, such as the Uighars in Northwest China.

But how many furious crowds have taken to the streets in Muslim lands to protest the plight of the Uighars? How many have even heard of them?  How many Muslim leaders who are lambasting the United States because of an off the wall film that the U.S. government had absolutely nothing to do with, how many of them have ever uttered a single word of public protest against China.

That’s not to say the Chinese are beloved in the region. There’ve been violent, sometimes bloody, protests against their labor and trade practices.

But nothing that compares in scale and depth to the hatred and suspicion of the United States throughout the region.

The current outcry over a film insulting Mohammed is just the tip of an emotional iceberg. Underneath it all are more than half a century of Western and American interventions in the region, as well as the U.S.’s continued support of Israel.

While the U.S. has spent huge sums, trying to overthrow regimes, punish perceived enemies, prevent nuclear proliferation (except in Israel), and shape the outcome of the  new political forces that are roiling the area, the Chinese have had their eyes fixed on one objective only—getting hold of vital natural resources to fuel their ravenous economy, finding new markets for their products and mammoth projects for their construction companies.

Why can’t the U.S. do the same?

That’s the kind of basic questions that American should be discussing in the wake of the killing of the U.S. Ambassador, as they go about electing a new President.

But don’t count on it.