Dec 23, 2007

Afghanistan, Afghanistan: Go fly a Kite

Reading the print edition of the Los Angeles Times for December 22, I found a good illustration of how an ordinary article in a generally well-respected paper tends to spin for the administration. The headline in the Times is “No force 'surge' for Afghanistan.” (Section A, page 3). However, Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates did not even use the term “surge” in his press conference:

“You're talking about probably somewhere in the neighborhood of 7,500 troops . . . So it's not like moving 100,000 troops from one place to the other or something like that.”

Note the deceptive analogy put forth by Secretary Gates by speaking of 100,000 troops. Since that number would almost quadruple the force (given by the Times as 26,000) already in Afghanistan, the comparison was hardly apt, being well beyond an exaggeration. Surge indeed. More like a tsunami at that number. But notice how even in its headline, the Times couldn't do the math correctly to back up its choice of words.

If the total US forces in Afghanistan are at 26,000 as the LATimes reports, an additional 7,500 would certainly qualify to be called a “surge.” That is a 28.8% increase. For comparison, in the so-called “surge” in Iraq, a total of (eventually) 30,000+ troops were added to an existing force of 128,000 which were on the ground early in 2007. The “surge” in Iraq therefore was a percentage increase of roughly 23%. So the question for the Times's staff headline writers and their editors is why present a headline that will seriously misrepresent the increase requested by the Afghanistan commanders? If 23.4% in Iraq qualifies as a "surge," why doesn't 28.8% in Afghanistan?

In other words, the Times tells its readers, we're not going to have to increase our commitment that much. Don't get worried. The increase is minuscule. Certainly not like the surge in Iraq.

But in fact, is this the case? Do we even know how many American troops are fighting in Afghanistan? What is the source for the Times's figure of 26,000? They never tell us where they got the figure, even though Pentagon policy tends to keep the exact number obscured.

What, for example, did Gates and his companion at the press conference, the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. James Cartwright, actually say about total troop size in Afghanistan? I excerpt from the text of the press conference itself. This comes from Gates and the General toward the end when speaking of the request from the commander for more troops:

But the bottom line is, you're -- if you have satisfied every requirement he has, you're talking about probably somewhere in the neighborhood of 7,500 troops. So it's not like moving 100,000 troops from one place to the other or something like that.

And we will be looking at the requirements ourselves, and we will be talking with our allies. But there is clearly, in the view even of the commander on the -- in the field, no requirement for a substantial plus-up of forces in Afghanistan to meet -- to accomplish his mission.

(To the general.) Do you want to add anything --

GEN. CARTWRIGHT: No, I think that's right. It's -- one, it's playing to the strength of your allies, and two, the delta -- we started the year at about 35,000. We're ending the year about 43(,000). And we're trying to make sure that what it is we're doing out there is aligned with the need. To the extent that it is -- that there are needs, it is -- it's about in the 7,500 -- but it's spread across combat-type forces, trainers, et cetera. And so we're trying to make sure we understand that and then target our allies for those capabilities which play to their strengths.

Since the context of the press conference included the trip to Scotland to meet with NATO allies, probably Cartwright was referring to total NATO forces, which were at 41,000 as of July.

However, if Cartwright is referring to the combined NATO forces, he's indicated an increase has already taken place. His statement does not jibe with the recent (less than two weeks old) information from Afghanistan. On December 10, 2007 Gwen Ifill interviewed General Dan McNeill, the International Force Commander, on the Online News Hour. He answered her question about the anticipated needs of the International Force in Afghanistan. Are more NATO forces need? Are more Afghan security forces needed?

I think it means both. By U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine, we should have security forces that total well over 400,000. That's not going to happen. The present plan in the international community is to build the Afghan army to a force between 70,000 and 80,000. The police, I believe, the figure is 82,000. NATO right now is running about 41,000.

McNeill says "right now" but that 41,00 figure in turn appears to repeat information as of July, as reported by Pierre Tristram on Middle East Issues. And that in turn appears to have been based on a Congressional Research Service report from March, 2007. So either McNeill was using those July figures, or perhaps Cartwright knows something McNeill doesn't? It is difficult to get an exact count of United States deployments to Afghanistan, because, according to both Tristram and the CRS, the Department of Defense does not report troop strength.

Note what the remarks were in the press conference from Secretary Gates:

But there is clearly, in the view even of the commander on the -- in the field, no requirement for a substantial plus-up of forces in Afghanistan to meet -- to accomplish his mission.

While McNeill knows that the troops suggested in the insurgency manual are "not going to happen," he clearly needs more troops and clearly has put in a request for the 7,500, but Gates is playing with words here--in terms of what is in place, whether 26,000, 41,000 or 43,000--when he says "no requirement for a substantial plus-up in Afghanistan." Clearly more troops are needed by the ground commander, and 7,500 is substantial. It's just not substantial in terms of that dream number McNeill cited of "well over 400,000" or substantial in terms of Gates's 100,000.

The war in Afghanistan isn't going well. Karzai has asked for more help. Some of the NATO countries are clearly getting uncomfortable with the losing battle and are resisting the US's requests for additional support. According to Gates, the Dutch have re-upped for another two years and other countries are going to keep contributing. Poppy production is at an all-time high. But casualties are increasing. This year, suicide bombings have increased to 130. Civilian casualties, at 2600, are double those of last year. As of today, according to, 115 U.S. and 114 coalition soldiers have been killed this year .

Two other items in the press conference should be pointed out. First, Gates reminded the reporters that that at least least 5,700 troops will be coming home by the end of the year. The White House itself in its Presidential press release for November 29, 2007 has tried to pass this off as a result of the surge (“5,700: Guided by the principle of 'return on success,' the United States will bring 5,700 troops home by the end of the year as a result of progress made by the surge of operations.”). I think it was Juan Cole who pointed out earlier in the year that these troops were scheduled to be withdrawn in December anyway. Any arguments that the troops would be coming home from Iraq because of the "surge" is highly suspect as spin.

Second, one of reporters--referred to as "Jim" by the Secretary of Defense--actually tries to provoke Gates to give an answer:

Mr. Secretary, the highly respected retired Army General Barry McCaffrey just returned to the U.S. from an extensive tour in Iraq and he was there about the same time you were. And he said that what was striking to him is once you get outside the Green Zone, the national government, in a practical sense, for the people of Iraq just doesn't exist. And he said in fact, the U.S. military on the ground serves that purpose, in assuring that the local populations get the kind of basic services that they need, which are actually required for long-term stability.

And he warns that if you take the military out, all that goes away.

Since the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq is conditional, would that be an absolute condition, that there has to be political reconciliation, political progress made by the national government before substantial numbers of American troops can be withdrawn from Iraq? And what kind of assurances did you get in your meeting with
Maliki that he was willing to make progress on those issues?

It's a shame the reporter had to obfuscate his provocative reference to McCaffrey with his questions about "absolute conditions" and "assurances from Maliki." Why not just ask what Gates's response was to McCaffrey's observation? The elaborations just allowed Gates to temporize and blather. Although Gates completely --and predictably--avoided addressing the "highly respected" McCaffrey, he in effect supported McCaffrey's contention:

And creating -- getting the ministries down into the provincial and local areas, you know, frankly -- I mean, this is a challenge we face in Afghanistan, as well. It's a challenge that many developing countries face.

Gates passed the buck. Everything will have to depend on the judgment of Ambassador Crocker and General Petraeus "next spring." You may remember that last spring we were told to wait for General Petraeus to report in September. In the spring of 2008 I am sure, we will postpone the decision until the end of summer.
And watch how that September 2008 answer will do everything possible to frame success in time for the Presidential elections in November. And so it goes.

(As an aside, I also find it unfortunate that Gates, in talking at the beginning of the conference about his visits to wounded troops and their families, described them as “close encounters.” Unfortunate, I think, because the phrase, in our contemporary movie culture, connotes that the injured troops and their families are aliens. The secretary should not use the phrase again, and I hope that he or his his staff will avoid the inept phrase in the future.)

Dec 19, 2007

Do Your Kids Have $175,000 Just Laying Around?

I wish I were as eloquent as Scott Horton, who produced an excellent piece on his “No Comment” blog yesterday regarding the fiscal malaise—or catastrophe perhaps is not too strong a word to use—that our country is in with regard to its fiscal situation. The piece is entitled “Obligations Ignored.” I urge you all to read it and ponder it through the Holidays and then when you start working to pay off your holiday expenditures.

At the beginning of the piece Horton draws heavily on an article about the Comptroller General of the United States, David Walker, and a speech he made at the National Press Club. Horton includes a link to the article as well, though he presents it almost in its entirety. Two quotes from the Comptroller struck me. First of all,

“If the federal government was a private corporation and the same report came out this morning, our stock would be dropping and there would be talk about whether the company’s management and directors needed a major shake-up.”

And then,

“The federal government’s fiscal exposures totaled approximately $53 trillion as of September 30, 2007, up more than $2 trillion from September 30, 2006, and an increase of more than $32 trillion from about $20 trillion as of September 30, 2000,” Walker said. “This translates into a current burden of about $175,000 per American or approximately $455,000 per American household.

If I have any criticism, it's that Horton does not point out the obvious about the pattern of keeping the Government Accounting office from expressing a qualified opinion: the pattern started, according to the article, eleven years ago, meaning that it includes the last term of the Clinton Administration. Although everyone agrees that Clinton succeeded in decreasing the deficits and lowering the overall debt, it is disheartening to find the pattern of less transparency starting there.

Horton is not the first to point out the terrible shape of the fiscal legacy we are leaving our children and grand children, but he is the most eloquent I have read so far. Especially damning, I think, are his comments on the failure of the press to write about the matter. You would think that a speech to the National Press Club would produce headlines news.

I think Horton is spot on, and I welcome your responses to this.

Dec 13, 2007

Another Take on the Success of the Surge

It warms the cockles, it does, when I read an alternate evaluation of the situation that smacks more of truth and intelligence than sheer belief and “please let it be so” that you read in the papers or hear on television news casts. When the evaluation comes from an ex-military officer with experience in Iraq, I pay a lot of attention.

You can see for yourself whether the recent interminable stories of the “success of the surge” in Iraq hold water after reading Douglas Macgregor's piece in Mother Jones, “Will Iraq's Great Awakening Lead to a Nightmare?” Macgregor's piece has the ring of truth about it precisely because he accepts the facts that the Bush Administration is gloating about. He just interprets them in a way that makes common sense, rather than the self-congratulatory enthusiasm rapidly coagulating into smug truculence.

You can't argue with people who are doctrinal acolytes, but see if you think this makes some sense:

We don't know much about developments within Iraq. Military officers who have recently served in Iraq tell me they don't truly understand Iraq's complexity or the duplicitous nature of the Iraqis they work with. In my conversations with them, they raise troubling questions that don't lend themselves to sound-bite answers on talk radio or the evening news. Is the Great Awakening inside the Sunni Arab community the road to Iraq's stability, or is it just a pause for Sunni rearmament and reorganization?

Or this:

all we can say with certainty is that unrelenting Arab hatred of the U.S. military presence in Iraq and the nature of the Sunni-Shiite struggle will make it unlikely that the cash-for-cooperation strategy will buy Iraq genuine stability, let alone the legitimate political order that is needed.

And finally, for me, at least, a most fitting conclusion for the benefit of the less and less impressive leading Democratic candidates:

if the next administration fails to disengage its forces from Iraq and renews the determination to hold on to the country, if it does not renounce the myth that America's mission in the world is to impose American concepts of political order on foreign peoples burdened with undeveloped economies and dysfunctional societies, all bets are off.

I have left out some interesting remarks on the regional players—what he says about Turkey alone should make great sense to anyone with an open mind. Visit the article and read it. Keep it with you for lunch time reading.

Mother Jones has done some fine things on the war over the past four years. One project that is invaluable is their great reference time line on the war—which is great to consult when trying to research the facts on the ground—when did Bremer come aboard, when did he leave, or when were the two elections held, when was Sergio DiMello killed, for instance—but also other great articles drawing on a wide range of input, such as this article in October 2007 “U.S. Out How? The Moral Dilemma of Leaving Iraq” which gives the results of interviews “with more than 50 experts, from General Petraeus' advisers to antiwar activists.” It's worthwhile reading, and then you can really start to make up your own mind.

My mind was made up long before the war started. I didn't think we should invade, and yet I could see the great folly--as Barbara Tuchman would call it in The Guns of August--as the troops were massing on the borders, the ships steaming to the Persian Gulf, the Turks pissing off Donald Rumsfeld as they refused to let us use their airbases to stage the invasion from the north, and then you just knew that the movement would never stop. The dogs of war were straining at the leash, and you don't say "down boy" and tell Saddam Hussein he had one last chance. There's moments like that in everyone's life, so why shouldn't there be in a nation's? It's that moment in love when you just know that it's going to happen, and you nuzzle into that warm neck; and I am sure for a killer, it's that moment when he knows he is going to pull the trigger.

The great international crime, as we Americans established in the Geneva Conventions, in the United Nations, and at the Nuremberg trials, is the war of aggression. No facts or arguments will change that for me. We did wrong and we refuse to admit it, convincing ourselves that if we just fight a bit harder, a bit smarter, throw some more money at the problem, WE CAN WIN THIS WAR.

I can't wait for the Bushit to be flushed down the toilet of history on January 20, 2009. I just can't wait.

Dec 10, 2007

A Turning from the workshop Floor

We all have friends who send emails to us with humorous pictures, novelties, jokes, emails they get which strike them as profound. I always check the attempts at profundity at, the urban legend folks, who invariably have tracked down the source of the urban legend or have corrected the errors.

It makes me feel good to know my shit detector is still working, but it can also lead to strange moments, like the email forwarding the story about the little girl dying of cancer, supposedly written by a doctor. It was forwarded to me by a friend who has cancer. I checked it out on Snopes and found out that it was a fabrication. I sent the link to my friend with a few misgivings, but figured that truth was more valuable than false hopes.

I got one the other day from a friend that was a rant about taxes, and was based on a calculation of what "a billion" can represent. The one designed to strike every Christian's fancy was "a billion minutes ago, Jesus was alive." Sure enough, when I googled the sentence, the first entry was for (Since Google presents the search in the order of the most hits, I figure that a number of people have their poop detectors working at least as well as mine.)

So in the interest of still presenting the sense of what a billion represents, I cut out the extraneous rant and updated the calculations. The email referred to an ad agency who had come up with the original calculations, but the folks at Snopes were unable to identify the source. From the calculations in the forwarded email regarding a billion seconds ago being 1959 I figure the original was done around 1990, but that's the limit of my investigation. (Life is short enough for this little exercise. This is, after all, a mere turning on the shop floor.)

I have updated the math relative to December 2007:

A billion is a difficult number to comprehend, but here are some rough calculations to make the point about the large number called a "billion."

A. A billion seconds ago it was 1975 .
B. A billion minutes ago Jesus had been dead for about 70 years .
C. A billion hours ago our ancestors were living in the Stone Age. (114,077 years ago = the Pleistocene epoch)
D. A billion days ago (2,737,852 years ago) Australopithecus, the first hominid, appeared on the African savannas, brain size 1/3 that of a modern human.
E. A thousand billion is a trillion.
G. The public debt of the US is $9.1 trillion.*
H. Interest alone increases the public debt by $1.11 billion a day.**

*As of October 2007 **Based on $406 billion in 2006.

I guess I will leave it up to you to contemplate the meaning of $9.1 trillion dollars of US debt. It's a number that makes me want to shrug or go for a walk. I haven't decided yet which is the better thing to do.

Hat tip (h/t) to The Motley Fool's bulletin board for the calculation ("Based on 60 seconds a minute, 60 minutes an hour, 24 hours a day and 365.25 days a . . . year"). And to Janet A., my friend who sent the original email.

Dec 1, 2007

Internet Freedom

A few of you may know about these issues, but for those who don't or want to learn more, I post this essay by Professor Juan Cole of the University of Michigan, complete with links to supporting documentation. Please read it.

I think it is one of the most important issues for our Democracy, and although it is presented from a liberal's point of view, the same threat is perceived by Conservative, Libertarian, and Conservative writers and speakers all over the Country--including a few Republicans.

The Internet is what places our enormous society squarely into the varied and free press situation that existed at the beginning of our country. To allow monopolies to dominate the Internet and begin a fee-based imposition will hamper your ability to express yourself, to communicate freely with friends and organization, your ability to advertise your business interests, and, perhaps worst of all, will stifle electronic innovation.
This is a serious issue, and your taking the time to send messages to your Congress critters will help them resist monopoly media's concerted lobbying pressures.
Fight the Good fight.
Save the Internet, Preserve Internet Liberty

We all know the drawbacks of corporate news outlets, and the great blessing that the internet represents for grassroots organizing and information sharing. But of course, the big corporations are very unhappy about losing some control of these matters, and have been pushing for legislation to end internet liberty and make it into the Corporate Monopoly Internet (CMI), cutting out individuals and small groups.

Some may think the word "monopoly" an exaggeration. But all private television news broadcasts are owned by only five corporations in the United States. Five is too little for healthy competition, and all five disallow centrist and progressive points of view as most Americans would define them (i.e. the range of acceptable opinion on the US airwaves is from center-right to far right). Opinion polling decisively shows that the American public is very substantially to the left of virtually all television broadcasts with a social or political content. Yet of the three cable news networks, 2 are center-right and 1 is far right!

Those who argue that the Five Sisters' monopoly is not so bad, given that they don't control a lot of the major newspapers or wire services are ignoring a simple fact. Most Americans get their news from television, and newspapers' readership is rapidly falling. The monopoly is real, and it explains everything about why BushRove were able to propagandize us into the Iraq War. Likewise, the Five Sisters' Monopoly benefits the Republican Party, since the central concerns of key Democratic Party constituencies such as organized labor (an unorganized labor), urban community groups, African Americans, and Asians and Latinos, feminists, etc. are given little exposure on the airwaves. When's the last time you saw a factory worker presented in a positive light on corporate television? Why did CNN front load the Republican debate with the immigration issue, which polls show is not at the forefront of American concerns the way the Iraq War is?

This extreme bias is one reason Ed Markey is right to make Internet Liberty an element in the 08 political campaign.The narrowing of the range of public views in the media is a direct result of the Five Sisters' Monopoly.So how could they Corporatize the internet and exclude our voices? They could set it up so that, for instance, if you couldn't come up with $100,000 a year, they could arrange for it to take 5 minutes for your web site to load, while Corporate Monopoly web sites loaded immediately. (Studies show that readers are unwilling to wait more than a few seconds for sites to load, after which they move on.) That move would not only destroy the blogosphere, but it would get rid of YouTube and similar video-posting sites, as well.

Or, they might decline to carry the bigger video files by p2p (as with Comcast, which actually lied to its subscribers that the download was unavailable with a spoofed email purporting to come from the poster!). Comcast is the same corporation that shoves Fox Cable News down our throats but won't let us see the direct BBC feed as part of our basic package, much less Aljazeera English.

Not only are there too few companies providing broadcast news, but there are too few cable and satellite corporations. Comcast is even angry at an FCC ruling that limits them to providing cable services to only 1/3 of the US! They do sweetheart deals with Time Warner and Disney, which ensure we have to have things like the Gardening Channel, using up space that could have been used for real news.

Save the Internet is a key site for organizing to stop the imposition of a Corporate Monopoly on the Internet.Join the campaign to make sure Congress knows how we feel, and send them a message here.We may well live in a little bubble of Internet Liberty (what some call 'net neutrality,' but that is a term I find too cold and technical to describe what I value in our current internet freedoms).