INDEX (stories follow)
Jeremy Scahill Reveals CIA Facility, Prison in Somalia as U.S. Expands Covert Ops in Stricken Nation
- British PM Cameron To Hold Emergency Session In Growing Phone Hacking Scandal
- Senior Adviser To Afghan President Assassinated
- U.S. Joins 31 Other Nations to Recognize Libyan Rebel Council as Legitimate Government
- At Least 30 Activists Killed As Syrian Forces Expand Crackdown
- Secret Iraqi Prison, Torture Facility Uncovered In Green Zone
- First Emergency U.N. Aid to Somalia Drought Victims Arrives in Kenya
- Obama Passes Over For Elizabeth Warren For Consumer Financial Protection Bureau
- Ruptured Exxon Mobil Montana Pipeline Carried Tar Sands Oil
- NSA Whistleblower Thomas Drake Sentenced To A Year Of Probation
- Shooting Victim Attempts to Stop Assailant’s Execution in Texas
- Japan Plans to Suspend Cattle Shipments From Stricken Fukushima Region
- Lawyers, Relatives of Pakistan Drone Strike Victims Call For Arrest of Former CIA Legal Chief
- Doctors Without Borders Condemns CIA Over Fake Vaccination Program
- Egypt PM Appoints 14 New Ministers in Cabinet Shuffle
- Pro-Palestine Ship Hopes To Reach Gaza Strip By Tuesday
- Radio Journalist Murdered in Honduras
- Japan Wins Women’s World Cup
- Nelson Mandela International Day Celebrated As Anti-Apartheid Leader Turns 93
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has issued an urgent appeal over the crisis in Somalia, where more than 11 million people are in need of life-saving assistance as they face the worst drought in decades. The United Nations describes the Somali drought as the worst humanitarian disaster in the world, and a top U.N. official, Valerie Amos, urged the world to make the link between climate change and the drought. The extended drought is forcing an estimated 3,000 people a day from Somalia to neighboring Kenya and Ethiopia. We speak to Yves van Loo in Nairobi of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Somalia, who was in Mogadishu just two weeks ago. We also speak to investigative reporter Jeremy Scahill, who recently returned from assignment in Somalia. [includes rush transcript]
Sometimes arriving on the scene just minutes after the explosion, he first has to put his camera aside and start digging through the debris to see if there are any survivors. It’s dangerous, unpleasant work. The drones frequently hit the same place again, a few minutes after the first strike, so looking for the injured is risky. There are other dangers too: militants and locals are suspicious of anyone with a camera. After all, it is a local network of spies working for the CIA that are directing the drone strikes.
But Noor Behram says his painstaking work has uncovered an important – and unreported – truth about the US drone campaign in Pakistan’s tribal region: that far more civilians are being injured or dying than the Americans and Pakistanis admit. The world’s media quickly reports on how many militants were killed in each strike. But reporters don’t go to the spot, relying on unnamed Pakistani intelligence officials. Noor Behram believes you have to go to the spot to figure out whether those killed were really extremists or ordinary people living in Waziristan. And he’s in no doubt.” (thanks Rob)
An attack July 12 on a Sinai gas pipeline pumping Egyptian natural gas to Israel and Jordan interrupted supply for the fourth time this year. A guard was wounded in the attack, which witnesses said was carried out by men driving two SUVs, and targeted a monitoring station near the airport in al-Arish, north Sinai’s largest town. The incident comes a week after a separate bomb attack on the pipeline reduced the flow of gas to Israel. No group has claimed responsibility for of the attacks, but authorities suspect Sinai-based Bedouins. The pipeline has long been a source of political controversy in Egypt, particularly since the signing of a 20-year gas export deal with Israel in 2008. (OnIslam, FT, The Guardian, July 12)
Women in Yemen protested against US intervention and interference. (Reuters)
As South Africa celebrates the 93rd birthday of anti-apartheid leader and former South African president, Nelson Mandela, we speak to one of Mandela’s allies, Ronnie Kasrils, who was on the National Executive Committee of the African National Congress for 20 years. Kasrils also served as Minister for Intelligence Services in post-Apartheid South Africa from 2004 to 2008. He has just published a new book “The Unlikely Secret Agent,” about his late wife Eleanor, a Scottish South African anti-apartheid activist.
Gen. David Petraeus, the outgoing US commander in Afghanistan, and his soon-to-be successor Lt. Gen. John Allen met with top military leaders in Pakistan on July 14 to try to resolve tensions that have escalated since the May 2 slaying of Osama bin Laden. The visit comes after the US put on hold some $800 million in aid and reimbursements to Pakistan’s military in response to the cancellation of visas for US military advisors. Pakistan also publicly called a stop to US drone flights from Shamsi airbase near Quetta in Baluchistan province. However, drone strikes have continued, with some 42 killed in strikes July 11 and 12 in both North and South Waziristan. The US is said to fly drones out of two other Pakistani air bases—one near Ghazi (Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province) and another at Jacocobad (Sindh province) known as PAF Base Shahbaz. The CIA also flies drones into the Pakistani tribal areas from Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan. In an implicit acknowledgment that drone strikes would continue, White House counterterrorism chief John Brennan said in response to Islamabad’s decision, “In some places such as the tribal regions between Afghanistan and Pakistan, we will deliver precise and overwhelming force against al-Qaeda.” (AP, July 14; VOA, July 12; NYT, July 9; Wired, July 1; Defense Tech, Miami Herald, June 30; FT, June 29)
“In areas outside Amman, the capital, the king is becoming the subject of angry chants that tie to him to corruption, protesters say. Amid the calls for reform among the demonstrators in Amman on Friday, a smattering of people could be heard calling for the downfall of the regime.
Over 350 Syrian expatriate opposition leaders, from a wide range of political currents, including liberal and Muslim fundamentalist, met in Istanbul Saturday. They had originally intended to meet at the same time as dissidents still in Damascus convened their own meeting, but the site of that planned congress was attacked Friday by the Syrian military.
The Istanbul congress elected a 25-person National Salvation Council, essentially a shadow government, to challenge President Bashar al-Asad and his ruling Baath Party. The congress announced that given the harsh crackdown by al-Asad on dissenters, which is estimated to have cost over 1,000 lives, they could no longer contemplate negotiating with him. He will, they demanded, simply have to step down.
On Friday, the biggest demonstrations yet swept a country that has seen concerted rallies grow steadily for months. Although the estimate of dissidents that a million protesters came out Friday strikes me as likely an exaggeration, no doubt they were quite large, and larger than anything seen yet.
Still, we haven’t seen the kind of marches in the capital that characterized the successful Tunisian and Egypt uprisings, nor has there been a significant split in the Syrian officers corps over repressing the demonstrators. There have been growing demonstrations in the Damascus suburbs, according to unverified Youtube videos.
Aljazeera English reports:
Also on Saturday, the regime released 28 intellectuals and artists arrested last Thursday, who had been calling for protests.
US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton expressed frustration at the impotence of the outside world to affect developments inside Syria. Actually, the al-Asad regime is being actively defended from the UN Security Council by Russia. The Soviet Union had been an important patron to Baathist Syria, and the Medvedev/ Putin government seems to want to retain al-Asad as a client for the new Russia. The US has mainly sanctioned Syria for the crackdown through ratcheting up financial sanctions.
9 in 10 Egyptians, Lebanese and Jordanians say Obama has failed to meet their expectations of 2009 Cairo speech
from Mondoweiss by Philip Weiss
The other day I mentioned the Arab American Institute‘s poll on public opinion in the Arab world. Here’s the poll,released yesterday. Based on polls in six countries, UAE, Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Morocco. Some results:
Despite initial optimism, most Arabs believe that the expectations President Obama
created in his 2009 Cairo speech have not been met.
The numbers: Agree/Disagree? He has “met expectations” of Cairo speech?
Disagree: Morocco 88% Egypt 90% Lebanon 99% Jordan 94% Saudi 77% UAE 41%
Substantial majorities of Arabs in almost every country view both the U.S. and Iran as not “contributing to peace and stability in the Arab World.” The U.S.’ contribution to the region is viewed less positively than Iran in every country except Saudi Arabia…
Overall, Arabs view the two greatest threats to the region’s peace and stability to be “the continuing occupation of Palestinian lands” and “U.S. interference in the Arab world.” Only in Saudi Arabia does the concern with “Iran’s interference in Arab affairs” rank as a top concern….
“Resolving the Palestinian issue” is, by far, seen as the most important issue for the U.S. to
What’s the most important issue for Obama to address in order to improve relations in the Arab world?
Resolve the Palestinian issue: Morocco 58% Egypt 73% Lebanon 33% Jordan 60% Saudi 14% UAE 27%
What’s a higher concern in any of these countries: Ending the Iraq war, for Lebanon, 34 percent. Stopping Iranian nukes for Saudi, 51 percent. And engaging the Muslim world, for UAE, 27%
Democracy Now! correspondent and The Nation investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill provides an International Committee of the Red Cross spokesperson with the location of the secret prison used by the CIA he uncovered in the Somali capital of Mogadishu, which the Red Cross says it didn’t know existed. “There are scores of people that have been held without charge in this basement, some of them, as far as we can document, for more than 18 months,” Scahill says. “The Red Cross should be insisting on access to this prison, which is actually within [a] Somali government compound.” [includes rush transcript]
Jeremy Scahill Reveals CIA Facility, Prison in Somalia as U.S. Expands Covert Ops in Stricken Nation
In a new investigative report published by The Nation magazine, independent journalist and Democracy Now! correspondent Jeremy Scahill reveals the CIA is using a secret facility in Somalia for counterterrorism as well as an underground prison in the Somali capital of Mogadishu. Scahill says the CIA is training a new Somali force to conduct operations in the areas controlled by the militant group, Al Shabab, and in Mogadishu. While a U.S. official told The Nation that the CIA does not run the prison, he acknowledged the CIA pays the salaries of Somali agents. [includes rush transcript]
from World War 4 Report blogs by Jurist
The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) on July 8 rejected two appeals from Swiss Muslims challenging Switzerland’s ban on construction of minarets. The court ruled that the appeals were inadmissible because the complaints failed to meet the requirements of Article 35 Section 3 and 4 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Specifically, the court found that since the appeals were only meant to challenge a constitutional provision in a general manner in Switzerland, the applicants had failed to show any specific injury. Supporters and opponents were not surprised by the ECHR’s decision. Hafid Ouardiri, one of the challengers, characterized his failed challenge as a necessary step and was encouraged by the court’s statement that the Swiss courts “would be able to would be able to examine the compatibility of a possible refusal to authorise the construction of a minaret with the European Human Rights Convention.”
“Much rumbling has emanated from the U.S. Congress on Libya—centered around technicalities around the War Powers Act [sic],” writes Pepe Escobar in Asia Times. “As the semantic contortions involved in the Libya tragedy have already gone way beyond Newspeak, this means in practice U.S. drones will keep joining NATO fighter jets in bombing civilians in Tripoli.”
Which is, of course, the big capital-P Point. The people of Libya, like those of Afghanistan and Iraq and Pakistan and Yemen and so on, are suffering privation and mutilation and death at the hands of NATO, which is nothing more than an American sock puppet. To the victims, the carnage is what matters. We cannot lose sight of that—and most of the world will not. It is only the Americans, as always oblivious about the places they are wrecking and the people they are killing, who can’t find Libya on a map, much less worry about it.
Albeit secondarily, the struggle over war powers in Washington matters. It goes to the core of the nature of the American nation-state, the most heavily-armed country on the planet and thus the greatest cause of fear.
War is the riskiest endeavor a nation can undertake. It can lead to catastrophe (Germany in 1945). A war can end in not-defeat (the USSR in Afghanistan during the 1980s) yet lead to collapse. It can wreck the economy (beginning with Vietnam, the U.S. in every war). A war widely viewed as an unjustifiable act of aggression (the U.S. in Iraq) can create new enemies and corrode a nation’s moral standing internationally.
Moreover, popular support is essential to victory. Thus, for political leaders there are two principal reasons to make sure their populations support them: first, popular wars inspire sacrifice and recruits; second, if and when there is a reversal of fortune it is easier to ask for sustained effort.
Beyond practical considerations, any act as inherently monumental as sending troops and bombs to attack a foreign power must involve the majority of the citizenry, certainly all elected representatives. Otherwise it cannot claim even the window-dressing of democracy.
Setting aside questions that ought not to be set aside—whether the U.S.-NATO campaign against Gadafi is winnable, benevolent or may have ramifications beyond the conflict zone—the outcome of the internal struggle over whether Obama has the right to unilaterally commit the armed forces of the United States has broad implications for the world. If Obama prevails, establishing a firm precedent that a president need not consult with the legislature, the U.S. will have undergone a final, undeniable transformation.
Currently, right-wing exceptionalists view America as a nation that, though it makes mistakes, is generally a shining beacon of democracy and hope to a dark world, a true bastion of freedom. Leftist critics see such rhetoric as naïve at best, dishonest at worst; they view the U.S. system as generally hegemonic and increasingly oppressive, yet forced to provide sufficient basic civil liberties to its own population to forestall internal revolt.
Should Congress fail to sanction Obama in some significant way—impeachment is warranted though extremely unlikely, the bloom would be off the tattered, skanky rose once and for all. A president might be elected but would act like, and thus effectively be, a dictator. The tacit consent of the governed, the American people, would mean that the world would have to see the United States as even more dangerous than it already does.
Ah, irony: the International Criminal Court at The Hague has issued a warrant for the Libyan ruler’s arrest for the killing, torture and imprisonment of Libyan citizens. On the scales of bloody mayhem, however, Gadafi is a mere piker next to another man who has killed many thousands of Libyans (and Afghans and Iraqis, etc.) and controls an international gulag archipelago of secret prisons and torture camps. When will the ICC send cops after Obama? As things now stand, both Gadafi and Obama carry out their misdeeds with impunity.
Neither the American nor the Libyan tyrant has a parliament to worry about. NATO airstrikes destroyed the one in Tripoli in early June.
So let’s look at the war over the non-war war in Libya.
At the center of the debate over the Libyan war in Washington is the constitutionally- defined role of the U.S. president. Legally, the president of the United States has “not the power to command, but the power to persuade,” political scientist Richard Neustadt wrote. Theodore Roosevelt, the early 20th century leader who spearheaded the transformation of the U.S. into a global empire, agreed. He dubbed the American presidency a “bully pulpit.” (By “bully,” he meant “terrific,” a meaning that has fallen out of popular usage. He did not mean intimidating or aggressive.) The president is not a dictator—not in theory, anyway. He is highly influential, but power resides with other government institutions.
Under this structure, the U.S. Constitution is clear: only the Congress has the right to declare war. This has only happened five times in American history. The most recent was seven decades ago, after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, famously declaring the day of the raid “a day that will live in infamy,” asked Congress to exercise its constitutional prerogative to authorize a formal state of war.
Yet the U.S. has been one of the most bellicose nations on earth throughout its history. Rarely has a year passed without American military forces invading, occupying, shelling, bombing or otherwise attacking a foreign country.
For my most recent book The Anti-American Manifesto I attempted to compile a comprehensive list of U.S. military actions. They were literally uncountable. Central American states were invaded, colonized, and partitioned so often they’d might as have well have printed their signs in English and used dollars for currency—and some did. The list of U.S. military interventions goes on for page after page after page—and that’s after shrinking the type so small that it’s barely readable.
For all the admirable qualities of the American people—love of rock ‘n’ roll, deep-fried food, and hugely impractical cars, and ridiculous movies featuring numerous explosions—Americans are not the smartest. They are an easily confused lot.
This is not their fault. The media is filled with repetitive pro-government propaganda, schools whitewash American history, and years of effective Madison Avenue advertising has made it impossible for them to judge what is true and what is BS. Not to mention the fact that signs of independent thinking prompt the issuance of prescriptions for brain-deadening anti-depressant narcotics.
In such a situation, simple facts evaporate. Even members of the professional pundit class routinely cite the president’s role as “commander-in-chief of the army and the navy” as enunciated by the Constitution as the source of his power to drop napalm on Vietnamese farmers, insert commandos into the Iranian desert and, on two occasions nearly three decades apart, blow up Colonel Gaddafi’s children.
In reality, the president is commander-in-chief of nothing. The wars in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Libya, Yemen and elsewhere have no basis in U.S. law.
The U.S. Constitution was written in the late 18th century by men who had served as officials in the British colonial government. As it was in England at the time, the term “commander in chief” was widely understood to be completely ceremonial. Early U.S. presidents, who had been present at the constitutional conventions that created the framework of the new republic, understood and accepted that they had no right to commit soldiers to combat. The first president to do so, Thomas Jefferson, formally requested authorization from Congress in order to launch punitive raids against the Barbary States of north Africa, including the city-state of Tripoli. As time passed, however, presidents exploited war fever, fading memories and anti-intellectualism to assert expanded executive power. Though never ratified by law, “commander in chief” came to imply something it had never meant originally: the unilateral right to declare war. They often came to Congress for a rubber-stamp resolution of approval, but this was mere window-dressing. Over time, they didn’t even bother. They might informally consult with a few key leaders. Most recently, Barack Obama dispensed with Congress altogether. He began bombing Libya with the stroke of a pen.
“On the question of war power, I believe the Constitution is as clear as it is plain,” Joe Biden said on the floor of the U.S. Senate in 1998. “To be sure, the Commander in Chief ensures that the president has the sole power to direct U.S. military forces in combat. But that power—except in very few limited circumstances—derives totally from Congressional authority. It is not the power to move from a state of a peace to a state of war. It is a power, once the state of war is in play, to command the forces, but not to change the state. Until that authority is granted, the President has no inherent power to send forces to war—except, as I said, in certain very limited circumstances, such as to repel sudden attacks or to protect the safety and security of Americans abroad.”
Anyone with a passing familiarity with U.S. law knows that Biden was right. (At the time he was arguing against Bill Clinton’s undeclared war against Serbia.) But it didn’t matter. In the United States, de facto trumps the law of the land. The U.S. government is neither above nor beyond the law; it is outside. It is lawless. The culmination of the triumph of might-makes-right autocracy over democracy was George W. Bush’s “theory of the unitary executive,” which asserts that the president is not merely the highest-ranking member of the executive branch of government, but embodies it in his person. Two more branches, and we will have arrived at the Fuhrer Prinicple.
Even Democratic “liberals” accept this state of affairs. Last year the documentary filmmaker Michael Moore complained: “It matters not whom we elect. The Pentagon and the military contractors call the shots. The title ‘Commander in Chief’ is ceremonial, like ‘Employee of the Month’ at your local Burger King.” True, that title is ceremonial—but here Moore is complaining that warmaking power has been stolen from the president, with whom he believes it ought to reside, by the goons of the military-industrial complex.
One wonders whether Biden, now vice president, still decries what in 1998 he called the prevalent bipartisan “monarchist” view of the power of the president to make war.
Near the end of the Vietnam War Congress passed (over Richard Nixon’s veto) the War Powers Resolution, which requires the president to receive approval from Congress within 60 to 90 days of the commencement of “hostilities.” Presidents of both parties have disputed the Resolution’s constitutionality and/or have simply ignored it. Which is a little strange. As Daghlia Lithwick wrote in Newsweek in 2008, the WPR has never stopped U.S. presidents from doing what they love most: bombing and shooting and whatnot.
“Congress is always too deferential, too credulous and too timid to check a strong president in wartime, and only ever speaks out after the war has become unpopular,” Lithwick wrote. “Congress will always offer up a tiny little authorization to use force, and stand by as that authorization swallows up several countries, many years and thousands of dead soldiers. Our war-powers problems lie not in the failure of checks and balances, but in the fact that Congress is invariably comfortable opposing wars only in hindsight.”
But even the possibility of post facto opposition was more than former law professor Barack Obama was willing to countenance. He has taken a novel tack on Libya, stating that he believed the Resolution to be both constitutional and binding but not applicable to the bloodshed being unleashed upon Libya because it does not rise to the level of actual “hostilities.”
Military operations against Libya, Obama’s lawyers stated, is under NATO control. They also claimed there were no U.S. ground troops. Even if these were valid arguments—most experts say they are not—they are transparently untrue. NATO is a fig-leaf for the U.S. Both soldiers and CIA operatives have been training and arming the Benghazi-based rebels for months.
Will Congress move beyond toothless resolutions? Will it censure Obama or cut off funding for his war against Libya? I guess not.
Americans politicians have neither the will nor the maneuvering space to save the United States from descending, once and for all, into total despotism. Where will this superpower, which spends 54 percent of discretionary federal budget on the Pentagon and debt service on old wars, strike next?
War will come again: meaner, faster and even more thoughtlessly.
|Reflections on the Arab Democratic Uprising…Continued|
|Written by National Executive Committee of FRSO/OSCL|
|Wednesday, 30 March 2011 03:09|
The crisis in Libya with the NATO intervention understandably occupies the headlines. Revolts continue to explode or simmer in several countries in the Arab World, including Syria, Jordan, Yemen, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. In Egypt, although the referendum passed on proposed constitutional changes, there are some unsettling signs that democratic dissent is being squeezed by the military, including a reported clampdown on the labor union movement.
The issue that we wanted to address, briefly, focuses on Libya. There have been many sincere and committed anti-imperialists who have either supported the NATO military strikes or remained silent in the face of them. Their reasons, to the extent to which they are offered, focus around the repression by the Qaddafi regime and the potential for a humanitarian crisis. Given these factors some comrades and allies have concluded that a NATO intervention, while not ideal, is better than allowing a slaughter to take place.
It is difficult to argue against preventing a slaughter but we begin with noting that this is a civil war. One does not need to be agnostic about this civil war—we, for example, believe that the rebels represent a generally democratic tendency—to recognize that in a civil war outside intervention can be a very dangerous and destabilizing factor. A civil war is very different than either a national liberation struggle against an outside power or nations joining hands to defend a country under threat. Civil wars are generally bloody and need to be settled by the people in that country. When outside governments intervene, the implications can be very profound.
In 1920 Soviet forces, toward the end of the Russian Civil War, invaded Poland with the explicit intent on spreading socialism. There were revolutionary forces in Poland, but these revolutionary forces in no way were prepared to take power. The Soviet invasion was defeated in part due to the ability of the Polish regime to describe the Soviet invasion as an act of national aggression. This was an important lesson in the early days of the Russian Revolution. One can gain from this the importance of recognizing that internal contradictions must play themselves out. When outside forces try to reshuffle the deck in a civil war, the resulting regime may itself be very unstable. This could be seen in Uganda when Idi Amin was overthrown by the Tanzanians and many other countries.
So, even if one were to assume the best of intentions on the part of NATO—which we do not—the problem is that even if the rebels win with outside support they may be gaining control in a situation where they lack a sufficient base in order to rule. They may, as a result, be dependent on outside assistance in order to remain in power.
In the current situation there are even more ominous signs. As pro-democracy activism spreads in Syria, Connecticut’s Senator Lieberman has suggested that the USA and its allies will need to consider attacking the Assad regime if there is repression. Well, there has already been repression in Bahrain and Yemen, yet Lieberman has been silent. So, the suggestion of an attack on Syria is very unsettling, but to some extent predictable since it would also serve to strengthen the Israeli position in the Middle East. In that sense, one must be very careful of the gift horse that is delivered. It might be a Trojan Horse, and in this sense, contain not only forces that would support the agenda of global capitalism if in power, but would also serve to destabilize the region.
We stand by our position that despite our support for the Arab democratic uprising in general, and the Libyan uprising in particular, NATO and the USA have absolutely no business intervening. The Arab revolt has been an indigenous uprising with an amazing amount of popular support, in large part because it has not been fueled by outside (particularly Western) sources. The intervention of NATO could change that situation dramatically.
One of the pleasures of traveling through the developing world is that things develop. They change. There’s always something new.
Afghanistan is, depending on one’s point of view, developing, deteriorating, or doing both at once.
Example: Last August found me and two fellow Americans in a hired taxi zooming past bombed-out fuel trucks through Taliban-held Kunduz, a city in northern Afghanistan near the Tajik border. The sense of menace was palpable, but our driver seemed calm.
Then his face darkened. We were passing into the flatlands east of Mazar-i-Sharif. We saw nothing but dirt, dust and rocks, all the way to the horizon. Yet our driver was nervous. He scanned this bleak landscape. “Motorcycles,” he said. “I am looking for the motorcycles.”
The adaptable neo-Taliban increasingly rely on the classic tactics of guerilla warfare. Rather than hold territory, these postmodern Islamists-cum-gangsters rely on hit-and-run strikes using something I hadn’t seen in 2001: motorcycles. Like a scene from the Kazakh film epic about Genghis Khan updated by Quentin Tarantino, squadrons of bearded bikers are terrorizing Afghanistan’s newly/cheaply paved highways.
I call them the Talibikers.
One of the more intriguing revelations in last year’s WikiLeaks data dump was that the Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence spy agency has been supplying the Taliban with thousands of Pamir dirtbikes, including a 2007 shipment of 1,000 to the Waziristan-based network led by Mawlawi Jalaludin Haqqani. Talibs ride the Pamirs and their preferred brand, the Honda 125 and its Chinese knock-offs, to assassinations. They launch attacks on highways from bases in villages 10 to 15 kilometers away.
The Talibikers speed across the desert in great clouds of dust, “Mad Max” style, to ambush and bomb fuel trucks. There they set up checkpoints where they shakedown travelers for cash. Sometimes they kidnap motorists and demand ransom payments from their families. By the time the hapless Afghan national police shows up, the resistance fighters are long gone.
An early report on the Talibikers appeared in the Telegraph in 2003. “The motorcycles have played a key role in Taliban hit-and-run operations in the south of the country where the campaign against international troops and aid workers has intensified,” the British newspaper reported in November of that year. “In the latest incident, a Frenchwoman working for the United Nations was shot dead this month by the pillion passenger on a motorcycle in the south-eastern town of Ghazni. The Taliban later claimed responsibility for the attack. In another recent attack, a group of motorcyclists opened fire on an aid convoy near Kandahar, killing four Afghans. In August, two motorcyclists threw a grenade into the Kandahar compound of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, damaging the building but causing no injuries.”
ISI-funded motorbikes continue to play a vital role in the Taliban’s war to drive U.S. and NATO occupation troops out of Afghanistan. “Day and night, Taliban assassins on motorbikes hunt their victims, often taunting them over the telephone before gunning them down in the city’s streets,” Paul Watson wrote in The Star, a newspaper in Canada in February 2011. “They are working their way through lists, meticulously killing off people fingered as collaborators with the Afghan government or its foreign backers…The build-up of Afghan police and soldiers, and foreign troops, in and around Kandahar city over recent months has improved security, but agile and coldly efficient motorbike death squads remain active.”
Mass attacks continue as well. “About 100 Taliban fighters on motorcycles attacked a northern Afghan village that was working to join the government-sponsored local police program against the insurgency, killing one villager, police said Wednesday. An ensuing battle also left 17 militants dead,” the Associated Press reported in May 2011.
There are fewer than 10,000 Talibikers in Afghanistan. They could be eliminated—if the U.S. and NATO stopped focusing on assassination-by-drone and instead used the same technology to increase security.
Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) date to the maiden flight of the now-familiar Predator drones in 1994. After 9/11 the United States became addicted to the Predator and its successor, the Reaper.
Today the Air Force and CIA have at least 7000 UAVs in service around the world, representing the biggest and most visible presence of the U.S. military in Pakistan, Somalia, Libya, and Yemen. This trend is likely to accelerate. As of March 2011 the U.S. Air Force was training more remote drone “pilots” than those for conventional planes. Next year the Pentagon wants $5 billion just for drones.
Drones are getting smaller and more numerous. “One of the smallest drones in use on the battlefield is the three-foot-long Raven, which troops in Afghanistan toss by hand like a model airplane to peer over the next hill,” according to The New York Times. “There are some 4,800 Ravens in operation in the Army, although plenty get lost.” More on this later.
It’s easy to see why generals and politicians are so enthusiastic. The pilotless planes, guided by operators manning a joystick at military and pseudomilitary agencies such as CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia and armed by Xe, the private contractor formerly called Blackwater, are relatively cheap. A Predator costs $4.5 million; an F-22 Raptor fighter jet runs $150 million a unit. Peter Singer, director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative at the Brookings Institution, cites the “three Ds.” Drones are “dull” because they can patrol empty stretches of barren land 24 hours a day. They’re “dirty” because they can fly in and out of toxic clouds, including radiation. Most appealingly, they are “dangerous” because the absence of a pilot eliminates the risk that a pilot—they cost millions to train–will be killed or captured by enemy forces. UAVs exploit the element of surprise: though relatively unobtrusive, they fire supersonic armor-piercing Hellfire missiles capable of striking a target as far as five miles away.
“People who have seen an air strike live on a monitor described it as both awe-inspiring and horrifying,” The New Yorker magazine reported in 2009. “‘You could see these little figures scurrying, and the explosion going off, and when the smoke cleared there was just rubble and charred stuff,’ a former C.I.A. officer who was based in Afghanistan after September 11th says of one attack. (He watched the carnage on a small monitor in the field.) [Bleeding] human beings running for cover are such a common sight that they have inspired a slang term: ‘squirters.’”
According to the Pentagon, drones hit their targets with 95 percent accuracy. The problematic question is: who are their targets?
Thousands of people have been rubbed out by drones since 9/11.
(Press accounts document between 1400 and 2300 extrajudicial killings by allied forces, mostly in the Tribal Areas adjacent to Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province. According to media reports cited by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, at least 957 Pakistanis were murdered by American drones in 134 airstrikes during the year 2010 alone. Since the media only learns about a fraction of these “secret” killings, the real number must be many times higher.)
Since the Pakistani government does not officially acknowledge, much less authorize, such attacks, they are illegal acts of war.
Political philosopher Michael Walzer asked in 2009: “Under what code does the CIA operate? I don’t know. There should be a limited, finite group of people who are targets, and that list should be publicly defensible and available. Instead, it’s not being publicly defended. People are being killed, and we generally require some public justification when we go about killing people.”
One would think.
Legal or not, Christine Fair of Georgetown University says the U.S. doesn’t use drone planes indiscriminately: “You have lawyers, you have targeteers, you have intelligence operatives, you actually have pilots who are manning the drones. These are not 14-year-old kids right out of basic training, playing around with a joystick,” she told National Public Radio.
In the real world, it’s often hard to tell the difference. There’s no doubt that drone operators make mistakes. In April 2011, for example, two American marines were killed by a Predator in Afghanistan.
Of course, the majority of victims are local civilians. In Afghanistan and Pakistan drone strikes have killed countless children and wiped out so many wedding parties that it’s become a sick joke. Estimates of the civilian casualty rate range from a third (by the New America Foundation) to 98 percent (terrorism expert Amir Mir). There is no evidence that a single “terrorist” has ever been killed by a drone—only the say-so of U.S. and NATO spokesmen.
Errors are inherent due to the principal feature of the technology: remoteness. Manned aerial warfare is notoriously inaccurate; pilots zooming close to the speed of sound tens of thousands of feet above the ground have little idea who or what they’re shooting at. Drone operators have even less information than old-school pilots. Like a submariner peering out of a periscope, they are supposed to decide whether people live or die based on fuzzy images through layers of glass. They call it the “soda straw.”
Nowadays, staffing is a troubling challenge: it takes 19 analysts to study images and other data from one drone. In the future, a war could eliminate unemployment entirely: it will take approximately 2000 men and women to process information from one drone equipped with “Gorgon stare” optics capable of scanning an entire city at once.
There’s also a huge gap in education, experience and culture. Virtual warriors require simple rules that don’t apply when trying to kill jihadis. At the beginning of the U.S. war against Afghanistan in 2001, for example, it was an article of faith within the Pentagon that men wearing black long-tailed turbans were Talibs. Dozens, possibly hundreds, of noncombatants were killed because of this incorrect assumption. In February 2002 a drone operator blew up a man because he was tall—as was Osama bin Laden. In fact, he and two other men killed were poor villagers gathering scrap metal. Again, this doesn’t address the broader issue of whether it’s OK to murder people simply because they are members of the Taliban.
At least as interesting as the choice of target is whom the U.S. does not try to kill: the Talibikers.
Unlike the wedding parties, houses and tribal councils that have been mistakenly incinerated by the aptly-named Hellfire missiles, Taliban bike gangs are easy to identify from the air. One or two hundred dirtbikes speeding across the desert toward a truck on an Afghan highway are unmistakable. Most Afghans, even those who oppose the U.S. occupation, fear the Talibikers and resent being robbed at impromptu checkpoints. There have been a few scattershot drone strikes, nothing more. Why don’t the CIA whiz kids make these easily identified fighters a primary target?
I posed the question to Afghan government officials. They told me that the same U.S. military that blows $1 billion a week on the war won’t lift a finger to save Afghan lives by providing basic security. “Afghan lives are worth nothing to the Americans,” a provincial governor told me.
Last week the United Nations announced that civilian casualties were up 15 percent during the first six months of 2011. If the same rate continues, this will be the worst year of the ten-year-long American occupation.
A well-placed U.S. military source confirms that Afghan security “isn’t a priority, it isn’t even much of a passing thought.” Contrary to President Obama’s claim that U.S. is in Afghanistan in order to prevent the country from becoming a base for Al Qaeda and other extremist groups and to combat opium cultivation, he says that Afghanistan isn’t about Afghanistan at all. “Afghanistan is a staging area for drone and other aerial strikes in western Pakistan,” he says. “Nothing more, nothing less. Afghanistan is Bagram [airbase].”
Under Obama the death toll has risen, worsening relations between the White House and its puppet president, Hamid Karzai. Beyond the horror of the deaths themselves, it would be impossible to overstate the contempt that ordinary people in nations like Afghanistan and Pakistan feel for the drone program. “Americans are cowards” was one refrain I heard last year. Real soldiers risk their lives. They do not send buzzing machines to kill people half a world away…people they know nothing about.
Back in 2002, former CIA general counsel Jeffrey Smith worried about blowback. “If [Taliban leaders and soldiers are] dead, they’re not talking to you, and you create more martyrs,” he noted. Ongoing drone attacks “suggest that it’s acceptable behavior to assassinate people…Assassination as a norm of international conduct exposes American leaders and Americans overseas.”
These days, the media gives little to no time or space to such concerns. Americans have moved into postmorality. Right or wrong? Who cares?
Recently international law professor Mary Ellen O’Connell of Notre Dame University said that the new reliance on drones could prompt an already militaristic superpower to fight even more wars of choice. “I think this idea that somehow this technology is allowing us to kill in more places and…aim at more targets is for me the fundamental ethical and legal problem.”
Meanwhile, adds Mary Dudziak of the University of Southern California’s Gould School of Law: “Drones are a technological step that further isolates the American people from military action, undermining political checks on…endless war.” No casualties? No problem.
Meanwhile, at a “microaviary” inside an air force base north of Dayton, Ohio, “military researchers are at work on another revolution in the air: shrinking unmanned drones, the kind that fire missiles into Pakistan and spy on insurgents in Afghanistan, to the size of insects and birds,” approvingly reports The New York Times.
Abd al-Rahman Shalqam, former foreign minister of Libya, has revealed in an interview with al-Hayat in Arabic that Muammar Qaddafi was central to propping up the corrupt and dictatorial regimes of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia. Many analysts of authoritarianism in the Arab world have pointed to French, British and American support for dictatorial regimes, but the way in which Qaddafi deployed his oil billions in the Middle East and Africa to undermine democracy and reinforce dictatorship and corruption is a key part of the puzzle.
Shalqam said that the security cooperation (i.e. help with domestic surveillance of the STASI sort) was so complete between Libya and Tunisia that Qaddafi had actually given Ben Ali a monthly stipend.
Likewise, he said that Umar Suleiman, the former head of Egyptian military intelligence, was “Libya’s man in Egypt.” Under Suleiman, the secret police in Egypt developed extensive surveillance and used unsavory techniques of interrogation redolent of those deployed by Qaddafi himself.
Shalqam confirmed that in 1993 Egyptian secret police abducted Libyan dissident and former foreign ministerMansour al-Kikhia, then sent him to Libya where he was executed by Qaddafi.
Qaddafi, finding himself blocked in attempts to dominate the Arab world (in part by the wealthier and more prestigious Saudis), at one point declared that he was “an unparalleled man” and would become “the king of kings of Africa.” His son Saif al-Islam is said to have teared up in joy at the announcement. (For Qaddafi’sdisastrous impact on Africa see this posting).
Qaddafi’s strong support for the Bin Ali police state in Tunisia is well known, and all the Tunisians I talked to in my recent trip to that country, whether from the left or the right, supported the attempt to get rid of him, though they were insistent that there should be no Western troops or bases in that country. They confirmed to me that were Qaddafi to manage to remain in power, they feared he would use his oil billions to undermine the embryonic Tunisian experiment in democracy. The revelation that Bin Ali was actually on a retainer from Qaddafi will only reinforce these attitudes.
How important Qaddafi was to Hosni Mubarak’s police state needs to be further investigated. But there is growing evidence of his baleful influence. How the left-leaning post-colonial regimes in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt deteriorated into seedy police states with vast domestic spying apparatuses, secret prisons, torture, press censorship and ultimately crony capitalist cartels is yet to be completely understood, but the evolution of Muammar Qaddafi into king of kings of Africa is an important part of this story.