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Phantom Hope: The Afghan Army

December 21st, 2009 admin No comments

Sometimes you have to wonder if irony, like satire, can actually survive another decade like the one now coming to an end. Last week, the chief of NATO asked the Russians to contribute helicopters as its part of the escalation to fight the Taliban in Afghanistan. The image of Russian helicopters used in another fight against Afghan rebels has got to be one of the major propaganda coups of our time. A fitting end to the Zero Decade.

If Moscow says yes, the choppers will become part of the expanding effort that we have been told will stabilize that nebulous entity called Afghanistan, weaken the Taliban, shatter al-Qaeda, and turn over control for national security to the Afghan National Army and national police. There’s just one problem. Building an Afghan army and national police force has been tried before. And it’s never, ever worked.

Starting in the 18th Century, the British tried it four times. Declan Walsh reported a couple of years ago:

Each has failed, frustrated by war, invasions or the stubborn ways of conservative tribesmen. Now the west is making the fifth try, and the task is no less urgent, or complicated, than in the past.

The British say their most pressing problem is absenteeism. Afghan men value family life and find barracks life strange. Many overstay their leave by weeks, facing no punishment on their return, or never come back. The Helmand battalion is 30% under strength as a result. “We end up sitting here with bated breath hoping they will turn up,” said Capt Noel Claydon-Swales.

But the historical omens are ominous. It took most European countries between 50 and 100 years to form their national armies, said [the highly respected Afghan scholar] Dr [Antonio] Giustozzi. The Soviet Union tried to fast-track the process in Afghanistan in the 1980s, but failed. “You can keep pumping in money but in the long term it is not sustainable,” he said.

But surely the situation has changed in two-and-a-half years? The details, yes. But the prognosis? Hardly. Many of the soldiers who have been trained and haven’t deserted or defected are poorly motivated, poorly trained, sympathetic to the Taliban, unreliable in combat, AWOL much of the time, and often brutal, intimidating and criminal in their dealings with the local population.

Antonio Giustozzi’s latest assessment appears at the Royal United Services Institute (subscription only), and is titled The Afghan National Army: Unwarranted Hope? He could just as well have left off the question mark.

The latest effort to train the Afghan Army began more than seven years ago and was  announced to reporters by Gen. Tommy Franks, then commander of U.S. Central Command, “I am pleased that our forces have begun training the Afghan National Army.”

That was then, and this is now. Nobody needs to be reminded of how the Cheney-Bush administration dropped the ball in Afghanistan and went on into Iraq, which, for years before September 11 “changed everything,” was the real first target of the neoconservatives’ Project for a New American Century.

For the moment, focus on the practicality of the mission and forget about whether current U.S. Afghan policy is a righteous project, an unfortunate but necessary evil or just another round in the saga of American empire dating back to the first pronouncement of Manifest Destiny. Because even the most avid foe of the escalation – I count myself on that side – knows in her heart (and experience with Iraq) that not enough opposition will be built in the streets or, ha-ha, in Congress to soon stop the flow of troops to Afghanistan that began last March and will run at least until next November, according to the generals. That being so, the essential question about the policy is: Will it work? Can the Afghan National Army (and national police force) be enlarged and improved enough to take care of the nation’s security on its own in, say, the four or five years that President Hamid Karzai says is needed?

Ample evidence speaks loudly against it.

There’s no need to scour left-wing or other objectionist Web sites to come to this conclusion. For starters, one can read the 66-page unclassified version of Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s strategic assessment of the situation.

Let me interject another caveat. Afghans can fight. The British, the Soviets and others throughout history have learned this the hard way. Cowardice is not the problem. As ranger995, someone who was embedded with Afghan troops, has pointed out, there are Afghans in the ANA, especially younger ones, who have plenty of courage, will and integrity to fight. The problem is, there aren’t enough. And there won’t be enough in the fuzzy time-frame that has been set out for beginning to turn security over to them. That’s the case even though the 4000 U.S. trainers now in Afghanistan will soon be joined by an estimated 4000 more, plus 150 new NATO training teams. The Pentagon has not released any information about whether those 4000 trainers have the special skills needed to do their job effectively.

Here’s one reason why, as noted a couple of months ago by Martin Fletcher: Rushed training ‘risks turning Afghan troops into cannon fodder’:

Recruits to the Afghan Army are being rushed into combat with a barely acceptable level of training, according to senior British officers closely involved in the programme. …

“We are close to the wire in the balancing act between quality and quantity,” Brigadier Simon Levey, the chief coalition adviser to the Afghan Army’s training command, conceded. The present standard of training was “acceptable, but we must not fall below it”.

Lieutenant-Colonel Nick Ilic, the head of the British team that is training Afghan officers and non-commissioned officers, told The Times: “We are walking a tightrope and we could easily fall off.”

Another official, who declined to be named, said: “You could argue that the recruits are being made cannon fodder. Every time we lower the bar it’s the minimum we can get away with until someone says we need to lower it more to speed things up.”

Speed-up is in the works again as the United States seeks to get 134,000 Afghans into the ANA by next fall. An ambitious goal given what’s happening every day.

A month ago, AFP  reported:

[T]he picture painted by NATO commanders shows that, while international troops suffer increasing casualties, training too is an uphill battle in this country wracked by more than 30 years of war.

Out of the some 94,000 Afghan soldiers trained so far, 10,000 have defected, General Egon Ramms, commander of the operational headquarters in charge of the NATO-led International Assistance Force in Afghanistan (ISAF), told reporters this week.

He also estimated that 15 per cent of the armed forces are drug addicts.

If the reporter didn’t mistake “deserted” for “defected,” that means Western forces are giving large numbers of the enemy better fighting skills.

If Gen Ramms really meant “deserted,” he’s low-balled the actual number. From September 2008 to September 2009, the Pentagon and the Inspector General for Reconstruction in Afghanistan put the desertion rate at about one in four. More Afghans were recruited than ever before, 35,000. Digging deeper into the numbers, however, as Gareth Porter has done,  puts the number of keepers at 19,000.

The old 70 square-mile Soviet base that now serves as the Kabul Military Training Center eight miles from the downtown of the capital has put tens of thousands of Afghans through its 10-week training program. But how many of these actually serve on active-duty is unanswerable.

So when stories like this appear in The New York Times saying that vast new numbers of Afghans are signing up, readers can hardly be blamed for remaining skeptical at the outcome of this enlistment surge. As Chris Hedges has pointed out, instead of body counts of enemy dead the way “progress” was often measured in Vietnam, the “good news” now is the  allegedly swelling numbers of ANA soldiers.

Tossing aside for the moment the numbers, there is also the quality of both the trainees and the trainers. It’s not American troops’ fault. They haven’t been prepared for their task. And there is no evidence that the new trainers soon to be on the way to Afghanistan will have any more background in how to train than those troops already on the ground. As Hedges writes:

Afghan soldiers are sent from the Kabul Military Training Center directly to active-duty ANA units. The units always have American trainers, know as a “mentoring team,” attached to them. The rapid increase in ANA soldiers has outstripped the ability of the American military to provide trained mentoring teams. The teams, normally comprised of members of the Army Special Forces, are now formed by plucking American soldiers, more or less at random, from units all over Afghanistan.

“This is how my entire team was selected during the middle of my tour: a random group of people from all over Kabul—Air Force, Navy, Army, active-duty and National Guard—pulled from their previous assignments, thrown together and expected to do a job that none of us were trained in any meaningful way to do,” the officer said.

“We are expected, by virtue of time-in-grade and membership in the U.S. military, to be able to train a foreign force in military operations, an extremely irresponsible policy that is ethnocentric at its core and which assumes some sort of natural superiority in which an untrained American soldier has everything to teach the Afghans, but nothing to learn.”

“You’re lucky enough if you had any mentorship training at all, something the Army provides in a limited capacity at pre-mobilization training at Fort Riley, but having none is the norm,” he said. “Soldiers who receive their pre-mobilization training at Fort Bragg learn absolutely nothing about mentoring foreign forces aside from being given a booklet on the subject, and yet soldiers who go through Bragg before being shipped to Afghanistan are just as likely to be assigned to mentoring teams as anyone else.”

While there is a relative handful of men like ranger995 directly involved with training soldiers in the field, most, as Brian Coughley noted in September, are far from that level of skill:

In Afghanistan the training course is ten weeks, and 90 percent of recruits are illiterate and language-incompatible with their peers, let alone the foreigners. Afghan instructors are keen but barely effective and the logistics system is a tattered joke. Some foreign instructors may be good, but most are depressingly ignorant of language, culture and customs.

It’s hard to know whether the drug problem Gen. Ramms spoke of is truly addiction or just the widespread smoking of hashish among Afghans. Recreational drug use is one thing when you’re sitting at home or around the campfire. It’s something else when you’re expected to be on patrol against people armed with AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenade launchers. This was made amply clear more than a year ago in this widely seen video:

Then there’s the problem of trying to create an national army out of a mix of ethnicities. Porter writes:

The latest report of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, issued Oct. 30, shows that Tajiks, which represent 25 percent of the population, now account for 41 percent of all ANA troops who have been trained, and that only 30 percent of the ANA trainees are now Pashtuns.

The new figures are less promising than older ones that had suggested that Pashtuns were 40% of troops (about their proportion in the population). Now it seems they are just a third of the troops. To have a Tajik army patrolling and searching Pashtuns could be a bad scene. So too would be a Pashtun denial of the legitimacy of the Afghan National Army.

And this is all before there’s any discussion about warlords, opium-funded Taliban, the anger of the populace toward foreign occupation (whoever the occupier is), and the deeply corrupt Karzai regime that even the most pollyanna assessment of Afghanistan’s future cannot be sanguine about.

In the Pentagon and other parts of the Obama administration can be found plenty of people who recognize all these problems. Still, magical thinking has not disappeared. The idea that the United States can somehow overcome all these obstacles and do it on a rapid timetable – obstacles that were there for the British in the 1780s and the Soviets in the 1980s – is just another sad foray into the myth of American exceptionalism.


Fujitsu LifeBook UH900 spotted in the wild, courtesy of shouting speech bubbles

December 20th, 2009 admin No comments
There could only be two reasons for why we got a bit excited upon the discovery of this Asia Pacific-only, $1,415 Fujitsu UH900 in Hong Kong: one was the sugar rush from two custard tarts earlier in the day, and two was the speech bubble overload on this smartbook laptop thing. We quickly sobered up when we heard about the two-hour battery life — more pessimistic than Fujitsu’s own press release, which promises three hours in ECO mode. While there was no hands-on opportunity to try out the multitouch screen — a self-proclaimed world’s first on this form factor — we weren’t impressed by the overall glossiness and the dull side bezel, but kudos to the guy who managed to keep a straight face while revealing the petite battery life.

Fujitsu LifeBook UH900 spotted in the wild, courtesy of shouting speech bubbles originally appeared on Engadget on Sat, 19 Dec 2009 11:14:00 EST. Please see our terms for use of feeds.

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A solar eclipse for the people

July 22nd, 2009 admin No comments

Not just devoted eclipse-chasers but millions of others were able to view the longest solar eclipse of the century as it passed over Asia Wednesday.

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Darkness envelops Asia during total eclipse

July 22nd, 2009 admin No comments

Darkness fell across parts of China and India on Wednesday morning during a total solar eclipse that will be visible to parts of the world’s most populous countries. The event will be the longest of the 21st century, with astronomers predicting it will

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Jacob M. Appel: A Culture of Liberty

July 22nd, 2009 admin No comments

The Catholic Church and American religious conservatives have advanced a so-called “culture of life” ever since Pope John Paul II coined the term on his 1993 visit to Denver. The Church’s 1995 encyclical, Evangelium Vitae, defined this ideology quite precisely, condemning condoms and capital punishment as well as abortion and euthanasia. Over the succeeding years, right-wing activists and politicians, including former President George W. Bush, have selectively advocated for a loose confection of ideas cherry-picked from this basket. Yet the widespread consensus among social conservatives in the United States is that the program against which they define themselves — most notably, the acceptance of abortion-on-demand, physician-assisted suicide, gay marriage and diversity in sexual practices — will genuinely transform our society. Some progressives reject this criticism. I prefer to embrace it.

Anyone who has spoken to a woman who has traveled a long distance at considerable personal expense in order to terminate a pregnancy, or to an adult child who has been unable to help a debilitated parent end his suffering, or who has witnessed the pain of gay couples separated by overtly discriminatory immigration laws, should recognize that we live in a society desperately in need of profound and lasting transformation. Unfortunately, the majority of Americans who reject the underlying premise of the “culture of life” movement — namely, that biological existence and social tradition should trump the values of individual choice and personal privacy — have so-far failed to unify in support of a comprehensive alternative.

For far too long, supporters of abortion rights and legalized assisted suicide and sexual liberation have huddled in separate political corners. These divisions are unfortunate, as each of these skirmishes is part of a larger struggle to defend personal autonomy. The right to remove an unwanted conceptus from one’s uterus, and to choose one’s intimate partners, and to end life on one’s own terms, are each threads in the same social blanket. Those who value freedom should be equally incensed by New York’s prohibition on no-fault divorce, and Alabama’s statute banning sex toys, and the United States military’s prosecution of adultery, by the forcible feeding of competent prisoners, and bans on the medical use of marijuana, and the anachronistic “alienation of affection” statues under which jilted spouses sue their partners’ lovers. That is not to say that a person may not, with some philosophical legerdemain, embrace some liberties and oppose others. However, when viewed through the prism of personal autonomy, which I believe is the preferable perspective, then these issues become, to paraphrase John Donne, pieces of a unified continent of liberty and parts of the same moral main. In short, components of a Culture of Liberty.

This is not to say that freedom should be without meaningful limits — or that government regulation does not have its appropriate place, particularly where the economy and public safety are concerned. Moreover, even those who believe in a Culture of Liberty will grapple with gray areas, such as mandatory vaccination and quarantine, where private choices may challenge the public welfare. But as Justice William O. Douglas suggested in the seminal Supreme Court case of Griswold vs. Connecticut, which enshrined privacy rights in the Constitution, certain areas are far too intimate for government interference. If freedom means anything at all, it is the right to primacy in regard to sexuality, reproduction, medical care and death. I am grateful that I have rights in the proverbial public square — but, as a practical matter, my most cherished rights are those that I possess in my bedroom and hospital room and death chamber. Most people are far more concerned that they can control their own bodies than they are about petitioning Congress.

The reason that a Culture of Liberty has not yet developed in the United States may be that, for many years, issues of personal freedom were too often political losers. Supporters of reproductive choice or the right to refuse medical care feared binding themselves to a larger ethic at odds with what they perceived to be a conservative-leaning populous. Fortunately, aided by demographics and new technologies, personal liberty has become a political winner. Our nation is better educated, increasingly secular, and exceedingly more tolerant than it has been at any time since its founding. Poll numbers strongly suggest that, with regard to matters of sex and death, Generation Y will be Generation Why Not? That is certainly not to say that all of today’s high school students will someday choose to terminate pregnancies or to end their lives with a chalice of hemlock. Rather, they will make their own private decisions — and allow their fellow men and women to do the same. Eventually, I imagine, some savvy entrepreneur will combine these diverse but related intimate services under one roof, offering “liberty centers” at which teenagers will be able to terminate pregnancies and elderly couples will be able to end their lives in mutual embrace. To many self-styled traditionalists, this prospect is unwelcome. In contrast, those who favor a genuine Culture of Liberty will view such a widespread embrace of personal autonomy as a sign that our democracy has finally lived up to its mantra of freedom for all.

The day will inevitably arrive when current efforts to impose the particular set of theological values at the core of the “culture of life” movement upon society-at-large is looked upon as no less misguided than the Inquisition or the Crusades. In matters as intimate as reproduction and death, history favors freedom over the power of church and state. However, this victory will arrive sooner if those who favor personal liberty unite against individuals and institutions, however sincere or well-intentioned, who seek to return us to an age of moral darkness. The twenty-first century can witness a Second Great Enlightenment embodied in a cohesive Culture of Liberty. Or those of us who believe in personal autonomy can remain fragmented in the face of monolithic opposition, each of us beating a faint drum for a particular right or freedom that we cherish. The choice is stark and the choice is ours. I can only hope that we rise to the occasion.


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Murray Fromson: And That’s the Way It Was…

July 22nd, 2009 admin No comments

I had dinner with Walter Cronkite the first night he arrived in Saigon on what was his personal fact finding trip “into country” after the Communists’ 1968 Tet Offensive. He was a hawk, a supporter of the conflict in Vietnam like so many Americans of his generation.

Walter clearly was troubled by the visual images from Tet contrasted with mixed messages he was getting about the war, especially LBJ’s assurance that the war was going well. In the rooftop restaurant of the Caravelle Hotel Cronkite’s frustration was apparent immediately. “How are we going to win this damned war?” he asked me.

I was hesitant to answer, but having traveled up and down the country for several months, having seen evidence of “live and let live” between the Vietnamese government and the Viet Cong, like the sharing of water and rice, I’d concluded that we were witness to a civil war that would not end until we got out of the way and let the two sides decide the future of their country by blood or diplomacy.

Walter was stunned. Like President Kennedy and so many Americans conditioned by the Cold War, he believed in the domino theory that assumed a defeat in Vietnam would lead to the communization of all of Southeast Asia. Cronkite acted as if he could not believe what he was hearing. “That’s just plain crazy,” he said.

At the dinner were Peter Kalisher, CBS’s Paris bureau chief and Cronkite’s executive producer Ernie Leiser who chimed in. “That’s the problem with you so-called ‘Old Asia hands.’ “You think you have it all figured out.” In self-defense, I replied, “Wait a minute, you guys asked me for my opinion and that’s what I gave you. Quite to the contrary, I had not yet figured it out. I only wish that I could.” The dinner ended and soon I left Saigon for the battle at Khe Sanh, but I confirmed Cronkite continued to hear similar messages from other CBS correspondents who had echoed my belief about the realities of the war.

In the weeks that followed, Walter traveled to see the war for himself in the battle for Hue. He gave no sign that he was re-evaluating his view of the Vietnam conflict, for whatever his thoughts were, he kept them to himself. Cronkite rigorously defended the Evening News as a balanced, unbiased presentation of the day’s events. But then on February 27th he summed up his Vietnam trip at the end of a CBS Special Report on the war in Vietnam with a personal departure that stunned the nation:

“To say that we are closer to victory today,” he said, “is to believe, in the face of the evidence, the optimists have been wrong in the past. To suggest we are on the edge of defeat is to yield to unreasonable pessimism. To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion. On the off chance that military and political analysts are right.” Cronkite went on, “in the next few months we must test the enemy’s intentions, in case this is indeed his last big gasp before negotiations. But it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.”

His commentary was a shocker that stunned America; a different Cronkite than I had ever heard before, because until then he had so scrupulously avoided expressing any personal opinions on the air. The question remained, was there a single, defining event or was it the sum total of what he had seen and heard that led to his profound change of heart about the war?

By November 2002, Ernie Leiser was in declining health. Shortly before he died, I wanted to confirm my belief that he had actually written the script for which Cronkite got so much credit. Leiser confirmed my hunch. “I wrote every word of it, but,” he emphasized that “it could not have gone on the air without Walter’s approval.” He added, “When Walter was troubled by Vietnam, he sought out the friends and people he felt comfortable with from his World War II generation.” Ernie remembered the evening before their departure for home when they were invited to dinner with General Creighton Abrams, the successor to General William Westmoreland as commander of all forces in Vietnam. Cronkite knew Abrams from the Battle of the Bulge in World War II and as the daring tank commander of the 2nd Armored Division in the European campaign against Nazi Germany.

After a few drinks, Leiser recalled, Abrams declared firmly that “we cannot win this Goddamned war, and we ought to find a dignified way out.”

That, Leiser told me, “affected Walter profoundly and caused him to approve my script.” In the end, it was his comforting image of decency that enhanced his reputation as a fair-minded but troubled critic of the war. It was important to those of us in the field to know that Cronkite had the courage to risk his reputation when he could just as soon have remained silent.

Murray Fromson, a former CBS News correspondent, is a Professor Emeritus in journalism at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication. He has just completed a memoir, “The Whole Truth and Nothing But.”

More on Vietnam


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China gears up for longest solar eclipse of the century

July 21st, 2009 admin No comments

Tourists across Asia prepare for event that scientists hope will shed new light and some believe will bring bad luckHundreds of millions of people across China, India and Japan will witness the longest solar eclipse of the century on Wednesday.Tourists

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China gears up for longest solar eclipse of the century

July 21st, 2009 admin No comments

Tourists across Asia prepare for event that scientists hope will shed new light and some believe will bring bad luckHundreds of millions of people across China, India and Japan will witness the longest solar eclipse of the century on Wednesday.Tourists

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Asia’s alcohol sector fizzes despite downturn

July 20th, 2009 admin No comments

SINGAPORE (Reuters) – The crowds drinking beer in the bustling bars of Mumbai and Shanghai underscore the motive behind a flurry of recent merger and acquisition activity in Asia, with forecasts of strong growth for beer and spirits in years to come.

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GoliveMobile Expands in India and Philippines

July 20th, 2009 admin No comments

GoliveMobile has announced that it has opened new offices in the countries of the India and the Philippines , part of its strategy to expand in Asia. Though carrying only a handful of employees for both new business hubs (30 for Manila and 50 for Bangalore), this is a the first step in their expansion strategy, perhaps preparing for a broader area of scope as far as providing mobile content services. These new offices will initially serve as dual regional hubs for operations based in Asia

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