Monday, October 12, 2015

The reach of the Taliban

An article in New York Times edition of Oct. 12 suggests that the Taliban's control of Afghanistan is the most extensive that it has ever been since before the U.S. invasion in 2001.

The story, based on a United Nations report, shows that the UN is finally admitting to what's been well known for the past five years, easily since 2010. The Taliban has controlled much of Afghanistan for nearly a decade.

I wrote about this Afghan reality back in 2010 and 2011 in Above the Din of War.

The extensive Taliban control throughout the country was well established when I arrived for my second year there in August 2010.

My eyes were opened at a briefing by the Afghan NGO Security office, a real time security service for all the internationals. You got text messages on attacks anywhere in the country as soon as they happened.

There were sometimes hundreds per day, from minor shootings and kidnappings, to suicide bombers. Handy info if you didn't want into the middle of nasty business.

The security folks showed a map on the screen that day with each province in red that had a Taliban shadow government. The entire map was red!

What the US commander in Afghanistan, General Campbell told Congress recently is true. The Afghans control Kabul and major city centers. And, the Afghans are holding on. Barely.

When you look at the territory in government control, it's probably about 20 percent or less of the country. This is the map with the NY Times article:

The black is nearly complete Taliban control, the red is extreme, and tan is serious.
The center of the country is in white, which means little Taliban presence. But that's only because no one lives there. It's too rugged. The northern sections should not be white either.

The reality in 2010 -- five years ago!! -- was that the Afghan police and military would not venture from their city compounds without moving in heavily armed convoys.

I had a taste of this in the southern Helmand province when my police escort drove at a breakneck speeds on dirt roads to minimize the chances of us being hit. This was after I was assured that the road and town that I visited was completely safe!

This was before the US and NATO draw down. It's only gotten worse. It's surprising that the Taliban hasn't done more like they did recently in Kunduz.

That the UN is only now admitting this is because they don't want to point out that the emperor has no clothes.

Obama reluctantly has kept about 10,000 soldiers there because without them, the country would undoubtedly be in Taliban hands

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Trump's borderline reality

A recent poll by the Pew Research Center reveals that support for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border remains strong.

Building such a wall is unrealistic.

The research by Pew was reported Oct. 8 in the LA Times with a piece written by David Lauter, a Washington-based reporter for the Times.

The poll showed that general public support for a border wall hasn't changed much, with just under half of the country supporting the construction of a wall. 

But a look inside the numbers shows that members of both parties are going in the opposition direction on the issue.

Support for a wall has increased among Republicans, rising from 65 percent in 2007 to 73 percent now. That's an increase of eight percent. Nearly three of every four Republicans support a wall. 

But support for the wall has dropped by an equal amount among Democrats. They've gone in the opposite direction, from 37 percent supporting the wall down to 29 percent. That's less than one in three Democrats.

The overall result is that support remains unchanged.

Driving the rise in support of the wall are the belligerent remarks made by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. He falsely believes that building a wall will solve the country's immigration problem. 

Trump thinks a border wall is a simple thing. It's not.

As I wrote in The Dangerous Divide, winner of this year's International Latino Book Award for current affairs, a border wall would be expensive, a near physical impossibility, and ineffective.

Much of the U.S.-Mexico border is in harsh, rugged, and remote terrain--some of the most inhospitable in the world. That's why it's favored by human smugglers. And, it's why the number of dead migrants found in these regions is increasing. I noted that in a recent blog posting.

While building a wall may be technically possible, such a project could easily take a decade or longer. Estimates put the costs of it in the tens of billions of dollars. Is this how we want to spend our hard-earned tax dollars?

Such a project will only spur more in-migration by those hoping to beat the placement of the final brick. And, once built, it will only insure that the estimated 12 million or more undocumented migrants already here will certainly stay, knowing that once out, they'll never be able to return.

The wall also does not resolve the situation of the 12 million undocumented migrants already here. Trump's remarks suggest that the U.S. should round up these 12 million people and deport them. 

Really? Such a suggestion conjures images of the German Nazis rounding up people for their death camps. Is that the way we do things in America?

Trump's calls for a wall and deportations reveal a serious disconnection from reality. The estimated 12 million undocumented workers in the U.S. provide a vast amount of labor that many Americans won't do.

They cultivate the land, pick the crops, build the houses, nail the roofs, landscape golf courses, clean the hotel rooms, cook restaurant food and wash the dishes, etc.

They provide critical labor that is the underpinning of the U.S. economy. Without their low-paid labor, much of the services and products in America would cost much more than they do.

Yet, our archaic and brutal immigration laws keep these critical workers in the shadows of the law, leaving them to be victimized and subject to extortion and intimidation. 

Their American dream is a nightmare.

A simple and easy solution is for the U.S. to restore a wide-spread guest worker visa system for those who want to work in this country. It would allow these migrant workers to earn the money they desire and return to their home country when they want.

It would allow the U.S. government to keep track of who's in the country, where they are, and what they're doing.

Instead, blowhards like Trump are calling for a horribly expensive and virtually impractical wall. It only stokes fear and hatred, more of which we don't need.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Cabbages and Kony

The four-year fiasco that is the futile search for renegade militia leader, Joseph Kony and his army of child soldiers, has once again become the focus in Washington, DC.

Congress discussed Kony recently during a meeting of the House Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations. The hearing was titled, “Ridding Central Africa of Joseph Kony: Continuing US Support.”

While there appears to be continuing support to keep up the hunt for Kony, the reality on the ground in Africa is typically confusing at best.

A recent article in the Washington Post provides a well-crafted update on the search for Kony. It focuses on the apparent dealings the Ugandan army and U.S. special forces advisers have had with Muslim rebel fighters in the region, known as the Seleka.

I have argued in First Kill Your Family that the Ugandans aren't truly committed to finding Kony.

It is absurd for the Ugandans and their American advisers to complain that they can'd find Kony. Many people know where he is. The Post even published the following map:

The only ones who don't seem to know are the soldiers who have been hunting him ever since late 2008 when the Ugandan army botched an air and ground assault on Kony's camp in the Garamba National Park in the north eastern corner of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

In 2011, President Obama ordered 100 U.S. military advisers to help the Ugandans with the hunt for Kony. They've been unsuccessful so far, and Obama will soon have to decide to continue the U.S. support or cut it.

Kony has been killing elephants and rhinos in Garamaba ever since he arrived there in late 2005, having abandoned his marauding of northern Uganda for some "fresh meat." Only recently, however, has this on-going slaughter of wildlife become an issue.

Kony and others, it seems, have been selling the highly valuable tusks to black marketeers who arrive in helicopters, load their cargo, and fly off. If a bunch of men who deal in wildlife parts can find Kony, why can't the Uganda and U.S. Special Forces?

While the Post article looks at a potential controversy should the U.S. advisers be pumping the Seleka for information and cooperation, it's a needless discussion.

The Seleka are apparently among the many who have been dealing with Kony. So if the Ugandans and the Americans are serious about finding Kony and bringing him to just, then WHY NOT talk to them? How can the Kony mission not use any and all means to find Kony?

While the Kony mission stumbles along, the reasons for it lack of success became quite evident as one reads deep into the article. The problems are many.

First, the U.S. has been rotating personnel in and out of the mission, which is based in Entebbe, a town south of the capital of Kampala, and the site of a military airport that also hosts UN planes. This has made it nearly impossible for continuity of the mission.

Second, the U.S. made some noise about adding to the mission three of the highly mobile Osprey aircraft, which can take off and land vertically, along with crew and added personnel. It only lasted three weeks before they were all pulled and reassigned to missions with higher priorities.

This has forced the mission to rely on private contractors to ferry food and supplies around to the various remote base camps. But officials now say that these contractors work at their own pace, meaning that they fit in the work when they can. Hardly a high priority mission.

Third, the U.S. advisers complained about how the Ugandans use, or abuse, U.S. equipment. In one instance, the Ugandans used a U.S. helicopter for a resupply mission, but only put five cabbages on it. Five cabbages? Are you serious?

That's supposedly a resupply mission for soldiers who are supposed to trekking around the jungles looking for Kony?

If anything, it shows that the Ugandans are not serious about finding Kony, as I've long argued, and are more interested in getting and using U.S. arms and equipment for their own purposes.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

What if Putin succeeds in Syria?

A provocative article appeared in the online publication, Counter Punch that predicts that Vladimir Putin's forces and tactics will prevail in Syria.

Given the information that's presented in the article, the prospect of victory raises a lot of questions about President Obama's hands-off, anti-war policy in the Middle East. If Putin does succeed, it will be a huge embarrassment to Obama, who just last week predicted abject failure to Putin's aggressive tactics. 

Not only has Putin bombed Syrian rebel targets, he's committed Russian ground forces in Syria, euphemistically called "volunteers," a move that Obama has refused to make.

It's an interesting piece, though a bit optimistic. 

While I'm not a war monger, I very much disagree with Obama's hands off policy regarding Syria. 

With active assistance from the U.S., the moderates who years ago spearheaded the widespread uprising against the humanitarian nightmare that was and is Assad's regime, could have accomplished it. The opportunity was there.

Instead, inaction let Assad achieve a stalemate that prolonged the war and opened the door to extremists in Syria such as the Al Nusra Front and gave rise to ISIS. Inaction precipitated the current quagmire. 

The situation is so bad now and continuing to deteriorate that a return of Assad is preferable to the growth of the cut-throat Muslim lunatics of ISIS and the Nusra Front. 

A quick online search of either will reveal the grotesque cruelty these maniacs employ to kill thousands of innocent people and even fellow Muslims to impose their harsh control.

The current refugee crisis in Europe, which will soon reach the shores of the U.S., is the direct result of U.S. and European inaction in Syria. Putin seems to know that unless someone steps in and puts an end to the fighting there, it could easily destabilize Russia.  

Now Russia is moving in forcefully and seems to be winning. The article reports 700 surrenders, and expects more on the way. If Russia succeeds in defeating the Syrian rebels and pushing the extremists out of Syria, it will be a major embarrassment to Obama, if not the U.S. military.

If the Muslim extremists are pushed out of Syria and into Iraq, and clearly into the hands of the U.S.-trained and back Iraqi forces, then what? 

The Iraqis have shown no stomach for facing up to ISIS, which has captured massive amounts U.S. arms and equipment from the Iraqis and uses it against them. 

This could put even more pressure on Obama to commit U.S. ground forces once again into Iraq. This eventuality is something that Obama has refused to do, but he may have not other choice if Russia succeeds. 

The situation is bad, but is the result of the inability of the Obama administration to recognize the serious threat posed by Islamic fundamentalists. Russia has had to deal with extremists in the past, and has done so harshly. 

As bad as it is, it seems to be the only effective solution.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Kony mutiny not the first

As followers of my writing and this blog know, I advocate serious, coordinated, international action against the renegade militia leader Joseph Kony.

The lack of that kind of action,  however, is the source of endless articles, speculation, and discussion. Good writing about the fiasco to find Kony continues to gurgle up from time to time.

Of late is an article in The New Yorker magazine by a young writer named Ledio Cakaj, He's a blogger for the Enough organization. This is his first piece for the magazine. I recommend it.

The article details interviews with a handful of Kony's former soldiers (there are thousands) about a mutiny and attempted assassination of Kony from within his disaffected ranks. The article suggests that the 2013 attempt on Kony may was the first of its kind against the maniacal leader.

It wasn't.

I spent a significant amount of time in 2005 and 2006 tracking Kony's life and actions, which resulted in the award-winning 2009 book First Kill Your Family: Child Soldiers of Uganda and the Lord's Resistance Army.

It's the first serious work on Kony to be published in the United States. It remains the gold standard of source material for anyone who wants to know about Kony, what makes him tick, and why he has not been captured.

For nearly 20 years, Kony's number two man was Vincent Otti. He  was a former shopkeeper who bridged the chasm between Kony's self-delusions and the real world. Otti regularly talked live via satellite phone on Ugandan radio shows. He was quite entertaining.

Otti brokered the extended peace talks with Kony that began in June 2006 in the remote jungles of South Sudan. As followers know, the peace talks finally broke down after two years during which Kony skillfully turned the talks into a three-ring circus.

After Kony's team would negotiate terms of an agreement, a large contingent of negotiators would, at great trouble and expense, decamp to a jungle rendezvous for the signing. Declarations that "peace was at hand" echoed across the skies and the worldwide web. Activists swooned.

But Kony didn't show. Three times.

The last of Kony's no-shows was followed by the abortive airstrike and (delayed) ground attack by the Ugandan army on Kony's camp in the the Congo's Garamba National Park. Kony had been living there since late 2005, having fled northern Uganda.

But Kony was gone. He'd been tipped off. The same thing happened in 2013. A privately funded attack on his camp, also by an elite unit of the Ugandan army, found an empty Kony camp in the corner of South Sudan where multiple reports said he was living. (Is there a connection here???)

Kony lived relatively well during the peace talks, thanks the largess of the international community. He was sent convoys of trucks loaded with food and supplies. The thinking was that this would keep Kony at the bargaining table. Not!

From the beginning of Kony's early days in Garamba, once a prime wildlife reserve, he helped himself to the abundant wildlife there, routinely slaughtering elephants and the rare and nearly extinct white rhinos that once lived there.

Cakaj's article discusses a number of Kony's men whom he sent from his enclave in the recesses of northern South Sudan to Garamba to slaughter remaining elephants. The tusks were carried back to be sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars and sustain Kony and his men.

Back to Otti. After spearheading the peace talks, Otti realized Kony was playing the activist community for fools and would never sign an agreement to surrender.

Otti was 61 at the time. He was tired and sick of war. He wanted to go home. At least a third of Kony's men, all of whom were under Otti's command, felt the same way. They were sick of Kony and of living on the run, not to mention his endless slaughter of innocent men, women, children, and wildlife.

They were going to leave, a move that would cripple Kony's army.

Kony got wind of the mutiny. Fearing an assassination attempt, he summoned Otti. On October 2, 2007, Kony's personal guards grabbed Otti, forced him to his knees, and as Otti plead for his life,  executed him. His body was never found.

Otti's death was followed by many desertions. Some of these soldiers gave themselves up to the Ugandan army. They provided details of the Otti's death and the failed mutiny. They said that Kony justified the execution of his trusted long-time commander by saying that Otti had tried to kill him.

Kony has survived attempts on his life and massive desertions from his ranks. He will continue to do so until the international community decides they've had enough of this maniac. Kony will survive until those who can take meaningful action.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Border deaths on the rise again

Among the good humanitarian work done by the Tucson Samaritans is the monthly tally they keep of the total number of recovered human remains found in the desert south of Tucson, Arizona.

Alarmingly, after a slow but steady decline in recent years, the numbers are on the rise again. The numbers reveal a nine percent increase over the previous year. (121 last year, up to 133 this year.)

For the uninitiated, the recovered human remains are the skeletal remains found on in the broad swath of rugged high country desert across much of southern Arizona, just north of the Mexican border.

The remains are an excellent indication of undocumented border crossing activity. The remains, normally skeletons picked clean by the desert scavengers and harsh, dry weather, are of those unfortunate souls who lost their lives for various reasons trying to enter the U.S.

Fewer finds point to a decrease in clandestine crossings. Increased finds point to more crossings.

The increase in these grisly finds shows that U.S. Border Patrol enforcement measures seem to have little effect on the ebb and flow of migrant crossings.

The Border Patrol, of course, would argue to the contrary.

Most experts, and I agree, say the amount of migrant crossing is based on economic need and is largely unaffected by levels of enforcement. This is because of the remoteness of much of the border, which makes it virtually impossible to patrol or control.

The numbers gathered are not the random ramblings of humanitarians. These are statistics collected by and provide to the public by the Pima County Forensic Science Center. The stats represent remains found each month in Pima and Santa Cruz Counties, but also include some remains found in Pinal, Gila, and Graham counties, for various reasons. 

The increase in recovered remains comes despite a large concentration of border enforcement in southern Arizona in recent years by the Border Patrol. The concentration of man power in Arizona followed the hardening of the border in southern California and the El Paso, Texas, region, which forced migrant crossing into southern Arizona. 

With the hardening of the border in Arizona, now in-migration has moved to the more remote regions along the sprawling Texas border south of El Paso. Few accurate numbers on the found human remains are available there.

This means that the statistics provided by the Tucson Samaritans is one of the few accurate indications of border crossing activity.

The area covered by the Arizona statistics is only eight percent of the border. With 121 recovered remains in this small area, more than a thousand possible deaths occurred along the entire border. 

However, official statistics show that the 121 recovered remains are about forty percent of total. That would put the total annual deaths along the border at about 300. 

The remoteness and rugged terrain of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, which are the primary cause of the deaths (not gun violence), points to the absurdity of building the American equivalent of the Berlin Wall along the 2000-mile border.

Yet, that's what likely Republican presidential candidates like Donald Trump proposes. It staggers the mind. 

Why not, as I suggest in The Dangerous Divide, provide temporary work visas to people who want them? Those who want them know they can get the jobs they want, which most American don't won't do. 

And, it would allow the U.S. to keep track of who's in the country, where they are, and what they're doing. It would also allow the visa holders to return to Mexico without fear they could never come back.

But of course, that's too simple and easy. 

Friday, October 2, 2015

The fall of Kunduz is no surprise

The Taliban's taking of the northern Afghan city of Kunduz is not surprising. As I wrote in Above the Din of War, the Taliban has controlled 75 percent of the country since 2009.

While no one wants to report it, the government has had only a marginal control of the major urban areas.

In my extensive interviews with Afghans, their frustration with US and NATO forces was loud and clear.

Why, they asked, can't the combined forces of the world's most powerful countries defeat the untrained, ill equipped, ragtag Taliban? They concluded that these foreign forces didn't want to, and preferred to keep the country in a constant state of war.

But the answer was even more simple. The US took it's eye off the ball back in 2003 and invaded Iraq, stayed for a decade, and accomplished nothing but completely destabilizing the Middle East.

Back in Afghanistan, the Taliban regrouped and came back. They were also able to take advantage of most Afghans' disgust with a grossly corrupt government lorded over by Hamid Karzai, who with his friends and family, drained the country dry.

The Taliban is now flexing their muscles.

This will be the theme during the coming years until they finally overwhelm an Afghan government that few like or respect. Afghanistan will eventually be fragmented much like it was prior to the US invasion.

I argued in my book that the focus on Afghanistan has been on the military, not development of the civilian side.

Everyone looks at the military to win, stabilize, or whatever.

Meanwhile, Afghans wonder what happened to the billions (trillions?) of dollars spent there over the past 14 years. Their lives have not improved.

They're victims of endless attacks from both sides, truly caught in the middle. Many argue that if "peace" means getting rid of the US and a return of the Taliban, they'd prefer that to the current situation. I don't blame them. At present, they have little to look forward to but more bloody war.

More western troops isn't going to change that.

If the west focused more on improving the economy and lives of average Afghans, rather than more soldiers and weapons, Afghans would feel very differently.

The bottom line is that you can't win a war without the support of the local populace. The policy makers and the military know this, but aren't doing anything about it.

That's why I find it hard to argue with Afghans who think the west only wants endless war. America fights wars. Sadly, anything else is secondary.