27 April 2011

A case study in sovereignty as organized robbery

About two months ago, there was an attempted bank heist in Jalalabad, startling for both its brazenness and its violence.  I use the term heist loosely, as robbery did not appear to be perpetrators’ primary motive.  The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, which was apparently intended to target ANA and ANP personnel (the ‘puppet regime’s military’) as they collected their pay checks.  Unfortunately, payday marks an excellent time to pursue vulnerable government employees; they are all paid through Kabul Bank, an institution that cannot readily be accused of convenience.  Its generally obscure locations, terrible hours, and interminable queues make more akin to the DMV than a Wells Fargo. 

During the brash attack, gunmen dressed as ANP opened fire inside the bank an on the street and three suicide bombers successfully detonated.  All told, after an hours-long standoff with Afghan and Coalition forces, all the attackers were killed, as were 18 civilians.  Another 70-some were wounded.  The casualties were predominately civilians (the tellers made especially easy targets), but did include some service members and apparently the deputy police chief and local head of criminal investigations.  Much of the incident was caught on video.  It’s pretty graphic, not the least because of how nonchalant the violence is, so view with care. 

But the Jalalabad raid has nothing on the pillaging going on in Kabul.  I remember doubts about Kabul Bank’s stability first appeared on my radar at the tail end of Ramadan last fall.  In preparation for Eid celebrations, it seemed that everyone with a bank account was trying to draw money (only about seven per cent of Afghans have savings).  The powers that be at the Bank, Afghanistan’s largest private bank, began to realize that they might not have enough to cover the demand.  The reasons for this shortfall were a little fuzzy at the time, but resulted in something of a financial panic and a run on Kabul Bank.  Things were tense and withdrawals rationed.    

For a time, it seemed that Kabul Bank, or KabulbanK as its emblem would have it, had regained its footing.  The past few months, however, have seen some really breathtaking disclosures regarding the extent of graft precipitating the institution’s slow implosion.  It’s a terrifically sordid tale, comprising political buy-offs, corruption, collusion with the enemy, laundering of drug money, and palatial residences in Dubai for the shareholders and chief administrators, including President’s Karzai’s brother (not the drug trafficker.  This is another brother). 

Dexter Filkins gave the whole thing an excellent treatment in The New Yorker a few months ago that is very much worth reading in its entirety.  One of the article’s choice gems, however, includes the account of how two self-identified Kabul Bank employees handed Hamid Karzai’s (now former) finance minister and campaign treasurer (don’t even get me started on the conflict of interests inherent is that dual title) a briefcase with two hundred thousand dollars in cash for the President’s re-election.  It turns out that this was just one small illustration of the fraternization between the Bank and the Administration.  American investigators allege that Kabul Bank more or less funded Karzai’s 2010 candidacy to the tune of 7-14 million USD, in addition to shelling out bribes to members of Parliament for key legislative votes.  Overall, an estimated 900 million USD (that’s dollars!  US dollars!) are ‘missing’ from the Bank, having been doled out to influential politicians, businessmen, insurgents, and the Bank’s own executives.  This is a staggering amount in any context, but even more so in a country whose GDP is only about 12 billion USD annually.  In exchange for the providing the slush fund, Kabul Bank enjoyed an almost total lack of external regulation and the exclusive right to process government payrolls.  In a neat little twist, the deputy attorney general who was spear-heading the local crusade against corruption, Fazel Ahmed Faqiryar, was fired and is now himself under investigation for libel.

So what’s going to happen to these hugely corrupt power players, in the face of extensive evidence of their fraud?  Nothing.  These are trusted advisors to and ministers of the government, our partners in the COIN fight.  So the US is guaranteed to grin and bear it as these bureaucratic vampires continue bleed us of our resources and credibility.  The institutionalize nature of the corruption here reminds me of nothing so much as Mexico under the PRI.  I lucidly recall the guest lecture of a professor from UNAM explaining how, if a police officer wanted to send his son to college, he had no choice but to demand bribes of those committing petty traffic violations: it was the only way he would be able to afford the school fees, which were themselves somewhat augmented in order to entice better instructors and pad the administrators’ income.  This was the same story that barged to the forefront of my mind when my colleague was bribing the nurses for extra blood during his wife’s delivery.  Did they need the money to pay school fees or for the next time the ANP stopped them on some trumped up charge, looking for their own piece of the ‘informal’ economy? Who knows.  The corruption here is so endemic that every level of society, no matter how critical the service, becomes rife for a shake-down.  There is no government in Afghanistan – just a series of protection rackets or varying levels of subtlety and efficiency.    

And why am I brining the Kabul Bank debacle up now, months after the public discovery of the lost funds?  Well, it has finally started to hit home for our linguists.  Just like the Afghan security forces, our linguists were paid exclusively from Kabul Bank.  This was a logical decision at one time, Kabul Bank being the largest and most accessible in Afghanistan.  Given the very real concern about the Bank’s stability, Corporate has lately been withholding money over the last month, and linguists have been screaming.  Now the Powers That Be have determined that we’ll use a different, seemingly more durable (we don’t care so much about corruption, and have very little faith that the central bank’s receivership plan will work) vendor.  Of course, part of that stability comes from the small size; the bank de jour only has about three branches in the entire country.  Now everyone has to come up to Kabul to get a new bank card so they can get paid.  How do you think the war fighters on the Pakistan border are responding to that request?  Exactly.  These poor guys are going to have back-pay for months.

If it’s The Town in Jalalabad and Inside Man in Kabul, it’s Shawshank in Kandahar…  I particularly like how the Taliban refer to it as a political prison.  The spin is outstanding.  Now everyone is even more on edge than normal, especially as the breakout occurred immediately in advance of Mujahideen Victory Day, celebrating the fall of the Communist government in 1992 and general overthrow of oppressive external powers.  It’s tomorrow, natch.  Should be good times.

24 April 2011

If you're interested

America Abroad Media is running a fairly spiffy programme this coming Friday, 29 April.  It’s a town hall-style event hosted with Radio Killid Afghanistan and will connect audiences in DC and Kabul to discuss the future of women’s rights in Afghanistan.  It’s a timely topic, especially considering the backlash over the Greg Mortenson debacle and the Karzai administration’s penchant of trading women’s rights for political profit (most spectacularly with the 2009 law that effectively legalized marital rape). 

If you’re in DC and able to attend, the town hall is free (but requires an RSVP).  More information can be found here.

16 April 2011

Changing of the guard

Apparently, a goal has been set for the Libyan morass: regime change.  President Obama coauthored a piece with British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy declaring that the NATO campaign would not cease until Col. Muammar Gaddafi was removed from power.  Of course, the means of how to attain this end remain a bit fuzzy.  Obama has reaffirmed that US ground troops are not on the table, even as he acknowledges that the situation as reached stalemate and NATO reports that it is running out of bombs.  So as Gaddafi’s forces are reportedly employing cluster munitions and GRAD rockets against civilians, the Allies must decide with how much bite to back up their bark.  Will French and/or British troops assist with the ground campaign?  Possibly, I think, but only targeted Special Forces and only if the US resumes lead on the air strikes.  Should be an interesting few days to say the least.

Leaving aside the question of our schizo foreign policy at the moment (if what NATO is concerned with are gross human rights violations, why not intervene in Syria, where President al-Assad's security forces have apparently been illegally detaining and torturing protesters and have killed hundreds?  And then there’s Yemen, home of the live-round happy riot police.  Or we could even become proactively involved in Cote d’Ivoire, and ensure that Ouattara’s forces don’t engage in any reprisal killings.  But I digress…), let’s focus instead on that other morass in which we’re attempting to abdicate responsibility, complete with its own crazy leaders and their wacky antics.

Afghanistan’s sanguine President Karzai declared a few weeks ago that Afghan security forces will shortly be taking full responsibility for the security of seven key areas, predominately independent of Coalition assistance.  President Karzai framed the conferral of responsibility as necessary element of taking Afghan security into Afghan hands.  ISAF forces are to be relegated to supply and training positions, leaving all kinetic action to the ANA and ANP.  The designated sites included the relatively quiet provinces of Kabul, Panjshir, and Bamiyan, as well as the cities of Herat in the west, Mazar-e-Sharif to the north, and the eastern town of Mehterlam.  In addition to these six ‘peaceful’ areas, Karzai also slated the capital of Helmand, Lashkar Gah, to be handed over.  One face-saving challenged mixed in with the fluff, one assumed.  Of course, that was before the hateful Koran-burning and Mazar-e-Sharif’s subsequent explosion of mob violence, resulting in the deaths of several UN staffers.  In quick succession followed several deadly riots in Kandahar and our own storming of the gate at Phoenix.  Bon chance, ANA!  For the record, NATO agreed the decision is a positive and critical first step toward withdrawal. 

Informally, however, troops (and, for the record, me) view the handoff as little more than lip service, especially in the case of Helmand.  First and foremost, there is a very real concern regarding preparedness, especially among the mentor teams.  Case in point: in the aftermath of the attack on Phoenix, one of the aspiring suicide bombers was shot before he was able to detonate.  Rather than wait for EOD team, as they’d been trained, the responding ANA simply cut his vest from his body and stripped him bare in the street.  The American QRF was less than pleased at the breach in protocol, especially as mishandling of the vest might have resulted in casualties.  Meanwhile, the shooters who had been laying down cover fire for the bombers simply ditched their weapons (they have a commendable working knowledge of the Coalition rules of engagement) and calmly fled the scene on bicycles, blending into Kabul traffic. 

Beyond competency, however, is the question of complicity.  A friend of mine went on a recovery mission, acting on intel regarding tens of thousands of dollars worth of stolen US military equipment stashed in Kabul.  Because of the sensitivity of the mission, they opted not to invite their ANP counterparts; it transpired that the pilfered equipment was being housed directly across the street from one of the PD’s sub-stations.  The PD Chief has been avoiding the American mentor teams since the raid.  As he related the story, my friend sighed that the Chief was pissed, ‘cause his hoard had been reclaimed.  And now the two units were meant to go on these ‘mentoring’ missions within the month.  Were they simply supposed to ignore the PD’s role as, at a minimum, accessory to the theft by tacit agreement?  The Americans accepted that this might be the case, if only the Chief would ever again look them in the face again and have his guys bother to bring their ammo.  NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen seemed to conquer.  Even as he welcomed increased Afghan engagement, he offered the tepid endorsement that every step of Afghanistan’s journey would ‘be determined by conditions on the ground.’

For their part, my co-workers express cautious optimism at the ANA’s new authority, though tempered by the ever-present Afghan pragmatism.  With an acute awareness that the Coalition is ever closer to throwing up its hands and leaving, they view having even mildly operations security forces to be of critical importance.   And there can be little doubt that the ANA/ANP have exponentially improved in professionalism and efficacy.  Indeed, the UN reported that the proportion of civilians killed by Afghan and NATO forces fell dramatically, accounting for 16 per cent of total war-related civilians casualties (still too many, of course).

Of course, context is everything, and better does not translate to good.  The police and army remain yokes by myriad shortcomings, including widespread illiteracy, drug abuse, corruption, a dearth of leaders and equipment, and a damagingly high rate of attrition.  Moreover, two recent (and tragically successful) SIEDs have lead NATO officials to express trepidation that, as local security forces grow, they are becoming increasingly vulnerable to infiltration and manipulation.  Apprehension regarding the abilities of the ANA and ANP to credibly protect the civilian population is not without good cause.  More than 2,700 civilians were killed last year, an increase of 15 per cent over 2009. Further, 2010 saw the deaths of more than 800 Afghan army soldiers and 1,200 Afghan police, in addition to the 711 coalition troops who were killed. 

That said, at least one of my co-workers, the European-educated son of an Afghani general, is very much looking forward to the transition.  He recalled with longing the days of Massoud and the Northern Alliance, noting that they were real fighters.  Before 9/11, he ruminated, hundreds of ‘Talibs’ were killed by the day.  Now, with the US?  He shook his head.  None of them die.

04 April 2011

Tragedies versus Statistics

There’s an elephant in the room around bases these days, and its name is war crime.  Soldiers and Afghans alike seem reluctant to discuss the situation, lest doing so expose their own confused feelings which (I intuit) include some mix of embarrassment, rage, and commiseration.  Obviously, some of these belong more to one subset of base society than the other.  For their part, most of my Afghan co-workers (Kabulis with long experience with the US military; sentiments are likely very different elsewhere in the country) dismiss the so-called kill unit as a rogue incident with both deep pain and seemingly unquenchable hope.  Their faith in the US armed forces, however shaken through various revelations of civilian killings, has not yet failed, if only to preserve their own sanity.

The soldiers, meanwhile, present a slightly more complex psychology.  For the most part, they are curtly dismissive of the topic.  The most common response is one of brusque anger that some assholes in the south have made all of them look bad while increasing the danger and difficulty of their jobs.  Interestingly, however, they also express a limited and tense sort of camaraderie.  They are, of course, protective of Army, generally distrustful of media ‘spins’ which tarnish the service (regardless of validity), and sympathetic to the frustrations that supposedly fueled the murders.  Even in the relatively tranquility of Kabul, most of the troops I know are afflicted to various degrees by low morale, impatience with the rules of engagement, disdain for the command structure, and aggravation with a faceless, seemingly untouchable enemy. 

After the recent suicide attack on Camp Phoenix, one member of the QRF groused that he wasn’t good at this sort of thing; all he wanted to do was pursue the ancillary shooters who escaped and kill anyone who got in his way.  ‘It’s what I was trained to do’ - he shrugged – ‘destroy things.’  Another expressed regret that he couldn’t collect a trophy from among the remains of the bombers.    ‘But not like those sick fucks down south’ - he elaborated – ‘I just wanted to take a photo of the guy’s eyeball on the ground and post it on facebook with the caption “seeing eye to eye with the Taliban.”  But I would get in serious trouble.’   It is these qualities, taken to the extreme and likely heightened by rampant drug use and the absence of competent supervision, which led to a moral vacuum and enabled the sickening spate of xenophobic ‘haji-hunting’ two years ago. 

Perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself.  For those not aquainted with Rolling Stone, Der Spiegel or really any other major news outlet, a dozen American soldiers are on trial for their role in the pre-mediated murder of at least four Afghan civilians in 2009.  The tale is a sordid one, involving calculated brutality, mutilation of corpses, slopping staging to fabricate justification, extensive drug use, and the willful ignorance of the command structure.   

Of course, that the report was met with such shock on the home front is almost comical.  The Kandahar spree was appalling in its duration, certainly, and the emboldening jubilation that followed each murder.   What it was not, however, was isolated.  Nor was it the worst war crime committed by US troops in recent history in terms of scale or intensity.  There was Haditha massacre in 2005, during which 24 Iraqis, including children, were slaughtered by United States Marines in Al Anbar Province.  The carnage was generally billed as a revenge killing, though most of those murdered were not involved in the IED attack on the Marines that killed Lance Corporal Miguel Terrazas.  There was also the platoon from the 101st Airborne Division, four members of whom gang raped a 14-year-old girl, then killed her, her parents and her 6-year-old sister during its 2005-06 deployment to South Baghdad. The back story of the 101st was similar to that of the Kandahar unit, in that the platoon experienced horrific losses, near daily combat, a breakdown in leadership, and substance abuse.

But why should the fun stop with the wars of my generation?  Going back farther, Vietnam boasted the My Lai Massacre – between three and five hundred unarmed South Vietnamese villagers were raped, tortured, and murdered by members of the US Army in 1968.  Some of their corpses were subsequently mutilated.  At least the Army has a sense of tradition in its war crimes… 

I in no way mean to imply that US service members are unique in their contravention of humanitarian law and human decency.  On the flip side in Vietnam, the Viet Cong deliberately butchered an entire town of approximately twenty-eight hundred South Vietnamese during the Tet Offensive, shooting some, beating others, and burying the rest alive.  More recently, the ICTY convicted several Bosnians from varying ethnicities of panoply of war crimes, including forcing a POW to bite off another’s testicle and having a subordinate torture a woman by orally, vaginally, and anally raping her during an interrogation.  Meanwhile, two years ago, fighters from Uganda's LRA announced their resurgence in grand style; they hacked or bludgeoned over 300 Congolese to death, marking one of the single worst atrocities of their two decades-long insurgency.

Jonathan Swift declared war that ‘made game the world so loves to play,’ and it comes replete with a cavalcade of misery diverse enough to suit any sadistic preference: long sleeve/short sleeve in Sierra Leone; systemic rape and mutilation in DRC; extra-judicial killings and disappearances in Latin American dirty wars; the numbingly efficient brutality of the Holocaust; hell, we could even wander as far back through history as the rampages of Genghis Khan and gendercide of Melos during Peloponnesian War.  The deaths and the suffering being to lose context after a while; the abstraction of what pure evil we people are able to inflict on someone we can label an enemy.

That the Kandahar case does not reach these heights of savagery does not, of course, excuse it in any way.  Willful killing of civilians is explicitly illegal under US domestic (US Code 2441) and international law, constituting a grave violation of Fourth Geneva Convention.  The relevant passage declares that:
(1) Persons taking no active part in the hostilities, including members of armed forces who have laid down their arms and those placed hors de combat by sickness, wounds, detention, or any other cause, shall in all circumstances be treated humanely, without any adverse distinction founded on race, colour, religion or faith, sex, birth or wealth, or any other similar criteria.
To this end the following acts are and shall remain prohibited at any time and in any place whatsoever with respect to the above-mentioned persons:
(a) violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture.

Unfortunately, the beautiful fiction of Geneva Conventions has little bearing on life here.  The slow, grinding realities of a COIN campaign, less traditional combat than a more amorphous mission, mean that even with no distinct enemy, ones friends can still loose friends and limbs.  It seems to me inevitable that mounting tensions would eventually unleash the darkest hatreds of the human soul.  Put slightly less melodramatically, the Kandahar kill unit was frankly an eventual consequence of giving predominately un-educated young men with too much testosterone, raging cases of PTSD, and not enough supervision guns and sending them out to kill 'terrorists'.  Lacking another convincing narrative of whom to blame for the hell they’re living in, they are free to create their own enemies, looking first to the ‘lazy’ Afghans who ‘refuse to stand up for themselves’.  The sense of otherness codifies eventually into hatred until the sense of mission is not only obscured, but abandoned altogether.  It of course does not help that the mission is so nebulous in the first place. 

We live in a video game vacuum, in which the decisions made today have no consequences either next month or next year, and certainly never at home.  Among the perpetrators in Kandahar, there did not appear to be any understanding of how killing a haji in the hinterlands of Afghanistan might mean their comrades at arms would face a greater threat two years hence, even less that it might cause them to spend the rest of their life behind bars in the States.

I was actually rather heartened that there are prosecutions occurring at all, though of course the command should bear much more substantive responsibility for the actions of the unit.  Complicity in a war crime is still a war crime.  It was the eminently quotable General Patton who observed that wars are won by men.  ‘It is the spirit of the men who follow and of the man who leads that gains the victory’.  Unfortunately, the same is true in, well, not so much defeat at deliberate sabotage of the mission.

Two things did strike me with this story, beyond the senseless cruelty of the spree.  First, I was and remain astounded that it took some callously gruesome photos in Rolling Stone to make the broader public pay attention.  These crimes were committed two years ago.  Why did it take so long for this to get picked up?  Moreover, as heinous as these crimes were, some people are just content to shake their head, chalking the whole matter up to boys being boys.  I very nearly had a heated argument with a coworker who was incensed by the severity of Specialist Morlock’s sentence.  Twenty-four years for the premeditated murder of four people?  He should have been eligible for life without parole or even the death penalty. 

Second, I can’t help but feel that the military has created a culture among its troops that encourages the exploitation of the complex realities of counter-insurgency by lauding sociopathic and reckless behavior.  Without a context of reality and or expectation of repercussion, the mindset here in one in which violence is casual and even slightest pretense of provocation offers the illusion of reasonability.  The base atmosphere – even at Phoenix, safe, sedate Phoenix – is less Patton, more Napoleon: A soldier will fight long and hard for a bit of colored ribbon.  And the lengths they will do to get it now include fabricating an ambush for a CIB.  Iraq bred cowboys and Afghanistan gives them boredom and ghosts.  Far from gaining a deeper appreciation for life through being forced to take it, soldiers here appear to codified violence as an acceptable response to even the slightest threat to one’s person.  Proportionate use of force is not the by-word. 
Lord Kitchener (I’ve quoted French and American military minds today; it did not seem right to leave the UK out) declared that he didn’t want to hear about atrocities in war, as ‘all war is an atrocity.’  The events in Kandahar, like Haditha and Al Anbar before them, were war crimes, without question.  But compare those deaths with a smart bomb mistakenly dropped on a wedding party, or a victim of an IED in a market, call them collateral damage, soft targets, or willful killing victims.  What is the substantive difference?  When do the titles for death cease to matter?  Afghans deserve more than an apology and a death benefit; they deserved our sustained attention and commitment to facilitating peace and offering support.  They deserve a reason to believe in the US as a long-term partner, something to validate the shards of faith that remain.  But by all means, let’s spin up that kinetic military action elsewhere on the globe, instead.  Arm some dubious rebels in Libya and take a good hard look at Yemen.  The first tour troops here need another theatre in which to harden their frustration into wanton cruelty.