25 June 2010

McChrystal Falls: Another Casualty of a War We're Losing

It is no surprise that President Obama decided to sack General Stanley McChrystal after he and his aides were quoted criticising the president and other senior administration officials in Rolling Stone – of all places. But the debacle has revealed the extent of the deepening divisions between senior US Army officials in charge of the offensive in Afghanistan, and the wider US government. Most of all, their disparaging remarks about Obama, envoy to Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke, vice-president Joe Biden and national security adviser Jim Jones illustrate a perception among senior military officers that the civilian government is increasingly out of touch with what is happening on the ground.

Indeed, shielded beneath the surface of this bureaucratic squabbling over name-calling is the increasingly uncomfortable fact that we are simply not winning this war – and that Obama’s troop surge, originally proposed by McChrystal, has only made the situation worse. Although Obama has been quick to emphasise with his appointment of General David Petraeus that the counterinsurgency strategy developed by McChrystal for Afghanistan will continue unchanged, the truth is that the current re-shuffling serves to distract from the dire facts on the ground, but is unlikely to change them without a fundamental re-think of our Afghan policy.

Despite now nearly 100,000 US troops in Afghanistan, there are no signs of an allied victory. A Pentagon report submitted to US Congress earlier in April confirmed that overall violence in Afghanistan has increased by 90 per cent over the preceding year, prompted by increasing allied offensives in Taliban-controlled areas as well as Taliban successes in re-capturing regions previously cleared by US forces. The bulk of this dramatic increase was from a 240 per cent spike in roadside bomb attacks. Then just a few days ago, the UN Security Council published its own damning assessment that in the first four months of 2010 alone, there has been a doubling of violence, including suicide attacks, roadside bombings and political assassinations – with targeted killings of Afghan officials increasing by 45 per cent, largely in the south where the insurgency is concentrated.

Although both the Pentagon and UN reports go out of their way to suggest that the long-term outlook for stability is positive, internal US Army assessments are far more pessimistic. In the summer 2009 edition of Military Review, a refereed journal published by the US Army Combined Arms Center, Afghanistan veteran and senior NATO official Lt. Col. Thomas Brouns observes of the war that “victory remains elusive.” Despite “tactical and local successes”, he warns, “the possibility of strategic defeat looms ever larger... Since the earliest days of Operation Enduring Freedom, violent incidents have increased roughly in parallel to the overall troop strength.” Indeed, Brouns – who has deployed on four tours to Kabul – points out that “facts on the ground are not working in our favour... the incidence of events and accompanying casualties (to include civilians) have climbed even faster than troop strength”, including insurgents’ resort to suicide bombings and political killings. The idea that the problem can be solved by “increases in troop strength” is therefore “a dubious one.” This is compounded by the “failure of many investments and projects to reach remote rural areas where poverty predominates”, providing “fertile ground for insurgent recruitment.” Afghans, he argues, “need to see delivery on promises of improved security and tangible improvements in their personal situation – and soon, if we hope to provide lasting stability.”

Yet under the terms of Obama’s current Afghan strategy, now to be pursued by Petraeus, this is impossible. One of the major problems is our supposed regional ally – Pakistan – as two reports out this month corroborate. The first, by Harvard University fellow Dr. Matt Walden, published by the London School of Economics Crisis States Research Centre, found based on interviews with Taliban field commanders and Western defence officials that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) continues to be “the provider of sanctuary and substantial financial, military and logistical support to the insurgency” as a part of its ‘official policy’ of exerting “strong strategic and operational influence on the Afghan Taliban.” Following hot on its heels came a RAND Corp. report which documented ongoing official Pakistani ISI support for militant Islamist terrorist networks such as the al-Qaeda affiliated Lashkar-e-Toiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed. “Militant groups persist in the nation because Pakistani leaders continue to provide support to some groups”, the study noted, urging that “a key objective of US policy must be to get Pakistan to end its support to militant groups.”

The irony is that this is hardly news to the US government. Confidential NATO reports and US intelligence assessments circulated to White House officials have documented consistent cases of ISI sponsorship of Taliban insurgents since 2004. Indeed, in 2008 US intelligence intercepted a communication in which ISI chief Gen. Ashfaq Kiani described senior Taliban leader, Maulavi Jalaluddin Haqqani, as a “strategic asset” – although Haqqani’s insurgent network has been a key target for US Predator drone strikes. Despite this, last year Obama persuaded Congress to sign-up for an unconditional $6 billion in military and economic assistance to Pakistan for five years.

The Afghan-Pakistan strategy is not working, and Gen. Petraeus will do no better than his loud-mouthed predecessor. The imperative now should be to withdraw and cease all military aid to Pakistan, making all aid conditional on cessation of support for militant and terrorist groups; to swiftly draw-down and pull-out military forces from Afghanistan; and to re-direct the remaining military budgets into massively increasing humanitarian and developmental aid to Afghans, including re-doubling reconstruction investments.

2 June 2010

New York Review of Books: The Radicalization of Race Politics in Israel

The latest issue of NYRB has an eye-opening and lengthy piece by Peter Beinart on what he calls "The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment", which essentially explores the deepening divide between extremists and liberals on the spectrum of Zionist and/or Jewish thought and culture, both in Israel and in the United States.

Here are some choice excerpts focusing primarily on the disturbing trend of radicalization of race politics in Israel, where ideas like the violent ethnic cleansing of all Palestinians in order to permanently 'separate' them off from a state defined exclusively along ethnic lines as 'Jewish', have over decades become increasingly entrenched into the mainstream political discourse, increasingly so with the rise of Netanyahu:


Since the 1990s, journalists and scholars have been describing a bifurcation in Israeli society. In the words of Hebrew University political scientist Yaron Ezrahi, “After decades of what came to be called a national consensus, the Zionist narrative of liberation [has] dissolved into openly contesting versions.” One version, “founded on a long memory of persecution, genocide, and a bitter struggle for survival, is pessimistic, distrustful of non-Jews, and believing only in Jewish power and solidarity.” Another, “nourished by secularized versions of messianism as well as the Enlightenment idea of progress,” articulates “a deep sense of the limits of military force, and a commitment to liberal-democratic values.” Every country manifests some kind of ideological divide. But in contemporary Israel, the gulf is among the widest on earth.

As Ezrahi and others have noted, this latter, liberal-democratic Zionism has grown alongside a new individualism, particularly among secular Israelis, a greater demand for free expression, and a greater skepticism of coercive authority. You can see this spirit in “new historians” like Tom Segev who have fearlessly excavated the darker corners of the Zionist past and in jurists like former Supreme Court President Aharon Barak who have overturned Knesset laws that violate the human rights guarantees in Israel’s “Basic Laws.” You can also see it in former Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s apparent willingness to relinquish much of the West Bank in 2000 and early 2001.

But in Israel today, this humane, universalistic Zionism does not wield power. To the contrary, it is gasping for air. To understand how deeply antithetical its values are to those of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, it’s worth considering the case of Effi Eitam. Eitam, a charismatic ex–cabinet minister and war hero, has proposed ethnically cleansing Palestinians from the West Bank. “We’ll have to expel the overwhelming majority of West Bank Arabs from here and remove Israeli Arabs from [the] political system,” he declared in 2006. In 2008, Eitam merged his small Ahi Party into Netanyahu’s Likud. And for the 2009–2010 academic year, he is Netanyahu’s special emissary for overseas “campus engagement.” In that capacity, he visited a dozen American high schools and colleges last fall on the Israeli government’s behalf. The group that organized his tour was called “Caravan for Democracy.”

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman once shared Eitam’s views. In his youth, he briefly joined Meir Kahane’s now banned Kach Party, which also advocated the expulsion of Arabs from Israeli soil. Now Lieberman’s position might be called “pre-expulsion.” He wants to revoke the citizenship of Israeli Arabs who won’t swear a loyalty oath to the Jewish state. He tried to prevent two Arab parties that opposed Israel’s 2008–2009 Gaza war from running candidates for the Knesset. He said Arab Knesset members who met with representatives of Hamas should be executed. He wants to jail Arabs who publicly mourn on Israeli Independence Day, and he hopes to permanently deny citizenship to Arabs from other countries who marry Arab citizens of Israel.

You don’t have to be paranoid to see the connection between Lieberman’s current views and his former ones. The more you strip Israeli Arabs of legal protection, and the more you accuse them of treason, the more thinkable a policy of expulsion becomes. Lieberman’s American defenders often note that in theory he supports a Palestinian state. What they usually fail to mention is that for him, a two-state solution means redrawing Israel’s border so that a large chunk of Israeli Arabs find themselves exiled to another country, without their consent.

Lieberman served as chief of staff during Netanyahu’s first term as prime minister. And when it comes to the West Bank, Netanyahu’s own record is in its way even more extreme than his protégé’s. In his 1993 book, A Place among the Nations, Netanyahu not only rejects the idea of a Palestinian state, he denies that there is such a thing as a Palestinian. In fact, he repeatedly equates the Palestinian bid for statehood with Nazism. An Israel that withdraws from the West Bank, he has declared, would be a “ghetto-state” with “Auschwitz borders.” And the effort “to gouge Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] out of Israel” resembles Hitler’s bid to wrench the German-speaking “Sudeten district” from Czechoslovakia in 1938. It is unfair, Netanyahu insists, to ask Israel to concede more territory since it has already made vast, gut-wrenching concessions. What kind of concessions? It has abandoned its claim to Jordan, which by rights should be part of the Jewish state.

On the left of Netanyahu’s coalition sits Ehud Barak’s emasculated Labor Party, but whatever moderating potential it may have is counterbalanced by what is, in some ways, the most illiberal coalition partner of all, Shas, the ultra-Orthodox party representing Jews of North African and Middle Eastern descent. At one point, Shas—like some of its Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox counterparts—was open to dismantling settlements. In recent years, however, ultra-Orthodox Israelis, anxious to find housing for their large families, have increasingly moved to the West Bank, where thanks to government subsidies it is far cheaper to live. Not coincidentally, their political parties have swung hard against territorial compromise. And they have done so with a virulence that reflects ultra-Orthodox Judaism’s profound hostility to liberal values. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Shas’s immensely powerful spiritual leader, has called Arabs “vipers,” “snakes,” and “ants.” In 2005, after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon proposed dismantling settlements in the Gaza Strip, Yosef urged that “God strike him down.” The official Shas newspaper recently called President Obama “an Islamic extremist.”

Hebrew University Professor Ze’ev Sternhell is an expert on fascism and a winner of the prestigious Israel Prize. Commenting on Lieberman and the leaders of Shas in a recent Op-Ed in Haaretz, he wrote, “The last time politicians holding views similar to theirs were in power in post–World War II Western Europe was in Franco’s Spain.” With their blessing, “a crude and multifaceted campaign is being waged against the foundations of the democratic and liberal order.” Sternhell should know. In September 2008, he was injured when a settler set off a pipe bomb at his house.

Israeli governments come and go, but the Netanyahu coalition is the product of frightening, long-term trends in Israeli society: an ultra-Orthodox population that is increasing dramatically, a settler movement that is growing more radical and more entrenched in the Israeli bureaucracy and army, and a Russian immigrant community that is particularly prone to anti-Arab racism. In 2009, a poll by the Israel Democracy Institute found that 53 percent of Jewish Israelis (and 77 percent of recent immigrants from the former USSR) support encouraging Arabs to leave the country. Attitudes are worst among Israel’s young. When Israeli high schools held mock elections last year, Lieberman won. This March, a poll found that 56 percent of Jewish Israeli high school students—and more than 80 percent of religious Jewish high school students—would deny Israeli Arabs the right to be elected to the Knesset. An education ministry official called the survey “a huge warning signal in light of the strengthening trends of extremist views among the youth.”


Professor Jake Lynch: Why the Flotilla Massacre Shows We Need to Take Action Now

An excellent brief analysis from Jack Lynch, Director of Sydney University's Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies - the IDF's attempts to storm and control the boats were illegal, constituting an act of piracy as defined by the International Maritime Bureau, as well as being in violation of Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention by way of supporting illegal measures of collective punishment as exemplified in the blockage of Gaza, which the attacked boats were attempting to break. Lynch repeats the call for a comprehensive international boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign - the same kind of campaign that was necessary to bring down the racist repression of South African apartheid:

A massive and cynical misdirection is underway. Israel is not the victim here. Those killed were humanitarians intent on delivering aid to Gaza, not gun-toting commandoes who descended from the night sky.

This was an act of piracy, in international waters, on the definition of the International Maritime Bureau: “the act of boarding any vessel with an intent to commit theft or any other crime, and with an intent or capacity to use force in furtherance of that act”.

The goods on board belonged to the relief campaign, and were intended for Palestinians: Israel was trying to take possession of them illegally.

And it was committed in furtherance of a blockade, which amounts to collective punishment on the definition in Article 33 of the fourth Geneva Convention: “No protected person may be punished for an offense he or she has not personally committed. Collective penalties and likewise all measures of intimidation or of terrorism are prohibited”.

Antony Loewenstein writes about the diplomatic fallout from Israel’s latest criminal act, here.

How did Israel come to believe it could get away with this? The same reason it is getting away with it now, in the conclaves of global governance: continuing protection from its patron in Washington and complicit silence, alternating with a mountain of weasel words and evasions, from politicians and media in countries allied with the US. Read my article about an act of censorship by Australia’s ABC – typical of the syndrome – here.

It’s time to take matters into our own hands. Israel is a small country with an open economy, heavily dependent on access to international markets and networked capital. These are things we can withhold. We need to send the message: have your jobs, your prosperity, your access to the outside world, OR have your illegal military occupation and your behaviour as a rogue state. But you can’t have both.


Associate Professor Jake Lynch, BA, Dip Journalism Studies, PhD
Director, Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies
Chair of Organizing Committee, IPRA conference 2010
Executive Member, Sydney Peace Foundation
Room 121 | Mackie Building (K01)
The University of Sydney | NSW | 2006

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