|Number 508||May 21, 2012|
This Week: Abandoning Afghanistan
No room for an editor's note this week. See you in #508.
An April 19th New York Times story reported on the recently-published photos showing U.S. soldiers "posing with the severed hands and legs of Taliban attackers" in Afghanistan. In it they quoted an Army spokesman saying that:
"these photos are probably a manifestation of the soldiers' relief that this insurgent no longer posed a threat to them or their fellow soldiers. That cannot excuse what they did. We are the United States Army, and the world rightly has very high expectations that our soldiers will do what's right."
That idea—that "the world" expects U.S. occupation forces to "do what's right"—is a very basic idea that must be believed by reporters if they are to report from Afghanistan in the "proper" way. The two features in this week's Notes will illustrate.
There are a number of ways to spot propaganda when it appears in the media. Sometimes propaganda techniques are so obvious that they're easy to miss, as in the following example from the April 23rd New York Times. The headline read, "Afghan Pact Vows U.S. Aid For a Decade," and it was a very lengthy article by corporate media standards, coming in at over 1,300 words. And on the front page, too.
What does this lengthy article tell us? First off, the Times tells us that the agreement "represents an important moment when the United States begins the transition from being the predominant foreign force in Afghanistan to serving a more traditional role of supportive ally."
Not only that, but "By broadly redefining the relationship between Afghanistan and the United States, the deal builds on hard-won new understandings the two countries reached in recent weeks on the thorny issues of detainees and Special Operations raids. It covers social and economic development, institution building, regional cooperation and security."
The agreement, reports the Times, "puts down in writing for the first time the nature of the relationship the United States will have with Afghanistan once the bulk of American troops go home," and "It is meant to reassure the Afghan people that the United States will not abandon them. . ." (For more on the idea of "abandoning" Afghanistan, see "Abandoning Afghanistan" elsewhere in this issue of the Notes.)
"For the partnership to work," the Times says, "the Afghan government must follow through with political reforms, particularly in fighting corruption, said Brian Katulis, a national security expert at the Center for American Progress." They quote Mr Katulis as saying, "U.S. taxpayers have seen tens of millions of their dollars wasted by a corrupt and ineffective Afghan government over the past decade. Any transition plan needs to demand more responsibility from our Afghan partners."
As usual, there is no shortage of anonymous "U.S. officials" to comment on the agreement, such as the one who assures us that "This is the proof in the pudding that we intend to be there" after 2014.
To summarize, then, here's what the article tells us: The U.S. will "be there" after "the bulk of American troops go home." The U.S. will miraculously transform itself from an occupying army (or, in the polite language of the Times, from "the predominant foreign force in Afghanistan") to a "supportive ally." There has been agreement on "social and economic development, institution building, regional cooperation and security." And, finally, our "Afghan partners" have agreed to stop "wasting" U.S. tax dollars, and in general be more "responsible."
Why do I classify this article as propaganda? And why do I say that this should be obvious? It all starts with the second paragraph, where we are told that the subject of the article—that is, the "Afghan Pact" of the headline—is an agreement "whose text was not released." So, not only have the reporters not seen the agreement, but no official source would even go on the record to comment on it, as the Times makes clear later on in the article, when they tell us that "Officials declined Sunday to release the text of the draft strategic partnership deal or comment on it in detail." And then they underlined it, quoting "the American Embassy spokesman in Kabul," who told reporters that "Until the agreement is finalized, we're not in a position to discuss the elements it contains."
Now, how could the reporters know enough to write a 1,300-word, front-page article when they haven't seen the document nor heard any comments on it? Why do they think they can report that "the strategic partnership agreement is more symbolic than substantive," and that it's a deal that is "sweeping by design, with few details to bog down negotiators." They further report that it does not "lay out specifically what the American military and security presence will be after 2014 or what role it will play"? How do they know any of this?
There are only two options here, as far as one can tell. Either the Times actually has seen the agreement, in which case they know (as the above comments indicate) that it doesn't say anything. Or else they have not seen the agreement, and nobody who has seen it is saying anything, in which case they are reporting—as fact—the speculations of some unknown somebodies whose credibility is impossible to gauge, but whose job is almost certainly to manipulate the media.
Whatever the agreement actually says, one statement in this Times article is true: Whatever the U.S. does in Afghanistan, "the financing must be authorized and appropriated by Congress from year to year." (Barring whatever covert money is spent.) So we can take this as a sort of mini-Voters' Guide: Every single seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, and one-third of those in the U.S. Senate, are up for election this year. So voters may wish to inquire of the candidates whether they intend to vote for the funds needed to allow the U.S. strategic planners to "be there" past 2014, and then vote accordingly.
On April 22nd it was announced that officials from the United States and Afghanistan had "reached an agreement Sunday affirming the United States' commitment to Afghanistan for a decade after its formal troop withdrawal in 2014." The agreement was signed by the Presidents of the U.S. and Afghanistan on May 2nd.
As the agreement was being negotiated (on April 19th), the Washington Post reported that "President Hamid Karzai, whose corruption-plagued government faces a resilient insurgency, suggested Tuesday that any long-term security pact between the United States and Afghanistan should include a commitment by Washington to spend $2 billion annually on the Afghan forces. [Secretary of State Hilary] Clinton and [Defense Secretary Leon] Panetta ruled out putting such a pledge in writing but sought to allay the Afghan president's concerns that the United States will abandon his country as its combat troops depart."
Here's the Post again, in an April 24th editorial: "President Obama and his ambassador in Kabul, Ryan C. Crocker, deserve credit for continuing to pursue the agreement in spite of the recent reverses and election-year pressures to abandon Afghanistan."
On April 27th the Dallas Morning News chimed in: "From the broad outlines described by officials, the accord should assuage the biggest fear Afghans have that the United States is preparing to abandon them."
United Press International headlined a May 7th story "Spokesman: NATO Won't Abandon Afghanistan," and led off with these words: "NATO will not abandon Afghanistan once Afghan forces assume security responsibility from coalition forces at the end of 2014, a NATO spokesman said Monday. . . . Brig. Gen. Carsten Jacobson, [International Security Assistance Force = NATO] spokesman, said 'This past week, we witnessed the signing of the Strategic Partnership Agreement between the United States and Afghanistan. This is a message to the Taliban and others that Afghanistan's allies will not abandon this country after 2014."
I've remarked in these pages before that the withdrawal of an occupation force would not, by most people, be regarded as "abandonment." And I think the point is backed up when we look at some polls of people in Afghanistan that have asked them about this very subject.
Afghan Public Opinion
Back on February 29th USA Today reported that "Contractors poll 13,000 Afghans from across the country every three months, and military officials analyze the results." I reported this when I saw it, but I haven't been able to find any further information about these alleged polls. Maybe they reveal a population that supports a continued U.S. presence in their country. However, the polls that we do know about don't make that seem too likely. In fact, they seem to indicate that the withdrawal of U.S./NATO troops would not be seen as "abandoning" Afghanistan at all. Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) reported on a few of those polls on the May 2nd edition of their radio show "Counterspin." Said they:
"A poll taken in 2010 on behalf of the Washington Post, ABC, BBC and the German broadcaster ARD found that 55 percent of the Afghan public supported the rapid withdrawal of foreign troops. A 2011 poll by the International Council on Security and Development found that 76 percent of respondents in the north of Afghanistan believed NATO military operations were bad for the Afghan people, as did 87 percent of respondents in the south. A March 2012 poll by the German Institute for Social Research and Statistical Analysis reported 60 percent support for early withdrawal of U.S. forces."
To be fair, it may be that the "fear of abandonment" in these news reports is meant to refer to a fear of the United States withdrawing its non-military "support" for Afghanistan. Maybe. But what is the nature of that "support"?
The May 14th Los Angeles Times had a major report on its front page on "a Pentagon-funded study" of the Afghan Local Police force (ALP). "The 13,000-member Afghan Local Police," says the Times, "has been hailed by U.S. commanders as a vital, homegrown defense force." But "The study, based on classified data and produced for the U.S. special operations command in Afghanistan, presents a much less positive picture."
This was an informative article, including the comment by The Times that "Afghan officials . . . described the local forces as being poorly led, which allows them to engage in extortion and petty harassment of villagers. Sometimes the offenses are more serious, with police seizing land, assaulting people, running private jails and demanding a role in local financial transactions."
As Human Rights Watch noted in a September 2011 report, "The US military is the funder and primary driver behind the creation of the ALP."
Is the withdrawal of U.S. support for this renegade "police" force what is meant by "abandoning" Afghanistan?
A 2010 conference sponsored by Wilton Park (an agency of the British Foreign Office), called ''Winning Hearts and Minds in Afghanistan: Assessing the Effectiveness of Development Aid in COIN Operations'' noted that "Development aid is becoming an increasingly important tool to 'win hearts and minds' and promote stability in counter-insurgency (COIN) operations. Given its centrality to current COIN doctrine and strategy, there is still a surprisingly weak evidence base for the effectiveness of aid in promoting stabilisation and security objectives."
On page 3 we read this: "Aid Seems to be Losing Rather Than Winning Hearts and Minds in Afghanistan. At a time when more aid money is being spent in Afghanistan than ever before, popular perceptions of aid are overwhelmingly negative. Despite the considerable work that has been done, including the expansion of basic social services, major investments in roads and other infrastructure, and a communications revolution, negative perceptions persist that little has been done, the wrong things have been done, what was done is poor quality, the benefits of aid are spread inequitably, and that much money is lost through corruption and waste. Research findings suggest policymakers should be cautious in assuming that aid projects help create positive perceptions of the deliverers of aid, or that they help legitimise the government." [Emphasis in original]
Perhaps the loss of such aid—perceived as wrong-headed and mostly wasted—is what is meant by the fear of "abandoning" Afghanistan?
The fundamental assumption underlying the idea that the withdrawal of U.S. forces and aid from Afghanistan constitutes a form of "abandonment" is the idea that the U.S. presence is and has been a force for good in that country. See this week's "Quote" of the Week in this regard.
In his speech of June 22nd 2011, in a major address on Afghanistan, President Obama said:
"My fellow Americans, this has been a difficult decade for our country. We've learned anew the profound cost of war—a cost that's been paid by the nearly 4,500 Americans who have given their lives in Iraq, and the over 1,500 who have done so in Afghanistan—men and women who will not live to enjoy the freedom that they defended. Thousands more have been wounded. Some have lost limbs on the battlefield, and others still battle the demons that have followed them home."
Typically, there was no mention of the "profound cost of war" to the Afghan people, indicating once again that this war was never about the Afghan people. It was, and is, about the United States. The President makes no secret of this, saying, "The goal that we seek [in Afghanistan] is achievable, and can be expressed simply: No safe haven from which al Qaeda or its affiliates can launch attacks against our homeland or our allies." Not a word about the welfare of the Afghan people.
There is only one thing that the United States is not going to abandon, and that is the idea of a compliant, pro-U.S. government in Afghanistan. At the moment, that is the "corrupt, unpopular, and unreformable Karzai government in Kabul," as it was described by Tom Hayden, writing for the Peace and Justice Resource Center on April 22nd.
Three weeks before that The Middle East Policy Council noted that "The Afghan Marxist regime [in the late 1980s-early 1990s], led by Najibullah, was widely disliked throughout Afghanistan, yet it survived for over three years after the completion of the Soviet withdrawal" before falling in 1992. The MEPC then says, "The Karzai government is also unpopular, even now, and may not become any more [popular] between now and the end of 2014. The Najibullah experience, though, suggests that it too may survive the withdrawal of external forces so long as large-scale external assistance continues. But while external support can enable an unpopular authoritarian regime to remain in power, it may not prevent it from falling eventually. . ."
The U.S. doesn't give up easily, so whatever administration is in place after November will likely continue to pursue its interests by propping up a corrupt, compliant ruler for as long as possible after combat forces leave. We can expect the U.S. to lobby "the international community" very hard after that in an attempt to maintain "large-scale external assistance" as long as possible.