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David Swanson

David Swanson is a longtime peace and justice activist and author of 'War Is a Lie'

March 6th, 2011 12:14 PM

Manchurian Senators

By David Swanson

People are doing journalism and the Washington Post is pissed. How to respond? Apparently the answer arrived at by Post editors is to just give up on any Americans who have been informing themselves and target those Americans who believe anything that super important people say. How else to explain an op-ed full of documented lies and published last Friday over the byline of two Democratic senators, Carl Levin and Jack Reed?

The headline was "The Surge Afghanistan Still Needs." Surge is not code for food or peace or environmental restoration or a moment's relief from the attentions of the world's oil, gas, and power addicts. Surge, in ignorant-American-newspaper-readerspeak is a term denoting the comical pretense that a criminal and genocidal invasion and occupation can be redeemed by escalating it. The term was coined in reference to Iraq, that hell on earth where pro-democracy demonstrators are now being murdered by the government that 20 years of war and sanctions built, even as that government demands reparations payments for recent US destruction.

Whenever a hopeless war drags on for year after year, with victory undefined and unimaginable, there is always an answer to the lack of progress, and that answer is always "send more troops." When violence goes down, more troops are needed to build on the success. When violence goes up, more troops are needed to clamp down. As I've reviewed in "War Is A Lie," this is traditional, and calling it a new name like "surge" won't make it moral, legal, or even "effective."

The saturation bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong was a way of ending a war with a pointless display of extra toughness. Just as the Vietnamese would have agreed to the same terms before the bombing that they agreed to afterward, the Iraqi government would have welcomed any treaty committing the United States to withdrawal years before the "surge," just before it, or during it. When the Iraqi Parliament did consent to the so-called Status of Forces Agreement in 2008, it did so only on the condition that a public referendum be held on whether to reject the treaty and opt for immediate withdrawal instead of a three-year delay. That referendum was never held.

President Bush's agreement to leave Iraq -- albeit with a three-year delay and uncertainty as to whether the United States would actually comply with the agreement -- was not called a defeat purely because there had been a recent escalation that had been called a success. In 2007, the United States had sent an extra 30,000 troops into Iraq with tremendous fanfare and a new commander, General David Petraeus.

The Congress and the President, the study groups and think tanks had all been setting "benchmarks" by which to measure success in Iraq since 2005. The President was expected by Congress to meet its benchmarks by January 2007. He did not meet them by that deadline, by the end of the "surge," or by the time he left office in January 2009. Nor has his replacement met them. There is no oil law to benefit the big oil corporations, no de-baathification law, and no constitutional review. In fact, there is no improvement in electricity, water, or other basic measures of recovery in Iraq. And protesters have the right to be shot. The "surge" was to advance these "benchmarks" and to create the "space" to allow political reconciliation and stability. Whether or not that is understood as code for U.S. control of Iraqi governance, even cheerleaders for the surge admit it did not achieve any political progress.

The measure of success for the "surge" was quickly downsized to include only one thing: a reduction in violence. This was convenient, first because it erased from Americans' memories anything else the surge was supposed to have accomplished, and second because the surge had happily coincided with a longer-term downward trend in violence. The surge was extremely small, and its immediate impact may have actually been an increase in violence. Brian Katulis and Lawrence Korb point out that, "The 'surge' of
U.S. troops to Iraq was only a modest increase of about 15 percent -- and smaller if one takes into account the reduced number of other foreign troops, which fell from 15,000 in 2006 to 5,000 by 2008." So, we added a net gain of 20,000 troops, not 30,000.

The extra troops were in Iraq by May 2007, and June and July were the most violent summer months of the entire war to that point. When the violence went down, there were reasons for the reduction that had nothing to do with the "surge." The decline was gradual, and the progress was relative to the horrendous levels of violence in early 2007. By the fall of 2007 in Baghdad there were 20 attacks per day and 600 civilians killed in political violence each month, not counting soldiers or police. Iraqis continued to believe the conflicts were mainly caused by the U.S. occupation, and they continued to want it to end quickly.

Attacks on British troops in Basra dropped dramatically when the British stopped patrolling population centers and moved out to the airport. No surge was involved. On the contrary, because so much violence had in fact been driven by the occupation, just as anonymous US military officials now admit about Afghanistan, scaling back the occupation predictably resulted in a reduction in violence, and would in Afghanistan.

Guerrilla attacks in al-Anbar province dropped from 400 per week in July 2006 to 100 per week in July 2007, but the "surge" in al-Anbar consisted of a mere 2,000 new troops. In fact, something else explains the drop in violence in al-Anbar. In January 2008, Michael Schwartz took it upon himself to debunk the myth that "the surge has led to the pacification of large parts of Anbar province and Baghdad." Here's what he wrote:

"Quiescence and pacification are simply not the same thing, and this is definitely a case of quiescence. In fact, the reduction in violence we are witnessing is really a result of the U.S. discontinuing its vicious raids into insurgent territory, which have been -- from the beginning of the war -- the largest source of violence and civilian casualties in Iraq. These raids, which consist of home invasions in search of suspected insurgents, trigger brutal arrests and assaults by American soldiers who are worried about resistance, gun fights when families resist the intrusions into their homes, and road side bombs set to deter and distract the invasions. Whenever Iraqis fight back against these raids, there is the risk of sustained gun battles that, in turn, produce U.S. artillery and air assaults that, in turn, annihilate buildings and even whole blocks.

"The 'surge' has reduced this violence, but not because the Iraqis have stopped resisting raids or supporting the insurgency. Violence has decreased in many Anbar towns and Baghdad neighborhoods because the U.S. has agreed to discontinue these raids; that is, the U.S. would no longer seek to capture or kill the Sunni insurgents they have been fighting for four years. In exchange the insurgents agree to police their own neighborhoods (which they had been doing all along, in defiance of the U.S.), and also suppress jihadist car bombs. The result is that the U.S. troops now stay outside of previously insurgent communities, or march through without invading any houses or attacking any buildings. So, ironically, this new success has not pacified these communities, but rather acknowledged the insurgents' sovereignty over the communities, and even provided them with pay and equipment to sustain and extend their control over the communities."

The United States was finally doing more right than just reducing its raids on people's homes. It was communicating its intention to, sooner or later, get out of the country. The peace movement in the United States had built growing support in Congress for withdrawal between 2005 and 2008. The 2006 elections sent the clear message to Iraq that Americans wanted out. Iraqis may have listened more carefully to that message than did U.S. Congress members themselves. Even the pro-war Iraq Study Group in 2006 supported a phased withdrawal. Brian Katulis and Lawrence Korb argue that,

"… the message that America's [military] commitment to Iraq was not open-ended motivated forces such as the Sunni Awakenings in Anbar province to partner with the U.S. to combat Al Qaeda in 2006, a movement that began long before the 2007 surge of U.S. forces. The message that Americans were leaving also motivated Iraqis to sign up for the country's security forces in record numbers."

As early as November 2005, leaders of the major Sunni armed groups had sought to negotiate peace with the United States, which wasn't interested. The biggest drop in violence came with the late 2008 commitment by Bush to fully withdraw by the end of 2011, and violence fell further after the withdrawal of U.S. forces from cities in the summer of 2009. Nothing de-escalates a war like de-escalating a war. That this could be disguised as an escalation of the war says more about the United States' public communications system than about the benefits of escalating crimes in order to end them.

Another major cause of the reductions in violence, which had nothing to do with the "surge," was the decision by Moqtada al-Sadr, the leader of the largest resistance militia, to order a unilateral cease-fire. As Gareth Porter reported,

"By late 2007, contrary to the official Iraq legend, the al-Maliki government and the Bush administration were both publicly crediting Iran with pressuring Sadr to agree to the unilateral ceasefire -- to the chagrin of Petraeus . . . . So it was Iran's restraint -- not Petraeus's counterinsurgency strategy -- that effectively ended the Shi'a insurgent threat."

Another significant force limiting Iraqi violence was the provision of financial payments and weapons to the Sunni "Awakening Councils" -- a temporary tactic of arming and bribing some 80,000 Sunnis, many of them the very same people who had recently been attacking U.S. troops. According to journalist Nir Rosen, a leader of one of the militias that were on the payroll of the United States "freely admit[ted] that some of his men belonged to Al Qaeda. They joined the American-sponsored militias, he sa[id], so they could have an identity card as protection should they get arrested."

The United States was paying Sunnis to fight Shiite militias while allowing the Shiite-dominated national police to focus on Sunni areas. This divide-and-conquer strategy was not a reliable path to stability. And stability remains still elusive, to say the least.

During the "surge" in 2007, U.S. forces rounded up and imprisoned tens of thousands of military-age males. If you can't beat 'em, and you can't bribe 'em, you can put 'em behind bars. This almost certainly contributed to reducing violence.

But the biggest cause of reduced violence may be the ugliest and the least talked about. Between January 2007 and July 2007 the city of Baghdad changed from 65 percent Shiite to 75 percent Shiite. U.N. polling in 2007 of Iraqi refugees in Syria found that 78 percent were from Baghdad, and nearly a million refugees had relocated just to Syria from Iraq in 2007 alone. As Juan Cole wrote in December 2007,

"… this data suggests that over 700,000 residents of Baghdad have fled this city of 6 million during the U.S. 'surge,' or more than 10 percent of the capital's population. Among the primary effects of the 'surge' has been to turn Baghdad into an overwhelmingly Shiite city and to displace hundreds of thousands of Iraqis from the capital."

Cole's conclusion is supported by studies of light emissions from Baghdad neighborhoods. The Sunni areas darkened as their residents were killed or ejected, a process that peaked before the "surge" (December 2006 - January 2007). By March 2007, "… with much of the Sunni population left fleeing toward Anbar province, Syria, and Jordan, and the remainder holed up in the last Sunni stronghold neighborhoods in western Baghdad and parts of Adhamiyya in eastern Baghdad, the impetus for the bloodletting waned. The Shia had won, hands down, and the fight was over."

Early in 2008, Nir Rosen wrote about conditions in Iraq at the end of 2007:

"It's a cold, gray day in December, and I'm walking down Sixtieth Street in the Dora district of Baghdad, one of the most violent and fearsome of the city's no-go zones. Devastated by five years of clashes between American forces, Shiite militias, Sunni resistance groups and Al Qaeda, much of Dora is now a ghost town. This is what 'victory' looks like in a once upscale neighborhood of Iraq: Lakes of mud and sewage fill the streets. Mountains of trash stagnate in the pungent liquid. Most of the windows in the sand-colored homes are broken, and the wind blows through them, whistling eerily.

"House after house is deserted, bullet holes pockmarking their walls, their doors open and unguarded, many emptied of furniture. What few furnishings remain are covered by a thick layer of the fine dust that invades every space in Iraq. Looming over the homes are twelve-foot-high security walls built by the Americans to separate warring factions and confine people to their own neighborhood. Emptied and destroyed by civil war, walled off by President Bush's much-heralded 'surge,' Dora feels more like a desolate, post-apocalyptic maze of concrete tunnels than a living, inhabited neighborhood. Apart from our footsteps, there is complete silence."

This does not describe a place where people were being peaceful. In this place people were dead or displaced. U.S. "surge" troops served to seal off newly segregated neighborhoods from each other. Sunni militias "awakened" and aligned with the occupiers, because the Shiites were close to completely destroying them.

By March 2009 Awakening fighters were back to fighting Americans, but by then the surge myth had been established. By then, Barack Obama was president, having claimed as a candidate that the surge had "succeeded beyond our wildest dreams." The myth of the surge was immediately put to the use for which it had no doubt been designed -- justifying the escalation of other wars. Having spun a defeat in Iraq as victory, it was time to transfer that propaganda coup to the War on Afghanistan. Obama put the surge hero, Petraeus, in charge in Afghanistan and gave him a surge of troops.

But none of the real causes of reduced violence in Iraq existed in Afghanistan, and an escalation by itself was likely to only make things worse. In fact, that was the experience following Obama's 2009 and 2010 escalations in Afghanistan. The occupation drives the violence, and escalating the occupation escalates the violence. Murdering children from helicopters, whether part of a "surge" or not, inspires massive violent resistance. The U.S. already funds the Taliban, which does not buy its cooperation. The geography and the population of Afghanistan make incarceration and ethnocide very unlikely paths to reducing violence there. Staring into a black hole of endless worsening failure, the response of the U.S. military is to claim, year after year, that progress is just around the corner and that all we need is yet another surge.

Last Week, Rolling Stone magazine exposed the U.S. military's efforts to mislead its own officials, think tankers, and U.S. senators visiting Afghanistan. Failure, these visiting dignitaries were told, was success. Up was down. Black was white. Or it would be very, very soon, just as it always had been about to be very, very soon. Among the senators treated to this brain scrubbing or "psychological operation" were Democrats Carl Levin and Jack Reed, who quickly insisted that, as members of the first branch of our government with oversight of the military, they would proceed to fervently hope that the military would investigate itself. The Washington Post, for its part, appears not to have cared much for Rolling Stone's journalism. After all, journalism is what Wikileaks does. What is this, the 1970s? WaPo chose to publish Levin and Reed's oped, "The Surge Afghanistan Still Needs," with this opening paragraph:

"A now-discredited report in Rolling Stone alleged that U.S. military officials in Afghanistan used inappropriate information operations techniques to try to persuade us, as well as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and others, to support additional resources to train more Afghan troops."

How was the report discredited? They don't say. It's true that the "Men Who Stare At Senators" have denied they did anything wrong, and that a military lawyer has declared crimes "legal," and super solemn experts have explained that lying to people isn't the same as brainwashing them. But nobody has attempted to prove that the lies were true or even to detail what they were, and no congressional investigation has arrived at any conclusions, because there hasn't been any. Levinreed, as we might name whatever staffer-editor team composed this conglomeration of sentences, rejects the idea that anything even "inappropriate" was done in an effort to persuade them to send more troops to kill and die, but they do not claim that such an effort is itself inappropriate. Inappropriate would be a teachers union using its members' money to negotiate more money for its members. The military funding massive PR efforts to lobby for more military money is only inappropriate if the lies are inappropriate. And what makes for inappropriate lies? Presumably lies that the senators didn't want to believe.

And how do we know that these two senators wanted to hear lies? Because they proceed to tell lies in paragraph number two:

"The truth is, we have long argued that the best way to bring our troops home sooner while succeeding in Afghanistan is to build a stronger Afghan military and government. We've been making that case because the facts support it -- which is why the president and the majority of the American people do, too."

Clearly the best way to bring troops home sooner is to load them on airplanes. One guaranteed way never to build an Afghan government with the respect of the Afghan people is to use the U.S. military to do it. Investing in a "stronger" military and government with a local face on it -- as we've done in Iraq, Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, among other places, may have the support of President Obama, but does that itself equate to the support of the American people? Let's check.

According to the corporate polls, Americans want military spending cut, withdrawal from Afghanistan sped up, involvement in the war in Afghanistan ended, think the war is going badly, oppose the war, think we should not be involved at all, and disapprove of the president's handling of the war.

Where is the evidence to support Levinreed's claim? If you or I submitted an op-ed to the Washington Post and somebody bribed the editors to seriously consider it, they would ask us to overwhelmingly document any such claim. Here there is no documentation even hinted at. Sure it's true that these senators loved the war before the latest psyop. Sure they've talked this way for the better part of a decade. Sure the American people want the troops withdrawn. But our concern is not with the senators' blather but with their FUNDING of the ongoing crime. And the evidence of our support for funding its continuation with an Afghan face is nonexistent.

Nor should we be fooled by Levinreed's pretense that only Afghan troops are at stake here. The Rollingstone article describes psy-op operations over a year ago, since when Levin and Reed have funded the continuation and escalation of U.S. warfare in Afghanistan.

Dare we glance at paragraphs numbers three and four?

"We saw during a trip to Afghanistan in January that the United States, our Afghan allies and our NATO partners have made significant progress in reversing the momentum of the insurgents, seizing the initiative and helping Afghans secure their future.

"Areas once closed to travel and commerce are open. Afghans' confidence is growing, and the country's security forces increasingly are taking the lead in operations."

This flatly contradicts all non-military reporting that has been coming out of Afghanistan since January, as well as prior. None of the newly opened areas are named, none of the commerce specified, no measures of "confidence" cited. Whether the Pentagon is more often naming its Afghan assistants the "leaders" in operations is hard to know, but would not be an indication of progress toward peace or justice.

"Progress" has been for centuries a reason to continue wars, but lest it become a reason to end them, it is always accompanied by the warning that the "progress" requires increased efforts to assure its permanence. Levinreed writes:

"While we've begun to turn around the once-daunting dynamic in Afghanistan, there is no guarantee that our progress will continue or that our gains will be permanent. The phrase 'fragile and reversible' could have been invented for Afghanistan."

It wasn't. It's been used for millennia by warmakers around the globe.

"Our troops will continue to face danger and hardship, especially as the Taliban renews its offensive operations with the end of winter weather. In turn, policymakers in Washington will continue to face difficult choices. The decision to begin reducing the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan in July means that Afghans, the United States and our NATO partners must urgently prepare for a transition to Afghan control. The United States and our NATO partners must be prepared to provide substantial financial support to Afghan military forces in the years ahead as they take up the fight."

We must, must we? Who's in charge here, anyway?

"We worry that the international coalition may fall short of supporting an Afghan security structure capable of defending the Afghan people. We are also concerned that, as U.S. forces transition from a lead role to one of support, the civilian elements of U.S. policy, including diplomacy and economic development, may not be ready to step in as needed, particularly if they do not receive the resources to do this demanding work. Failure to meet these needs could endanger the gains for which so many have fought and sacrificed. And the cost of maintaining a large U.S. presence in the future would be far greater than the expense, in the short term, of building a larger Afghan force."

We must kill for the sake of those who have already killed and died, and our choices are limited to doing so through Afghans or on our own? This leaves out the choice supported by Americans from the marginalized majority on the left to the super-hyped teaparty fringe: the choice of bringing the troops back home. Further on, Levinreed holds up the successful, peaceful, and prosperous Iraq as a model:

"A comparison to Iraq is valuable here. Iraq has security forces of about 665,000 protecting a population of 27 million people spread out over 168,000 square miles. A force of 378,000 Afghan security personnel would be needed to provide roughly equivalent protection to 30 million Afghans spread over 250,000 square miles of much more difficult, undeveloped terrain. Such an increase will require additional effort and money."

My recommendation? Ask David Koch if he wants to fund it. Ask your own kids if they want to go. Leave the rest of us out of it.

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