Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 13, 2014

Lone Survivor

Filed under: Afghanistan,Film,militarism — louisproyect @ 7:12 pm

In recent trips to my local Cineplex to catch up with Hollywoodiana, I was genuinely surprised to see what amounted to a PSA on behalf of “Lone Survivor”, a film I saw about a month ago as a DVD screener sent from a publicist in conjunction with the NYFCO awards meeting. As a sign that my fellow critics have not been debased beyond all hope, this supremely stupid militarist movie did not get nominated for a single award. Unlike “Zero Dark Thirty”, it is the sort of film that used to star Chuck Norris or Sylvester Stallone even though some of our more “sophisticated” critics see it as a kind of “war is hell” story. Unlike the typical Norris saga, the film ends ignominiously for the American troops except the “lone survivor”. Too bad he didn’t get a bullet to the head as well. It is based on an incident that occurred during the “war on terror” in Afghanistan but is so bizarrely hyperbolic in the way it depicts Navy Seals that it defies its own claims to be truthful.

Sandwiched between the opening announcements about turning off your cell phone, etc. and the previews of coming attractions, you can see a “featurette” on “Lone Survivor” that is nearly four minutes long. It has snippets from the film as well as interviews with Peter Berg, the director, and Navy Seal veteran Marcus Luttrell, whose book the film is based on. Having seen at least a hundred films in my local Cineplex, an AMC theater, over the years, I have never seen such a “short subject” before, to use the term coined for featurettes in the 1950s. It is basically a bid to muster support for the troops of the kind seen at the Super Bowl and other quasi-Nuremberg rallies of an empire in decline.

The film opens with a typical day at a military base in Afghanistan as the troops engage in roughhousing pranks and haze a new recruit—but all in good fun. Later that day, four of them (Mark Wahlberg who stars as Marcus Luttrell—the lone survivor, the aptly named Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch, and Ben Foster) take a helicopter ride to a mountaintop overlooking a Taliban-controlled village to prepare for a larger assault that will kill a rebel leader as part of Operation Red Wing in 2005.

As the four Seals survey the village from afar, a group of goat-herders from the village accidentally stumble across their encampment. This forces them to make a decision whether to kill them or to spare their lives. If they are merciful, this will obviously risk them telling the Taliban about their whereabouts, which is what happens. Not long after the herdsman return to the village, a group of fifty Taliban can be seen above them on a nearby mountaintop armed to the gills with AK-47’s and RPG’s. For about an hour, you see the four Seals standing off the Taliban as if the enemy’s bullets both had eyes and were loyal to the stars and stripes. I have not seen a more ludicrous gun fight since “Kill Bill”. If Navy Seals were this invincible, the Taliban would have been defeated long ago.

It is not just the unrepentant Marxist who has noticed the implausible nature of the battle depicted in the film. Ed Darack, the author of a book on Operation Red Wing, offers these remarks:

The only surviving member of the four-man team, Marcus Luttrell, wrote a brief (2 1/2 page) after action report. In it, he stated that he estimated that the reconnaissance and surveillance team was ambushed by 20 to 35 ACM. Twenty was the number that was initially released by CJTF-76 Public Affairs, and that is why the earliest media reports used the number twenty (in the Time magazine article, they state “…probably 5 to 1″ as related to the four-man team – meaning 20). Further analysis, the results of which never made it into the press (derived from analysis of signals intelligence gleaned during the ambush and human intelligence derived in Pakistan after the ambush, and videos of the actual ambush) stated the number to be between eight and ten.

But as time progressed, the number quickly inflated from twenty. Some sources state up to 200. I’ve seen figures even higher than this. Ever since a blunt education by Marines in Afghanistan on the subject, I’ve been ever-skeptical of stated enemy numbers. While I was in Afghanistan on my first embed, the Marines taught me about “Afghan Math” – “Just divide by about ten to get the real number ” is the governing directive of “Afghan Math”–when reading enemy numbers in press reports or when the enemy tries their brand of PsyOps over two-way radios (“we have fifty men waiting to ambush you” usually means, maybe, five). I experienced this during my first tag-along with Marines in combat in Afghanistan–listening to a “Taliban commander” talking to Marines over an Icom late one night (on a ridge across the Pech River Valley from Sawtalo Sar). I couldn’t figure out why everyone was laughing. I wasn’t laughing. Turns out “they” didn’t have even five, just the guy on his Icom two-way radio. Of course, he never attacked us, other than verbally.

Marcus Lutrell’s “Lone Survivor” was ghost-written by Patrick Robinson, a British author best known for fictional works featuring heroic American and British soldiers. Typical is “Ghost Force”, a novel about Navy Seals who foil a plot by Argentinians and Siberians (!) to retake the Malvinas as an anti-imperialist plot against Exxon-Mobil. Just the sort of writer who would bring Lutrell’s overactive imagination to fruition.

If Robinson was just the right ghost-writer, Peter Berg was a director whose ideological predispositions were ideally suited for the material as well. Berg can be proud of his work. Wikipedia reports: “Its opening weekend gross made it the second largest debut for any film released in January after the 2008 film Cloverfield’s opening weekend gross of $40.1 million.” That its success is measured against “Cloverfield” should give you some indication about the dire straits of Hollywood filmmaking. “Cloverfield” was an idiotic space invasion movie whose shaky camera effects were enough to induce an epilepsy attack even if you did not suffer from the illness.

Berg’s previous film was “Battleship”, another space invasion movie that was based on a video game and that was geared to the average 15-year-old boy. It opens with 911 type attacks on skyscrapers and climaxes with a WWII vintage battleship being dusted off and used to smite the filthy alien spaceships that bear a striking resemblance to the Transformers. This, of course, is the perfect preparation for a movie like “Lone Survivor”.

On IMDB, Berg describes why he made a film like “Lone Survivor”:

I’m a patriot. I admire our military, their character, code of honor, belief systems. I lived with the SEALs, their families, went to their funerals. I went to Iraq. Did you ever see anyone killed? I did.

“Lone Survivor” was made by Universal Studios, a subsidiary of NBCUniversal that is half-owned by Comcast and half by GE, one of America’s biggest arms manufacturers. Comcast is the world’s largest media and communications corporation by revenue and includes MSNBC as one of its wholly owned subsidiaries. As a cable provider, it is a bitter enemy of net neutrality. The CEO of Comcast is Brian Roberts, an American Jew who has made major contributions to the Obama campaigns.

Every time I run into a film like “Zero Dark Thirty” or “Lone Survivor”, I am reminded of the incestuous ties between the military, big business, and the film industry including the professional critics who praise such films. They are no different from the German journalists who lauded Leni Riefenstahl.

“Lone Survivors” got an astonishingly high rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with 73 percent “Fresh” ratings. It also received an 89 percent favorable rating from Rotten Tomato users, in other words people who registered to voice their opinions but can’t post articles.

NPR’s Ella Taylor opined:

When you don’t know the terrain and you don’t know who’s for or against you, heroics are either beside the point or they extend only as far as survival and solidarity. In this regard, Berg is relentlessly unsparing — in Lone Survivor, we discover what it is like to topple downhill from rock to rock, and what it is like to reach for your gun and find that your hand is missing — but never Tarantino-sadistic.

There’s courage aplenty in Lone Survivor — the day when grunts were made to stand in for American imperialism is long gone and rightly so.

I know Taylor from her days at the Village Voice, when she was a lot more “edgy”. That she can sanctify this glorified version of a Chuck Norris film for a radio station that was originally intended to be an alternative to commercial radio speaks volumes about the dying culture we live in. No, Ms. Taylor, the day when grunts were made to stand in for American imperialism is still very much with us.

April 6, 2011

Armadillo

Filed under: Afghanistan,Film — louisproyect @ 6:52 pm

Despite the fact that it covers basically the same terrain as “Restrepo”, I do recommend the Danish documentary “Armadillo” that arrives at the IFC Center in New York on April 8. Like “Restrepo”, it gives you a close-up view of soldiers operating in Taliban-dominated territory in Afghanistan, in this case the Helmand province.

Armadillo was the name of the base that 170 British and Danish troops occupied. Director Janus Metz focuses on a group of his fellow countrymen as they depart from Demark and serve a brief but horrific tour of duty. Like the men in “Restrepo”, they are addicted to violent video games, rough-housing, pornography and other macho pastimes mostly intended to relieve the boredom. This is not a war in which the combatants face off in large-scale set pieces like the Battle of Gettysburg. Mostly, the occupying forces go out on patrols that lead to no encounters with the Taliban who prefer to use IED’s to punish the invaders. In the course of the film, there are repeated injuries due to the devices.

Also, like in “Restrepo”, the villagers openly complain about the hardships they suffer due to the occupation. Mortar attacks directed at the Taliban often result in the loss of civilian life. The soldiers suspect the villagers of secretly backing the Taliban so it is no surprise that they are indifferent to collateral damage.

The big story with “Armadillo” is that a scene that takes place toward the end of the film has led to major soul-searching in Denmark. In the only serious firefight that takes place in the entire film, a Danish soldier throws a hand grenade into a ditch in which four Taliban fighters have taken cover. When the blast leaves them severely wounded but still alive, other soldiers empty their guns on them.

The Guardian reported on the film’s impact:

Guess which film knocked Prince of Persia off the top spot at the Danish box office this week. Sex and the City 2? Valhalla Rising 3? Wrong: it’s a new film called Armadillo, by young Danish director Janus Metz, that has provoked a furious debate in Denmark since its premiere in Cannes last week. The film, its director calculates, has already been the subject of 300 to 400 articles in the Danish press. The Danish minister of defence, Gitte Lillelund Bech, has seen it, as have many other politicians and senior members of the military, who have now commissioned an inquiry into events it shows. There has been such a clamour among the public to see it that the film has been rushed into cinemas this week, almost two months in advance of its original release date.

It is a sign that there are residues of civilization in Denmark that such behavior could have provoked outrage. Those of us who live in America have become inured to the notion that American soldiers are operating as total savages in Afghanistan. If the Danish got worked up about four Taliban wounded combatants being shot to death, what would they make of their soldiers killing Afghans basically for sport?

The current online Rolling Stone has a chilling article on the men of the 3rd Platoon of the 5th Stryker Brigade who operated in Kandahar Province. Frustrated by their inability to have direct combat with the Taliban who relied on IED’s just as they had in Helmand Province, they decided to start killing civilians because they were deemed guilty of harboring loyalties to the Taliban anyhow. Like New York City cops, they got into the habit of planting weapons on the bodies of the men they shot. Unlike NY cops, at least at this point, they took pictures of themselves standing over the dead bodies as if they were deer bagged during hunting season. They also chopped off fingers and kept them as trophies.

From the Rolling Stone article by Mark Boal

The article was written by Mark Boal, the author of the screenplay for “In the Valley of Elah”, a good movie about out-of-control veterans of the Iraq war, and the dreadful “Hurt Locker”. Boal writes:

Back at the wall, soldiers arriving on the scene found the body and the bloodstains on the ground. Morlock and Holmes were crouched by the wall, looking excited. When a staff sergeant asked them what had happened, Morlock said the boy had been about to attack them with a grenade. “We had to shoot the guy,” he said.

It was an unlikely story: a lone Taliban fighter, armed with only a grenade, attempting to ambush a platoon in broad daylight, let alone in an area that offered no cover or concealment. Even the top officer on the scene, Capt. Patrick Mitchell, thought there was something strange about Morlock’s story. “I just thought it was weird that someone would come up and throw a grenade at us,” Mitchell later told investigators.

But Mitchell did not order his men to render aid to Mudin, whom he believed might still be alive, and possibly a threat. Instead, he ordered Staff Sgt. Kris Sprague to “make sure” the boy was dead. Sprague raised his rifle and fired twice.

As the soldiers milled around the body, a local elder who had been working in the poppy field came forward and accused Morlock and Holmes of murder. Pointing to Morlock, he said that the soldier, not the boy, had thrown the grenade. Morlock and the other soldiers ignored him.

To identify the body, the soldiers fetched the village elder who had been speaking to the officers that morning. But by tragic coincidence, the elder turned out to be the father of the slain boy. His moment of grief-stricken recognition, when he saw his son lying in a pool of blood, was later recounted in the flat prose of an official Army report. “The father was very upset,” the report noted.

The father’s grief did nothing to interrupt the pumped-up mood that had broken out among the soldiers. Following the routine Army procedure required after every battlefield death, they cut off the dead boy’s clothes and stripped him naked to check for identifying tattoos. Next they scanned his iris and fingerprints, using a portable biometric scanner.

Then, in a break with protocol, the soldiers began taking photographs of themselves celebrating their kill. Holding a cigarette rakishly in one hand, Holmes posed for the camera with Mudin’s bloody and half-naked corpse, grabbing the boy’s head by the hair as if it were a trophy deer. Morlock made sure to get a similar memento.

Despite the fact that this kind of savagery has been going on since October 2001 and that a Democratic president elected on the basis of a return to civilized behavior has largely continued with the status quo, it is amazing that nothing seems to change. Like a nightmare that refuses to end, the war in Afghanistan continues along its bestial path. As a nation that was dedicated early on to building an empire, it is no surprise that the elected officials who swear by its founding values are incapable of changing course, especially since they cannot recognize the Original Sin of Empire.

We shall divert through our own Country a branch of commerce which the European States have thought worthy of the most important struggles and sacrifices, and in the event of peace [ending the American Revolution]…we shall form to the American union a barrier against the dangerous extension of the British Province of Canada and add to the Empire of liberty an extensive and fertile Country thereby converting dangerous Enemies into valuable friends.

–Thomas Jefferson letter to George Rogers Clark, 25 December 1780

March 18, 2011

ACTION ALERT: Four Things YOU Can Do About Malalai Joya’s Visa Denial

Filed under: Afghanistan — louisproyect @ 6:26 pm

http://www.afghanwomensmission.org/?p=1258

March 18, 2011

The U.S. Embassy this week denied famed Afghan women’s rights activist Malalai Joya a visa to the United States for an extensive speaking tour that was to kick off on Saturday March 19th. Americans are being denied the right to hear from an on-the-ground activist how the war is affecting ordinary Afghans, especially women.

Read AWM’s press release about it here.

FOUR THINGS YOU CAN DO ABOUT IT:

1. Have your elected representatives sign onto a letter urging the U.S. Embassy to reconsider their decision – DEADLINE: Friday March 18th 5 pm EST.

Congressman Jim McDermott (D-WA) has drafted and signed a letter urging the US Embassy to grant Malalai Joya the visa. A draft of the letter can be found here.

Ask your Senator or Representative to add their names to this letter NO LATER THAN 5 pm EST on Friday March 18th. Have the staff in your Senator or Representative’s office contact Jessica Lee at Jessica.lee@mail.house.gov. (Do not contact Ms. Lee yourself). The more elected representatives that sign onto the letter, the greater the chance of that the U.S. Embassy will reverse their visa denial.

2. Sign an online petition demanding Malalai Joya be granted a visa to the United States
Click here to sign the petition. Then, send it to all your friends and post it on Facebook, Twitter, etc.

3. Attend one of the many events organized for Malalai around the country
Whether she gets to the U.S. or not it is imperative that the events go on as scheduled. If she is unable to be physically present organizers will attempt to have her speak to the audience via live video chat. Transform the events into “free-speech” events, to affirm your right to hear from people like Malalai Joya.

Details of Malalai’s tour are here.

4. Demand media coverage of Malalai’s Visa Denial

Contact local and national media urging them to cover Malalai Joya’s visa exclusion. The denial of a visa to Afghanistan’s most intrepid and well known feminist should make headlines! Point them to our press release for details.

January 24, 2011

Silencing the Song: An Afghan Fallen Star

Filed under: Afghanistan,feminism — louisproyect @ 7:20 pm

In 2009 HBO aired the documentary “Afghan Star” that followed contestants from start to finish on Afghanistan’s version of “American Idol” or “Britain’s Got Talent”, including Setara Hussainzada, a young woman who scandalized the country by dancing—modestly–in her final performance and allowing her scarf to drop to her neck. This act was sufficient to cause her to be evicted from her apartment and to receive death threats.

On January 26th (8:00 to 8:45pm ET/PT) HBO will be presenting a follow-up documentary titled “Silencing the Song: An Afghan Fallen Star” that is a close-up study of what has happened to Setara since her ill-fated appearance.

As feisty as ever, Setara insists that she has done nothing sacrilegious. She now lives in Kabul, having left her native city of Herat where conservative Muslims continue to threaten her. Even in Kabul, there is constant harassment, even from the local authorities backed fully by the USA as a counterweight to the misogynist Taliban. During filming for the documentary, a squad of Afghan cops materializes at her apartment, supposedly to protect her. Setara views their intervention as nothing but a provocation and she berates them fearlessly.

One consolation is her marriage to a man who loves her and, just as importantly, defends her right to sing or dance without fear of reprisal. But he is forced to conceal his face from the camera in order to avoid being attacked by religious fanatics. They are expecting their first child as well, a prospect fraught with uncertainty.

I strongly urge you to rent “Afghan Star” from Netflix and to see this HBO follow-up on Wednesday. It is a reminder of the gender oppression that continues in Afghanistan despite efforts by the USA to associate abuses against women as solely the work of the Taliban.

These two fine movies directed by Havana Marking serve as companion pieces to Afghan legislator Malalai Joya’s “A Woman among Warlords”. She writes:

I am the youngest member of the Afghan Parliament, but I have been banished from my seat and threatened with death because I speak the truth about the warlords and criminals in the puppet government of Hamid Karzai. I have already survived at least five assassination attempts and uncounted plots against me. Because of this, I am forced to live like a fugitive within my own country. A trusted uncle heads my detail of bodyguards, and we move to different houses almost every night to stay a step ahead of my enemies.

To hide my identity, I must travel under the cover of the heavy cloth burqa, which to me is a symbol of women’s oppression, like a shroud for the living. Even during the dark days of the Taliban I could at least go outside under the burqa to teach girls in secret classes. But today I don’t feel safe under my burqa, even with armed guards to escort me. My visitors are searched for weapons, and even the flowers at my wedding had to be checked for bombs. I cannot tell you my family’s name, or the name of my husband, because it would place them in terrible danger. And for this reason, I have changed several other names in this book.

I call myself Joya — an alias I adopted during the time of the Taliban when I worked as an underground activist. The name Joya has great significance in my country. Sarwar Joya was an Afghan writer, poet, and constitutionalist who struggled against injustice during the early twentieth century. He spent nearly twenty-four years of his life in jails and was finally killed because he would not compromise his democratic principles.

Long live Setara! Long live Malalai Joya! Long live the struggle for freedom in Afghanistan!

November 20, 2010

The new Nixon?

Filed under: Afghanistan,Obama — louisproyect @ 3:36 pm

Anderson Cooper Compares Obama to Nixon, Spotlights Declining Approval Ratings

 

* * * *

Address to the Nation on the Situation in Southeast Asia
President Richard M. Nixon
April 30, 1970

Good evening my fellow Americans:

Ten days ago, in my report to the Nation on Vietnam, I announced a decision to withdraw an additional 150,000 Americans from Vietnam over the next year. I said then that I was making that decision despite our concern over increased enemy activity in Laos, in Cambodia, and in South Vietnam.

At that time, I warned that if I concluded that increased enemy activity in any of these areas endangered the lives of Americans remaining in Vietnam, I would not hesitate to take strong and effective measures to deal with that situation.

Despite that warning, North Vietnam has increased its military aggression in all these areas, and particularly in Cambodia.

After full consultation with the National Security Council, Ambassador Bunker, General Abrams, and my other advisers, I have concluded that the actions of the enemy in the last 10 days clearly endanger the lives of Americans who are in Vietnam now and would constitute an unacceptable risk to those who will be there after withdrawal of another 150,000.

To protect our men who are in Vietnam and to guarantee the continued success of our withdrawal and Vietnamization programs, I have concluded that the time has come for action.

full: http://www.mekong.net/cambodia/nixon430.htm

* * * *

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/11/19/AR2010111906268.html

U.S. wants to widen area in Pakistan where it can operate drones
By Greg Miller
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 20, 2010; 12:25 AM

ISLAMABAD – The United States has renewed pressure on Pakistan to expand the areas where CIA drones can operate inside the country, reflecting concern that the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan is being undermined by insurgents’ continued ability to take sanctuary across the border, U.S. and Pakistani officials said.

The U.S. appeal has focused on the area surrounding the Pakistani city of Quetta, where the Afghan Taliban leadership is thought to be based. But the request also seeks to expand the boundaries for drone strikes in the tribal areas, which have been targeted in 101 attacks this year, the officials said.

Pakistan has rejected the request, officials said. Instead, the country has agreed to more modest measures, including an expanded CIA presence in Quetta, where the agency and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate have established teams seeking to locate and capture senior members of the Taliban.

The disagreement over the scope of the drone program underscores broader tensions between the United States and Pakistan, wary allies that are increasingly pointing fingers at one another over the rising levels of insurgent violence on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border.

Senior Pakistani officials expressed resentment over what they described as misplaced U.S. pressure to do more, saying the United States has not controlled the Afghan side of the border, is preoccupied by arbitrary military deadlines and has little regard for Pakistan’s internal security problems.

“You expect us to open the skies for anything that you can fly,” said a high-ranking Pakistani intelligence official, who described the Quetta request as an affront to Pakistani sovereignty. “In which country can you do that?”

U.S. officials confirmed the request for expanded drone flights. They cited concern that Quetta functions not only as a sanctuary for Taliban leaders but also as a base for sending money, recruits and explosives to Taliban forces inside Afghanistan.

“If they understand our side, they know the patience is running out,” a senior NATO military official said.

The CIA’s drone campaign in Pakistan has accelerated dramatically in recent months, with 47 attacks recorded since the beginning of September, according to The Long War Journal, a Web site that tracks the strikes. By contrast, there were 45 strikes in the first five years of the drone program.

But Pakistan places strict boundaries on where CIA drones can fly. The unmanned aircraft may patrol designated flight “boxes” over the country’s tribal belt but not other provinces, including Baluchistan, which encompasses Quetta.

“They want to increase the size of the boxes, they want to relocate the boxes,” a second Pakistani intelligence official said of the latest U.S. requests. “I don’t think we are going to go any further.”

He and others spoke on condition of anonymity, citing the clandestine nature of a program that neither government will publicly acknowledge.

Pakistani officials stressed that Quetta is a densely populated city where an errant strike is more likely to kill innocent civilians, potentially provoking a backlash. Unlike the semi-autonomous tribal territories, Baluchistan is considered a core part of Pakistan.

U.S. officials have long suspected there are other reasons for Islamabad’s aversion, including concern that the drones might be used to conduct surveillance of Pakistani nuclear weapons facilities in Baluchistan.

In interviews in Islamabad, senior Pakistani officials voiced a mix of appreciation and apprehension over the U.S. role in the region.

The high-ranking Pakistani intelligence official said the CIA-ISI relationship is stronger than at any times since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and that the two spy services carry out joint operations “almost on a daily basis.”

“I wish [our] countries understood each other the way the CIA and ISI understand each other,” the official said. But he also traced Pakistan’s most acute problems, including an epidemic of militant violence, to two decisions by the government to collaborate with the United States.

Using the ISI to funnel CIA money and arms to mujaheddin fighters in the 1980s helped oust the Soviets from Afghanistan, the official said, but also made Pakistan a breeding ground for militant groups.

Similarly, Pakistan’s cooperation since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks has been key to the capture of al-Qaeda operatives and the success of the drone campaign. But it has inflamed radical elements in the country and made Islamabad a target of terrorrist attacks.

“We’d not have been here if we had not supported the Afghan jihad, if we had not supported [the response to] 9/11,” the official said, adding that it was “our fault. We should have stood up.”

Barring the CIA from flying drones over Quetta, the official said, is one area in which Pakistan is now taking a stand.

In other areas, CIA-ISI cooperation has deepened. The agencies have carried out more than 100 joint operations in the past 18 months, including raids that have led to the capture of high-ranking figures including Mullah Barader, the Taliban’s former military chief.

The Pakistani intelligence official said the operations have been “mainly focused on Quetta.” Teams based there rely on sophisticated surveillance technology and eavesdropping equipment provided by the CIA. When a raid or capture is attempted, the ISI is in the lead.

The aim is “to capture or arrest people based on intel primarily provided by Americans,” the Pakistani intelligence official said. The effort has been underway for a year, the official said, but “now the intensity is much higher.”

Nevertheless, U.S. and Pakistani officials acknowledged that they have no high-profile arrests or other successes to show for their efforts. The NATO military official said there had been “intelligence-led” operations against Taliban targets in Quetta in recent months but described them as “small scale” in nature.

The two sides disagree sharply over the importance of the Quetta Shura, the leadership council led by Mullah Mohammed Omar that presides over the Afghan Taliban. Some senior Pakistani officials refuse to use the term “Quetta shura,” calling it a U.S. construct designed to embarrass Pakistan.

“I’m not denying the individual presence of members” of the Taliban in or near Quetta, a senior Pakistani military official said. “But to create the impression there is a body micromanaging the affairs of the Afghan Taliban . . . is very far-fetched.”

The push to expand the drone strikes has come up repeatedly in recent months, Pakistani officials said. The United States has also urged Pakistan to launch a military offensive in North Waziristan, a redoubt for militant groups including al-Qaeda, the Pakistani Taliban and the Haqqani network, considered the most lethal foe of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

Pakistani officials ruled out a sweep anytime soon, saying the country’s military is still consolidating its hold on territory in Swat and South Waziristan, where tens of thousands of residents were displaced during operations to oust militants last year.

The senior Pakistani military official said U.S. expectations have little to do with Islamabad’s own national security calculations.

“You have timelines of November elections and July x’11 drawdowns – you’re looking for short-term gains,” the official said, referring to President Obama’s pledge to begin withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan in July. “Your short-term gains should not be our long-term pain.”

Correspondents Karin Brulliard in Islamabad and Joshua Partlow in Kabul contributed to this report.

 

November 15, 2010

Restrepo

Filed under: Afghanistan,Film — louisproyect @ 8:30 pm

On April 22, 2006 I reviewed a documentary titled “The War Tapes” that was made up of footage filmed by members of a New Hampshire National Guard Unit who had been given videocameras by director Deborah Scranton.

This is from that review:

For students of popular culture, the film will evoke two other works almost immediately. When the GI’s speak about their “job” in Iraq, they will remind you of the principals in “Cops,” Fox TV’s long-running “reality show”. Speaking into the camera, the cops talk about how much their career means to them, even if it involves being immersed in their city’s underbelly and being forced to confront “bad guys” on a daily basis at the risk to life and limb. This basically is the attitude that the New Hampshire National Guardsmen exhibit throughout the film, except that the “bad guys” are insurgents rather than crack dealers.

You will also be reminded of “The Perfect Storm,” another film about working class New Englanders filled with bravado and stoicism on another doomed mission. In close quarters either in a tent or in a HUMV, the New Hampshire National Guardsmen trade jibes with each other in dialogue that is strikingly evocative of the characters in “The Perfect Storm.” Although all of the major characters in “The War Tapes” eventually arrive home safely, there is no question that their lives will never be the same.

As fate would have it, within a year Sebastian Junger, the author of “The Perfect Storm”, would find himself in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley making a movie called “Restrepo” very much in the vein of “The War Tapes”. “Restrepo” was the last name of a Latino member of the unit featured in the film killed in action.  They named their small godforsaken outpost after him, a dubious honor no matter the noble intentions.

The movie was filmed and directed by Junger and Tim Hetherington, both of whom were regular contributors to Vanity Fair magazine, a glitzy publication devoted mostly to gossiping about Eurotrash and hedge fund managers. It is also a place where you can read some first-rate journalism, including a column by James Wolcott who has mentioned the unrepentant Marxist from time to time. In the press notes for “Restrepo”, the directors set down their “non-political” ambitions, by now familiar to anybody who has seen the press releases for “The Hurt Locker”:

The war in Afghanistan has become highly politicized, but soldiers rarely take part in that discussion. Our intention was to capture the experience of combat, boredom and fear through the eyes of the soldiers themselves. Their lives were our lives: we did not sit down with their families, we did not interview Afghans, we did not explore geopolitical debates. Soldiers are living and fighting and dying at remote outposts in Afghanistan in conditions that few Americans back home can imagine. Their experiences are important to understand, regardless of one’s political beliefs. Beliefs can be a way to avoid looking at reality. This is reality.

But In January 2008 Vanity Fair you can read an article by Junger titled “Into the Valley of Death” that basically covers the same ground as the movie. Despite the above disclaimer about not making a political statement, he clearly is pessimistic about the goals of the war:

By many measures, Afghanistan is falling apart. The Afghan opium crop has flourished in the past two years and now represents 93 percent of the world’s supply, with an estimated street value of $38 billion in 2006. That money helps bankroll an insurgency that is now operating virtually within sight of the capital, Kabul. Suicide bombings have risen eightfold in the past two years, including several devastating attacks in Kabul, and as of October, coalition casualties had surpassed those of any previous year. The situation has gotten so bad, in fact, that ethnic and political factions in the northern part of the country have started stockpiling arms in preparation for when the international community decides to pull out. Afghans—who have seen two foreign powers on their soil in 20 years—are well aware of the limits of empire. They are well aware that everything has an end point, and that in their country end points are bloodier than most.

The film consists mostly of cinéma vérité footage of the soldiers dodging insurgent bullets, roughhousing with each other, or meeting with village elders to hear their complaints. This alternates with members of the unit back in civilian life reminiscing about Restrepo, which can best be described as a season in hell.

It would be difficult to exaggerate the alienation from their environment that these soldiers experience. Totally isolated from both the Afghans they supposedly are defending and indifferent apparently to the “rooting out the terrorists” ideology that justifies their presence, they seem more like contestants in a mortal version of the television show “Fear Factor”. Instead of eating worms, they eat bullets.

In one of the more powerful scenes in the film, we see the aftermath of a firefight that left one of their comrades dead. One soldier cannot help but sob. Since the dead man was considered a crack soldier, what chance did the others have? They press on, however, mostly out of loyalty to each other than any over-arching imperialist agenda, a growing tendency in American interventions over the past 30 years or so when the clash between naked reality and textbook ideals becomes impossible to bridge.

The characters in the film are largely forgettable with the exception of a handful. A perpetually smiling and baby-faced Miguel Cortez admits in an interview after he has returned to a “normal” life in the U.S.: “I can’t even sleep, honestly. I’ve been on about four or five different types of sleeping pills, and none of them help. That’s how bad the nightmares are. I prefer not to sleep and not to dream about it. … To sleep and just see the picture in my head is pretty bad.”

Another character has the unlikely name of Misha Pemble-Belkin, the Jewish son of parents he describes as “hippies” who were so antiwar that they would not permit him to play with toy guns. Now he is a tried and true killer just like the rest. The Vanity Fair article fills in some details:

A 22-year-old private named Misha Pemble-Belkin is sitting on the edge of a cot, cutting the pocket off his uniform. On his left forearm Pemble-Belkin has a tattoo of the Endurance, Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ship that became entrapped by sea ice in Antarctica in 1915. “It’s the greatest adventure story ever,” Pemble-Belkin says by way of explanation. He takes the pocket he has just liberated and sews it over a rip in the crotch of his pants, which he is still wearing. The men spend their days clambering around shale hillsides dotted with holly trees, and most of their uniforms are in shreds. Pemble-Belkin uses his free time back at the kop painting and playing guitar, and says that his father was a labor organizer who supports the troops absolutely, but has protested every war the United States has ever been in. His mother sends him letters written on paper she makes by hand.

But the most revealing scenes involve their commanding officer, a Captain Dan Kearney who is obviously more into the imperialist mindset than the men beneath him. In one meeting with the village elders, he admits that his men had killed some innocent villagers in the past but now it was time to put all that past them. As Dan DiMaggio put it in a review of the movie that was posted here, this was singularly arrogant:

In an astounding display of imperial arrogance, the leading U.S. officer, who took over from an apparently even more brutal commander named McKnight (whose watch resulted in many prisoners in Bagram and scores of civilians dead), asks that they “wipe the slate clean” and give the U.S. a fresh start. Can you imagine the Afghan elders – or the Taliban, for that matter – asking the U.S. to “wipe the slate clean” for 9/11, for which they were not even responsible? It also baffles the mind to see U.S. officers assume that the best way to win over Afghans is through bribery, which might help explain why they have found their best allies among the warlords who have made immense profits off the occupation (mirroring the American warlords running Halliburton and Blackwater), while the Taliban at times gains support for at least having some sort of moral code.

Some day an enterprising director will seek out those village elders as well as the insurgents who we know nothing about from “Restrepo” in order to tell their story. Despite their backwardness, they are fighting to expel oppressive foreigners from their native soil—an elementary democratic right that Hollywood is not ready to respect. It will take someone like Gillo Pontecorvo to make that kind of film. God knows we need someone like that right now.

Until that time comes along, “Restrepo” is not a bad introduction to the horrors of imperialism no matter the stated claim of Sebastian Junger to make a movie that was not about politics. It can now be rented from Netflix.

October 27, 2010

Bourgeois press can’t get its act together

Filed under: Afghanistan,media — louisproyect @ 1:48 pm

NY Times October 20, 2010
Coalition Forces Routing Taliban in Key Afghan Region
By CARLOTTA GALL

ARGHANDAB, Afghanistan — American and Afghan forces have been routing the Taliban in much of Kandahar Province in recent weeks, forcing many hardened fighters, faced with the buildup of American forces, to flee strongholds they have held for years, NATO commanders, local Afghan officials and residents of the region said.

A series of civilian and military operations around the strategic southern province, made possible after a force of 12,000 American and NATO troops reached full strength here in the late summer, has persuaded Afghan and Western officials that the Taliban will have a hard time returning to areas they had controlled in the province that was their base.

Some of the gains seem to have come from a new mobile rocket that has pinpoint accuracy — like a small cruise missile — and has been used against the hideouts of insurgent commanders around Kandahar. That has forced many of them to retreat across the border into Pakistan. Disruption of their supply lines has made it harder for them to stage retaliatory strikes or suicide bombings, at least for the moment, officials and residents said.

NATO commanders are careful not to overstate their successes — they acknowledge they made that mistake earlier in the year when they undertook a high-profile operation against Marja that did not produce lasting gains. But they say they are making “deliberate progress” and have seized the initiative from the insurgents.

full: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/21/world/asia/21kandahar.html

Washington Post, October 27, 2010
U.S. military campaign to topple resilient Taliban hasn’t succeeded

By Greg Miller
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 27, 2010; 12:47 AM

An intense military campaign aimed at crippling the Taliban has so far failed to inflict more than fleeting setbacks on the insurgency or put meaningful pressure on its leaders to seek peace, according to U.S. military and intelligence officials citing the latest assessments of the war in Afghanistan.

Escalated airstrikes and special operations raids have disrupted Taliban movements and damaged local cells. But officials said that insurgents have been adept at absorbing the blows and that they appear confident that they can outlast an American troop buildup set to subside beginning next July.

“The insurgency seems to be maintaining its resilience,” said a senior Defense Department official involved in assessments of the war. Taliban elements have consistently shown an ability to “reestablish and rejuvenate,” often within days of routed by U.S. forces, the official said, adding that if there is a sign that momentum has shifted, “I don’t see it.”

One of the military objectives in targeting mid-level commanders is to compel the Taliban to pursue peace talks with the Afghan government, a nascent effort that NATO officials have helped to facilitate.

The blunt intelligence assessments are consistent across the main spy agencies responsible for analyzing the conflict, including the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency, and come at a critical juncture. Officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

full: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/10/26/AR2010102606571.html

October 5, 2010

Long live Harry Belafonte!

Filed under: Afghanistan,antiwar — louisproyect @ 1:41 pm

August 27, 2010

Restrepo

Filed under: Afghanistan,antiwar — louisproyect @ 10:11 pm

(A guest post by Dan DiMaggio)

The War in Afghanistan Hits Home: Michael Enright, Restrepo, and the Heart of Darkness

By Dan DiMaggio

On Tuesday, 21-year old Michael Enright stabbed a New York City cab driver because he was Muslim. Enright grew up in upstate Brewster, New York, the town next to mine, in an overwhelmingly white and conservative county that was the only one east of the Hudson River won by John McCain in 2008. He just recently returned from a trip to Afghanistan, where he was embedded with a group of soldiers who he was making a film about for his senior thesis.

There has been a concerted attempt to distance Enright’s crime from the Islamophobia being whipped up by the right wing. James Taranto, editor of the Wall Street Journal’s online editorial page, actually claimed it’s “a plausible theory” that Enright really stabbed the cab driver as part of his own personal left-wing conspiracy to “advance the narrative that America is filled with anti-Muslim bigots whose hatred is behind the opposition to the Ground Zero mosque.” Yet the Daily News reports a police source divulged they found a journal belonging to Enright calling Muslims “killers, ungrateful for the help they were being offered, filthy murderers without a conscience.” Presumably this was all part of his master plan, according to Taranto.

It seems more likely, though, that whatever Enright saw in Afghanistan had a severe impact on him. He said he was making his film, titled “Home of the Brave” (see trailer at: ), because he “realized there’s never been an introspective look into what it’s like being an 18-, 19-, 20-year-old soldier … They grow up really fast, and also they’re still young and youthful. I thought that could be a really interesting story”.

It does make for an interesting story – but Enright was not alone in seeking to document it. Restrepo, a 2010 documentary by Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington that won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, does what Enright claims he hoped to do. Their film provides an insightful glimpse of the transformation of U.S. soldiers over the course of the war – a transformation that at times resembles scenes from the Heart of Darkness. Enright himself was clearly not immune to this process.

Junger and Hetherington say they aimed to make “a documentary that does not contain political commentary and is purely experiential … We wanted to give people the experience of what it’s really like [in Afghanistan].” Because Restrepo lacks the usual devices found in Hollywood glamorizations of war, Junger says, “We’ve been told our movie has no commercial value”. Yet it is of major value in helping to understand a war little understood by most Americans, despite the presence of 100,000 U.S. troops there and growing media attention, Afghanistan, and the war there, remain little understood by most Americans. WikiLeaks’ recent release of 92,000 pages of documents should help, but for those looking for a more concise accounting of the futility of this war (and its possible impact on people like Enright), Restrepo is highly recommended.

Junger and Hetherington “embedded” themselves with a single company during their tour in the Korengal Valley, one of the areas which has seen the most fighting, in 2007. While there is much that is unique about the Korengal, it also serves as a microcosm of the entire war effort in Afghanistan, in particular the experience of U.S. soldiers there.

Although this is now the longest war in U.S. history, Afghanistan is still a far-off locale of which almost all Americans are ignorant. One soldier recounts how he heard monkeys howling the first night, and could not sleep because he thought it was the Taliban, pressing close. While the troops eventually become more accustomed to this environment, the people of Afghanistan, in whose interests this war is supposedly being fought, remain a seemingly impenetrable mystery. One of the film’s shortcomings is its limited portrayal of the experience of ordinary Afghans, but their sparse appearance serves to highlight the soldiers’ alienation from Afghan society.

Most of the Afghans we see are village elders who arrive for weekly “shuras” (councils) with U.S. military officers. These appear to routinely descend into farces, with U.S. officers treating the elders like children, a characteristic behavior of more “civilized” colonial occupiers. The officers promise the elders that “we will make you richer” by flooding the Korengal with roads, jobs, and health care if they cooperate in rooting out “the bad guys” (the Taliban). The Afghans respond, “You kill the enemy, that’s okay – but our concern is that you’re killing ordinary people on their land.”

In an astounding display of imperial arrogance, the leading U.S. officer, who took over from an apparently even more brutal commander named McKnight (whose watch resulted in many prisoners in Bagram and scores of civilians dead), asks that they “wipe the slate clean” and give the U.S. a fresh start. Can you imagine the Afghan elders – or the Taliban, for that matter – asking the U.S. to “wipe the slate clean” for 9/11, for which they were not even responsible? It also baffles the mind to see U.S. officers assume that the best way to win over Afghans is through bribery, which might help explain why they have found their best allies among the warlords who have made immense profits off the occupation (mirroring the American warlords running Halliburton and Blackwater), while the Taliban at times gains support for at least having some sort of moral code.

Afghans have seen more than enough over the past 9 years to know that no change in command will result in any meaningful differences in the war or their lives. Indeed, one of the first operations carried out under the new command in the Korengal results in 5 “enemy” dead, along with 10 women and children. More recently, at the national level, U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal has even appeared on national TV in Afghanistan to apologize for the deaths of civilians – yet all the while, the death toll continues to increase under his watch, with the official count of civilian casualties up 31 percent over the past year. Military officials profess shock when Afghans blame the occupying forces as much, if not more, than the Taliban for these casualties – as if the Afghans had asked U.S. and NATO forces to come occupy their country, or as if grief and outrage followed the simple laws of arithmetic. Somehow, by the twisted logic of the U.S. military, the Taliban – and now WikiLeaks – are to blame for the violence in Afghanistan, rather than the U.S. government.

These are necessary imperial fantasies, to go along with the idea that U.S. can somehow manage to win over Afghan hearts and minds, at the same time as bombing wedding parties and conducting nighttime raids on homes. The cynical wisdom of the soldiers in Restrepo at times bursts through this charade. Reminiscing about home, one soldier tells another about his family’s ranch, the charm of which he struggles to describe, ultimately settling on defining it as a place with a lot of land where you can go hunting. “Just like here [in the Korengal],” the other responds. “Yeah, but we’re not hunting animals, we’re hunting people here,” sighs the soldier with the ranch. “Hearts and minds!” concludes the other.

It’s chilling to watch the process of dehumanization at work among the troops. As they see their friends killed or severely wounded, as they are continually shot at, as any hopes of winning over the support of the local population seem to disappear, the frustration and anger grows, along with a desire to avenge the deaths of their fellow soldiers. In a Heart of Darkness moment, some of the soldiers report that they get excited when Taliban forces come close, because they yearn to see the faces of those they are killing.

This takes a toll psychologically, as the filmmakers chronicle through post-combat interviews at a military base in Italy. It hurts to see Cortez, a good, light-hearted soldier, always smiling, explain, through an awkward grin, how he is incapable of sleeping, preferring to stay awake rather than see his friends die again in his nightmares. The soldiers in Restrepo suffer an understandable pessimism about being able to re-integrate into society. The film helps provide a glimpse into why a record 245 Army members killed themselves in 2009 (and a monthly record of 32 committed suicide in June 2010). One wonders whether similar psychological processes occurred for Michael Enright, leading him to stab the Muslim New York City cabbie. No one emerges from these wars the same, and for all the talk about winning hearts and minds in the Islamic world, the war has done much to continue to fan the flames of Islamophobia in the U.S.

What is all this for? Why does the U.S. have 100,000 troops in Afghanistan? Restrepo does not deal with this question. The single point it does drive home is the absolute futility of the war in Afghanistan. As the film ends, the screen reports that for all the efforts of these soldiers, the U.S. was forced to withdraw from the Korengal in April 2010. As the Washington Post reported, “A new set of commanders concluded that the United States had blundered into a blood feud with fierce and clannish villagers who wanted, above all, to be left alone. By this logic, subduing the Korengal wasn’t worth the cost in American blood.” Eventually, no matter how many troops are sent to Afghanistan, no matter how many drones are flown, and no matter how many billions are spent, the U.S. will be forced to draw the same conclusion on a national scale.

Why, then, does this war continue, if it’s doomed to failure? Because the U.S. cannot just admit defeat without doing major damage to its military prestige and its ability to boss around the rest of the world. Because the U.S. political system is dominated by cowards who are more than willing to sacrifice lives for votes – the leaders of the Democratic Party must not allow themselves to be outhawked by the Republicans, must pose as vigorous and responsible defenders of the empire, in order to continue to reel in big money donations and the fawning praise of the corporate media. Because Afghanistan, for all its remoteness, is located in a strategic area of the globe – not only does it border Pakistan, it also borders China, Iran, and the resource-rich former Soviet republics. The Bush administration launched the war initially not just as a display of U.S. power, but also as a brazen attempt to establish a foothold in areas formerly securely locked in the Russian sphere of influence.

The mainstream media continues its claims that the war is really about helping the Afghan people, or about eliminating Al-Qaeda. Time Magazine recently featured a front-cover picture of a woman who had her nose cut off by the Taliban, with the title “What Happens if We Leave Afghanistan.” The NY Times, in its latest editorial on “The State of the War in Afghanistan,” repeats the fantasy that this war is going to stop Al-Qaeda, and says the U.S. would also do enormous damage to its moral and strategic standing if it now simply abandoned the Afghan people to the Taliban’s brutalities.” Yet as the South Asia Solidarity Initiative writes, “In its nine long years, the U.S.-led occupation of Afghanistan has done nothing to improve the conditions for people in Afghanistan, especially for women… There has been a general increase in violence and civilian deaths because of occupation. By 2009, the U.N. human development index ranked Afghanistan 181 out of 182 countries. The maternal mortality rate in Afghanistan reveals the highest ever documented.. .The United States has consistently chosen the side of fundamentalist allies at the expense of Afghan women, and has always sought its own gains in the region.” You can imagine the Taliban’s counter to the NY Times – “The Taliban would do enormous damage to its moral and strategic standing if it simply abandoned the country to U.S. brutalities.”

What then, is to be done? Unfortunately, the anti-war movement has all but disappeared. Even the WikiLeaks revelations have generated almost no response, aside from some important but small demonstrations in defense of Private Bradley Manning. In response to the Obama administration’s recent attacks on the “professional left,” the most prominent anti-war politician, Democratic Congressman Dennis Kucinich, just pledged not to run against the president in the 2012 presidential primaries, because, he said, “What we have to do is focus on coming together for the purposes of getting out of Iraq and Afghanistan.” As if pledging unconditional support to Obama, the man responsible for escalating the war in Afghanistan, instead of threatening to run against him for his pro-war policies, is a good strategy for ending the wars. It feels as if the anti-war left has never been in more of a state of demoralization and disarray. And yet opposition to the war is at an all-time high, at 43 percent in the most recent USA Today/Gallup poll (8/3/10).

There is really no shortcut to ending the wars other than rebuilding a powerful anti-war movement, from the bottom-up. This means starting or revitalizing anti-war organizations (such as Bradley Manning defense committees), organizing speaking tours of anti-war vets or prominent anti-war journalists, writing letters to the editor, passing out leaflets, developing websites, writing songs and poems and organizing fundraising concerts, collecting petition signatures to demand politicians stop funding the war, running independent, anti-war candidates for office (who will not get sucked into the quagmire of the two-party system), taking a stand against Islamophobia like the campaign against the Ground Zero mosque, and linking up with other social movements, from immigrant rights to the movement to defend education.

But it can start with something as simple as going to see Restrepo, and telling your friends about it.

August 4, 2010

IED attacks in Afghanistan 2004-2009

Filed under: Afghanistan — louisproyect @ 1:20 pm
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