Inconvenient News,
       by smintheus

Monday, July 26, 2010

  How do you subdue a people who will fight to the death over pine nut foraging rights?

Herodotus records a Delphic oracle warning the early Spartans against trying to subdue Arcadia “where men eat acorns”. When the Spartan military marched into Arcadia anyway, they met disaster. Acorn-foraging became a by-word for the ruggedness of the famously indomitable population in that remote mountainous region.

So I took notice when I came across this SIGACT among the nearly 92,000 Afghan war documents published yesterday. It’s a report of September 2007 from the remote province of Nuristan, along the Pakistan border. This region was the setting for Kipling’s “The man who would be king”. Here’s the part of the report that caught my attention:

There is a feud/civil conflict developing between 3 villages (Nanglam, Mashpah, and Malel) over pine nut foraging rights. 1 Afghan national has been killed, and 2 injured. Waliswol Muhammad Ali is attempting to mediate.

So how does anybody imagine that coalition forces can ever impose their will upon a population that is willing to fight to the death over pine nut foraging rights?

A simple question encompassing a world of problems for the US-led occupation. Afghans are desperately poor, their economy rudimentary, and their society rough hewn. They fight to defend their honor and minor slights can lead to feuds lasting generations. Even where ethnic and sectarian rivalries are absent, such as in Nuristan, social fractures between families and villages are the very stuff of the social fabric. I cannot conceive why any outsiders would suppose they could ever bend such people to their will.

Indeed Nuristan now is firmly back under Taliban rule. Americans increasingly came under brutal attack in the province, as a 2008 document singled out the by NY Times shows. Less than a year after this report, the US military suffered its worst casualties of the war in an attack at the village of Wanat. A little more than a year later, the US withdrew all its forces from the province after one base was nearly overrun.

For all the confusion of bad intelligence and chaos on the ground in Afghanistan, the evidence of these Wikileaks documents could hardly be clearer about one thing: Coalition forces are way out of their depth in trying to get a purchase on rural Afghan society.

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Sunday, July 25, 2010

  The New Pentagon Papers

The nearly 92,000 secret documents from 6 years of US military and intelligence operations in Afghanistan, obtained by Wikileaks and published simultaneously today by the New York Times, Guardian, and Der Spiegel, bring to mind nothing so much as the Pentagon Papers published in 1971. They’re a very different kind of dossier, of course. The latter was an official Defense Dept. study of US involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967. The current dossier is more random – and thus in many ways more enlightening - a trove of on-the-ground reports from military and intelligence operations.

But what it shares in common with the Pentagon Papers is this: It provides a devastating portrait of

  • a disastrous guerilla war that the public had already turned decisively against

  • military operations that both tactically and strategically are a mess beyond any reasonable hope of repair

  • intelligence operations that are acquiring almost no accurate, much less actionable, information about anything

  • American officials who appear to have no answers to the daily intractable problems they face in an increasingly unpopular occupation

  • an Afghan population that has huge and legitimate grievances against heavy-handed US attacks

  • an Afghan government that is corrupt, incompetent, and mistrusted in more ways than most of us could have imagined

  • grossly untrustworthy Afghan army and police forces

  • obscenely fraught relations with our untrustworthy “allies” in the region

  • an enemy that is better armed and more adaptable and successful than the public has been told

  • the history of a war that went to pieces far earlier than the US government had told the public

  • specific details about military operations that contradict what the US public had been told in the past

In short, just as with the Pentagon Papers, it is nearly impossible to read through the current dossier and conclude that this occupation is winnable; that the US military ever has had a coherent plan; that the government that American lives are being sacrificed for is solid, trustworthy, or has integrity; that our forces really know what is going on in the country they’re bogged down in; or that the US government has been honest about what we face there.

So the publication of these documents could prove to be a turning point in US involvement in Afghanistan. The Pentagon Papers proved to Americans, even to people who hadn’t been paying close attention to policy debates about the Vietnam War, that they’d been deceived for years by their own government’s grossly misleading public assessments of the situation there. The publication of these New Pentagon Papers ought to produce the same result.

The difference between 2010 and 1971, however, is that in an earlier day Americans in large numbers were prepared to sit down and read and discuss the secret documents. Today, I’m not so sure they’ll even bother. After all, virtually none of these documents fall below the 140-character threshold that appears to constitute the limit to attention spans in the US these days.

In addition, almost the entire Republican caucus in Washington is devoted to the idea that the single policy of Barack Obama’s that they can support is his decision (twice) to escalate the war in Afghanistan. It’s hard to imagine the opposition party allowing these unwelcome new facts to influence in any way their proud advocacy for an open-ended war on the Asian continent. I rather doubt that many in Congress from the President’s own party will want to embarrass him about the depressing picture these documents portray.

Obama himself, the last time he doubled the troops in Afghanistan (in December 2009), emphatically denied that Afghanistan was like Vietnam.

First, there are those who suggest that Afghanistan is another Vietnam. They argue that it cannot be stabilized and we're better off cutting our losses and rapidly withdrawing. I believe this argument depends on a false reading of history.

His administration certainly won’t be eager now to discuss whether Afghanistan is a quagmire. Even less will it want to allow public debate to be dominated by the apparent parallelism in the leaking of embarrassing documents that undercut the rationale for war. Not surprisingly, as soon as the world press reported on this dossier the White House released a statement denouncing the act of journalism as such rather than addressing the many concerns that readers of these documents would legitimately have.

I note in passing that on the main page of the White House website, under the heading ‘Issues’ you will find neither ‘Afghanistan’ nor ‘War’ (though ‘Rural’ and ‘Family’ both are somehow considered significant ‘Issues’).

So I guess we shall see whether the publication of the New Pentagon Papers has the effect that by rights it should have upon the course of this failed occupation.

free image hostingIn closing, I’d note the thing that struck me (as an historian) most forcefully about this trove of documents. I’ve already alluded to it. Nearly all the human intelligence gathered in the region by the US and evidently a good deal of the signal intelligence is highly fictionalized and therefore worthless - except as a reflection upon how grave our forces’ problems are there. Informants have many reasons to make things up, they’ve figured out what they can sell to us (some of this preposterous information is actually paid for), and US forces don’t have much reliable information to apply in testing the credibility of its sources. The task for Americans in Afghanistan is very much like trying to track a criminal suspect through a carnival hall of mirrors; something is going on, but who can say for sure what, where, when. This report from the Guardian is the best I’ve seen at highlighting that aspect of the documentary record:

Most of the reports are vague, filled with incongruent detail, or crudely fabricated. The same characters – famous Taliban commanders, well-known ISI officials – and scenarios repeatedly pop up. And few of the events predicted in the reports subsequently occurred.

A retired senior American officer said ground-level reports were considered to be a mixture of "rumours, bullshit and second-hand information" and were weeded out as they passed up the chain of command. "As someone who had to sift through thousands of these reports, I can say that the chances of finding any real information are pretty slim," said the officer, who has years of experience in the region.

If anything, the jumble of allegations highlights the perils of collecting accurate intelligence in a complex arena where all sides have an interest in distorting the truth.

"The fog of war is particularly dense in Afghanistan," said Michael Semple, a former deputy head of the EU mission there. "A barrage of false information is being passed off as intelligence and anyone who wants to operate there needs to be able to sift through it. The opportunities to be misled are innumerable."


Afghanistan has a long history of intelligence intrigues that stretches back to the early 19th century. Afghans have learned to use intelligence as a tool to influence the foreign powers occupying their land. In the past quarter century it has become a lucrative source of income in a country with few employment opportunities.

As many on-the-ground truths as can be found by digging through the New Pentagon Papers, there are at least an equal number of on-the-ground fabrications, falsifications, and frauds. Lies can be as revealing as truths, but only if you’re willing to look the lies square in the face.

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Thursday, July 22, 2010

  Here’s why you shouldn’t trust right-wing media ‘scandals’

It’s really very simple, as anybody can attest who has ever seriously looked into a ‘scandal’ promoted by a right-wing news outfit: They do not scruple to lie, misrepresent, distort, deceive, selectively misquote, omit necessary context, and conceal critical information in order to score a partisan point. Nothing they say should ever be trusted without independent verification. Indeed my experience is that very rarely is it worth the bother even to try to verify their claims, so egregiously inaccurate and hyperbolic are their arguments. Such people view themselves as playing a role in the conservative propaganda machinery headed by Fox News and radio-ranting luminaries such as Rush Limbaugh. As such, they will fall over backwards to excuse even the most repulsively dishonest and manipulative behavior by their fellow partisans.

Almost incredibly, it appears that the Obama White House and much of the conventional media figured this obvious truth out only within the last day or so, after falling for yet another transparent fraud committed by the notorious huckster Andrew Breitbart. I would have thought that the last 19 years furnished ample evidence that right-wing media has little more than contempt for mamsy-pamsy standards of truthfulness and integrity – ever since it produced and flogged around a grossly misleading public opinion poll in order to boost the nomination of Clarence Thomas after he’d been accused of sexual harassment.

A case study

There shouldn’t be any doubt that right-wing media ‘scandals’ should be greeted with extreme skepticism, and yet the naïve continue to stumble along without ever taking a good hard look at how these frauds are perpetrated. So here is an example, chosen almost at random from the many daily ‘scandals’ flogged by right-wing blogs. Like so many other ‘scandals’ promoted by conservatives since 2008, this piece is transparently race-baiting. It has also been reproduced and quoted widely and uncritically. But above all, it’s marked by preposterously misleading assertions. The post is predicated entirely on the assumption that readers will not check the source material and discover its deceptions.

The author, William Tate, argues that the “Obama administration…faces a new [racial] bias claim” from the TARP Special Inspector General, Neil Barofsky. Tate would have us believe that Barofsky charges Obama with ensuring that GM and Chrysler dealerships were slated for closure based upon the race/gender of their owners.

Wonder of wonders, Tate is being deceptive. What follows are three obvious ways in which Tate has tried to mislead.

(i) Tate’s main evidence is a quotation that he rips out of context from the the TARP SIG report (PDF). Here is how the quotation is rendered by Tate:

[D]ealerships were retained because they were recently appointed, were key wholesale parts dealers, or were minority- or woman-owned dealerships. [Emphasis added.]

He reproduces this one sentence without providing anything like adequate context. Quite the contrary, by careful choice of his words, Tate implies (a) that this was the method by which all closure decisions were made for both GM and Chrysler, and (b) that the Obama administration “forced” this method on them. Neither thing is true.

In fact, the quotation relates only to GM, which devised its own method without much oversight from the Obama administration (Barofsky’s report suggests there should have been more governmental involvement, not less). Furthermore, the quotation relates to a secondary, not the primary (much less the sole) method for selecting GM dealerships for closure. The primary method was based purely on two objective criteria for how well dealerships were performing. Those that met both criteria were slated for closure. Then some 1252 marginal dealerships, those that met one but not both criteria for closure, were reviewed in more detail and 364 of them were given reprieves on several bases. The main basis for these reprieves, the report says explicitly, was to save rural dealerships. The quotation reproduced by Tate refers only to the remaining marginal reprieves, where a GM dealership was retained even though it wasn’t rural.

In other words, Tate selectively quotes a single sentence from a complex discussion in order to whip up racial resentments by falsely suggesting that racial preferences factored in all the decisions to close GM and Chrysler dealerships, putting thousands of workers out of jobs.

The truth is far less explosive: At most, a small number of marginal GM dealerships were given reprieves because of racial/gender preferences.

Here is the full paragraph that Tate carefully edited:

GM officials attributed these inconsistencies (in granting reprieves to some but not all of the marginal dealerships) primarily to a desire to maintain coverage in certain rural areas where they have a competitive advantage over import auto companies that are not typically located in rural areas, although ultimately close to half of all of the GM dealerships identified for termination were in rural areas. Other dealerships were retained because they were recently appointed, were key wholesale parts dealers, or were minority- or woman-owned dealerships.

For what it’s worth, later in the TARP SIG report there may be hints that those relatively few gender/racial preferences were based on corporate legal advice, perhaps due (?) to past accusations of GM-wide bias. In any event, it’s clear that Tate’s goal is to stoke racial animosities by misrepresenting what the Inspector General says. Here is Tate’s take-away from his selective quotation:

Thus, to meet numbers forced on them by the Obama administration, General Motors and Chrysler were forced to shutter other, potentially more viable, dealerships. The livelihood of potentially tens of thousands of families was thus eliminated simply because their dealerships were not minority- or woman-owned.

A series of bald assertions that simply are not true. Tate must know that they’re false, for why else would he omit the word “Other…” at the start of his quotation? He’s counting heavily on his readers’ gullibility.

(ii) Tate then proceeds to argue that “a reading of the IG's study makes plain that some dealership closings forced by the administration were based largely on politics”. He means that Obama wanted payback against Republican (rural) areas of the country he didn’t win in 2008.

Tate’s evidence? The fact that Barofsky states “ultimately close to half of all of the GM dealerships identified for termination were in rural areas.”

That is where raw, hard, sewage-filled Chicago politics came into play.

That’s it, Tate has nothing beyond a factoid about rural GM closures. Tate does not of course quote the full sentence nor supply the context, as I do above. Had he done so, it would have become immediately apparent to his readers that GM sought to lessen rural closures; that all closed dealerships were selected by an objective standard for poor performance; and that the standard was created by GM, not the White House.

The Barofsky report states explicitly that “SIGTARP found that [Obama’s] Auto Team was not involved in determining which dealerships to terminate.”

So not only is there not a shred of evidence that the Obama administration manipulated the closure process based on politics, the report indicates as clearly as possible that Tate’s central point is false.

(iii) Toward the end of his post, Tate puts in blockquotes three passages that he introduces as “details contained in the Barofsky report” and “essential underlying facts” in the report that the Treasury Dept. has not disputed. The first passage is the selective quotation discussed in part (i). Thus Tate implies that all these passages come from the Barofsky report. In the post as a whole, otherwise, Tate uses blockquotes only for quotations from the SIGTARP report.

But the second and third passages are in fact not quotations but Tate’s own hyperbole, each with only a short phrase snipped from the report. You’d have to be reading carefully, however, to figure out that these blockquotes are not marking actual quotations. Nor is Tate’s hyperbole here an accurate summary of the contents of the Barofsky report. The third passage in particular is egregiously misleading:

A disproportionate number of Obama-forced closings were of rural dealerships, in areas unfriendly to Obama, even though such closures could "jeopardize the return to profitability" for GM and Chrysler.

The latter part (about returning to profitability) is not an undisputed viewpoint, nor should Tate imply that it is one held by the Inspector General. It’s an opinion voiced by a representative from the Center for Automotive Research who was asked to critique the thinking of the Auto Team. Indeed that person describes any such jeopardy as “the worst case” scenario. Furthermore, there’s nothing in the SIGTARP report to prove that “a disproportionate number of…closings were of rural dealerships”. We aren’t given the proportions of rural and non-rural closings. And of course the report does not talk about political considerations in rural closures because it found no political involvement in the decisions.

From beginning to end, this flimsy piece is worse than a fiasco. It's not predicated on a misreading of the report, or mere sloppiness. It is deliberately and carefully disingenuous. It selects a few stray bits of authentic material and presents them in a package of analysis of such gross dishonesty as to transform these tatters into what appears, on first glance, to be a coherent tapestry of 'scandal'. The image collapses at the lightest touch, however, leaving behind only its filthy shreds.

The same is true of nearly all right-wing media 'scandals'.

Update: Here's a classic right-wing response to Tate's dishonest piece. Unlike nearly all conservative commentators, who simply swallowed Tate's lies whole, Ed Morrissey acknowledges the plain fact that the Obama administration had nothing to do with selecting the dealerships to close. None the less, Morrissey flails around trying to save Tate's false allegation (his title: "TARP audit on dealer shutdowns: Ethnic, gender issues trumped economics") by the most convoluted and bizarre argument imaginable. Among other things, it involves citing Tate for a "fact" that his own flimsy argument hinges on - the false assertion that "Barofsky actually found that closing dealerships wouldn’t save the automakers all that much money". (Barofsky said everybody agreed dealerships needed to be closed, but there were legitimate differences of opinion about the speed/timing of closures and the main benefits from them.)

In the end, Morrissey just flat out drops the question of "ethnic, gender issues". What's more, Morrissey then doesn't even come close to providing evidence to support his too clever reframing of Tate's racial argument - "why politics trumped business concerns" in the closure decisions. Instead, Morrissey just shifts the discussion to a different issue altogether by quoting another right-wing nut. Like Tate, Morrissey anticipates that the reader will swallow the hyperbolic allegations without noticing that they're unsupported. To judge by his commenters, that's exactly the reaction he gets. His post is a subtler version of Tate's manipulation, but no less deceptive.

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