Thursday, October 29, 2009

Afghanistan for Dummies, Part 2: Just say "No" to drugs -- and weapons

I just got an e-mail from my secret deep-throat covert expert source on Afghanistan and this was an occasion of note. "And why is that?" you might ask. Here's why. Unlike the many and various Washington "Deciders" that have vociferously held forth on the subject of Afghanistan since even before Charlie Wilson's War (including the terrible blunders Bush and Cheney committed before, during and after they bombed the crap out of Afghanistan), MY source actually knows what he is talking about. And so I have decided to do all these benighted Washington "Deciders" a big favor and let them in on the stuff that my favorite Afghanistan source has just revealed. And I'm going to call this instruction manual "Afghanistan for Dummies".

About three weeks ago, I found out that Prof. Peter Dale Scott, a noted Berkeley historian most widely known for his research into the JFK assassination, had begun doing research on the opium trade in Afghanistan. Hmmm. I want to know about opium in Afghanistan too! So I asked my covert source what he thought.

"In my own research," answered my source, "I have not looked at the opium trade -- mainly because others (such as Barnett Rubin at NYU's Center for International Cooperation) have already covered this field intensely. However, I have checked in on various urban sectors to see how the 'trade' is affecting urban development in Kabul, and the role seems to be indirect: People are using real-estate investments in Kabul as a way of laundering money, a pretty typical phenomium worldwide." Yeah. I've heard about that too. It appears to be going on in America as well.

"The two inferential bits that I can only speculate about are these," continued my source. "First, the U.S. started helping the Afghan mujahideen in the same years that the CIA in Central America started trafficking cocaine to help fund the Contras. That was exposed in the San Jose Mercury News -- so I'm pretty confident the CIA actually did that. They may have also set up opium-trafficking networks for the mujahideen at the same time. And those may still be the ones used."

That makes sense. If the CIA did it successfully in Latin America (and probably also in Burma) then what would keep them from trying the same thing elsewhere? Our fierce watchdog Congress? LOL.

"Second, an opium culture existed historically in Badakhshan Province (extreme NE Afghanistan), but not in south. Now, 70% of Afghan opium comes from Helmand Province, where there was no history of it before 2002. US has been in Helmand, both militarily and supplying rural-rehab aid, since 2002. Weird coincidence, if that is all that it is. Note that opium grown in the southern provinces seems to be trafficked out by Baluchi truckers who cross south into Pakistan, west into Iran, then through northern Iraq (Mosul) into Turkey, then to the EU. So, also weird that they can travel through US-occupied Iraq without trouble; but probably because traffickers are the least of American concerns in Iraq."

My source has come through again! Sort of.

Then my source gave me his "Afghanistan for Dummies" speech. Like Matthew Hoh, my source is truly concerned that America's biggest problem in Afghanistan is that Washington and the Pentagon don't really KNOW what their mission in Afghanistan actually is. To quote Hoh, "I have doubts and reservations about our current strategy and planned future strategy but my resignation is based not upon how we are pursuing this war but why and to what end. To put it simply, I fail to see the value or the worth in continued U.S. casualties or expenditures of resources in support of the Afghan government in what is, truly, a 35-year-old civil war." My source also asks the same question.

"What is the U.S. mission in Afghanistan? And, since we don't seem to have one, what should it be? Here are some of my brief recommendations: First, we need to completely distinguish our military mission from our humanitarian activism. Operationally, they are incompatible regardless of what we at home might feel about 'military humanitarianism'."

Next, my source suggests that we "distinguish the pursuit of transnational terrorism completely from counterinsurgency. I am not sure if we should even be fighting this counterinsurgency; however transnational terrorism remains a serious threat to domestic security."

Regarding the difference between transnational terrorism and counterinsurgency, Matthew Hoh also notes that it is a local insurgency by the Pashtuns that we are fighting, not Al Qaeda or the Taliban. "The US and NATO presence and operations in Pashtun valleys and villages, as well as Afghan army and police units that are led and composed of non-Pashtun soldiers and police, provide an occupation force against which the insurgency is justified. In both RC East and South, I have observed that the bulk of the insurgency fights not for the white banner of the Taliban, but rather against the presence of foreign soldiers and taxes imposed by an unrepresentative government in Kabul."

Then my recommends that, "the U.S. should seriously consider a 'development campaign' in Afghanistan. Oddly, we are used to the idea of a military campaign in other countries clear across the planet, which is a very difficult thing to accomplish and sustain. But we think that development interventions are too difficult. Okay, I accept the problem that significant cultural variation means you cannot feasibly do all aspects of development. But you don't need to (and shouldn't even try). There is actually a thick literature on this, which just doesn't get publicly discussed enough. So here I boil it down: Use the Human Development framework as a guide. Why? Because the United Nations Development Program has been refining this framework since 1990, and even the most rudimentary interpretation of the framework is useful."

Then my source offers up the following restatement of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan:

"First, we will raise the literacy rate by one percentage point per year. Second, we will raise life-expectancy by one percentage point per year.

"What would it take to meet these two targets? A lot of close involvement, yes; and it can be done in myriad ways, including many that are culturally sensitive! But rather than proximal goals (we built 250 schools! Only 100 have been blown up by insurgents!), it would mean actual change: prevalence of literacy. Instead of how many needles or pills or whatever the short-term metric of health aid might be, we should look at long-term, actual outcomes: Can Afghans expect to live longer? Longevity is influenced by many things, from de-mining to better nutrition to lower levels of domestic violence to healthcare. Tackling some or all of these in a culturally-respectful way is do-able."

Here comes the next chapter in my source's "Afghanistan for Dummies". It's long and I don't quite understand it all myself but here it is. "I have described this operation as a development 'campaign' because we are used to military campaigns, no matter how complex, expensive, and long-term they may be. Yes, a development campaign might cost several billion dollars a year in one small country. That seems expensive until it is compared to military campaigns."

I just read somewhere that it takes a million dollars a year to keep just one soldier in Afghanistan. A development campaign has GOT to be cheaper than that.

"And yet, I think it might achieve the same intended effect, as far as US congress and the American people are concerned: long-term improvement of domestic US security. If you finish your involvement in a country with a population who are healthier and more capable in their life-options, they are likely to remember that and have your back for at least a whole generation. Note that this is not a kumbaya argument: I would not argue to American taxpayers that we should help Afghans because it is the right thing to do in some abstract sense, or even appeal to our sense of loyalty by pointing out that Afghans bled for our sake as they demoralized the Soviets with their insurgency. But I would argue that major intervention to get their political economy back up and running is worth it for our own security. Even if the US is not likely to remain a hyperpower indefinitely, we are very likely to remain a major global player for the very long term. We need policies that match that understanding."

I can see what he means. According to Robert Parry, "As security worsens in Afghanistan and Pakistan, it is clear that al-Qaeda and its Taliban allies outwitted President [sic] George W. Bush and his neoconservative advisers by tying down U.S. forces in Iraq for five years while the Islamic militants rebuilt their forces for the war on their 'central front'.” And what is Al Qaeda's 'central front'? America, of course. So it could be very beneficial to our own security if we upped our "development campaign" in Afghanistan.

As for my own self, I am torn between the realization that America CANNOT afford to stay in Afghanistan -- because the money we are spending there is coming directly our of our budget for decent schools for our children. However. I sort of do want our troops to stay there because I have a dear friend in Kabul who somehow survived the Russian invasion, who somehow surrived Charlie Wilson's War and who somehow survived Taliban rule -- and I would hate to have anything violent and nasty happen to him now. And if it costs American taxpayers 100 billion dollars every few months just to keep my friend in Kabul safe, that's fine with me!

But wouldn't it be more cost-efficient if we could think of a better way to protect him -- and us -- than to spend a million dollars per year per soldier in Afghanistan? Maybe we could spend a thousand dollars per year per school over there instead? And perhaps a thousand dollars per year per school over here too?

PS: So. What can we expect things to be like in Afghanistan in 20 years if Washington and the Pentagon keep using their current policies and techniques? My guess is that the U.S. will be lucky if Afghanistan only resembles the Israel-Palestine situation right now -- an uneasy truce between the "haves" in charge and the "have-nots" in the occupied territories, draconionally maintained by an enormous outpouring of funds from American taxpayers, spent mainly on things like F-16s, drones, white phosphorus bombs, tanks and check-points the size of three football fields -- not to mention a Wall or two -- as these things become increasingly necessary to separate the "haves" in charge in Kabul from the "have-nots" in the occupied Pashtun tribal areas.


Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Just back from Russia: How to survive jet-lag

After spending 16 hours in the air between Russia and SFO -- and five additional hours sitting around in a French airport -- I was really, really glad to get home to Berkeley. And my granddaughter Mena still remembered me. And the roof of my apartment had only leaked a little bit. And only a few of my houseplants had died. Good to be home! I was, however, completely overcome by jet-lag. Is jet-lag a pre-existing condition?

When I got back from Russia, the first thing that I noticed here -- aside from a big stack of unopened mail -- was that, in my absence, America had become completely obsessed with the Great Swine Flu Scare. Nobody had even mentioned the H1N1 virus when I was over in Russia, but in America the media everywhere I turned was blasting stories about "1,000 people dying" and the big "National Emergency Declaration". I also noticed that the debate over single-payer healthcare was still going strong. And you know which side I'm gonna be on regarding that one. If a huge pandemic ever does hit the U.S., I surely will not want to have to deal with any for-profit health insurance companies before I can get treated. "I'm sorry, Jane, but swine flu is a pre-existing condition."

But I digress.

Forget about getting taken to the cleaners by for-profit health insurance companies and having weird substances shoved up you nose by Big Pharma. Let's talk about what really interests me most right now -- jet-lag. How does one get over jet-lag? If there is a vaccine for jet-lag, sign me up!

But until a vaccine for jet-lag is finally discovered, here's a list of the things that I myself have discovered to actually help. First of all, there is yoga. I HATE yoga. But it works. If you tie yourself up like a pretzel, you won't even be thinking about jet-lag. I guarantee it.

Next, do try acupuncture. It works too. If someone is sticking a bunch of needles into your ears, you are not gonna be worrying about jet-lag. Jet-lag will be the least of your worries. Trust me on that one. But acupuncture does help. At the AIMC clinic on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley, You can have student interns acupuncture your ears for only five dollars per session. A miracle cure!

And then there's Jin Shin Jyutsu. Jin Shin Jyutsu is amazing. It helps us to immediately get into physical, mental and emotional balance -- and it's easy to do. JSJ basically consists of holding onto your fingers and toes (and, no, you don't have to recite "This little piggy went to market" while doing it). First you grab your left little toe with your right hand and hold onto it for three minutes -- grab onto all three joints of your toe bone, descending down to the pad at the top of your foot. Then you hold the next toe for three minutes, and then the next one -- do all five. Then switch to the other arm and foot. And do it while watching all the episodes of "Survivor" that you missed while you were gone. JSJ is amazing stuff. And it works.

I just made three demonstration videos about Jin Shin Jyutsu. The first one shows my daughter Ashley and I demonstrating some basic finger holds (ignore the eight more complex holds on this video. I got some of them wrong): The second video shows me and toddler Mena demonstrating eight more complicated finger holds: And the last video shows me using the proper techniques for clutching one's fingers and toes. I got skills!

Still suffering from jet-lag even after all that? Then go for a walk. I HATE to walk. My knees hurt. But you can at least hobble around the block once or twice. Fresh air is nice. Fresh air also works.

And speaking of fresh air, I've noticed that the air over America is not as clean and clear as the air over Russia. That's probably because Russia has more trees. Imagine an area the size of, well, the continental United States -- only all covered with trees. And all those trees will be breathing out clean oxygen. No wonder Russia's air is better. Their secret weapon is trees.

Breathing is a good way to get over jet-lag. You gotta remember to breathe. Also eating healthy stuff helps a lot. I HATE to eat healthy. But it does help. And they say that sex gets you over jet-lag sooner too. But I haven't yet tested that theory because apparently MediCare doesn't cover sex even though, for me, sex is not a pre-existing condition.

PS: It was really good to see my family again -- Joe and Ashley and Mena. I missed them. They missed me. Having a wonderful family to return to is the best cure for jet-lag of all!

PPS: When I got home, Kristin Bender of the Oakland Tribune wrote an article on my recent court settlement with the Department of Defense. Here's the article:

Berkeley Blogger settles lawsuit against the Department of Defense, By Kristin Bender, Oakland Tribune

Berkeley blogger Jane Stillwater has settled a lawsuit against the federal government for $1,362, the cost of an airplane ticket to Kuwait and the price of 15 mocha lattes at the airport Starbucks, where she spent two sleepless days because her previously approved embed with the Army suddenly was canceled.

"They claim they bought me off, but still it's kind of a win for me," Stillwater said. "I thought they'd fight this to the absolute bitter end."

The government clearly doesn't see it her way. "This stipulation for compromise settlement shall not constitute an admission of liability or fault on the part of the United States, its agencies, agents, servants, or employees, and is entered into by the parties for the purpose of compromising disputed claims and avoiding the expenses and risks of litigation," according to a statement in the settlement agreement between Stillwater and the Department of Defense.

Stillwater, 67, had embedded with the U.S. military in Iraq twice before to blog about the war and troop life. In January 2008, according to a copy of an e-mail from media embed coordinator Spc. James Deady, she was granted an embed from Feb. 14 to March 3 of that year. She bought a plane ticket but then got word the embed was called off. The government has said that "changes on the battlefield" and "limited resources to support embeds" were the reasons for the cancellation, according to copies of e-mails to Stillwater from military officials.

She flew to Kuwait anyway [they had told me that there was still a chance for the embed to happen] and spent time in the Starbucks drinking mocha lattes before the U.S. Embassy booked her a flight back home. Stillwater has blogged since 2000 and was granted the embed by securing media credentials through a Texas newspaper, The Lone Star Iconoclast.

"I want to see what's out there in the world, and if what (the government) is telling us is true," said Stillwater, who has reported on subjects from troops' living conditions to the variety of MREs, or meals ready to eat. She has also blogged from Russia, Iran, North Korea, and African nations and is headed to Antarctica in December in order to have visited every continent.

Her daughter Ashley Stillwater, 22, worries about her mother.
"I'm constantly e-mailing her, asking, 'Are you still alive?,' 'Are you lost?' 'Are you OK?'" she said. But for all her worry, Stillwater's daughter said she is happy her mother recouped her money, because they used it to pay for dinner at Chez Panisse.

According to the suit, it's clear the government wanted to end the fight over the money. "Plaintiff hereby releases and forever discharges the United States and any and all of its past and present officials, employees, agencies, agents, attorneys, their successors and assigns, from any and all obligations, damages, liabilities, actions, causes of action, claims and demands of any kind and nature whatsoever ... '' according to part of the settlement agreement. That's fine with Stillwater, who is giddy about her win.

"I took on the Department of Defense, and I won," she said. "But I'm not going to brag about it."

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Life, death & St. Peterburg: Two churches & a synagogue

"Churches are deliberately designed to impress the people who go there," someone once told me. And when I visited several churches in St. Petersburg recently, I was DEFINITELY impressed.

First I went to a small but elaborately-decorated cathedral where most of Russia's Tzars and their families are buried -- including even poor young Princess Anastasia. Then I went off to St. Isaac's Cathedral. Wow!!!! It's amazing. And here's my video to prove it:

Because today has been pretty much one of those ABC days (Another Bloody Church), I decided to break up the pace and go visit St. Petersburg's Grand Choral Synagogue as well. It was lovely. It was huge. It is the second-largest synagogue in Europe. And while it wasn't quite as garish as St. Isaac's, it was definitely impressive. If you want to see my video of it, click here:

And visiting all these various Houses of God today got me to thinking about religions. I just love religions! I am completely enthusiastic about the idea that, over multiple millennia, generation after generation of human beings have invested humongous amounts of effort into dreaming up whole bunches of new and better ways to inspire the human race to behave itself and to make the world a better place. That's totally impressive. That's freaking poetic.

But over the course of human history, these various religious ideals have been sorely taken advantage of and abused by unscrupulous men who have used religions merely as pawns in their selfish quest for power and wealth; using their religion as an excuse to plunder and kill. And in my eyes that's the biggest crime that a human being can commit. Humph.

In any case, religions tell us not to kill. But massive slaughters in the name of religion still continue, even into the 21st century -- and they even appear to be on the increase. Why is this?

I just read an article in Rolling Stone magazine about Cornell West. West said something to the effect that, "Death is the biggest thing that all of us have to cope with in our entire lives -- and if we approach death bravely, then the quality of our lives becomes better and more worthwhile."

So then I began thinking that perhaps people who kill other people might do it because somehow they have gotten the twisted idea that if they killed enough other people, then they themselves would not have to die. That's deep. But guess what? It's also magical thinking! Life doesn't work that way. If it did, then people like Adolph Hitler, Attila the Hun and Josef Stalin would still be alive today. And after having given the order to bomb, shoot, maim and kill over a million people in Iraq and Afghanistan, does this mean that George Bush, Dick Cheney and all those warhawks in Congress will become immortal too? NO.

We all die. And the trick that we all need to learn is how to be able to die gracefully. Jesus died gracefully, for example -- with character and with courage. As did Buddha. How do YOU want to die?

General Norman Schwarzkoph once said, "Leadership is a potent combination of strategy and character. But if you must be without one or the other, be without strategy." Character was important to Norman? One of the men responsible for brutally slaughtering up to ten thousand retreating and defenseless soldiers and civilians on the infamous Highway of Death now thinks that "character" is important? Give me a break.

Human beings, whether they be Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, Buddhist or whatever, all need to start actually following the tenants of their own religions -- and stop all this mass killing in the name of their God. That, even more than just fancy places of worship, would make for a beautiful world. THAT would be impressive!

PS: Here is one of my very first blog essays, written way back in 2001. And what I wrote then regarding religions still seems to hold true today:

Christian, Muslim, Jew: Exercises in man's inhumanity to man

What has Afghanistan under the control of the Taliban taught us about Islam? We learned that when "Muslims" were given the perfect chance to demonstrate to the world the wonders of their religion, they instead chose to create a model of man's inhumanity to man.

What has Israel under the control of radical Zionists taught us about Judaism? We learned that when "Jews" were given the perfect chance to demonstrate to the world the wonders of their religion, they instead chose to create a model of man's inhumanity to man.

What has America under the control of the Christian right taught us about Christianity? We learned that when "Christians" were given the perfect chance to demonstrate to the world the wonders of their religion, they instead chose to create a model of man's inhumanity to man.

The whole purpose of religion is to teach us that it is not too late -- it is never too late -- for the human race to evolve into something better and more wonderful. And religion is also here to teach us that life is NOT a competition to see who can grab the most land or grab the most wealth or grab the most power (or even grab the most oil). Life IS a competition -- but it is a competition to see who can do the most good deeds.

PPS: According to an article by Barbara Ehrenreich, America's evangelical religious right-wing has been demonstrating its talent for hypocrisy in another area besides just "Shock and Awe". The right-wingers keep kvetching about how Big Government is controlling their lives and creating a Welfare State -- but guess what? These very same churches find no problem at all with accepting public money to do exactly the same thing that the government does. Whenever you are handing out welfare funds -- whether at the county office or the church office -- it's still the same idea and it's still paid for by taxpayers. Except that when churches hand out these welfare services, they come with lots of strings attached.

If evangelicals truly want to eliminate Big Government, then a good first step for them would be to stop taking government handouts. Duh.

"Not only do the right-leaning evangelical churches offer their own, shamelessly proselytizing social services," stated Ehrenreich, "...but they stand to gain public money by doing so.... The evangelical church-based welfare system is being fed by the deliberate destruction of the secular welfare system.... The closest analogy to America's bureaucratized evangelical movement is Hamas, which draws in poverty-stricken Palestinians through its own miniature welfare state."

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

War & Peace: Afghanistan, the Soviets, winter & Tolstoy

Did I just visit the cottage where Leo Tolstoy was born, the place where he was buried or just a statue of the guy? As much as I love visiting Russia and want to stay here forever, all this tourist stuff is finally starting to just meld together for me and I'm getting all confused. Whose palace did I just visit? What was the name of that church?

But thinking about Tolstoy has also gotten me to thinking about War and Peace -- and not only just about the novel by that name but the actual concepts themselves. How can we ever achieve peace in this world when the blood-thirsty war-hungry bully elements of human society always seem to be so much more powerful than the rest of us? Take Afghanistan for instance. RAWA, a peace-loving women's organization in Afghanistan, didn't defeat the Soviet Union. The USSR was defeated by fierce and brutal tribesmen sporting deadly USA-supplied weapons.

The Soviets didn't leave because Miss Manners politely asked them to go or because the local imams prayed for them to go back to Moscow. The Soviets were forced back over the mountains by armed madmen.

What would Tolstoy have said about this?

Who knows what Tolstoy would have said -- but my friend Anwaar Hussain has a lot to say about Afghanistan today. So I'm taking a break from reporting about the various landmarks, palaces and churches of Russia and reporting about events on the Af-Pak border instead. And take my word for it, Leo. The news about Peace there is NOT good.

According to Anwaar, the so-called Taliban have stolen the moral high ground in the Af-Pak region by making it appear that they, and they alone, are the chosen representatives of God -- and it is now time for the American-backed Pakistan forces to take back the moral high ground. "The government should use all means at its disposal i.e. media, clerics, political leaders, etc., to highlight the fact that these are no godmen. These are common thugs involved in the drug trade, kidnappings for ransom and contract killings, to name a few activities, masquerading as godmen. Take their golden shoe away from them and beat them back with it."

Anwaar also recommends that Americans need to stay out of the battle between Pakistan forces and the so-called Taliban. "For now, the Americans need to watch silently from the sidelines. They have lost much face with their blundering jaunts in Iraq and Afghanistan and the wanton killings in those unfortunate countries. They need to stand back and refrain from adding further weight to the Taliban’s golden shoe."

So. What should America to do? Hire Pakistan to fight its battles for it? That won't sit too well with the Afghans, who claim that Pakistan's scheming intrigues against them have been responsible for most of their woes during the last several decades. But Anwaar goes on to suggest that it is also a bad idea for America to do nothing.

"Don’t talk of winding it up in days/weeks," he recommends. "Be prepared for the long haul. By its very nature, insurgencies are protracted affairs. Even after several months, Malakand continues to remain on a low boil. Moreover, given South Waziristan’s terrain and the nature of the foe, a significant part of the militants’ strategy would be to encourage the military to penetrate deeper into the region i.e. farther up into the mountains, the favorite fighting ground of the militants, and then tie the soldiers down with hit-and-run tactics. That is likely to keep the soldiers engaged in a long-drawn-out operation in the unfriendly terrain over the winter."

According to Tolstoy, isn't that what the Russians did to Napoleon? Will the Taliban use winter to help defeat the Pakistan Army too? And never forget that the treacherous Af-Pak mountain winter is also a player in this Great Game.

I would love to go to Afghanistan again, to embed with the Marines and report on the war now going on there -- but I'm not as stupid as Napoleon. I'll wait until the winter is over.

Anwaar then goes on to state the obvious. "Above all, what needs to be remembered is that while there is no doubt that the Pakistan Army will eventually come out tops in this conflict, insurgencies are not defeated by simply killing all the insurgents. The root causes of this discontent, through reforms, education and reconstruction projects, will soon have to be addressed."

PS: Anwaar also sent me the following information from his friend Agha, who has lived in Afghanistan since 2004, and I am now passing this information along because I think it's important to know his POV. Then you can make what you want to out of it.

"With much bragging and swagger, the recent [Pakistan Army] Waziristan Operation [against Taliban-held areas] has been glorified as the mother of all battles," wrote Agha, "and while it is important for military morale to spread the word that God or Allah is on side of the Pakistan Army, wars are not fought by propaganda or media alone. It all boils down to superior strategy, superior operational strategy and superior tactics by a military machine which is well supplied, has the right firepower at the right time, good intelligence, high morale and finally the physical endurance to climb the highest and steepest rocky pinnacles and traverse mountain gorges under the deadliest threats of ambuscades and annihilation."

Then Agha offers his "two cents or half cents worth" of thoughts about Af-Pak. "First of all, the Waziristan Talibans centre of gravity is no longer the Mehsud inhabited area of South Waziristan. They have spread into Orakzai Agency, into DI Khan, into Bannu District, into Khyber Agency, Kurram Agency, South Punjab and most notably Karachi, which is a monster city of some 18 million souls some one third Pashtun or lets say one fourth Pashtun. Any tangible military operation in Waziristan will not destroy the Taliban. The Taliban require a broader strategy.

"Second, the Talibans are not an ethnic movement. They are an ideological movement and have some support, in all parts of Pakistan. Seen in this context the Mehsud tribe although the core leadership of Taliban is a diverse set up in which leadership may not be destroyed even if the Mehsuds are destroyed or suffer serious casualties.

"Third, they say that security and power are more psychological than physical. 15,000 British soldiers held all India in the First World War! Today 50,000 Pakistani troops cannot control FATA, 1% of the size of British India! Have things changed or have we changed? The Pakistani security forces have fast lost this moral deterrence since 2004 -- with reverses in Waziristan, attacks on the corps commander and army chief and finally the GHQ attack. While apologists may brush them aside as of no consequence, the intangible trends are dangerous. A state cannot go on with an army that is no longer respected or feared -- be it China, the USA or Pakistan. This is Pakistan's most grave strategic imbalance or vulnerability.

"Fourth, the Taliban are supported by non-state actors in Pakistan, have silent supporters within the state actors, have foreign state and non-state supporters who support them for various agendas. By merely launching the army into South Waziristan, they cannot be destroyed.

"Fifth, the Taliban have been inflicting major damage on the USA are in Kandahar or Helmand since 2001, but these have been rewarded with rich construction and logistic subcontracts by US-AID agencies. The Taliban carry on drug and weapons trade day and night and are not interdicted by any US forces as I myself have repeatedly seen. Are they being prepared for Iran or at some stage China? It's a question that only history will answer. These Taliban have their centre in Pakistani Balochistan but have never been attacked by the US.

"Sixth, so much propaganda and rhetoric has preceeded the Waziristan Operation that the Waziristan Taliban have had ample time to relocate to Birmal in Afghanistan and to other tribal agencies adjoining South Waziristan and even to Punjab, settled NWFP area and to Karachi which is the largest Mehsud city in the world!"

Agha thinks that the key to this whole issue may by implementing the following policies:

1. Economically empowering Pakistan's tribal areas with export duty-exempt industrial zones producing products to be sent to the USA and EU. The naive US senate and congress have not addressed this core issue. The Kerry-Lugar Bill is a waste of time.

2. Serious reorganization of the Pakistan Army with heavy reliance on technology and on non-human military assets such as dogs, which have been so well used by many other armies fighting counterinsurgency. So far the Al Qaeda has failed to infiltrate into dogs!

3. Serious economic re-structuring of Pakistan with emphasis on power projects and incentives for small business.

4. A rapprochement with India so that the primacy of the Pakistani military in politics is reduced.

5. A gradual dis-engagement with the USA other than export-duty-free zones so that the demeaning impression of the Pakistani state and armed forces as petty vassals and mercenaries of the USA is reduced in the eyes of the Pakistani populace.

And here's another quote from Agha that I am sure Tolstoy would love! "If military operations could pacify any country, there would have been no Vietnam or Afghanistan or even 50 plus expeditions into Waziristan since the 1890s until to date. The issue is not military alone but much larger. Seen in this context, the abject surrender of Pakistan's political leadership to the Pakistani military to find a Waziristan solution is pathetic at best and shameful at the worst. As they say, war is too serious a business to be left to the generals."

Perhaps our Congress should take note of that last sentence and engrave it on an arch over the capitol dome.

PPS: I also just read an interview with Zoya, a representative of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan. "Eight years after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, the human rights situation has not improved. And terrorists have actually gotten stronger in the last eight years. The war on terror is like a Tom and Jerry game between the Taliban and America. RAWA members would like to see the United States withdraw its troops from Afghanistan."

Although RAWA initially welcomed the U.S. presence, RAWA changed its stance after learning that the United States is allegedly helping fundamentalist groups. "I think it is the Afghan people's responsibility to fight against fundamentalist groups," stated Zoya. Her organization seeks to promote democracy within Afghanistan by helping to fund and create alliances between democratic political parties, which will allow them to resist fundamentalist groups.

Perhaps, by following RAWA's example, the meek will finally inherit the earth after all. However. Neither I nor Leo Tolstoy are holding our breath.

PPPS: After reading a lot of the news, opinions, dispatches, etc. coming from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Washington over the last eight years, I have finally realized that pretty much nobody knows what they are doing over there. So. Does this make Washington's eight-year foray into that region a failure? Hardly. For those of us who have been following the money since 9-11, the whole point of this "war" appears to be merely a grand justification to subsidize America's new favorite industry -- the production of weapons.

Given this new way of measuring the war's success or failure, the war on Afghanistan has actually been a rousing success -- so why stop now when, according to this more realistic criteria, things are going really well! And besides, Afghanistan -- along with Iraq, Palestine and perhaps sections of the Kenya/Somalia border -- are pretty much the only shooting wars that America has left. And once they're gone, how are America's weapons manufacturers going to secure and maintain loyal customers, short of making Congress pass a law requiring every man, woman and child in America to own at least five hand guns, three rifles, two automatic weapons and a RPG?

If we leave the Af-Pak region now, the powerful weapons lobbies in Washington will just have to instruct Congress to go out and start another war. Isn't it better to stay with the evil we know?

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Palaces, palaces, palaces: St Petersburg's bloody "Bling"

If you are at all into gold, gaudiness, greed, glitter and glitz, then you are just going to LOVE St. Petersburg. This place is the absolute hometown of gaudy. The word "Bling!" was obviously invented here. Talk about your ostentatious spending. Girl, shade your eyes!

My first stop in Russia's former capital city was at the famous Hermitage, Catherine the Great's gigantic super-sized palace. Good grief.

At first this palace belonged to Elizabeth the Spender -- and that Russian queen was extremely well-named. Elizabeth loved parties. Her grand ballroom can be summed up in just four words: "Lots of gold paint." Louis the 14th of France must have been her interior decorator. And just look at those intricate parquet floors! So much for linoleum.

Elizabeth the Spender also loved chandeliers.

When Catherine the Great took over after her husband was mysteriously poisoned, she built another pull-out-all-the-stops wing onto the palace and then loaded it down with great art. We're talking hundreds of valuable canvases here, each one worth at least a million dollars. BIG money. Da Vinci, Titian, Raphael, El Greco, Goya, Rembrandt, Michelangelo, Matisse, Van Gogh.

Wait a minute. Wasn't Catherine the Great already dead when Matisse and Van Gogh began painting? It doesn't matter. Catherine the Great had enough money to hire those guys to start painting in utero. This queen was rich!

And where did all this money come from? The blood and sweat of Russian serfs, more likely than not.

Good grief! Here's a whole auditorium-sized room dedicated solely to Dutch Masters. There must be at least fifty or sixty paintings here. And this is only one room in the palace. And it looks like there are hundreds of more rooms to go. Good grief. This is overwhelming. My eyes hurt. My knees hurt. I need a chair.

How in the freak did Catherine the Great ever even have time to pull together this huge collection, let alone have time to enjoy it? How did she even have time to chose which paintings to buy? Or even to look at them. If she viewed one painting a day, it would probably have taken her three or four years just to see all of them. Or ten or twelve years.

That's serious Bling.

At one point I started counting all the Virgin Mary paintings on the second floor. Some Baby Jesuses were circumcised. Some were not. Couldn't the Old Masters just make up their minds?

So is this trillion-dollar palace where the glitterati of Russia hung out in the old days? I feel like I'm time-traveling, back in time to their secret innermost lives -- where the rich partied and showed off. And the poor people starved.

Next came Catherine's Palace. Girls gone wild! Elizabeth the Spender had pretty much gone nuts on this palace too. The palace itself was actually four or five huge palaces surrounding a courtyard as big as a football field. Good grief.

Inside Catherine's Palace was the famous Amber Room. All of its walls were decorated with amber mosaics. "No photos please," read the sign. But I was so impressed by all this ostentatious display of gratuitous money that I actually broke down and bought a refrigerator-magnet photo of the Amber Room. Wow. And Elizabeth also owned 14,000 dresses, each one with its own dyed-to-match shoes. And mirrors and gold and crystal and parquet and marble and.... Good grief.

As I walked through the legendary Amber Room, the phrase "blood of the serfs" kept reverberating through my brain. But nowadays, Goldman Sachs tycoons (America's rich dudes currently own over 99.9% of our wealth and they are showing no signs of stopping just there) and America's other counterparts to Elizabeth the Spender don't go in for palaces so much. They just give themselves bonuses. It looks like 2009 may turn out to be the most profitable year EVER for bankers and CEO bonuses. goldman Sachs just experienced the second-most profitable quarter in its history -- because of the 70 billion dollars it just received from us taxpayers. "Blood of the serfs."

Next came the Yusopov palace, which was small in comparison with the first two that I visited. But it still managed to have its own opera house, hidden back behind all the rear ballrooms. "Blood of the serfs." No wonder there was a revolution in Russia! The serfs who built all this stuff with their bare, bloody hands must have been truly pissed off. No wonder they went postal. And in America? The bankers stole our homes, the CEOs stole our salaries and pensions, the insurance companies stole our healthcare, the rich stole our tax money, the corporations shipped our jobs and industries overseas -- and all that they brought us back was this stupid T-shirt that says "You can be just like us if you only work hard".

Yeah right.

PS: If you want to see more of all this gaudy Bling, here are my videos. Enjoy.

Catherine's Palace, one of its grand ballrooms:

Catherine's Palaces from the outside:

The Hermitage goes "Bling!" Part 1:

The Hermitage goes "Bling!" Part 2:

PPS: I also included photos of my son Joe, daughter Ashley and granddaughter Mena -- because I miss them! The only bad thing about being in Russia is that I miss my family.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

CSI St. Petersburg: Visiting Rasputin's crime scene

After visiting Lenin's tomb, Khrushchev's grave, Stalin's headstone, Yeltsin's ugly red-white-and-blue memorial, Anastasia's burial site and St. Cyril's final resting place on the Volga, I was beginning to feel a little bit morbid already -- but wait, there's more. I just visited the actual exact spot where Grigori Rasputin was killed.

Rasputin was assassinated in the basement of the Yusopov Palace in St. Petersburg. Young Felix Yusopov was the golden boy of his family, a playboy and a gambler. And somehow he got it into his head that it was his civic duty to bump off the notorious "Mad Monk" Rasputin, who allegedly was controlling Tzar Nicholas's family. "In Russia, we called him the Gray Eminence, the man standing behind the throne," said the docent of the Yusopov palace museum. "Five men decided to get rid of Rasputin and Felix provided his palace for the attempt."

Several years ago, I had visited the television set of CSI Las Vegas, which consisted of three or four small rooms located out in the San Fernando Valley. Does that make me an expert on investigating crime scenes too? Sure.

"Felix had a beautiful wife named Irina and the couple was called 'Fire and Ice,' because Felix was impetuous and had a bad temper while Irena was beautiful and calm. Rasputin was fascinated by Irina and so Felix lured Rasputin to the basement of his palace with promises of introducing the monk to his lovely young wife." Like that was ever going to happen. It was the conspirators' version of bait-and-switch. You don't have to be Katherine Willows to figure that one out.

Meanwhile, back at the palace, I walked down some dark spooky stairs and into Felix's secret basement apartment. This was the actual basement where Rasputin was killed! And, OMG, who is that sitting at the table, eating cyanide-laced cupcakes? It was Rasputin himself! Wow. So I whipped out my forensics kit and started examining the body. "Hey, Dr. Langston," I called out, "this body is made out of wax!" See, I gots skills. Rasputin suffered death by wax!


"Down in the basement," the docent continued, "Rasputin kept eating more and more of those cakes but still showed no effects from the poison," said the docent. But any good CSI can tell you that cyanide is susceptible to heat, so the poison had been baked out of the cakes and thus didn't do him in. They should have put the cyanide in his vodka. "And so Felix pulled out his revolver and shot him." Cause of death? Gunshot wounds. Totally obvious. That's a wrap.

But no, apparently Rasputin was still alive. "Then Felix and his co-conspirators beat and stabbed Rasputin to death." Okay. Now we know. Beaten and stabbed to death. Felix would have loved Las Vegas! End of show.

But then, as all us students of weird events in history already know, Rasputin was not even dead YET. If CSI's chief medical examiner, Doc Robbins, had been able to look at Rasputin's body after it had been fished out of the Neva, he might or might not have declared that Rasputin's cause of death was from drowning. As for me, I'd go with that. A bullet hole through his brain wasn't fatal? Apparently not. But what would Gil Grissom have said?

Bottom line? I was actually standing on the very exact spot where Grigori Rasputin died (or didn't die). How historical is that! And I have the video-tape to prove it. Click here:

Then I went off to a cafe down the street and ate a lot of piroshkis. Travel broadens.

PS: Speaking of secrets, I just managed to worm the secret of how to make a moist cupcake out of my friend Chef John. Shhh. Here it is: "After the cupcakes come out of the oven, you boil some sugar, orange juice and water together and then brush the mixture over the cupcakes." Please note that Chef John didn't say anything about using cyanide.

PPS: While in St Petersburg, I also ended up listening to some Russian school children playing band music. This was a most welcome change after visiting the dismal and gruesome site of Grigori Rasputin's murder. Here's a video of the band:

Monday, October 12, 2009

Freezing my arse off in Russia: Where's global warming when you need it!

Here I am, back in my nice warm hotel room in Petrozavidsk, Russia, after having bravely struggled out into rain, sleet, hail and dead of night in search of this northern industrial city's main post office. In Russia, the place to look for an internet cafe is inside a post office. But the news from home was worth all that trouble because my friend Larry just e-mailed me a BBC article about possible accelerated global warming.

According to the BBC article, scientists have recently analysed a whole bunch of earth and ice core samples, dating back through at least 20 million years. Scientists were looking for climate-change patterns from the past that might shed light on today's climate patterns -- and they found some: Historically, the earth's ice caps have consistently melted whenever there was a level of 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

According to the BBC report, " the last few million years, [carbon dioxide levels] cycled between 180ppm and 280ppm in rhythm with the sequence of ice ages and warmer interglacial periods. Now, humanity's emissions of greenhouse gases are pushing towards the 400ppm range, which will very likely be reached within a decade." Within a decade? Wow.

And not only that but, if history keeps repeating itself, our sea levels are also gonna be rising a whole bunch too. "[Former carbon dioxide] levels similar to those now commonly regarded as adequate to tackle climate change were associated with sea levels 25-40 meters (80-130 feet) higher than today."

In other words, if the earth continues to follow the same pattern that it has held to over the last 20 million years, then as our current carbon dioxide levels continue to rise, both of our polar ice caps will melt relatively soon and the earth's weather will get a lot warmer. However. This is NOT going to happen soon enough to help me! I'm here in Russia right now, freezing my arse off!

Oh crap. This means that I'm going to have to stay in Russia for a whole DECADE before things here start to warm up.

When, however, this new climate change does finally arrive, Russia, unlike all those unfortunate countries located in the lower latitudes, will be benefiting bigtime. Climate change is really going to be of help here in the Red states!

Our escalating climate change could be disastrous for Africa, Europe, Central America and other places like The Maldives, Hawaii and Palau. But here in The Motherland, climate change will be a good thing. So instead of having sleet storms in September and blizzards in May like it does now, Russia's climate would apparently become more like our current continental America's climate -- and not so much like Alaska's. For Russia, climate change could turn out to be the ultimate perk.

But too bad it's not going to happen in time to help me. I shoulda brought my electric blanket.

However, in seven or eight years I'm going to start seriously thinking about moving to Alaska. Or Canada. Or Vermont. (Canada and Vermont are my first choices -- they have single-payer healthcare!) And if anyone out there is a real estate developer, you know what to do. Invest in condos and time-shares in Siberia....

And speaking of single-payer healthcare, for all of those people who keep telling me, "If you want socialist healthcare, then go move to Russia," I have this to say.

"You obviously haven't been to Russia lately. The New Russia has really changed a lot." I'd move here in a minute because they have lovely forests, a high standard of living, no war in the Middle East to bleed them dry financially, lots of nice people -- and the internet! The only thing that Russia doesn't have right now, and that California has lots of, is lovely warm weather. But that is obviously all about to change.

America may have a whole bunch of super-power weapons at its disposal, but Putin has the ultimate secret weapon -- global warming.

PS: Someone else just told me that China has invented a process that actually removes carbon dioxide from the earth's atmosphere. How cool is that. "And then they bury it deep under the ground." Does this mean that the buried carbon dioxide will be subjected to the earth's heat and pressure so that in a just few million years China will have an endless supply of coal, oil and diamonds? Very clever.

Nature has also thought of a way to remove carbon dioxide from the air. It's called a Tree. And Russia has more trees than I've ever seen anywhere.

PPS: Here's a video-tape of me strolling through The Hermitage while kvetching about American healthcare:

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Visiting Lenin's tomb: Just in time for Halloween!

How can you go to Moscow and not visit Lenin's tomb! You just can't.

After watching a video about Vladimir Lenin's takeover of Russia in 1917, I just had to go see this famous tomb for myself. "Lenin promised the workers that he would create a democratic government by the people," the video's narrator stated, "but Lenin lied." Lenin lied through his teeth to all of those sweet, gullible Russian peasants back in 1917 -- just like the powers-that-be in Washington have been lying through their teeth to all of us sweet, gullible Americans during the last 40-odd years; lying about everything all the way from Johnson and Nixon's Vietnam, Reagan's economic deregulation program, Iran-Contra affair and "war" on Grenada, Clinton's Kosovo and NAFTA, Bush's Afghanistan folly and war on Iraq and the infamous Bush-Obama joint Wall Street bailout -- up to and including the healthcare insurance company scams that are now being tauted by Congress and which currently kill 225 Americans a day. But I digress.

In 1917, Lenin's true secret mission was to establish a dictatorship in Russia -- with himself at the helm. And most of the people in the newly-formed USSR fell for his passionately-delivered "State of the Union" speech, thus allowing Lenin to write his own Patriot Act and to rule Russia with iron-handed signing statements until his death in 1924, after which time Stalin preserved Lenin's body and promoted him to proletariat sainthood. And millions of Soviet citizens began trooping through Red Square to see his body, which became a legendary pilgrimage spot for good Comrades. So. This here tomb of Lenin's is powerful historical stuff -- and definitely a Must-See for us tourists.

But how can I get all the way to Red Square from where I'm staying now, out at the North River Terminal, out in the middle of nowhere? "Just take the subway," someone said. Who me?

Moscow's subway system is enormous, the trains run really fast and all the station names are in Russian. You gotta be kidding. But then I asked a Russian friend of mine to write down the names of the stations I needed to get on and off at, and then just kept asking every Russian I saw how to get there. "You just count down nine stops from where you are now. And then look for the McDonalds." I can do that.

So I arrived early in Red Square on Monday morning and started to stand in line for Lenin's tomb. "Never go to a foreign country without gel," my daughter Ashley always warns me. Or without a book to read while you stand in line either. So I read "The Twilight Years: Paris in the 1930s," shivered in the morning cold and chatted with the man standing behind me -- who looked Korean-American. "You from San Francisco?" I asked.

"No, Siberia."

"Oh. Then this weather must not be cold for you."

"That's a stereotype. Siberia is actually quite warm." Yeah right. "No, really. It's actually rather sunny." Then the line started moving and we were actually entering Lenin's tomb. And it was SPOOKY. Its dark and mysterious atmosphere was like one of those weird haunted houses that you go to on Halloween.

First you go down a series of black marble steps, poorly lit, dangerous. And at each turn in the series of steps, silent Red Army guards stand rigidly at attention. And then you round the last corner and there is the dark, silent, spooky bunker-like tomb. And there is the actual body of Lenin himself -- the man who was ultimately responsible for the deaths of over 40 million Russians -- lying in his casket, looking ghostly, with only his face and hands exposed and lit, and looking, er, short. The only thing missing to make this scene complete is some piped-in organ music by Bach.

Lenin himself looked like he was made out of wax.

I then out-and-out stared at the moribund body Comrade Lenin for as long as I could -- until a silent guard finally motioned me to move on.

Now I know where Count Dracula hangs out in the daytime.

Russians are all talking about closing down Lenin's tomb now. No, don't do it! Even for all of its Halloween atmosphere and general over-all spookiness, this place is a very important part of Russian history. Almost every schoolchild in the former Soviet Union has been here. This tomb has become legendary over the last seventy years. And not only that, but this place is a SERIOUS tourist attraction. And it is also a warning to coming generations of Russians -- and also to coming generations of Americans as well -- that what you see is not always what you get. And that are leaders find it too temptingly easy to lie to us.

PS: And when all of our current and past American political leaders -- the ones who have happily sold out our country to the rich and powerful at the expense of the rest of us -- finally die off, let's make a Halloween wax-museum monument for them too.

PPS: They say that Russians never smile. "That's not true," said one Russian I met in Moscow. "We smile all the time -- when we have a reason. If we know you well, then we smile at you frequently. We just don't smile arbitrarily at strangers, that's all."

Russians who work with Americans have to be TAUGHT to smile all the time.

And, according to Barbara Ehrenreich, there's a reason that Americans smile all the time. "Smiles, at least in human society, are gestures of submission and are routinely demanded of [women, employees, service providers, congressional representatives, etc.] as a token of subordinate status. The happy slave smiles; the well-trained lady smiles; now even the male white-collar striver has to keep his lips pulled back in an expression of eager compliance. Only the top guys get to snarl and snap their way through the day."

Has America become a country of Stepin Fetchits? Duh, yeah. Why in the freak do you think they keep feeding us anti-depressants? So that we can fake our subservient smiles better, of course.

PPPS: When I video-taped my description of Lenin's tomb on Red Square, I forgot to push the "record" button down -- so here's the same description, only video-taped in a small village on the Volga instead of in front of the tomb: