Counting Afghanistan Casualties…Through 15 Other Countries

Although several news outlets spent the day barking about the Afghanistan death toll crossing the 1,000 mark, the truth is that casualty counting is a little more complicated. Icasualties.org is where the media are grabbing that 1,000 figure. The Web site does report that that the death toll in “Operation Enduring Freedom” has crossed that many deaths, but with one caveat: “U.S. fatalities In and Around Afghanistan remain under this benchmark.”

Clicking one more link will take you to their actual toll for Afghanistan (including neighboring Pakistan and Uzbekistan), which is still 70 shy of the millennium mark. The rest of the servicemembers died in such far away countries as Cuba (Guantánamo Bay), Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Jordan, Kenya, Kyrgyzstan, Philippines, Seychelles, Sudan, Tajikistan, Turkey, and Yemen.

Some have asked me why I care where they died, as it’s still one war. True, but that’s 15 other countries where our relatives, friends and neighbors are dying in this worldwide war. It may not bring them back to notice the details, but it underscores how absurdly spread out the war machine has gotten. And for what purpose?

Blackwater: When Not-So-Nice Guys Finish First

How’s this for a recipe that defies the seeming laws of common sense:

First, take Blackwater, otherwise known as “Xe,” a private security contractor that has been accused of abusive, hostile and violent behavior against the indigenous population of Iraq — including murder — not to mention corruption and intimidation of its employees, throughout the Iraq conflict. Then take the Afghan National Police, probably the most derided institution in all Afghanistan today for its legendary corruption and abuse of the Afghan population. Put them together and what do you get? Well, perhaps we don’t even want to know — but I’d bet money it don’t smell like “victory.”

Apparently the Department of Defense knows better. Laura Rozen over at Politico is reporting that Xe is poised to win a HUGE police training contract in Afghanistan:

Controversial defense contractor Blackwater, now known as Xe, is being told that it is likely to win a major contract to do police training mentoring and logistics in Afghanistan, a source tells POLITICO.

According to the well-informed source, U.S. authorities in Iraq including Gen. Stan McChrystal and US Ambasador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry had urged the Defense Department to issue the police training contract through DoD as opposed to through State/International Narcotics and Law Enforcement. DoD decided to use existing contract vehicles, where there are only five primes to use: Lockheed, Raytheon, Northrup, Arinc (owned by the Carlyle Group), and Blackwater.

None of them know anything about police training, the source said. Of those five, several decided not to bid, including Raytheon. Arinc’s parent company, Carlyle, got cold feet, was fearful that the contract could hurt the company’s reputation if people got killed. Lockheed was close to making a deal with DynCorp to do the police training, but decided against it. Instead it bid on the logistics part of the contract. (The contract has two parts- TORP 150 – police training; TORP 166 is logistics).

The only company to bid on both parts of the contract — the police training, and logistics parts — was Blackwater, the source said. Northrup decided to bid on the police training with MPRI.

I’m no expert, but if this war over there  is all about doing battle with the Taliban for the “hearts and minds” of the people, then hiring Blackwater –  whose name is so synonymous with arrogance and brutality that they had to change their own moniker –  to train the Afghan police might not be very good “strategic communications.”

UPDATE: Maybe when Blackwater gets the contract, they’ll give the Afghan police back their guns.

Bagram: The Annotated Prisoner List

On January 15, the ACLU won a FOIA suit demanding information about the prisoners held at the Bagram airbase in Afghanistan. Now British journalist Andy Worthington has reproduced the list (Many of the detainees were abducted and from who-knows-where and brought to Afghanistan in order that the CIA and military could take advantage of the lawlessness of the current “battlefield” there.) along with notes on approximately 100 of them who he had previously identified and investigated.

Worthington calls it a “co-operative project” and invites any information people may be able to add.

Sen. Dorgan Raised the Issue of War Profiteering

I’m not sure why Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D, decided to surprise everyone and announce his retirement Tuesday. I’ll admit right up front that I am not an expert on North Dakota politics, nor a thorough observer of  the man’s nearly-30 year career (17 years in the Senate;  11 years in the House of Representatives) in Washington. I’m not sure if he’s leaving to become a lobbyist for the energy industry, as some have suggested. I suspect it’s just plain politics — he had a tough opponent on the horizon and today’s political winds are against so-called Blue Dog Dems in Red Meat States.

What I do know is that Sen. Dorgan held over 21 hearings in the Senate on private contractor fraud and abuse, including war profiteering, the physical and mental harassment of whistle-blowers in-theater, and most recently on Nov. 6, the constantly burning open-air pits of waste in Iraq and Afghanistan that have made countless veterans sick and looking to the Pentagon for answers. Kellogg, Brown and Root, a former subsidiary of Halliburton, is being charged in 22 different class action lawsuits with purposefully burning toxic waste in the open-air pits to save a buck on not installing incinerators. There are now more incinerators at U.S bases today than there were a year ago, but the alleged victims contend that KBR, which has the contract for waste management services, plus practically everything else in its multi-billion LOGCAP contract, could have installed more incinerators years ago (a charge KBR officials vociferously deny).

But even aside from burn pits, Dorgan was one of those rare members of Congress who actually gave a flying fig about exposing not only the abuse that private contractors were perpetuating in the war zone, but the over-use of private contractors in the war zone, period. Aside from Rep. Henry Waxman, D-CA, on the House side, Dorgan, as chairman of the Democratic Policy Committee, was the only one to use his leadership post as a bully pulpit against abuses — even when there weren’t cameras on to report it — from very early on in the post-invasion occupation(s).

When I first started covering Dorgan and his hearings, his committee was literally scrambling around for space to meet. Let’s face it, whether the Republicans were in charge or the Democrats, most of these politicians hate to talk about war profiteering and all the money that has been bled from our treasury by private contractors who now hold the fate of our soldiers in their hands overseas (they feed them, clothe them, house them and protect them), and, as we know now thanks to Dorgan’s many hearings, they have put our personnel in harms’ way. From dirty water to faulty wiring in barrack showers, contractors have been responsible, but rarely held accountable, Dorgan has said more than once.

When the Democrats took back the majority in Congress in 2006, Dorgan’s committee stopped scrambling for space and announced it would make government oversight a key priority,a centerpiece. Government watchdogs were thrilled. But it didn’t take long to realize that reformist movements were marginalized even when the Democrats were in charge, and while plenty of Democrats liked to get in front of a camera to lash out against the Bush Administration’s use of contractors in the past, they have largely lost their gumption under the year-old, Democratic administration.

Still, Dorgan fought for, but never won the 60 Senate votes necessary to get him an investigative committee with real subpoena powers in 2008. “All you can do is dig and disclose … and keep pushing, because I think this is all an unbelievable scandal,” Dorgan said. “The American taxpayers have a right to be pretty disgusted about what’s going on.”

Dorgan got his wish, sort of, when the Commission on Wartime Contracting starting holding its hearings in 2009, traversing much of the same ground that the DPC had for years. It was a “compromise” because the panel, like Dorgan’s committee, doesn’t have subpoena or enforcement powers. And, in DPC fashion, the commission has already held a number of explosive hearings on contractor abuses — with all the effect of a tree falling in a forest.

Dorgan has not minced words, especially in disappointment:

From DC Bureau, in October:

..But since regaining control of Congress, including control of all standing committee agendas, Senate Democrats have failed to authorize the kind of sweeping probe that they criticized their Republican counterparts for avoiding in 2006. Instead, the DPC remains the central front for combating contractor corruption, where Sen. Dorgan has watched his investigations, many of them corroborated by the Pentagon Inspector General (IG), go unheeded by the Justice Department and the military.

“It’s one of the most disappointing and frustrating things that I have been involved with,” Dorgan said. “This is the most significant waste and fraud in the history of our country …When you have contractors that have demonstrated that they have fleeced the government agency or the taxpayer, I don’t think there should be a slap on the wrist or a pat on the back. They should be debarred.

I appreciate his trying, especially at a time when members of Congress are so concerned with keeping their heads down, being good team players. Playing nice with the defense industry.  Dorgan was curious, creative and responsive when it came to this contractor issue — it’s now been estimated that at least $10 billion has gone down a black whole, missing, unaccounted for — he even deigned to talk to me on a story or two, that’s how important it was for him to get the message out.

While it was a good day for the KBRs and DynCorps and Blackwaters (Xe), it was surely not a good day for the watchdogs.

“‘Nuff Said?” You Bet.

(Cross posted at @TAC)

I know it is a tired trope, but it’s helpful to look at the ultimate success of Counterinsurgency, or the vaunted COIN doctrine dominating the popular ethos of the American military establishment, as a three-legged stool.

As it is conceived, or at least projected for public consumption, in order for COIN to work in Afghanistan —

1) The central government must be legitimate in the eyes of the Afghan people and willing to work hand in glove with the U.S military to pursue the campaign to its proscribed ends.

2) Afghan security forces must be trained and equipped and trusted enough by the civilian population to eventually provide security and to “hold” in the long-term any territory coalition forces can wrest from the “enemy” in the current campaign.

3) The U.S military must have trust (and assistance) from the Afghan civilian population in order to gain leverage over the insurgency and to build legitimacy for the government in Kabul.

All three goals bear serious problematic signs of failure today and yet, there is no realistic talk from the Obama Administration, nor the senior military brass about the prospects of any of this having a snow ball’s chance in hell of ever seeing fruition. Karzai’s legitimacy, and particularly his standing with the Pashtun people (at least 46 percent of the population), is a joke. The reliability of the Afghan security forces is much worse than any administration flak or Washington COIN pusher will concede.

And the military’s success with winning over “the hearts and minds” of the Afghan people? We can’t necessarily blame the soldiers themselves. They were trained to kill — and in a post-9/11 world, their target practice was on dummies with funny headgear who spoke even funnier languages and lived in sand traps and goat-dotted mountains — not to make friends or strive to be the next Greg Mortenson. But it is in the soldiers’ and Marines’ own words that we can sense the truth of the matter — and of how flimsy this house of cards really is.

First, war scribe Robert Young Pelton wrote this engaging chronicle earlier this year of his time with one unit of the Human Terrain Project — the Army’s (clearly problematic) attempt to inject anthropologists/social scientists onto the battlefield to engage the people and to learn more about the regional tapestry for the benefit of the mission. What he found was earnest but overwhelmed personnel, and, more than a little disdain, a lot of confusion and a truck load of condescension and outright scorn for the whole “touchy-feely” approach from the chain of command he had encounters with. A good read, for which Pelton tells me he has been virtually “cut off” from the press office and the lead guy for the project  (it’s also worth it to read the reaction to Pelton’s piece, particularly from the Army and subsequent comments).

Secondly, this little nugget, posted yesterday by COIN hagiographer Tom Ricks. Again, it takes a non-commissioned officer, not a “senior officer who represents the Establishment Party they serve” as one commenter described, to show how this thing is headed to nowheresville. Why? This last paragraph says it all:

Doesn’t matter if you like the people or not. Don’t really care if you think their ideology is bullshit. Fact is if you want to win, the people have to believe that you are sincere and convincing them that it is in their best interest to support you vice your enemy is a key part.  Winning is what matters and the only way to do that is getting better at COIN and IO, regardless of how much we hate it.

Read it all here.

As Ricks so artfully blurts at the end, “nuff said?”

All You Can Cheat

From Big O’s speech:

[W]e have made progress on some important objectives. …  In Afghanistan, we and our allies prevented the Taliban from stopping a presidential election and — although it was marred by fraud — that election produced a government that is consistent with Afghanistan’s laws and constitution.

Hurrah! Stolen elections for everyone! Try and stop us, baddies!