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666 to 1: The US Military, Al-Qaeda and a War of Futility

Posted by Admin on January 15, 2010

666 to 1: The US Military, Al-Qaeda and a War of Futility

Thursday 14 January 2010

by: Nick Turse and Tom Engelhardt  |

In his book on World War II in the Pacific, War Without Mercy, John Dower tells an extraordinary tale about the changing American image of the Japanese fighting man. In the period before the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, it was well accepted in military and political circles that the Japanese were inferior fighters on the land, in the air, and at sea — “little men,” in the phrase of the moment. It was a commonplace of “expert” opinion, for instance, that the Japanese had supposedly congenital nearsightedness and certain inner-ear defects, while lacking individualism, making it hard to show initiative. In battle, the result was poor pilots in Japanese-made (and so inferior) planes, who could not fly effectively at night or launch successful attacks.

In the wake of their precision assault on Pearl Harbor, their wiping out of U.S. air power in the Philippines in the first moments of the war, and a sweeping set of other victories, the Japanese suddenly went from “little men” to supermen in the American imagination (without ever passing through a human phase). They became “invincible” — natural-born jungle- and night-fighters, as well as “utterly ruthless, utterly cruel and utterly blind to any of the values which make up our civilization.”

Sound familiar? It should. Following September 11, 2001, news headlines screamed “A NEW DAY OF INFAMY,” and the attacks were instantly labeled “the Pearl Harbor of the twenty-first century.” Soon enough, al-Qaeda, like the Japanese in 1941, went from a distant threat — the Bush administration, on coming into office, paid next to no attention to al-Qaeda’s possible plans — to a team of arch-villains with little short of superpowers. After all, they had already destroyed some of the mightiest buildings on the planet, were known to be on the verge of seizing weapons of mass destruction, and, if nothing was done, might soon enough turn the Muslim world into their “caliphate.”

Al-Qaeda was suddenly an organization against which you wouldn’t launch anything less than the full strength of the armed forces of the world’s “sole superpower.” To a surprising extent, they are still dealt with this way. You can feel it, for instance, in the recent 24/7 panic over the thoroughly inept underwear bomber and the sudden threat of a few hundred self-proclaimed al-Qaeda members in Yemen. You can feel it in the ramping up of the Af-Pak War. You can hear it in the “debate” over moving al-Qaeda detainees from Guantanamo to U.S. maximum security prisons. The way some politicians talk, you might think those detainees were all Lex Luthors and Magnetos, super-villains incapable of being held by any prison, just like the almost magically impossible-to-find Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri in the wild borderlands of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Because most Americans have never dealt with or thought of al-Qaeda as a group made up of actual human beings or accepted that, for every televisually striking success, they have an operation (or several) that go bust, the U.S. can’t begin to imagine what it’s actually up against. The current president, like the last one, claims that we are “at war.” If so, it’s a war of one, since al-Qaeda and the U.S. military are essentially not in the same war-fighting universe, which helps explain why repeatedly knocking off significant punortions of al-Qaeda’s leadership (even if never finding bin Laden and Zawahiri) doesn’t seem to end the threat.

But let’s stop here and try, for a moment, to imagine these two enemies side by side in the same universe of war. What, in that case, would the line-up of forces look like?

Assessing al-Qaeda’s “Troops”

According to U.S. intelligence estimates, there are currently about 100 al-Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan, as well as “several hundred” in Pakistan and, so the latest reports tell us, a similar number in Yemen. Members of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (Algeria, Mali, and Mauritania) and those based in Somalia undoubtedly fall into the same category at several hundred each. According to authorities from the Iraq Study Group to the U.S. State Department, even at the height of the insurgency and civil war in Iraq, al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia never had more than 1,300-4,000 active fighters. Today, it is believed to consist only of “small, roving cells.”

Combined, these groups — think of them as al-Qaeda’s shock troops — add up to perhaps 2,100 fighters, about one-fifth the number of U.S. troops now based in Italy. As the 9/11 attacks, the intelligence on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, and the failure to disrupt the underwear-bomber’s plot indicate, U.S. intelligence has long been flying blind, but even if al-Qaeda turned out to have sleeper cells with 300 additional committed members in every nation on Earth, its clandestine operatives would only moderately exceed the number of U.S. forces now based in Germany.

Al-Qaeda does, of course, have some “training camps” in the backlands of countries like Yemen, and it has civilian supporters, financiers, and other scattered allies. Over the years, and sometimes with good reason, Washington has lumped Taliban fighters in Afghanistan and Pakistan with al-Qaeda and counted various militant groups, including Somalia’s al-Shabab Islamic rebels, as al-Qaeda affiliates. Add such fighters in and you would swell these numbers by many thousands.

Additionally, al-Qaeda has an arsenal of weaponry. Members have access to rocket-propelled grenades, small arms of various sorts, the materials for making deadly roadside bombs, car bombs, and of course underwear bombs.

Assessing America’s Troops

U.S. efforts to crush al-Qaeda have certainly not failed for lack of resources. The U.S. military has spent about one trillion dollars on its post-9/11 wars so far. It has an Army, a Navy, an Air Force, and a Marine Corps which, like the Navy, has its very own air force. It possesses trillions of dollars in weapons, materiel, and other assets. It can mobilize spy satellites, advanced fighter planes and bombers, high-tech drones and helicopters, fleets of trucks, tanks, and other armored vehicles. It has advanced missiles and smart bombs, aircraft carriers, nuclear submarines, and state-of-the-art ships in all shapes and sizes.

It also has incredibly well-trained special operations forces — almost 56,000 elite troops, including Army Rangers and Special Forces, Navy SEALs and Special Boat Teams, Air Force Special Tactics Teams, and Marine Corps Special Operations Battalions, armed with incredibly advanced weaponry. It has military academies that churn out highly-educated officers and specialized training camps, schools, and universities. It has more than half-a-million buildings and structures on more than 800 bases sitting on millions of acres of prime real estate scattered around the world, including in or near lands where various branches of al-Qaeda operate.

In addition, the U.S. military has manpower — lots of it. All told, the United States has approximately 1.4 million active duty men and women under arms and another 1.3 million reserve personnel. It employs more than 700,000 civilians in support roles — from stocking shelves and serving food at stateside bases to assisting in intelligence analysis in war zones — and utilizes untold tens of thousands of private security hired-guns and various other kinds of private contractors all around the globe. These numbers would be further swelled by intelligence agents who aid military efforts, including 100,000 members of the civilian intelligence community. And then there are the allies the U.S. can draw on ranging, in Afghanistan alone, from the Afghan army and police to tens of thousands of NATO and other foreign allied troops from more than 40 countries.

Comparing the Sides: The Mark of the Beast or the Mark of Futility?

Even excluding from the U.S. side of the equation all those U.S. reserves, Defense Department civilians, intelligence operatives and analysts, private contractors and allies of various sorts, if you compare the two enemies in the current “war,” you still end up with either the Mark of the Beast or a marker for futility.

The active duty U.S. military alone enjoys a 666:1 advantage over the estimated number of al-Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Iraq, Algeria, Mauritania, Mali, and Somalia. Adding in the reserves, the ratio jumps to an embarrassingly-high 1,286:1. Even if you were to factor in those hordes of nonexistent al-Qaeda sleeper agents, 300 each for 195 countries from Australia to Vatican City, the U.S. military would still enjoy a 23:1 advantage (or 45:1 if you included the reserves, now regularly sent into war zones on multiple tours of duty).

In sum, after the better part of a decade of conflict, the United States has spent trillions of taxpayer dollars on bullets and bombs, soldiers and drones. It has waged wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that have yet to end, launched strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, dispatched Special Ops troops to those nations and others, like the Philippines, and built or expanded hundreds of new bases all over the world. Yet Osama bin Laden remains at large and al-Qaeda continues to target and kill Americans.

Open-Source al-Qaeda

Founded in 1988, bin Laden’s al-Qaeda formally issued a “declaration of war” on the United States in 1996, primarily over the U.S. military presence in the Middle East. While Washington has been hunting bin Laden and al-Qaeda since the mid-1990s, a post-9/11 Congressional resolution authorized the president to use force against that group and the Taliban. Ever since, the Pentagon has been waging one of the most ineffective campaigns of modern times in an effort to destroy it.

During these years, President George W. Bush declared himself a “war president” heading a country “at war” and living in “wartime.” In a milder way, President Obama has repeatedly declared the U.S. to be “at war” and, as in his surge speech at West Point in December, has identified the main enemy in that war as al-Qaeda. In the process, the U.S. military has unleashed tremendous destructive power on parts of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen, and Somalia causing the deaths of al-Qaeda fighters, non-Qaeda militants, and innocent civilians. Thousands of its own troops have died and tens of thousands have been wounded in the process, not to mention the losses to allied forces.

In these years, new al-Qaeda “affiliates” like al-Qaeda in Iraq/Mesopotamia have nonetheless sprung to life regularly and, as in Yemen, have even been officially crushed, only to be reborn. These groups have often made up their own “al-Qaeda” membership requirements, and focused on their own chosen targets. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda wannabes and look-alikes have proliferated and the organization (or those sympathetic to it or praising it) has reportedly spurred further attacks in the U.S. and encouraged men from New York to California, Nigeria to Jordan, to join the movement, and then work, fight, kill, and die for it, sometimes in attacks on Americans.

Al-Qaeda has no tanks, Humvees, nuclear submarines, or aircraft carriers, no fleets of attack helicopters or fighter jets. Al-Qaeda has never launched a spy satellite and isn’t developing advanced drone technology (although it may be hacking into U.S. video feeds). Al-Qaeda specializes in low-budget operations ranging from the incredibly deadly to the incredibly ineffectual — from murderous car bombs and airplanes-used-as-missiles to faulty shoe- and underwear-explosives.

Of course, comparisons of the strengths of the U.S. military and al-Qaeda “at war” would be absurd, if it weren’t for the fact that the United States actually went to war against such a group. It was a decision about as effective as firing a machine gun at a swarm of gnats. Some may die, but the process is visibly self-defeating.

In the present War on Terror, called by whatever name (or, as at present, by no name at all), the two “sides” might as well be in different worlds. After all, al-Qaeda today isn’t even an organization in the normal sense of the term, no less a fighting bureaucracy. It is a loose collection of ideas and a looser collection of individuals waging open-source warfare.

You don’t sign up for al-Qaeda the way you would for the U.S. Army. If you and two friends are sitting around a table in some country and you’re angry, alienated, and dissatisfied with the state of the world, you can simply claim to adhere to the basic ideas of Osama bin Laden and declare yourself al-Qaeda in [fill in the blank]. Who then gets into your organization and how you link up, if at all, with other “al-Qaedas” is up to you.

That’s why groups like al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia are always referred to in the press as “homegrown.” What you have, then, in this post-War-on-Terror war is a massive global military force aided and abetted by allied troops, “native” forces, and all sorts of corporate contractors facing off against something fluid and “homegrown,” fierce but strangely undefined, constantly morphing and shape-shifting. Every one of its “members” could be destroyed without the “enemy” being destroyed, because the enemy is a set of ideas, however extreme or strange to most Americans.

The Pentagon, with its giant bureaucracy and its miles of offices and corridors, is the headquarters of the U.S. war effort, but there is no central al-Qaeda headquarters, not in Afghanistan or Pakistan — not anywhere. There is probably no longer even an “al-Qaeda central.” Osama bin Laden has vanished or, for all we know, may be dead. Think of it, at best, as an open-source organization that is remarkably capable of replicating by a process of self-franchising.

Isn’t it time, then, to stop imagining al-Qaeda as a complex organization of terrorist supermen capable of committing super-deeds, or as an organization that bears any resemblance to a traditional enemy military force? With al-Qaeda, the path of war has undoubtedly been the road to perdition — as we should have discovered by now, more than one trillion dollars later.

When this “war” began, George W. Bush and his followers, like Osama bin Laden and his followers, were eager to proclaim future “victory” and to say with bravado to the other side: “Bring ’em on!” The word “victory” has long since fled Washington’s lips, along with boasts that the U.S. is a new Rome.

So far, no matter how many of its operatives may be dead, “victory” remains on the lips of those calling themselves al-Qaeda-in-anywhere. After all, they did get Washington to “bring ’em on” and the results have been disastrous and draining for the United States. The U.S. military has killed many al-Qaeda operatives, but it cannot annihilate its appeal by “surging” in Afghanistan and making war, with all the civilian destruction involved, in Muslim lands.

It’s time to put al-Qaeda back in perspective — a human perspective, which would include its stunning successes, its dismal failures, and its monumental goof-ups, as well as its unrealizable dreams. (No, Virginia, there will never be an al-Qaeda caliphate in or across the Greater Middle East.) The fact is: al-Qaeda is not an apocalyptic threat. Its partisans can cause damage, but only Americans can bring down this country.

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My Crazy Trip to a Goldman Sachs Executive's Brazilian Slave Plantation or Why We Need a Special Prosecutor

Posted by Admin on January 15, 2010

My Crazy Trip to a Goldman Sachs Executive’s Brazilian Slave Plantation, or Why We Need a Special Prosecutor

Tuesday 12 January 2010

by: Mike Elk, t r u t h o u t | Op-Ed

(Photo: rp72; Edited: Jared Rodriguez / t r u t h o u t)

I have made friends with a lot of people in my life. But as working-class kid from Pittsburgh, perhaps my most unusual friendship was with a Goldman Sachs executive, Pedro Henrique Fragoso Pires Garcia.

Typically in Brazil, people abbreviate their names, but Pedro used his full name. including his mother’s maiden name, Fragoso Pires, to signal his membership in the Fragoso Pires , a legendary aristocratic family in Brazil.

Born into a wealthy family, Pedro didn’t work for Goldman Sachs because he needed the money, but because he wanted more.

We met while studying economics at Bucknell. He struck me as an incredibly insecure person.

He bragged that his uncle used to invite women to dinner. After picking them up in a limousine, he would surprise them by flying them to dinner in New York on his private jet.

Pedro bragged himself about how he was able to surprise his own girlfriend with tickets to Venice – albeit on a commercial airline. In contrast, my romantic generosity usually consisted of taking my girlfriend out for a special dinner at a local Italian restaurant. I typically found it pretty cool to be able to afford to do that, let alone international travel.

Guys like Pedro didn’t care how they got their money. As long he was able to get some money to cruise around the world like a playboy, that’s all he cared about. Heck, I bet that members of Pedro’s crowd wouldn’t mind a return to slavery if it meant more money for them.

In fact, Goldman Sachs, who Pedro works for, has been caught funding projects that invest in slavery in Sudan. Goldman Sachs handled the IPO of PetroChina, the parent company of which was using forced labor in Sudan.

One time when I was in Brazil, Pedro took me to his family’s massive plantation several hours outside of Rio de Janeiro. Picture the modern-day version of the plantation from “Gone with Wind,” except bigger and with a full gym, sauna, steam room, two pools, satellite TV, Wi-Fi and a man-made lake full of jet skis.

While the plantation might have been a more high-tech version of Tara, the antiquated mentality of the 19th century plantation capitalism was very much alive. The type of capitalism that said some people were meant to be poor and powerless and others like Pedro to be the rulers of society. One or two of the dozen or so servants that lived on the plantation were direct descendants of the slaves that had lived there a few generations earlier.

Pedro showed me pictures of what the plantation used to look like in the good old days when it was an actual plantation full of slaves rather than a pleasure resort. He even showed off the old slave chains. As an advocate for workers’ rights, I didn’t share his enthusiasm for this particular historic relic. It was about one of the most awkward experiences of my life, until we had dinner.

My jaw dropped at the chandeliers, assortments of golden silverware and the wall full of painted portraits of the matriarchs of Pedro’s family dating back nearly 200 years. My head went spinning even more as Pedro continually rang a bell to indicate for the servants to bring in the next course of a five-course meal.

The next day, we were all sitting poolside at Pedro’s plantation. I got up to go into the kitchen of the house 20 feet away to get a beer. Pedro said to me, “Oh, just ring the bell; they’ll bring a beer.” Thinking of what folks at home in Pittsburgh would do if they found out I had used a bell to call for a servant to bring a beer, I decided to get up and get my own damn beer.

The next day, as Pedro and his buddies, who were visiting the plantation that weekend, sat around at the pool, they sounded off against the popular Brazilian welfare program for single mothers – Bolsa Familia. Bolsa Familia helps single mothers living under the poverty line to send their children to school, which alleviates the pressure on poor families to send their children to work in violation of child labor laws. Bolsa Familia was cited by the United Nation for reducing poverty by 27 percent in Brazil.

The success of the program and its significance to progress in their country was apparently lost on the privileged, as Pedro and his friends lounged by the pool ringing bells for servants to bring them beers while they complained about how poor people should be rewarded to be lazy and unproductive.

The realities of poverty were totally lost on Pedro and his friends. They seemed entirely consumed by partying, “scoring” with mindless, beautiful women and jetting off to popular vacation spots. Never mind that none of them had actually earned the money to support this lifestyle. Funny how they never questioned the justness of inherited wealth, but decried the use of public funds to help impoverished children go to school.

Nobody questioned the social structure or dared question how the money came in that funded such pursuits. They would never jeopardize the social hierarchy that allowed privileged families to live comfortably for hundreds of years, with armies of servants to attend their every need at the beck of a bell.

These guys who work at Goldman Sachs come from completely different worlds than we working-class people. They believe in putting profits and principles above everything else. Corporate culture, whether learned through families, university or workplace, teaches peoples and enforces the idea of profits above all else – rewards like exotic gateways to follow.

These guys love inequality because keeping people poor allows them to live the outrageous lifestyles they do. In fact, as a famous memo on plutonomy from Citigroup, shown in Michael Moore’s movie “Capitalism,” demonstrates, they believe such inequality is good because only the rich matter:

There are rich consumers, few in number, but disproportionate in the gigantic slice of income and consumption they take. There are the rest, the “non-rich”, the multitudinous many, but only accounting for surprisingly small bites of the national pie. […] i.e., focus on the “average” consumer are flawed from the start….

This imbalance in inequality expresses itself in the standard scary “global imbalances.” We worry less.

While, for most of us, growing inequality means the highest unemployment and lowest wages since the Great Depression; for people like Pedro Henrique Fragoso Pires Garcia, your bonuses go through the roof.

And you go back to your pool on your pleasure plantation, ringing the bell for the servant to bring you a beer.

Wall Street offers lifestyles and rewards so grand that some will do anything in order to get them.

Tough financial reform will help for a while, but eventually they will find loopholes or buy enough influence to create them as the financial lobby already is spending $344 million in the first nine months of 2009 on lobbying. Nothing can stop them from these lifestyles. The social statuses of these super rich depend upon having these degrees of wealth. They will do anything to stay on top socially. Passing much needed financial reform isn’t enough to break the vicious cycle. We have to make the punishment for unbridled wealth greater than the rewards of multiple houses, thousand-dollar dinners and exotic getaways that Wall Street has to offer.

We need to engage in some “shock and awe” tactics to scare these Wall Street guys.

We need to throw these guys in jail for a very long time. We need to lock the big guys who were at the heads of the major banks up behind bars, far away from their servants, pleasures farms and, more importantly, our pocketbooks.

The saving and loans scandal saw over a thousand industry insiders go to jail. An even bigger financial crisis, the one we are currently in, has seen only a handful of smaller players like Bernie Madoff. None of the big fish that were the CEOs and responsible for driving this process have been put in jail, though.

This week, on January 13, Pedro Henrique Fragoso Pires Garcia’s boss, Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein, will appear before the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission chaired by Phil Angelides, modeled after the former Pecora Commission during the Great Depression. The Angelides Commission, armed with subpoena power, has the mandate to investigate what went wrong on Wall Street. The investigative work of the Angelides Commission can be used as the framework for a criminal investigation into financial wrongdoing. However, a lengthy investigation isn’t enough.

These punks should be prosecuted. The appointment of a special prosecutor such as Patrick Fitzgerald, who demonstrated a real commitment to confronting corruption on both sides of the aisle by taking down Scooter Libby and Rob Blagoveich, should be made. President Obama needs to take on the threat to the American economy that these economic terrorists pose with the same vigor he is taking on the supposed terror threat in Afghanistan. An appointment of a special prosecutor such as Fitzgerald, with thousands of investigators underneath him, should be made.

If no action is taken to remove these corporate criminals, voters will surely enable the people enabling them. As the forced retirement of Chris Dodd shows, America has an appetite for holding those accountable who sat by and let Wall Street plunder the economy.

Recent public opinion polling that shows the Tea Party Movement is more popular than both the Democratic and Republican Parties, proves that voters are disgusted with both parties. They view both parties as little more than enablers of the corporate elite.

If Obama and Democrats fail to act in such an aggressive manner, voters will throw Democratic incumbents out of office just as they did Republican ones in 2008. Populist candidates, both from the populist left against GOP incumbents, will sweep into office, but even more populist candidates will beat Democratic incumbents since there are currently more Democratic incumbents. And with a sweep of right-wing demagogues, the ability to transform the economy in the way that FDR did was squandered. Wall Street will go about its ways.

And Pedro Henrique Fragoso Pires Garcia and his buddies will go about lounging by the pool, ringing the bell for his servants to bring him a beer.

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