Dark Days These Days

Yep, the winter solstice is coming up – the darkest day of the year, said to give rise to seasonal affective disorder – feelings of existential hopelessness and that sort of thing. Everything seems so dark – and in this case that’s more than metaphoric. And affect here refers to process of your interaction with stimuli. What should please you, or sadden you, or scare you, or make you feel comfortable – well, for some reason just doesn’t do that. That’s the disorder. You have inappropriate affect, or more likely, in the dead of winter, you have flat affect. You sit. That’s it.

But the problem with diagnosing and then treating such affective disorders has always been that gnawing suspicion that, given the circumstances, feelings of hopeless and the resulting flat affect may actually be appropriate. After all, it’s not paranoia if everyone really is out to get you, and someone who says, with a sardonic grin, that the situation is hopeless but not serious, maybe onto something. It’s all in the concept of appropriateness. And that’s just a matter of opinion. Kafka would have a different opinion than Christine O’Donnell. Some people are perpetually perky, and that may be an affective disorder.

But here it is, the end of the year, and the nation’s business is a mess. On Friday, December 17, the president signed the bill that extended the Bush-era tax cuts – but that pleased no one. To get that done Obama had to break a campaign promise and give in to the Republicans and extend the tax cuts to millionaires and billionaires, for two years, and make the Estate Tax nominal, so the richest twelve families in American wouldn’t have to suffer the indignity of paying a big chunk of cash to the government when one of them finally died – which, for all their wealth, it seems a few of them now and then do. But in return the Republicans had to give in and agree to an extension of unemployment benefits, for thirteen months, which they hated with a fury. You know, people should take care of themselves – a nanny state only creates whiners who won’t get off their butts and just get a job. But Obama argued it had to be this way – to not act would mean that the ninety-eight percent of us who aren’t millionaires and billionaires would face an unmanageable jump in taxes when the old rates returned, so he was kind of over a barrel. He’s a pragmatist.

This should have cleared up a lot, as the Republicans, although in a minority in the Senate, had written a letter, that all forty-four of them signed, saying that no legislation of any kind would be taken up until that tax matter was resolved – they’d use every procedural rule they could uncover to stop all work, of any kind. They might lose if this and that came up for a vote – they didn’t have the votes, not even close – but they could find all sorts of ways to stall or stop any matter being allowed to even be discussed, much less voted on. So there’d be no consideration of the new START treaty, or the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, or consideration of the DREAM Act, that gives illegal aliens who were dropped off here as infants a bit of a pass and lets them stay and contribute to America, as they actually wanted to do.

But that didn’t clear up much. Now the Republicans are saying that bringing up repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and consideration of the DREAM Act, is political grandstanding obviously intended to make them look like the bad guys, and they were insulted – so there would be no consideration of the new START treaty unless those other two things were withdrawn. That treaty is, they admit, vital to American foreign policy and national security, but they don’t see why they should be insulted.

But they were having a problem with that bad-guys thing. The week before, a unanimous Senate Republican caucus blocked the Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act – that’s the bill to pay health care costs for 9/11 rescue workers, sickened after exposure to the toxic smoke and debris. They said they’d get to it just as soon as they’d secured tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires – they were not really bad guys. At that point the media didn’t cover that at all, and only Comedy Central’s The Daily Show aired multiple segments on the matter, like this one where Jon Stewart rips into the Republicans for their heartlessness, and also blasted ABC, NBC, and CBS for completely ignoring the issue. In fact, Stewart noted the only network to run a thorough report on the 9/11 health bill was Al Jazeera – “Our networks were scooped with a sympathetic Zadroga Bill story by the same network that Osama bin Laden sends his mix tapes to.” And then came Stewart hosting an on-air discussion with four 9/11 responders, all of whom are suffering health problems caused by the air they breathed in the aftermath of the attacks. That was devastating. And the Republicans aren’t saying much now. They’ve effectively killed to bill – they’ve found obscure rules so it cannot come to the floor, even if the millionaires and billionaires now have their tax breaks. They’re just doing it quietly. It’s just not been a good time for them – or for anyone really.

But it’s enough to give those of us who attend to such things seasonal affect disorder, and Kevin Drum sure seems to have it:

I can’t remember when I’ve been more demoralized about American governance. I have this overwhelming feeling of barnacles building up relentlessly, untouchable because of interest group pressure on both left and right, and a complete inability and/or unwillingness to address any of it. Democrats have some things they want to do, but in addition to satisfying their own interest groups they have to settle for third or fourth best policies because Republicans have simply decided they don’t care about anything except tax cuts for the rich, hating gay people, and bennies for favored industries. In the middle of a massive recession they opposed a stimulus bill. In the aftermath of a financial crisis they opposed a financial reform bill. In the face of skyrocketing healthcare costs they demagogued modest cuts in Medicare spending. They spent months negotiating a spending bill – transparently, openly, via the ordinary committee process – and then killed it just because it would annoy Harry Reid.

Global warming is a hoax, gay recruits will destroy the military, and creationism is an appropriate topic for high school biology classes. Our infrastructure is crumbling and our schools are mediocre, but the creeping encrustation of government prevents anything serious from being done about either. We’re in hock to Middle Eastern theocracies for our oil, and the laughable answer from the right consists entirely of nukes and a bit of marginal extra drilling around the periphery of America. An arms control treaty that could have been negotiated by Ronald Reagan himself is unsure of passage because too many Republican senators deem it unsafe to risk the wrath of Fox News or their tea party constituencies.

But other than that things are fine. Or not:

Democrats have their pathologies too. Teachers unions really do impede school reform. Public sector unions have bid up government salaries. Environmental and land use rules have made infrastructure development of any kind a grueling, expensive marathon. Both parties subsidize idiocies like corn ethanol, and both sides boast coal state senators who are unwilling to think seriously about pricing carbon.

But at least we all have access to 300 TV channels in glorious high definition! Who says America can’t accomplish great things anymore?

But at least things are looking of in Iraq and Afghanistan, or not:

The Central Intelligence Agency’s top clandestine officer in Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad, was removed from the country on Thursday amid an escalating war of recriminations between American and Pakistani spies, with some American officials convinced that the officer’s cover was deliberately blown by Pakistan’s military intelligence agency.

The American spy’s hurried departure is the latest evidence of mounting tensions between two uneasy allies, with the Obama administration’s strategy for ending the war in Afghanistan hinging on the cooperation of Pakistan in the hunt for militants in the mountains that border those two countries. The tensions could intensify in the coming months with the prospect of more American pressure on Pakistan.

That was curious, or what one would expect – this guy’s life was threatened, and he was yanked out of there, the day after fifty-four more militants, or we hope they were, were killed by our drone attacks. Pakistan’s military intelligence agency may not be with us these days:

The station chief’s outing has spurred questions whether Pakistan’s spy service might have leaked the information. The name emerged publicly from a Pakistani man who has threatened to sue the CIA over the deaths of his son and brother in a 2009 drone missile strike. A lawsuit filed last month in New York City in connection with the 2008 terror attacks in Mumbai, India, also may have raised tensions, by naming Pakistan’s intelligence chief as a defendant.

A Pakistani intelligence officer said the country’s intelligence service knew the identity of the station chief, but had “no clue” how the name was leaked. The officer spoke on condition of anonymity because his agency, like many around the world, does not allow its operatives to be named in the media.

We have odd allies, if that’s the appropriate word. Of course the Obama administration’s long-awaited review of its Afghanistan war strategy was released the day before – actually the unclassified five-page summary of the thing. Maybe that’s the cure for seasonal affective disorder in these dark days, but Fred Kaplan suggests not:

On the one hand, it contains much talk of “significant progress” and “notable” gains in U.S. and NATO military operations. On the other hand, there’s at least as much mention of the remaining “challenges” and the fact that even the gains are “fragile and reversible.”

And here’s the problem:

Six times in the course of five pages, the report’s authors note that, unless Pakistan does a better job of controlling its borders – the western tribal areas, where Taliban leaders find safe haven and move reinforcements and supplies into Afghanistan and back again – the U.S. military successes of recent months are for naught.

For instance, on Page 1, the report defines “our ultimate end state” as “the eventual strategic defeat of al-Qaida in the region,” but it adds that this “will require the sustained denial of the group’s safe haven in the tribal areas of western Pakistan.”

On Page 3: The “denial of extremist safe havens will require greater cooperation with Pakistan along the border with Afghanistan.”

On Page 5: “Consolidating those gains [made in the fight against the Afghan Taliban] will require that we make more progress with Pakistan to eliminate sanctuaries for violent extremist networks.”

Clearing the safe havens in Pakistan is not just an important ingredient in achieving our strategic objectives in Afghanistan; it is a requirement. Without it, all other successes are merely tactical and, even then, probably short-lived (“fragile and reversible,” as the report puts it).

Required – that’s a word that comes up too often here, but what’s required may be what’s impossible:

Every military official – from Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan – have long stressed that the existence of cross-border safe havens gravely impedes the prospects for strategic success.

Ever since he became president, Barack Obama has dramatically stepped up U.S. airstrikes – mainly with smart bombs fired by CIA drones – against Taliban leaders in those Pakistani sanctuaries. But today’s report indicates that, while those strikes have had an effect, the effect has not been large or fast enough – that the Pakistanis themselves have to do more on the ground.

So at the White House press conference Gates and Hillary Clinton talked about the steadily improving “strategic dialogue” between the United States and Pakistan:

Only recently, they said, have the Pakistanis come to realize that the jihadists threatening us in Afghanistan are part of the same “terrorist network” – and thus form the same threat – as the jihadists threatening their own regime. As a result, the Pakistani military has taken action, for instance, moving 140,000 soldiers to the western border with Afghanistan – an extraordinary step – and bearing many casualties as a result.

And then they out our CIA station chief and we have to smuggle him out of the country. Strategic dialogue took a hit there. But it seems that India, and not the Taliban, is the real issue for them, and Kaplan says we need to consider that:

This has two implications for the war in Afghanistan. First, the Pakistani army will insist on keeping the bulk of its troops on the eastern border with India at the expense of dealing with the Taliban safe havens on the western border with Afghanistan.

Second, the Pakistanis want – in their eyes, they need – to maintain influence inside Afghanistan, as a way to counter India’s quite active attempt to gain influence inside Afghanistan (which India is pursuing mainly as a way to encircle Pakistan). And the way that Pakistan maintains this influence is through certain factions of the Taliban.

Kaplan adds much more detail, and this:

In short, U.S. officials may have lectured Pakistanis about the links between the Afghan Taliban and the al-Qaida militants who threaten Pakistan’s government. But the Pakistanis see the two as distinct – and, in fact, regard some of the Afghan-based Taliban as their allies or even agents.

And you can see the conflict:

As long as Pakistani leaders deem a presence in Afghanistan to be a vital security need, the war will continue; and as long as tensions remain high with India, Pakistani leaders will continue demanding a presence in Afghanistan.

In other words, a settlement of the war requires a détente between India and Pakistan.

Good luck with that, and this:

On Dec. 15, the day before the White House was scheduled to release its strategic review, someone leaked to the New York Times the findings of two National Intelligence Estimates – one on Afghanistan, the other on Pakistan – concluding that the prospects for success seemed grim, precisely because the Pakistanis were not likely to put the clamp on the Taliban sanctuaries inside their territory.

The leak appeared designed to blunt the more optimistic sections of the then-impending strategic review, so U.S. military officials fought back, telling the Times’ reporter, Elisabeth Bumiller, that the NIEs – which represented the consensus views of all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies – were completed in October, before the recent gains in Kandahar, and written mainly at CIA headquarters by desk analysts who had no exposure to events on the ground.

This is not good:

We seem to be witnessing the opening salvos of a bureaucratic battle between the military and the intelligence agencies – a battle that may spread to other Washington realms, as Hillary Clinton’s State Department appears to side with the military and as some top advisers in the White House share the intelligence agencies’ skepticism.

If the fight gets going, it will grow increasingly intense because it will be a contest for the president’s heart and mind – specifically to influence his next big decision on the war in July 2011.

That would be a decision on beginning to pull out from Afghanistan. That’s not going to be an easy decision, and we’re caught in a loop:

And so, we’re hurled back to a basic question about this war and a tension that stirs ambivalence among many supporters and critics. On the one hand, our chances of success are improved if all the players in the region – Karzai, the Pakistanis, the Taliban, and the Afghan people – are convinced that the United States is going to stay for a long time to come. On the other hand, if our chances are nonetheless dim because of forces largely beyond our control (such as Pakistan’s refusal to crack down on the safe havens inside its territory), then maybe it’s time to draw down – but if we do that, how do we keep the Taliban from coming to power and al-Qaida from once again expanding its reach?

Nothing about this war gets any easier.

These are dark days, and Kevin Drum puts it this way:

Richard Holbrooke’s last words, spoken to his Pakistani surgeon before he was sedated for surgery a week ago, were “You’ve got to stop this war in Afghanistan.” The White House has since taken pains to tell us that he was speaking in jest, and perhaps that’s just as well. Because recent news suggests that the war is neither going to end nor come to anything resembling a successful conclusion anytime soon.

Drum points to Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai, whose attitude toward the United States “has been all but clinically bipolar for quite some time.” Karzai met with American officials to discuss the fate of private security firms and the Washington Post reports what happened:

As he spoke, he grew agitated, then enraged. He told them that he now has three “main enemies” – the Taliban, the United States and the international community. “If I had to choose sides today, I’d choose the Taliban,” he fumed. After a few more parting shots, he got up and walked out of the wood-paneled room.

Damn, and Drum points out the obvious problem:

It is practically an axiom of counterinsurgency that success depends (among other things) on the active help of an effective and sympathetic government. It’s become increasingly clear that we no longer have that in Afghanistan, if we ever did. The Karzai government is almost stunningly corrupt, it has effective control over only a fraction of the territory of Afghanistan, and Karzai himself in recent months has repeatedly gone into rages both public and private against the American occupation. It’s no longer possible even for paid optimists to pretend that we have his support in any but the most technical sense.

But that’s not all:

Then there’s the US intelligence community, which recently reported to Congress that the Afghanistan war cannot be won unless Pakistan gets serious about rooting out Taliban militants on its side of the border. But the report goes on to say the Pakistani government and military “are not willing to do that,” according to an official quoted by AP. “The document says Pakistan’s government pays lip service to cooperating with US efforts against the militants, and still secretly backs the Taliban as a way of hedging its bets in order to influence Afghanistan after a US departure from the region.”

And there’s this:

Finally, support for the war in the US has fallen off a cliff. ABC News reports: “Public dissatisfaction with the war, now the nation’s longest, has spiked by 7 points just since July. Given its costs vs. its benefits, only 34 percent in the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll say the war’s been worth fighting, down by 9 points to a new low.”

Drum does admit that there’s an argument for optimism – NATO forces have made substantial tactical gains in the past year – “intelligence gathering is better, local support is stronger, security is improving, and the Taliban is in retreat.” He suggests a version of this case here from Peter Mansoor and Max Boot:

But tactical improvements only get you just so far. Our big long-term problems – lack of central government support, lack of Pakistani support, and lack of American public support – suggest pretty strongly that the war in Afghanistan isn’t winnable in any ordinary sense of the word.

So he agrees with Kaplan:

At this point, it’s difficult to conclude that further US fighting in Afghanistan can do anything more than delay the inevitable – and possibly make it worse when it finally comes to pass. Without active support from Kabul, Islamabad, and the American taxpayer, tactical gains can never be more than limited and temporary. As bad as an American withdrawal from Afghanistan would be, our continued presence in the face of an impossible situation only makes it worse.

These are dark days indeed.

But they’re not just dark for us. Nir Rosen has just published Aftermath: Following the Bloodshed of America’s Wars in the Muslim World and he chats with Glenn Greenwald:

I suppose with the majority of what Americans get to see is the American point of view, or even a limited one at that, but the point of view of white people who speak English. Very few voices from the occupied side, from the other side, are permitted. Too often when American journalists actually visit a country, if they’re not going to focus on American elite or the American military, they end up focusing on local elites, people who speak English, the Ahmed Chalabi types, people who are sort of like us, they will serve you wine and talk about their favorite football team back when they were at university in the US, but not people who actually have any popularity or legitimacy on the ground.

It’s harder to meet those people…

But things are dark for them too:

I guess one thing we miss is just the deep humiliation and disruption that results from a foreign occupation. Now, most American soldiers are familiar with the movie Red Dawn, so sometimes I try to use that as a way to get them to understand the other side, although I guess they’re these days probably too young to remember that movie. But even if the American soldiers aren’t necessarily killing innocent people or torturing them, it’s the mere presence, it’s so brutally disruptive, the checkpoints, the strangers going into your house, constantly having foreigners with guns pointed at you wherever you go, people telling you what to do who don’t speak your language. If they arrest one of the men in your house, you don’t know who to appeal to.

If you’re lost and scared, there are huge guys with helmets and vests and weapons who are shouting at you. And even if they were girl scouts, they have these immense vehicles and they go on the roads and are breaking irrigation pipes and accidentally running over your car or damaging it. It’s a constant disruption and humiliation and fear which I don’t think Americans have been able to appreciate. To us to perceive the American military is acting somewhat like cops on the beat or boy scouts whereas for locals it much a more painful and humiliating and scary experience.

Yep, it’s the time of the darkest day of the year – here and everywhere. And what response is appropriate? One sometimes envies the delusional perpetually perky.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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