July 2010


An article from the latest issue of The Nation, WikiLeaks in Baghdad, about how civilian casualties are not so much the result of errors or “a few bad apples”, but from a chain of command whose goal is to “out-terrorize the terrorists.”

Excerpt:

“When one [IED] went off, you were supposed to open fire on anybody,” says Stieber. “At first I would just fire into a field. Then I wouldn’t fire at all.” He describes an IED that went off near a crowd of teenagers. “I said I wouldn’t fire,” even though “other people were firing,” he recalls. Like Stieber, Corcoles describes incidents in which he purposely aimed his gun away from people. “You don’t even know if somebody’s shooting at you,” he says. “It’s just insanity to just start shooting people.” Stieber pointed out that in incidents like these, it was very rare for US military vehicles to stop to help the wounded or assess how many people had been injured or killed.

Stieber was intimidated and reprimanded by his command for refusing orders to shoot. “One time when I didn’t fire, people in my truck were yelling at me for the rest of the mission. When we got back, one or two leaders got up in my face and kept yelling at me and stuff,” he says. The command eventually stopped sending him on missions as a gunner, and Stieber says he “faced a lot of criticism for it.” Corcoles saw this too. “One night our truck got hit by an IED and Josh didn’t fire, and another soldier didn’t fire,” he says. “And they were getting yelled at: ‘Why aren’t you firing?’ And they said, ‘There’s nobody to fire at.'”

Brian Stewart, one of Canada’s most respected journalists, has written a condemnation of the Harper government’s campaign against Canadian human rights and foreign aid NGOs. For decades, these NGOs have received funding from both Liberal and Conservative governments and depend on this government funding to survive. Harper, however, has been less accommodating than his predecessors. For some time now, the Harper government has been “de-funding” groups that dare to criticize the government. The government, of course, claims that this de-funding has nothing to do with political differences, but because the NGOs failed to focus on the three priorities of foreign aid: children and youth; food security; and sustainable growth. But as Stewart points out, “it was just last fall when the auditor general complained that Canada’s foreign policy priorities, or “themes,” have been reshuffled five times in the last 10 years, producing an astonishing 12 different themes in all.” If the government can’t decide what it’s foreign aid priorities should be, then maybe they should let NGOs decide for them. But, of course, this has nothing to do with what areas of international development NGOs are deciding to focus on, it has to do with this government’s unwillingness to put up with critical debate. As Stewart ominously states, “I wonder how we will be able to judge anything in this field in the future with any confidence if independent voices are silenced and independent information dries up out of fear of government retaliation.”

In one of the largest leaks in U.S. military history, Wikileaks has released over 90,000 classified documents to the New York Times, the Guardian, and Der Spiegel. Much of what is revealed won’t exactly come as a surprise. I doubt, for example, that most people will be shocked to hear that Pakistan, which is receiving more than $1billion a year from the U.S., has been aiding the Taliban insurgency. What is significant about the documents is that they reveal a systemic incongruity between what the military knows and what they’re telling the public and media. Some of the highlights include:

  • Reconnaissance drones, which are used to survey and strike targets and whose use has doubled under President Obama, are mired in technical problems and glitches that contradicts the official portrait painted of them as a reliable panacea for the war. 38 drones have crashed on combat missions in Afghanistan and Iraq and because each drone is packed with advanced technology, each crash necessitates dangerous retrieval operations by troops, often into Taliban held territory.
  • Task Force 373: a “black” unit, independent of the chain of command, that receives its orders directly from the Pentagon and has been tasked with the extrajudicial killing or capturing of 2,000 senior Taliban and Al-Qaida figures without trial. According to the Guardian: “[The leaked documents] raise fundamental questions about the legality of the killings and of the long-term imprisonment without trial, and also pragmatically about the impact of a tactic which is inherently likely to kill, injure and alienate the innocent bystanders whose support the coalition craves.” The documents reveal numerous cases where civilians were killed or wounded by TF-373. These cases were often covered up in official statements to the press. In one incident, TF-373 called in an air attack on a village, despite the Taliban appearing to have already retreated from the area. After the bombing, the military released a press statement claiming to have killed several militants, with no mention of civilian casualties. The leaked documents, however, reveal the press statement was a lie and a secret memo documenting the casualties of the attack reads as follows: “12 US wounded, two teenage girls and a 10-year-old boy wounded, one girl killed, one woman killed, four civilian men killed, one donkey killed, one dog killed, several chickens killed, no enemy killed, no enemy wounded, no enemy detained.”
  • NYT: “The Taliban have used portable heat-seeking missiles against allied aircraft, a fact that has not been publicly disclosed by the military. This type of weapon helped the Afghan mujahedeen defeat the Soviet occupation in the 1980s.”
  • The Afghan police force, which the Pentagon is spending billions on to train, is largely viewed as incompetent and corrupt by Afghanis. According to the NYT: “The reports recount episodes of police brutality, corruption petty and large, extortion and kidnapping. Some police officers defect to the Taliban. Others are accused of collaborating with insurgents, arms smugglers and highway bandits. Afghan police officers defect with trucks or weapons, items captured during successful ambushes or raids.”
  • Hundreds of civilian casualties, coalition information on which has often been either false or misleading. In one incident, Polish troops, possibly in a revenge attack, mortared a wedding celebration, killing 6 civilians. Although those troops were eventually put on trial, most incidents of civilian casualties are not investigated. Under General McChrystal, efforts were made to try to lessen civilian casualties. His replacement, General Petraeus, is, however, expected to loosen “restraints aimed at cutting civilian deaths.”

The general picture revealed by the documents is that the war has been far less of a success than is portrayed by the Pentagon or the White House. The insurgency, for example, has been far more effective than is portrayed by the military. According to the documents, the insurgents are often controlling the pace and direction of the war and bleeding the U.S. military in what the NYT calls “a war of small cuts.”

In response to the leak, the White House is accusing Wikileaks of putting lives at risk, a claim that is contradicted by the Guardian, noting that “most of the material, though classified “secret” at the time, is no longer militarily sensitive. A small amount of information has been withheld from publication because it might endanger local informants or give away genuine military secrets. Wikileaks, whose founder, Julian Assange, obtained the material in circumstances he will not discuss, said it would redact harmful material before posting the bulk of the data on its “uncensorable” servers.””

(via ihatethismess)

An excellent article in The Nation from everybody’s favourite socialist senator. Quote:

But, perhaps the most outrageous tax break given to multi-millionaires and billionaires happened this January when the estate tax, established in 1916, was repealed for one year as a result of President Bush’s 2001 tax legislation. This tax applies only to the wealthiest three-tenths of 1 percent of our population. This is what Teddy Roosevelt, a leading proponent of the estate tax, said in 1910. “The absence of effective state, and, especially, national restraint upon unfair money-getting has tended to create a small class of enormously wealthy and economically powerful men, whose chief object is to hold and increase their power. The prime need is to change the conditions which enable these men to accumulate power which is not for the general welfare that they should hold or exercise.… Therefore, I believe in a…graduated inheritance tax on big fortunes, properly safeguarded against evasion and increasing rapidly in amount with the size of the estate.” And that’s what we’ve had for the last ninety-five years—until 2010.

Today, not content with huge tax breaks on their income; not content with massive corporate tax loopholes; not content with trade laws enabling them to outsource the jobs of millions of American workers to low-wage countries and not content with tax havens around the world, the ruling elite and their lobbyists are working feverishly to either eliminate the estate tax or substantially lower it. If they are successful at wiping out the estate tax, as they came close to doing in 2006 with every Republican but two voting to do, it would increase the national debt by over $1 trillion during a ten-year period. At a time when we already have a $13 trillion debt, enormous unmet needs and the highest level of wealth inequality in the industrialized world, it is simply obscene to provide more tax breaks to multi-millionaires and billionaires.

On Wednesday, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) announced that it had cancelled Haiti’s $268m debt. Furthermore, the impoverished nation is being given a $60m loan to help rebuild the country after January’s catastrophic earthquake. The loan will be interest free until the end of 2011 after which rates will remain low (between 0-0.5%). That’s the good news. The IMF, though, is a bit like a shady used car salesmen (no offence to used car salesmen)—all the talk of a generous deal is usually to mask the fact that the buyer is getting screwed. Sure enough, buried in the IMF’s press release is the following statement: “The new program also includes important policy commitments from the authorities that will help protect macroeconomic stability, and strengthen fiscal governance.” While it’s still too early to know what these “policy commitments” entail (to my knowledge, the Haitian government’s Letter of Intent to the IMF, wherein these commitments are detailed, has not been made public), if the history of the IMF is any indicator, they will likely include a set of neo-liberal reforms aimed at privatizing the public sector and easing restrictions on corporations intent on doing business in Haiti (often at the expense of Haitians themselves). Given the history of the West’s treatment of Haiti, further exploitation would simply be business as usual.

To understand that history, and to understand why Haiti is in such a desperate situation today, we have to go back over 200 years to the 1791 Haitian Revolution, when Haitian slaves, drawing inspiration from the French Revolution’s Declaration of the Rights of Man, rebelled against the French colonialists and established the world’s first independent nation run by former slaves. Though the revolution was a success, the death toll was high: 24,000 out of 40,000 whites killed and 100,000 out of 500,000 blacks killed. On top of this, the young nation struggled to gain recognition from the world’s major economic and military powers and had to contend with invasions and trade embargoes from France, the UK, and the US—all of whom, despite their claims of liberty and equality for their own citizens, feared that the success of the Haitians might put a few ideas into the heads of their own slaves. It wasn’t until Haiti defeated Napoleon’s forces in 1804 that France finally agreed to recognize Haiti’s independence, but such independence came at a price: 150m francs, in gold. This was later reduced to 90m in the 1830s, but it was still an obscene price (about 10 times its national revenue) and to this day Haiti remains the only country where ex-slaves were forced to pay a foreign government for their own freedom. With 80% of the national budget going into repayments by 1900, the debt load prevented Haiti from developing the infrastructure and services that the nation needed to survive. In order to pay down its debt, Haiti had to acquire loans from U.S. and French banks, which only helped to exacerbate an already impossible financial situation. When it become clear that the nation would not be able to pay back these debts, the U.S. government stepped in on behalf of its own banks and occupied Haiti from 1915 to 1934.

It was not until 1947 that Haiti was able to pay off its original reparations to France—122 years after independence and 99 years after slavery was abolished in France. By then, Haiti was vulnerable to political corruption and was subjected to the dictatorship of François Duvalier (“Papa Doc”) from 1957 to 1971. Papa Doc received tacit, if not entirely enthusiastic, support from the U.S. government who, for the sake of a bulwark against communism, managed to look beyond his killing and expulsion of political opponents and his pillaging of the nation’s resources. Papa Doc was followed by another 15 years of dictatorship with his son, Jean-Claude Duvalier (“Baby Doc”), at the helm.

Though Baby Doc was overthrown in 1987, it was not until 1990 that Haitians were able to elect their own leader, Jean-Bertrande Aristide. Now you would think by now the West would have learned its lesson, that it would have realized that maybe Haitians could do a better job of running Haiti than France or the U.S. could, that maybe, just maybe, the West would take responsibility for the crimes committed against Haitians and provide some form of compensation for over 200 years of oppression. Instead, Aristide was overthrown in 1991 with the support of the CIA and Haitians were subject to CIA funded death squads until 1994 when the U.S. allowed Aristide to return to office, along with an IMF loan to assist the country in rebuilding. The loan, however, required Haiti to engage in neoliberal “structural adjustments,” the most devastating of which was opening its markets to highly subsidized US rice and ending the subsidization of its own rice. The result? Haitian rice growers were unable to compete with the US, rice production collapsed (this in a nation that had formerly produced nearly all of its own rice), and Haiti had to start importing the majority of its rice from the US. Furthermore, rice growers who were now out of work had no choice but to seek employment in the cities and from 1995 to 2009 Port-au-Prince ballooned from 2.5 million to 3.6 million, compounding the problem of already overcrowded, poorly constructed neighbourhoods. It should come as no surprise then that when Port-au-Prince was struck by an earthquake this January, 230,000 people lost their lives.

Aristide the second time around, however, still refused to be the lackey the West was hoping for. First, he had the audacity to demand France repay Haiti $21 billion in reparations for slavery and the 122 years of debt forced on the country. France replied by telling Aristide to step down. Second, and far more offensive, he raised the minimum wage in Haiti from $1 to $2 a day. American business leaders, which relied on cheap Haitian labour, were outraged at the prospect of having to pay their workers $2 a day—not an hour, but a day!—and demanded Aristide’s removal. In 2004 they got just what they asked for: Aristide was whisked off to Africa by the US and his Fanmi Lavalas party (largely supported by the poor and opposed to IMF austerity measures) banned from the elections. Today, Aristide, despite demands for his return by the country’s poor, remains in exile.

As Naomi Klein has written, Haiti should be considered a creditor, not a debtor and, indeed, with the background of abuse Haitians have put up with at the hands of Western governments, we should consider it an outrage to even suggest another loan is somehow fair or even generous. What Haiti needs and deserves is not loans and further “policy commitments” to an unelected and discredited organization like the IMF, but reparations for hundreds of years of exploitation and for Western governments to allow Haitians to run Haiti as they see fit. Unless Haiti is treated like an equal and allowed to rebuild on its own terms, the spiral of violence and poverty that it has been forced into for centuries will remain.

My faith in humanity just died a little bit.

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