Dispatching the news.

03 May

Updated below.

I have but a few minutes, so this is a fast take on some of the latest news.

Mr. Obama raided the taxpayer cookie jar for an undisclosed amount in order to give a televised speech to US citizens broadcast from Kabul, which is in Afghanistan.  Which is pretty far away from the US mainland.  You can google that.  I didn’t hear much about the reaction from the average Afghan civilian to Obama’s speech….oh, yeah.  Pretty much no-one in Afghanistan has television.  So, anyway, while he was there, he signed some sort of agreement with Karzai about US forces withdrawing from Afghanistan.  (Article opens with obligatory air-kiss to Obama’s manly manness in killing bin Laden.  I think we will see every article which mentions the president’s name from now until election day managing to bring up The Death of Osama bin Laden.  Enjoy the election season; it’s no doubt going to be the last one we get.)

Kabul, Afghanistan (CNN) — President Barack Obama marked the first anniversary of the death of terror mastermind Osama bin Laden with an unannounced visit to Afghanistan, signing a long-awaited strategic partnership agreement meant to set the conditions of an American withdrawal from the war-torn nation.

The president reiterated that U.S. forces will not remain “a single day longer” than necessary, that he remains committed to pulling 23,000 troops out of the country by September and that he will stick to a 2014 deadline to fully withdraw from Afghanistan.

We will not build permanent bases in this country, nor will we be patrolling its cities and mountains,” the president said during a nationally televised speech to the U.S. people from Bagram Air Base early on Wednesday (Tuesday evening in the United States). “That will be the job of the Afghan people.” – CNN, link given in final quote from the article.

Oops, too late.  We have already spent a shitload of money building bases in Afghanistan, some of which we have turned over to Afghani control, but in fact we are still building bases and quite a number of them are scheduled for use by US elite forces and drone operations.  Nick Turse points out:

In late December, the lot was just a big blank: a few burgundy metal shipping containers sitting in an expanse of crushed eggshell-colored gravel inside a razor-wire-topped fence.  The American military in Afghanistan doesn’t want to talk about it, but one day soon, it will be a new hub for the American drone war in the Greater Middle East.

Next year, that empty lot will be a two-story concrete intelligence facility for America’s drone war, brightly lit and filled with powerful computers kept in climate-controlled comfort in a country where most of the population has no access to electricity.  It will boast almost 7,000 square feet of offices, briefing and conference rooms, and a large “processing, exploitation, and dissemination” operations center — and, of course, it will be built with American tax dollars.

Nor is it an anomaly.  Despite all the talk of drawdowns and withdrawals, there has been a years-long building boom in Afghanistan that shows little sign of abating.  In early 2010, the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) had nearly 400 bases in Afghanistan.  Today, Lieutenant Lauren Rago of ISAF public affairs tells TomDispatch, the number tops 450.

The hush-hush, high-tech, super-secure facility at the massive air base in Kandahar is just one of many building projects the U.S. military currently has planned or underway in Afghanistan.  While some U.S. bases are indeed closing up shop or being transferred to the Afghan government, and there’s talk of combat operations slowing or ending next year, as well as a withdrawal of American combat forces from Afghanistan by 2014, the U.S. military is still preparing for a much longer haul at mega-bases like Kandahar and Bagram airfields. The same is true even of some smaller camps, forward operating bases (FOBs), and combat outposts (COPs) scattered through the country’s backlands.  “Bagram is going through a significant transition during the next year to two years,” Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Gerdes of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Bagram Office recently told Freedom Builder, a Corps of Engineers publication.  “We’re transitioning… into a long-term, five-year, 10-year vision for the base.” 

Whether the U.S. military will still be in Afghanistan in five or 10 years remains to be seen, but steps are currently being taken to make that possible.  U.S. military publications, plans and schematics, contracting documents, and other official data examined by TomDispatch catalog hundreds of construction projects worth billions of dollars slated to begin, continue, or conclude in 2012. 

While many of these efforts are geared toward structures for Afghan forces or civilian institutions, a considerable number involve U.S. facilities, some of the most significant being dedicated to the ascendant forms of American warfare: drone operations and missions by elite special operations units.

Recently, the New York Times reported that President Obama is likely to approve a plan to shift much of the U.S. effort in Afghanistan to special operations forces.  These elite troops would then conduct kill/capture missions and train local troops well beyond 2014.  Recent building efforts in the country bear this out.

A major project at Bagram Air Base, for instance, involves the construction of a special operations forces complex, a clandestine base within a base that will afford America’s black ops troops secrecy and near-absolute autonomy from other U.S. and coalition forces.  Begun in 2010, the $29 million project is slated to be completed this May and join roughly 90 locations around the country where troops from Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force-Afghanistan have been stationed…

Last month, Afghan President Hamid Karzai ordered that the U.S.-run prison at Bagram be transferred to Afghan control.  By the end of January, the U.S. had issued a $36 million contract for the construction, within a year, of a new prison on the base.  While details are sparse, plans for the detention center indicate a thoroughly modern, high-security facility complete with guard towers, advanced surveillance systems, administrative facilities, and the capacity to house about 2,000 prisoners.

At Kandahar Air Field, that new intelligence facility for the drone war will be joined by a similarly-sized structure devoted to administrative operations and maintenance tasks associated with robotic aerial missions.  It will be able to accommodate as many as 180 personnel at a time.  With an estimated combined price tag of up to $5 million, both buildings will be integral to Air Force and possibly CIA operations involving both the MQ-1 Predator drone and its more advanced and more heavily-armed progeny, the MQ-9 Reaper.

The military is keeping information about these drone facilities under extraordinarily tight wraps…

Back to the CNN article:

An undetermined number of U.S. forces will remain in country past 2014 working as military advisers and counterterrorism forces, but officials have yet to decide for how long…

Speaking to reporters from Turkey after the trip to Afghanistan, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Michigan, and member Jack Reed, D-Rhode Island, pointed to a series of lightening-rod issues expected to be addressed at the summit.

They include hot topics such as Taliban and Haqqani safe havens in Pakistan, Afghan economic dependency on international spending and the grittier details of senior leadership positions within the nation’s armed forces.

One thing we’re going to see if there can be an early retirement of the officer corps to make room for the younger class (of Pashtuns from the country’s restive southern and eastern provinces),” said Levin, noting those groups are underrepresented.

That’s something that’s going to be discussed in Chicago, a retirement incentive,” he said, a subtle nod to lingering questions over the army’s current legitimacy in traditional Taliban strongholds. – from CNN article

Hmm.  So while our President and Congress work on not-so-clandestine plans to decimate Social Security and Medicare for older Americans, we intend to pay for the retirement benefits of the Afghan fighting forces.  How very noble of us.  A sacrifice in which we will all gladly share, I’m sure.  We are just swell like that.

…The president’s trip was his third since taking office and comes amid heightened tensions between the Obama and Karzai governments after a string of incidents involving U.S. personnel.

Among them include an American service member charged with killing of 16 Afghan civilians, Quran burnings at a U.S. military base and the release of photographs of Americans posing with the remains of dead militants. – from CNN article

I would like to point out that the base where the books were burned is a joint US/Afghan base which houses prisoners.  When you see “a few copies of the Quran burned” in any given article, what is actually being referred to is an incident where almost the entire Afghan portion of the prison library was confiscated –  1,652 books and Islamic texts, including 48 copies of the Quran – and “boxed for storage”.  All of these books were “mistakenly” taken to an incinerator to be burned. Several Afghan garbage collectors working at the base reported finding a number of charred books and quickly notified an Afghan National Army commander, who halted the burning.  Whether or not the collection contained “damaged” books, as the US military claims, it seems a minor point.  No-one seems interested in questioning why only the books written in Pashtu or Dari (Afghan Farsi) were taken from the library or why almost the entire collection (the only reading material available for both Afghan guards and prisoners alike) was being removed.
Back to CNN:

… Obama also spoke of a “negotiated peace” and said his administration has been in direct talks with the Taliban. In March, the Afghan Taliban suspended the development of a diplomatic office in Qatar designed to allow them to hold talks with the United States, following public anger over the killing of the 16 civilians.

“We’ve made it clear that they can be a part of this future if they break with al Qaeda, renounce violence and abide by Afghan laws,” Obama said Wednesday….

He later added that the U.S. “did not come here to claim resources or to claim territory. We came here with a very clear mission to destroy al Qaeda.” – from CNN article

The Taliban are not affiliated with al Qaeda.  We did go into Afghanistan to claim resources; US troops are currently guarding at least one gold mine for JP Morgan bank, and we have intended from the inception of this undeclared war to claim territory on which to build a natural gas pipeline.  Further, as even our top brass admit, there is no al Qaeda presence remaining in Afghanistan.
Back to CNN:

Last week, Afghan National Security Adviser Rangin Daftar Spanta and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker initialed the text that outlined the kind of relationship the two countries want in the decade following the NATO withdrawal.

The deal had been long expected after Washington and Kabul found compromises over the thorny issues of “night raids” by U.S. forces on Afghan homes and the transfer of U.S. detainees to Afghan custody.

It seeks to create an enduring partnership that prevents the Taliban from waiting out a U.S. withdrawal to try to regain power, the senior administration officials have said.

All CNN quotes are from this article:

I have a question – can the President sign an agreement like this without Congress ratifying and consenting to it?  Just asking.  He is, after all, committing the US to an “enduring partnership” with a foreign country, for an indeterminate length of time. [Answer: He is not.  See update below.]  And again, I will point out that the Taliban was not our enemy, nor the reason we went into Afghanistan.  They are currently fighting the US/NATO forces because they see themselves as protecting their country from foreign invaders, which is what we are.

Speaking of Ryan I-am-a-real-man-hear-me-roar Crocker, our top “diplomat” in Afghanistan, let us reflect for a moment on some of his wise and diplomatic language from a couple of weeks ago.

“Mr Crocker, who took up his post in Kabul last year, said al-Qaeda remained a potent threat despite suffering setbacks. ‘We have killed all the slow and stupid ones…’ ”  –

The Taliban, as a sign of their objection to the Obama/Karzai long-term pledge, immediately launched an attack on a compound in Kabul that houses some 2000 westerners, killing at least 7 people within two hours of Mr. Obama leaving Afghanistan.  Mr. Crocker had this to say about the attack:

“Mr. Crocker characterized the attack as a feeble attempt to strike a psychological blow to the U.S.-Afghan partnership. ‘It was not exactly a significant military attack,’ he said. ‘This is not Tet 3. If this is the best they can do, they are not exactly winning this war.’ “

He has clearly read Mrs. Clinton’s book on diplomatic responses to international questions, “Our State Department Today: How to Create, Fund, Arm, and Incite the Enemy de jour in Four Easy Lessons”.

As our top officials dicker over exactly how much money to further squander in this useless exercise in Afghanistan, gleefully building bases and commissioning drone aircraft and “elite” forces, discussing the retirement plans for our Afghan “team-mates”, poverty in America increases to levels never before seen.  I can think of absolutely nothing funny or clever to say about our own hunger situation.

In 1962, Michael Harrington shocked the nation when he wrote The Other America, estimating that 40 million to 50 million Americans—one quarter of the population—lived below the poverty level.

Today, the numbers are more than three times higher. Recent statistics show half the American population—over 150 million people—are either poor or near poor. Millions are forced to turn to food banks to feed their families….

“One in six Americans, 49 million people, including one in five kids, are struggling with hunger,” [Feeding America’s chief communication officer] Daly said. She added that while poverty is the single predominant factor in food insecurity, unemployment is the largest contributor to the condition. “There are so many people already in what we traditionally call the ‘near-poor’ that any loss of a job translates directly into food insecurity.

“Unemployment continues to be at record-level highs. Yes, it has gone down a little in the last two years, but the number of people who are unemployed remains very high.”

Daly pointed to high food and fuel prices and the fact that many people are still suffering from the foreclosure crisis.
“We have serious threats to the safety net,” she added. “Congress is considering drastically cutting SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program—food stamps), while at the same time we have seen a 40 percent decline in the amount of food coming in to food banks.”

Daly pointed to a drastic decline in the amount of food available for distribution. She said the government provides 25 percent of the 3.3 billion pounds of FA food. Last year, she said, there was “almost a 50 percent decline in what we call bonus commodities” available to Feeding America.

Daly told the WSWS how the system works: the US Department of Agriculture purchases surplus food when commodity prices drop, to provide a price floor. However as of late, when prices are steadily rising, the government reduces its buys of cheese, flour, corn and other surplus commodities.

As of February 2012, food prices had risen 4.4 percent for the year, with meat, coffee and peanut butter up 9 percent, 19 percent and 27 percent respectively. This has resulted in a significant decline in the food flowing to charities.
“Because food prices are high, the USDA has been making fewer purchases of commodities and therefore there is less food from the federal government flowing through food banks. We have seen about a 50 percent increase in the number of people who need help over the last four years; while at the same time there is less food available from these steady sources.

“That combined is what we in our network call a perfect storm. Need is up, availability of food is down, and the people that we are serving are struggling with more and more challenges in meeting basic needs.
“We have to be careful in discussing food insecurity because we know that two-thirds of those who are food insecure actually are not living below the poverty line.”

The threshold for SNAP is 130 percent of the poverty level. The threshold for WIC and other child nutrition programs is 185 percent of poverty. Daly said that one-quarter of the people in the US who report they are food insecure make more than 185 percent of the poverty income, meaning they don’t qualify for any form of federal assistance. The only place they have to go for food assistance is through the charity system.

“The federal programs are really targeting the poorest of the poor,” she said. “There are millions of people who are living in the ‘near poor’ category and many of those folks are unemployed or underemployed. This is driving the increase in the number of people who are hungry.”
Daly said FA is seeing an increase in food need in every demographic group: “It is happening across the board. Statistically, we feed almost one in four African Americans in the US. We also see a large number of white workers.

“One of the biggest misnomers is that people see hunger as an urban issue, when the reality is that 55 percent of the counties in the US with the highest rate of food insecurity are rural. Unfortunately, there is no such thing as a hunger-free community. This is an issue that exists in every county in America.”…

Lucio Guerrero [said], “It’s a shame that this is happening in a country with so much abundance. One in six is the average number of children who are food insecure, but there are communities where it is 50 percent of kids, in some parts of Texas or in the rural South.  It really is affecting every community. Even in places like Palm Springs [California], there are people who are hungry.”

Update, Wed.:  According to former Congressman Alan Grayson, the President is not authorized to sign an agreement or treaty such as the one he signed with Karzai and doing so violates the Constitution.

From Grayson:

To little fanfare, President Obama announced last week that he signed an agreement to extend the U.S. military occupation of Afghanistan for twelve more years. No one noted the irony of this, since under our Constitution, President Obama can be President for no more than another 4 1/2 years.

Also under our Constitution, a treaty requires the concurrence of two-thirds of the Senate. (Article II, Section 2, Clause 2). No one in the Obama Administration even took a stab at explaining why this agreement with a foreign power was not being submitted to the Senate for concurrence. But the reason is obvious: the Senate would not concur.

Also under our Constitution, you will search in vain for any provision that authorizes a lengthy military occupation of a foreign country. In fact, the Constitution does not authorize a standing army, much less an army standing in Kabul. In the Bizarro world in which we live, we have 27 Attorneys General challenging the constitutionality of 35 million Americans getting health coverage, but no one challenges the constitutionality of an undeclared war (see Article I, Section 8 on that) that has now entered its second decade.


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