Friday, 25 December 2015

Afghanistan highlights a history of chaotic western intervention

The latest reverses and the past 14 years tell the story of how the US and its Nato allies have struggled to create the peace envisaged in 2001

Simon Tisdall                         Guardian/UK                        22 December 2015

With Britain and its allies increasingly engaged militarily in Syria, Iraq and, prospectively, in Libya too, the
latest reverses in Afghanistan have harshly illuminated the stark dangers and unforeseen consequences of precipitate western intervention in foreign lands – and how easily such adventures can go disastrously awry.

Afghanistan was the first intervention of the post-9/11 era, hurriedly launched after the attacks on New York and Washington. The primary US aim was to destroy al-Qaida’s bases. But the mission quickly morphed into Afghanistan highlights a history of chaotic western intervention. The latest reverses and the past 14 years tell the story of how the US and its Nato allies have struggled to create the peace envisaged in 2001

The succeeding 14 years in Afghanistan is the story of how the US and its Nato allies have struggled and, so far, failed to create the peaceful, stable, prosperous, pro-western democracy they optimistically envisaged in 2001. As this week’s emergency deployment of US and British special forces and advisers in Helmand suggests, grand policy designs have been overtaken by gut panic.

Barack Obama disowned George W Bush’s Iraq occupation and withdrew as fast as he could, but he took a different line on Afghanistan. In 2009 he ordered a 30,000 troop surge in a high-risk attempt to end the war. Yet improvements in security were short-lived. The Taliban could not be beaten; nor would they make peace.

For all their apparent battlefield successes, the Taliban are not in much better shape. The leadership crisis that followed July’s admission that Mullah Omar had been dead for two years has riven the movement. Last week US Gen John Campbell, commander of international forces in Afghanistan, said Isis controlled up to 3,000 fighters. He warned its influence was spreading. And this takes no account of the residual al-Qaida presence.

Thus if all western forces finally upped and left, the Taliban would not necessarily “win”. At this point there would be little to prevent Afghanistan swiftly falling prey to a multi-faction, nationwide fight between Kabul government forces, jihadi groups, indigenous Pashtuns (the Taliban), freelance Sunni mafiosi, and even Tajik militias from the old Northern Alliance.

As ever in Afghanistan, regional actors continue to pursue their narrow interests. China is worried about spillover radicalisation of its Muslim population in western Xinjiang province. Russia has expressed similar concerns about the destabilisation of former Soviet central Asian states and the inexorable northwards flow of Afghan opium. Moscow has discussed supplying heavy weapons to favoured warlords such as Abdul Rashid Dostum. Beyond the western border, Iran, as always, looks for advantage.

Like the US and Britain, none of these countries has a credible plan, or even half a half-baked idea, about how to solve the Afghan conundrum. But the principal Afghan lesson is clear, and it is one that applies elsewhere in the world: generally speaking, military intervention just makes matters worse. Now the US is stuck. It cannot leave entirely and it cannot escalate. Behind the bland White House press statements, it seems plain Obama has not the foggiest idea what to do next.

Isis has established itself in north-eastern Kunar and Nangarhar provinces, where clashes with local Taliban are reported. In June, the Taliban asked the Isis leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, to avoid actions that could lead to “division of the mujahideen’s command”. Their plea was ignored. Isis is now actively recruiting in eastern Afghanistan, using a daily Pashto language
radio broadcast to air interviews, appeals and songs.

As ever in Afghanistan, regional actors continue to pursue their narrow interests. China is worried about spillover radicalisation of its Muslim population in western Xinjiang province. Russia has expressed similar concerns about the destabilisation of former Soviet central Asian states and the inexorable northwards flow of Afghan opium.
Moscow has discussed supplying heavy weapons to favoured warlords such as Abdul Rashid Dostum. Beyond the western border, Iran, as always, looks for advantage.

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Happiness at Christmas time comes to those who give

Ross Gittins                      Sydney Morning Herald                  December 22, 2015 

The beauty of Christmas is that it's a time when everyone's happy. Well, not quite. Better to say, it's a time when everyone tries to be happy, but we succeed in varying degrees. When Dr Peter Clarke, of Griffith Business School in Brisbane, surveyed 450 people to ascertain the nature of "Christmas spirit", he found it had five components: bonhomie, gay abandon, ritual, shopping and a little bit of dejection. Yes. We all have periods of less-than-perfect bliss and perhaps we don't have any more of them at Christmas than at other times; it just feels that way because we expect to be happy at Christmas and are surrounded by people trying so hard to be.

Perhaps. But my guess is more of us do experience periods of unhappiness at Christmas. There are those who, for various reasons, have no family or friends with whom to celebrate, or those who miss those now missing.

Then there's all the distress arising from overadministration of that substance supposed to magically generate good moods. Too many hangovers after too many Christmas parties, regretted behaviour at the office party (this year, Fairfax Media employees received a stern warning that no tolerance would be shown), things said around the dinner table that would have been better left unsaid. Old wounds opened.Yes, Christmas has its share of unhappiness, even if just the wish we hadn't eaten (or spent) so much. There are, of course, a few traps that can be avoided.

If, as some clerics allege, materialism has become our dominant religion, Christmas must surely be our most sacred economic festival. But the evidence suggests that's not the way to wellbeing. I've said it before, but it's one of my strongest conclusions after decades of economy-watching, so I'll say it again: the trick to succeeding in the capitalist system is to say no to most of the blandishments of the capitalists.

Professor Tim Kasser​, a psychologist at Knox College, Illinois, and Kennon Sheldon, a professor of psychology at the University of Missouri, wanted to determine what makes for a merry Christmas. They asked 117 people of varying ages questions about their satisfaction, stress and emotional state during the Christmas season, as well as questions about their experiences, use of money and consumption behaviour. They found that those who most remembered family and religious experiences were happier than those for whom spending money and receiving gifts were the main things they remained conscious of.

Of course, for many of us, religious experiences are no longer part of Christmas. Don't take this the wrong way – I'm not on a recruiting drive – but I suspect those who retain a religious commitment already have "man's search for meaning" sorted, while the rest of us can spend a lot of time looking for substitutes.

All those claims that the environment or economics or libertarianism or a dozen other things have become "the new religion" are unconsciously affirming that humans function better when they have something to believe in, something outside and above their own self-centred concerns.

There's psychological evidence to support that. It doesn't have to be the Christian religion, however. And other research has shown that a big part of the benefit people get from church-going, or its equivalent, is social contact and membership of a group.

One advantage of a religious upbringing that's of particular relevance at Christmas is an instinctive understanding that, to quote some chap supposed to have been born at this time, "it is more blessed to give than to receive". Think of Christmas as about giving rather than receiving and you're well advanced towards a happier time. And, naturally, there's empirical support for the notion.

A study by Elizabeth Dunn and Lara Aknin​, of the University of British Columbia, and Michael Norton, of Harvard Business School, first asked a sample of 632 Americans to rate their general happiness, report their annual income and estimate how much they spent on bills and expenses, gifts for themselves, gifts for others and donations to charity.They found that personal spending was uncorrelated with happiness, whereas higher "pro-social spending" correlated with significantly greater happiness.

Next, 16 employees were tested for their happiness well before and well after they received a profit-sharing bonus. They found that those who devoted more of their bonus to spending on other people or a charity experienced greater happiness after receiving the bonus. And how they spent their bonus was a better predictor of happiness than the size of the bonus itself.

This, of course, is just a narrower application of the much-noted principle that happiness can only be achieved indirectly. If you want to end up realising you're happy, focus on increasing the happiness of others, not your own.

In discovering all these studies, I must acknowledge the assistance of the British psychologist, Dr Jeremy Dean, author of the
blogsite PsyBlog. I'm indebted to him for drawing to my attention a study by Vohs, Wang, Gino and Norton, which finds that engaging in ritualised behaviour enhances the enjoyment of food, particularly if it makes you wait a little longer.

So, Christmas rituals are important. In my family, we repeat a short but almost incomprehensible Scottish grace by Rabbie Burns that our mother taught us, to the bemusement of in-laws.

Have a happy one.

Twitter: @1RossGittins [Abbrev.]  

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

The New Nuclear Arms Race

By Katrina van den Heuvel              Washington Post            December 15, 2015

In February 1994, William Perry was sworn in as President Bill Clinton’s secretary of defense. Perry would take over at the Pentagon during one of the most fluid times in geopolitical history — between the end of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Two decades later, Perry has written a new book, “
My Journey at the Nuclear Brink,” in which he offers a dire warning: “Far from continuing the nuclear disarmament that has been underway for the last two decades, we are starting a new nuclear arms race.”

This is not hyperbole. The United States and Russia are acting with increasing belligerence toward each other while actively pursuing monstrous weapons. As Joe Cirincione described in the Huffington Post, the Pentagon plans to spend
$1 trillion over 30 years on “an entire new generation of nuclear bombs, bombers, missiles and submarines,” including a dozen submarines carrying more than 1,000 warheads, capable of decimating any country anywhere. In the meantime, President Obama has ordered 200 new nuclear bombs deployed in Europe.Russia has been at least as aggressive. As Cirincione described, Russian state media recently revealed plans for a new weapon — a hydrogen bomb torpedo — that can traverse 6,000 miles of ocean just as a missile would in the sky. On impact, the bomb would create a “radioactive tsunami,” designed to kill millions along a country’s coast.

This escalation has been a long time coming, and the U.S. owns much of the blame for the way it has accelerated. During the Clinton administration, the United States pushed hard to expand NATO, breaking a critical promise to Russia not to threaten its sphere of influence. Perry, who played a lead role in this effort, has since acknowledged its folly. “That was the first move down the slippery slope,” he
said at an event hosted by the Defense Writers’ Group. “It’s as much our fault as it is the fault of the Russians, at least originally. And it began when I was secretary.”

During the George W. Bush administration, there were more missteps, especially the U.S. walking away from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, causing irreparable harm to the countries’ fragile relationship. And during the Obama administration, the president seems to have gone out of his way to denigrate Russian President Putin, publicly describing him as
“like a bored child in the back of the classroom.” The Obama administration sent arms into Ukraine, reminiscent of Cold War proxy wars that the United States fought on nearly every continent. This time, the game is even more dangerous, playing out on Russia’s border instead of thousands of miles away. And though we are more than a quarter century removed from the fall of the Berlin Wall, the United States still has nuclear weapons pointed at Russia on hair-trigger alert, sending a daily signal of aggression.

As Perry noted, one of the great dangers of nuclear proliferation is accidental war. This is not paranoia. In May 2013, the
Air Force suspended 17 officers from controlling nuclear weapons after an inspection found a “breakdown in overall discipline.” Seven months later, an Air Force general who oversaw bases with 450 ICBM missiles was fired for what The Washington Post described as a “drunken Moscow bender.” The next month, 34 nuclear officers were caught cheating on their proficiency exams. But the increased tension between the U.S. and Russia will have dire global consequences even if neither side launches a weapon. Defeating the Islamic State is likely impossible without Russia as part of a broad coalition. And beyond the fight against the Islamic State, there are a number of vital geopolitical issues where a partnership with Russia can be profoundly powerful. Without Russia, the United States would never have reached a nuclear deal with Iran. Without Russia, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would still have chemical weapons.

“In a strange turn of history,” Obama said during a 2009
speech in Prague, “the threat of global nuclear war has gone down, but the risk of a nuclear attack as gone up.” In yet a stranger turn of history, it is the United States that is contributing to the increased risk of both. Whether Hillary Clinton would follow a similar path remains to be seen. On the campaign trail in 2015, the former secretary of state’s comments have not been encouraging. The day after Russia started bombing Islamic State targets in Syria, for example, she called for a no-fly zone, a policy that would not just risk confrontation with the Russians, it would require it.

In that same speech in Prague, Obama criticized those who viewed nuclear proliferation as an inevitability. “Such fatalism is a deadly adversary,” he said, “for if we believe that the spread of nuclear weapons is inevitable, then in some way we are admitting to ourselves that the use of nuclear weapons is inevitable.” In his final year in office, may he remember his own words. And in the years to come, may we all. [Abridged]

Reprinted by Common Dreams

Sunday, 13 December 2015

Is there really any difference between a terrorist and an ordinary criminal?

 ‘Criminals’ are our chaps, while ‘terrorists’ are dark-skinned Muslims

Robert Fisk                              Independent/UK                      13 December 2015           

Over the past few years, I’ve discovered that there is crime pure and simple (gangland crime, killing by gun-crazed students or anti-abortionists, Mafia hit squads), and “terrorist crime”, for which the guilty parties must qualify by being politically angry, adherents to a religious deviation and usually evil, messianic, sadistic, sick, medieval members of a “death cult”. The latter includes “homegrown radicals” who slaughter people of any religion because of the West’s adventures in the Middle East.

In reality, this means that “ordinary” crime – the mass killing of Westerners by Westerners for money, greed, personal revenge or a drug-related desire to kill fellow humans – is treated as somehow normal. But “terrorist” crime almost always indicates that Muslims are held responsible. In other words, criminals are our chaps, while terrorists are dark-skinned Muslims who hate our values, want to chop off our heads and are obviously crazy.

We saw the wobbly nature of this nonsense immediately after the killing of 14 innocent Americans in California. At first, the US cops said they did not know if this was a “terrorist-related” (sic) crime. They called it a mass shooting. We were told on several channels that the murders were the result of a dispute – the gunman had supposedly been angered by insults from one of the 14 victims. But then he turned out to have a Muslim name and, along with his wife, kept a whole armoury at home and had apparently pledged “allegiance” to Isis. The mass shooting then became “an act of terror”. To further confuse this new definition, however, the cops said that they did not believe the couple had any direct contact with Isis, despite the group’s claim of responsibility. Then it turned out that the couple had been “radicalised” – something the Mafia don’t undergo – years before the slaughter.

In the London tube station stabbing a week ago, the semantics became equally confused. At first, the police were “investigating a stabbing” at Leytonstone; but after a videotape soundtrack recorded a man shouting: “This is for Syria”, and a civilian shouting back: “You ain’t no Muslim, bruv” – the cops declared it “a terrorist incident”. Dave Cameron made much of the “You ain’t no Muslim, bruv” quote. A man has since been charged with attempted murder.

Yet all this is a bit odd. Back in the 1980s, when the British Army and the IRA were fighting to the death in Northern Ireland, the UK government was desperate to label the IRA as criminals, vicious criminals, desperate criminals, even terrorist criminals, but above all common criminals who must be made amenable to the law and sentenced to many years in prison, whatever the reason for their violent campaign. Then the IRA decided they wanted to be called “political prisoners” – the polite version of “terrorists” – because they wanted their murders, robberies and intimidation to be seen as “political crimes” outside the herd of mafiosi, contract killers, rapists and sadists that inhabit all societies, including that of Northern Ireland.

So enthusiastic were the IRA to claim “political” status that they went on hunger strike. Ten died under Mrs Thatcher’s cold gaze. But then the UK government gave way on almost all the IRA’s demands. IRA inmates became “politicals” and emerged from captivity when “peace” was declared. So does it pay to be a “terrorist” or an ordinary criminal? I suppose it depends how much your life is worth. For the British Isis fighters Reyaad Khan and Ruhul Amin, killed in a UK drone strike, being classified as a terrorist proved lethal. Dave and our military lads and lasses sentenced them to capital punishment.

Yet the criminal/terrorist dichotomy stretches even further. The latest claim by Syrian opponents of Bashar al-Assad – that Assad is a far greater “terrorist” than Isis because he has killed more people than the Islamist group (six times as many, according to Channel 4) – suggests that the sheer number of dead men, women and children who have died at your hands determines whether you are a criminal or a terrorist.

But hold on a minute. Bush and Blair – through the illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003 – were responsible for the destruction of far more innocent lives than Isis and Assad put together. So do Blair and Bush qualify as super-terrorists? Or just criminals, albeit “war” criminals who might theoretically qualify for The Hague international court, but who are absolutely safe from drone attacks and will never, ever, be called “terrorists”? [Abridged]

Christmas Stories

Ian Harris                                  Otago Daily Times                        December 11, 2015

THE Christmas season is in full swing, and the symbols are all around us: tills ringing merrily, Christmas trees twinkling, Santa waving cheerily from scores of parades, Rudolph’s reindeer nose glowing red again, office parties celebrating the end of another year and the start of the Christmas holydays.

Meanwhile the distinctively Christian element of Christmas, which once was its core, has become steadily more marginal in the public’s consciousness. Some households ban the old stories as fairy-tale irrelevance, and substitute Santa and his elves and the Grinch who stole Christmas.

If relevance is the touchstone, the biblical stories win hands down – but they need to be read through an appropriate lens. They were not written, nor should they be read, as hard, historical fact, though there is bedrock fact at their core. Scholars of the Jesus Seminar in the United States sum this up as: “Joseph was engaged to Mary; Mary was pregnant; she gave birth to a son; they named him Jesus.”  

Without that, no one would be celebrating Christmas in any form. They might be celebrating something else at this time – mid-winter in the northern hemisphere, mid-summer in ours, family togetherness, the summer holiday break – but it would not be the traditional Christmas. 

Even Christians would not be celebrating Christmas if it had not been for Jesus’ life and crucifixion, and his early followers’ sense of his continuing influence at the deepest level of their lives. But for that, no one would have bothered to write about his birth. 

And when, decades later, two of his followers did, they were much less concerned to give a factual report of Jesus’ beginnings than to pass on what he had come to mean to them in the intervening years.

The modern way to do that would be through learned papers, conferences, seminars and attempts to throw light on people’s experience from the standpoints of psychology, philosophy and theology. The old way was to convey the essence of it all through stories. 

In those stories the details were not as important as the links they triggered in the minds of their hearers – links to their history, their religious traditions, what was happening in the world around them, the impact Jesus had had on them. 

Matthew asked himself how he could make sense of Jesus in light of his Jewish background. Part of his answer was to compose a birth story, beginning with a genealogy tracing Jesus back through the kings of Israel to Abraham, the father of the Jewish race. He tells his story in such a way that listeners would hear echoes of ancient Jewish heroes – the dreamer Joseph who saved his family from starvation in Egypt; Moses who delivered the Jews from slavery in Egypt; the glory days of King David. Luke, writing for non-Jews, takes the broader canvas of the whole human race. So his genealogy traces Jesus’ family tree back beyond Abraham to Adam, the mythical ancestor of all humanity, and brings in prophets, instead of kings, in the line after David.

Both their gospels apply verses in the Hebrew Bible to Jesus, sometimes with little regard for their original context or intent. They do this to show Jesus as the one who fulfilled the Jewish longing for a messiah who would usher in a new golden age. Not only was he descended from David, but he was born in Bethlehem, David’s city (though they rather blunt the connection by insisting that Joseph was not actually his father).

Matthew emphasises Jesus’ royal credentials with a star throwing a spotlight on Bethlehem, astrologers bringing gifts, and the local King Herod panicking at the prospect of a rival. Luke points rather to Jesus as deliverer of the poor. So Mary gives birth in a stable, and it is announced to workaday shepherds. Interweaving all that is the poetic embroidery of angelic messengers and a heavenly choir.

In our secular world, taking the stories literally snuffs them out – yet the Christian imagination would be much the poorer without them. They wear so well because of what they point to, namely that in Jesus we get a glimpse of what Godness in life and life in Godness can be. 

The stories, says Anglican Bishop John Robinson, are recognised ways of saying God is in all this: “Jesus showed his followers a new kind of living, a new kind of loving . . . In him they glimpsed something of the final mystery of life itself.”  

Sure beats Rudolph and the Grinch.