The war on terror: Misnamed, misfought, misthought

Sam Smith – According to the belligerently bombastic Daily Beast:

ISIS continues to gain substantial ground in Syria, despite nearly 800 airstrikes in the American-led campaign to break its grip there. At least one-third of the country’s territory is now under ISIS influence, with recent gains in rural areas that can serve as a conduit to major cities that the so-called Islamic State hopes to eventually claim as part of its caliphate. Meanwhile, the Islamic extremist group does not appear to have suffered any major ground losses since the strikes began.

At least one-third of the country’s territory is now under ISIS influence, with recent gains in rural areas that can serve as a conduit to major cities it hopes to eventually claim as part of its caliphate.

In the first two months following American airstrikes, about a million Syrians who had previously lived in areas controlled by moderates now lived in areas controlled by extremist groups al Nusra or ISIS, according to CDS, citing conversations with European diplomats who support the Syrian opposition.

If the Daily Beast had used the phrase “because of” rather than “despite” it would have been much closer to describing the situation and its context.

We haven’t seen a war close to its traditional meaning since Vietnam and even there we badly misgauged it as Ray McGovern pointed out last November:

Why was I reminded of Vietnam on Saturday when Gen. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited Iraq to “get a firsthand look at the situation in Iraq, receive briefings, and get better sense of how the campaign is progressing” against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL?

For years as the Vietnam quagmire deepened, U.S. political and military leaders flew off to Vietnam and were treated to a snow job by Gen. William Westmoreland, the commander there. Many would come back glowing about how the war was “progressing.”

Dempsey might have been better served if someone had shown him Patrick Cockburn’s article in the Independent entitled “War with Isis: Islamic militants have an army of 200,000, claims senior Kurdish leader.”

Fuad Hussein, the chief of staff of Kurdish President Massoud Barzani, told Cockburn that “I am talking about hundreds of thousands of fighters because they are able to mobilize Arab young men in the territory they have taken.”

Hussein estimated that Isis rules about one-third of Iraq and one-third of Syria with a population from 10 million to 12 million over an area of 250,000 square kilometers, roughly the size Great Britain, giving the jihadists a large pool of potential fighters to recruit.

While the Kurdish estimate may be high … the possibility that the Islamic State’s insurgency is bigger than believed could explain its startling success in overrunning the Iraqi Army…

Westmoreland insisted that the number of enemy Vietnamese in South Vietnam could not go above 299,000.

The inconvenient truth finally became abundantly clear during the Tet offensive in late January and early February 1968, but still the misbegotten war went on, and on, ultimately claiming some 58,000 U.S. lives and millions of Vietnamese.

A traditional war is, in no small part, about gaining ground, but since Vietnam the term has become hard to define because our leaders use it in whatever way seems most convenient at the moment. For example, in Iraq, our mission was accomplished – at least according to our then president – in a matter of months but we stayed there another eight years and now may be headed back. As for Afghanistan, even our publicly stated mission was far mushier, but also a failure: to dismantle Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

To understand why the world’s most powerful nation – one that spends more on its military than China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, UK, Japan, India, Brazil and Turkey combined – should do so badly it helps to recognize that war today is no longer about physical conquest so much as it is about the reaction of the prospectively conquered and their allies. It is far more about anger than about acres.

And when the targets are especially poor and lacking in economic and social support, bombing their friends and relatives does little good. The Pentagon is trying to defeat those who already feel defeated and furious about it. Further, it makes these societal victims perfect conversion targets for the likes of the Taliban or ISIS. The war on terror is really a war for more terror.

In a sense, what we are seeing is the grand failure of the drug war being applied to foreign affairs, involving a massive cultural dysfunction created by our government’s action and exploited by what we would call in the case of drugs, cartels, mob leaders or drug lords.

In short, we are seeking to obtain acreage when we should be seeking to contain anger. The terminology of war serves little good and works against our stated goals.

A few scholars and journalists have noticed this. Tom Porter in the International Business Times drew some striking parallels between the war on terror and the war on drugs:

US president Barack Obama has deplored Isis’ violence and pledged to “degrade and destroy” the group, but Musa al-Gharbia, a research fellow at the Southwest Initiative for the Study of Middle East Conflicts, claims that there is a far graver threat to the US closer to home.

He points to a series of figures showing that the violence of the [drug] cartels in some cases eclipses, and in others equals that of the Islamist group.

A recent United Nations report estimated that nearly 9,000 civilians had been killed and 17,386 wounded this year in fighting in Iraq… On the other hand figures from the Mexican government show that last year cartels were responsible for murdering more than 16,000 people in Mexico alone, and an estimated 60,000 in the preceding six years.

– Like Isis, cartels aim to strike fear into their rivals and opponents through torture and mass executions. They carry out hundreds of beheadings every year, and deliberately target women and children. Executed and mutilated victims have been displayed in gruesome arrangements in town squares and at town roundabouts, as cartels strive to outdo each other in violence.

– Both groups exploit social media to advertise their exploits. Only this week, cartel members executed anti-cartel activist, Dr Maria del Rosario Fuentes Rubio, accessed her Twitter account, then posted a picture of her corpse.

– Isis is believed to have enslaved approximately 1,500 Yazidi women and children, yet by some estimates cartels have enslaved tens of thousands, forcing some into sex work, and others to labour in plantations.

-Isis is believed to have recruited children as young as 10 to take part in suicide bombing missions and to fight on battlefields. Mexican cartels are also believed to have recruited scores of child soldiers, and have kidnapped children to harvest their organs.

The author goes on to argue that with its tentacles having reached every city in the US and claimed thousands of US victims in the ‘narco wars’, the cartels in fact pose a graver threat to the US than Isis.

Coleen Jose, writing for Mic Network last fall, added, “The cartels killed 293 Americans in Mexico from 2007 to 2010. The groups have also repeatedly attacked U.S. consulates in Mexico. In October 2008, two assailants fired their weapons and threw a grenade at the consulate in Monterrey.”

To bring it even closer to home, consider that the domestic drug trade has been estimated to be the size of the pharmaceutical industry yet you would have no hint of it in the major media which virtually never looks into the effect on politics and life in general from the perspective of those with power. It is only the minor dealers and their customers who get covered. As I learned examining the drug culture of Arkansas in the 1990s, nobody in the establishment wants to touch this issue and that, rather than there being a drug war, there is a covert relationship between the alleged enforcers and the actual enablers.

A rare exception is a remarkable story from the British paper, The Independent:

The entire criminal justice system was infiltrated by organised crime gangs, according to a secret Scotland Yard report leaked to The Independent. In 2003 Operation Tiberius found that men suspected of being Britain’s most notorious criminals had compromised multiple agencies, including HM Revenue & Customs, the Crown Prosecution Service, the City of London Police and the Prison Service, as well as pillars of the criminal justice system including juries and the legal profession.

The strategic intelligence scoping exercise – “ratified by the most senior management” at the Met – uncovered jurors being bought off or threatened to return not-guilty verdicts; corrupt individuals working for HMRC, both in the UK and overseas; and “get out of jail free cards” being bought for £50,000.

The report states that the infiltration made it almost impossible for police and prosecutors to successfully pursue the organised gangs that police suspected controlled much of the criminal underworld.

The fresh revelations come a day after The Independent revealed that Tiberius had concluded the Metropolitan Police suffered “endemic police corruption” at the time, and that some of Britain’s most dangerous organized crime syndicates were able to infiltrate New Scotland Yard “at will.”….

In 2000, according to Tiberius, a key police informant was secretly helping Scotland Yard with an investigation into the importation of £10m of heroin by a Turkish gang in north London.

The deal went wrong, the informant was tortured in a cellar and “an attempt was made to sever his fingers with a pair of garden shears”. His associate was also attacked and had “three fingers chopped off with a machete”.

The henchman Tiberius alleged had committed the assaults was the son of a named Met detective, who repeatedly tried to impede police inquiries into the case, according to Tiberius. He also had a corrupt relationship with a named detective sergeant then based in Marylebone police station who is suspected to have “organised cheque frauds”. Research conducted by The Independent suggests that none of the three men has ever been prosecuted.

The truth is that in Mexico, Arkansas or Britain – to name a few – there are too many in power who could say “Je suis ISIS” people who have learned how to defeat or capture the system without the conventional tools of warfare.

Their weapon is a populace too much ignored, mistreated or excluded from the benefits of conventional citizenship, making them easy candidates for either ISIS or a Mexican dug cartel. Chris Hedges hit on this remarkably recently:

The 5 million North Africans in France are not considered French by the French. And when they go back to Algiers, Tangier or Tunis, where perhaps they were born and briefly lived, they are treated as alien outcasts. Caught between two worlds, they drift, as the two brothers did, into aimlessness, petty crime and drugs.

Becoming a holy warrior, a jihadist, a champion of an absolute and pure ideal, is an intoxicating conversion, a kind of rebirth that brings a sense of power and importance. It is as familiar to an Islamic jihadist as it was to a member of the Red Brigades or the old fascist and communist parties. Converts to any absolute ideal that promises to usher in a utopia adopt a Manichaean view of history rife with bizarre conspiracy theories. Opposing and even benign forces are endowed with hidden malevolence. The converts believe they live in a binary universe divided between good and evil, the pure and the impure. As champions of the good and the pure they sanctify their own victimhood and demonize all nonbelievers. They believe they are anointed to change history. And they embrace a hypermasculine violence that is viewed as a cleansing agent for the world’s contaminants, including those people who belong to other belief systems, races and cultures…

Shortly after the attacks of 9/11, while living in Paris and working as a reporter for The New York Times, I went to La Cité des 4,000, a gray housing project where North African immigrants lived in apartments with bricked-up windows…

“You want us to weep for the Americans when they bomb and kill Palestinians and Iraqis every day?” Mohaam Abak, a Moroccan immigrant sitting with two friends on a bench told me during my 2001 visit. “We want more Americans to die so they can begin to see what it feels like.”

“America declared war on Muslims a long time ago,” said Laala Teula, an Algerian immigrant who worked for many years as a railroad mechanic. “This is just the response.”

It is dangerous to ignore this rage. But it is even more dangerous to refuse to examine and understand its origins. It did not arise from the Quran or Islam. It arose from mass despair, from palpable conditions of poverty, along with the West’s imperial violence, capitalist exploitation and hubris. As the resources of the world diminish, especially with the onslaught of climate change, the message we send to the unfortunate of the earth is stark and unequivocal: We have everything and if you try to take anything away from us we will kill you. The message the dispossessed send back is also stark and unequivocal. It was delivered in Paris.

To declare a war on terror and ignore such socio-economic realities makes no more sense than to declare a war on drugs or crime and ignore the similar truths of the neighborhoods being targeted for raids, chokeholds and stop and frisks.

The typical result of such a mindless strategy is to create more violence and far more power for the violent, which is just what is happening now in the Mid East. To end the violence, we must end our part in it and seek solutions that move both sides – however slowly – towards a more peaceful and rational future.


Legalize drugs, delegalize our culture

Sam Smith

After listening to two friends debate the legalization of marijuana (the opponent, incidentally, sipping some vodka as he did so), I was reminded again of the degree to which we have become addicted to the law as a primary way to solve life’s problems.

From the multi-page documents we accept unread in order to get our new computer software going to the soaring number of laws being passed at every government level we have, without philosophical discussion or debate, let the law and its practitioners gain unprecedented control over our lives.

You don’t have to be a libertarian to be stunned by the fact, for example, that about 40,000 state laws were passed in 2012.

This is not a legal or political issue, it is a philosophical and cultural one. Why have we let lawyers and the law intrude so deeply into areas that were once taught, defined and promulgated by family, church, community and education?

Consider this from the Economic Hardship Reporting Project:

Around the country, school administrators, elected officials, and prosecutors are tackling the truancy problem through the criminal justice system, ratcheting up enforcement, slapping students and parents with big-dollar fines, and threatening jail time. Atlanta, Georgia, and Lynchburg, Virginia sharpened their truancy policies this year with the aim of increasing prosecutions. In Detroit, Los Angeles, and Compton, the police sweep the streets for truants and enforce daytime curfew laws.

… The absurdities of harsh truancy policies made headlines in May when a Houston-area judge jailed Diane Tran, 17, for missing too much school and fined her $100. News reports revealed that Tran was an 11thgrade honor student working two jobs to support siblings after her parents divorced and moved out of state. Tran’s treatment attracted the public’s attention, but thousands of students and their parents are regularly churned through similar courts without public scrutiny of the process, its costs, or its effectiveness.

In this instance, the victims are typically lower income and/or minority students, a bias seen elsewhere in our system, including the enforcement of marijuana laws.

But beyond that problem is a more general one. Why do we turn over to the law so easily matters that we once looked to parents, priests, teachers and social workers to solve? How can you have a decent community or country if the major influence towards doing the right thing has become the brutal remedies of the judicial and police systems?

And would you have been a better person if you had received jail time or fines for various offenses you committed along the way?

It’s a question we seldom discuss, argue about or examine in a rational way.

The reason why marijuana laws are such a good case in point is because they simply haven’t worked. And we didn’t even have to go through four decades of a failed war on drugs to find that out. We had ample precedent in alcohol prohibition.

Obviously, if you’re a parent, you don’t want your sub-teen smoking pot or your teenager driving under its influence. But how can you arrive at a sensible approach to this when the major solution presented is a legal one?

What if we applied the same approach to doing homework or kids not putting food back in the refrigerator?

Just as with alcohol, you can have obvious points at which the law enters – such as driving under the influence – but our current culture not only uses the law as surrogate parents, teachers and community values, but does so even when it’s patently clear that it’s not working.

Some years back I suggested that a good urban planning principle would be to look for things that normally honest people do that are illegal, such as the 40,000 illegal accessory apartments in Los Angeles at that time. Or that in my neighborhood there was a business block where people normally double parked, but only right in front of the store where they were picking up their cleaning or whatever and only for a short while. The cops, I noticed, left this block alone.

Using marijuana falls into a similar category. At least three of our most recent presidents have used pot and/or even cocaine. Whatever their political faults, drug use did not seem to be prominent among them.

We have ruined far more lives criminalizing marijuana than have been hurt by using it, but we were taught by increasingly bullying politicians, police and their supporting media that this was the way to solve the problem.

It’s way past time not only to legalize marijuana but delegalize the way we approach such issues.

Before the drug war

Sam Smith, 1970 – The Public Safety Committee of the [DC] City Council held two days of hearings this month to hear scientific and public testimony month about marijuana. Most of what it heard was expectable: scientifically, marijuana is a mild conscious-altering drug; it is not addictive, nor does it lead to the use of addicting drugs; it has been known and used and studied for literally thousands of years, and no physiological damage whatsoever has been discovered; instances of adverse mental effects from its use are extremely rare.

Most significant to the council’s hearing — and to a good number of kids who are in prison on pot convictions — was the fact, reiterated by Surgeon General Jesse L. Steinfeld, that “in the case of marijuana, legal penalties were originally assigned with total disregard for medical and scientific evidence of the properties of the drug or its effects. I know of no clearer instance in which the punishment for infraction of the law is more harmful than the crime.” . . .

[Activist Petey] Greene “testified” on behalf of his grandmother, whose opinions on marijuana are based on practical experience. She once told her grandson to quit: “Petey, you gotta stop smoking those reefers because they make you too hungry, and I can’t buy all that extra food. Later, on comparing its effects with those of alcohol, “She said she’d rather me smoke reefers and just sit and smile at people than drink that old wine and come in throwing chairs around. ” . .

The testimony of representatives of the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs was notable for its meekness. Although the narcs still refer to marijuana as a killer drug before high school audiences, and still try to imply that pot inevitably and immediately leads to heroin, and still pass out 1930’s posters of marijuana as the Grim Reaper — they backed off under Council questioning. The narc’s Dr. Milton Joffe even allowed that although “legalizing simply for hedonistic purposes” was not warranted, “I’m not against pleasure. . .”

Judge Charles Halleck recommended more realistic penalties, since present laws tend to cause the community “to lose faith in the entire system of justice.” James H. Heller of the National Capital Area Civil Liberties Union called for the legalization of pot. He said he saw no reason that it should be treated any different from alcohol. (He admitted to having tried grass once, “but it didn’t have any effect.” “Maybe you just didn’t know how to smoke it,” Councilwoman Polly Shackleton consoled him) . . .

Terry Becker, a Quicksilver Times reporter, surprised everyone by calling for more stringent penalties and stricter enforcement. Becked wanted “everyone to turn on everyone to get busted;” It would hasten the revolution, he said . . .

Noting that Surgeon General Steinfeld had referred to the famous Alice B. Toklas marijuana or hash brownies but claimed the recipe was not to be found Alice’s cookbook, [the Council’s Republican chairman] Gilbert Hahn opened the second day of hearings by setting the record straight. You will find the recipe on page 273 of Alice B. Toklas, announced Hahn, and having fulfilled his public responsibility, he ordered the proceedings to proceed.