08/18/2015 archive

The Human Terrain System

The Quiet Demise of the Army’s Plan to Understand Afghanistan and Iraq

By VANESSA M. GEZARI, The New York Times

AUG. 18, 2015

The Army had begun developing the program as an experiment in 2006; it expanded quickly as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan foundered and American policy makers cast about for novel approaches. The idea was to send teams of social scientists, including anthropologists, to gather ethnographic, sociocultural and economic information and advise front-line soldiers on a range of delicate topics, from the mechanics of forging tribal alliances to how to persuade villagers to how to respond to local offers of hospitality.

Since the invasion in 2001, the United States military had been making choices about which Afghan leaders to support, which companies to reward with contracts, whom to trust and whom to kill. These choices, the shopkeeper said, were the key to why so much had gone wrong. “You are making mistakes,” he told his American interlocutor. “You have been making mistakes for eight years. I tell you one thing, different people tell you something different. There’s no right person with you to advise you. So all the people working with you are wrong.”

The Army created the Human Terrain System – at the height of the counterinsurgency craze that dominated American strategic thinking in Iraq and Afghanistan late in the last decade, with much fanfare – to solve this problem. Cultural training and deep, nuanced understanding of Afghan politics and history were in short supply in the Army; without them, good intelligence was hard to come by, and effective policy making was nearly impossible. Human Terrain Teams, as Human Terrain System units were known, were supposed to include people with social-science backgrounds, language skills and an understanding of Afghan or Iraqi culture, as well as veterans and reservists who would help bind the civilians to their assigned military units.

On that winter day in Zormat, however, just how far the Human Terrain System had fallen short of expectations was clear. Neither of the social scientists on the patrol that morning had spent time in Afghanistan before being deployed there. While one was reasonably qualified, the other was a pleasant 43-year-old woman who grew up in Indiana and Tennessee, and whose highest academic credential was an advanced degree in organizational management she received online.

She was out of her depth, but at least she tried to be professional. Two days earlier, another member of the Human Terrain Team casually told a sergeant that he could have sex with me if he gave the team member some supplies he wanted. The Human Terrain Team member claimed to be joking, but the sergeant and I were mortified.

The shortcomings I saw in Zormat were hardly the extent of the Human Terrain System’s problems. The project suffered from an array of staffing and management issues, coupled with internal disagreements over whether it was meant to gather intelligence, hand out protein bars and peppermints, advise commanders on tribal conflicts or all three – a lack of clear purpose that eventually proved crippling. It outraged anthropologists, who argued that gathering information about indigenous people while embedded in a military unit in active combat posed an intractable ethical conflict. Once the subject of dozens of glowing news stories, the program had fallen so far off reporters’ radar by last fall that the Army was able to quietly pull the plug without a whisper in the mainstream media.

By the time the Human Terrain System was shut down in September, the program had cost American taxpayers more than $700 million and was bereft of purpose; with the war in Iraq purportedly over and deployments to Afghanistan dwindling quickly, it had run out of soldiers to advise.

Welcome to the Church of Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption

We are all familiar with the televangelical  preachers that flood the airways telling their believers that they have the cure for everything from cancer to a hang nail if you just send them your money. They prey (pardon the pun) on those who can least afford to send them money while they live in the lap of luxury.They also don’t pay any taxes on their bounty.

To demonstrate the absurdity of these charlatans, John Oliver, host of “Last Week Tonight,” opened his own church with the assistance of a tax lawyer.

To expose the industry’s fraudulent activity, his team got close with leading celebrity televangelist Robert Tilton of Word of Faith Worldwide Church. After mailing Tilton $20, with a request to be added to his church’s mailing list, a correspondence was reportedly struck up, which resulted in the televangelist requesting larger and larger sums of money.

As Oliver said: “As of tonight, I’ve sent him $319 and received 26 letters – that’s almost one a week. And again, this is all hilarious until you imagine these letters being sent to someone who cannot afford what he’s asking for.”

Oliver wrapped up the segment in fitting fashion: he formed his own church. He claims to have filed paperwork for establishing Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption last week, a process he called “disturbingly easy”.

The church is now open to the public and has its own site. On it, Oliver encourages people to send cash, check or money orders to a New York PO box. The fine print states that should the church choose to wind down and dissolve in the future, “any assets belonging to the Church at that time will be distributed to Doctors Without Borders, a non-profit charitable organization that is tax-exempt under § 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code (EIN: 13-3433452) and which provides emergency medical aid in places where it is needed most”.

Bless you, John Oliver

Punting the Pundits

“Punting the Pundits” is an Open Thread. It is a selection of editorials and opinions from around the news medium and the internet blogs. The intent is to provide a forum for your reactions and opinions, not just to the opinions presented, but to what ever you find important.

Thanks to ek hornbeck, click on the link and you can access all the past “Punting the Pundits”.

Follow us on Twitter @StarsHollowGzt

New York Times Editorial Board: I Am Republican, Hear Me Roar

To hear most of the Republican candidates tell it, all an American president has to do is talk tough, make demands, send more troops overseas, pour billions more dollars into the Pentagon and the world will fall in line. The notion they’re peddling boils down to this: President Obama is weak, I am strong and America will be great again when I am in the White House. [..]

Republicans have long employed the Democrats-are-weak trope. But it’s harder to make that case after 16 years of Democratic presidents who did not hesitate to intervene forcefully when they thought it necessary – Bill Clinton in Bosnia and in Yugoslavia in defense of Kosovo and Mr. Obama in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria and with prolonged drone strikes along the Pakistan border.

But as many people now realize, leadership in today’s multipolar world depends not just on a large army and the threat of force but also on the president’s ability to present America’s democracy as a plausible alternative

to repression and radicalism and to wield all the tools at his disposal, including diplomacy, to achieve the nation’s goals. President George W. Bush’s swaggering approach to leadership and his headstrong use of force, especially in his first term, led to the disaster that still imperils Iraq today.

Dean Baker: China’s Currency Devaluation and the Federal Reserve Board

Discussions of economic issues in policy circles often suffer from a “which way is up?” dilemma; it’s not clear what the problem is that needs to be solved. The massive fretting over China’s devaluation of its currency last week is one such example.

Just to line up the bases, the basic story on China’s devaluation is that a reduced value of China’s currency against the dollar will make Chinese goods and services cheaper relative to goods and services produced in the United States. Other things equal, this means that we will export less to China and import more, thereby increasing our trade deficit. This will mean less growth and fewer jobs in the United States.

All of this should be fairly straightforward. The devaluation of China’s currency means less growth and jobs in the United States. It is also worth mentioning that the lower price of imported goods from China means that, other things equal, the rate of inflation will be lower.

Leo Gerard: China Protects its Workers; America Doesn’t Bother

Confronted with a dire situation, a world power last week took strong action to secure its domestic jobs and manufacturing.

That was China. Not the United States.

China diminished the value of its currency.  This gave its exporting industries a boost while simultaneously blocking imports. The move protected the Asian giant’s manufacturers and its workers’ jobs.

Currency manipulation violates free market principles, but for China, doing it makes sense. The nation’s economy is cooling. Its stock market just crashed, and its economic powerhouse – exports – declined a substantial 8.3 percent in July ­- down to $195 billion from $213 billion the previous July. This potent action by a major economic competitor raises the question of when the United States government is going to stop pretending currency manipulation doesn’t exist. When will the United States take the necessary action to protect its industry, including manufacturing essential to national defense, as well as the good, family-supporting jobs of millions of manufacturing workers?

Norman Solomon: Subverting Illusions: Julian Assange and the Value of WikiLeaks

Three years after Ecuador’s government granted political asylum to Julian Assange in its small ground-floor London embassy, the founder of WikiLeaks is still there — beyond the reach of the government whose vice president, Joe Biden, has labeled him “a digital terrorist.” The Obama administration wants Assange in a U.S. prison, so that the only mouse he might ever see would be scurrying across the floor of a solitary-confinement cell.

Above and beyond Assange’s personal freedom, what’s at stake includes the impunity of the United States and its allies to relegate transparency to a mythical concept, with democracy more rhetoric than reality. From the Vietnam War era to today — from aerial bombing and torture to ecological disasters and financial scams moving billions of dollars into private pockets — the high-up secrecy hiding key realities from the public has done vast damage. No wonder economic and political elites despise WikiLeaks for its disclosures.

David Zirin: The Absurd, Cowardly, and Morally Bankrupt NLRB Decision Against the Northwestern Football Union

The decision by the National Labor Relations Board to overturn a previous decision from March 2014 and deny Northwestern football players the right to unionize was as cockamamie as it was craven.

It was cockamamie because the NLRB’s reasoning was that their decision “is primarily premised on a finding that because of the nature of sports leagues…[granting the Northwestern football team union rights] would not promote stability in labor relations to assert jurisdiction in this case,”  What the hell does that mean? I will try to explain: The NLRB states that since it only has jurisdiction over the seventeen private schools among the 125 Division I football schools, most of which are public institutions, it would be irresponsible to convey a different status onto Northwestern. (State labor boards, not the NLRB, oversee the public universities.) Their argument is that since they would be imposing a different set of rules for the seventeen private institutions, it would send the entire system out of whack, promoting “instability” into a climate that is currently stable.

This is absolute hogwash. Northwestern is its own entity where football players generate huge amounts of revenue and have their own grievances with coaches and administrators (what some might refer to as “management.”) As people who generate income, and as was ruled earlier by the NLRB are “paid” with a scholarship, room, and board, they should have every right to organize themselves to achieve whatever else they feel they are denied, like decent medical care or better concussion protocols. As for state universities, they have the freedom to do exactly what the Northwestern players did and organize themselves in an effort to then approach their own state boards and ask for union recognition. That is how national campaigns work. Different states have different laws, different union freedoms, and unions still make efforts to organize across state lines. The fact that different labor boards would need to be approached is more an argument against the cringe-inducing bureaucracy that engulfs labor law in this country than the efforts by Northwestern players to be recognized as the labor they so clearly are.

Paul Hockenos: US climate policymakers can learn from Germany

President Barack Obama and some of the candidates in the 2016 presidential race have in recent weeks rolled out climate change plans. As policymakers continue to weigh their environmental strategies, it is useful to take a stock of what has worked and what hasn’t in other countries, particularly in Germany. The success of Germany’s Energiewende, which aims to fully transition the country into renewable energy, provides seven important lessons for the United States on how to switch from fossil fuels to renewables.

First, the transition to renewable energy can happen quickly. Germany has moved faster than any other industrialized country in shifting its electricity consumption toward renewable energy. In the past 15 years, it has gone from having only about 5 percent renewables in its power mix (mostly small hydroelectric plants) to generating a third of its electricity from renewables, including on- and offshore wind, bioenergy, hydro, thermal and photovoltaic solar. On July 25, Germany set another new record: Renewables accounted for 78 percent of its electricity. [..]

Second, renewable energy expansion boosts jobs and economic growth. Germany made massive investments in renewables, and its economy was one of the first to crawl out of the recent global recession and has grown steadily from 2004 to 2015. Moreover, the transition has not slowed Germany’s global competitiveness. It exported more in 2014 than ever before and increased its already lopsided trade surplus to $234 billion that year, despite sanctions against Russia and sluggish global growth. In 2013 the renewable sector accounted for about 372,000 jobs in Germany, and other aspects of its environmental policy – such as energy efficiency, alternative mobility, educational and training programs, research and development, the decommissioning of nuclear reactors and grid expansion – have added at least 1.5 million jobs. The most obvious winners from Energiewende are farmers, small and medium-size businesses and citizen groups that invested heavily in renewable energy.

The Breakfast Club (Hammers, Bells and Songs)

Welcome to The Breakfast Club! We’re a disorganized group of rebel lefties who hang out and chat if and when we’re not too hungover  we’ve been bailed out we’re not too exhausted from last night’s (CENSORED) the caffeine kicks in. Join us every weekday morning at 9am (ET) and weekend morning at 10:30am (ET) to talk about current news and our boring lives and to make fun of LaEscapee! If we are ever running late, it’s PhilJD’s fault.

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This Day in History

Mongol ruler Genghis Khan dies; Women in U.S. clinch right to vote; James Meredith graduates from Univ. of Miss.; Vladimir Nabokov’s ‘Lolita’ published in U.S.; Actor-director Robert Redford born.

Breakfast Tunes

Something to Think about over Coffee Prozac

Freedom is the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.

George Orwell

On This Day In History August 18

This is your morning Open Thread. Pour your favorite beverage and review the past and comment on the future.

Find the past “On This Day in History” here.

August 18 is the 230th day of the year (231st in leap years) in the Gregorian calendar. There are 135 days remaining until the end of the year.

On this day in 1920, the 19th Amendment to the Constitution is ratified when the Tennessee General Assembly, by a one-vote margin became the thirty-sixth state legislature to ratify the proposed amendment. On August 26, 1920, Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby certified the amendment’s adoption.

It took 70 years of struggle by women of the Suffrage Movement headed by Susan B. Anthony to get this amendment passed. Gail Collins’ NYT Op-Ed recount of the story puts it in great perspective:

That great suffragist and excellent counter, Carrie Chapman Catt, estimated that the struggle had involved 56 referendum campaigns directed at male voters, plus “480 campaigns to get Legislatures to submit suffrage amendments to voters, 47 campaigns to get constitutional conventions to write woman suffrage into state constitutions; 277 campaigns to get State party conventions to include woman suffrage planks, 30 campaigns to get presidential party campaigns to include woman suffrage planks in party platforms and 19 campaigns with 19 successive Congresses.”

As Ms. Catt tells it and to no one’s surprise the Senate was the biggest obstacle, so the Suffragettes decided to take it to the states and amend all the state constitutions, one by one.

The constitutional amendment that finally did pass Congress bore Anthony’s name. It came up before the House of Representatives in 1918 with the two-thirds votes needed for passage barely within reach. One congressman who had been in the hospital for six months had himself carted to the floor so he could support suffrage. Another, who had just broken his shoulder, refused to have it set for fear he’d be too late to be counted. Representative Frederick Hicks of New York had been at the bedside of his dying wife but left at her urging to support the cause. He provided the final, crucial vote, and then returned home for her funeral.

The ratification stalled short of one state when it came to a vote in the Tennessee Legislature on August 18, 1920 and was short one vote to ratify when a young state legislator got a note from his mother:

Ninety years ago this month, all eyes turned to Tennessee, the only state yet to ratify with its Legislature still in session. The resolution sailed through the Tennessee Senate. As it moved on to the House, the most vigorous opposition came from the liquor industry, which was pretty sure that if women got the vote, they’d use it to pass Prohibition. Distillery lobbyists came to fight, bearing samples.

“Both suffrage and anti-suffrage men were reeling through the hall in an advanced state of intoxication,” Carrie Catt reported.

The women and their allies knew they had a one-vote margin of support in the House. Then the speaker, whom they had counted on as a “yes,” changed his mind.

(I love this moment. Women’s suffrage is tied to the railroad track and the train is bearing down fast when suddenly. …)

Suddenly, Harry Burn, the youngest member of the House, a 24-year-old “no” vote from East Tennessee, got up and announced that he had received a letter from his mother telling him to “be a good boy and help Mrs. Catt.”

“I know that a mother’s advice is always the safest for a boy to follow,” Burn said, switching sides.

We celebrate Women’s Suffrage Day on Aug. 26, which is when the amendment officially became part of the Constitution. But I like Aug. 18, which is the day that Harry Burn jumped up in the Tennessee Legislature, waving his mom’s note from home. I told the story once in Atlanta, and a woman in the audience said that when she was visiting her relatives in East Tennessee, she had gone to put a yellow rose on Harry Burn’s grave.

I got a little teary.

“Well, actually,” she added, “it was because I couldn’t find his mother.”

Just The Nightly Show (Bag O’ Grab)

Tonightly our panel is Paul Sheer, Robin Thede, and Mike Yard.

Cameron Gil joins The Nightly Show as Director of Human Resources.

Completely True