Category: World

Amazing Russian Meteor Blast Video Shocks and Awes, but Should We Worry?

The video footage emerging from surveillance cameras and an army of camera-toting Russian civilians who documented Friday’s close call with a meteor that entered the Earth’s atmosphere are terrifying and awe-inspiring.

In one video (top right) compiled by Russia Today, the meteor can be seen from the perspective of a driver on a Russian road who saw the trail of fire burning across the sky and intensifying until it became a massive glowing ball of light at the moment of explosion.

In another (bottom right), office doors and windows are blown in by the force of the meteor’s explosion some 32,000 feet above the Earth’s surface. The same video shows what appears an articulated metal door being torn free of its mounts as though it were a playing card.

They are a pulse-accelerating reminder that earth-bound natural phenomena such as hurricanes, tsunamis and earthquakes are not the only nasty curveballs Mother Nature can throw at the human race.

So, it is easy on a day when not one but two space objects lurked in close proximity to the only home we have in the universe to get a little, well, freaked out. Is there a way to it all into perspective?

Owing in large part to sloppily researched disaster porn programming manufactured for cable television audiences, there’s a lot of confusion about what is whizzing around our solar system and what specific dangers we face from differing types of objects.

[pullquote]The reality of living in a solar system that is in its adolescent stage of development is that its “room” – the space we share with millions of bits and pieces of rock, metal and ice that orbit the sun – is messy. The Earth will (and does) trip over space debris.[/pullquote]What exploded some 32,000 feet over the Chelyabinsk region of Russia on Friday was a meteor, a smallish space rock that enters the Earth’s atmosphere. When a meteor survives the trip through the atmosphere and collides with the Earth’s surface it is called a meteorite. The Chelyabinsk meteor heated to a temperature causing it to explode before impact, creating a light show that outshone the sun at its brightest and a destructive blast wave that caused significant property damage and injury to people on the ground. The power of the explosion was estimated by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to have been equivalent to 500 kilotons of TNT, roughly twenty times the combined force of the atomic bombs dropped to end World War II.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration estimated that the Chelyabinsk meteor was 56 feet in diameter upon first contact with our atmosphere and weighed 10 tons. Imagine a UPS delivery truck carrying 400 frozen Thanksgiving turkeys and it becomes clear that Friday’s destruction was caused by an object large on a human scale but relatively small if we use a cosmic measuring stick.

For ultimate contrast, the asteroid thought by some to have caused the extinction of dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous period is estimated to have been 6 miles in diameter. Meteors the size of the one that created havoc over Russia do not represent extinction level threats to the human race, but an impact or an airburst explosion closer to the ground would be disastrous if it occurred in a populated area.

Thankfully, most meteor events – though not entirely uncommon – are less extreme than Chelyabinsk. Often, meteors enter the atmosphere at shallow enough angle to either “skip” off back into space or burn out at a high altitude. In those cases, viewers on the ground may see and hear the same smoke trail and loud boom, but without the accompanying shock wave that knocked doors off of some buildings and sent some 1,000 Russians to hospitals, most with non-life-threatening injuries.

Though meteors are small when compared to their larger cousins – asteroids such as the 160-foot 190,000-ton rock known as DA14 that also passed near the Earth Friday – small is measured on a scale that includes planet-sized objects. Furthermore, because meteors are smaller than most of our detection equipment can reliably see, atmospheric explosions and strikes are frustratingly outside of our prediction capability. Asteroids are marginally easier to spot and track, as are comets (objects of similar in size to asteroids that orbit the sun and are composed of ice, gas and rock that shed a veil of material that reflects the sun’s light), but detection is not always possible.

The reality of living in a solar system that is in its adolescent stage of development is that its “room” – the space we share with millions of bits and pieces of rock, metal and ice that orbit the sun – is messy. The Earth will (and does) trip over space debris.

The Chelyabinsk meteor is the largest space object event to occur since the 10 to 15-megaton Tunguska event in 1908 that flattened several hundred square miles of Siberian forest. In the years after Tunguska, there have been 13 other recorded meteor air bursts none of which caused any serious damage.

Old Tech Saved by High Tech: Google, the Israel Museum and the Dead Sea Scrolls

The Dead Sea Scrolls are the oldest group of Old Testament manuscripts ever found. A project launched by the Israel Museum and Google aims to preserve these historical documents. Too delicate to even be exposed to direct light, the dead sea scrolls will now be forever protected using Google’s online storage power. Online file storage has become increasingly prominent in reliably protecting and backing up data online  This is promising considering that the scrolls were nearly lost to the environmental elements; it would be a shame to lose them through technology short comings. This project follows another with the Israel Museum that went live in January and put an archive and search function for photos from Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust museum online.

The Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in 11 different caves between 1947 and 1956. The Israel Museum will be displaying sections of the scroll in in its Shrine of the Book and rotate the fragments every three months to limit exposure to light. The online version of these scrolls will feature five of the 950 manuscripts. The images are accompanied by videos and background information on the texts. According to plan more scrolls will be added in up-coming years.

The content of the scrolls is a telling and powerful window into the past of the Old Testament. There are prophecies by Ezekiel, Jeremiah and Daniel as well as Psalms attributed to King David and Joshua written in the scrolls that can’t be found in the Old Testament today. There are also some aspects of it that are missing from the scrolls. Because the Old Testament has been rewritten so many times, historians are unsure if the missing content deteriorated or if it was just added later. A variety of related but “non biblical” writings were also found in the caves. These offered commentaries on the Old Testament as well as rulebooks and war conduct.

The Dead Sea Scrolls were most likely written by the Essenes, an outcast group, during the period from 200 B.C. to 68 C.E./A.D. They were led by a priest they called the “Teacher of Righteousness,” who was opposed and possibly killed by the established priesthood in Jerusalem. The scrolls are on a variety of materials; animal skin, papyrus and copper. Misinterpretation of these passages is easy as the authors used no punctuation and, in some cases, did not put spaces between words at all. They were written in a carbon-based ink.

The Dead Seas Scrolls are some of the rarest documents in the world. Making them digitally accessible for free is a significant step for religious history and scholarship. Google and the Israel Museum should be applauded for their efforts to preserve and protect such a significant body of work.


[photo credit: KOREphotos]

Post-Gaddafi Path to Libyan Stability Crosses Treacherous Shifting Sands of Power

So, it’s starting to look as if the impossible has been achieved: Muammar Gaddafi, who ruled Libya with an iron fist for just three days shy of 42 years, has been routed from power. You know it’s over when you see video of the hidden tunnels of his compound, and of rebels ransacking his personal items. The only thing left is to actually find him, execute his arrest warrant, and conduct his trial.

But what does this mean for the Middle East? The Arab Spring, which started last December in Tunisia, has literally swept through the Middle East, toppling one dictator after another. The first to go was Tunisia’s President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who fled to Saudi Arabia. Then Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak, who ruled for nearly thirty years, was toppled from power after eighteen days of revolt. In all, eighteen Middle Eastern countries have been affected by the unexpected turmoil in that area.

What has resulted is a complete shift of the status quo. Most of these leaders have ruled for decades, and now several of these countries are now virtually leaderless. Power vacuums historically go one of two ways: either new leadership takes root and drastic changes occur that lead said country in new and exciting directions; or pre-existing tensions rise to the surface, people take sides, and turmoil persists until someone comes to power. In the case of the latter, it is usually the most powerful who rise to power, and a cycle of autocratic rule begins anew.

In the case of Gaddafi, many predicted his downfall, but few knew how it would play out. The rebels were weak and disorganized, prompting an all-out massacre from Gaddafi’s forces. Eventually, the US joined forces with other NATO countries—against the advice of several senior American lawmakers, I might add—in order to provide air support and training to assist the rebels.

While this tactic took longer than many would have liked, the result is that the victory was largely due to the rebels’ persistence; this creates the hope in many peoples’ minds that this hard-won victory will be followed by decisive actions on the rebels part to form a strong, cohesive government that will listen to the voices of the people, rather than making decisions based upon the interests of a select few, as has been Libyan policy up until now.

And now, Gaddafi is on the run and his family has fled to Algeria. Whether this is a sign of good things to come for Libyans remains to be seen, but a bigger question is what this victory will mean to the people in other countries where the struggle for freedom and democracy remains ongoing. Will they see Libyans working together for a unified future and be inspired to step up their campaigns of resistance, or will they see Libya descend into chaos along sectarian lines, thus discouraging them from enacting similar change in their own country? Only time will tell.


[photo credit: Globovisión]

Could Jim McDermott Soon Be Making a Passage to India?

Eleven-term Congressman Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) could be packing a steamer trunk for a tour of diplomatic duty in Asia. McDermott is under consideration by the Obama administration for an appointment as the U.S. Ambassador to India, according to a source with strong ties to Washington State politics.

McDermott would replace interim ambassador Albert Peter Burleigh who has served since the resignation of Timothy Roemer from the post this April. McDermott’s past co-chairmanship of the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian-Americans could offer Republicans in the U.S. Senate a reason to overlook other partisan reasons to block his appointment. McDermott also serves as the honorary chair of the Washington State India Trade Relations Action Committee.

Why else might McDermott be on a short list for a diplomatic posting several thousand miles away? There seems to be an abundance of possible reasons for why Democrats might offer the 22-year congressman his golden parachute. Speculation might focus on last week’s news that the 22-year liberal Democrat is divorcing his second wife. McDermott has not offered any details concerning the split. Also, population trends in and around McDermott’s 7th Congressional District stronghold have are likely to cause a significant redrawing of the territory in redistricting.

Add to those possible factors the persistent pitter-patter of Rep. Dennis Kucinich’s (D-Ohio) progressive happy feet around the 1st Congressional District race, a potential collision with establishment Democrats State Reps. Roger Goodman and Marko Liias. The ensuing fray could create enough discord for Republicans to leverage a decent performance in the district in 2010 by James Watkins into a win in 2012. Finding a pasture in Mumbai for McDermott to wander to would resolve a lot of headaches for Washington State Democratic Party chair Dwight Pelz.

NW Daily Marker contacted the White House Press Office for a statement, but as of time of publication no statement was issued. A call to McDermott’s press secretary was also not returned.


Additional Info: [8/17/11 5:06PM PST]  This is not the first time McDermott’s name has been mentioned as a possible choice as a permanent ambassador to replace Burleigh. Northwest Asian Weekly published an article on June 9, 2011 highlighting McDermott’s qualifications and the Northwest Progressive Institute’s website reported about speculations of McDermott being named on June 22, 2011.


[photo credit: flickr]

Obama’s Afghan Drawdown Will Cost U.S. Lives and the War

Tonight, Pres. Barack Obama will announce a scheduled drawdown of nearly a third of U.S. troops fighting against the Taliban and al Qaeda insurgency in Afghanistan. The President’s announcement comes weeks after a covert U.S. team successfully killed Osama bin Laden, and at a time when the strategic and tactical changes implemented by Gen. David Petraeus have begun to achieve significant progress.

When considering the ramifications of the President’s plan for force reduction, I could not help but recall an article I wrote almost two years ago about the conflict. (See article pasted below.) In the wake of a successful U.S. mission to kill a high-level enemy target—then it was the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Baitullah Mehsud—I argued that drone strikes, while accomplishing tactical objectives, do not move the U.S. closer to its ultimate objective of building confidence within the Afghani population that resisting the brutal hand of the Taliban is a cause the U.S. would help them win.

To instill that confidence requires that something real be standing between an Afghani villager and an expected reprisal from Taliban thugs that follows when aid is given to Americans; it requires boots to be on the ground, protecting villages, towns, and trade paths. The President will telegraph a message to the Afghan people tonight: We will not be there.

Yet, our own security still depends on neutralizing the rat’s nest of anti-American terrorism that exists in the region, a fact that will cause the President to suggest that the so-called success of drone strikes can do the job. It cannot, anymore than carpet-bombing during the Vietnam War secured victory in that ill-fated conflict.


Obama continues misguided drone war in Afghanistan

by Bryan Myrick
Originally published August 11, 2009 at

As officials continue to sift through remains at the site of last week’s suspected U.S. drone attack in southern Pakistan – the target of which was Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud – a senior U.S. official felt confident enough Monday afternoon to declare firm belief that Mehsud was killed in the nighttime attack. The official’s certainty closed the confirmation gap that remained after Obama’s national security adviser, Gen. Jim Jones, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” this Sunday that he placed the probability of mission success in the “90 percent category.”

What was the critical element that gave ordinarily hyperskeptical intelligence officials the green light to conclude that Mehsud had been eliminated? Mehsud was known by CIA analysts to suffer from leg pain as a result of diabetes. A man fitting his description entered the home of Mehsud’s father-in-law, then adjourned to the roof to avoid the searing heat and began to have his legs massaged. The strike – preauthorized by President Obama, according to the senior U.S. official – was initiated based on this intelligence.

A tear should not be shed in sorrow for the death of a man who is believed to have been instrumental in the assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, coordinated attacks against US-led coalition forces in Afghanistan, and gave aid and refuge to all manner of evildoers seeking to harm U.S. interests around the world. Mehsud’s death was rightly celebrated as a tactical victory in the current struggle to stabilize the central Asian region and the broader war on terror, and champagne corks were most assuredly hitting the ceiling from Kandahar to Langley. But, as military historians will hasten to note, chalking up scores of tactical successes is no substitute for a broader strategy to win the war and the peace when fighting against an enemy that refuses to surrender. When the calm night sky around Mehsud erupted in a rush of sound and fire, and the person tending to his aching limbs suffered the Taliban warlord’s fate alongside him, the American cause to win the peace in the war against radical Islamists took one more step opposite the direction of overall victory.

The earliest reports of the strike to kill Mehsud also cited sources claiming that women and children also perished in the strike, stories that have too frequently become a routine feature of wires from the drone war. Stories have continued to flow from Afghanistan and Pakistan about the high rates of civilian casualties in attacks from unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) – also known as drones.

Modern warfare invariably places civilian populations in the arena of combat—this is a grim reality that only the nihilistic Left have not learned to stomach in order to act in preservation of our security in the face of very real threats. And yet, the increasing numbers of poppies growing over the corporeal remains of what our cleansed consciousness refers to as ‘collateral damage’ have the potential to inspire a new wave of anti-U.S. hatred. The high rate of casualties arising from drone attacks and the potential Vietnamization of the Afghanistan war that could result from their use is something I wrote about recently.

But perhaps there is something about waging war-by-wire that verges on cowardice, a lack of honor to take lives only when risking one’s own that compounds the suffering of innocent villagers who, polling suggests, more likely than not support coalition efforts to rid their lands of chaotic elements. America’s strength, its great contribution to the world, has been the willingness on the part of its citizens to sacrifice all in order to give those who desire freedom a fighting chance to experience it. This has been our gift to the world; it is the thing that the purveyors of hate—the Islamists—fear the most.

The escalation authorized by President Obama in the tactical use of drone strikes threatens to exacerbate deteriorating battlefield conditions in a war that is vital to America’s future security. With victory a hair’s breadth away from falling into the abyss of history, the waning support of Afghans for the coalition presence will be the deciding factor should American fortunes fade. In the long view, it may be Obama’s preference to remove American troops from harm’s way – a political decision, not one that seems advised by a rational strategy for winning the peace – that costs America most dearly.

After the file is closed on Mehsud, and a flock of drones has been tasked to acquire and destroy his replacement, a question will haunt policy analysts: Can tactical UAV air raids that eliminate enemy leadership but inflict casualties on the civilian population ever complement a strategy for preserving America’s long-term security? If American troops, bolstered by fresh boots on the ground this fall and winter, succeed in regaining territory lost to insurgents, will the drone attacks simply quell support for occupation or fuel greater resistance to their presence?

If the ultimate victory in Afghanistan is to be won in the hearts and minds of the Afghans themselves, to borrow a phrase from the Vietnam lexicon, establishing goodwill among the people of Pakistan and Afghanistan toward the United States is paramount, as is cementing and understanding that we will be a partner in stabilizing the present and future central Asian region, so long as they also refuse to support the forces that would seek to harm the United States or its interests. To achieve that objective they must be made to see our enemy as theirs as well, an outcome unlikely when coalition forces are blamed – sometimes fairly, sometimes not – for bringing destruction and death to their homelands.

Unfortunately, the rational conclusion from observing the course of the Afghanistan War since Obama has taken office is chilling. The escalation of the drone war at Obama’s order, and the resulting civilian casualties, indicate not only that the Obama administration may have cast aside all interest in redefining the Afghanistan mission in terms of broadly and narrowly defined American national security interests.

The war in Afghanistan is one worth winning, but the objectives have become muddy since US-led coalition forces invaded more than a half decade ago. The drone war is just one symbol of mission creep that threatens to eliminate all chances to stabilize the region and make gains in the war against Islamofascism. In this new way of war, the sheer might of American military superiority, if carelessly used, could produce stunning tactical victories, followed by crushing strategic defeat.What is needed is the vision among our leaders to define our mission beyond what is taking place on the field of battle, beyond decimating or eradicating the opiate economy of the region, beyond crushing the Taliban.

Just as an oncological surgeon measures their success in the operating room based on two criteria – the complete removal of the cancerous growth and the lack of damage to the healthy surrounding tissue – the same can be said of our strategy in central Asia. If the US-led coalition fails to remove the malignancies represented by Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and other radical jihadists, no amount of money poured into hospitals, schools, and paved roadways will stop a future 9/11 from being conceived in that part of the world.  In fact, it was the scant infrastructure and bureaucracy left established by Soviet occupiers that made Afghanistan into something of a turnkey operation when the Taliban swept into power. Third World nation – just add autocratic religious extremist leadership.

Extending the cancer metaphor further, if the tactics used to remove our enemies damage and destroy the portions of the civilian population in the process it will be impossible to convince the Afghans and Pakistanis that they share a common aim of peace with us, thus enhancing the likelihood that anti-democratic Islamist movements can leverage fear of US attacks from the air into popular support.

Obama is doing an excellent job of protecting his approval numbers by avoiding the negative publicity that casualties resulting from a hypothetical manned, eyes-on-target, raid would have caused. Afghanistan is now President Obama’s war, just as Vietnam will always be President Lyndon Johnson’s war in the opinion of many. As Johnson expanded the conflict handed him by Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy, Obama inherits Afghanistan from President George W. Bush with plans to restore a path to victory by landing more boots on the ground.

Will Obama avoid Johnson’s mistake in Vietnam, his confusion of the ability to achieve tactical victories through superior force with the more subtle requirements of accomplishing the broader and more subtle objectives on the way to the ultimate goal—American security? For the sake of those who seek freedom in Afghanistan, for the men and women standing on the first front in the war against those who seek our ultimate destruction, and for the prospect that we might never again mourn victims of acts of terror on our soil, I hope so. With all of my will, I sincerely hope so.


[photo credit: By The U.S. Army (Combat Medics in Afghanistan) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons]

It’s a Launch! Pacific Northwest, Meet The NW Daily Marker

Launching today, The NW Daily Marker becomes a new voice in the local media, reporting and commenting on the important state, local, and national issues for residents of Washington and Oregon.

Featuring writing on politics and culture from a group of exceptional contributors from around the Northwest region, The NW Daily Marker will strive to entertain and inform local readers.

The NW Daily Marker boasts of a commitment to ethical journalism and a dedication to encouraging rich political conversation through a variety of features built into their reader-friendly website.

The Marker Mission
“Truth is not only stranger than fiction, it is more interesting.”
– William Randolph Hearst

The NW Daily Marker aims to incite readers to think about critical state, local and national issues by offering incisive, fact-driven articles and commentary. By fusing high ethical standards with the distinctive writing styles of The Marker’s growing list of contributors, it will earn its spot as a respected member of the local media community.

More detail on The Marker’s raison d’être can be found on the About Us page on the website.

clip_image004One Stop for Northwest Tweets

At all times, there is a conversation in and about the Northwest and it is taking place at the speed of Twitter.

Via The Marker’s sidebar, readers can see a moving timeline of tweets from a custom-compiled list of prominent voices and outlets in Northwest media, culture, and politics.

The NW Daily Marker adds its own voice to the Twitter chatter via @NWDailyMarker.

Taking The Marker Mobile

The NW Daily Marker offers readers a simple version of the site for use on smartphones and other mobile devices. Tablet users will typically still receive the same rich version of the site as if viewing through a desktop browser.

Facebook-Synchronous Comments

In addition to a traditional comment section for dialogue between readers, The NW Daily Marker also integrates an application to draw non-Marker readers into the conversation. When a reader uses the Facebook comment app to post their reaction to a Marker article, the discussion carries over to the reader’s Facebook page.

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In addition to readers’ comments, The NW Daily Marker offers multiple tools for giving a stamp of approval to The Marker’s informative and engaging writing.

Google +1 and Facebook ‘Like’ buttons are included at the top of each article; a palette of additional social media sharing buttons (Twitter, e-mail, Digg, Stumbleupon) are available at the bottom.

Readers are also encouraged to subscribe to The NW Daily Marker’s Facebook page.

Ad-friendly, Not Ad-Heavy

Content is The NW Daily Marker’s focus. Our uncomplicated layout has been designed with balance in mind, offering high visibility for our advertisers without compromising the readability of our articles.

The Human Element Behind the Site

The NW Daily Marker is published by Bryan Myrick, who recently functioned as the West U.S. Editor for Red County. Myrick has been writing about state and national politics for Red County and other websites since 2008 and has been a lifelong Northwest resident.


Afghanistan War May Not Become a Contemporary Vietnam. It Could Be Much, Much Worse.

800pxAirassault_mission_in_Paktika_provinceWhen Vice President Biden spoke about the certainty that his new boss would be tested on the world stage only two weeks before Barack Obama’s 2008 election, it may have been the one subject on which Biden has ever shown both prescience and coherence. Speaking to a small group of Democrat donors in Seattle on October 19, 2008, the master of gaffes donned his serious hat to offer those in attendance an audience to his oracle vision of the near future. Only audio from the speech became public so there is no way of knowing if Biden darkened the room and cast a flashlight beam eerily across his face, but it was clear by his words that Biden was not spinning a yarn about snipe hunts or hook-handed escaped mental patients.

“Mark my words,” Biden said. “It will not be six months before the world tests Barack Obama like they did John Kennedy. The world is looking.”

Common interpretation of the prediction was that Biden had divined that a single foe would challenge President Obama, as Biden put it, “to test the mettle of this guy.” Nine months of history clarify that Biden must have actually been using the word “world” in a pluralistic sense, meaning that Obama’s challenges would come from all points on the globe. Venezuela, Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, Europe (East and West), even the combined organization of the International Olympic Committee have seemed eager to gauge the ability of the American president to assert American power. But the one test that Obama claimed to have mastered prior to pursuing the presidency — one that he committed to putting quickly behind him upon taking office — was that of securing victory in Afghanistan. Tragically, of all the trials he has failed thus far, it has been the one he professed to have studied up for that has the greatest implications for national security.

The months since President Obama’s inauguration have not been a honeymoon as much as they have been a hangover, with Obama weaved to and fro in his avoidance of choosing a stable and productive strategy for our war in Central Asia. The world has watched the president fumble for his car keys with a sense of dread, knowing he has no idea where he will be headed once he finally starts up the engine and drives off. Is this the challenge of which Biden spoke, the world daring Obama to resolutely set the course?

Obama can be credited with making some decisions, chief among them escalating the use of drone attacks that have inflicted a high ratio of civilian casualties and may be seen by our enemies and the local population as a cowardly and disrespectful form of warfare, and replacing Bush’s Afghanistan commander Gen. David McKiernan with his own man in the field, Gen. Stanley McChrystal. But, in the broad analysis, what might have only been the President’s “lost weekend” has become a nine-month bender that burns at America’s gut like an ulcer. As an absence of American strategy continues to cost America the lives of its sons and daughters, the ghosts of Vietnam still lurk in the Oval Office. They are specters that the President cannot ignore.

On the road to the presidency, Obama made his proposals for the realignment of American military resources to focus on what he correctly identified as the “central front” in the war on terror, the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan. David Axelrod costumed this approach by skillfully loading Obama’s foreign policy speeches with a fusion of anti-war code and ‘big stick’ diplomatic lingo, recreating the candidate as a barely plausible lovechild of John Kerry and John Wayne. Incredulously, the rhetorical cocktail appealed to an electorate weary of war but intolerant of defeat. The keystone for the positioning of Obama as reluctant hawk, Afghanistan was cast as a Vietnam in the making, a meme that eased into the American subconscious due to it being arguably true.

Although there are many parallels that can be drawn between the American war in Vietnam and our engagement in Afghanistan, it is a single distinction between the two conflicts that should encourage President Obama to heed the advice of his current Afghanistan commander for increase in troop levels. Even in the low point of our withdrawal US military planners had no fear that communist Vietnam might sense American weakness and pursue a larger war against the leader of the free world. Thoughts on this precise question do not exist in the memoirs of President Ford, but I feel safe in making an in absentia inference that Bill Ayers’ Weather Underground Organization and the Black Panthers were considered greater threats to Americans at home than the communist Vietnamese.

When the US withdrawal was complete, and the last helicopter had evacuated Ambassador Martin from the US Embassy in Saigon, although returning soldiers faced an emotional assault from an ungrateful nation there would not be cells of Viet Cong sleeper agents who, emboldened by U.S. withdrawal, would begin attacking Americans on our own soil. North Vietnamese Army units were not training young men, embittered by the death and destruction experienced in their homeland, to seek out Americans wherever they might be across the globe and spill their blood in the name of Ho Chi Minh’s ideology. No similar feeling of security will exist in the case of US withdrawal from Afghanistan should we fail to achieve victory, victory that must be measured against overall objectives as yet undefined, a larger issue that must be resolved in advance of the increase in troops requested by Gen. McChrystal.

Will Obama’s legacy reflection his indecision on this day, Veteran’s Day, his choice to kick the can down the road and avoid a critical decision to commit additional troops to achieve a superiority of force in-theater? In another visitation of cosmic irony on our Karmic Target-in-Chief, Sen. McCain’s proclamation that the US would need to be in Iraq for 100 years may become the reality for our commitment in Afghanistan if the President’s delay allows a crucial window of victory to close. The other possible outcome of his executive ambivalence would be withdrawal after failing achieve any benchmarks of victory, a result that would invite the drawing of far more unstructured battle lines on the streets of Los Angeles, New York, or even cities like Seattle.

Deliberation and overthinking of politics permitted victory in Vietnam to slip away from Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, forcing President Nixon to pursue a schizophrenic strategy that ended up costing thousands of additional American lives and countless thousands more Vietnamese casualties. Obama must shake off his executive paralysis to ensure that Afghanistan does not become the first front lost in the critical war on Islamic terror.


[This post originally appeared on at]

Afghanistan: It’s Your ‘Dumb War’ Now, President Obama

800pxTalking_to_village_elders_Zabul_AfghanistanThere was only a twinkle of presidential ambition in the eye of then-Senator Barack Obama when in the fall of 2002 the young Illinois politico stood before a large crowd in Chicago to speak his mind about war. The push to go to war in Iraq was his immediate concern (one shared later by his fellow Democrats when it became politically smart to adopt an anti-war stand), but by calling the planned action “a dumb war; a rash war; a war based not on reason but on passion, not on principle but on politics,” Obama plainly spoke about where he saw the dividing line between righteous and unrighteous armed conflict.

The simple redundancy of his Chicago speech made it resistant to quick retort – a feature of his rhetorical style that critics still grapple with today – but really it was nothing more than a repacking of the more moderate anti-war voices who had dissented with regard to another foreign war thirty years deep in the nation’s memory hole. Obama’s Chicago speech was the highlight of his curriculum vitae as the sport of exploiting imperfections in the Bush administration’s war strategy became one of the great political spectacles of our time. It was therefore predictable that when his lust for the White House placed him on the campaign trail in 2007, his anti-war stance became both his foreign policy credential and his wartime agenda.

It was only natural that the conflict in Afghanistan would become Obama’s cause célèbre on the campaign trail; were he to have focused energy on parroting the party line about Iraq his voice would have been just one more baritone in harmony with the Mormon Tabernacle choir-sized field of Democrat presidential hopefuls. Plus, the American cause in Iraq had brightened and an end was in sight, but not so with Afghanistan.  The political realities quite simply yelled out for him to focus his neo-liberal energies on the armchair quarterbacking of a war that by even the most hawkish accounts was going poorly. By staking out that war for himself, Obama was able to come across as fresh and insightful.

August 12, in New Hampshire, the junior senator sat the kids in Nashua down for another episode of Father Obama’s treatise-in-installments on the art of war. Once again, his statement was a masterpiece of rhetorical alchemy; two parts blue dog concern for America’s power and might, and one part bleeding heart passion for ending the grimmest and most certain outcome of all war – death.

“We’ve got to get the job done [in Afghanistan]. And that requires us to have enough troops so that we’re not just air-raiding villages and killing civilians, which is causing enormous pressure over there.”

At that moment in the dusk of a Nashua summer evening, voters heard everything they would ever need to know about how a future President Obama would use the US military. Wars of the Obama era would always be rational, dispassionate, principled, apolitical, and would never utilize tactics that would include air-raiding villages or killing civilians.

It is shocking and disappointing then that, by Obama’s own definition, Afghanistan is now Obama’s ‘dumb war’.

Like so much about this president’s first term, when fanciful speeches must give way to action the reality of his choices must cause many an Obama supporter to reach for the Xanax. The war in Afghanistan that Obama confidently bragged to voters that he make winnable, has devolved into a series of drone attacks and air raids on villages, in which the numbers of civilian dead are reported by many observers to far exceed the body count of high-value Taliban and Al Qaeda targets.

On January 23, 2009, when the mess on the Mall in Washington, D.C., was still being mopped up from the Inaugurasm, US drone aircraft (including the well-known Predator drone, redesigned to carry a load-out of high-powered ordnance) conducted strikes on targets in Pakistan from bases in Afghanistan. Although reports indicated that fifteen were killed in the attacks, the Times of London reported that sources indicated three children were among the dead.

Since Inauguration Day, Afghanistan under Obama’s command has become every bit the dumb war he defined before his election, dumber because of his continued use of drone aircraft (also known as unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs), a campaign begun under Bush and which has typically caused high death tolls among civilians coinciding with the achievements of killing Al Qaeda and Taliban command elements.

The January 23 raids were notable only because they were the first to have been ordered by President Obama; subsequent have been even more deadly for civilians caught in the combat zone.  Unfortunately, the civilian casualties in Afghanistan and Pakistan have been a concern for the Obama administration only in so much as they conflict with the desired image of Obama as a new breed of benevolent warrior. It is politics – specifically the enhancement of Obama’s military resume – that appears to guide his war strategy, not reason or principle.

These tactics are precisely those that were condemned by Obama the candidate when used by his predecessor.  They have inflamed Pakistani and Afghani government officials who have warned that the probable effect of raining down munitions on villagers will be to give Taliban and Al Qaeda forces a useful tool to convince those same civilians that they fight against a common enemy – the US-led coalition. But the real ignorance of Obama’s war policies is not in the use of counterproductive tactics, it is the failure to employ tactics that support a clear strategy for long-term victory, a feat that has eluded the great empires of the British and the Soviets in our own time.

In a war that has now become a counterinsurgency, maintaining support from the local population is a crucial element of success, an observation that has been put before the Obama administration and the US Congress by many foreign policy advisors including David Kilcullen, a counter-insurgency expert and former advisor to General David Petraeus during the critical surge campaign in Iraq.

According to Kilcullen, the small proportion of civilian casualties in the January 23 attacks underrepresents the typical amount of collateral damage in drone attacks. Kilcullen claims figures that show an alarmingly high ratio of civilian casualties to combatants. His opinion had been a widely-discussed thorn in the side of Obama’s Afghanistan team since Kilcullen’s interview in early February of this year with The Financial Times. In the interview, Kilcullen asserted that since 2006 the attacks made by drone aircraft have taken 700 civilian lives while only eliminating 14 of Al Qaeda’s middle and lower-rung leaders in Pakistan territory.

“That’s a hit rate of two percent on 98 percent collateral. It’s not moral,” Kilcullen said.

Kilcullen also stated that the drone strikes “have a negative strategic effect in that they incite Punjabi militancy, which is the biggest problem in Pakistan right now.”

That is the policyspeak equivalent of the idea that excessive loss of civilian life as a result of American military operations gives insurgents significant tools to rally support from the population being bombed. It is a sentiment that is remarkably in tune with the one President Obama made in New Hampshire in the summer of 2007. In fact, Kilcullen’s critique is really just a diplomatic way of saying that Obama is engaging in dumb war. Those are my words, of course, but Kilcullen has repeated his own assessment before congressional committees, as well as penning an op-ed in The New York Times with Andrew McDonald Exum.

But the drone attacks are only a cluster of data points to suggest that Obama’s Afghanistan policy is failing his own standard of rationality; they do not support a strategy to affect a positive outcome in line with the long-term goals of regional stability and US security. The tactical accomplishments from one day of bombing in which a handful of Taliban are dispatched to sit with Allah are small in comparison with the often quieter strategic victories that will be needed to win the war, stabilize the region, and inoculate Afghanistan and Pakistan from the diseases of the drug trade and radical Islamism in the form of the Taliban.

Even if the US should manage to avoid harming a single civilian from this day forward (an impossible goal) would President Obama be waging smart war?  I would share in Kilcullen’s joy that drone fighters might go back in their shipping crates, but that small tactical shift would only offer opportunities to rebuild positive relations in Afghanistan’s rougher provinces.  And yet, believing that there are easy roads to building friendships with the Afghani people is another example of President Obama’s naiveté. Too many cheering crowds and fainting audience members may have gone to his head; the cult of Obama’s personality does not extend to Central Asia and there always seems to be enough in common among the ethnically and tribally divided Afghanis to bind them in fierce and unflinching opposition to outsiders.

Winston Churchill, long before World War II would prove his mettle as a historic national leader, a 23-year-old Winston Churchill spent several weeks in 1897 as a journalist chronicling his observations of the “frontier war” between British forces and Pashtun rebels in the Swat Valley, the region of Pakistan that has been a mote in the eye of American-led coalition forces fighting to win a war in neighboring Afghanistan. This excerpt from “The Story of Malakaland Field Force: An Episode of Frontier War” offers Churchill’s description of a territory as impossible to pacify as any that the British Empire had ever confronted.

The inhabitants of these wild but wealthy valleys are of many tribes, but of similar character and condition. … Except at the times of sowing and of harvest, a continual state of feud and strife prevails throughout the land.  Tribe wars with tribe.  The people of one valley fight with those of the next.  To the quarrels of communities are added the combats of individuals.  Khan assails khan, each supported by his retainers.  Every tribesman has a blood feud with his neighbor.  Every man’s hand is against the other, and all against the stranger. [Emphasis mine.]

Although those words were committed to posterity in 1898, even present-day writers capture a similar sense of Afghanistan as a place that seems to exist a state of nature such as the one envisioned by Rousseau, a place where self-interest and bonds of fellowship guide events. In the words of Stephen Tanner, author of “Afghanistan: A Military History from Alexander the Great to the War Against the Taliban”, an excerpt of which was published at the National Review Online:

Left to their own devices, Afghans engage in internecine battles, or simply enjoy freedom — not the kind enforceable by a Magna Carta, Bill of Rights, or Communist Manifesto, but of more ancient derivation — unbothered by government at all.

It would seem then that the question is not what tactics should be used, but what our ultimate goal should be? If voices of those who have studied the complexities of Afghanistan like Tanner are correct, a strategy similar to the one in Iraq will be disastrous for our efforts in Afghanistan if it attempts to impose a government on people who have not developed a want for one. The disaster could only be made worse by pursuing military objectives in ways that alienate the Afghanis or their Pakistani neighbors. The authors of a Center of Strategic and International Studies’ report published in May of this year, suggests “the war in Afghanistan is as much a war of perceptions as it is a war for control of territory. No one who was in government at the time of Vietnam can avoid a grim feeling of déjà vu.”

And yet, with the so many heralds sounding the alarm, President Obama, advised chiefly by his special envoy to the region, Richard Holbrooke, the former ambassador to the United Nations under President Clinton, very little evidence has emerged to suggest that US strategy has grasped the nature of true victory in Afghanistan. Complete victory can only be achieved when the people of Afghanistan perceive the United States as an ally, in word and deed. Some version of that goodwill may have existed after US-financed covert operations helped Afghani insurgents expel the Soviets, but the US withdrew once its immediate interests were resolved and left a power vacuum in which groups like the Taliban and Al Qaeda grew strong and the perception of the US as fickle and untrustworthy were allowed to fester.

The report yesterday that the US bombed 300 tons of poppy seeds in southern Afghanistan is therefore one more sign of the shortsightedness of American war planners. Although the drug trade fills the coffers of America’s enemies, it also puts food on the table of many Afghani families who may have no better option.

Do President Obama and Mr. Holbrooke believe that the opium farmers in the Helmand province – now one of the wealthiest and most dangerous in the country – are going to perceive actions to damage the drug trade as directed at the Taliban and Al Qaeda, but not at themselves, when their livelihood is threatened? We should not be so silly to think that way if we still believe ourselves to be a superpower. If, as some experts suggest, the economic incentives driving the drug trade has been manufactured – the need of Afghani farmers for guaranteed income is met by insurgents who offer cash in advance for planting opium instead of other crops – the entire scenario of our engagement seems to require tactics of rescue – not attack – in which the Afghani people are valuable assets in the struggle to rid their own nation of an evil influence.

As troop levels increase (scheduled to reach 68,000 by the end of the year) the opportunities for victory increase but what they do while there is more important than the number of boots striking the tarmac in Kandahar. President Obama must puts aside ego and politics and reclaim the purpose with which we initially went into Afghanistan, when it was perceived by most to be a smart war intelligently fought. The greatest achievement of Obama’s term in office might be recognizing his own hypocrisy before Afghanistan becomes a full-blown modern-day Vietnam. That’s right, President Obama; LBJ was also too proud to admit he was fighting a dumb war too.


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