Saturday, January 31, 2009

Hidden Bonuses Enrich U.S. Government Contractors

This is from Bloomberg.

Private contracting is justified as a means to save money through efficiencies that supposedly are not available when government does its own work. Of course government is often inefficient but other things being equal it should cost more to have work done privately since the private contractor wants to make a profit. It seems though that private contractors are not only guaranteed profits but also bonuses and sweetheart contracts that rip the public off. The ripoffs are so bad that even a business news outfit such as Bloomberg feels obligated to blow the whistle.

Hidden Bonuses Enrich U.S. Government Contractors (Correct)
By David Dietz
Jan. 29 (Bloomberg) -- U.S. Senator Kit Bond shifted in his chair at a 2005 congressional hearing, poised with a question on national security. He turned to Treasury Secretary John Snow, who was seated at a witness table.
Was Snow sure, asked Bond, a Missouri Republican, that a Treasury Department computer on order for $8.9 million would help detect terrorist money laundering?
“Yes, absolutely,” Snow said.
A year later, in July 2006, the U.S. Treasury Department abandoned the project. The computer didn’t work. The department had spent $14.7 million -- a 65 percent increase above the original budget -- for nothing.
There was a final ignominy: Under the terms of the contract, Electronic Data Systems Corp., the vendor, collected a bonus of $638,126.
As the federal government’s $700 billion bailout of banks sputters, there’s an object lesson for the new administration of President Barack Obama: Federal departments, including Treasury itself, routinely squander tens of billions of dollars a year in taxpayer money as they farm out public business to private corporations.
Obama, like presidents before him, said during his bid for the White House that he wanted to curtail waste in government. With contracting, he faces a mismanaged system that accounts for almost 40 cents of every federal dollar spent outside of mandatory obligations such as Social Security and Medicare.
Not Earmarks
When compared with all federal contracting, just a fraction of U.S. spending waste comes from so-called earmarks, which elected officials often criticize as the unnecessary pet projects of politicians.
The “Bridge to Nowhere” in Alaska, for example, had a price tag of $398 million. By contrast, the government spent $368.4 billion on all contracts in 2008, and Republican Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn estimates that about $100 billion of that was wasted.
U.S. spending on 3.7 million contracts in 2008 represented an increase of 76 percent over 2000 levels.
“We have a broken, broken system that rewards incompetence,” says Coburn, 60, who has been examining purchasing breakdowns since his election to Congress in 2005. “We need to totally change contracting.”
Bureaucrats, not elected officials, run the U.S. purchasing system, well out of public sight. And their bosses keep the spending secret by not releasing complete contract files to the public.
No Access
Just as taxpayers can’t find out how the Treasury and the Federal Reserve used the first half of the bank bailout, Americans are often denied access to public records that provide details on how hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars are spent in contracts.
Bloomberg News filed Freedom of Information Act requests with the Treasury Department, the Commerce Department and the Fed asking for documents on the bailout and routine contracts.
As of Jan. 12, seven months after receiving the first request, the three agencies had provided incomplete documents with blacked-out words or nothing at all.
In many cases, bureaucrats are motivated to give millions of dollars in bonuses to contractors no matter how poorly a company performs because generosity with taxpayer money may help them land better-paying jobs after they leave the government.
Contractors on dozens of jobs at federal departments collected more than $8 billion in what federal auditors said were unwarranted bonuses from 1999 to 2005.
‘A Total Mess’
In 2007, military radio maker Harris Corp. developed a hand-held computer for the 2010 census that failed to work in tests in a California heat wave. Still, the Commerce Department’s Census Bureau awarded Harris $14.2 million in bonuses in a contract that increased to $798 million from $600 million, according to federal investigators.
“Contracting is a total mess,” says John Lehman, who fought procurement waste as secretary of the Navy from 1981 to 1987 partly by banning costly contract changes once work was under way, according to Navy records.
“I don’t think in the history of the country it’s been as bad as it is today,” says Lehman, 66, now chairman of J.F. Lehman & Co., a New York-based private equity firm. “You have a system where no one is in charge and no one is held accountable.”
As Obama was gearing up for an economic stimulus starting with about $825 billion in taxpayer money, he said at a news conference on Jan. 6 that the government had to find savings in the federal budget. Because of his rescue package, Obama warned that the budget deficit might exceed $1 trillion for years to come.
More Contracts
He didn’t provide specifics about cuts, including how he might attack contracting waste.
Obama’s spending plan will create new federal contracts as the government pours money into education, public works and expanded technology.
Unless the new president bores in on those projects and existing contracts to examine how funds are being used, he’ll overlook billions of dollars in potential savings, says Thomas Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste, a Washington-based nonprofit.
“There are always efforts to try to make things more efficient, and I’m sure the Obama administration will do the same,” Schatz says. “But the agencies don’t necessarily pay much attention to what’s going on at the White House, and you may get business as usual.”
Obama’s Pledge
Obama’s pledges to cut waste mimic promises of previous presidents, including Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. Reagan’s Grace Commission -- named for its chairman, J. Peter Grace, chief executive officer of chemical maker W.R. Grace & Co. -- scoured the government in a quest to streamline.
Clinton championed a campaign called Reinventing Government by cutting thousands of jobs and turning work over to private companies. None of those efforts stemmed the bulge of federal contracting and waste.
Most Cabinet secretaries don’t probe for waste in contracts on their own and don’t push procurement subordinates to police work that’s farmed out.
That lack of accountability holds true even when projects make up significant chunks of their budgets, says Todd Zinser, inspector general at the Commerce Department.
“What happens is, a lot of senior leaders don’t view that as part of their job,” he says. “But if you’re going to head up an agency whose mission is relying on a large acquisition, then it’s a necessity that that leader be hands-on.”
Beacons for Good Conduct
The public may be perplexed when federal agencies such as Treasury and Commerce dribble away billions of dollars a year on wasteful contracts, says Daniel Guttman, a lawyer who teaches public administration at George Washington University in Washington.
He’s studied federal contracting since the 1970s. After all, he says, those departments are supposed to act as beacons for good business conduct and are typically run by former Wall Street or corporate executives.
“The truth is, we have a tradition of great businessmen who’ve been the worst contract managers,” he says.
Much of the squandering occurs through so-called cost-plus contracts, which have been in use for almost 100 years. The system, which originally was intended to reward defense contractors for fast and efficient work during World War I, offers bonuses for exceptional performance.
Federal departments have long since abandoned the intended purpose of cost-plus, and bureaucrats who run contracts routinely award bonuses for almost everything, even when a program fails completely, Lehman says.
‘Paying Through the Nose’
“There’s too much gold plating and little accountability with most programs being done on a cost-plus basis,” he says. “We’re paying through the nose.”
From 2002 to 2005, Los Angeles-based Northrop Grumman Corp. collected $123 million in bonuses on a Commerce Department-led project for a weather satellite system that became the subject of four congressional hearings because of billions of dollars in waste.
The payments were authorized by contract manager John Cunningham, a retired Air Force colonel with a walrus mustache who worked for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration from a 10th-floor federal office in Silver Spring, Maryland. It was his first major federal procurement assignment.
Repeated Hirings
Cunningham, 60, didn’t respond to telephone, e-mail and in- person requests for comment.
Closeness with contractors develops through repeated hiring of the same companies, often without competitive bidding and even after vendors admit in criminal cases that they cheated the very agencies that gave them work.
Treasury Department agencies, including the Internal Revenue Service, currently have more than $13 million in auditing and telecommunications service contracts with a firm that the Treasury Department had referred to federal prosecutors.
Tax Shelter Probe
KPMG LLP of New York, the fourth-largest accounting firm by revenue, paid $456 million in 2005 to settle a Justice Department complaint that it had sold phony tax shelters to wealthy clients, wrongly diverting $2.5 billion that should have gone to Treasury.
That wasn’t the only time KPMG has been accused of cheating the government. In 2006, a year after the tax shelter case, KPMG and three other consulting companies paid $25.7 million to settle federal civil lawsuits accusing them of overbilling the Treasury Department and various agencies for travel. KPMG didn’t admit or deny wrongdoing.
Still, the department continued to award contracts to KPMG. Treasury spokeswoman Courtney Forsell says agency contracting meets federal rules. KPMG spokesman Daniel Ginsburg declined to comment.
Mostly, the contracting system goes wrong through spending waste and not lawbreaking. When the Census Bureau hired Harris Corp. in 2006 to provide a hand-held computer for the 2010 nationwide survey of Americans, the agency heralded the $600 million contract as a milestone in census modernization.
Census director Louis Kincannon said the computer would cut down on paper by allowing canvassers to electronically survey households that didn’t return census forms.
“We are revolutionizing the census,” he said in a press release on March 30, 2006.
In June, three months after the contract was signed, Coburn peered down at Kincannon at a congressional hearing and asked what would happen if the computers didn’t work.
“They will work,” Kincannon said. “You might as well ask me what happens if the Postal Service refuses to deliver the census form.”
They didn’t work.
In 2007, the bureau tested some of the devices. The small computers shut down during a heat wave in California’s Central Valley. At other times, the machines took five minutes, instead of just seconds, to send information to a central computer, says Barbara Ferry, manager of the census office in Stockton, California.
Kelli Hermesch’s frustrations with the device came on a lonely dirt road in North Carolina. Hermesch, a census quality control leader, says that during the 2007 trials she and a co- worker kept tapping their location into the computer, trying to get it to validate the address.
‘People Quit’
The computer said they were standing someplace else, she says. Hermesch says such snafus wore crews down.
“I had people quit on me,” she says. “It was definitely frustrating.”
Today, the revolution is largely a bust. Last April, the Census Bureau said it would go back to pen and paper for canvassing and use the computers only to verify addresses of households.
The project has cost $798 million -- about $200 million more than the original estimate. In a big gaffe, both the government and Harris had miscalculated the cost of a help desk for canvassers. Harris and the agency had originally budgeted $5 million.
The price has since jumped to $220 million, a 44-fold increase, according to government records.
Perhaps worst of all, Coburn says, was that Harris collected $14.2 million in bonuses.
“It’s ridiculous,” he says. “They didn’t even perform competently. You could do what they tried to do on a cell phone.”
At a congressional hearing last April, Representative Alan Mollohan, a West Virginia Democrat, questioned Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez about the reason for the payout.
Gutierrez said officials handling the census contract appeared to have let Harris get away with unacceptable work.
“Well, the bonuses were given on the basis of goals that were set,” Gutierrez said. “I think the right goals weren’t there, and they got paid a bonus for something that proved to be less than what they should have delivered.”
‘We Are Pleased’
Cheryl Janey, president of civil programs for Harris, told a congressional hearing in 2007 that the company was still working with the Census Bureau on using other features of the hand-held computer. She said the device was reliable.
The bureau’s repeated requests for changes to the computer -- 419 in all -- slowed the project, Janey testified. In a written statement, Harris said it was committed to finishing the job.
“We are pleased with the progress we are making and remain significantly involved in helping modernize the customer’s data and technology,” the company wrote.
The Treasury Department had a similar flop in 2004 and 2005.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the agency’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network hired Plano, Texas-based EDS, the world’s second-biggest computer services provider, to install a computer that would let outside law enforcement agencies uncover money laundering by terrorists.
The computer, replacing outdated systems at Treasury and the IRS, would house bank and brokerage reports of large cash transactions.
Tough Deadline
EDS, which was bought by Palo Alto, California-based Hewlett-Packard Co. in August, won the job in competitive bidding in June 2004. Treasury gave the company a tough deadline. It wanted the system by October 2005 -- about 15 months later -- and guaranteed the company a bonus to spur it to deliver.
Within weeks, the project had veered off track, according to audits in 2006 by a team of investigators from the Treasury’s inspector general’s office and the Government Accountability Office.
Treasury and EDS didn’t assign enough staff and put inexperienced people on the job, causing delays lasting months, according to the reports.
When former Treasury Secretary Snow appeared before Congress in April 2005, he was upbeat about the system’s promise. He said nothing at the time about whether he knew of growing breakdowns.
‘Risk Increased’
By late 2005, the project was in disarray. The system couldn’t cope with millions more cash transaction reports than were expected. In tests, simple computer inquiries took longer to complete than under the old system, according to the inspector general’s report.
In 2006, an internal Treasury review team said the system couldn’t be trusted because no one conducted sufficient examinations of the information it stored.
“Pressure on the network and contractor staff intensified, risk increased, milestones slipped, costs increased and quality degraded,” the team wrote in its report.
Robert Werner, who had been on the job as network director for two weeks, halted the contract in March 2006. Treasury went back to the old system.
“In good conscience, I could devote no further resources to the project when I can find no guarantee that any amount of added spending would ever produce the desired result,” Werner said in a Treasury announcement.
‘Client’s Requirements’
In the end, $14.7 million was gone -- plus the $638,126 bonus EDS had negotiated when it signed the contract. EDS said it did what it was asked.
“EDS was disappointed when the agency decided to terminate the contract, but we respected and supported our client’s decision to reassess the project,” company spokesman Bob Brand says. “At all times during our involvement with the contract, EDS was responsive to the client’s requirements.”
Snow, 69, declined to comment. He’s now chairman of Cerberus Capital Management LP, a New York-based private equity firm.
Northrop Grumman says it also has been doing all it can to finish what it started. When NOAA awarded the company a contract, with bonus provisions, to build the $6.5 billion weather satellite system in 2002, the Commerce Department touted the job as a breakthrough in contract cooperation among federal agencies.
‘Count on Us’
For the first time, the Defense Department, the National Aeronautic and Space Administration and NOAA agreed to avoid duplication and jointly build satellites that would conduct both weather surveillance and military reconnaissance.
Best of all was the cost savings: NOAA said in a project description in 2002 that the joint project would save the government $1.6 billion.
“Count on us,” contract manager Cunningham told the American Meteorological Society in a speech in Seattle in 2004.
The project called for launching six satellites to replace ones that were wearing out. The first launch was scheduled for 2008. It hasn’t happened, and the program has gone from an economic boon to a taxpayer catastrophe.
The budget has doubled to $13.1 billion and a test satellite isn’t scheduled to be launched until next year. NOAA laid the blame on planning that underestimated the complexity of the project and on breakdowns of a satellite sensor to measure global warming.
Tracing Failures
An independent team of scientists that reviewed the contract traced project failures in 2005 to NOAA, saying the agency ceded too much control to Northrop.
“The program office needs to decide if it should provide a more proactive oversight for the program rather than delegate so much to the prime,” the team said. “This would help ensure mission success.”
The breakdowns didn’t keep Cunningham, who quit NOAA in 2005, from paying Northrop as if the company were a master manager. From 2002 to 2005, he gave Northrop bonuses of $123 million. NOAA officials, including agency head Conrad Lautenbacher, never explained Cunningham’s actions in congressional hearings.
After leaving government, Cunningham went to work for Scitor Corp., a Herndon, Virginia-based defense contractor, according to a 2005 NOAA newsletter.
“My question is why you even keep a job, much less get a bonus,” says Representative Bart Gordon, a Tennessee Democrat who heads the House Science Committee, which investigated the satellite breakdowns. “It’s embarrassing, and it really makes you angry.”
Payments Authorized
Cunningham authorized the payments even though he rated Northrop’s performance in one evaluation period in 2005 as unsatisfactory.
Cunningham shouldn’t have had the authority to approve the bonuses, a 2006 audit by the Commerce Department inspector general said. His goal as project manager to make the work succeed blurred his oversight of Northrop, the audit said.
Agency head Lautenbacher, who left his post in October, said in congressional testimony in 2006 that he intervened when he learned of the failures. He said the project’s major fault was that it was too ambitious and its planners expected to achieve too much.
Northrop says it’s striving to overcome technical breakdowns, including satellite instrument failures.
Grumman ‘Takes Responsibility’
“Northrop Grumman takes responsibility for its role as the prime contractor very seriously and is committed 100 percent to successfully delivering this program to the customer,” the company said in a written statement.
With the federal budget soaring, the Obama administration will have to decide what it will do about giveaways to contractors. Promises from previous administrations to clean up led nowhere.
“This situation is beyond troubling,” says Senator Thomas Carper, a Democrat from Delaware. “More than ever, taxpayers need to know that their hard-earned money is being used wisely. The financial strain on everyone is daunting. I just shake my head when taxpayer money is wasted like this.”
Obama set up a government performance office two weeks before he was inaugurated. He picked Nancy Killefer, a director of management consulting firm McKinsey & Co., to run it.
Whether Washington curtails contract waste may depend on how much she delves into the ways in which agencies dole out work --and how sharp her pencil is.
To contact the reporter on this story: David Dietz in San Francisco at Last Updated: January 30, 2009 17:43 EST

Israel Plans more Gaza Strikes

It seems that any strikes that Israel makes are just retaliatory or routine or anything but violations of the ceasefire. No move to open the borders yet either it would seem. No word of criticism from the west.

Israel Plans More Gaza Strikes
Hamas Avoids Retaliation, Trying to Cement Ceasefire
Posted January 30, 2009
The Israeli newspaper Haaretz cites top “decision-makers” as saying the attacks against Hamas and other groups in the Gaza Strip would continue in spite of the continuing efforts by the international community to negotiate a ceasefire. One source is quoted as saying the attacks were meant to show Hamas that strikes would not go unanswered.
But as Israel continues to ratchet up what it is calling retaliatory attacks, Hamas’ own response has been extremely muted. While Israel’s attacks on Hamas have caused numerous casualties (mostly civilians), Hamas hasn’t caused even property damage in Israel.
Gaza Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, who Israel threatened to assassinate earlier in the week, says Hamas’ main aim at this point is reconciliation. Israeli officials also say they believe Hamas is holding back retaliation from the Israeli attacks because it wants to complete a cease-fire agreement. No one could accuse Israel of doing the same thing.

Vietnam: Auto Sales Up

This is from VNA.

Any of the big three would just gasp at a 37 per cent sales growth. However the total numbers are much less impressive. For every car in Vietnam there are 21 motorbikes. Traffic must be fun in big cities such as Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).

Auto sales up, but downturn starts to bite
14/01/2009 -- 12:09 PM
Hanoi (VNA) – Most carmakers worldwide are bemoaning the nosedive in sales in 2008, while carmakers in Vietnam boasted a 37 percent sales growth last year.Despite falling sales in the last four months of the year, strong sales in the first seven months of the year was attributed to the overall growth rate, according to the Vietnam Automobile Manufacturers’ Association (VAMA), which represents 17 leading automakers in the country. Total sales reached 110,186 units.Japanese-invested Toyota , topped the list with 24,421 units sold, up 21 percent year-on-year, followed by domestic truck and bus maker Vinamotor, with 20,887 units, up 281 percent.Kia assembler Truong Hai ranked third with 16,373 units sold, up 42 percent over the corresponding period last year.However, sales fell sharply in the last months of the year, as high inflation and new vehicle taxes at home and the global economic slowdown hit Vietnamese consumers.“Apart from the impact of the economic slowdown, a number of government policies such as the registration fee, have negatively affected the industry”, said former General Director of Toyota Vietnam , Nobuhiko Murakami.Only 9,293 vehicles were sold in December – the fourth month in a row when sales fell, and a drop of 23 percent against the same month of 2007.VAMA petitioned the government last month, asking for tax relief to help boost the sector.Dealers say demand will slow significantly in 2009 after the Government tripled registration fees up to 15 percent of a car’s purchase price from August last year, compounding the effects of the economic slowdown.Car ownership remains limited to the elite and emerging upper classes in the country. Vietnam has about 1 million privately-owned cars, compared to over 21 million motorbikes

Friday, January 30, 2009

Turkish PM walks out of Davos

One wonders why Peres was given 25 minutes to speak at Davos. Were the Palestinians given equal time! Apparently the Turkish response less than half that time was too much. Peres at least tried to cool things down afterwards.

Turkish PM gets hero's welcome after shouting match with Israeli leader
Last Updated: Friday, January 30, 2009 7:35 AM ET
CBC News

Thousands of jubilant supporters greeted the Turkish prime minister as he arrived home early Friday after a heated exchange with the Israeli president over his country's Gaza Strip offensive.
Over 5,000 people, many waving Turkish and Palestinian flags, gathered at Istanbul's Ataturk airport to welcome Recep Tayyip Erdogan when his plane touched down at 2 a.m.
Hours earlier, Erdogan clashed on stage with Israeli President Shimon Peres at a panel discussion at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
One banner held by a supporter outside the airport gate called him The Conqueror of Davos.Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, left, talks to Israeli President Shimon Peres during a plenary session at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland on Thursday. (Alessandro Della Bella/Associated Press)
The two leaders butted heads over Israel's three-week offensive against Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip in response to rocket attacks fired from the Palestinian territory. More than 1,300 Palestinians died in the conflict. Israel lost 10 soldiers and three civilians.
Peres had asked the panel what others would do if they were in Israel's position and bombarded with nightly rocket attacks.
"You kill people," Erdogan told the 85-year-old Israeli leader. "I remember the children who died on beaches. I remember two former prime ministers who said they felt very happy when they were able to enter Palestine on tanks."
Erdogan grew angry when the panel moderator cut off his remarks in response to Peres's passionate defence of the Israeli offensive against Hamas and stalked off stage when asked to stop. He then said: "I will not come to Davos again."
Late Thursday, Erdogan stressed that he left the stage because he was not given time to respond and complained he was given 12 minutes to speak compared with Peres's 25.
Later, at the airport, Erdogan told reporters in brief comments that he had felt insulted and felt a responsibility to protect the Turkish nation. He also said Peres called him before he left Davos and expressed regrets.
Peres said Friday he didn't think the exchange was personal and relations between the two countries wouldn't be affected.
"I called [Erdogan] up and said, 'Yes, I do not see the matter as personal … and the relations can remain as they are," Peres said. "My respect for him didn't change. We had an exchange of views — and the views are views."With files from the Associated Press

Mitchell urges Israel to open Gaza crossings

Mitchell has a daunting and probably impossible task at this juncture. Israel is continuing to choke off supplies of all sorts from Gaza. Israel continues to pound areas where there are tunnels in spite of the cease fire. This apparently is not supposed to be a violation of the cease fire. However if Hamas resumes firing rockets no doubt this would be a clear violation of the cease fire! Hamas is blamed even when another group fired one rocket!

Mitchell urges Israel to open Gaza crossings Fri, 30 Jan 2009 13:41:30 GMT

The 75-year-old former US senator says the Obama White House will strive to achieve peace in the Middle East.US Middle East envoy George Mitchell urges Israel to open the crossing points into the Gaza Strip amid a shaky ceasefire with Hamas. "To be successful in preventing the illegal trafficking of arms into the Gaza Strip, there must be a mechanism to allow the flow of legal goods," Mitchell, who is on his first Mideast tour, told reporters Thursday. Israel demands a halt in "smuggling arms" into the beleaguered strip as a major condition for a truce with Hamas. Despite a ceasefire having been in place since Tel Aviv's 23-day war on Gaza, Israeli warplanes have regularly targeted the Rafah border crossing to destroy "tunnels" that Tel Aviv contends are used to bring arms into the strip. The cross-border tunnels are often used by Palestinians, who have been under an Israeli siege since June 2007, to import food, medicines and other vital supplies. Mitchell said a steady flow of legal goods into the strip could bring about a lasting truce between Hamas and Tel Aviv. "It is important to consolidate a sustainable and durable ceasefire and encourage efforts in that regard," said Mitchell, who was appointed as the Middle East envoy by US President Barack Obama in the first days of his administration. According to the New York Times, Mitchell was appointed by the Clinton administration to lead an international commission and investigate the causes of violence in the Middle East. He released a report in the spring of 2001 that called for a freeze on Israeli settlement expansions in the West Bank. The former Senate majority leader has met with Israeli leaders as well as acting Palestinian Authority chief Mahmoud Abbas. He, however, has rejected meeting with Hamas officials. The Hamas movement is the democratically-elected ruler of the Gaza Strip. Washington does not recognize the Palestinian group and labels it as a "terrorist" organization. MD/AA

Blackwell licence in Iraq not renewed.

This is hardly a surprise given the actions of Blackwell in the past. It shows that Iraq is finally gaining some real power at least on issues such as this. The State Dept. will have to find a new security firm as it still uses Blackwell in Iraq. This is from

January 29th, 2009
The Iraqi government has informed the US embassy today that it will decline to renew Blackwater Worldwide’s license to operate in the nation. This will require the security contractors, still being used by the State Department, to leave the nation once the joint US-Iraq committee finishes drawing up its formal guidelines for contractors.
According to Iraqi Interior Ministry spokesman Major General Abdul-Karim Khalaf, the decision came as a result of “improper conduct and excessive use of force” by the contractor, still infamous in Iraq for its 2007 killing of 17 civilians in Baghdad.
The move was hardly a surprise, as the State Department was advised over a month ago to look for a replacement security service on the belief that Iraq would do this. The current contract with Blackwater is scheduled to expire in the spring. While it is unclear how long the committee will take in drawing up the guidelines, the US has assured it will abide by Iraqi law regarding its contractors.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Philippines: 4.5% growth in 2008

This is from the Tribune (Manila)

This rate is down a lot from the 7.2 percent growth in 2007 but given the global depression it is not all that bad. Interesting that about ten percent of GDP comes from overseas worker remittances. With the global economy in recession some of those workers will no doubt return to the Philippines increasing unemployment. There will probably be a decline in remittances as well.

4.6% growth slowest in 6 years but still surprises
The government announced yesterday that the economy grew 4.6 percent last year, the weakest since 2002 but better than expectations, after growth came in at 4.5 percent in the last quarter.
The surprising growth rate was achieved after the government revised the third quarter figure to a five percent growth from the initial 4.6 percent.
Full-year growth for 2008 was also down from the 7.2 percent the previous year which had been a 30-year high and economic officials said they expected the economy to continue expanding this year.
“Our economy is expected to remain resilient and prepared for the eventual economic rebound,” Economic Planning Secretary Ralph Recto said, calling a growth target of between 3.7 and 4.7 percent this year “a welcome challenge.”
“I don’t expect a recession. There will still be growth,” he said after the figures were released yesterday.
The fourth-quarter growth figure marked a slowdown from the 6.5 percent recorded in the same period in 2007, but was ahead of analyst forecasts of around four percent.
Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP) Gov. Amando Tetangco Jr. said inflation will likely fall further in January to between seven and 7.9 percent after easing to eight percent in December due to lower oil prices and the stronger peso.
Recto said the government would still spend as much as P330 billion as part of a stimulus package including infrastructure projects, tax breaks and joint ventures with the private sector.
The positive growth has come even though some traditionally important sectors of the economy, such as electronics and garments, are heavily export-dependent and have been hit hard by the global crisis.
Recto said between 60,000 to 100,000 jobs were at risk in the “vulnerable sectors” but expressed confidence that not everyone in these areas would be laid off.
“Overall, the Philippines will be better insulated from the collapse of external demand compared with other Asian economies,” said Vincent Tien You Tsui, an economist at Standard Chartered Bank.
Exports account for just around one-third of the nation’s economy, which is also reliant on remittances sent home from the estimated eight million Philippine nationals working abroad.
The BSP announced last month that Filipinos working overseas sent home $1.43 billion in October, the second-largest amount in a single month since records began.
For years, the vast army of workers has managed to keep the Philippine economy buoyant with remittances, which help anchor domestic consumption.
In 2007, they sent home $14.4 billion, equivalent to 10 percent of gross domestic product.

Obama the Imperialist.

Obama was not really elected on an antiwar ticket except perhaps in the minds of some anti war groups who approved of his plans to withdraw from Iraq. On Afghanistan and Pakistan Obama never hid the fact that if anything he was more bellicose than Bush!
This article gives some interesting historical background on the type of moral or humanistic imperialism that Obama represents. It is worth noting is that opposition to this point of view comes both from libertarians and also realists who see interventionism as unwarranted unless vital US interests are at stake. Not only does present imperialism use as an excuse for intervention real disasters in areas such as Darfur but also the concept of failed states and the all ecompassing war against terror. As a failed state, Somalia, where Islamists were able to gain power is an example of how the war against terror drives US imperialism. The US saw the Islamists simply as actual or potential anti-US terrorists rather than as giving some semblance of stability and order to Somalia. As a result the US both in some attacks of its own and through support for Ethiopian intervention managed to create chaos in the country again. It remains to be seen what Obama will do as the Islamists are regaining power. The use of proxies and also coalitions of the willing (or billing) is also typical of present day US imperialism. the imperialist
Change? In foreign policy, hardly. The new president is in the classic liberal interventionist mould * Richard Seymour * The Guardian, Tuesday 27 January 2009• Richard Seymour is the author of The Liberal Defence of Murder
The first Democratic president in the modern era to be elected on an anti-war ticket is also, to the relief of neocons and the liberal belligerati, a hawk. Committed to escalation in Afghanistan, his foreign policy selections also indicate bellicosity towards Sudan and Iran. During his first week in office he sanctioned two missile attacks in Pakistan, killing 22 people, including women and children. And his stance on Gaza is remarkably close to that of the outgoing administration. The question now is how Obama will convince his supporters to back that stance. Bush could rely on a core constituency whose commitment to peace and human rights is, at the very least, questionable. Obama has no such luxury. In making his case, he will need the support of those "liberal hawks" who gave Bush such vocal support.It is tempting to dismiss the "pro-war left" as a congeries of discredited left-wing apostates and Nato liberals. Their artless euphemisms for bloody conquest seem especially redundant in light of over a million Iraqi deaths. Yet their arguments, ranging from a paternalistic defence of "humanitarian intervention" to the championing of "western values", have their origins in a tradition of liberal imperialism whose durability advises against hasty dismissal. In every country whose rulers have opted for empire, there has developed among the intellectual classes a powerful pro-imperial consensus, with liberals and leftwingers its most vociferous defenders.Liberal imperialists have resisted explicitly racist arguments for domination, instead justifying empire as a humane venture delivering progress. Even so, implicit in such a stance was the belief that other peoples were inferior. Just as John Stuart Mill contended that despotism was a "legitimate mode of government in dealing with the barbarians" provided "the end be their improvement", so the Fabians contended that self-government for "native races" was "as useless to them as a dynamo to a Caribbean". Intellectuals of the Second International such as Eduard Bernstein regarded the colonised as incapable of self-government. For many liberals and socialists of this era, the only disagreement was over whether the natives could attain the disciplined state necessary to run their own affairs. Indigenous resistance, moreover, was interpreted as "native fanaticism", to be overcome with European tuition.The current liberal imperialists are not replicas of their 19th-century antecedents. Cold war priorities, including the need to incorporate elements of the left into an anti-communist front, transformed the culture of empire. If the "anti-totalitarian" left supported US expansionism, they often did so under the mantle of anti-colonialism. Decolonisation and the civil rights struggle meant explicit racism had to be dispensed with in arguments for military intervention.This was a slow process. Both the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations were terrified of "premature independence" for colonised nations. The state department asserted that "backward societies" required authoritarianism to prepare them for modernity. Irving Kristol, a cold war liberal who became the "godfather of neoconservatism", justified the Vietnam war in part by asserting that the country was "barely capable of decent self-government under the very best of conditions", and thus needed its US-imposed dictatorship. Nonetheless, such arguments today tend to be rehearsed only on the wilder shores of the neoconservative right.Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, however, some paternalistic mainstays of liberal imperialism have been reinvented under the impress of "humanitarian intervention". Just as Victorian humanitarians saw the empire as the appropriate tool for saving the oppressed, so the 1990s saw demands for the US military to deliver Somalians, Bosnians and Kosovans from their tormentors - notwithstanding the fact that US intervention played a destructive role in each case.The agency of the oppressed themselves is largely absent from this perspective. And, as New York University's Stephen Holmes pointed out: "By denouncing the United States primarily for standing by when atrocity abroad occurs, these well-meaning liberals have helped re-popularise the idea of America as a potentially benign imperial power."The catastrophe in Iraq has produced a reaction against humanitarian imperialism even from former interventionists like David Rieff, who has warned against the "rebirth of imperialism with human rights as its moral warrant". Even so, among liberal intellectuals there is a broad coalition favouring intervention into Darfur, though humanitarian organisations have opposed the idea. And there is little resistance to the escalation in Afghanistan, where "native fanaticism" is once more the enemy. Liberal imperialism is in rude health: it is its victims who are in mortal peril.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Chomsky: Neither the US nor Israel is a genuine party to peace.

With his usual sarcasm Chomsky rips into Obama's mideast policy and shows that there is really no basic change in US policy in the Mideast. Events today in which Israel has resumed some bombing and closed off the borders again shows how contemptuous Israel is of the US. It is attacking again just as the US peace envoy arrives! Of course no one seems to think that Hamas should be part of the process except to commit suicide by ensuring that it receives no more arms. Heck they can still employ little kids to throw stones at the Israelis!

Neither The US Nor Israel Is A "Genuine Party To Peace."By Noam Chomsky January 28, 2009 "Information Clearinghouse" -- Barack Obama is recognized to be a person of acute intelligence, a legal scholar, careful with his choice of words. He deserves to be taken seriously - both what he says, and what he omits. Particularly significant is his first substantive statement on foreign affairs, on January 22, at the State Department, when introducing George Mitchell to serve as his special envoy for Middle East peace.Mitchell is to focus his attention on the Israel-Palestine problem, in the wake of the recent US-Israeli invasion of Gaza. During the murderous assault, Obama remained silent apart from a few platitudes, because, he said, there is only one president - a fact that did not silence him on many other issues. His campaign did, however, repeat his statement that "if missiles were falling where my two daughters sleep, I would do everything in order to stop that." He was referring to Israeli children, not the hundreds of Palestinian children being butchered by US arms, about whom he could not speak, because there was only one president.On January 22, however, the one president was Barack Obama, so he could speak freely about these matters - avoiding, however, the attack on Gaza, which had, conveniently, been called off just before the inauguration.Obama's talk emphasized his commitment to a peaceful settlement. He left its contours vague, apart from one specific proposal: "the Arab peace initiative," Obama said, "contains constructive elements that could help advance these efforts. Now is the time for Arab states to act on the initiative's promise by supporting the Palestinian government under President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad, taking steps towards normalizing relations with Israel, and by standing up to extremism that threatens us all."Obama is not directly falsifying the Arab League proposal, but the carefully framed deceit is instructive.The Arab League peace proposal does indeed call for normalization of relations with Israel - in the context - repeat, in the context of a two-state settlement in terms of the longstanding international consensus, which the US and Israel have blocked for over 30 years, in international isolation, and still do. The core of the Arab League proposal, as Obama and his Mideast advisers know very well, is its call for a peaceful political settlement in these terms, which are well-known, and recognized to be the only basis for the peaceful settlement to which Obama professes to be committed. The omission of that crucial fact can hardly be accidental, and signals clearly that Obama envisions no departure from US rejectionism. His call for the Arab states to act on a corollary to their proposal, while the US ignores even the existence of its central content, which is the precondition for the corollary, surpasses cynicism.The most significant acts to undermine a peaceful settlement are the daily US-backed actions in the occupied territories, all recognized to be criminal: taking over valuable land and resources and constructing what the leading architect of the plan, Ariel Sharon, called "Bantustans" for Palestinians - an unfair comparison because the Bantustans were far more viable than the fragments left to Palestinians under Sharon's conception, now being realized. But the US and Israel even continue to oppose a political settlement in words, most recently in December 2008, when the US and Israel (and a few Pacific islands) voted against a UN resolution supporting "the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination" (passed 173 to 5, US-Israel opposed, with evasive pretexts).Obama had not one word to say about the settlement and infrastructure developments in the West Bank, and the complex measures to control Palestinian existence, designed to undermine the prospects for a peaceful two-state settlement. His silence is a grim refutation of his oratorical flourishes about how "I will sustain an active commitment to seek two states living side by side in peace and security."Also unmentioned is Israel's use of US arms in Gaza, in violation not only of international but also US law. Or Washington's shipment of new arms to Israel right at the peak of the US-Israeli attack, surely not unknown to Obama's Middle East advisers.Obama was firm, however, that smuggling of arms to Gaza must be stopped. He endorses the agreement of Condoleeza Rice and Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni that the Egyptian-Gaza border must be closed - a remarkable exercise of imperial arrogance, as the Financial Times observed: "as they stood in Washington congratulating each other, both officials seemed oblivious to the fact that they were making a deal about an illegal trade on someone else's border - Egypt in this case. The next day, an Egyptian official described the memorandum as `fictional'." Egypt's objections were ignored.Returning to Obama's reference to the "constructive" Arab League proposal, as the wording indicates, Obama persists in restricting support to the defeated party in the January 2006 election, the only free election in the Arab world, to which the US and Israel reacted, instantly and overtly, by severely punishing Palestinians for opposing the will of the masters. A minor technicality is that Abbas's term ran out on January 9, and that Fayyad was appointed without confirmation by the Palestinian parliament (many of them kidnapped and in Israeli prisons). Ha'aretz describes Fayyad as "a strange bird in Palestinian politics. On the one hand, he is the Palestinian politician most esteemed by Israel and the West. However, on the other hand, he has no electoral power whatsoever in Gaza or the West Bank." The report also notes Fayyad's "close relationship with the Israeli establishment," notably his friendship with Sharon's extremist adviser Dov Weiglass. Though lacking popular support, he is regarded as competent and honest, not the norm in the US-backed political sectors.Obama's insistence that only Abbas and Fayyad exist conforms to the consistent Western contempt for democracy unless it is under control.Obama provided the usual reasons for ignoring the elected government led by Hamas. "To be a genuine party to peace," Obama declared, "the quartet [US, EU, Russia, UN] has made it clear that Hamas must meet clear conditions: recognize Israel's right to exist; renounce violence; and abide by past agreements." Unmentioned, also as usual, is the inconvenient fact that the US and Israel firmly reject all three conditions. In international isolation, they bar a two-state settlement including a Palestinian state; they of course do not renounce violence; and they reject the quartet's central proposal, the "road map." Israel formally accepted it, but with 14 reservations that effectively eliminate its contents (tacitly backed by the US). It is the great merit of Jimmy Carter's Palestine: Peace not Apartheid, to have brought these facts to public attention for the first time - and in the mainstream, the only time.It follows, by elementary reasoning, that neither the US nor Israel is a "genuine party to peace." But that cannot be. It is not even a phrase in the English language.It is perhaps unfair to criticize Obama for this further exercise of cynicism, because it is close to universal, unlike his scrupulous evisceration of the core component of the Arab League proposal, which is his own novel contribution.Also near universal are the standard references to Hamas: a terrorist organization, dedicated to the destruction of Israel (or maybe all Jews). Omitted are the inconvenient facts that the US-Israel are not only dedicated to the destruction of any viable Palestinian state, but are steadily implementing those policies. Or that unlike the two rejectionist states, Hamas has called for a two-state settlement in terms of the international consensus: publicly, repeatedly, explicitly.Obama began his remarks by saying: "Let me be clear: America is committed to Israel's security. And we will always support Israel's right to defend itself against legitimate threats."There was nothing about the right of Palestinians to defend themselves against far more extreme threats, such as those occurring daily, with US support, in the occupied territories. But that again is the norm.Also normal is the enunciation of the principle that Israel has the right to defend itself. That is correct, but vacuous: so does everyone. But in the context the cliche is worse than vacuous: it is more cynical deceit.The issue is not whether Israel has the right to defend itself, like everyone else, but whether it has the right to do so by force. No one, including Obama, believes that states enjoy a general right to defend themselves by force: it is first necessary to demonstrate that there are no peaceful alternatives that can be tried. In this case, there surely are.A narrow alternative would be for Israel to abide by a cease-fire, for example, the cease-fire proposed by Hamas political leader Khaled Mishal a few days before Israel launched its attack on December 27. Mishal called for restoring the 2005 agreement. That agreement called for an end to violence and uninterrupted opening of the borders, along with an Israeli guarantee that goods and people could move freely between the two parts of occupied Palestine, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The agreement was rejected by the US and Israel a few months later, after the free election of January 2006 turned out "the wrong way." There are many other highly relevant cases.The broader and more significant alternative would be for the US and Israel to abandon their extreme rejectionism, and join the rest of the world - including the Arab states and Hamas - in supporting a two-state settlement in accord with the international consensus. It should be noted that in the past 30 years there has been one departure from US-Israeli rejectionism: the negotiations at Taba in January 2001, which appeared to be close to a peaceful resolution when Israel prematurely called them off. It would not, then, be outlandish for Obama to agree to join the world, even within the framework of US policy, if he were interested in doing so.In short, Obama's forceful reiteration of Israel's right to defend itself is another exercise of cynical deceit - though, it must be admitted, not unique to him, but virtually universal.The deceit is particularly striking in this case because the occasion was the appointment of Mitchell as special envoy. Mitchell's primary achievement was his leading role in the peaceful settlement in northern Ireland. It called for an end to IRA terror and British violence. Implicit is the recognition that while Britain had the right to defend itself from terror, it had no right to do so by force, because there was a peaceful alternative: recognition of the legitimate grievances of the Irish Catholic community that were the roots of IRA terror. When Britain adopted that sensible course, the terror ended. The implications for Mitchell's mission with regard to Israel-Palestine are so obvious that they need not be spelled out. And omission of them is, again, a striking indication of the commitment of the Obama administration to traditional US rejectionism and opposition to peace, except on its extremist terms.Obama also praised Jordan for its "constructive role in training Palestinian security forces and nurturing its relations with Israel" - which contrasts strikingly with US-Israeli refusal to deal with the freely elected government of Palestine, while savagely punishing Palestinians for electing it with pretexts which, as noted, do not withstand a moment's scrutiny. It is true that Jordan joined the US in arming and training Palestinian security forces, so that they could violently suppress any manifestation of support for the miserable victims of US-Israeli assault in Gaza, also arresting supporters of Hamas and the prominent journalist Khaled Amayreh, while organizing their own demonstrations in support of Abbas and Fatah, in which most participants "were civil servants and school children who were instructed by the PA to attend the rally," according to the Jerusalem Post. Our kind of democracy.Obama made one further substantive comment: "As part of a lasting cease-fire, Gaza's border crossings should be open to allow the flow of aid and commerce, with an appropriate monitoring regime..." He did not, of course, mention that the US-Israel had rejected much the same agreement after the January 2006 election, and that Israel had never observed similar subsequent agreements on borders.Also missing is any reaction to Israel's announcement that it rejected the cease-fire agreement, so that the prospects for it to be "lasting" are not auspicious. As reported at once in the press, "Israeli Cabinet Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, who takes part in security deliberations, told Army Radio on Thursday that Israel wouldn't let border crossings with Gaza reopen without a deal to free [Gilad] Schalit" (AP, Jan 22); ‘Israel to keep Gaza crossings closed...An official said the government planned to use the issue to bargain for the release of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier held by the Islamist group since 2006 (Financial Times, Jan. 23); "Earlier this week, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said that progress on Corporal Shalit's release would be a precondition to opening up the border crossings that have been mostly closed since Hamas wrested control of Gaza from the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority in 2007" (Christian Science Monitor, Jan. 23); "an Israeli official said there would be tough conditions for any lifting of the blockade, which he linked with the release of Gilad Shalit" (FT, Jan. 23); among many others.Shalit's capture is a prominent issue in the West, another indication of Hamas's criminality. Whatever one thinks about it, it is uncontroversial that capture of a soldier of an attacking army is far less of a crime than kidnapping of civilians, exactly what Israeli forces did the day before the capture of Shalit, invading Gaza city and kidnapping two brothers, then spiriting them across the border where they disappeared into Israel's prison complex. Unlike the much lesser case of Shalit, that crime was virtually unreported and has been forgotten, along with Israel's regular practice for decades of kidnapping civilians in Lebanon and on the high seas and dispatching them to Israeli prisons, often held for many years as hostages. But the capture of Shalit bars a cease-fire.Obama's State Department talk about the Middle East continued with "the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan... the central front in our enduring struggle against terrorism and extremism." A few hours later, US planes attacked a remote village in Afghanistan, intending to kill a Taliban commander. "Village elders, though, told provincial officials there were no Taliban in the area, which they described as a hamlet populated mainly by shepherds. Women and children were among the 22 dead, they said, according to Hamididan Abdul Rahmzai, the head of the provincial council" (LA Times, Jan. 24).Afghan president Karzai's first message to Obama after he was elected in November was a plea to end the bombing of Afghan civilians, reiterated a few hours before Obama was sworn in. This was considered as significant as Karzai's call for a timetable for departure of US and other foreign forces. The rich and powerful have their "responsibilities." Among them, the New York Times reported, is to "provide security" in southern Afghanistan, where "the insurgency is homegrown and self-sustaining." All familiar. From Pravda in the 1980s, for example.

Philippines: Panasonic to close plant.

This is from Reuters. This is just another sign that the global downturn is impacting the Philippines.

UPDATE 1-Panasonic likely to post loss, close plants-Nikkei
Tue Jan 27, 2009 11:45pm GMT

TOKYO, Jan 28 (Reuters) - Panasonic Corp (6752.T) is likely to report an annual net loss of about 100 billion yen ($1.1 billion) on restructuring charges, weak demand for consumer electronics and the effects of the strong yen, a newspaper said.
It would be the first net loss in six years for the company, formerly known as Matsushita Electric Industrial Co Ltd.
Panasonic also plans to close three plants, including two of its three plants that make electronics parts in Malaysia, the Nikkei business daily said without citing sources. The third plant to be closed is in the Philippines, the Nikkei said.

Border closes, Israel promises more Gaza strikes.

This is from

So an Israeli soldier is killed and Israel kills a farmer launches an air strike etc. The original attack was not even by Hamas. No matter. They also simply punish the whole Gazan population by closing off the border. However these actions are just the beginning claims Israel. What will Obama have to say? It won't matter since unless the US is willing to take genuine punitive action against Israel by cutting off military aid etc. the US seems to have little say in what Israel does.

Border Closes, Israel Promises More Gaza Strikes
Rival Faction Carried Out Attack, But Israel Still Blames Hamas
Posted January 27, 2009
Credit for the roadside bombing which killed an Israeli soldier along the Gaza border earlier today has been claimed by the Jihad and Tawhid Brigades, an al-Qaeda linked group which has repeatedly clashed with Hamas. Still, the Israeli military says that even though Hamas didn’t carry out the attack, it is still responsible for it because they guess they may have given consent to the group.
In its early retaliation, the Israeli government killed a nearby farmer and launched an air-strike which killed a Hamas member and wounded another civilian. They also closed off the border crossings, preventing humanitarian aid from reaching the strip’s 1.5 million reisdents, “until further notice.” Indications are this is not the end of Israel’s attacks, which are threatening to derail the ceasefire.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said today that the killings so far were “not the response” and that more attacks were yet to come. The Israeli military has also reported been “given the green light” to respond harshly in the Gaza Strip. Defense official Amos Gilad said the response would not be limited to closing off the border.

Copyright 2008

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Juan Cole: Afghanistan: Obama's Vietnam

This is from Salon.

On interrogation and closing Guantanamo and exiting Iraq as Cole mentions there is a departure to a considerable extent from Bush tendencies but on Pakistan and Afghanistan Obama is actually more aggressive than Bush and is intending to have his very own surge in Afghanistan.
The recent drone attacks confirm this continuation and expansion of Bush policy.

Obama's Vietnam?Friday's airstrikes are evidence Obama will take the hard line he promised in Pakistan and Afghanistan. But he should remember what happened to another president who inherited a war.
By Juan Cole
Jan. 26, 2009
On Friday, President Barack Obama ordered an Air Force drone to bomb two separate Pakistani villages, killing what Pakistani officials said were 22 individuals, including between four and seven foreign fighters. Many of Obama's initiatives in his first few days in office -- preparing to depart Iraq, ending torture and closing Guantánamo -- were aimed at signaling a sharp turn away from Bush administration policies. In contrast, the headline about the strike in Waziristan could as easily have appeared in December with "President Bush" substituted for "President Obama." Pundits are already worrying that Obama may be falling into the Lyndon Johnson Vietnam trap, of escalating a predecessor's halfhearted war into a major quagmire. What does Obama's first military operation tell us about his administration's priorities?
Obama's first meeting with his team on national security issues focused on Afghanistan and Pakistan, in the course of which the new president is reported to have endorsed the drone attacks. Friday's were the first major U.S. airstrikes on Pakistani territory since Jan. 1, because the Pakistan Taliban Movement in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) had launched a campaign to discover local informants for the Central Intelligence Agency, killing 40 of them. The two cells the U.S. hit are accused of raiding over the border into Afghanistan, lending support to the Taliban there.
The tribal notable Khalil Dawar, who lived near the village of Mir Ali in Pakistan's North Waziristan Agency, hosted a party of five alleged al-Qaida operatives in the guesthouse on his property. An American drone hit the site with three Hellfire missiles. According to the Pakistani press, the strike not only killed the four Arab fighters and a Punjabi militant, but also the Pashtun host and some of his family members. A few hours later, missiles slammed into another residence near the village of Wana in a nearby tribal agency, South Waziristan, killing 10. Pakistani sources disagreed over whether there had been any foreign fighters at all at the second target, with locals claiming that 10 family members, including women and children, were the only victims. Villagers in Pakistan's northwestern tribal belt sometimes rent to the Arab fighters because they are sympathetic to their struggle, but sometimes they just need the money.
The U.S. committed itself, when it overthrew the largely Pashtun Taliban in 2001, to building up a new government in Afghanistan and restoring the country to stability. The new government of President Hamid Karzai, however, was viewed as disproportionately benefiting northern ethnic groups such as the Tajiks, Hazara and Uzbeks. NATO search and destroy missions in the ethnically Pashtun south of the country alienated villagers, as did forcible eradication of lucrative poppy crops. The Taliban revived, and new groups emerged allied with them, turning to suicide bombings and attacks on the new Afghan army and on NATO and U.S. troops. Obama has committed to dealing with this problem by increasing the size of the U.S. and NATO troop contingent in Afghanistan, which already stands at more than 50,000, but the plan is facing stiff resistance from NATO allies and their publics.
Sandwiched between the lush river-fed plains of Pakistan and the deserts and mountains of southern Afghanistan, the 13 Federally Administered Tribal Areas are a no-man's land that is technically part of Pakistan but seldom truly controlled by Islamabad. Ethnically, the inhabitants are Pashtuns, the same group that dominates southern Afghanistan, and many of them deeply sympathize with those Afghan neighbors who are fighting Western troops and the Karzai government. In recent years, tribal and village organizations in FATA have been shunted aside by Muslim radicals who formed the Pakistan Taliban movement, emulating the Taliban of Afghanistan. They not only raid into southern Afghanistan but have also committed terrorist acts in Pakistani cities such as Peshawar and Islamabad.
The Bush administration launched 30 air attacks on targets in Pakistan in 2008, killing 220 persons. The strikes seem to have started in the summer, during the presidential campaign, about a year after candidate Obama began urging this policy. Bush may have instituted the aerial attacks to deny Obama a campaign talking point and to prevent him from out-hawking John McCain. That is, Obama may have pushed Bush -- who had earlier been wary of alienating Pakistan -- to the right. The American bombing of the tribal areas occurs with tacit Pakistani government acquiescence as a result of a secret agreement reached last September, despite the sometimes vehement public denunciations that Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani issues after they've occurred.
In this instance, a spokesman for the Pakistani foreign ministry complained to Ambassador Anne W. Patterson, saying, "With the advent of the new U.S. administration, it is Pakistan's sincere hope that the United States will review its policy and adopt a more holistic and integrated approach towards dealing with the issue of terrorism and extremism."
The Pakistani government is now ruled by the largely secular, left-of-center Pakistan People's Party, and President Asaf Ali Zardari blames the Taliban for the assassination of his wife, Benazir Bhutto, late in 2007. Any dispute between Islamabad and the Obama administration centers on issues of national sovereignty, not on the question of whether the Taliban should be crushed. Pakistan's own military is also fighting the Pakistan Taliban Movement and its tribal supporters. Early last week, Islamabad's Frontier Corps pounded several villages of the Mohmand Agency, killing 60 militants. In the course of the past five months, Pakistani military operations against the Pakistani Taliban in the neighboring Bajaur Agency have left hundreds dead and hundreds of thousands homeless and displaced.
The risk Obama takes in continuing the Bush administration policy of bombing Pakistani territory is provoking further anger in the public of that country against the United States and harming the legitimacy of Zardari's fragile elected government. A Gallup poll done last summer found that 45 percent of Pakistanis believe that the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan poses a threat to their country. Of Pakistanis who expressed an opinion on the matter, an overwhelming majority believed that the cooperation between the U.S. and the Pakistani military in the "war on terror" has mainly benefited Washington. If a more muscular American policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan sufficiently angers the Pakistani public, they could start voting for religious parties, delivering a nuclear state into the hands of Muslim fundamentalists.
The fundamentalist Jamaat-i Islami (JI), led by Qazi Husain Ahmad, held a rally of several thousand protesters in the Pakistani capital on Friday to protest the drone attacks and the ongoing military campaigns in FATA. (I saw the demonstration on satellite television, and it was clearly bigger than the wire services reported.) The coalition of religious parties of which the JI formed part was dealt a crushing rejection by the Pakistani electorate last February, but for the U.S. to continually bombard Pakistani territory could be a wedge issue whereby they return to political influence. Whereas the Jamaat-i Islami had welcomed Obama's new path in the Muslim world before the strikes, the JI leader blasted the new president in their aftermath.
Obama's policy toward Pakistan is not solely military. He appointed as his special advisor on Pakistan and Afghanistan veteran diplomat Richard Holbrooke, who played an important role in peace negotiations over Bosnia in the 1990s. The new president, who has praised Pakistan's return to civilian parliamentary rule, has pledged to triple civilian aid. Opinion polling shows that more civilian development monies and less focus on military equipment are precisely what a majority of the Pakistani public want. Obama also intends to tie the annual amount of military aid released to the actual performance of the Pakistani military in preventing cross-border raids of FATA militants into Afghanistan. Allegations have swirled for the past year that rogue cells in the feared Inter-Services Intelligence of the Pakistani military have been actively sending the militants to hit targets inside Afghanistan, including the Indian embassy at Kabul.
Despite the positive harbingers from Obama of a new, civilian-friendly foreign policy that will devote substantial resources to human development, the very first practical step he took in Pakistan was to bomb its territory. This resort to violence from the skies even before Obama had initiated discussions with Islamabad is a bad sign. It is not clear if Obama really believes that the fractious tribes of the Pakistani northwest can be subdued with some airstrikes and if he really believes that U.S. security depends on what happens in Waziristan. If he thinks the drone attacks on FATA are a painless way to signal to the world that he is no wimp, he may find, as Lyndon Johnson did, that such military operations take on a momentum of their own, and produce popular discontents that can prove deadly to the military mission.
-- By Juan Cole

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Greenwald: Continuing Bush policies in Israel and Afghanistan

This is from Salon.

On the Middle East Obama's tone is perhaps a bit lighter than Bush but there is the same strong slanting towards Israel as well as completely ignoring Hamas in negotiations in favor of Abbas who has absolutely no power in Gaza. The US, Europe, and Israel seem to agree that one of the key players in any peace process is to be completely isolated. Many Arab states of course go along with this even though it means that they face more conflict on their own streets and help recruit radical Islamists for groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood.
It should be obvious to any observer that with respect to Afghanistan Obama is if anything going to be more aggressive than Bush ever was. The drones still continue to fly over Pakistan as well killing guilty and innocent alike.

Glenn Greenwald
Monday Jan. 26, 2009 07:02 EST
Continuing Bush policies in Israel and Afghanistan
By all accounts, the U.S. is suffering extreme economic woes. We continue to borrow trillions of dollars simply to prevent financial collapse. Our military resources are spread so thin that the establishment consensus view blames the failure of our seven-year (and counting) occupation of Afghanistan, at least in part, on the lack of necessary resources devoted to that occupation. And a significant (though not the only) reason why we are unable to extricate ourselves from the endless resource-draining and liberty-degrading involvement in Middle East conflicts is because our one-sided support for Israel ensures that we remain involved and makes ourselves the target of hatred around the world and, especially, in the Muslim world.
Despite all of that, the Bush administration, just days before it left office, entered into yet another new agreement with Israel pursuant to which the U.S. committed to use its resources to prevent guns and other weapons from entering Gaza. That agreement cites "the steadfast commitment of the United States to Israel's security" and "and to preserve and strengthen Israel's capability to deter and defend itself," and vows that the U.S. will "address the problem of the supply of arms and related materiel and weapons transfers and shipments to Hamas and other terrorist organizations in Gaza."
Speaking about that new U.S./Israeli agreement on her show late last week, MSNBC's Rachel Maddow (in the course of aggressively questioning an absurdly evasive Sen. Claire McCaskill on the wisdom of Obama's plans to escalate the war in Afghanistan and noting the cadre of Bush defense officials on whom Obama is relying -- video below) observed that the Obama administration has enthusiastically expressed its full support for the new Israeli agreement entered into in the last days of Bush's presidency. Maddow said (h/t
Also, not particularly change-like, then-President Bush made a deal in his final day in office with Israel about the terms of Israel's relationship with Gaza. I'm sorry - it wasn't his last day in office. It was within his last few days in office -- my mistake.
The U.S. under President Obama is bound by that last-minute agreement between the U.S. and Israel. And a statement from Press Secretary Robert Gibbs today says that President Obama supports the agreement fully.
That new agreement has already led the U.S. Navy last week to take risky and potential illegal actions in intercepting Iranian ships that were transporting arms. As The Jerusalem Post reported:
The interception of an Iranian arms ship by the US Navy in the Red Sea last week likely was conducted as a covert operation and is being played down by the US military due to the lack of a clear legal framework for such operations, an American expert on Iran told The Jerusalem Post on Saturday evening.
International media reported that an Iranian-owned merchant vessel flying a Cypriot flag was boarded early last week by US Navy personnel who discovered artillery shells on board.
The ship was initially suspected of being en route to delivering its cargo to smugglers in Sinai who would transfer the ammunition to Hamas in Gaza, but the US Navy became uncertain over the identity of the intended recipient since "Hamas is not known to use artillery," The Associated Press cited a defense official as saying. . . .
Prof. Raymond Tanter, president of the Washington-based Iran Policy Committee, said, "It is not surprising that the US Navy is reluctant to acknowledge the operation, which may have been covert," adding that maritime law posed challenges when it came to intercepting ships that fly the flag of a sovereign country. . . .
For the time being, the interceptions and searches are being carried out on the basis of the memorandum of understanding signed between Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and then-US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on January 16, which is "aimed at halting arms smuggling into Gaza as part of efforts to clinch the cease-fire," Tanter said.
The article quoted Emily Landau, director of the Arms Control and Regional Security Program at the Institute of National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, as arguing that the risk of provoking a confrontation with Iran from such interceptions is low -- but not non-existent -- because "Iran is not looking for an armed confrontation [with the US Navy] at this point."
And Haaretz reports that preventing Palestinians in Gaza from re-arming itself is now -- for some reason -- an ongoing military operation of the United States:
A United States naval taskforce has been ordered to hunt down weapons ships sent by Iran to rearm its Islamist ally Hamas in Gaza, The Sunday Times reported.
Quoting U.S. diplomatic sources, the British daily said that Combined Task Force 151, which is countering pirates in the Gulf of Aden, has been instructed to track Iranian arms shipments.
There were several aspects of the Israeli attack on Gaza that made it even more horrifying than the standard atrocities of war: (1) the civilian population was trapped -- imprisoned -- in a tiny densely-populated strip and were unable to escape the brutal attacks; and (2) it was a completely one-sided war, because one side (Israel) is armed to teeth with the world's most sophisticated and deadly weapons, while the other side (the Palestinians) is virtually defenseless, possessing only the most primitive and (against a force like the IDF) impotent weapons.
What possible justification is there for the U.S. (as opposed to Israel) to use its military and the money of its taxpayers to ensure that the Palestinians remain defenseless? In exactly the way that the U.S. felt free to invade Iraq (with its decayed, sanctions-destroyed "military") but not North Korea or Iran (with its much more formidable forces), it's precisely because the conflict is so one-sided that Israel feels no real pressure to cease the activities that, in part, feed this conflict (beginning with still-expanding West Bank settlements and the truly inhumane blockade of Gaza).
Obviously, where one side has its foot on the throat of the other, the side with the far more dominant position has less incentive to resolve the dispute than the side being choked. And it's perfectly natural -- not just for Israel but in general -- for a party to want to maintain dominance over its adversaries and to want to prevent its enemies from obtaining weapons that can be used against it. It's entirely rational for Israel to desire a continuation of that particular state of affairs -- i.e., for only Israel, but not the enemies with whom it has intractable territorial and religious conflicts, to have a real military force.
But what does any of that have to do with the U.S. Navy and the American taxpayer? What possible justification is there for using American resources -- the American military -- to patrol the Red Sea in order to ensure that Gazans remain defenseless? That question is particularly pronounced given that the U.S. is already shoveling, and will continue to shovel, billions and billions of dollars to Israel in military and other aid. Why, on top of all of that, are increasingly scarce American resources, rather than Israeli resources, being used to bar Palestinians from obtaining weapons? And why -- as it is more vital than ever that we extricate ourselves from Middle Eastern conflicts -- are we making ourselves still more of a partisan and combatant in this most entrenched and religiously-driven territorial dispute over the West Bank and Gaza Strip?
Israel is hardly the only country which the U.S. expends vast resources -- including military resources -- to defend and protect, and all of those commitments ought to be seriously re-examined. But none of those other commitments entail anywhere near the costs -- on every level -- of our seemingly limitless willingness, eagerness, to involve ourselves so directly and self-destructively in every last conflict that Israel has. Given what we are constantly being told is the grave economic peril the U.S. faces, shouldn't we be moving in exactly the opposite direction than the imperial expansion which we continue to pursue?
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Monday, January 26, 2009

Russia Stops US on Road to Afghanistan

This is from the AsiaTimes.

There is material in this article that you just do not see in the mainstream western media reports. For example that Afghanistan's dealings with third countries are subject to US veto. The article is correct in saying that Afghanistan is "notionally"sovereign. In reality it is occupied by the US and NATO.
It seems that the agreement with Russia re transporting goods through Russia is dependent upon some benefits to be negotiated. The US is obviously trying to establish a strong presence in former Soviet Republics such as Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan while Russia and China as well are trying to counteract US influence in the area.
The article points out that supplies transiting through Pakistan are stolen in huge amounts as well as being attacked otherwise.

Jan 27, 2009

Russia stops US on road to Afghanistan
By M K Bhadrakumar
Precise, quick, deadly - the skills of a soldier are modest. But then, US Central Command chief General David Petraeus is more than a soldier. The world is getting used to him as somewhere more than halfway down the road to becoming a statesman. Sure, there may be warfare's seduction over him still, but he is expected to be aware of the political realities of the two wars he conducts, in Iraq and Afghanistan. That is why he tripped last Tuesday when he said while on a visit to Pakistan that the American military had secured agreements to move supplies to Afghanistan from the north, easing the heavy reliance on the transit route through Pakistan. "There have been agreements reached, and there are transit lines now and transit
agreements for commercial goods and services in particular that include several countries in the Central Asian states and Russia," Petraeus said. He was needlessly precise - like a soldier. Maybe he needed to impress on the tough Pakistani generals that they wouldn't hold the US forces in Afghanistan by their jugular veins for long. Or, he felt simply exasperated about the doublespeak of Janus-faced southwest Asian generals. The shocking intelligence assessment shared by Moscow reveals that almost half of the US supplies passing through Pakistan is pilfered by motley groups of Taliban militants, petty traders and plain thieves. The US Army is getting burgled in broad daylight and can't do much about it. Almost 80% of all supplies for Afghanistan pass through Pakistan. The Peshawar bazaar is doing a roaring business hawking stolen US military ware, as in the 1980s during the Afghan jihad against the Soviet Union. This volume of business will register a quantum jump following the doubling of the US troop level in Afghanistan to 60,000. Wars are essentially tragedies, but can be comical, too. Moscow disclaims transit routeAt any rate, within a day of Petraeus' remark, Moscow corrected him. Deputy Foreign Minister Alexei Maslov told Itar-Tass, “No official documents were submitted to Russia's permanent mission in NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] certifying that Russia had authorized the United States and NATO to transport military supplies across the country." A day later, Russia's ambassador to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, added from Brussels, "We know nothing of Russia's alleged agreement of military transit of Americans or NATO at large. There had been suggestions of the sort, but they were not formalized." And, with a touch of irony, Rogozin insisted Russia wanted the military alliance to succeed in Afghanistan. "I can responsibly say that in the event of NATO's defeat in Afghanistan, fundamentalists who are inspired by this victory will set their eyes on the north. First they will hit Tajikistan, then they will try to break into Uzbekistan ... If things turn out badly, in about 10 years, our boys will have to fight well-armed and well-organized Islamists somewhere in Kazakhstan," the popular Moscow-politician turned diplomat added. Russian experts have let it be known that Moscow views with disquiet the US's recent overtures to Central Asian countries regarding bilateral transit treaties with them which exclude Russia. Agreements have been reached with Georgia, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. Moscow feels the US is pressing ahead with a new Caspian transit route which involves the dispatch of shipments via Georgia to Azerbaijan and thereon to the Kazakh harbor of Aktau and across the Uzbek territory to Amu Darya and northern Afghanistan. Russian experts estimate that the proposed Caspian transit route could eventually become an energy transportation route in reverse direction, which would mean a strategic setback for Russia in the decade-long struggle for the region's hydrocarbon reserves. Russia presses for role in Kabul Indeed, Uzbekistan is the key Central Asian country in the great game over the northern transit route to Afghanistan. Thus, during Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's visit to Tashkent last week, Afghanistan figured as a key topic. Medvedev characterized Russian-Uzbek relations as a "strategic partnership and alliance" and said that on matters relating to Afghanistan, Moscow's cooperation with Tashkent assumed an "exceptional importance". He said he and Uzbek President Islam Karimov agreed that there could be no "unilateral solution" to the Afghan problem and "nothing can be resolved without taking into account the collective opinion of states which have an interest in the resolution of the situation". Most significantly, Medvedev underlined Russia had no objections about US President Barack Obama's idea of linking the Afghanistan and Pakistan problems, but for an entirely different reason, as "it is not possible to examine the establishment and development of a modern political system in Afghanistan in isolation from the context of normalizing relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan in their border regions, setting up the appropriate international mechanisms and so on". Moscow rarely touches on the sensitive Durand Line question, that is, the controversial line that separates Afghanistan and Pakistan. Medvedev underscored that Russia remained an interested party, as there was a "need to ensure that these issues are resolved on a collective basis". Second, Medvedev made it clear Moscow would resist US attempts to expand its military and political presence in the Central Asian and Caspian regions. He asserted, "This is a key region, a region in which diverse processes are taking place and in which Russia has crucially important work to do to coordinate our positions with our colleagues and help to find common solutions to the most complex problems." Plainly put, Moscow will not allow a replay of the US's tactic after September 11, 2002, when it sought a military presence in Central Asia as a temporary measure and then coolly proceeded to put it on a long-term footing. Karzai reaches out to Moscow Interestingly, Medvedev's remarks coincide with reports that Washington is cutting Afghan President Hamid Karzai adrift and is planning to install a new "dream team" in Kabul. Medvedev had written to Karzai offering military aid. Karzai apparently accepted the Russian offer, ignoring the US objection that in terms of secret US-Afghan agreements, Kabul needed Washington's prior consent for such dealings with third countries. A statement from the Kremlin last Monday said Russia was "ready to provide broad assistance for an independent and democratic country [Afghanistan] that lives in a peaceful atmosphere with its neighbors. Cooperation in the defense sector ... will be effective for establishing peace in the region". It makes sense for Kabul to make military procurements from Russia since the Afghan armed forces use Soviet weaponry. But Washington doesn't want a Russian "presence" in Kabul. Quite obviously, Moscow and Kabul have challenged the US's secret veto power over Afghanistan's external relations. Last Friday, Russian and Afghan diplomats met in Moscow and "pledged to continue developing Russian-Afghan cooperation in politics, trade and economics as well as in the humanitarian sphere". Significantly, they also "noted the importance of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization [SCO]" that is dominated by Russia and China. SCO seeks Afghan role Washington cannot openly censure Karzai from edging close to Russia (and China) since Afghanistan is notionally a sovereign country. Meanwhile, Moscow is intervening in Kabul's assertion of independence. Moscow has stepped up its efforts to hold an international conference on Afghanistan under the aegis of the SCO. The US doesn't want Karzai to legitimize a SCO role in the Afghan problem. Now a flashpoint arises. A meeting of deputy foreign ministers from the SCO member countries (China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan) met in Moscow on January 14. The Russian Foreign Ministry subsequently announced that a conference would take place in late March. The Russian initiative received a big boost with Iran and India's decision to participate in the conference. New Delhi has welcomed an enhanced role for itself as a SCO observer and seeks "greater participation" in the organization's activities. In particular, New Delhi has "expressed interest in participating in the activities" of the SCO contact group on Afghanistan. The big question is whether Karzai will seize these regional trends and respond to the SCO overture, which will enable Kabul to get out of Washington's stranglehold? To be sure, Washington is racing against time in bringing about a "regime change" in Kabul. The point is, more and more countries in the region are finding it difficult to accept the US monopoly on conflict-resolution in Afghanistan. Washington will be hard-pressed to dissociate from the forthcoming SCO conference in March and, ideally, would have wished that Karzai also stayed away, despite it being a full-fledged regional initiative that includes all of Afghanistan's neighbors. The SCO is sure to list Afghanistan as a major agenda item at its annual summit meeting scheduled to be held in August in Yekaterinburg, Russia. It seems Washington cannot stop the SCO in its tracks at this stage, except by genuinely broad-basing the search for an Afghan settlement and allowing regional powers with legitimate interests to fully participate. The current US thinking, on the other hand, is to strike "grand bargains" with regional powers bilaterally and to keep them apart from collectively coordinating with each other on the basis of shared concerns. But the regional powers see through the US game plan for what it is - a smart move of divide-and-rule. Moscow spurns selective engagement No doubt, these diplomatic maneuverings also reveal the trust deficit in Russian-American relations. Moscow voices optimism that Obama will constructively address the problems that have accumulated in the US-Russia relationship. But Russia figured neither in Obama's inaugural address nor in the foreign policy document spelling out his agenda. Last Tuesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov summed up Moscow's minimal expectations: "I hope the controversial problems in our relations, such as missile defense, the expediency of NATO expansion ... will be resolved on the basis of pragmatism, without the ideological assessment the outgoing administration had ... We have noticed that ... Obama was willing to take a break on the issue of missile defense ... and to evaluate its effectiveness and cost efficiency." But Russia is not among the new US administration's priorities. Besides, as the influential newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta noted last week, "A considerable number of [US] congressmen from both parties believe Russia needs a good talking-to." The current Russian priority will be to organize an early meeting between Lavrov and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and until such a meeting takes place, matters are on hold - including the vexed issue of the transit route for Afghanistan. Thus, while talking to the media in Tashkent, Medvedev agreed in principle to grant permission to the US to use a transit route to Afghanistan via Russian territory, but at once qualified it saying, "This cooperation should be full-fledged and on an equal basis." He reminded Obama that the "surge" strategy in Afghanistan might not work. "We hope the new administration will be more successful than its predecessor on the issues surrounding Afghanistan," Medvedev said. Evidently, Petraeus overlooked that the US's needless obduracy to keep the Hindu Kush as its exclusive geopolitical turf right in the middle of Asia has become a contentious issue. No matter the fine rhetoric, the Obama administration will find it difficult to sustain the myth that the Afghan war is all about fighting al-Qaeda and the Taliban to the finish. Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.

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