Andy Kroll

Andy Kroll

Senior Reporter

Andy Kroll is Mother Jones' Dark Money reporter. He is based in the DC bureau. His work has also appeared at the Wall Street Journal, the Detroit News, the Guardian, the American Prospect, and TomDispatch.com, where he's an associate editor. Email him at akroll (at) motherjones (dot) com. He tweets at @AndrewKroll.

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The Unmanned Future of US War

| Mon Feb. 1, 2010 5:15 PM EST

From land to sea, there's no mistaking that the US is heading toward a future of unmanned wars. That conclusion is one of the main take-aways from the Defense Department's 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review, released today, a detailed report that updates Congress on the Pentagon's strategies and planning. The 2010 QDR further cements the Defense Department's commitment to bolstering its fleet of unmanned combat ships, like the Reaper and Predator drones whose lethal attack missions over Pakistan and Afghanistan are one of the worst-kept secrets in all of government.

According to the QDR, everything about the military's drone armada is ramping up. The DoD plans to increase the number of Predator and Reaper drone orbits (sustained airborne missions for more than 24 hours) from 35 today to 50 in the 2011 fiscal year to 65 in 2015, a significant uptick that comes on top of the Air Force's projections that all its drones will fly 250,000 total hours this year, up from a measly 71 hours for the Reaper drone in 2004. The QDR says the Army will also increase the number of drones in every class of its fleet in the next few years, especially its souped-up Extended Range Multi-Purpose Predator.

Not to be outdone, the Navy is developing its own aerial drone, the N-UCAS built by Northrop Grumman, which could deploy from aircraft carriers around the world and expand the military's aerial reach. And as the QDR reports, the unmanned future isn't confined to the skies, either: Underway right now is a far-ranging underwater drone with strike capabilities that the Navy is developing. The QDR also vaguely hints at improvements in drone intelligence gathering capabilities, like the current "Gorgon Stare" video technology boasting 10 different cameras operating at once and a more advanced camera technology with 30 feeds at once that could come online this fall.

Interestingly, the QDR's outlook on drone warfare isn't limited to the US. DoD officials anticipate—as they logically should—that unmanned drones are quickly becoming the weapon of choice around the world, briefly noting that "non-state actors such as Hezbollah have acquired" drones and pose a threat going forward. The only question now, based on this latest QDR and other news reports, is whether future warzones will actually feature any living, breathing people at all—apart, that is, from the unfortunate bystanders living in countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan whose skies are filled with the Predators and Reapers and other drones of the future.

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Watchdog: No Prayer Day for Obama, Congress

| Mon Feb. 1, 2010 12:10 PM EST

Should President Obama and members of Congress attend the annual National Prayer Breakfast, hosted by the shadowy yet extremely well-connected Christian organization The Fellowship? No way, says [PDF] the government watchdog organization Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), who today is urging the president and lawmakers to avoid the group's entreaties and star-studded annual breakfast this Thursday. The Fellowship, also known as The Family, is headed by a spiritual confidante to government figures named Doug Coe who claims to be leading a "spiritual war" for Christ. Its acolytes have included public officials like Sen. John Ensign (R-NV), disgraced South Carolina governor Mark Sanford, and even Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, whose close ties with the Fellowship were reported by Mother Jones in 2007.

Like others who've written about the Fellowship, CREW says the secretive group uses its connections and clout to arrange meetings between US and foreign officials behind closed doors, and has told its members, like Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), to spread the Fellowship's evangelical mission while on taxpayer-funded trips. The group's National Prayer Breakfast, CREW contends, is merely a chance for the group to draft more members into its ranks and to boost its fundraising coffers. "The president and members of Congress should not legitimatize this cult-like group—the head of which has praised the organizing abilities of Hitler and Bin Laden—by attending the breakfast," said Melanie Sloan, CREW's executive director. It's doubtful, however, whether CREW's advice will be heeded: There are no signs that Obama, who spoke at the breakfast last year and is slated to do the same on Thursday, plans to back out. 

How to Kill the Recovery

| Mon Feb. 1, 2010 9:00 AM EST

There's plenty to sink your teeth into in the latest report to Congress [PDF] from Neil Barofsky, the main bailout watchdog, including yet more questions about the Treasury and Federal Reserve Bank of New York's handling of AIG's rescue. In essence, Barofsky, whose title is special inspector general for TARP (SIGTARP), calls the Treasury hypocrites for failing to extract concessions from AIG's counterparties (like Goldman Sachs and Societe Generale) when they did just that with General Motors and Chrysler's creditors during the automotive bailout. Barofsky's report also criticizes the Treasury for failing to anticipate the backlash over AIG's post-bailout executive compensation, especially to its Financial Products division that was at the epicenter of the financial meltdown.

But arguably the most fascinating finding in the SIGTARP report is the extent to which the federal government now backstops the housing market—in short, the federal government today is the housing market. According to SIGTARP, in the past two years, the private sector has shed $1.5 trillion in mortgage assets, and it's the government who's filled that massive void. "Between net mortgage lending and existing mortgage management," the report says, "the Federal Government now completely dominates the housing mortgage market, with the taxpayer shouldering the risk that had once been borne by the private sector." As the above chart shows, the government's support of the housing market nears a staggering $11.5 trillion.

More worrying than the size of that support, without which frankly there wouldn't be a housing market, is the fact that it could be ending soon. As the Washington Post recently reported, the federal government plans to wind down some of that backing in the next couple of months, and when that time comes, officials say they hope the industry will stand on its own. But as the SIGTARP report shows, that's blind optimism; a major pullback in housing support could very well send the industry into freefall again and derail the glimmers of recovery we're now seeing. It could undercut the Obama administration's stimulus efforts, and possibly drag Obama's support down with it. Even with government support, housing's future is very much unclear—foreclosures set new records last year, too many homeowners still owe more than their houses are worth, more people are voluntarily defaulting and walking away from their homes. Yet the federal government wants to walk away from the industry itself sooner rather than later.

If SIGTARP's findings reveal anything, it's how much the government's backstopping is critical to economic recovery. Without it, we could see shades of 2007 and 2008 all over again.

Inside Af-Pak's Black Sites

| Thu Jan. 28, 2010 4:00 PM EST

Anand Gopal, a war correspondent in Afghanistan for the Wall Street Journal and formerly the Christian Science Monitor, has a superb, year-long investigation out today on the US' raids, "black site" detention cetners, and "Black Jail" at the Bagram air base in eastern Afghanistan. The story, co-published by TomDispatch.com and The Nation magazine, is the first of its kind to report on the shadowy counterterror and torture methods used by the US in Afghanistan, a war led in large part by a general, Stanley McChrystal, who made a name for himself leading these same kinds of under-the-radar missions. For his report, supported by the Fund for Investigative Journalism, Gopal interviewed dozens of Afghans, some of whom had either been kidnapped and tortured themselves (and lived to tell about it) or who knew people who'd been disappeared or killed during this night-time raids.

As Gopal points out, these kinds of missions undermine the US' entire presence in Afghanistan:

Sometime in the last few years, Pashtun villagers in Afghanistan's rugged heartland began to lose faith in the American project. Many of them can point to the precise moment of this transformation, and it usually took place in the dead of the night, when most of the country was fast asleep. In the secretive U.S. detentions process, suspects are usually nabbed in the darkness and then sent to one of a number of detention areas on military bases, often on the slightest suspicion and without the knowledge of their families.

This process has become even more feared and hated in Afghanistan than coalition airstrikes. The night raids and detentions, little known or understood outside of these Pashtun villages, are slowly turning Afghans against the very forces they greeted as liberators just a few years ago.

In addition, he reports on the presence of a "Black Jail" at Bagram air base and nine official holding jails in Afghanistan, known as Field Detention Sites, usually comprised of a few cells walled off with plywood and used for interrogation purposes. Gopal's story retells the experiences of individual Afghans who were detained and tortured by US forces:

One of these former detainees is Noor Agha Sher Khan, who used to be a police officer in Gardez, a mud-caked town in the eastern part of the country. According to Sher Khan, U.S. forces detained him in a night raid in 2003 and brought him to a Field Detention Site at a nearby U.S. base.  “They interrogated me the whole night,” he recalls, “but I had nothing to tell them.” Sher Khan worked for a police commander whom U.S. forces had detained on suspicion of having ties to the insurgency. He had occasionally acted as a driver for this commander, which made him suspicious in American eyes.

The interrogators blindfolded him, taped his mouth shut, and chained him to the ceiling, he alleges. Occasionally they unleashed a dog, which repeatedly bit him. At one point, they removed the blindfold and forced him to kneel on a long wooden bar. “They tied my hands to a pulley [above] and pushed me back and forth as the bar rolled across my shins. I screamed and screamed.”  They then pushed him to the ground and forced him to swallow 12 bottles worth of water. “Two people held my mouth open and they poured water down my throat until my stomach was full and I became unconscious. It was as if someone had inflated me.” he says. After he was roused from his torpor, he vomited the water uncontrollably.

This continued for a number of days; sometimes he was hung upside down from the ceiling, and other times blindfolded for extended periods. Eventually, he was sent on to Bagram where the torture ceased. Four months later, he was quietly released, with a letter of apology from U.S. authorities for wrongfully imprisoning him.

The piece is absolutely worth reading in full. It sheds light on the secrecy surrounding these detention centers, the torture taking place in this facilities, and the fear among Afghans of being the next person swept up in a violent night-time raid—all crucial elements of the US war in Afghanistan that haven't been reported anywhere else yet without which our understanding of the Af-Pak war is incomplete.

The Taliban Trust Fund

| Thu Jan. 28, 2010 2:59 PM EST

At a major conference in London today, Afghan president Hamid Karzai rolled out his much anticipated Taliban "reintegration" or buyout plan, an initiative for which Afghanistan's allies have pledged $500 million to pay mid- or lower level fighters to stop fighting and reintegrate into Afghan society. The money could include resettling former Taliban fighters and landing them jobs, but excludes fighters with ties to al-Qaeda or other terrorist networks for inclusion in what's being called the "Taliban trust fund." And in discussing the future of the Af-Pak war, Karzai also reaffirmed that his country would need international help maintaining security in Afghanistan for anywhere from 10 to 15 more years; the training of Afghan's own forces, he added, will require another five to 10 years.

For one, the Taliban trust fund idea, backed by US envoy Richard Holbrooke, will strike even casual observers of American war as little more than a repackaging of the Sunni Awakening movement in Iraq. Indeed, Karzai's announcement comes a few months after the Los Angeles Times reported that Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal personally dragged out of retirement the key architect behind the Iraqi program, which paid Sunni Muslims to leave the insurgency and even defend against al-Qaeda and other extremist groups. Never mind the fact that Iraq and Afghanistan are wildly different countries, from their populations and political structures to the food they eat and their geographies. Sure, you could argue that the Sunni Awakening, although mired with fraud and graft, resulted in modest amounts of success, but to apply the same lessons from Iraq to Afghanistan, as the Taliban trust fund idea seems to do, doesn't make a whole lot of sense. (Plus, as Aram Roston's recent investigation in The Nation showed, so much US funding is already finding its way into Taliban hands that spending another $500 million will only amplify that epic fraud.)

Indeed, the $500 million Taliban buyout plan reminds me a lot of historian Andrew Bacevich's recent critique of Obama's Af-Pak policy—namely, that it altogether lacks any kind of imagination or rethinking of the task at hand; that US foreign policy all-too-frequently recycles the same officials toting the same tired ideas, i.e., the surge in Iraq and then in Afghanistan, and now the Awakening in Iraq and the Taliban trust fund. Obama's national security brain trust, Bacevich adriotly argued, is "unable to conceive of a basis for national security policy that does not involve the increased commitment of American military resources."

Which certainly dovetails with Karzai's belief that foreign forces will be needed in Afghanistan for another 10 to 15 years. With each day, the president's 2011 deadline for beginning withdrawal from Afghanistan resembles nothing more than smoke and mirrors; in reality, the US will be in Afghanistan training the Air Force or funding contractors or flying our drones for decades to come. In this context, Karzai's 15-year estimate looks rather modest, and today's conference in London is further confirmation (if you needed any) that the long haul of the Af-Pak war is just beginning.

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