Mojo - July 2010

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for July 27, 2010

Tue Jul. 27, 2010 2:57 AM EDT

 

US Army Spc. Russell Altman, with Provincial Reconstruction Team Kapisa, mans a M240B machine gun atop a Military All-Terrain Vehicle just outside the Alasay District Center in Afghanistan. Photo via the US Amry by Tech. Sgt. Joe Laws.

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Afghanistan's Other War: Army vs. Police

| Mon Jul. 26, 2010 5:05 PM EDT

Reading through the trove of documents released by WikiLeaks Sunday, one could come away with the impression that members of Afghanistan's discipline-challenged security forces spend more time fighting each other than they do the Taliban. Among the 92,000 documents released by the group are dozens of reports detailing so-called "green-on-green" incidents, the military's term for friendly fire episodes involving Afghan personnel. Here the phrase "friendly fire" (what the US military dubs "blue-on-blue" when it involves American or coalition service members) is a bit misleading. While some reported green-on-greens involved accidental shootings—like when a trio of police officers were engaging in "horseplay" and shot an official from Afghanistan's National Security Directorate and another man—many are the result of score-settling and disputes, occasionally drug-fueled, that turn violent. Many of these internecine conflicts pit members of the Afghan National Army (ANA) against the Afghan National Police (ANP). If even remotely representative of the professionalism of the ANA and ANP, these incident reports make Hamid Karzai's goal of taking over primary control of security by 2014 seem like a pipe dream—and seriously call into question whether the Obama administration can deliver on its strategy. What follows are some lowlights (spelling mistakes, etc. in the originals): 

In this episode last November US military personnel—who surely have more important things to do—were forced step in as peacemakers when an altercation between the ANA and ANP turned violent:

ANA [Afghan National Army] and ANP [Afghan National Police] get into a verbal engagement, and the ANP shot the ANA in the Chest.

…ANA are trying to mass on the old bridge however we have elements on the ground… holding both ANP and ANA back.

But right now there is tension b/w ANA and ANP

ANA died of wounds.

You know what they say about drugs making you paranoid. Circa February 2008:

At 1747Z, TF Helmand reported 1x ANP was in the public shower smoking hash. 2 ANA walked in, the ANP felt threatened and a fire fight occurred. The ANP fled the scene and was later shot.

Is Tom Perriello Cooked?

| Mon Jul. 26, 2010 1:35 PM EDT

The media love Rep. Tom Perriello (D-Va.). The freshman congressman is an interesting guy—a Democrat from a red district who often (okay, sometimes—he's pro-gun rights, for example) votes like he's from a blue district. Perriello's bold (or reckless) strategy has earned him countless mentions in national magazines and newspapers—including a New Yorker profile. Why is the press so fascinated by a relatively unimportant congressman from rural Virginia? The Yale Alumni Magazine's headline (Perriello has two Yale degrees—and now, apparently, a cover story to go with them) probably summed it up best: "Is Tom Perriello a new kind of congressman? Or just the kind who doesn’t get reelected?" 

According to a new poll, the answer may be the latter. Survey USA (one of the most accurate pollsters, according to polling guru Nate Silver's rankings) shows Perriello trailing his GOP opponent, state senator Robert Hurt, 58-35. If those numbers are even close to right, Perriello's goose is cooked. James L. at Swing State Project sees a glimmer of hope for Perriello in the SUSA poll's internals:

[L]et's first compare this poll to SUSA's final poll of this race from 2008. In that one, SUSA's likely voter universe was 40% Democratic and 38% Republican. This time, it's 42% Republican and 27% Democratic. In 2008, SUSA pegged the electorate as 22% black—this time, just 13%. Furthermore, African-American voters give 27% of their votes to Hurt in this poll, a significantly higher share than the 13% given to [Virgil] Goode [the Republican who Periello beat in 2008]. Young voters, too, have completely flipped against Perriello; Hurt racks up a 62-30 lead among 18-to-34 year-olds after Perriello rocked Goode among those voters by a 61-34 margin two years ago. 

Back in February, a Public Policy Polling poll found Perriello and Hurt much closer, at 44 each. Who's right? It's hard to tell, but Perriello is a relatively liberal freshman in a red district—exactly the kind of congressman the Republicans should be able to beat in a GOP year. If he hangs on in November, it'll be a sign that the Dems' night might not be as bad as everyone expects. If he gets as badly crushed as the SUSA poll suggests he could, well, hold on to your hats.

Leaving Iraq

| Mon Jul. 26, 2010 12:49 PM EDT

If you don't follow the Boston Globe's Big Picture blog, you should. The blog compiles the best wire photos on given subjects into powerful, evocative photo essays, with big, high-quality images. Every month, you can see the latest scenes from the Afghanistan war, for example.

Last week, the Big Picture published a series of recent photos from Iraq—the foreground fight that has moved to the background of the media's consciousness. Many of the images are striking, but I was particularly drawn to a relatively peaceful shot (by Getty's Ahmad al-Rubaye) of acres and acres of military vehicles, sitting idle in Baghdad's Camp Victory. As the photo's caption notes, all of those vehicles have to be either "taken home, sent to Afghanistan, or destroyed, two months ahead of a deadline that will serve as a precursor for a complete US military pullout from Iraq."

In 2007, Mother Jones devoted an issue to how, exactly, the US could get out of Iraq. The whole package is here; but of particular interest is this graphic on what it takes to get a tank unit home from Iraq and this summary of what sorts of stuff we're going to leave behind when we go. Even when combat troops "leave," there will still be a sizeable American contingent left behind—the beginning of what could end up being a permanent presence

So while today's news focuses on Wikileaks' Afghanistan documents, please remember that there's still a lot we have to work out with the other war we're fighting, too—even if John McCain says the war's "already won."

Ground Truth from Afghanistan

| Mon Jul. 26, 2010 12:36 PM EDT

Afghanistan is truly an under-reported war—and, more important, an under-discussed and under-debated war. Last week, for instance, Andrew Breitbart must have received a thousand times the ink and hits that the war did, and even he might think that wasn't right. This conflict is costing the nation about $100 billion a year, at a time when our federal budget is under great pressure. The loss of American lives in Afghanistan has been increasing. Civilian casualties have created resentment against US and NATO forces. The US military and civilian agencies are involved in a tremendously complicated endeavor in a land very few Americans know anything about, and US success depends on collaborating with Afghan political and security institutions that are often inept and plagued with corruption. Yet this war receives little air-time in the United States. There is the occasional hearing on Capitol Hill, but no rousing debates. The media and public pay attention in spurts—such as when President Barack Obama conducted a review that led to increasing the number of US troops in Afghanistan, or when Gen. Stanley McChyrstal and his staff dumped on the White House while talking to a Rolling Stone freelancer. Yet these short bursts come and go—while the war slogs on, with much of the United States remaining detached from and ignorant of what is happening day to day in their name, with their tax dollars, in Afghanistan.

So when Wikileaks posts 92,000 classified US military reports detailing assorted aspects of the war, it is disheartening to see bloggers and commentators dismiss this document dump as not much that's new. In a post headlined "Underwhelmed by Wikileaks," Tom Ricks writes,

A huge leak of U.S. reports and this  is all they get? I know of more stuff leaked at one good dinner on background.

The "this" he referred to was a New York Times story based on these documents that reported that that Americans fighting the war in Afghanistan have long suspected Pakistan's intelligence service of secretly helping the Afghan insurgency. And Ricks cites a dismissive posting by Mother Jones' Adam Weinstein: "I mean, when Mother Jones yawns,  that's an indication that you might not have the Pentagon Papers on your hands." The Center for New American Security's Andrew Axum (a.k.a. Abu Muqawama) took a similarly sarcastic view, noting last night when the story broke: "I'm going to bed, but if I were to stay up late reading more, here is what I suspect I would discover: 1. Afghanistan has four syllables. 2. LeBron is going to the Heat..." Andrew Sullivan writes, "What do we really learn from the Wikileaks monster-doc-dump? I think the actual answer is: not much that we didn't already know." But Sullivan does concede that this material is "rivetingly explicit" and "confirmation of what anyone with eyes and ears could have told you for years." The Economist blogged,"while this unvarnished heap of military intelligence adds a lot of colour to our understanding of the war in Afghanistan, the first headlines to have come streaming from the mess of it tell us little that we did not know already."

Why 2010's Most Formidable Hispanic Candidates Are Republicans

| Mon Jul. 26, 2010 12:00 PM EDT

While Republicans have risked alienating Hispanic voters even further by supporting Arizona's harsh new immigration law, the GOP has managed to recruit a better, more prominent crop of Hispanic candidates than the Democratic Party this year. Slate has a good overview of the Hispanic GOP candidates in top-tier races, leading off with Susana Martinez, the Republican gubernatorial contender in New Mexico whose right-wing views include a hard-line stance against illegal immigrants. If Martinez prevails, Democrats should be quaking in their boots, writes Molly Ball:

If she wins in November, she will be the first female Hispanic governor in U.S. history—and an instant national GOP spokeswoman…In addition to Martinez, who currently leads in the polls and has been endorsed by Sarah Palin, there's Marco Rubio, the Tea Party favorite who drove Gov. Charlie Crist out of the Republican primary for U.S. Senate in Florida, and Brian Sandoval, a former judge who holds a big lead in the Nevada gubernatorial race. Sure, that's only three candidates. But in the 74 elections this year for governor or U.S. Senate—not all of them competitive—there are no Democratic Hispanic nominees. "Republicans have done a great job of recruiting Hispanic candidates," one Democratic strategist told me. "They are giving us a big wakeup call this year."

The GOP's Hispanic candidates won't necessarily be an immediate draw for Hispanic voters, given the group's overwhelming support for Obama and the Democrats in 2008. But it could certainly help the Republican Party seem more diverse and inclusive in what's shaping up to be a banner year for minority GOP candidates. We already know that Nikki Haley will almost certainly become South Carolina's first Indian-American governor, while Tim Scott, the black GOP candidate for Congress in South Carolina's 1st district, stands a great chance of becoming the first black Republican in Congress since former Rep. J.C. Watts retired in 2003.

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On Charlie Rangel

| Mon Jul. 26, 2010 12:00 PM EDT

As the storm clouds continue to gather around Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y), who's still pursuing what his colleagues call a "futile effort at total vindication," I'd like to remind readers that this blog called for the "ethically challenged" congressman to take a hike way back in December, 2008. As Barack Obama likes to say, the arc of the moral universe is long... but it bends towards justice.

Liberals for Palin in 2012

| Mon Jul. 26, 2010 11:09 AM EDT

At the Netroots Nation conference in Las Vegas last week, the liberals and Democrats gathered for this annual tech-centric event were polled on a range of issues, including which GOP candidate they want to take on Obama in the 2012 presidential election. Their answer? "Mama grizzly" Sarah Palin, by a landslide.

Talking Points Memo, which snagged an early version of the Netroots straw poll results, reports that 48 percent of those polled want the ex-Alaska governor and former vice presidential nominee to win the Republican nomination in 2012. Libertarian figurehead Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) came in a distant second, with 11 percent. Filling out the rest of the pack were former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum (11 percent), 2008 GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney (9 percent), Newt Gingrich (8 percent), and Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty (7 percent).

The takeaway here is obvious: Liberals want wacky, fringe candidates—or in Santorum's case, candidates with horrendous image problems—so as to clear the way for four more years of Obama.

More from TPM on the straw poll:

A fascinating result within the poll is what the frustrated netroots want Obama to focus on next. They overwhelmingly (74 percent) answered "improve jobs situation" when asked what should be the "highest priority" for Obama and Congress. Far runners up were "finish Afghanistan" with 8 percent, immigration reform with 7 percent, repealing Don't Ask, Don't Tell with 6 percent, drawing down troops from Iraq with 3 percent and reduce deficit with 3 percent. (See Obama's surprise message to the convention here.)

The group also—by 69 percent—said health care reform was Obama's "top accomplishment." That was followed by his economic recovery plan with 13 percent, improving the U.S. image abroad with 7 percent, extending unemployment benefits with 5 percent, Wall Street reform with 3 percent, moving toward the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell with 2 percent and a new Afghanistan strategy with 1 percent.

The majority of respondents think Obama is handling his job as commander-in-chief well, with 32 percent saying they "strongly approve" and 51 percent saying they "somewhat approve." On the disapproval side, 13 percent disapprove somewhat, and 4 percent strongly disapprove.

How to Judge Wikileaks' Latest

| Mon Jul. 26, 2010 10:48 AM EDT

Mother Jones has full team coverage of the Wikileaks' Afghanistan leak that broke Sunday night. Kevin Drum has a good roundup of the mainstream media stories, and a compare-and-contrast of the New York Times and Guardian articles. Senior editor Dave Gilson (who edited our profile of Wikileaks' Julian Assange) focuses on what the leak means for Wikileaks as an organization. And copy editor Adam Weinstein, who served as a contractor in Iraq, does a good job of putting the leak in context:

The intimation by Assange (and the media outlets he cherry-picked to preview the data) is that these are the Pentagon Papers of the Afghan war. Certainly there are a few eyebrow-raising details in the bunch, as Mark Mazzetti, Chris Chivers & Co. at the New York Times point out. But in truth, there's not much there there. I know, because I've seen many of these reports before—at least, thousands of similar ones from Iraq, when I was a contractor there last year.

[M]ost of what you see on WikiLeaks are military SIGACTS (significant activity reports). These are theoretically accessible by anyone in Iraq, Afghanistan, or the Tampa, Florida-based US Central Command—soldiers and contractors—who have access to the military's most basic intranet for sensitive data, the Secret Internet Protocol Router Network (SIPRNet). Literally thousands of people in hundreds of locations could read them, and any one of them could be the source for WikiLeaks' data.

While the coalescing conventional wisdom seems to be that what Wikileaks has released isn't a big deal, it's worth pointing to James Fallows' criteria for judging the leak:

I remember when the Pentagon Papers came out.... The major effect of the Papers was to reveal that for many years officials closest to the action had understood that the war could not really be "won," at least under the real-world political circumstances the U.S. faced. Of course the U.S. could have waged all-out unlimited war, and prevailed—but it wasn't going to do that....

...The argument for bearing down [in Afghanistan] is that the dangers of withdrawal are too great to allow any other option—which of course was also the argument about Vietnam.... If "can we do it?" were no concern, it would obviously be better to keep the Taliban out of power and remove one possible base of Al Qaeda operation. But it's not obvious that the answer to "can we do it?" is yes. Indeed most recent news points the other way.

That's what I'll be looking for in the Wikileaks documents: evidence that the project we're now committed to in Afghanistan could ever have worked, or might still work now.

Sometimes, the absence of information is in itself information. If Fallows doesn't find the evidence he's looking for in 92,000 Wikileaks documents, should we conclude that it doesn't exist? And even if we can find reason for hope in the Wikileaks pages, there may be better ways to spend the blood and treasure it will cost to do whatever we're trying to do in Afghanistan.

Finally, even if the Wikileaks documents yield not a single new piece of information (which I doubt), they've moved the national discussion away from Andrew Breitbart and Journolist and towards actually important subjects. Whatever you may think of Assange and Wikileaks, they deserve our praise and thanks for that. 

 

The Tea Party's Media Lockdown

| Mon Jul. 26, 2010 7:19 AM EDT

Look no further than Shirley Sherrod or Stanley McChrystal to understand why many politicians exclude reporters and news cameras from all but the most choreographed campaign events. But the practice hasn't typically applied to their rank-and-file supporters, unpaid volunteers such as leafletters, block-walkers, and MeetUp group members. At least, not until this year. Unusually tight restrictions on media access imposed by candidates such as Rand Paul of Kentucky and Sharron Angle of Nevada, both tea party Senate hopefuls, are being adopted by their supporters at all levels—even folks outside the official party structure who hand out homemade campaign signs at street fairs and gun shows.

"I think everybody is very worried of being painted in a poor light," Ginny Saville, the organizer of the Lexington Rand/Ron Paul Campaign for Liberty MeetUp group, told me last month. "And that worry isn't just for Rand's campaign; that worry extends all the way down to us. We don't want the entire Liberty effort to be painted as a bunch of gun-totin', bible-bangin', anti-semitic racists—all the things that are pinned on us a lot. And it has been happening really bad lately."

Saville's was the only tea-party-related MeetUp group out of the 13 that I contacted in Kentucky and Nevada that agreed to speak with me over the phone. The others didn't respond or referred me to people who never called back. Even Saville drew the line at a phone chat. "When people see your name and what you have written, I don't think they're gonna be real interested in you tagging along" for campaign activities, she said. "I think everybody is very, very gun-shy of the media right now."

Saville and many other Paul campaigners cut their political teeth working for the 2008 presidential campaign of Paul's father, GOP congressman Ron Paul, whose grassroots machine went to equal but opposite extremes with the press. Believing that Ron Paul and his small-government agenda were being ignored by the mainstream media, his backers blasted off countless press releases and eagerly spoke to me and the few other reporters who gave them ink. They also bypassed the mainstream media altogether by creating a network of independent websites, MoveOn groups, and YouTube channels that became the envy of Washington—and laid much of the groundwork for the tea party protests of 2010.