Tag Archives: Hamid Karzai

Why We Lost the Afghan War (Again)

Image result for Afghanistan ruins

December 11, 2001: Three months after 9/11, two months after George W. Bush ordered bombs to begin raining on Kabul, the day The Village Voice published one of my war reports from the front in Afghanistan.

“We’ve lost this war,” I wrote. To drive my point home, the headline was: “How We Lost Afghanistan.”

I continued: “So how much will it cost?”

Seventeen years later, the end of America’s longest war—since history suggests Afghans will keep killing each other long after our departure, it would be more precise to say the end of America’s involvement in Afghanistan—appears to be drawing near. Peace talks between the Trump Administration and the Taliban in Qatar have culminated with an “agreement on principle” whose main U.S. demand is easy for the Taliban to grant. Afghanistan, the Taliban must assure the U.S. and the Afghan puppet regime in Kabul, cannot again become a “platform for international terrorist groups or individuals.” Even according to estimates by the Obama-era CIA, Al Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan was more of a coincidence than a fearsome terrorist organization: “about 50 to 100 Qaeda operatives.”

They could have fit on one bus. For this we fought a war?

Now we know the pricetag of the invasion and long occupation: 2,400-ish U.S. troops killed, 4,000-ish U.S. “civilian contractors” killed, 59,000-ish Afghan soldiers and police killed, 38,000-ish Afghan civilians killed, 42,000 “enemy” Afghan soldiers killed, 50-ish journalists killed, 400-ish NGO workers killed, 20,000-ish U.S. troops wounded. No one counts the other non-fatal casualties. Obviously the non-U.S. death counts are way lowball.

U.S. taxpayers spent $5 trillionenough to wipe out all outstanding student loans three times over—on bombing and pillaging and torturing Afghans. Wind-down costs, interest on the national debt, etc. will cost more still. Caring for wounded veterans adds another $8 trillion going forward. For that total of $13 trillion you could pay off every debt owed by every American citizen: home mortgages, car loans, credit cards, student loans, everything.

No one estimates the total cost of the buildings and other Afghan infrastructure destroyed by the war.

Of course no one can begin to calculate America’s loss of moral standing in the world. You don’t get to invade the world’s poorest nation, kidnap the locals and torture them in gruesome concentration and death camps, coddle local perverts and child rapists and come out looking half-decent.

Special Forces captain Dan Quinn beat a U.S.-backed Northern Alliance commander he found sexually abusing an Afghan boy chained to his bed on a U.S. military base. “The reason we were here is because we heard the terrible things the Taliban were doing to people, how they were taking away human rights,” Quinn said. “But we were putting people into power [the Northern Alliance] who would do things that were worse than the Taliban did—that was something village elders voiced to me.” Quinn was drummed out of the military.

As I mentioned at the top of this essay, the war was lost before it really began, in 2001.

Anyone who paid attention knew losing was inevitable.

Not many Americans paid attention. 89% of American voters polled in December 2001 approved of the invasion of Afghanistan. Now, 70% disapprove.

So why did we lose?

It’s too facile to say: graveyard of empires. Afghans really did welcome us as liberators in 2001. We had a better shot at success than the Brits and the Russians.

The short answer is: we did both too little and too much.

Too much cash spent, too little reconstruction.

“It would take billions of dollars to even begin rebuilding this country,” an American officer told me for my 2001 Voice piece. “Billions of dollars and many, many years. We don’t have that kind of attention span. Bombing Iraq will be a lot sexier than teaching Afghans how to read.” Afghanistan didn’t have phones, electricity, paved roads, bridges or public records. Streets didn’t have names, houses had no numbers—which was fine since there was no mail. There was no central bank or monetary system. People didn’t know their own last names.

Billions were spent, some of it on rebuilding public infrastructure. “A year ago it took about two days to drive between Kabul and the southern city of Kandahar. Today it takes about five hours on a smoothly tarmacked road paid for by millions of US taxpayers’ dollars,” the BBC reported in 2004.

Problem was, reconstruction money didn’t go to ordinary Afghans or even their towns. The U.S. installed a puppet president, Hamid Karzai, whose corrupt family looted millions, possibly billions, of dollars in cash. The drug trade, suppressed by the Taliban government before the U.S. invasion, exploded. “Private money, a substantial portion of it thought to be from the illegal drugs trade, is also funding a spurt of new building in the cities, but many say they have seen little change, especially in rural areas where most Afghans live, where villages without even basics like running water, power or schools remain the norm,” reported the BBC. By 2010 half of Afghans told pollsters they hadn’t seen any reconstruction whatsoever paid for by foreign aid. It’s just as bad now.

If an Afghan wanted to fix his house after it was damaged by a U.S. drone attack, that was on him.

Too little self-determination.

“The Afghan people have lost faith in the democratic political process, and regardless of the Taliban’s intimidation they have already boycotted the ongoing voter registration throughout the country,” Asia Times reported in 2018. What “democratic” process? Fraud was widespread in presidential and parliamentary elections. “Everyone was cheating in my polling station. Only 10% voted, but they registered 100% turnout. One man brought five books of ballots, each containing 100 votes, and stuffed them in the boxes after the elections were over,” an Afghan voting official said in 2009.

The message that elections can be fixed came straight from the self-declared crusaders of electoral democracy. In November 2001 while the initial invasion was still underway the U.S. staged a farcical political conference in Bonn, Germany where the Bush Administration attempted to foist the exiled king Zahir Shah, an 87-year-old exiled in Italy since the early 1970s, on the Afghans as a weak English-style constitutional monarch. Ironically, the Afghans present liked the idea—then the Americans pushed him out of the way to make room for Karzai.

The message was clear: American-style democracy is BS.

P.S. Afghanistan, it turns out, has vast mineral wealth worth more than $1 trillion. China has locked up the rights to exploit those reserves.

(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall), the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, is the author of “Francis: The People’s Pope.” You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)

 

SYNDICATED COLUMN: Torture is an All-American Value

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Dianne Feinstein, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee and long-time-until-recently NSA apologist, claims to be shocked by an internal CIA report that documents the agency’s grisly record of torture after 9/11. “The report exposes brutality that stands in stark contrast to our values as a nation,” Feinstein said April 3rd. “It chronicles a stain on our history that must never again be allowed to happen.”

Among the “stunning revelations” that have leaked out of the still-classified 6,600-page CIA torture report are stories that long-time followers of my writing have long been aware of, having read about them in my column during the Bush years. Guantánamo isn’t just a concentration camp; it’s also a CIA “black site”/torture dungeon, as was a joint US-UK “extraordinary rendition” depot on the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia. The CIA outsourced torture to Third World shitholes/U.S. allies, knowing/expecting/hoping that they would be murdered.

Disgusting stuff. For sure. Yet there’s something even more nauseating — and infinitely more dangerous — than a country that tortures:

A nation in denial about its true values.

Feinstein speaks for most Americans when she characterizes War on Terror-related torture as an aberration. But she’s mistaken. Conventional wisdom is wrong.

Torture is as American as red, white and blue.

Like the citizens of Nazi-occupied Europe during World War II who had a pretty good idea that those eastbound trains were a one-way ticket to hell, Americans have known since the beginning of the War on Terror that their government was going to torture, was torturing and had tortured. It is still torturing today. Yet hardly anyone complains.

Five days after 9/11, on September 16, 2001, Dick Cheney told Tim Russert on “Meet the Press”: “We also have to work, though, sort of the dark side, if you will. We’ve got to spend time in the shadows in the intelligence world. A lot of what needs to be done here will have to be done quietly, without any discussion, using sources and methods that are available to our intelligence agencies, if we’re going to be successful. That’s the world these folks operate in, and so it’s going to be vital for us to use any means at our disposal, basically, to achieve our objective.”

At the time, everyone knew what that meant.

The Vice President of the United States, speaking on behalf of the President, had announced to the world that the gloves were off, that the “quaint” Geneva Conventions were history. That the U.S. would torture.

Had Cheney’s endorsement of “brutality” been “in stark contrast to our values as a nation,” as Feinstein puts it, there would have been political blowback. Imagine if the president of, say, Sweden, had said the same thing. The dude would’ve been out of a job.

Au contraire — Cheney’s siren call to the “dark side” drew mainstream political approval, even from self-identified “liberals” in the corporate media.

In October and November of 2001, Newsweek‘s Jonathan Alter, FoxNews’ Shepard Smith (usually the network’s calm voice of reason), and CNN’s Tucker Carlson jumped on the torture bandwagon. All three reporter-pundits called torture a necessary, lesser evil in the fight against Islamist terrorists. Carlson (he’s the one with the bowtie): “Torture is bad. Keep in mind, some things are worse. And under certain circumstances, it may be the lesser of two evils. Because some evils are pretty evil.”

“Mr. Alter said he was surprised that his column did not provoke a significant flood of e-mail messages or letters,” reported The New York Times. “And perhaps even more surprising, he said, was that he had been approached by ‘people who might be described as being on the left whispering, I agree with you.'” (Or, more precisely, by people who were formerly on the left.)

If torture were repugnant to Americans, Cheney — and his pet pundits like Alter — would have met with a firestorm of criticism. They would have been fired. They were not.

By January 2002, the United States had defeated the Taliban and installed Hamid Karzai as the leader of a U.S. puppet regime in Afghanistan. Still, public tolerance/approval of torture continued. A famous legal scholar, Alan Dershowitz, published an op/ed calling for the creation of “torture warrants”: “The warrant would limit the torture to nonlethal means, such as sterile needles, being inserted beneath the nails to cause excruciating pain without endangering life.”

These are the words of a madman.

By objective standards, if the U.S. were a nation where torture stood “in stark contrast to our values,” Dershowitz would have been shouted down and ridiculed. It would be hard to imagine Harvard Law — Harvard Law! — keeping such a raging nut on its payroll. But they did.

Because torture is not at against our values. Not in the least.

Dick Cheney: not forced to resign.

Jonathan Alter, Shepard Smith, Tucker Carlson: all still legit, all still capable of landing big book deals and big speaking fees. They run in circles where real lefties like me — who bitched about CIA torture and kidnapping in countless cartoons and columns — are blackballed.

Which makes perfect sense. Because Americans love torture. A dozen and a half years after 9/11, 68% of Americans still tell pollsters — even though it’s been proven ineffectual — that torture is A-OK.

A polarized nation? When it comes to anally raping young men with flashlights and broomsticks — that happened at Gitmo and the U.S.-run Bagram torture center, and may be continuing — we’re still United, We Stand.

So when newly-minted President Barack Obama told Americans in 2009 that he planned to “look forward, not back“— i.e., not holding anyone accountable for Bush-era torture — and visited Langley to assure nervous torturers that they could chillax, no one cared.

When government-sanctioned torture continued under Obama, no one cared.

Even when Americans rose up in 2011 to protest their government, as part of the Occupy Wall Street movement, torture was less than an afterthought on the activists’ menu of complaints.

American “progressives” don’t care either. There has never been a mass demonstration against torture. (Well, not in the U.S. There have been big marches in Egypt and Bahrain.)

Torture against American values? Hardly. From American troops who mutilated the genitals of Native Americans to waterboarding Filipino independence fighters in the early 20th century to organized rape gangs in Vietnam, torture has been all-American.

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SYNDICATED COLUMN: She Killed Afghans and Iraqis. Now She’s a Peace Child.

Susan Collins and the Precautionary Principle

Susan Collins is a U.S. senator. She is a Republican. She represents the people of Maine.

Senator Collins gets a lot of big things very wrong. Lots of people die because of Senator Collins.

She voted for the invasion of Iraq.

She voted for the invasion of Afghanistan.

Lots of people are dead. Because of her.

In 2007, four years into the Iraq War, when at least 100,000 Iraqis had been killed and the hunt for Saddam’s nonexistent weapons of mass destruction had been called off, Senator Collins nonetheless voted to extend the war.

She had another chance in 2008. Voted the same way. More deaths followed.

Late last year, one or two million dead civilians later, most U.S. occupation troops finally pulled out of Iraq. Remember the main argument for staying there, that we were fighting “them” over “there” to avoid having to fight them in the streets of American cities? It’s only been a few months, and anything can happen, but no one—not even Republicans like Senator Collins—seems worried about hordes of Iraqi jihadis rampaging through Baltimore. Obviously they were wrong.

The danger was false. Thus the war was unjustified.

What happens to Senator Collins after signing off on the mass murder of more than a million innocent people? Nothing. She’s planning a wedding.

Now she’s backing away from her other war.

“Despite the extraordinary heroism of our troops and the brilliance of our military leaders,” she wrote in a March 13th letter, “one has to wonder whether the corrupt central government [of Hamid Karzai] and with the history of Afghanistan, whether we can truly achieve the goal of a secure country.” The letter called for a speedier withdrawal than President Obama has announced.

Finally. Right about something.

Intelligence is the best wedding present ever!

Too bad it comes a decade late for the peoples of Afghanistan and Iraq. Who should, at bare minimum, enjoy the satisfaction of putting Senator Susan Collins (and those like her) on trial for waging wars of aggression and genocide.

Why am I picking on Collins? If there’s anything more appalling than unleashing death upon the innocent, recasting yourself as a “moderate” after your war sours in the polls is a major contender.

Back in 2001, when she cast votes in favor of dropping cluster bombs, full of brightly colored canisters designed to attract and blow up curious Afghan girls and boys, by the thousands and thousands, Senator Collins had a choice.

She could have listened to the experts. People who had been to Afghanistan. People on the Left.

There are two kinds of foreign policy analysts in the U.S. The right-wingers get interviewed and appointed to blue-ribbon presidential committees and are invariably wrong. The lefties, who more often than not turn out to be correct, get ignored.

After 9/11 the Left was against invading Afghanistan. (The Left doesn’t include Democrats, who were so disgustingly eager to be seen as “tough” on terrorism that they willingly went along with a war against a nation that had nothing to do with the attacks.)

No one likes invaders, but leftist analysts pointed out that Afghanistan’s history of slaughtering invading armies was unparalleled. U.S. forces, we warned, would face the usual Afghan reception. First the fighters would vanish into the population or into the mountains. They’d study us. Then they’d start picking us off two or three at a time. It’s what they did to the English (three times) and the Russians (once). We’d win every battle but it wouldn’t matter. They’d bleed us of young men and young women and political will.

Senator Collins could have read our essays and our books. If she did read them, she could have taken heed. She decided not to.

And so many people died.

After the Taliban were driven into the mountains and/or melted into the population, Republicans like Senator Collins thought they’d been vindicated. The Taliban are not really gone, we on the Left said. They’re just waiting. We’d been vindicated. The Right couldn’t see that. They wouldn’t listen.

Then the U.S. installed Hamid Karzai.

Those of us on the Left, who had actually been to Afghanistan and talked to actual Afghans, warned that Karzai had no political base. That his regime was hopelessly corrupt. That he was putting warlords, who ought to have been in prison for crimes they committed during the civil war, into positions of power and influence. That his government was universally despised.

We said that stuff ten years ago. So it’s a little galling to hear warmongers like Susan Collins talk about Karzai’s corruption and Afghanistan’s unique history. As if she were reporting information that came to light recently.

Senator Collins violated the precautionary principle—a precept enshrined in the law of various countries, including in Europe. A politician who proposes an action that might cause harm is obligated to present concrete evidence that it won’t cause harm. If she fails to meet that burden of proof, the proposal is rejected.

In the case of Collins and the other Republican and Democratic legislators, as well as the pundits and journalists who enabled them, all the evidence they needed that the wars against Afghanistan and Iraq would do more harm than good was as close as their computer or nearest bookstore.

Susan Collins ought to cancel the wedding and surrender at The Hague.

Failing that, the least she could do is shut up.

(Ted Rall’s next book is “The Book of Obama: How We Went From Hope and Change to the Age of Revolt,” out May 22. His website is tedrall.com.)

AL JAZEERA COLUMN: Libya: The triumphalism of the US media

Obama and the US media are taking credit for Gaddafi’s downfall, but it was the Libyan fighters who won the war.

The fall of Moammar Gaddafi was a Libyan story first and foremost. Libyans fought, killed and died to end the Colonel’s 42-year reign.

No doubt, the U.S. and its NATO proxies tipped the military balance in favor of the Benghazi-based rebels. It’s hard for any government to defend itself when denied the use of its own airspace as enemy missiles and bombs blast away its infrastructure over the course of more than 20,000 sorties.

Still, it was Libyans who took the biggest risks and paid the highest price. They deserve the credit. From a foreign policy standpoint, it behooves the West to give it to them. Consider a parallel, the fall 2001 bombing campaign against the Taliban. With fewer than a thousand Special Forces troops on the ground in Afghanistan to bribe tribal leaders and guide bombs to their targets, the U.S. military and CIA relied exclusively on air power to allow the Northern Alliance to advance. The premature announcement that major combat operations had ceased, followed by the installation of Hamid Karzai as de facto president—a man widely seen as a U.S. figurehead—set the stage for what would eventually become America’s longest war.

As did the triumphalism of the U.S. media, who treated the “defeat” (more like the dispersing) of the Taliban as Bush’s victory. The Northern Alliance was a mere afterthought, condescended to at every turn by the punditocracy. To paraphrase Bush’s defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, the U.S. went to war with the ally it had, not the one it would have liked to have had. America’s attitude toward Karzai and his government reflected that in many ways: snipes and insults, including the suggestion that the Afghan leader was mentally ill and ought to be replaced, as well as years of funding levels too low to meet payroll and other basic needs, thus limiting its power to metro Kabul and a few other major cities. In retrospect it would have been smarter for the U.S. to have graciously credited (and funded) the Northern Alliance with its defeat over the Taliban, content to remain the power behind the throne.

Despite this experience in Afghanistan “victory” in Libya has prompted a renewal of triumphalism in the U.S. media.

Like a slightly drunken crowd at a football match giddily shouting “U-S-A,” editors and producers keep thumping their chests long after it stops being attractive.

When Obama announced the anti-Gaddafi bombing campaign in March, Stephen Walt issued a relatively safe pair of predictions. “If Gaddafi is soon ousted and the rebel forces can establish a reasonably stable order there, then this operation will be judged a success and it will be high-fives all around,” Walt wrote in Foreign Policy. “If a prolonged stalemate occurs, if civilian casualties soar, if the coalition splinters, or if a post-Gaddafi Libya proves to be unstable, violent, or a breeding ground for extremists…his decision will be judged a mistake.”

It’s only been a few days since the fall of Tripoli, but high-fives and victory dances abound.

“Rebel Victory in Libya a Vindication for Obama,” screamed the headline in U.S. News & World Report.

Read the full article at Al Jazeera English.

AL JAZEERA COLUMN: The US’ War of Words Against Syria

The US war of words against Syria is marred by hypocrisy and a lack of realism.

You’d need a team of linguists to tease out the internal contradictions, brazen hypocrisies and verbal contortions in President Barack Obama’s call for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to relinquish power.

“The future of Syria must be determined by its people, but…”

The “but” belies the preceding phrase—particularly since its speaker controls the ability and possible willingness to enforce his desires at the point of a depleted uranium warhead.

“The future of Syria must be determined by its people, but President Bashar al-Assad is standing in their way. His calls for dialogue and reform have rung hollow while he is imprisoning, torturing and slaughtering his own people,” Obama continued. One might say the same thing of Obama’s own calls for dialogue and reform in Iraq and Afghanistan. Except, perhaps, for the fact that the Iraqis and Afghans being killed are not Obama’s “own people”. As you no doubt remember from Bush’s statements about Saddam Hussein, American leaders keep returning to that phrase: “killing his own people”.

Now the Euros are doing it. “Our three countries believe that President Assad, who is resorting to brutal military force against his own people and who is responsible for the situation, has lost all legitimacy and can no longer claim to lead the country,” British Prime Minister David Cameron, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in a joint statement.

If you think about this phrase, it doesn’t make sense. Who are “your” own people? Was Hitler exempt because he didn’t consider his victims to be “his” people? Surely Saddam shed few tears for those gassed Kurds. Anyway, it must have focus-grouped well back in 2002.

“We have consistently said that President Assad must lead a democratic transition or get out of the way,” Obama went on. “He has not led. For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside.” Here is US foreign policy summed up in 39 words: demanding the improbable and the impossible, followed by the arrogant presumption that the president of the United States has the right to demand regime change in a nation other than the United States.

Read the full article at Al Jazeera English.

AL JAZEERA COLUMN: The US Love Affair with Drones

A War Strategy Built Around Drone Attacks Is Not Only Unethical, But Will Hurt US Interests in the Long Run.

One of the pleasures of traveling through the developing world is that things develop. They change. There’s always something new.

Afghanistan is, depending on one’s point of view, developing, deteriorating, or doing both at once.

Example: Last August found me and two fellow Americans in a hired taxi zooming past bombed-out fuel trucks through Taliban-held Kunduz, a city in northern Afghanistan near the Tajik border. The sense of menace was palpable, but our driver seemed calm.

Then his face darkened. We were passing into the flatlands east of Mazar-i-Sharif. We saw nothing but dirt, dust and rocks, all the way to the horizon. Yet our driver was nervous. He scanned this bleak landscape. “Motorcycles,” he said. “I am looking for the motorcycles.”

The adaptable neo-Taliban increasingly rely on the classic tactics of guerilla warfare. Rather than hold territory, these postmodern Islamists-cum-gangsters rely on hit-and-run strikes using something I hadn’t seen in 2001: motorcycles. Like a scene from the Kazakh film epic about Genghis Khan updated by Quentin Tarantino, squadrons of bearded bikers are terrorizing Afghanistan’s newly/cheaply paved highways.

I call them the Talibikers.

One of the more intriguing revelations in last year’s WikiLeaks data dump was that the Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence spy agency has been supplying the Taliban with thousands of Pamir dirtbikes, including a 2007 shipment of 1,000 to the Waziristan-based network led by Mawlawi Jalaludin Haqqani. Talibs ride the Pamirs and their preferred brand, the Honda 125 and its Chinese knock-offs, to assassinations. They launch attacks on highways from bases in villages 10 to 15 kilometers away.

The Talibikers speed across the desert in great clouds of dust, “Mad Max” style, to ambush and bomb fuel trucks. There they set up checkpoints where they shakedown travelers for cash. Sometimes they kidnap motorists and demand ransom payments from their families. By the time the hapless Afghan national police shows up, the resistance fighters are long gone.

An early report on the Talibikers appeared in the Telegraph in 2003. “The motorcycles have played a key role in Taliban hit-and-run operations in the south of the country where the campaign against international troops and aid workers has intensified,” the British newspaper reported in November of that year. “In the latest incident, a Frenchwoman working for the United Nations was shot dead this month by the pillion passenger on a motorcycle in the south-eastern town of Ghazni. The Taliban later claimed responsibility for the attack. In another recent attack, a group of motorcyclists opened fire on an aid convoy near Kandahar, killing four Afghans. In August, two motorcyclists threw a grenade into the Kandahar compound of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, damaging the building but causing no injuries.”

ISI-funded motorbikes continue to play a vital role in the Taliban’s war to drive U.S. and NATO occupation troops out of Afghanistan. “Day and night, Taliban assassins on motorbikes hunt their victims, often taunting them over the telephone before gunning them down in the city’s streets,” Paul Watson wrote in The Star, a newspaper in Canada in February 2011. “They are working their way through lists, meticulously killing off people fingered as collaborators with the Afghan government or its foreign backers…The build-up of Afghan police and soldiers, and foreign troops, in and around Kandahar city over recent months has improved security, but agile and coldly efficient motorbike death squads remain active.”

Mass attacks continue as well. “About 100 Taliban fighters on motorcycles attacked a northern Afghan village that was working to join the government-sponsored local police program against the insurgency, killing one villager, police said Wednesday. An ensuing battle also left 17 militants dead,” the Associated Press reported in May 2011.

There are fewer than 10,000 Talibikers in Afghanistan. They could be eliminated—if the U.S. and NATO stopped focusing on assassination-by-drone and instead used the same technology to increase security.

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) date to the maiden flight of the now-familiar Predator drones in 1994. After 9/11 the United States became addicted to the Predator and its successor, the Reaper.

Today the Air Force and CIA have at least 7000 UAVs in service around the world, representing the biggest and most visible presence of the U.S. military in Pakistan, Somalia, Libya, and Yemen. This trend is likely to accelerate. As of March 2011 the U.S. Air Force was training more remote drone “pilots” than those for conventional planes. Next year the Pentagon wants $5 billion just for drones.

Drones are getting smaller and more numerous. “One of the smallest drones in use on the battlefield is the three-foot-long Raven, which troops in Afghanistan toss by hand like a model airplane to peer over the next hill,” according to The New York Times. “There are some 4,800 Ravens in operation in the Army, although plenty get lost.” More on this later.

It’s easy to see why generals and politicians are so enthusiastic. The pilotless planes, guided by operators manning a joystick at military and pseudomilitary agencies such as CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia and armed by Xe, the private contractor formerly called Blackwater, are relatively cheap. A Predator costs $4.5 million; an F-22 Raptor fighter jet runs $150 million a unit. Peter Singer, director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative at the Brookings Institution, cites the “three Ds.” Drones are “dull” because they can patrol empty stretches of barren land 24 hours a day. They’re “dirty” because they can fly in and out of toxic clouds, including radiation. Most appealingly, they are “dangerous” because the absence of a pilot eliminates the risk that a pilot—they cost millions to train–will be killed or captured by enemy forces. UAVs exploit the element of surprise: though relatively unobtrusive, they fire supersonic armor-piercing Hellfire missiles capable of striking a target as far as five miles away.

“People who have seen an air strike live on a monitor described it as both awe-inspiring and horrifying,” The New Yorker magazine reported in 2009. “‘You could see these little figures scurrying, and the explosion going off, and when the smoke cleared there was just rubble and charred stuff,’ a former C.I.A. officer who was based in Afghanistan after September 11th says of one attack. (He watched the carnage on a small monitor in the field.) [Bleeding] human beings running for cover are such a common sight that they have inspired a slang term: ‘squirters.'”

Charming.

According to the Pentagon, drones hit their targets with 95 percent accuracy. The problematic question is: who are their targets?

Thousands of people have been rubbed out by drones since 9/11.

(Press accounts document between 1400 and 2300 extrajudicial killings by allied forces, mostly in the Tribal Areas adjacent to Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province. According to media reports cited by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, at least 957 Pakistanis were murdered by American drones in 134 airstrikes during the year 2010 alone. Since the media only learns about a fraction of these “secret” killings, the real number must be many times higher.)

Since the Pakistani government does not officially acknowledge, much less authorize, such attacks, they are illegal acts of war.

Political philosopher Michael Walzer asked in 2009: “Under what code does the CIA operate? I don’t know. There should be a limited, finite group of people who are targets, and that list should be publicly defensible and available. Instead, it’s not being publicly defended. People are being killed, and we generally require some public justification when we go about killing people.”

One would think.

Legal or not, Christine Fair of Georgetown University says the U.S. doesn’t use drone planes indiscriminately: “You have lawyers, you have targeteers, you have intelligence operatives, you actually have pilots who are manning the drones. These are not 14-year-old kids right out of basic training, playing around with a joystick,” she told National Public Radio.

In the real world, it’s often hard to tell the difference. There’s no doubt that drone operators make mistakes. In April 2011, for example, two American marines were killed by a Predator in Afghanistan.

Of course, the majority of victims are local civilians. In Afghanistan and Pakistan drone strikes have killed countless children and wiped out so many wedding parties that it’s become a sick joke. Estimates of the civilian casualty rate range from a third (by the New America Foundation) to 98 percent (terrorism expert Amir Mir). There is no evidence that a single “terrorist” has ever been killed by a drone—only the say-so of U.S. and NATO spokesmen.

Errors are inherent due to the principal feature of the technology: remoteness. Manned aerial warfare is notoriously inaccurate; pilots zooming close to the speed of sound tens of thousands of feet above the ground have little idea who or what they’re shooting at. Drone operators have even less information than old-school pilots. Like a submariner peering out of a periscope, they are supposed to decide whether people live or die based on fuzzy images through layers of glass. They call it the “soda straw.”

Nowadays, staffing is a troubling challenge: it takes 19 analysts to study images and other data from one drone. In the future, a war could eliminate unemployment entirely: it will take approximately 2000 men and women to process information from one drone equipped with “Gorgon stare” optics capable of scanning an entire city at once.

There’s also a huge gap in education, experience and culture. Virtual warriors require simple rules that don’t apply when trying to kill jihadis. At the beginning of the U.S. war against Afghanistan in 2001, for example, it was an article of faith within the Pentagon that men wearing black long-tailed turbans were Talibs. Dozens, possibly hundreds, of noncombatants were killed because of this incorrect assumption. In February 2002 a drone operator blew up a man because he was tall—as was Osama bin Laden. In fact, he and two other men killed were poor villagers gathering scrap metal. Again, this doesn’t address the broader issue of whether it’s OK to murder people simply because they are members of the Taliban.

At least as interesting as the choice of target is whom the U.S. does not try to kill: the Talibikers.

Unlike the wedding parties, houses and tribal councils that have been mistakenly incinerated by the aptly-named Hellfire missiles, Taliban bike gangs are easy to identify from the air. One or two hundred dirtbikes speeding across the desert toward a truck on an Afghan highway are unmistakable. Most Afghans, even those who oppose the U.S. occupation, fear the Talibikers and resent being robbed at impromptu checkpoints. There have been a few scattershot drone strikes, nothing more. Why don’t the CIA whiz kids make these easily identified fighters a primary target?

I posed the question to Afghan government officials. They told me that the same U.S. military that blows $1 billion a week on the war won’t lift a finger to save Afghan lives by providing basic security. “Afghan lives are worth nothing to the Americans,” a provincial governor told me.

Last week the United Nations announced that civilian casualties were up 15 percent during the first six months of 2011. If the same rate continues, this will be the worst year of the ten-year-long American occupation.

A well-placed U.S. military source confirms that Afghan security “isn’t a priority, it isn’t even much of a passing thought.” Contrary to President Obama’s claim that U.S. is in Afghanistan in order to prevent the country from becoming a base for Al Qaeda and other extremist groups and to combat opium cultivation, he says that Afghanistan isn’t about Afghanistan at all. “Afghanistan is a staging area for drone and other aerial strikes in western Pakistan,” he says. “Nothing more, nothing less. Afghanistan is Bagram [airbase].”

Under Obama the death toll has risen, worsening relations between the White House and its puppet president, Hamid Karzai. Beyond the horror of the deaths themselves, it would be impossible to overstate the contempt that ordinary people in nations like Afghanistan and Pakistan feel for the drone program. “Americans are cowards” was one refrain I heard last year. Real soldiers risk their lives. They do not send buzzing machines to kill people half a world away…people they know nothing about.

Back in 2002, former CIA general counsel Jeffrey Smith worried about blowback. “If [Taliban leaders and soldiers are] dead, they’re not talking to you, and you create more martyrs,” he noted. Ongoing drone attacks “suggest that it’s acceptable behavior to assassinate people…Assassination as a norm of international conduct exposes American leaders and Americans overseas.”

These days, the media gives little to no time or space to such concerns. Americans have moved into postmorality. Right or wrong? Who cares?

Recently international law professor Mary Ellen O’Connell of Notre Dame University said that the new reliance on drones could prompt an already militaristic superpower to fight even more wars of choice. “I think this idea that somehow this technology is allowing us to kill in more places and…aim at more targets is for me the fundamental ethical and legal problem.”

Meanwhile, adds Mary Dudziak of the University of Southern California’s Gould School of Law: “Drones are a technological step that further isolates the American people from military action, undermining political checks on…endless war.” No casualties? No problem.

Meanwhile, at a “microaviary” inside an air force base north of Dayton, Ohio, “military researchers are at work on another revolution in the air: shrinking unmanned drones, the kind that fire missiles into Pakistan and spy on insurgents in Afghanistan, to the size of insects and birds,” approvingly reports The New York Times.

Ted Rall is an American political cartoonist, columnist and author. His most recent book is The Anti-American Manifesto. His website is rall.com.

Why We Can’t Leave Afghanistan

Osama bin Laden, the reason the Bush Administration went to war against Afghanistan in 2001, is dead. So why can’t we leave?