Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Integrated Justice; It's Just So Convenient!

I have said for some time that the war in Afghanistan is a comic's dream.

Reading today's NYT, the following article jumped out at me like an angry Muppet in a dark alley after a big night on mescaline:

"The new American-run prison outside the capital will hold its first trial of an Afghan detainee next week, American officers said Wednesday.

"The Afghan prisoner, who was not identified, will be tried in an Afghan court, before an Afghan judge, and he will be defended by an Afghan lawyer, officials said. The trial is set for Tuesday.

"Vice Adm. Robert Harward, the commander of American detention operations here, said he was not sure yet if the trial would be open to the public.

"Even so, the trial would be a significant moment in the evolution of the American detention system in Afghanistan. The Parwan Detention Center, which opened last year, succeeded the prison at Bagram, which had earned a grim reputation as a place where Afghans were sometimes abused.

"Particularly in the early years of the war, Afghans captured during military operations were held at Bagram for long periods without being charged, without facing trial and without being able to see either their families or lawyers. The conditions there were widely criticized as abusive. Two Afghans died in custody at Bagram in 2002, leading to criminal charges against several American servicemen."

So let me get this straight:

- After extra-judicial incarceration without charge;
- The 'detainee' will indicted for a crime that s/he wasn't charged; and
- The trial will be held in a prison.

The great thing about this integrated 'ex-poste justice' system is that the detainee never needs to leave prison! How convenient.

This must be the rights-based approach to establishing a kangaroo court.

Of course, the Afghans will really appreciate this 'show of fairness' by the occupying powers because it will be justice dispensed "in an Afghan court, before an Afghan judge,...defended by an Afghan lawyer" in an American-run prison in their occupied country.

Makes perfect sense!

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Mountain Jam: New Age Combatants, Guerrilla Gurus, and Magic Marker Mastery

The great thing about this blog is that no-one reads it! I know that sounds silly, but writing in an electronic space that everyone can access and yet remain aloof at the same time has a sublime appeal. Sure as hell beats Facebook, which has to one of the most insidious and viral of e-phenomenon that the i-generation has vomited up. As I recount the descent of this blog from raging commentary that challenges people's points of view (point of views? points of views?) to the ruminant by-product of an overactive mind, I thought I would share the best two books I have read this year.

First of these is Gerard Prunier's "Africa World War", which has some enlightening passages and disturbing observations of the wilful ignorance of the 'international community'. But, I haven't quite finished thinking through this book, and I need more time to properly digest it. It's deep.

The book that I did finish - in a half-day I might add (which speaks for itself) - is Jon Ronson's "The Men Who Stare at Goats".

Ronson takes the reader on a an amusing discovery of the colourful and kooky characters that the US military spawned in the wake of the Viet Nam War. His primary focus is psychological operations and related metaphysical techniques being researched and developed for adaption to modern warfare. The central premise of the book focuses on Jim Channon, the author and protagonist behind the concept-army known as the "First Earth Battalion" - recently played by Jeff Bridges in the star-studded movie by the same name - and how he stumbled and sought out the innocuous, naive, profligate, and remarkable elements of the New Age movement. Naturally, Channon distilled his discoveries into his own movement! Channon makes for a highly serviceable protagonist for Ronson's literary ends, and Ronson deploys him with calibrated gusto, driving the narrative deeper and deeper into the labyrinthine world of the bizarre, the botched, the overcooked, and the heinous doings of the US, its military, civilian agencies, and the irrepressible imagination of its greatest asset - it's people. The following slide (Channon's hand) encapsulates some of his hero's thinking:

Most of 'Goats' is pretty light-hearted (hilarious in parts - you will find yourself laughing at the most absurd notions that transfixed otherwise very serious men), although several sections, most notably the somewhat tangential section on Frank Olsen and MKULTRA make for a frightening reminder of the telling impunity of the US government and the lengths that private citizens have to go to just to extract an admission that a wrong was commited (in their collective name). Ronson focuses on the First Earth Battalion's Manual, which is a magic-marker odyssey of Channon's stream-of-consciousness reflections on both the times he was in and the people and interactions that were framing his thinking, such as the slide below:

The thing that 'Goats' impressed upon me, especially when reviewed alongside the First Earth Battalion Manual, is the wide berth that people like Channon and his acolytes were given to explore different and obscure fields like New Age movements, meta-physical experimentation (e.g. staring goats to death, remote viewing). I wonder if there were a few arms-length and enlightened people within the US military or civilian-government establishments that realised that within these crackpot and far-out fields there might exist an edge or advantage to gain at a time when anti-Communist paranoia only just outweighed the despair that the war in Viet Nam exacted of America's government and people. Beneath the (and I don't think this is not too strong a word) ludicrous manifestations of this openness to new ideas and new thinking probably lay a cold and calculated desire to understand whether these movements were a threat, whether any of these areas had an underlying science, and what new communication mediums and modes of thinking they employed that might have practical applications which could be adapted to modern warfare technology. What is clearly an inexact science (which I have discussed before) is presented by Ronson as a harbinger to more sinister developments in modern warfare; this really is the only potential hypothesis that Ronson posits. For instance, Ronson notes a precursor to the internet came about in the 80s being developed by some of Channon's devotees/admirers (?), and he asserts that certain developments in psychological warfare and interrogation methods were influenced by findings and recommendations attributable to the First Earth Battalion learning and practices. It's instrictive to bear in mind that the First Earth Battalion Manual was collated and written in the late seventies, just as the full horror of the Viet Nam was coursing through the American military establishment.

Anyway. The book is at least as amusing as the movie, definitely as tangential and slow in passages, besides being wonderfully creative non-fiction in a mercifully slim volume! It cannot stand up to the rigours of serious research, and probably shouldn't be discussed in the same breath as Prunier's work. One thing I really liked about 'Goats' is Ronson's treatment of the issues, which is reporter-like and spares the reader the neurotic and obsessive tempo of a lot of writing on conspiracy theory.

If you're interested in the images I lifted from the FEB field manual and Jim Channon's own take on the First Earth Battalion - the following links might interest you:

Part 1 of Jim Channon's First Earth Battalion epilogue-monologue

Part 2 of Jim Channon's First Earth Battalion epilogue-monologue

Download The First Earth Battalion Field Manual

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Monday, May 17, 2010

"Ultimately, this situation can only be resolved by negotiation"

You gotta love the UN.

As a fifth wheel, they serve a purpose. If not for the world, then at least for themselves. Bear in mind the following:

- There are over 22 specialist UN agencies.
- There are over 51,000 staff directly employed (not including the World Bank or long/short term consultants) by UN agencies.
- There are 46 Under-Secretary-Generals (or quivalent rank/seniority). USGs have diplomatic rank equivalent to that of a national cabinet minister. No other government anywhere in the world has that many cabinet ministers for its functioning. The figure of 46 is not exhaustive and there are more USGs or their equivalent - the UN just doesn't have a list of them all that is accessible in the public domain.

So, someone on behalf of the UN (which is 'One' anyway, except in the case of funding, in which case it's 22+ separate agencies) has urged a negotiated solution because "there is a high risk that the situation could spiral out of control".

It's like someone on a trolley in ICU being prepped for emergency cardiovascular surgery after a heart attack making a call on his mobile; "yeah, I'm having a heart attack, so things aren't looking too good".

UNHCR, always on the highest of steeds, offers the stern and wholly unsolicited advice, "Ultimately, this situation can only be resolved by negotiation".

Hmmm. Yes, the UN has spoken. As one. We should sit up and take notice. Because it's the UN.

What's not interesting about the Red Shirts' ten-week protest?

Military attempts to disperse the protesters on 10 April 2010 and more recently have failed; government figures (probably the most reliable in the circumstances) cite 66 people have died and more than 1,600 have been wounded since the Red Shirts began their protests in March.

The police appear to be defending the protesters against the army.

Diplomats and others have approached the Red Shirts to find out what they want; with no change to their pretty obvious demands; "Elections, NOW, NOW!"

The Red Shirts have even trotted out the oldest of negotiation chestnuts in fragile states where the government is self-appointed; UN mediated talks!

The vast majority of the protesters hail from the North and are amongst the rural poor of Thailand.

Let's just imagine, for a moment, what the UN could offer besides from legitimising the protests and turning them into an international incident (because it's not already, it's NOT!):

"We can help you like we've helped Timor Leste, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Afghanistan, Iraq, Haiti, Aceh, and many other countries. Seriously."

"We have mediators that are taken seriously by all sides, people like Ibrahim Gambari."

The other thing that is so incorrigible about the Red Shirts' protest is the infernal paradox it raises; you can hardly hold an election when the Red Shirts' party affiliates will almost certainly win. Those damned poor farmers in Thailand are really getting in the way with their protesting shennanigans!

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Mental As Anything: Paris Principles

I was checking out one of my favourite sites, Aid Thoughts, and it brought to mind the dreaded Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness. This Pandora's Box of turd-flavoured truffles ostensibly defines the responsibility of developed and developing countries for delivering and managing aid along five core principles:

1.Ownership: Partner countries exercise effective leadership over their development policies, and strategies and co-ordinate development actions
2.Alignment: Donors base their overall support on partner countries' national development strategies, institutions and procedures
3.Harmonisation: Donors' actions are more harmonized, transparent and collectively effective
4.Managing for Results: Managing resources and improving decision-making for results
5.Mutual Accountability: Donors and partners are accountable for development results

As with all of these international instruments, it is stupendously garbled and repetitive, but the purpose of this little ruse appears to be a laudable (and some would argue misplaced) desire to empower recipient countries with determining their own policy direction, development strategies, and related priorities.

Yeah right. This really looks like the wool being pulled over the sheep's eyes! And in development settings, boy oh boy has this been aggressively 'mainstreamed' up the tailpipe of UN agencies and donors! Think 'Rocco Does Paris' and you get the idea.

But, let's reflect just for a moment on a couple of committments explictly agreed to in this document:

"Avoid, to the maximum extent possible, creating dedicated structures for day-to-day management and implementation of aid-financed projects and programmes."

...This means avoid NGO/UN/IO-managed projects, and park your programmes under Government- managed structures. Yes, the very same structures riddled with coruption, gross inertia, and absurdly incompetent bureaucrats not in the least bit interested in equitable development, equal opportunity, integrity and all the other other values that kind of matter in the aid/development sector.

"Rely to the maximum extent possible on transparent partner government budget and accounting mechanisms."

...This means that despite the completely erratic capacities of the Government's financial staff, the long history of collusive practices, the daily malfeasance of public officials - you should trust them to manage these taxpayer funds.

"Progressively rely on partner country systems for procurement when the country has implemented mutually agreed standards and processes."

...Yes, ask that hideous group of people known only for their spectacular rorting and self-enrichment to do your procurement, again with taxpayer funds.

This is not mental at all.

Next topic: Battered Donor Syndrome.

Barefoot or Bare-brained: Trusting Your Way Out of Chaos

The tragi-comedy of errors UN-NATO military efforts in Afghanistan is a minefield of amateurish gaffs and cock-ups.

What's wrong with this photo?

Aside from the obvious - winning confidence and trust whilst still wearing ballistic protection and sporting the latest automatic weapon might have the opposite desired outcome - just take a closer look at these bozos (the ones in camouflage, not the local fellows). They are obviously guests. Now look at the local fellows: You will note that the local fellows have bare feet. This is customary in Muslim communities; entering someone's home (or the mosque) one takes his/her shoes off. We are talking entry-level cultural sensitivity here; even this very elementary of cross-cultural behaviours, the US-NATO cannot manage to get right.

And I am quite certain that there are rules and SOPs about wearing your ballistic vest at all times, keeping your weapon by your side, and never taking your shoes off; but, are these troops here to win a war or comply with procedures?

Another doozie is the following quote from Colonel Randy George (of the Fourth Brigade Combat Team, Fourth Infantry Division):

“We’re not worried about corruption in itself, but we are worried about governance.”

I can't decide if the tautology and gross misapprehension embodied in this statement is deliciously amusing or vaguely terrifying. Perhaps it's both!