In a uncanny sort of way the slow motion failure of the US war effort in Afghanistan is a testament to the fiercely stubborn nature of our species. The US has total control of the air, real-time satellite imagery, and soldiers equipped with the best (and most expensive) military equipment known to our species. And yet, they continue to fail. The war in Afghanistan is almost two decades old now, and an favourable end for the West is unlikely.

The US, despite its world leadership, seems to learn little from it mistakes.  Vietnam remains a powerful lesson and reminder that ‘big guns, best tech’ military option is not a guarantee of victory.  The cost of resisting the US war machine is appalling, some two million(plus) dead, but Vietnam illustrated it is possible to resist.  Afghanistan is on a similar course.

This is what happens when a country decides to wage an unpopular war.  A disconnect grows between the citizens of the country and the political class that is waging the war.  A professional military bears the causalities with little coverage at home, so the war in question can fade out of the public consciousness.  Coupled with a lapdog media that should be exposing the tragedy of errors that is the Afghan war, little is said, and the boondoggle can continue.

Alfred McCoy reviews a small slice of the American failure in Afghanistan, focusing on the drug trade, that happens to fuel the Taliban and provide roughly 85% of the world’s heroin.  You’d think the biggest guns and the brightest minds could plot victory over a dirt poor nation and peasant farmers…

 

“Not only did this problematic drug war fail to curtail the traffic, but it also alienated the rural residents the government so desperately needed to win over. Worse yet, in the end it actually encouraged illicit opium production — a frequent outcome in Washington’s worldwide drug war that I once called “the stimulus of prohibition.”

Using sophisticated satellite imagery, Sopko’s team, for example, found a troubling disconnect between areas that received development aid from Washington or its allies and those that were subjected to opium eradication programs. In strategic Helmand and Nangarhar provinces, for instance, satellite photographs clearly reveal that the various drug eradication projects ripped through remote areas where “the population was highly dependent on opium poppy for its livelihoods,” rendering poor farmers destitute. The development aid was, however, lavished on more accessible, largely drug-free districts near major cities elsewhere in Afghanistan, leaving countless thousands of farmers in critical rural areas angry at the government and susceptible to Taliban recruitment.

Even liberal development alternatives to those rip-up-the-poppies programs, claims Sopko, only served to stimulate opium production in surprising ways. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), for instance, spent $36 million on irrigation for a showcase Food Zone project, meant to promote the growing of legal crops in southern Kandahar Province. As it happened, though, this important infrastructure program actually turned out to contribute “to rising levels of opium poppy cultivation” — an unintended outcome that could be seen in similar “irrigation projects in provinces like Nangarhar, Badakhshan, and Kunar.”

Next door to Kandahar in central Helmand Province, another Food Zone program initially helped reduce the opium crop by 60%. But as British agronomist David Mansfield reports, by the spring of 2017 an “unprecedented” proliferation of poppies covered up to 40% of the farmland targeted by that project; guerrillas were back in force; and farmers felt, as one put it, that “the Taliban is better than the government; they don’t ban poppy, they just ask for tax.” By now, of course, given all the years of bungled anti-drug programs, Mansfield concludes that the Kabul government has little hope of wresting “back control of central Helmand.”

USAID programs that emphasized increased wheat production proved similarly counterproductive. “With higher-yielding varieties and improved agricultural technologies,” writes Sopko, “households in the well-irrigated central valleys of rural Afghanistan would be able to meet their family wheat requirements with a smaller part of their land,” allowing “a larger area… to be allocated to [the] high-value… opium poppy.”

An Uncertain Future

Corroborating Sopko’s pessimism, a recent report by Mujib Mashal of the New York Times depicted the worsening Afghan drug situation as the product, in part, of Washington’s failed policies. Fueled by a booming opium harvest, the Taliban has recently expanded from poppy growing into large-scale heroin production with an estimated 500 labs refining the drug inside Afghanistan — part of a strategy aimed at capturing a greater share of the $60 billion generated globally by the country’s drug exports.

Out of the whole opium eradication project, the National Interdiction Unit, an Afghan outfit trained by U.S. Special Forces, is more or less what’s left when it comes to hopes for reducing the traffic in drugs. Yet their nighttime helicopter interdiction raids on mobile, readily reconstructed heroin labs are proving futile and their chief, reports Mashal, was recently sacked for “probably leaking information to hostile forces.” U.S. military commanders now realize that local Taliban bosses, enriched by the heroin boom, have nothing to gain from further peace negotiations, which remain the only way of ending this endless war.

Meanwhile, the whole question of opium eradication has, according to Mashal, gotten surprisingly “little attention in the Trump administration’s new strategy for the Afghan war.” It seems that U.S. counter-narcotics officials have come to accept a new reality “with a sense of helplessness” — that the country now supplies 85% of the world’s heroin and there’s no end to this in sight.

So why has America’s ambitious $9 billion counter-narcotics program fallen into failure again and again? When such illegality corrupts a society as thoroughly as opium has Afghanistan, then drug trafficking comes to distort everything — giving even good programs bad outcomes and undoubtedly twisting Trump’s headstrong plans for victory into certain defeat.

Think of the never-ending war in Afghanistan as Washington’s drug of choice of these last 16 years.”

Verdi and his day of wrath in your face.

Throughout the work, Verdi uses vigorous rhythms, sublime melodies, and dramatic contrasts—much as he did in his operas—to express the powerful emotions engendered by the text. The terrifying (and instantly recognizable) Dies irae that introduces the traditional sequence of the Latin funeral rite is repeated throughout. Trumpets surround the stage to produce a call to judgement in the Tuba mirum, and the almost oppressive atmosphere of the Rex tremendae creates a sense of unworthiness before the King of Tremendous Majesty. Yet the well-known tenor solo Ingemisco radiates hope for the sinner who asks for the Lord’s mercy.

The Sanctus (a complicated eight-part fugue scored for double chorus) begins with a brassy fanfare to announce him “who comes in the name of the Lord”. Finally the Libera me, the oldest music by Verdi in the Requiem, interrupts. Here the soprano cries out, begging, “Deliver me, Lord, from eternal death … when you will come to judge the world by fire.”

When the Requiem was composed, female singers were not permitted to perform in Catholic Church rituals (such as a requiem mass).[15] However, from the beginning Verdi intended to use female singers in the work. In his open letter proposing the Requiem project (when it was still conceived as a multi-author Requiem for Rossini), Verdi wrote: “If I were in the good graces of the Holy Father—Pope Pius IX—I would beg him to permit—if only for this one time—that women take part in the performance of this music; but since I am not, it will fall to someone else better suited to obtain this decree.”[16] In the event, when Verdi composed the Requiem alone, two of the four soloists were sopranos, and the chorus included female voices. This may have slowed the work’s acceptance in Italy.[15]

At the time of its premiere, the Requiem was criticized by some as being too operatic in style for the religious subject matter.[15] According to Gundula Kreuzer, “Most critics did perceive a schism between the religious text (with all its musical implications) and Verdi’s setting.” Some viewed it negatively as “an opera in ecclesiastical robes,” or alternatively, as a religious work, but one in “dubious musical costume.” While the majority of critics agreed that the music was “dramatic,” some felt that such treatment of the text was appropriate, or at least permissible.[15] As to the music qua music, the critical consensus agreed that the work displayed “fluent invention, beautiful sound effects and charming vocal writing.” Critics were divided between praise and condemnation with respect to Verdi’s willingness to break standard compositional rules for musical effect, such as his use of consecutive fifths.[15]

Most of you don’t know war.  I certainly do not know what war is.  Nick Turse reports on it, but like reporters, can leave and return to the relative safety of home.  But an Libyan citizen nails down what its like in just a few short sentences:  “I drive by myself. I don’t know where I’m going and don’t have any place to go. My life has stopped. This is the only way to keep moving, but I’m not going anywhere.”

Crushing.  Exhausting.  Existential dread and uncertainty in a decidedly untidy package – all part and parcel of what war is.

 

“One hundred and fifty years after Henry became the first civilian casualty of the Civil War, Libyans began dying in their own civil strife as revolutionaries, backed by U.S. and NATO airpower, ended the 42-year rule of dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. Before the year was out, that war had already cost an estimated 30,000 to 50,000 lives.  And the killing never ended as the country slid into permanent near-failed-state status. The current conflict, raging on Tripoli’s doorstep since April, has left more than 4,700 people dead or wounded, including at least 176 confirmed civilian casualties (which experts believe to be lower than the actual figure). All told, according to the United Nations, around 1.5 million people — roughly 24% of the country’s population — have been affected by the almost three-month-old conflict. 

“Heavy shelling and airstrikes have become all too common since early April,” said Danielle Hannon-Burt, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross’s office in Tripoli. “Fierce fighting in parts of Tripoli includes direct or indiscriminate attacks against civilians and their property. It also includes attacks against key electricity, water, and medical infrastructure essential for the survival of the civilian population, potentially putting hundreds of thousands of people at risk.”

In this century, it’s a story that has occurred repeatedly, each time with its own individual horrors, as the American war on terror spread from Afghanistan to Iraq and then on to other countries; as Russia fought in Georgia, Ukraine, and elsewhere; as bloodlettings have bloomed from the Democratic Republic of Congo to South Sudan, from Myanmar to Kashmir. War watchers like me and like those reporters atop the Caravelle decades ago are, of course, the lucky ones. We can sit on the rooftops of hotels and listen to the low rumble of homes being chewed up by artillery. We can make targeted runs into no-go zones to glimpse the destruction. We can visit schools transformed into shelters. We can speak to real estate agents who have morphed into war victims.  Some of us, like Hedrick Smith, Michael Herr, or me, will then write about it — often from a safe distance and with the knowledge that, unlike Salah Isaid and most other civilian victims of such wars, we can always find an even safer place.

War has an all-consuming quality to it, which is at least part of what can make it so addictive for those blessed with the ability to escape it and so devastating to those trapped in it. A month of war had clearly worn Isaid down. He was slowly being crushed by it. 

In the middle of our conversation, he pulled me aside and whispered so his boys couldn’t hear him, “When I go to bed at night, all I can think is ‘What is going on? What does war have to do with me?’” He shook his head disbelievingly. Some days, he told me, he gets into his car and weaves his way through the traffic on the side of the capital untouched by shelling but increasingly affected by the war. “I drive by myself. I don’t know where I’m going and don’t have any place to go. My life has stopped. This is the only way to keep moving, but I’m not going anywhere.”

I kept moving and left, of course. Isaid and his family remain in Tripoli — homeless, their lives upended, their futures uncertain — pinned under the heavy weight of war. “

A timely historical refresher.

I do love readinng Aeon Magazine. This essay by Bence Nanay questions how much control we have over our desires in society.  It is a fascinating question as I think the commonly held belief we all have is that we, as individuals, are ever-present and mostly unchanging over time as we interact with society.  It isn’t really the case as we are far from the immutable social islands that we think we are and more like a slowly flowing stream that is in a gradual state of constant change.

Unfortunately advertisers have latched onto this very human tendency and try to exploit our quasi-fluid state of desiring things by shaping advertising messages to foment desires with us, to get us to buy their particular product.  Quite insidious, really.  But then again, most of capitalism is.

 

“But what would be the screening mechanism for direct desire infection? Beliefs form a coherent network, but desires don’t. We can, and very often do, have conflicting desires. Just because a desire I acquired by means of desire infection contradicts some other desire of mine, I will not normally reject it. Contradictions between beliefs are easier to spot than contradictions between desires.

Cigarette or beverage commercials are very efficient ways of infecting you with desires. They are not trying to communicate a message. If they did, they would probably choose a more efficient message than Real men smoke a certain brand of cigarette. Such commercials are trying to trigger desires in you, bypassing your screening mechanism, which is probably against smoking and consuming sugary beverages. And they do so very efficiently: even though you think that a certain brand of sugary beverage is very unhealthy and bad for you, if the commercial is well-done, it will nonetheless trigger a desire in you.

Is there no screening mechanism against direct desire infection then? Here is one option: we want lots of things, but we want to only want very few things. Wanting to want something is what makes it stand out from the crowd. So this second-order desire (of not just wanting but wanting to want) could be thought of as the screening mechanism for direct desire infection. We screen out desires we do not want to have. And there are desires we do want to have – these are the ones that pass the screening and get to be endorsed.

This would give us a nice parallel with the screening mechanism for beliefs based on testimony. The problem is that it is unlikely to work. Second-order desires are also desires. So given that we can acquire first-order desires by direct desire infection, there is no obvious reason why second-order desires could not be acquired by direct desire infection. But then what would protect us from the infection of our second-order desires? Maybe third-order desires? If we need second-order desires to decide which of our first-order desires are infected, we would then also need third-order desires to decide which of our second-order desires are infected. And so on. As a screening mechanism against infected desires, this won’t work.

The contrast I made between the screening mechanism of beliefs and that of desires is not supposed to be absolute. Our screening of false beliefs often fails. And, as some techniques in psychiatry show, some ‘unwanted’ desires often do get screened out, for example, by making the conflict between them blatantly obvious. But while there is a default mechanism for the screening of beliefs, there is no comparable default screening mechanism for desires. And this has serious potential implications for how we think of the self.

Our desires change. The question is, what changes them? We acquire many of our desires by means of desire infection, and there is no real screening of these desires. But this means that many of our desires are, in some sense, inherited from the people around us.

A radical consequence of this argument concerns the way we should think about the self in light of these considerations. A widespread way of thinking about the self, going at least as far back as the 18th century and David Hume, is that it consists of the set of all our desires (besides some other mental states). But if this is so, then who we are (or the self) is a result, to a large extent, of random desire infection.

We know that we systematically ignore the possibility that our future self could be different from our present self. This is called the ‘end of history illusion’: we have a tendency to consider our self a finished product, but it is blatantly not. And this ‘end of history illusion’ makes it even more likely that we will try to give post-hoc rationalisations for any desires we might acquire by means of direct desire infection.

So the self changes. The question is, how much of this change is under our control? Some of it is: we have pretty good control over what new beliefs we acquire. And we might even have control over really wild, crazy desires. But we have no full control. Direct desire infection can have a real effect on who we are and whom we become – it is a phenomenon we should take very seriously.

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