Informed Comment

Syndicate content
Thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion
Updated: 2 hours 15 min ago

Elbaradei: Trump Propaganda on Iran Nuclear Deal like Run-up to Iraq War

Sat, 14 Oct 2017 - 1:18am

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

The Trump administration (actually UN Ambassador and far right Evangelical Nikki Haley) has decertified Iran from compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or Nuclear Deal of 2015. It would be interesting to know how many of Haley’s stupid and inaccurate talking points were provided by Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu and Saudi crown prince Mohammad Bin Salman.

The decertification means very little, since Iran is not actually in violation of the agreement and anyway it was concluded with the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (China, Russia, Britain, France and the USA), not just with Washington. A US certification is not even mentioned in the deal. The International Atomic Energy Agency is the body responsible for certifying Iranian compliance, and it has repeatedly so affirmed.

Ominously, the former head of the IAEA, Mohammed Albaradei, who pointed out in spring of 2003 that the George W. Bush administration’s case for going to war against Iraq was bogus has weighed in on this new warmongering ploy:

Trump ignoring IAEA inspection findings re Iran’s compliance w/ nuclear deal brings to mind run up to Iraq war. Will we ever learn? #JCPOA

— Mohamed ElBaradei (@ElBaradei) October 13, 2017

The JCPOA is narrowly focused on Iran’s nuclear enrichment program, which Tehran has all along maintained is only for the purpose of producing fuel for its nuclear power plants at Bushehr. It denied to Iran a heavy water reactor, which is far easier to use to collect fissile material than light water reactors. It limited the number of centrifuges to 6,000. It limited the amount of uranium enriched to 19.5% for the Iranian medical reactor (which makes isotopes for treating cancer) that can be stockpiled in usable form. And it subjected Iran to the most stringent inspection regime ever imposed on any country.

Iran is observing all four of these conditions.

The Trump-Haley fake news document that challenges Iran’s compliance does not actually deny that Iran is complying with the JCPOA. Trump incorrectly asserts that military bases have not been inspected. The IAEA inspectors visited the Parchin base in 2015. It is not part of the regular inspections because the JCPOA excludes military bases. In fact the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty excludes military bases, at the insistence of the US and the then USSR. So Washington has only itself to blame. In any case, that objection is a red herring, since the inspectors can ask to visit Parchin at any time and would be allowed to do so. They deliberately aren’t making the request these days because they do not want to give the impression that the Trumpies have a leg to stand on with this critique.

The list of grievances Trump/Haley present against Iran have nothing to do with the nuclear deal. They don’t like Iran’s ballistic missile development program. I’m not sure why, since Iran has nothing impressive to put in the warheads except dumb bombs, which it would be brain dead to launch against nuclear-armed Israel or even against Saudi Arabia, which has a US defense umbrella.

The US complaints also include Iranian support for Hizbullah and intervention in Syria, which Trump and Haley are pleased to call terrorism. But if that is such a bad thing then why not also sanction Vladimir Putin, who is doing the same things in Syria and giving air support to Hizbullah and other Shiite militias? And why is it so bad for Iran to prop up Bashar al-Assad if Trump himself said that Arabs need a strongman at the helm and it is all right with him if al-Assad stays and Putin takes care of Syria? The Haley indictment of Iran has an oddly Neoconservative ring that ill fits with Trump’s positions and ends up condemning Der Donald as much as anyone else.

Not to mention that it has come out that the US saw ISIL growing in eastern Syria and let it do so because they thought it would pressure al-Assad. So who was complicit with terrorism in Syria? Not Hizbullah and Iran, the most effective fighters against ISIL. (Trump and Haley are so ignorant that they do not know that ISIL and al-Qaeda more generally are hyper-Sunni fanatics who have a genocidal attitude toward Shiites such as Iranians, and they even try to implicate Iran in 9/11, which is Alex Jones conspiracy-theory territory).

And they want to sanction the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, escalating the covert struggle between Iran’s national guard and the US security agencies. (Though note that the US military has been de facto allied with the IRGC in Iraq in the fight against ISIL. Maybe now that ISIL is nearly over with as a state, the long knives have come out among the victors?)

The Trump decertification asks the US Congress to make foreign policy, which is not how I remember the Constitution.

As for the likely impact, it will be to bolster the hard liners in Iran like the IRGC and to isolate the US as a rogue nation.

Trump’s move immensely strengthens Khamenei and the IRGC in Iranian politics and flushes President Hassan Rouhani and other centrists down the toilet.

If the goal were to get Iran out of Syria, this way of proceeding forestalls success. Lots of Iranians are embarrassed to be supporting a Baath regime in Damascus, and as the ISIL threat receded so too might have public willingness to incur casualties for the sake of al-Assad.

But now any such calls would be branded as treason in the service of USA imperialism, and successfully so.

Regionally, moreover, the Iraqi government would collapse without IRGC support, and since it increasingly doesn’t need the US, will likely distance itself from Washington over time, increasing rather than decreasing Iranian influence. This will especially be true if Kurds declare independence and are kicked out of the Baghdad government, leaving Arab Iraq 80% Shiite. Nouri al-Maliki already has attempted a vote of no confidence against the Kurdish president. The US has powerful ties of clientelage to Erbil (the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan) and if Baghdad thinks it is insufficiently hard on Barzani, that will be another wedge. Muqtada al-Sadr and other nationalists who want the US back out will be strengthened.

Outgoing German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel observed that if Iran continues to be compliant, we’d now see Europe lining up with Russia and China against the US on the Iran issue. And sure enough, Britain, Germany and France issued a statement today standing behind the nuclear deal and declining to go along with Trump.

In short, this step profoundly weakens the United States internationally and strengthens the worst elements in Iran.

———-

Related video:

Iran nuclear deal: Trump vows not to sign off agreement – BBC News

Painting of the Day: “The Lovers” (Iran, 1630)

Sat, 14 Oct 2017 - 12:21am

Riza-yi `Abbasi (d. 1635) | ( Metropolitan Museum) | – –

The Lovers

Artist: Painting by Riza-yi `Abbasi (Persian, ca. 1565–1635)
Date: dated A.H. 1039/ A.D. 1630
Geography: Attributed to Iran, Isfahan
Medium: Opaque watercolor, ink, and gold on paper

Via Metropolitan Museum, New York.

More civilian Airstrike Deaths under Trump than in 8 years of Obama

Fri, 13 Oct 2017 - 11:33pm

By Steven Feldstein | (The Conversation) | – –

When President Donald Trump took office in January, it was unclear whether the bombast from his campaign would translate into an aggressive new strategy against terrorism. At campaign rallies he pledged to “bomb the hell” out of the Islamic State. He openly mused about killing the families of terrorists, a blatant violation of the Geneva Conventions, which prohibits violence against noncombatants.

Ten months into his presidency, a clearer picture is emerging. The data indicate several alarming trends.

According to research from the nonprofit monitoring group Airwars, the first seven months of the Trump administration have already resulted in more civilian deaths than under the entirety of the Obama administration. Airwars reports that under Obama’s leadership, the fight against IS led to approximately 2,300 to 3,400 civilian deaths. Through the first seven months of the Trump administration, they estimate that coalition air strikes have killed between 2,800 and 4,500 civilians.

Researchers also point to another stunning trend – the “frequent killing of entire families in likely coalition airstrikes.” In May, for example, such actions led to the deaths of at least 57 women and 52 children in Iraq and Syria.

The vast increase in civilian deaths is not limited to the anti-IS campaign. In Afghanistan, the U.N. reports a 67 percent increase in civilian deaths from U.S. airstrikes in the first six months of 2017 compared to the first half of 2016.

The key question is: Why? Are these increases due to a change in leadership?

Delegating war to the military

Experts offer several explanations.

One holds that Trump’s “total authorization” for the military to run wars in Afghanistan and against IS has loosened Obama-era restrictions and increased military commanders’ risk tolerance. Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations notes: “Those closer to the fight are more likely to call in lethal force and are less likely to follow a value-based approach.”

In other words, an intense focus on destroying IS elements may be overriding the competing priority of protecting civilians. Because Trump has scaled back civilian oversight and delegated authority to colonels rather than one-star generals, the likely result is higher casualties.

Urban battlefield?

A second explanation points to the changing nature of the counter-IS campaign. The Pentagon contends that the rise in casualties is “attributable to the change in location” of battlefield operations towards more densely populated urban environments like Mosul and Raqqa.

This is a partial truth. While urban warfare has increased, Trump’s team has substantially escalated air strikes and bombings. According to CENTCOM data, the military has already used 20 percent more missiles and bombs in combined air operations in 2017 than in all of 2016. One notable airstrike in March, for example, killed 105 Iraqi civilians when U.S. forces dropped a 500-pound bomb in order to take out two snipers in Mosul. In fact, a Human Rights Watch analysis of bomb craters in West Mosul estimates that U.S. coalition forces are routinely using larger and less precise bombs – weighing between 500 and 1,000 pounds – than in prior operations. Finally, the urban battlefield explanation also does not account for increased civilian deaths in Afghanistan from airstrikes, where the environment has remained static for several years.

Pressure from the president

A third explanation of higher civilian casualties is that aggressive rhetoric from the president is inadvertently pressuring the military to take more risks and to deprioritize protecting civilians.

As former Assistant Secretary of State Tom Malinowski observes: “If your leaders are emphasizing the high value of Raqqa and Mosul, while saying less about the strategic and moral risks of hurting civilians, it’s going to affect your judgment.” Words matter, especially coming from the commander-in-chief. In the face of such aggressive rhetoric, it should not come as a surprise that military officers feel encouraged – if not indirectly pressured – to take greater risks.

Unfortunately, the increased trend of civilian casualties is unlikely to diminish. In fact, signs abound that the White House is developing a new set of policies and procedures that will authorize more sweeping discretion to the military. In September, The New York Times reported that White House officials were proposing two major rules changes. First, they would expand the scope of “kill missions” and allow for the targeting of lower-level terrorists in addition to high value targets. Second – and more notably – they would suspend high-level vetting of potential drone attacks and raids.

These changes represent a sharp about-face. The Obama administration carefully crafted a deliberate set of rules guiding the use of force. In 2013, Obama released the Presidential Policy Guidance for Approving Direct Action Against Terrorist Targets (PPG), which created specific rules for determining when the use of force against terrorists was legally justified.

Then, in 2016, Obama issued an executive order on civilian harm that established heightened standards to minimize civilian casualties from military actions, and required the public release of information pertaining to strikes against terrorist targets.

While the latest actions from the Trump administration stop short of reversing Obama-era restraints, they are unsettling steps in the opposite direction. For example, it appears for now that the White House will preserve the “near certainty” standard, which requires commanders to have near certainty that a potential strike will not impact civilians. But this could change over time.

One senior official quoted in The New York Times article bluntly asserts that the latest changes are intended to make much of the “bureaucracy” created by the Obama administration rules “disappear.” As the White House dissolves the existing bureaucracy and relinquishes civilian oversight, Trump is embarking on a slippery slope that will potentially lead to major diminutions of civilian protection.

The current battle to take the Syrian city of Raqqa is emblematic of the stakes at hand. The U.S. is leading a punishing air war to soften IS defenses. In August, U.S. forces dropped 5,775 bombs and missiles onto the city. For context, this represented 10 times more munitions than the U.S. used for the whole of Afghanistan in the same month and year. The resulting civilian toll has been gruesome. At least 433 civilians likely died in Raqqa due to the August bombings, more than double the previous month’s total. Since the assault on Raqqa commenced on June 6, more than 1,000 civilians have been reported killed.

U.N. human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein cautions that the intense bombardment has left civilians caught between IS’s monstrosities and the fierce battle to defeat it. Zeid insists that “civilians must not be sacrificed for the sake of rapid military victories.”

Trump would be wise to heed this warning. Even as U.S. forces continue to turn the tide on IS, the trail of destruction left in the campaign’s wake is unsettling. The specter of massive civilian casualties will remain a rallying point for new terrorist organizations long after anti-IS operations conclude.

Steven Feldstein, Frank and Bethine Church Chair of Public Affairs & Associate Professor, School of Public Service, Boise State University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

——-

Related video added by Juan Cole:

PBS NewsHour from last week: “Battle to retake Raqqa inches toward conclusion”

Alarmed Kurdistan forces Mobilized at Kirkuk as Iraqi troops said to Mass on Border

Fri, 13 Oct 2017 - 11:15pm

TeleSur | – –

According to Kurdish TV station, Rudaw, an additional 6,000 Peshmerga forces have been mobilized in Kirkuk to defend from a possible Iraqi threat.

Kurdish TV channel Rudaw has reported that tens of thousands of Kurdish fighters have been deployed in the Kurdistan region of Iraq’s capital of Kirkuk to defend the region from possible “threats” from Iraqi forces.

“Tens of thousands of Kurdish Peshmerga and security forces are already stationed in and around Kirkuk,” said Kurdish Vice President Kosral Rasul. “At least 6,000 additional Peshmerga were deployed since Thursday night to face the Iraqi forces’ threat.”

Rasul, a veteran Peshmerga commander was interviewed by Rudaw, and said that “there are threats by the Iraqi army that has deployed forces near Kirkuk supposedly to attack Kirkuk. But I don’t believe it will be easy for them to do that.”

“We do not want war, and we seek to solve problems through dialogue,” the Kurdish commander continued.

“We are not afraid of anyone’s threats, because the Peshmerga, as it is evident from its name, means dying for victory.”

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi stated that “We will not use our army against our people or fight a war against our Kurdish and other citizens,” following a warning issued by the Kurdish officials. Officials in Kirkuk claimed that the Iraqi army in conjunction with Shia militias had been planning a major attack.

Rudaw reports that a prominent Shia commander stated that they were on alert to launch an attack on Kirkuk at the command of PM Abadi.

VP Rasul called on the international community to intervene in this matter to make sure that a major conflict does not break out.

Reports about a possible confrontation come during the wake of the controversial independence referendum held in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, in which voters voted for an independent Kurdish state.

Baghdad referred to this referendum as illegitimate and unconstitutional.

Dana White, Chief U.S. Defense Department spokesperson, addressed these tensions to reporters and reiterated that the U.S. is focusing efforts on the Islamic State group and encourages both parties to do the same.

The Iraqi government has responded that their forces are mobilizing to attack the Islamic State group and that they do not plan to attack Kurdish forces near Kirkuk.

Via TeleSur

——–

Related video added by Juan Cole:

AFP: “Kirkuk: Peshmerga forces prepare to defend themselves”

Germany: Immediate Danger of Mideast War if Trump dumps Iran Deal

Fri, 13 Oct 2017 - 1:41am

Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Foreign Minister warns that Europe will take the Russian and Chinese side on the Iran issue against the USA.

German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel (Democratic Socialist Party: SPD) warned this week that if Trump pulls out of the Iran deal, it would provoke an immediate danger of another Middle East war.

He also warned that Germany and the European Union would side with Russia and China on this issue against the United States of America.

In an interview with Deutschland, Gabriel warned, “A termination of the Iran deal would turn the Middle East into a hot crisis zone.” If Iran were to turn, on the collapse of the deal, to trying to develop a nuclear weapon, it would create “the immediate danger of a new war.” He said that Israel would see such a step as a severe danger.

The SPD politician said that a US pull-out “would send a devastating signal on nuclear disarmament.” Some states, he warned, might take the cancellation of the Iran deal as a sign that they should speed up their development of an atomic bomb. It would in the aftermath be “completely illusory to hope to move North Korea to conclude a security treaty if the Iran agreement fails.”

He said that the Iran deal could become a football in American partisan politics and that unrealistic expectations, such as that Iran cease its role in Iraq, Sria and Yemen could emerge. He said you couldn’t tie that issue to nuclear non-proliferation.

Gabriel added that if Iran remained in compliance with the 2015 deal, that would “put the Europeans on the Iran issue in the same posture as Russia and China against the USA.”

——

Related video:

Wochit News: “German Official Claims That Trump’s Iran Plans Driving EU Towards Russia And China”

Could Kurdish Secession bid derail Iraq’s Democracy?

Thu, 12 Oct 2017 - 11:24pm

Mustafa Habib | (Baghdad) | (Niqash.org) | – –

In Baghdad, the Kurdish referendum has dominated all other official proceedings. Lack of progress on electoral laws means federal elections could be postponed – again.

The controversial Iraqi Kurdish referendum on independence has also had a divisive impact on politics in Baghdad. For one thing it has ended the historic alliance between the Kurdish politicians and their Shiite Muslim counterparts in Baghdad. But perhaps more importantly, it is preventing the passage of important legislation and the efficient running of the Iraqi parliament.

In Iraq, a new set of legislation is drafted for each election. The Iraqi parliament started planning for this two months ago but have not managed to achieve much.

Between September 16 and November 9, the parliamentary agenda had tabled an ongoing discussion of a new series of laws related to provincial and federal elections, slated to be held in April 2018. MPs were also supposed to be nominating new members for the Independent High Electoral Commission, or IHEC, the body tasked with overseeing elections in Iraq.

Updating the electoral rolls, purchasing materials required for administration and preparing ballot papers – all these things are impacted by electoral laws. If they don’t happen soon, the elections will be endangered.

“Three weeks before the referendum, there had been progressive talks and we had reached a preliminary agreement,” Hassan Turan, the MP for the Turkmen Front from Kirkuk, told NIQASH. “But the referendum crisis has delayed further talks and everyone got obsessed with that issue.”

In fact, the last five meetings of MPs have focused almost solely on what to do about the referendum and ignored the electoral laws that will be needed early next year.

In one particularly lively session on September 25, the same day the referendum on Kurdish independence was held, dozens of politicians made passionate speeches about the subject. At the end of the session, the MPs voted to ask the Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, to deploy federal troops in the northern city of Kirkuk and other “disputed territories” – these are areas the Iraqi Kurdish and Iraqi Arabs have been fighting over for years. Two days later, a further session resulted in decisions to close Iraqi Kurdish border crossings and stop international flights into Kurdish airports.

One group of Shiite Muslim politicians led by former prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, tried to organize a vote of no confidence in the country’s president, Fouad Massoum, an Iraqi Kurdish politician. He was accused of not objecting to the referendum. Rumours started to spread that al-Maliki wanted Massoum’s job.

This campaign also suggested banning Iraqi Kurdish politicians from attending any further sessions of parliament in Baghdad. Somewhat worryingly there has been genuine discussion of the legalities of this. But should this happen, there would be a major crisis as the 62 Iraqi Kurdish MPs make up around a fifth of all MPs.

Despite heated debate on electoral legislation, parts of the provincial elections law have been passed. Around 46 articles have made it through the process with 11 still outstanding. One of these is particularly controversial as it would involve the holding of elections in Kirkuk. The northern city, which is a disputed territory and also home to a Kurdish, Turkmen and Arab locals, is often spoken about as a “flashpoint” because of its location and demography.

An even more complex issue is the election of new members for the IHEC. The current IHEC’s mandate expired last month. Parliament formed a subcommittee to start to select new members at the beginning of this year but has been unable to get close to nominations.

As usual there are issues about who gets represented. “All the people on the subcommittee are members of larger parties who have agreed to share the nine seats on the IHEC, behind closed doors,” complains Faeq al-Sheikh Ali, an MP from a smaller, liberal party. They refused to consider a proposal submitted by Ali and around 100 other MPs , suggesting that the judiciary selects judges to manage the country’s elections instead, to truly ensure independence, he adds.

One official from IHEC, speaking to NIQASH anonymously because he was not authorized to comment on the matter, said that these things needed to be organised quickly. If they did not happen at least six months before the elections, it would be problematic and potentially cause elections to be delayed yet again.

“Updating the electoral rolls, purchasing materials required for administration and preparing ballot papers – all these things are impacted by electoral laws,” he said. “If these political conflicts go on, the elections will be endangered.”

Right now it doesn’t feel as though time is on the MPs’ side. There are only six months left to go before the end of the current parliament’s term. Besides the electoral laws, there are also the batch of laws that have been on the backburner for, literally years and which have contributed to the current state of complex relations between Baghdad and Iraqi Kurdistan. This includes amendments to the Iraqi Constitution as well Article 140 of the Constitution, which deals with disputed territories like Kirkuk, and the formation of the long-discussed Federation Council, which is supposed to act in a similar way to the US Senate, the German Bundesrat or the House of Lords in the UK.

Given the current dispute about the Iraqi Kurdish referendum, it seems highly unlikely that these even-more-contentious issues are going to get their day in parliament. Which is why there are already rumours in Baghdad that the current term of the government and parliament will be extended for two years and general and provincial elections will be postponed once again.

Via Niqash.org

——–

Related video added by Juan Cole:

Al Jazeera English: “Baghdad denies allegations of planned attack on Kurds”

As Trump disses Puerto Rico Again, 83% in dark, 36% Drinking Dirty Water

Thu, 12 Oct 2017 - 11:09pm

The Watchers | – –

According to latest figures, the death toll in Puerto Rico caused by the passage of Category 4 Hurricane "Maria" on September 20, 2017, has risen to 45. There are still 113 people unaccounted for. 

Most of the island is still without basic services such as power and running water, nearly three weeks after the storm. As of Thursday, October 12, 83% of the island is still without electricity, 45% of it is without phone service. There are still 107 opened shelters with 5 602 shelterees.

According to a letter obtained by CNN, Governor Ricardo Rosselló, citing an "unprecedented catastrophe," has lobbied Capitol Hill for a significant new influx of money soon as the island perches on the brink of "a massive liquidity crisis."

In a three-page letter sent to congressional leaders, Rosselló is requesting more than $4 billion from various agencies and loan programs to "meet the immediate emergency needs of Puerto Rico."

The governor also pointed to a potential exodus of the island's inhabitants should aid not be available in a timely manner – something he has also emphasized in conversations with lawmakers. Over 400 000 Puerto Ricans have moved to the mainland United States since 2004, according to the Pew Research Center. Puerto Rico now has 3.4 million residents.

Maria made landfall at 10:35 UTC on September 20, as a Category 4 hurricane with winds of 250 km/h (155 mph), becoming the strongest to hit the island since the Hurricane "San Felipe" of 1928, as well as the most intense hurricane to hit the territory in recorded history, and the most intense to make landfall anywhere in the United States (including locations outside of the Lower 48) since Hurricane "Camille" in 1969.

It delivered huge amounts of rain and powerful winds that downed trees, ripped roofs and walls off of buildings and soon knocked out power to the entire island. Its electrical grid is being described as having been totally destroyed.

Featured image: San Juan, Puerto Rico after Hurricane "Maria" – September 20, 2017. Credit: Live Storms Media

Via The Watchers

Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License
——

Related Tweets:

As Puerto Rico Struggles With Lack of Drinking Water, Residents Turn to Toxic Waste Sites https://t.co/KwcWi50vko

— Sly Q. Jones (@simplyslycc) October 13, 2017

Just so you can see them side-by-side, here is Trump on Texas vs PR. Wonder what the difference is. Hmmm… pic.twitter.com/5QWEAPgWG7

— Charles M. Blow (@CharlesMBlow) October 12, 2017

——-

Related video added by Juan Cole:

President Donald Trump: The Federal Government Can’t Keep Helping Puerto Rico ‘Forever’ | CNBC

Baghdadified: The Militarization of US Cities and Police

Thu, 12 Oct 2017 - 11:05pm

By Danny Sjursen | ( Tomdispatch.com) | – –

This… thing, [the War on Drugs] this ain’t police work… I mean, you call something a war and pretty soon everybody gonna be running around acting like warriors… running around on a damn crusade, storming corners, slapping on cuffs, racking up body counts… pretty soon, damn near everybody on every corner is your f**king enemy. And soon the neighborhood that you’re supposed to be policing, that’s just occupied territory.” — Major “Bunny” Colvin, season three of HBO’s The Wire

I can remember both so well.

2006: my first raid in South Baghdad. 2014: watching on YouTube as a New York police officer asphyxiated — murdered — Eric Garner for allegedly selling loose cigarettes on a Staten Island street corner not five miles from my old apartment. Both events shocked the conscience.

It was 11 years ago next month: my first patrol of the war and we were still learning the ropes from the army unit we were replacing. Unit swaps are tricky, dangerous times. In Army lexicon, they’re known as “right-seat-left-seat rides.” Picture a car. When you’re learning to drive, you first sit in the passenger seat and observe. Only then do you occupy the driver’s seat. That was Iraq, as units like ours rotated in and out via an annual revolving door of sorts. Officers from incoming units like mine were forced to learn the terrain, identify the key powerbrokers in our assigned area, and sort out the most effective tactics in the two weeks before the experienced officers departed. It was a stressful time.

Those transition weeks consisted of daily patrols led by the officers of the departing unit. My first foray off the FOB (forward operating base) was a night patrol. The platoon I’d tagged along with was going to the house of a suspected Shiite militia leader. (Back then, we were fighting both Shiite rebels of the Mahdi Army and Sunni insurgents.) We drove to the outskirts of Baghdad, surrounded a farmhouse, and knocked on the door. An old woman let us in and a few soldiers quickly fanned out to search every room. Only women — presumably the suspect’s mother and sisters — were home. Through a translator, my counterpart, the other lieutenant, loudly asked the old woman where her son was hiding. Where could we find him? Had he visited the house recently? Predictably, she claimed to be clueless. After the soldiers vigorously searched (“tossed”) a few rooms and found nothing out of the norm, we prepared to leave. At that point, the lieutenant warned the woman that we’d be back — just as had happened several times before — until she turned in her own son.

I returned to the FOB with an uneasy feeling. I couldn’t understand what it was that we had just accomplished. How did hassling these women, storming into their home after dark and making threats, contribute to defeating the Mahdi Army or earning the loyalty and trust of Iraqi civilians? I was, of course, brand new to the war, but the incident felt totally counterproductive. Let’s assume the woman’s son was Mahdi Army to the core.  So what?  Without long-term surveillance or reliable intelligence placing him at the house, entering the premises that way and making threats could only solidify whatever aversion the family already had to the U.S. Army. And what if we had gotten it wrong? What if he was innocent and we’d potentially just helped create a whole new family of insurgents? 

Though it wasn’t a thought that crossed my mind for years, those women must have felt like many African-American families living under persistent police pressure in parts of New York, Baltimore, Chicago, or elsewhere in this country.  Perhaps that sounds outlandish to more affluent whites, but it’s clear enough that some impoverished communities of color in this country do indeed see the police as their enemy.  For most military officers, it was similarly unthinkable that many embattled Iraqis could see all American military personnel in a negative light.  But from that first raid on, I knew one thing for sure: we were going to have to adjust our perceptions — and fast. Not, of course, that we did.

Years passed.  I came home, stayed in the Army, had a kid, divorced, moved a few more times, remarried, had more kids — my Giants even won two Super Bowls. Suddenly everyone had an iPhone, was on Facebook, or tweeting, or texting rather than calling. Somehow in those blurred years, Iraq-style police brutality and violence — especially against poor blacks — gradually became front-page news. One case, one shaky YouTube video followed another: Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Philando Castile, and Freddie Gray, just to start a long list. So many of the clips reminded me of enemy propaganda videos from Baghdad or helmet-cam shots recorded by our troopers in combat, except that they came from New York, or Chicago, or San Francisco.

Brutal Connections

As in Baghdad, so in Baltimore. It’s connected, you see. Scholars, pundits, politicians, most of us in fact like our worlds to remain discretely and comfortably separated. That’s why so few articles, reports, or op-ed columns even think to link police violence at home to our imperial pursuits abroad or the militarization of the policing of urban America to our wars across the Greater Middle East and Africa. I mean, how many profiles of the Black Lives Matter movement even mention America’s 16-year war on terror across huge swaths of the planet? Conversely, can you remember a foreign policy piece that cited Ferguson? I doubt it.

Nonetheless, take a moment to consider the ways in which counterinsurgency abroad and urban policing at home might, in these years, have come to resemble each other and might actually be connected phenomena:

*The degradations involved: So often, both counterinsurgency and urban policing involve countless routine humiliations of a mostly innocent populace.  No matter how we’ve cloaked the terms — “partnering,” “advising,” “assisting,” and so on — the American military has acted like an occupier of Iraq and Afghanistan in these years.  Those thousands of ubiquitous post-invasion U.S. Army foot and vehicle patrols in both countries tended to highlight the lack of sovereignty of their peoples.  Similarly, as long ago as 1966, author James Baldwin recognized that New York City’s ghettoes resembled, in his phrase, “occupied territory.”  In that regard, matters have only worsened since.  Just ask the black community in Baltimore or for that matter Ferguson, Missouri.  It’s hard to deny America’s police are becoming progressively more defiant; just last month St. Louis cops taunted protestors by chanting “whose streets? Our streets,” at a gathering crowd.  Pardon me, but since when has it been okay for police to rule America’s streets?  Aren’t they there to protect and serve us?  Something tells me the exceedingly libertarian Founding Fathers would be appalled by such arrogance.

*The racial and ethnic stereotyping.  In Baghdad, many U.S. troops called the locals hajis, ragheads, or worse still, sandniggers.  There should be no surprise in that.  The frustrations involved in occupation duty and the fear of death inherent in counterinsurgency campaigns lead soldiers to stereotype, and sometimes even hate, the populations they’re (doctrinally) supposed to protect.  Ordinary Iraqis or Afghans became the enemy, an “other,” worthy only of racial pejoratives and (sometimes) petty cruelties.  Sound familiar?  Listen to the private conversations of America’s exasperated urban police, or the occasionally public insults they throw at the population they’re paid to “protect.”  I, for one, can’t forget the video of an infuriated white officer taunting Ferguson protestors: “Bring it on, you f**king animals!”  Or how about a white Staten Island cop caught on the phone bragging to his girlfriend about how he’d framed a young black man or, in his words, “fried another nigger.”  Dehumanization of the enemy, either at home or abroad, is as old as empire itself.

*The searches: Searches, searches, and yet more searches. Back in the day in Iraq — I’m speaking of 2006 and 2007 — we didn’t exactly need a search warrant to look anywhere we pleased. The Iraqi courts, police, and judicial system were then barely operational.  We searched houses, shacks, apartments, and high rises for weapons, explosives, or other “contraband.”  No family — guilty or innocent (and they were nearly all innocent) — was safe from the small, daily indignities of a military search.  Back here in the U.S., a similar phenomenon rules, as it has since the “war on drugs” era of the 1980s.  It’s now routine for police SWAT teams to execute rubber-stamped or “no knock” search warrants on suspected drug dealers’ homes (often only for marijuana stashes) with an aggressiveness most soldiers from our distant wars would applaud.  Then there are the millions of random, warrantless, body searches on America’s urban, often minority-laden streets.  Take New York, for example, where a discriminatory regime of “stop-and-frisk” tactics terrorized blacks and Hispanics for decades.  Millions of (mostly) minority youths were halted and searched by New York police officers who had to cite only such opaque explanations as “furtive movements,” or “fits relevant description” — hardly explicit probable cause — to execute such daily indignities.  As numerous studies have shown (and a judicial ruling found), such “stop-and-frisk” procedures were discriminatory and likely unconstitutional.

As in my experience in Iraq, so here on the streets of so many urban neighborhoods of color, anyone, guilty or innocent (mainly innocent) was the target of such operations.  And the connections between war abroad and policing at home run ever deeper. Consider that in Springfield, Massachusetts, police anti-gang units learned and applied literal military counterinsurgency doctrine on that city’s streets.  In post-9/11 New York City, meanwhile, the NYPD Intelligence Unit practiced religious profiling and implemented military-style surveillance to spy on its Muslim residents.  Even America’s stalwart Israeli allies — no strangers to domestic counterinsurgency — have gotten in on the game. That country’s Security Forces have been training American cops, despite their long record of documented human rights abuses.  How’s that for coalition warfare and bilateral cooperation? 

*The equipment, the tools of the trade: Who hasn’t noticed in recent years that, thanks in part to a Pentagon program selling weaponry and equipment right off America’s battlefields, the police on our streets look ever less like kindly beat cops and ever more like Robocop or the heavily armed and protected troops of our distant wars?  Think of the sheer firepower and armor on the streets of Ferguson in those photos that shocked and discomforted so many Americans.  Or how about the aftermath of the tragic Boston Marathon Bombing? Watertown, Massachusetts, surely resembled U.S. Army-occupied Baghdad or Kabul at the height of their respective troop “surges,” as the area was locked down under curfew during the search for the bombing suspects.

Here, at least, the connection is undeniable. The military has sold hundreds of millions of dollars in excess weapons and equipment — armored vehicles, rifles, camouflage uniforms, and even drones — to local police departments, resulting in a revolving door of self-perpetuating urban militarism. Does Walla Walla, Washington, really need the very Mine Resistant Ambush-Protected (MRAP) trucks I drove around Kandahar, Afghanistan?  And in case you were worried about the ability of Madison, Indiana (pop: 12,000), to fight off rocket propelled grenades thanks to those spiffy new MRAPs, fear not, President Trump recently overturned Obama-era restrictions on advanced technology transfers to local police. Let me just add, from my own experiences in Baghdad and Kandahar, that it has to be a losing proposition to try to be a friendly beat cop and do community policing from inside an armored vehicle. Even soldiers are taught not to perform counterinsurgency that way (though we ended up doing so all the time).

*Torture: The use of torture has rarely — except for several years at the CIA — been official policy in these years, but it happened anyway.  (See Abu Ghraib, of course.)  It often started small as soldier — or police — frustration built and the usual minor torments of the locals morphed into outright abuse.  The same process seems underway here in the U.S. as well, which was why, as a 34-year old New Yorker, when I first saw the photos at Abu Ghraib, I flashed back to the way, in 1997, the police sodomized Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant, in my own hometown.  Younger folks might consider the far more recent case in Baltimore of Freddie Gray, brutally and undeservedly handcuffed, his pleas ignored, and then driven in the back of a police van to his death.  Furthermore, we now know about two decades worth of systematic torture of more than 100 black men by the Chicago police in order to solicit (often false) confessions.

Unwinnable Wars: At Home and Abroad

For nearly five decades, Americans have been mesmerized by the government’s declarations of “war” on crime, drugs, and — more recently — terror. In the name of these perpetual struggles, apathetic citizens have acquiesced in countless assaults on their liberties. Think warrantless wiretapping, the Patriot Act, and the use of a drone to execute an (admittedly deplorable) American citizen without due process. The First, Fourth, and Fifth Amendments — who needs them anyway? None of these onslaughts against the supposedly sacred Bill of Rights have ended terror attacks, prevented a raging opioid epidemic, staunched Chicago’s record murder rate, or thwarted America’s ubiquitous mass shootings, of which the Las Vegas tragedy is only the latest and most horrific example. The wars on drugs, crime, and terror — they’re all unwinnable and tear at the core of American society. In our apathy, we are all complicit.

Like so much else in our contemporary politics, Americans divide, like clockwork, into opposing camps over police brutality, foreign wars, and America’s original sin: racism. All too often in these debates, arguments aren’t rational but emotional as people feel their way to intractable opinions.  It’s become a cultural matter, transcending traditional policy debates. Want to start a sure argument with your dad? Bring up police brutality.  I promise you it’s foolproof.

So here’s a final link between our endless war on terror and rising militarization on what is no longer called “the home front”: there’s a striking overlap between those who instinctively give the increasingly militarized police of that homeland the benefit of the doubt and those who viscerally support our wars across the Greater Middle East and Africa.

It may be something of a cliché that distant wars have a way of coming home, but that doesn’t make it any less true. Policing today is being Baghdadified in the United States.  Over the last 40 years, as Washington struggled to maintain its global military influence, the nation’s domestic police have progressively shifted to military-style patrol, search, and surveillance tactics, while measuring success through statistical models familiar to any Pentagon staff officer.

Please understand this: for me when it comes to the police, it’s nothing personal. A couple of my uncles were New York City cops. Nearly half my family has served or still serves in the New York Fire Department.  I’m from blue-collar, civil service stock. Good guys, all. But experience tells me that they aren’t likely to see the connections I’m making between what’s happening here and what’s been happening in our distant war zones or agree with my conclusions about them. In a similar fashion, few of my peers in the military officer corps are likely to agree, or even recognize, the parallels I’ve drawn.

Of course, these days when you talk about the military and the police, you’re often talking about the very same people, since veterans from our wars are now making their way into police forces across the country, especially the highly militarized SWAT teams proliferating nationwide that use the sorts of smash-and-search tactics perfected abroad in recent years. While less than 6% of Americans are vets, some 19% of law-enforcement personnel have served in the U.S. military. In many ways it’s a natural fit, as former soldiers seamlessly slide into police life and pick up the very weaponry they once used in Afghanistan, Iraq, or elsewhere.

The widespread perpetuation of uneven policing and criminal (in)justice can be empirically shown. Consider the numerous critical Justice Department investigations of major American cities. But what concerns me in all of this is a simple enough question: What happens to the republic when the militarism that is part and parcel of our now more or less permanent state of war abroad takes over ever more of the prevailing culture of policing at home?

And here’s the inconvenient truth: despite numerous instances of brutality and murder perpetrated by the U.S. military personnel overseas — think Haditha (the infamous retaliatory massacre of Iraqi civilians by U.S. Marines), Panjwai (where a U.S. Army Sergeant left his base and methodically executed nearby Afghan villagers), and of course Abu Ghraib — in my experience, our army is often stricter about interactions with foreign civilians than many local American police forces are when it comes to communities of color.  After all, if one of my men strangled an Iraqi to death for breaking a minor civil law (as happened to Eric Garner), you can bet that the soldier, his sergeant, and I would have been disciplined, even if, as is so often the case, such accountability never reached the senior-officer level.

Ultimately, the irony is this: poor Eric Garner — at least if he had run into my platoon — would have been safer in Baghdad than on that street corner in New York. Either way, he and so many others should perhaps count as domestic casualties of my generation’s forever war. 

What’s global is local. And vice versa. American society is embracing its inner empire. Eventually, its long reach may come for us all.

Major Danny Sjursen, a TomDispatch regular, is a U.S. Army strategist and former history instructor at West Point. He served tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has written a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghost Riders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. He lives with his wife and four sons in Lawrence, Kansas.  Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet.

[Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author, expressed in an unofficial capacity, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.]

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power, as well as John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II, John Feffer’s dystopian novel Splinterlands, Nick Turse’s Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead, and Tom Engelhardt’s Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Copyright 2017 Danny Sjursen

Via Tomdispatch.com

————

Related video added by Juan Cole:

TYT Nation: “Trump Is Re-Militarizing The Police”

Trump wants 10-fold increase in Atom Bombs but is after Iran, which has none

Thu, 12 Oct 2017 - 2:20am

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

As far as I can figure, the US presently has about 6,800 nuclear warheads, though it aims at going down to 4018 once it dismantles those scheduled to be decommissioned, by 2023.

The Russian Federation has about 7,000 nuclear warheads, though it aims at going down to 4,300 once it dismantles those scheduled to be decommissioned, by 2023.

This small missile gap of, practically speaking, 282 bombs appears to be sticking in Donald Trump’s craw.

Last summer he was shown a chart like this one (h/t Wikimedia Commons) in a security meeting at the Pentagon:

Trump appears to have been disturbed that the US stockpile had dropped from over 30,000 in the early 1960s and to have shouted at his National Security Council that he wanted a ten-fold increase in the number of nuclear warheads the US holds. Maybe he wanted 40,180, ten times the number of actual strategic warheads in the active US arsenal. That would be over 8,000 more than the US ever had.

NBC reports that it was over this exchange that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson sighed that Trump is a “fucking moron.”

Trump wants to bother poor little Iran, which does not have a bomb and has given up the possibility of getting one. But he wants to manufacture thousands of the things? Where are the sanctions on Trump?

Trump tweeted out, predictably, that the NBC story is fake news and that the National Broadcasting Corporation should have its license revoked, and that it is terrible that journalists can just write whatever they want. Never mind that under the 1st Amendment NBC does not need a license, though the FCC did grant them a perch on the limited national airwaves when people mainly got their signal via rabbit ears. Never mind that the Constitution allows journalists to write what they like, short of egregious libel (and it is really hard to libel a public figure according to US case law).

But let’s not let ourselves be distracted by this flak.

Let us take seriously that Trump did urge a ten-fold increase in nuclear weapons. Of course, that would violate numerous existing treaties and kick off a massive arms race with Russia and China, maybe with India (and Pakistan would want to keep up with India).

Today there are roughly 14,000 nuclear warheads in the world. All are much more powerful than the bombs dropped in WW II.

Let’s say a single high tonnage nuclear warhead dropped on a major city like New York or Beijing or Moscow could kill 700,000 people.

Then ten could kill 7 million. A hundred could kill 70 million. If the US and Russia let off all of their stockpile they could kill more than the entire combined population of the US and the Russian Federation. No one would survive such an exchange in either country.

Those are direct hits. There would be massive amounts of radiation affecting neighboring countries (Canada, Mexico, eastern Europe, northern China). When The Chernobyl plant melted down in 1986, we were living in London and were instructed not to drink milk because the radiation had spread on British grass from over in Ukraine and gotten into British cow udders. How many miscarriages would there be? Cases of cancer?

And of course urban infrastructure would be devastated, which in today’s complex world would also cause more deaths. Look at Puerto Rico, where there is still largely no electricity and where patients in hospitals without back-up generators are endangered.

A nuclear exchange would inevitably kick a lot of dust into the atmosphere and there’d be several bad summer growing seasons because of the cold and reduced sunlight. Millions more could die from this cause, a small nuclear winter.

Going down to as few nuclear warheads as possible is highly desirable. If Trump got his huge arsenal,maybe he would want some high megaton bombs of the sort that have been phased out, bringing back the threat of a true nuclear winter.

I now think Tillerson’s response to Trump’s tirade at the Pentagon last summer was ‘way too restrained.

Maybe everyone figures that Trump was only blowing off steam and that nothing will change. But they should take a gander at how the EPA has been turned into an evil bizarro anti-EPA dedicated to spreading around poisonous pollution and farting billions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, so as to produce even more violent hurricanes.

When someone is president, you have to take them seriously, however hard it may be.

Appendix: The current state of the US and Russian stockpiles:

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists estimates that Russia has

7,000 nuclear warheads, with 2,700 decommissioned and being dismantled

4,300 or so nuclear weapons in its military stockpile.

1,958 are on ballistic missiles and at heavy bomber bases.

500 are in storage.

1,850 nonstrategic warheads are in storage.

Some 2,700 warheads have been decommissioned and are awaiting dismantlement.

On the United States of America side of the ledger, Armscontrol.org estimates

6,819 total warheads, with 2800 decommissioned and being dismantled

1,393 strategic nuclear warheads deployed on 660 ICBMs, SLBMs, and strategic bombers.

Approximately 2,300 non-deployed strategic warheads and

roughly 500 deployed and non-deployed tactical warheads.

In a January 2017 speech, Vice President Joe Biden announced that as of September 30, 2016, the United States possessed

4,018 active and inactive nuclear warheads.

Biden also announced in January 2017 that the US is retiring 2,800 warheads

——

Related video added by Juan Cole:

What Advisors Explained To President Donald Trump About Nuclear Weapons | Morning Joe | MSNBC

Corporations Shouldn’t Get to Have ‘Religious’ Objections to Your Health Care

Thu, 12 Oct 2017 - 12:40am

By Martha Burk | (Otherwords.org) | – –

Expanding “corporate citizen” rights into health care could ultimately affect everybody, not just women.

When Obamacare — aka, the Affordable Care Act — became law in 2010, it mandated coverage of birth control without co-payments.

Some employers didn’t like the rule, and Hobby Lobby hated it so much that the company filed a lawsuit to stop it. Company owners said they didn’t believe in contraception and claimed that covering it for female employees violated their religious freedom.

Understand, the Obama administration went to great lengths to exempt churches and church-related institutions from the rule, while still guaranteeing their female employees the right to birth control if they wanted it.

Then the Supreme Court stepped in, siding with Hobby Lobby and ruling that “closely held” corporations with religious objections could join religious employers in excluding birth control from their insurance plans.

Now the Trump administration has gone a giant step further. They’re now allowing any and all businesses, including publicly traded ones, to also cite “religious or moral objections” in denying their employees contraception coverage.

Wait a minute.

Corporations not only have religious freedom but now moral principles, too? I didn’t even know they went to church, and I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen one get down on its knees and pray.

On the other hand, I know women — who are actual people — have religious freedom under the Constitution, too. What about their right not to be forced to bow to their employers’ religious beliefs or highly suspect “moral” principles?

Massachusetts, California, and the ACLU have filed lawsuits to stop the rollback. Good luck. Besides Hobby Lobby, the conservative majority in the Supreme Court ruled years ago in the Citizens United case that corporations have constitutional rights, and they’ve consistently ruled in favor of their corporate buddies over women in employment discrimination cases.

On top of that, six of the nine justices are male, and most of them of rather conservative religious persuasions. The odds look to be stacked against women.

Expanding so-called corporate citizen rights deeper into health care could ultimately affect everybody, not just women.

Christian Scientists are opposed to all kinds of medical treatment, including for diabetes, cancer, and meningitis. Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t believe in blood transfusions. There are undoubtedly other religious taboos on medical procedures.

Enterprising businesses that want to save money could cite “religious freedom” to exclude virtually any medical treatment from their insurance plans. Surgery, antibiotics, immunizations — you name it.

Where will it end? We don’t know. Even if the lawsuits are ultimately successful, a decision could take years.

All I know is that I don’t want my neighborhood corporate citizen making my health care decisions.

Via Otherwords.org

Martha Burk currently runs the Corporate Accountability Project for the National Council of Women’s Organizations, which started the Women on Wall Street project to investigate sex discrimination at companies associated with Augusta National Golf Club. She is a syndicated columnist, and serves as Money Editor for Ms. Magazine.

———

Related video added by Juan Cole:

The Young Turks: “Trump Aborts Obama’s Birth Control Mandate”

Yemen Cholera cases heading to 1 Mn. amid Saudi-led War

Thu, 12 Oct 2017 - 12:13am

By Edna Bonhomme | (The Conversation) | – –

As of October 1, 771,945 people in Yemen have been infected with cholera and 2,134 have died from the disease. The epidemic, rare on such a scale in contemporary times, reemerged as a formidable force last year due to Yemen’s ongoing civil war.

The Saudi Arabia-led war began in March 2015 and has caused a spiralling 7,000 new cholera cases per day. This is an enormous public health crisis – and one that could be solved simply. Treatment only demands providing clean water, oral rehydration salts, and gloves.

These wartime conditions allow us to draw parallels with the historical experience of epidemic – after all, it is the massive displacement and conditions of war that have allowed the disease to reemerge and wreak destruction in Yemen. War has overcome the near eradication of cholera that modern advances in medicine and international public health organisations have allowed. So how did these advances come to pass and what can we learn from the historical experience of cholera?

A patient drinks oral rehydration solution in order to counteract cholera-induced dehydration, 1992.
Wikimedia Commons
Cholera imagined

We first find mention of a disease that is recognisably cholera in the works of Arab-Islamic scholars, where it is known of as “heydain”. Around 900 CE, the physician Muhammad ibn al-Razi described cholera in the following way:

It begins with nausea and diarrhoea, or one of the two, and when it reaches the stomach it goes on multiplying itself. The pulse fails, and the breathing is attenuated; the face and the nose become thin; the colour of the skin of the face is changed, and the countenance of the dead succeeds.

Despite this long history, cholera was, in particular, a 19th century tragedy. The disease, which travels through water, thrived on the world’s multiplying population and increased mobility. During the first cholera pandemic (1817-1823), the disease travelled across the Persian Gulf from Bahrain along the Indian Ocean and to the Red Sea in Aden. Over the course of the century, multiple outbreaks of the disease quickly spread through burgeoning coastal cities, along rivers, and into commercial ports from Delhi to New York City.

How to avoid the Cholera, 1848.
Wikimedia Commons

The Arabian peninsula was particularly badly hit given the amount of trade and number of pilgrims travelling through the area, seeing several cholera epidemics during the mid-19th century. The disease wreaked havoc on the pilgrims who gathered in Mecca and Jeddah in 1828, 1831, 1835, 1865, 1881, and 1882. Of those, the Mecca pilgrimage was said to be the most horrific, with an estimated toll of 30,000 deaths over the course of the 19th century.

Medical and public health practitioners such as physicians and midwives played a major role in reducing transmission in the period. These people and institutions were financed through religious taxes and charity, which provided more resources to directly treat patients.

Public health reforms

But it was the emergence of modern medicine, the improvements on sanitation, and the isolation of Vibrio cholerae in 1854 by Filippo Pacini that worked to drastically ameliorate cholera’s impact in the latter half of the century.

The repeated outbreaks also arguably led to the creation of the kinds of public health institutions that we take for granted today. The International Sanitary Convention (ISC), which held its first conference in 1851 in Paris, was set up with the aim of ending the cholera pandemic. The ISC was a predecessor to the World Health Organisation (WHO), a body that was mostly represented by European actors along with the Ottoman central authority (based in Istanbul).

Vibrio cholerae.
Wikimedia Commons

Although the cholera epidemic was still rampant on the Arabian peninsula during the early 20th century, with outbreaks in Mecca between 1908-1912, the disease was then nearly totally absent from the peninsula until it spread in Yemen in 1971 – following the aftermath of the last Yemeni civil war.

Yemen witnessed cholera outbreaks in the 19th century due to the free movement of people and a very limited understanding of the disease. But the conditions and ways that the disease spread was nowhere near as quick-paced and detrimental as they are in the current outbreak.

Cholera today

The human cost of cholera in Yemen today, as we have seen, is grave and growing. There are predictions that the disease could infect a million people by 2018. The incidence and prevalence of cholera infection far exceeds the numbers from the 19th century and the current crisis in Yemen will set a record number of reported cases in the country.

What makes the current epidemic so pernicious is the way that war has exacerbated the disease despite advances in medicine and public health. The doctors and nurses working in the 19th century were not mired by the catastrophic conditions of modern war: massive military occupation, infrastructure meltdown, and political decimation.

The Yemeni government ceased providing money for the public health department in March 2016, shortly after war began. International organisations have provided the principle support, but the amount they can do is limited by their ability to carry out treatment during military sieges. Less than 50% of hospitals in Yemen are operational, with shortages of staff and supplies due to the ongoing conflict. But austerity and war have fractured the public health system. The 30,000 doctors, nurses, and other health care workers of Yemen have been working for the last ten months without pay.

The treatment for cholera is very simple, yet materials – when available – are obstructed from being distributed due to bombing. The arc of authoritarianism and foreign occupation in Yemen has resulted in the destruction of Yemen’s infrastructure, leaving 14m people without access to clean water.

History provides a glimpse of the tragic past and demonstrates that it is through policy that we can help to correct the tragedies that continue to face Yemen. Cholera is preventable, but public health reform is nearly impossible under conditions of war. The historical trajectory of cholera shows that interventions lose their effect when the public systems are crippled – something we also need to bear in mind in relation to the increased extreme weather events caused by climate change.

Edna Bonhomme, Postdoctoral Fellow, Max Planck Institute for the History of Science

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

——–

Related video added by Juan Cole:

The Foreign Desk: “Lawmakers Call for More Scrutiny of U.S. Involvement in Yemen Conflict”

Rohingya Refugee Women Bring Stories of Unspeakable Violence

Wed, 11 Oct 2017 - 11:50pm

By Naimul Haq | (Inter Press Service) | – –

COX’S BAZAR, Bangladesh (IPS) – Yasmin, 26, holds her 10-day-old baby, who she gave birth to in a crowded refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, a southeastern district bordering Myanmar.

Three weeks ago, when she was still in her home in Hpaung Taw Pyin village in Myanmar, she was raped by a group of soldiers as houses burned, people fled and gunfire shattered the air.

“I have been working as a human rights activist for the last 20 years but never heard of such an extreme level of violence.” –Bimol Chandra Dey Sarker, Chief Executive of the aid organisation Mukti

With sunken eyes, Yasmin told IPS how she was beaten and raped in her ninth month of pregnancy by Myanmar soldiers. Yasmin’s village was almost empty when she and many of her neighbours were violated. Only a few dozen women and children remained after the men had fled in fear of being tortured or killed.


Women and children who escaped the brutal violence in Myanmar wait for aid at a camp in Bangladesh. Credit: Parvez Ahmad Faysal/IPS

“On that dreadful evening an army truck stopped in our neighbourhood, and then came the soldiers raiding homes. I was alone in my home and one of the soldiers entering my thatched house shouted to invite a few others to join him in raping me.”

“I dare not resist. They had guns pointed at me while they stripped me to take turns one by one. I don’t remember how many of them raped me but at one stage I had lost consciousness from my fading screams,” she said, visibly exhausted and traumatized by the horrific ordeal.

Yasmin’s husband was killed by the Myanmar army on September 4 during one of the frequent raids, allegedly by state-sponsored Buddhist mobs against the Muslim minority in their ancestral home in Rakhine state.

Bandarban, a hilly district, and Cox’s Bazaar, a coastal district, both some 350 km southeast of Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka, are hosting the overcrowded Rohingya camps. The locals here are no strangers to influxes of refugees. Rohingyas have been forced out of Myanmar since 1992, and Bangladesh, as a neighbor, has sheltered many of them on humanitarian grounds.

However, the latest Rohingya exodus, following a massive government crackdown that began last August, has shaken the world. The magnitude of the atrocities carried out by the military junta this time is beyond imagination. Some describe the persecution as ‘genocide,’ which Myanmar’s rulers deny.

To add to the communal violence, dubbed ‘ethnic cleansing’ by Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, the military junta intensified physical assaults and soldiers have been sexually harassing innocent, unarmed Rohingya women alongside the regular killings of men.

The reasoning is obvious: no one should dare to stay in their homes. Many believe it’s a pre-planned operation to clear Rakhine state of the Rohingya population, who Myanmar does not recognize as citizens.

One Rohingya man, who managed to reach the Bangladesh border in mid-September, told IPS, “They have indeed successfully forced the Rohingya men out while the remaining unprotected women were a headache for the military junta, as killing the unarmed women would expose them to international criticism. So they chose a strategy of frightening the women and children – apply physical assault and sexual abuse, which worked so well.”

IPS spoke with many of the agencies, including the United Nations and local NGOs, working on the ground to provide emergency services such as food distribution, erecting shelters, organizing a safe water supply and hygienic latrines and, of course, healthcare.

Everyone who spoke to this correspondent said literally every woman, except the very old and young, has had experiences of either being molested or experiencing an extreme level of abuse like gang rape.

Survivors and witnesses shared brutal stories of women and young girls being raped in front of their family members. They described how cruel the soldiers were. They said the soldiers showed no mercy, not even for the innocent children who watched the killings and burning of their homes.


Newly arrived Rohingya refugees enter Teknaf from Shah Parir Dwip after being ferried from Myanmar across the Naf River. Credit: Farid Ahmed/ IPS

Bimol Chandra Dey Sarker, Chief Executive of Mukti, a local NGO in Cox’s Bazaar, told IPS, “I have been working as a human rights activist for the last 20 years but never heard of such an extreme level of violence. Many of the women who are now sheltered in camps shared their agonizing tales of sexual abuse. It’s like in a movie.”

Kaniz Fatema, a focal person for CODEC, a leading NGO in coastal Cox’s Bazaar, told IPS, “Stories of sexual abuse of Rohingya women keep pouring in. I heard women describing horrific incidents which they say are everyday nightmares. How can such violence occur in this civilized world today?”

“Although women are shy and traumatized, they speak up. Here (in Bangladesh) they feel safer and so the stories of abuses are being submitted from every corner of the camps,” she said.

The chief health officer of Cox’s Bazar 500-bed district hospital, where most of the wounded are being treated, told IPS, “At the beginning we were providing emergency treatment for many Rohingya refugees with bullet wounds. Now, we are facing a new crisis of treating so many pregnant women. We are registering pregnant women and admitting them almost every day despite shortages of beds. Many of these women complain of being sexually harassed.”

An attending nurse at the hospital who regularly treats the sexually abused women, said, “Many women still bear marks of wounds during rape encounters. It’s amazing that these women are so tough. Even after so many days of suffering, they keep silent about the agonies and don’t complain.”

The UNFPA is offering emergency reproductive healthcare services in Bandarban and Cox’s Bazaar, where aid workers shared similar tales from women who suffered torture and gang rape at gunpoint.

“It is so horrifying,” said a field worker serving in Ukhia upazila in Bandarban, adding, “I heard of a young girl being raped in front of her father, mother and brother. Then the soldiers took the men out in the courtyard and shot them.”

Faisal Mahmud, a senior reporter who recently returned to the capital from Rohingya camps, also said he spoke to many victims of rape. “Most of them I spoke to were so traumatised they were hardly able to narrate the brutality. I could see the fear in their faces. Although I hardly understand their dialect, a translator helped me to understand the terrifying tales of being stripped naked and gang raped.”

Mohammad Jamil Hossain trekked through the deep forests, evading mines and Myanmar border guards who look for men to catch and take back.

“The systematic cleansing will not end until every member of Rohingya population is evicted and forced out of the country,” he said. “The whole world is watching and yet doing nothing to stop the killings.”

Shireen Huq, founder member of Naripokkho, Bangladesh’s leading NGO fighting for women’s rights, told IPS, “I was shocked and overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of people, mostly women and children, fleeing Myanmar and entering Bangladesh. The media had reported widespread atrocities, mass rape, murder, arson and brutality in the state of Rakhain.”

“Women arriving at Nayapara through Shah Porir Dwip were in a state of shock and fatigue. Many of them were candid about the julum (a word used to mean both torture and rape) they had undergone, about being raped by several military,” she said.

“We must ensure appropriate and adequate care for the refugees, especially all those who have suffered sexual violence. They need medical care, psycho-social counseling and abortion services.”

“Agencies working in the Rohingya refugee camps estimate that 50,000 women are pregnant. Several hundred deliveries have already taken place. Round the clock emergency health services must be made available to deal with the situation,” Shireen said.

More than 501,800 Rohingya have fled the Buddhist-majority country and crossed into Bangladesh since August 25. Densely populated refugee settlements have mushroomed around road from Teknaf to Cox’s Bazar district that borders Myanmar divided by Naf river. About 2,000 of the refugees are flooding into the camps every day, according to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).

IOM has appealed to the international community for 120 million dollars between now and February 2018 to begin to address the humanitarian crisis.

“The refugees who fled Rakhine did so in the belief that they would find safety and protection in Cox’s Bazar,” said William Lacy Swing, IOM’s Director General, in a statement on October 4. “It is our responsibility to ensure that the suffering and trauma that they have experienced on the way must end.”

Meanwhile, witnesses say there are still thousands of refugees in the forest waiting to cross over the Bangladesh border, which has now been officially opened. Many can be seen from distant hilltops, walking with whatever belongings they could take.

“I was really struck by the fear that these people carry with themselves, what they have gone through and seen back in Myanmar,” the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, told Reuters in a camp recently, where refugees live under thousands of tarpaulins covering the hills and rice paddies.

“Parents killed, families divided, wounds inflicted, rapes perpetrated on women. There’s a lot of terrible violence that has occurred and it will take a long time for people to heal their wounds, longer than satisfying their basic needs,” Grandi said.

Naimul Haq is a Bangladesh-based journalist with well over a decade of experience. Currently, Naimul is the joint news editor and head of the English news department at Jamuna Television. Formerly, Naimul was a special correspondent for online news agency The-Editor, a senior staff correspondent for Bangladesh News 24 Hours and a senior staff reporter for The Daily Star in addition to other freelancing positions. Naimul is also a consultant with UNICEF Bangladesh and has extensive experience specialising in health and environmental issues with various international organisations, including the World Health Organisation, the Reuters Foundation and the World Bank.

Licensed from Inter Press Service

As Trump & Pruitt unleash Climate Demons, Scientists dream of Atlantic Wind Farm

Wed, 11 Oct 2017 - 1:25am

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

The debate over whether Donald Trump or Rex Tillerson has the higher IQ, provoked by a Trump tweet that he now says was a joke, actually raises a serious question.

Why would someone deliberately sabotage our air, water and climate? The science needed for understanding that some gases are heat-trapping isn’t very complicated and I’m confident that schoolchildren can grasp it easily and even do some basic confirmatory experiments. So if Trump and EPA head Scott Pruitt are unable to understand the evil they are doing, is it because they lack basic intelligence? Or is the problem moral? Or is it just groupthink?

I mean, this is the year when hurricanes wrecked the Caribbean because of increased water temperature.

Even as Pruitt moved to abolish Obama-era regulations on coal plants–the most polluting of all energy sources– and argued for an end to tax breaks for wind and solar installations, scientists were reporting that putting floating wind farms in the north Atlantic could power the entire earth.

The authors of the new paper point out that on land, if you put a lot of wind turbines in one place, they begin interfering with one another and limiting the amount energy that can be extracted.

But they found that if you made floating wind farms in the north Atlantic, the winds are so high and constant that you would not run into the problem.

As Informed Comment pointed out last year, Scotland has set up several floating wind turbines some 25 miles offshore. Putting them out in the middle of the north Atlantic would be far more difficult, of course.

Here is a BBC update on the Scotland project:

World’s first floating offshore wind farm in Scotland.- BBC News

Every day there are technical breakthroughs in wind and solar power at the level of basic science. It will take some years to turn them into practical technology. In the meantime the terra-sabotage of Trump and his oil-drenched cronies will worsen the quality of life for millions of human beings, perhaps billions if we project out.

Me, I don’t think it has anything to do with IQ, which is a suspicious measure to begin with (there are lots of kinds of intelligence and individuals don’t typically excel in more than one or two.

I think it is just greed, pure and simple.

Detroit’s Eminem raps against Trump, defends Muslims

Wed, 11 Oct 2017 - 12:40am

Marshall “Eminem” Mathers | BETNetwork | (Music Video) | – –

“Eminem is back! And he’s in classic bar-for-bar form blasting at Donald Trump from his Detroit home. The cyphers went crazy too. Peep.”

BETNetworks: “Eminem Rips Donald Trump In BET Hip Hop Awards Freestyle Cypher”

Read “The Storm (2017 BET Hip-Hop Awards Cypher Verse)” by Eminem on Genius

How “ghost soldiers” could frustrate Trump’s plans for Afghanistan

Wed, 11 Oct 2017 - 12:12am

By Jessica Purkiss | ( The Bureau of Investigative Journalism) | – –

Frank “Gus” Biggio arrived in Nawa, a district in Afghanistan’s embattled Helmand province, in the summer of 2009. Then, he recalled, it was “a violent, lawless, ungoverned place”, like an “apocalyptic scene out of a movie”.

The battle to secure the district was tough – four Marines were killed during Biggio’s deployment as a Marine Reservist, including his friend, Bill Cahir. “We had worked hard, I had lost my team chief, a good friend,” he said.

But by the time his battalion had left seven months later, Biggio says the Taliban were gone and normal life seemed to be resuming for its residents. Nawa quickly became one of the most celebrated successes in the US counterinsurgency campaign.

In the following years, Biggio watched as district after district fell to the Taliban. He hoped fervently that Nawa would buck the trend. But as the Taliban’s advance strengthened, with the US troop withdrawal in 2014, its downfall seemed on the cards. In October 2016, Taliban fighters overran Nawa.

Why it happened has been the subject of a Bureau investigation. We have uncovered systemic corruption that demonstrates that the Afghan forces holding the front line were significantly undermanned, their numbers falsely inflated with so-called “ghost soldiers” or security force personnel that existed only on paper.

The Taliban were finally dislodged in July 2017 after a major offensive by Afghan forces, backed by US air strikes, but Nawa remains vulnerable.

“I would like to see places like Nawa thriving economically and politically today”, says Biggio sadly. “Asking whether the sacrifice was worth it or not would be easier to answer then.”


Memorial for Bill Cahir who died in Nawa


By Sgt William Greeson via Frank "Gus" Biggio

"Only the Afghan government can solve it, and they have yet to demonstrate the willingness to do so"

The rise and fall of Nawa is, however, not a standalone case. Across Afghanistan, the Taliban has profited from the endemic corruption and mismanagement that plagues the Afghan forces. President Donald Trump has signalled that yet more troops will be sent to Afghanistan to prop up places like Nawa. But without addressing these issues, any gains made by sending additional US troops will likely be fragile.

“This was the Achilles heel of the 2009-2011 surge and continues to undermine efforts for a successful outcome,” says Christopher Kolenda, former US military commander in Afghanistan turned analyst.

“140,000 international troops could not solve that problem. 3,500 more American troops now cannot do so, either. Only the Afghan government can solve it, and they have yet to demonstrate the willingness to do so,” Kolenda adds.


A panoramic view of a market in Nawa


Via Frank "Gus" Biggio

Fading hopes for Nawa

When the US Marines took over from the British in 2009, Nawa was in a bad way. Heavy fighting and a sustained Taliban presence had left the once-bustling district centre an empty wasteland.

Within a few months of the Marine mission, however, American troops could walk around the centre without body armour. Many shops had reopened and the open-air Friday bazaar resumed trading.

Soon experts from the State Department and the US government’s aid agency were turning up in the district with plans for long-term reconstruction and development projects. Money was being pumped into Nawa, in part to lure low-level insurgents away from the Taliban.


Commander Matt Baker talking to his Marines


Via Matt Baker

"Nawa city was an example of what could be."

The turnaround in Nawa caught the attention of General David H Petraeus, the then top US and NATO commander in Afghanistan. He featured Nawa in a PowerPoint presentation to senior members of President Obama’s national security team participating in evaluating the war at the time. It was proof the counter-insurgency strategy was working and he wanted them to know about it. As another Marine put it, “Nawa city was an example of what could be.”

For Marines serving in Nawa, this was a source of pride. “We worked hard on being Nawa’s Marine battalion,” says Matt Baker, the commander of the 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, back in 2009. He recalls an incident where rumours had surfaced Marines had desecrated a Qur’an in the neighbouring district. Fearing tensions would reach Nawa, he arranged a meeting with the elders. However, he said, they already knew and had assured their neighbours that “their” Marines would not do such a thing. “It was a wonderful compliment,” says Baker.


Shura, or tribal meeting, in Nawa


Corporal James Purschwitz, via Frank "Gus" Biggio

"His death was the beginning of the end for Nawa."

The gains, however, were fragile. Crime reportedly rose after the Taliban left. “The Marines feel safe, but the ordinary people in Nawa do not,” Khawanin, the headmaster of the main school in the district, told the Washington Post in 2010. Security deteriorated further when the US troop presence began to gradually decrease.

In 2015, Haji Abdul Manaf, the district governor, the lynchpin of stability in Nawa, was gunned down on his way to Kandahar.

“His death was the beginning of the end for Nawa”, says Biggio.


Governor Abdul Manaf cutting a ribbon to mark the official opening of a new clinic in Nawa


US Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Cesar N. Contreras

“Nawa was deliberately left to be overrun by the Taliban”

When the Taliban offensive started in earnest in late 2016, it was brief. Insurgents had been inching closer and Helmand’s districts were falling like dominoes.

It is hard to say what would have happened to Nawa if it had had proper defences. But it had been left with a large gap. According to local council members and a source within the Afghan administration, the district had only half the roughly 700 policemen it was supposed to have.

“Nawa was deliberately left to be overrun by the Taliban”, said one furious Nawa elder.

Another critic of what happened in Nawa, Atuallah Afghan, a member of Helmand’s Provincial Council, explained the problem to the Bureau. The Afghan government allocates a set number of police to defend each area. The number of police allocated to each district in Helmand is held in the police headquarters in Lashkar Gah, Atuallah said. Nawa was supposed to have 700 officers.

All districts receive central government budget to cover salaries of front-line forces. In many areas in Afghanistan, some of this budget disappears and the actual number of officers tasked with holding back the Taliban is much lower than the number actually allotted. This issue, known as ghost soldiers, was particularly extreme in Nawa.

Atuallah and others concerned about the problem last year would ring up local officials to ask them how many men they had at their nearby checkpoints. In this way they were able to estimate the number of police actually deployed in Nawa; they put the figure at around 300 men. The salaries of the other 400 were ending up somewhere else.

Three other well-placed sources also told the Bureau that Nawa only had between 300-400 police officers on the eve of its fall. Atuallah said he complained about the ghost soldier problem in Helmand to government officials before the Taliban push on Nawa began. “No one did anything about it”, he said.

This is hardly surprising, given how deep-seated the problem of corruption is. Local elders described a network of connections to the Bureau, which they explained protected those siphoning off the salaries at the time.

These kind of problems are not unique to Nawa – ghost soldiers are a problem throughout Afghanistan. This is in part facilitated by the high rate of casualties in the the Afghan security forces – they were being killed at a rate of 130 a week at the beginning of 2017. Often the names of the dead, as well as defectors, are not taken off lists of personnel, allowing for their pay cheques to continue to be remitted.


An image of an Afghan soldier in Helmand province, Afghanistan


via Shutterstock

He offered up some startling figures – around half of the 26,000 personnel did not exist physically

However, in Helmand, which has an unfortunate combination of high US military spending and powerful tribal networks, the problem of corruption has been particularly acute historically.

Abdul Jabar Qahraman was appointed operational commander for all of Helmand in January 2016, and resigned in spring 2017. He described to the Bureau what the ghost soldier phenomenon looked like on the ground. In one district, he said, there were ten checkpoints, and 25 people had been allocated to each one, meaning there should have been 250 men in total. When he paid a visit, he only saw 96 men. “Out of them 54 had AK47s and the rest were unarmed.” Most of the others, he said, were unfit to work.

He told the Bureau that he went to the very top with the problem, speaking to the Afghan President, Ashraf Ghani. “I put this on the President’s table and told him if there are 50 opponents attacking this checkpoint, how can you defend it?” Qahraman said, explaining his frustration with the general mismanagement. “You know why I resigned from my post in Helmand? I couldn’t stand it anymore.”

In a statement last year, Helmand’s then police chief confirmed Qahraman’s estimate of the scale of the problem. He offered up some startling figures – around half of the 26,000 personnel assigned to the province did not exist physically. Their salaries, he said, were ending up in personal accounts.

There have been efforts to tackle the issue in a wide-reaching manner. President Ashraf Ghani established an anti-corruption court to hold those once believed to be above the law to account. In Helmand, the US military put in over $100m last year to rebuild the Afghan army’s 215th Corps, bogged down by mismanagement and corruption.

These initiatives have seen some success, especially in Helmand. But the roadblocks they have encountered illustrate the depth of the problem they are tackling. The general appointed to rebuild and reform the 215th Corps was himself arrested in March 2017, accused of misusing food money meant to supply his soldiers, among other things. A previous police chief of Helmand, who had also been appointed as a reformer, was reported at the same time to be under investigation after allegedly being fired for selling the positions of district chiefs of police in the province.

Complex payment processing systems involving biometrics are being rolled out in an effort to tackle the issue of ghost personnel. However, even the people implementing them admit they will not eradicate the problem.


Camp Base Jaker, where Biggio and Baker were stationed


Via Frank "Gus" Biggio

Keeping Nawa out of Taliban hands

"We fear that because of this issue once again our district might fall into Taliban hands"

Nine months after it fell, Afghan security forces launched a massive offensive, Operation Maiwand Four, to win Nawa back. They were supported by coalition drones, air strikes from F-16s and attacks by Apache AH-64 helicopter gunships. After two days, they had recaptured the district centre.

Insurgents then launched a counter-attack, meaning that a large-scale military operation was necessary to secure the district.

But how long Nawa will stay out of Taliban hands is an open question. Even if the operation is successful, some worry the ongoing corruption, and in particular the stubborn problem of ghost forces will leave Nawa vulnerable yet again. “The cause of most of our problems in Nawa is this issue and we fear that because of this issue once again our district might fall into Taliban hands,” a district tribal council member told the Bureau.

However, the former Marine Commander, Matt Baker, is frustrated at what he sees as a tendency to see corruption in simplistic terms, arguing that in a country like Afghanistan, the opportunity to make money is part of what can incentivise people to commit to the military.

And, Baker adds, the reasons behind it are not always negative. He points to instances where commanders used money collected in this way for their troops, including to provide some funds or gifts to wounded soldiers.

Perhaps, he said, if a better system of incentives was put in place, things might have turned out differently.

“It might be true that Nawa was lost years and years ago because no-one fixed the system which incentivises people to do this,” he muses.

Biggio now works for a law firm in the United Arab Emirates, but still follows the news on Afghanistan. Speaking from his home in Dubai, he says that he accepts the necessity of US troops going back in to Nawa. However, he stresses that there must be an end-point.

He says: “I don’t want us to be there forever.”

Jessica Purkiss is a reporter covering US strikes in Afghanistan, Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia. She previously worked for Middle East Monitor.

Via The Bureau of Investigative Journalism

Turkish Gov’t Railroading Amnesty Int’l Workers in Kafkaesque Trial

Tue, 10 Oct 2017 - 11:53pm

By Benjamin Ward | (Human Rights Watch) | – –

Jailed Human Rights Defenders Could Face up to 15 Years in Prison

If it were a television script, any sensible producer would reject it as too far-fetched.

Ten human rights defenders met on a small island in Istanbul for a training session on July 5. Yet instead of a regular work meeting, an Istanbul prosecutor has made the preposterous accusation that the group was in fact colluding with three terrorist organizations – several of which are sworn enemies of one another – and their true purpose was to foment “chaos” in the country through mass protests.


Human rights defenders detained by police in Istanbul on July 5, 2017. From bottom left: Nalan Erkem; Nejat Taştan; İlknur Üstün, İdil Eser, Özlem Dalkıran, Günal Kurşun.

The accusations may sound laughable, but the implications for human rights work in Turkey are deadly serious.

Eight of the 10 defenders detained on the island, including Amnesty’s Turkey director, İdil Eser and its founder Özlem Dalkıran, German national Peter Steudtner and Swedish national Ali Gharavi, remain in pretrial detention. Two were released on police bail but still face similar charges.

The chair of the Amnesty Turkey, Taner Kılıç, was detained a month before the police raid on the meeting and stands trial in a separate case later this month for having an encryption app on his phone – a charge he denies – which supposedly links him to the group the government accuses of last year’s attempted military coup. He is now also accused of being involved in the alleged conspiracy with the 10.

We don’t know if a court will accept the indictment, which was leaked to the Turkish media this weekend before the detainees’ lawyers even saw it. But even a superficial examination of the allegations confirms they are unfounded, contradictory, and politically motivated.

By way of evidence, the prosecutor cites random material gathered from the defenders’ phones and laptops: Amnesty campaign material, a few random phone calls with people who are also the subject of ongoing criminal proceedings, notes from a political meeting, a grant application, a map showing language groups across the Middle East and Asia, some minor money transfers for unspectacular sums. All this is seemingly evidence that the activists were hatching a plan to sow chaos across Turkey.

The truth is that these human rights defenders are being prosecuted not for an elaborate conspiracy, but to silence them and make their work impossible. They should be freed immediately, and the politically motivated charges against them dropped.

Can Coffee survive Climate Change?

Tue, 10 Oct 2017 - 11:37pm

Sylvain Charlebois | (The Conversation) | – –

Fall is always a good time to create new habits, and coffee chains know it.

These days, they are desperately trying to find any excuse to get you to drink their java.

Many chains used National or International Coffee Day, just passed, as a reason to offer their coffee at a discount, or even for free — with some conditions, of course.

For restaurant operators, there’s no better hook than coffee to get repeat business. It’s a great scheme that seems to be working for some. Given what’s looming on the horizon, however, offering free coffee may no longer be an option for businesses.

Coffee demand around the world is shifting. Europe still accounts for almost one third of the coffee consumed worldwide, but China has doubled its consumption in just the last five years.

As for Canada, numbers remain robust as more than 90 per cent of adult Canadians drink coffee. Several recent studies suggest coffee is a healthy choice, possibly one factor in the rise in coffee drinkers.

Either way, demand is strong in most Western countries, which puts more pressure on coffee-producing countries. However, as climate change looms, there’s a real threat to coffee’s global success story.

Coffee grown in more than 60 countries

Coffee is the most traded commodity in the world after oil.

Coffee beans are grown in more than 60 countries and allow 25 million families worldwide to make a living. Brazil is by far the largest producer, followed by Vietnam and Colombia.

Globally, 2017 could be a record year, as the world will likely produce well over 153 million 60-kilogram bags of coffee. Coffee futures are down as a result, but we are far from seeing a bumper crop.

Production has been modestly shifting over the past few years. With good rainfalls in Brazil and favourable weather patterns in other regions of the world, Mother Nature has so far spared coffee growers, but their luck may be running out.

Despite not being a staple in any diet, coffee is big business. At the farm gate, coffee is worth over US$100 billion. In the retail sector, the coffee industry is worth US$10 billion.

But there is growing consensus among experts that climate change will severely affect coffee crops over the next 80 years. By 2100, more than 50 per cent of the land used to grow coffee will no longer be arable.

Ethiopia could be profoundly affected

A combination of effects, resulting from higher temperatures and shifting rainfall patterns, will make the land where coffee is currently grown unsuitable for its production.

According to the National Academy of Science, in Latin America alone, more than 90 per cent of the land used for coffee production could suffer this fate. It’s estimated that Ethiopia, the sixth largest producer in the world, could lose over 60 per cent of its production by 2050. That’s only a generation from now.

As climate conditions become critical, the livelihoods of millions of farmers are at risk and production capacity is jeopardized. Other potential contributors to this predicted downfall are pests and diseases.

With climate change, pest management and disease control are serious issues for farmers who cannot afford to protect their crops. More than 80 per cent of coffee growers are peasant farmers.

Pests and diseases will migrate to regions where temperatures are adequate for survival, and most farmers won’t be ready. Many will simply choose to grow other crops less vulnerable to climate change. Others may attempt to increase their coffee production, but the quality will almost certainly be compromised.

Coffee quality will suffer

Higher temperatures will affect the quality of coffee. Higher-quality coffee is grown in specific regions of the world where the climate allows the beans to ripen at just the right time. Arabica coffee, for example, which represents 75 per cent of world coffee production, is always just a few degrees away from becoming a sub-par product.

This will undoubtedly affect coffee prices and quality for us all. Thanks to the so-called Starbucks Effect, the quality of the coffee we now enjoy is far superior to that of just a decade ago. Good beans may become more difficult to procure in the future.

Right now, coffee futures are valued at US$1.28 per pound and are being exposed to downward pressures. At this rate, the record price of US$3.39 per pound, set in 1977, could return in just a few years.

The coffee wars we are seeing are not just about gaining market shares and getting consumers hooked on java. They are also about how we connect with a crop that is under siege by climate change.

Short of fighting climate change, we could be forced to alter our relationship with coffee. As current coffee-producing countries attempt to develop eco-friendly methods and embrace sustainable practices, Canada could be the next country where coffee is actually grown, not just roasted.

Within the next decade, with climate change and new technologies, perhaps producing coffee beans will be feasible in Canada. After all, if Elon Musk thinks we can start colonizing Mars by 2022, why can’t we grow coffee in Canada?

So if a coffee chain is offering free coffee, take it. It won’t be long before coffee could become a luxury.

Sylvain Charlebois, Professor in Food Distribution and Policy, Dalhousie University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

———

Related video added by Juan Cole:

Aljazeera English: “Climate change threatens Ethiopia coffee production”

As Trump seeks Defense Budget Increase, Pentagon Pork fattens Private Contractors to do Nothing

Tue, 10 Oct 2017 - 11:13pm

By William D. Hartung | ( Tomdispatch.com) | – –

Here’s a question for you: How do you spell boondoggle?

The answer (in case you didn’t already know): P-e-n-t-a-g-o-n.

Hawks on Capitol Hill and in the U.S. military routinely justify increases in the Defense Department’s already munificent budget by arguing that yet more money is needed to “support the troops.”  If you’re already nodding in agreement, let me explain just where a huge chunk of the Pentagon budget — hundreds of billions of dollars — really goes.  Keep in mind that it’s your money we’re talking about.

The answer couldn’t be more straightforward: it goes directly to private corporations and much of it is then wasted on useless overhead, fat executive salaries, and startling (yet commonplace) cost overruns on weapons systems and other military hardware that, in the end, won’t even perform as promised.  Too often the result isweapons that aren’t needed at prices we can’t afford.  If anyone truly wanted to help the troops, loosening the corporate grip on the Pentagon budget would be an excellent place to start.

The numbers are staggering.  In fiscal year 2016, the Pentagon issued $304 billionin contract awards to corporations — nearly half of the department’s $600 billion-plus budget for that year.  And keep in mind that not all contractors are created equal. According to the Federal Procurement Data System’s top 100 contractors report for 2016, the biggest beneficiaries by a country mile were Lockheed Martin ($36.2 billion), Boeing ($24.3 billion), Raytheon ($12.8 billion), General Dynamics ($12.7 billion), and Northrop Grumman ($10.7 billion). Together, these five firms gobbled up nearly $100 billion of your tax dollars, about one-third of all the Pentagon’s contract awards in 2016.

And remember: the Pentagon buys more than just weapons.  Health care companies like Humana ($3.6 billion), United Health Group ($2.9 billion), and Health Net ($2.6 billion) cash in as well, and they’re joined by, among others, pharmaceutical companies like McKesson ($2.7 billion) and universities deeply involved in military-industrial complex research like MIT ($1 billion) and Johns Hopkins ($902 million).

The real question is: How much of this money actually promotes the defense of the country and how much is essentially a subsidy to weapons makers and other corporations more focused on their bottom lines than giving the taxpayers value for their money?

“Modernizing” the Military-Industrial Complex

Let’s start with the obvious (but seldom said).  Some arms company expenditures clearly have no more of a national security rationale than Tom Price’s air travel did for the promotion of American health. Take the compensation that defense company CEOs get, for example.  The heads of the top five Pentagon contractors — Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon, General Dynamics, and Northrop Grumman — made a cumulative $96 million last year.  These are companies that are significantly or, in the cases of Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, almost entirely dependent on government dollars.  That means one thing: your tax dollars are basically paying their exorbitant salaries.  And that $96 million figure doesn’t even count the scores of other highly paid executives and board members at major weapons contractors like these. Don’t you feel safer already?

Donald Trump initially spent a fair amount of tweeting energy bragging about how he was going to bring such contractors to heel on their pricing practices for weapons systems.  In fact, he’s already turned out to be good news indeed for major contractors, most of whom have seen sharp upturns in revenues and profits in the first two quarters of this year (compared to the same period in what was still the Obama era).  Among other things, Trump has proven eager to lift restrictions on U.S. weapons sales abroad (and enlist State Department and Pentagon officials to spend more of their time shilling such weaponry).  As a result, future American arms deals are already on a precipitous upward trajectory and, as one defense industry analyst has noted, “both commercial aerospace and the defense sectors expect improvement for the remainder of 2017 with the potential for new records in both revenue and operating profit.”

Whether such increases in the funds flowing to major weapons contractors will accelerate yet more depends, in part, on the outcome of this year’s budget debate in which Trump and Congress are competing to see who can sponsor the biggest increase in Pentagon spending.  Trump has backed a $54 billion budgetary rise, while the Senate, in the recently passed National Defense Authorization Act, backed a $90 billion increase.  The only thing standing between the contractors and another huge payday is the question of whether Congress can, in fact, pass a budget this year or if its representatives will have to fall back on a continuing resolution that would keep spending at last year’s levels.

Needless to say, Lockheed Martin and its cohorts are doing everything in their power to break the budget deadlock and open the spigot to release the huge funding increases they feel entitled to.  In the process, they are spending impressive sums (undoubtedly, in part, also your tax dollars) to promote their interests in Washington.  The defense industry has, for instance, anted up $65 million on Political Action Committee contributions since 2009.

You probably won’t be surprised to learn that the bulk of that sum has been lavished on the congressional representatives who are in the best position to help the industry — particularly members of the armed services and defense appropriations committees of the House and Senate.  In recent years, these contributions have tilted Republican, with nearly two-thirds of the contributions going to GOP candidates.  But this ratio will shift back toward the Democrats, should they retake control of Congress at any point.  For weapons contractors, it’s ultimately not about party or ideology but about buying access and influence with whoever has the power to appropriate money for them.

The arms industry’s investment in lobbying is even more impressive.  The defense sector has spent a total of more than $1 billion on that productive activity since 2009, employing anywhere from 700 to 1,000 lobbyists in any given year. To put that in perspective, you’re talking about significantly more than one lobbyist per member of Congress, the majority of whom zipped through Washington’s famed “revolving door”; they moved, that is, from positions in Congress or the Pentagon to posts at weapons companies from which they could proselytize their former colleagues. 

This process, of course, allows newly minted lobbyists to use their privileged contacts with former government colleagues to promote the special interests of their corporate clients.  It also ensures that congressional staffers, military officers, and Pentagon bureaucrats nearing the end of their careers and looking toward a lucrative future will be inclined to cut major contractors some slack.  Why not, when they are looking forward to a big payday with that same cast of characters after they leave government?

An egregious example — the case of Darleen Druyun — offers an inside look at how a Pentagon official curries favor with future corporate employers.  Druyun was a high-ranking Pentagon procurement officer who rigged contracts for Boeing while negotiating for a job with that company (which was already employing her daughter and son-in-law).  The Druyun case was the exception that proves the rule.  She actually did nine months in prison for her actions, thanks in large part to Senator John McCain’s dogged pursuit of the case.  Lesser cases of influence peddling, however, occur all the time and no one faces jail time for them. As long as the lure of big corporate payoffs remains so central to the lives of government employees, the game will regularly be tilted toward their potential future employers.

In other words, what we’re getting in return for the hundreds of billions of dollars we shower on those weapons firms is a raw deal and that revolving door is but one example of it.  Don’t forget the endemic waste, fraud, and abuse that is part and parcel of the Pentagon budget — of that is, an outfit that has proven incapable of even auditing itself.  As with influence peddling, when it comes to that trio there’s a scale that ranges from the criminal to the merely outrageous.  In the first category, you might start with the “Fat Leonard” scandal, named for a corporate executive who bribed dozens of Navy officials with money, vacations, and prostitutes to get the inside track on contracts to help maintain U.S. ships based in ports in the Pacific. So far, 29 criminal indictments have been handed down in the case.

That one got the headlines, but the biggest sources of corporate waste when it comes to Pentagon dollars are such a part of everyday life in Washington that they go largely unnoticed.  The Pentagon, for example, employs more than 600,000 private contractors.  There are so many of them and they are so poorly monitored that the Pentagon (as it has reluctantly acknowledged) doesn’t even have an accurate count of how many of them it has hired. What we do know is that many are carrying out redundant tasks that could be done more cheaply by government employees.  Cutting the contractor work force by 15% — theoretically an easy task but light years beyond anything presently imaginable — would save a quick $20 billion a year.

Then there are the big weapons programs. As the Project on Government Oversight has shown, the Lockheed Martin F-35 combat aircraft — supposedly a state-of-the-art plane for the twenty-first century — has had so many cost and performance issues that it may never be fully ready for combat.  That, however, hasn’t stopped the Pentagon from planning to spend $1.4 trillion to build and maintain more than 2,400 of these defective planes during the lifetime of the program.

Last but hardly least, don’t forget the Pentagon’s misguided plan to spend more than $1 trillion in the next three decades on a whole new generation of nuclear-armed bombers, submarines, and land- and air-based missiles. The United States nuclear arsenal already has more than 4,000 nuclear warheads in its active stockpile, with 1,700 deployed and ready to be launched on a moment’s notice. 

Even if one accepts the idea that there is a need for nuclear weapons to deter other countries (like, say, North Korea), this could be accomplished with an arsenal a fraction of the size of the current one. Two analysts from U.S. war colleges have estimated that about 300 deliverable nuclear warheads would be enough to dissuade any nation from attacking the United States with a nuclear weapon. Anything else represents sheer excess, not to mention a huge source of unjustified revenue and profits for weapons contractors.  (And note that the current trillion-dollar “modernization” program for the nuclear arsenal was initiated under President Barack Obama, a man who won the Nobel Prize for his urge to abolish all such weaponry.  Take that as a measure of the power of America’s corporate nuclear lobby.)

Military Spending Generates Jobs (for Lobbyists and Overpaid CEOs)

In addition to “supporting the troops,” the other common argument in Washington for runaway Pentagon spending is: jobs, jobs, jobs.  And there can be no question that if you plow hundreds of billions of dollars into new weapons systems, you will create some new employment opportunities. What’s surprising is how relatively few jobs actually flow these days from such Pentagon expenditures. 

In 2011, a study by economists from the University of Massachusetts made this blindingly clear.  What they showed was that military spending is the worst way to create jobs.  Putting the same money into any other area — from infrastructure to transportation to alternative energy to health care or education — creates up to twice as many jobs as military spending does.  If it’s about jobs, there are plenty of alternatives to throwing vast piles of tax dollars at a wasteful Pentagon.

The challenge here is political, not economic.  The question at hand is how to get a president and a Congress who are willing to buck the arms lobby and invest in what would quite literally be more constructive activities.

Contractors aid and abet the process of investing in the Pentagon by routinely exaggerating the number of jobs their programs create.  The F-35 is a classic example.  Lockheed Martin has a handy interactive map on its website that claims the program supports 125,000 jobs in 46 states. When I took a closer look at the company’s analysis and compared it with standard economic estimating procedures, however, I found that the true number is less than half that many jobs generated.

In fact, according to Lockheed’s own figures, more than half of the jobs generated by the program are in just two states, Texas and California.  In short, the F-35 creates nothing like the number of jobs the company claims and those jobs aren’t spread as widely or evenly across the country as their propaganda suggests.  In truth, the best jobs generated by Pentagon spending are the ones for well-heeled lobbyists and overpaid corporate executives.

So the next time someone suggests that the Pentagon needs yet more money for the troops, just remember that what they’re actually talking about are troops of overpaid defense contractors, not members of the armed forces.  If you want to “defend” this country, maybe it’s time to protect it from the predators that President Dwight D. Eisenhower once memorably called “the military-industrial complex.”

William D. Hartung, a TomDispatch regular, is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy and the author of Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military-Industrial Complex.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power, as well as John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II, John Feffer’s dystopian novel Splinterlands, Nick Turse’s Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead, and Tom Engelhardt’s Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Copyright 2017 William D. Hartung

Via Tomdispatch.com

—–

Related video added by Juan Cole:

David Pakman: FILL THE SWAMP: Trump Filling Pentagon with Defense Contractors

Trump and the Faustian Bargain of Corker and the GOP

Tue, 10 Oct 2017 - 1:14am

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

The Republican Establishment doesn’t want much in life, just for the wealthy to have ever lower taxes, for polluting industries to have ever less regulation, and for the health and welfare of the nation’s poor and workers to be someone else’s responsibility, preferably that of the poor and workers themselves.

People like Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee supported Donald Trump for president because they thought he could help them hit the trifecta. And the truth is that on lowering taxes, for the super-wealthy, on unleashing the full polluting potential of coal and other industries, and on sticking it to the working people of this country, Trump is delivering on his pledges, big time. That is why Corker campaigned so hard for Trump. It was service to his social class and his filthy rich backers.

The 0.1% should be delirious with joy.

There’s just one problem. They are terrified of Trump, of his erratic behavior, his taunting of nuclear-armed enemies, his staff upheavals at the White House. They represent Capital, and Capital thrives on order. Corker and his colleagues see disorder and they quake.

In Johann von Goethe’s play “Dr. Faust,” a man eager to taste of all human experience makes a bargain with Mephistopheles, i.e. with Satan, signing his soul away in blood for his intellectual and emotional thrill-seeking. The devil remarks,

MEPHISTOPHELES

“Nor goal, nor measure is prescrib’d to you,
If you desire to taste of every thing,
To snatch at joy while on the wing,
May your career amuse and profit too!
Only fall to and don’t be over coy!”

Mephistopheles is Corker’s Trump. Trump promised a wild ride, but a ride to the heart’s desire of conservatives– a hierarchical society with the rich firmly on top and further enriched by the hour through the abolition of graduated taxes.

He will fulfill his vow. But alongside these startling and unprecedented triumphs for the billionaires in the class war, Mephistopheles/ Trump offers something else.

Corker now thinks Trump’s volatility and ill-considered Tweet storms threaten us with World War III:

PBS NewsHour: “How Trump’s feud with Corker reflects the GOP’s shifting direction”

However much Corker is going to like the tax cuts on the rich in Trump’s budget this fall, he is also clearly deeply disturbed at Trump’s bellicosity. He worries that the White House staff have to spend all their time containing Trump. He worries that the president will order up Navy Seals and set them to trying to sequester North Korea’s nuclear stockpiles.

Such a mission is highly unlikely to succeed. And when it fails, what is the likely NK response?

And what will be the value of those tax cuts if Trump’s adventurism spooks the markets or attracts dramatic violence down on our country?

Gerrymandering is about Race even when it seems just “Partisan”

Mon, 9 Oct 2017 - 11:48pm

By Olga Pierce and Kate Rabinowitz | ( ProPublica) | – –

The Wisconsin case before the Supreme Court claims to be about partisanship. But race is a factor in this case and many others nationwide.

The Wisconsin voting rights case before the Supreme Court has been cast as the definitive test of whether partisan gerrymandering is permitted by the Constitution. But a closer look at the case and others like it shows that race remains an integral element of redistricting disputes, even when the intent of those involved was to give one party an advantage.

Consider Gill v. Whitford, the Wisconsin case that was argued last week before the nation’s highest court.

During its journey through the legal system, the case has turned on whether Republicans secured an impermissible advantage over Democrats in the way Wisconsin’s Republican-controlled legislature redrew district lines after the 2010 census.

But because of the deep racial divides that pervade American politics, the story is not that simple.

Wisconsin’s Democratic Party includes a substantial number of African-American and Latino voters, particularly in cities like Milwaukee. When you look more closely at redistricting plans drawn in Wisconsin and elsewhere, you see that both parties have improved their statewide prospects by diminishing the political power of minority voters.

As they fight in court over lines drawn after the 2010 census, Democrats and Republicans alike are anxiously waiting to see what the decision in the Wisconsin case will let them do after the 2020 census.

Michael Li, senior counsel at the Democracy Program at New York’s Brennan Center, said the ruling carries extra weight because we can expect the most sophisticated chicanery yet.

“I’m worried about a record level of gamesmanship in 2021,” said Li. “There could be an unprecedented redistricting war, and both sides are going into it fully armed.”

Paul Smith, the attorney presenting oral arguments on behalf of the voters challenging the Wisconsin map, echoed this sentiment.

“What the court needs to know is it’s — this is a cusp of a really serious, more serious problem,” Smith told the justices. As computing power and data for redistricting continue to improve, he said, “you’re going to have a festival of copycat gerrymandering the likes of which this country has never seen.”

While many voters would be affected by such a festival, not all voters would be affected equally.

The record shows that the reliably Democratic voters in communities of color are crucial chess pieces in the partisan game that is redistricting. Republicans often benefit from packing such voters into districts, making other districts safer for Republican candidates. Conversely, a state’s Democratic Party can benefit if it divides communities of color among many districts, giving each a reliable majority of voters who will support the party’s candidates. This technique, known as “cracking” in map drawers’ argot, often harms minorities, voters who might have greater clout if they were kept in a single district. In some cases it has proved politically expedient for the party drawing the lines to both crack and pack minority voters.

The Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder largely ended prior review of district lines by the Justice Department. That, along with rapidly improving technology that makes it ever easier to hide manipulation of communities of color for partisan gain, and the influx of massive amounts of dark money into redistricting, have put some of the voting power of minorities in jeopardy.

If the Supreme Court upholds the lower court decision in Gill, it will allow judges to evaluate, and possibly reject, redistricting maps based on a mathematical formula intended to identify partisan gerrymandering. It could offer those suing on behalf of minority voters a tool for fighting racial discrimination that wouldn’t require the high standard of proof and commitment of resources a typical Voting Rights Act case would, said Leah Aden, senior counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

Upholding the lower court ruling in Gill would also reduce the incentive for political parties to use perverse (some would say cynical) interpretations of the Voting Rights Act and Constitution as a way to defend or attack partisan maps, Aden said. In Wisconsin, and also in Texas and North Carolina, gerrymandered maps have been defended by parties with an argument Aden called “The VRA Made Me Do It.”

Gill v. Whitford features a novel variation of this tactic. A brief filed by the Republican Party contends that using the suggested mathematical formula to flag districts drawn for partisan reasons would violate the Voting Rights Act because districts with a majority of minority voters — Democratic districts — could get flagged as unfairly drawn.

At times, Democrats have also invoked the Voting Rights Act for partisan reasons, according to Smith, the attorney who argued the Democrats’ side in Gill v. Whitford. The formula endorsed by the lower courts would allow Democrats to challenge redistricting lines without classifying their objections as a defense of minority voting rights, Smith said during oral arguments. This would reserve the important tools for protecting minority voting rights for cases in which they are legitimately needed.

Let’s start with Wisconsin. It may indeed be a partisan gerrymander, but it still illustrates the complex intersection of race and politics.

Manipulating a map to move around Wisconsin Democrats also means manipulating a map to move around Wisconsin voters who are not white, said Malia Jones, an applied demographer at The University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“Wisconsin is one of the most segregated states in the nation,” Jones said. “When we are talking about geography we are also talking about race.”

One example can be seen in an assembly district on the western edge of Milwaukee, a city infamous for its near-perfect division between downtown African-American neighborhoods and white affluent suburbs. In an unprecedented move, Republican map drawers crossed the Milwaukee County line to loop 60 percent minority city neighborhoods into a sprawling suburban district that is, after the redistricting, 87 percent white, according to a ProPublica analysis.

In Highly Segregated Areas Like Milwaukee, Race Always Plays a Factor in Redistricting

Proportion of white, black, and Hispanic residents in Milwaukee County

#milwaukee-maps img { max-width: 20em; margin: 1em auto; } @media screen and (min-width: 60em) { #milwaukee-maps img { float: left; width: 32%; max-width: none; margin: 2%; margin-left: 0; } #milwaukee-maps img:last-child { margin-right: 0; } }

This is, in fact, a dilution of Democratic voting power. But it also places thousands of African-American and Latino citizens in a heavily white district where they have little hope of electing a candidate who will represent their interests.

“Clearly there is an impact on minority populations,” Jones said.

As in many gerrymandering cases, the attorneys defending the state’s redistricting have argued that the map reflects, among other considerations, an effort to comply with the Voting Rights Act and protect minority voters.

The first test of the Wisconsin map was a successful challenge arguing racial discrimination. In Baldus v. Brennan, federal judges ruled that two state assembly districts in the Latino area of Milwaukee were an example of cracking.

Depositions given by the Republican map drawers as part of the case show that this was hardly an accident. They sought input from the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, but then disregarded it in order to limit consideration of Latino voters to two assembly districts and keep the rest of the map intact.

Emails surfaced showing the map drawers had worked with a political science professor in Oklahoma to manipulate the difference between the number of voting-age Latino residents in a district and the number who are citizens and eligible to vote.


dc.embed.loadNote('//www.documentcloud.org/documents/4104668-Baldus-Hisp-Emails/annotations/380646.js');

View note

While the court found that Latino voters’ rights had been violated, they only changed the two assembly districts.

The outcome of Gill comes at a time when minority voters are facing obstacles they haven’t faced in decades.

Before 2013, Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act required states and municipalities with a history of discrimination against minority voters to submit redistricting plans to the Department of Justice for review by attorneys, investigators, data analysts and sometimes political scientists.

The Department of Justice could reject the plan, preventing the proposed districts from ever being used in an election. The state or municipality could challenge the decision in federal court, but would be up against the formidable resources of the department.

Though it was imperfect, “there’s no doubt preclearance had a significant deterrent effect,” said John Powers, a former Section 5 analyst at the agency who now works for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

It also forced jurisdictions to report changes to districts, Powers said. While a change to a congressional district is unlikely to go unnoticed, a change at the local level might — even though those lines can have a huge impact on citizens’ lives. “Now, they can make changes and it’s possible no one will even know.”

In 2013, however, the Supreme Court ended many protections of the law. Though Section 5 is still in place, nearly all jurisdictions once subject to preclearance are no longer.

States and other jurisdictions did not even wait for the next census to get to work on re-engineering their political maps. The state of Georgia and municipalities in Louisiana, North Carolina and Texas drew new lines, prompting immediate lawsuits. All would have required pre-approval before the Shelby ruling.

For example, Georgia currently faces a lawsuit from the NAACP over two changes in their mid-decade redistricting. Ahead of the 2016 election, legislators shifted over a thousand African-American and Hispanic voters out of Georgia House District 105, one of the most contested seats in the state, to a majority-white neighboring district with an uncontested seat. The Republican incumbent in District 105 won by fewer than 250 votes.

Republicans were “trying to shore up districts that were too close for comfort by moving around African-Americans,” said Li.

Georgia’s Mid-Decade Redistricting Plan Moved Around Minority Voters to Secure a Republican Seat

Georgia Assembly Districts, 2014 vs. 2016

#georgia-map img { margin: 1em auto; max-width: 30em; }

The effective end of preclearance shifted the burden of policing the system from the government to privately funded lawsuits, and it allowed contested maps to come into effect while those costly lawsuits wended their way through the courts — often, for years.

Anita Earls, an attorney who has handled many redistricting lawsuits — including the ongoing suit in North Carolina — said even simple cases that do not go to trial can cost tens of thousands of dollars. A recent lawsuit over city council redistricting in Pasadena, Texas, cost plaintiffs over a million dollars. Larger cases, like North Carolina House and Senate redistricting, can run up legal bills of millions of dollars and take many years. In some cases, the defendants can eventually be compelled by the court to pay the plaintiffs’ legal bills, but plaintiffs are required to front the money. Reimbursements are by no means guaranteed.

Earls said her group, the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, has had to turn down requests for help.

“There are a lot of different cases where we have to tell them we don’t have money and staff,” she said. “There are places where people end up just kind of living with the unfair plan.”

Redistricting lawsuits also take time — often years — a phenomenon that supporters of the Whitford plaintiffs hope will be ameliorated by removing the complication of challenging districts one at a time.

While the court challenges drag on, interim lines often remain in effect as votes are cast. North Carolina has gone through three election cycles using state legislative lines later found to be discriminatory.

In 2017, 19 North Carolina House Districts Were Overturned for Packing Black Voters

Black population by North Carolina House Districts and overturned districts

#north-carolina-map img { max-width: 30em; margin: 1em auto; }

When party operatives and legislators draw maps, they are aware that it could take years to overturn a redistricting plan, and intentionally use delaying tactics to make sure elections take place under the most favorable circumstances, Earls said.

In North Carolina, she said, state officials “at every step of the way tried to delay litigation, did everything they could to stretch this out.”

As ProPublica has previously reported, donors who supported the racially gerrymandered plan even used a front group to manipulate state judicial elections, so as to ensure redistricting cases would be heard by a Republican panel of judges.

Pressure on state judges further delayed the legal process, forcing the litigants contesting North Carolina’s redistricting plan to turn to the federal courts, Earls said.

Such delays can pay political dividends. During the years North Carolina’s maps were being challenged in court, the legislature under the disputed map passed laws that substantially affected African Americans. Lawmakers imposed stricter rules for voter ID and eliminated the state’s earned income tax credit, a provision that lowers the taxes paid by the poorest residents.

“North Carolina has had a crazy few years in terms of legislation,” said Li of the Brennan Center. “You can’t turn back the clock, what’s happened has happened.”

While citizen groups struggle to find resources to mount redistricting battles, state legislators use money from the state treasury to defend their redistricting maps. Regardless of the outcome, the taxpayers, not the political parties or campaign committees, end up on the hook for legal costs.

North Carolina’s redistricting saga also illustrates the false distinction between race and politics that permeates redistricting.

In their secret map-drawing process, Republican operatives were explicit about their plan to achieve their desired political outcome: a “10-3” map that had 10 safe Republican congressional districts with only three for Democrats, a big change for a state that at the time had a delegation with seven Democrats and six Republicans.


dc.embed.loadNote('//www.documentcloud.org/documents/537525-naacp-447/annotations/380720.js');

View note

And they were also pretty explicit — at least to each other — about how they planned to achieve their desired party breakdown.

In an email circulating two proposed maps, Tom Hofeller, a Republican redistricting expert sent in by the national Republican Party wrote that both “incorporate all the significant concentrations of minority voters in the northeast into the first district.”


dc.embed.loadNote('//www.documentcloud.org/documents/540931-naacp-364/annotations/84746.js');

View note

Earlier this year, the Supreme Court affirmed lower court decisions that found North Carolina’s congressional and state legislative maps discriminated against minority voters, specifically by packing minorities into a small number of districts to achieve the maximum number of Republican-friendly seats.

Required to draw new maps, Republican state party leadership announced they would achieve the same 10-3 congressional delegation breakdown, and the same healthy majority in the state legislature, without looking at race at all.

“Race was not among the criteria we considered when we drew these maps,” David Lewis, the Republican member of the state assembly who served as the redistricting point person, told the Associated Press.

Hofeller, the same consultant who drew the original maps, would redraw the maps only looking at political data, with an eye to protecting incumbents elected under previous maps, Lewis said.

In other words, a strictly partisan gerrymander.

But the groups who originally sued against the racially gerrymandered maps said the new maps had simply become discriminatory against African-American voters elsewhere in the state. Once again, they asked the courts to strike those maps down. The case is pending.

“You can’t comply with Voting Rights Act and avoid racial bias by simply ignoring race altogether,” said Bob Hope, Executive Director of Democracy NC.

Some states have been found to violate the civil rights of minority voters during multiple redistricting cycles. Texas’ district lines — drawn by both Republican and Democrat-controlled legislatures — have been thrown out on racial-discrimination grounds for nearly 30 years — during the redistricting of the 1990s, the 2000s and the 2010s.

Texas Is No Stranger to Overturned Gerrymanders

Three decades of struck-down congressional district maps

@media screen and (max-width: 60em) { #texas-maps img { margin: 1em auto; max-width: 25em; } } @media screen and (min-width: 60em) { #texas-maps img { float: left; width: 49%; margin: 2%; margin-left: 0; } #texas-maps img:nth-child(even) { margin-right: 0; } }


Emails between those who drew the maps in 2010 show intentional exploitation of Hispanic voters to achieve partisan goals.

In a series of emails between map drawers, they discuss a phenomenon called “OHRVS,” an acronym which stands for Optimal Hispanic Republican Voting Strength. That acronym was defined by Eric Opiela, a Republican party operative, as “a measure of how Hispanic, and Republican at the same time we can make a particular census block.”


DV.load("https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/4104764-Tumblr-ly2f29RQz41qkkalko1-1280.js", { responsive: true, sidebar: false, text: false, pdf: false, container: "#DV-viewer-4104764-Tumblr-ly2f29RQz41qkkalko1-1280" });

By substituting groups of Hispanic voters with low voter turnout for those with high turnout, Republicans were able to draw hypothetical maps that would create seemingly impossible political districts. One example is a 67 percent Hispanic congressional district that the map drawers projected would nonetheless likely have been won by John McCain or former Republican Gov. Rick Perry.

Texas, which in the 1990s was run by Democrats, also contradicts the notion that Democratic party interests necessarily align with those of minority voters, Aden said.

“In current politics Republicans dominate state legislatures, so more recently it’s Republicans that have been accused of undermining the redistricting process,” she said, but before this recent turn, districts in Texas, Arkansas and Mississippi drawn by Democrat-controlled legislatures were found to be discriminatory.

Though scrutiny of statewide partisan redistricting (one of Gill’s possible outcomes) could be a useful tool to keep state parties from going overboard — and also to fight racial gerrymandering — it cannot detect the subtleties of racial gerrymandering like those that took place in Georgia and Wisconsin.

Those gerrymanders will still have to be challenged the old-fashioned way, and in order to do that, challengers will need access to information about how decisions were made in drawing maps.

But transparency in redistricting is the exception, not the rule.

One thing the states we reviewed have in common is that the public map-drawing process was largely a charade. Emails and documents that subsequently emerged showed the real drawing was done behind closed doors by party operatives and consultants.

In Wisconsin, for instance, the maps were drawn at a law firm associated with the Republican Party, and vetted by the Republican National Committee before anyone in the general public was even allowed to see them.


dc.embed.loadNote('//www.documentcloud.org/documents/4062975-Foltz-Depo/annotations/380057.js');

View note

In North Carolina, the maps were also drawn at a non-government site and a wealthy donor was allowed to see drafts and offer input.

In Texas, Republicans in the state legislature turned to consultants operating in secret.

As more donor money flows into the process and mapmaking tools get more sophisticated, the importance of map drawing in the public eye will only become more important, said the Brennan Center’s Li.

Regardless of the outcome of Gill v. Whitford, experts say it will be important for the public to have a detailed picture of the redistricting process. That goal, they say, can only be achieved when the map drawing process is truly public.

“If communities aren’t being heard, or shut out, if a redistricting plan is rammed through or rushed,” Aden said, “That is a step that needs to be exposed.”

Map Sources: National Conference of State Legislatures, The Brennan Center, U.S. Census Bureau, Georgia General Assembly

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for their newsletter.

Via ProPublica

——-

Related video added by Juan Cole:

“Gerrymandering: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO)