Best-selling journalist Antony Loewenstein trav­els across Afghanistan, Pakistan, Haiti, Papua New Guinea, the United States, Britain, Greece, and Australia to witness the reality of disaster capitalism. He discovers how companies such as G4S, Serco, and Halliburton cash in on or­ganized misery in a hidden world of privatized detention centers, militarized private security, aid profiteering, and destructive mining.

Disaster has become big business. Talking to immigrants stuck in limbo in Britain or visiting immigration centers in America, Loewenstein maps the secret networks formed to help cor­porations bleed what profits they can from economic crisis. He debates with Western contractors in Afghanistan, meets the locals in post-earthquake Haiti, and in Greece finds a country at the mercy of vulture profiteers. In Papua New Guinea, he sees a local commu­nity forced to rebel against predatory resource companies and NGOs.

What emerges through Loewenstein’s re­porting is a dark history of multinational corpo­rations that, with the aid of media and political elites, have grown more powerful than national governments. In the twenty-first century, the vulnerable have become the world’s most valu­able commodity. Disaster Capitalism is published by Verso in 2015.

Profits_of_doom_cover_350Vulture capitalism has seen the corporation become more powerful than the state, and yet its work is often done by stealth, supported by political and media elites. The result is privatised wars and outsourced detention centres, mining companies pillaging precious land in developing countries and struggling nations invaded by NGOs and the corporate dollar. Best-selling journalist Antony Loewenstein travels to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Haiti, Papua New Guinea and across Australia to witness the reality of this largely hidden world of privatised detention centres, outsourced aid, destructive resource wars and militarized private security. Who is involved and why? Can it be stopped? What are the alternatives in a globalised world? Profits of Doom, published in 2013 and released in an updated edition in 2014, challenges the fundamentals of our unsustainable way of life and the money-making imperatives driving it. It is released in an updated edition in 2014.
forgodssakecover Four Australian thinkers come together to ask and answer the big questions, such as: What is the nature of the universe? Doesn't religion cause most of the conflict in the world? And Where do we find hope?   We are introduced to different belief systems – Judaism, Christianity, Islam – and to the argument that atheism, like organised religion, has its own compelling logic. And we gain insight into the life events that led each author to their current position.   Jane Caro flirted briefly with spiritual belief, inspired by 19th century literary heroines such as Elizabeth Gaskell and the Bronte sisters. Antony Loewenstein is proudly culturally, yet unconventionally, Jewish. Simon Smart is firmly and resolutely a Christian, but one who has had some of his most profound spiritual moments while surfing. Rachel Woodlock grew up in the alternative embrace of Baha'i belief but became entranced by its older parent religion, Islam.   Provocative, informative and passionately argued, For God's Sakepublished in 2013, encourages us to accept religious differences, but to also challenge more vigorously the beliefs that create discord.  
After Zionism, published in 2012 and 2013 with co-editor Ahmed Moor, brings together some of the world s leading thinkers on the Middle East question to dissect the century-long conflict between Zionism and the Palestinians, and to explore possible forms of a one-state solution. Time has run out for the two-state solution because of the unending and permanent Jewish colonization of Palestinian land. Although deep mistrust exists on both sides of the conflict, growing numbers of Palestinians and Israelis, Jews and Arabs are working together to forge a different, unified future. Progressive and realist ideas are at last gaining a foothold in the discourse, while those influenced by the colonial era have been discredited or abandoned. Whatever the political solution may be, Palestinian and Israeli lives are intertwined, enmeshed, irrevocably. This daring and timely collection includes essays by Omar Barghouti, Jonathan Cook, Joseph Dana, Jeremiah Haber, Jeff Halper, Ghada Karmi, Antony Loewenstein, Saree Makdisi, John Mearsheimer, Ahmed Moor, Ilan Pappe, Sara Roy and Phil Weiss.
The 2008 financial crisis opened the door for a bold, progressive social movement. But despite widespread revulsion at economic inequity and political opportunism, after the crash very little has changed. Has the Left failed? What agenda should progressives pursue? And what alternatives do they dare to imagine? Left Turn, published by Melbourne University Press in 2012 and co-edited with Jeff Sparrow, is aimed at the many Australians disillusioned with the political process. It includes passionate and challenging contributions by a diverse range of writers, thinkers and politicians, from Larissa Berendht and Christos Tsiolkas to Guy Rundle and Lee Rhiannon. These essays offer perspectives largely excluded from the mainstream. They offer possibilities for resistance and for a renewed struggle for change.
The Blogging Revolution, released by Melbourne University Press in 2008, is a colourful and revelatory account of bloggers around the globe why live and write under repressive regimes - many of them risking their lives in doing so. Antony Loewenstein's travels take him to private parties in Iran and Egypt, internet cafes in Saudi Arabia and Damascus, to the homes of Cuban dissidents and into newspaper offices in Beijing, where he discovers the ways in which the internet is threatening the ruld of governments. Through first-hand investigations, he reveals the complicity of Western multinationals in assisting the restriction of information in these countries and how bloggers are leading the charge for change. The blogging revolution is a superb examination about the nature of repression in the twenty-first century and the power of brave individuals to overcome it. It was released in an updated edition in 2011, post the Arab revolutions, and an updated Indian print version in 2011.
The best-selling book on the Israel/Palestine conflict, My Israel Question - on Jewish identity, the Zionist lobby, reporting from Palestine and future Middle East directions - was released by Melbourne University Press in 2006. A new, updated edition was released in 2007 (and reprinted again in 2008). The book was short-listed for the 2007 NSW Premier's Literary Award. Another fully updated, third edition was published in 2009. It was released in all e-book formats in 2011. An updated and translated edition was published in Arabic in 2012.

Please support the Disaster Capitalism fund-raising campaign

For the last five years I’ve been working on the documentary, Disaster Capitalism, partly inspired by my book of the same name released last year. I’m working with film-maker Thor Neureiter and co-producers Media Stockade. It’s a truly international team; I’m based in East Jerusalem, Thor is in New York and Media Stockade are in Sydney, Australia.

Today we are launching a fund-raising campaign to generate money to complete a rough cut of the feature documentary (editing is well underway and we aim to finish soon). We’re excited to share a new video, details about our recent successful pitch at the prestigious Hot Docs film festival in Toronto and facts about how to donate money (tax deductible in the US and Australia). We are aiming to raise US$80,000 in the next month.

Here’s the video:

DisasterCapitalism_Pitch2016v2 from Thor Neureiter on Vimeo.

Please support us now and share online with your friends and family. Independent film-making is a challenging business and it needs your support.

Disaster Capitalism is about people and corporations making money from misery in Afghanistan, Haiti and Papua New Guinea. It’s topical, controversial and deeply relevant to our world today. We have big ambitions to show the film around the globe.

We need your financial support to complete the rough cut and show the film to over 30 distributors, sales agents and broadcasters from around the world who expressed huge interest in the project at Hot Docs.

Our website has all the required information, details how to donate money, our social media accounts and all relevant news.

Please donate generously to our film today and share the information far and wide.

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Disaster Capitalism film asks key questions about aid and politics

The following article appears today in the Sydney Morning Herald and Melbourne Age and is written by Garry Maddox. The headline is, “Australia’s foreign aid is largely wasted because of corruption, says documentary maker Antony Loewenstein”:

Australian feature films have largely avoided hot political subjects lately – though that may change with Matthew Saville’s planned film on the Tampa crisis – but documentary makers have been far from reluctant.

Well-known journalist Antony Loewenstein​ has written and appears in Disaster Capitalism, about the “the dark side of moneymakers and aid exploiters” in Afghanistan, Haiti and Papua New Guinea, which has been selected for North America’s largest documentary festival, Toronto’s Hot Docs, which starts later this month.

And after four years working on the film with director Thor Neureiter, Loewenstein concludes that the amount of Australia’s foreign aid that is wasted is “huge”.

“The vast majority of aid that Australia has given to PNG in the last years, especially in Bougainville, has gone to waste,” he says.

“That’s not to say there’s not been valuable projects. I’ve seen with my own eyes in Bougainville certain medical facilities and support networks that have helped people.

“But so much of the aid in PNG has gone into corruption … too often Australian aid is tied to pushing corporate mining interests.”

Although the country’s involvement with Haiti has been limited, Loewenstein says the vast majority of aid to Afghanistan “was funnelled through the corrupt Afghan government and also warlords that the Australian government partner with.” He sees that as “a huge problem”.

Disaster Capitalism, which is “90 per cent shot”, will feature in Hot Docs Forum, which gives the filmmakers 15 minutes to pitch to financiers, producers, distributors, sales agents and broadcasters from around the world.

Speaking from East Jerusalem, Loewenstein tells Short Cuts the aim of the film is to make viewers more aware of where their aid money is going.

“It’s not a call to stop aid,” he says. “It’s to make it smarter aid, more targeted and more engaged aid with locals on the ground.

“As we’ve seen in Haiti, Afghanistan and Papua New Guinea, aid is not actually helping the people it claims to be helping.”

Loewenstein says Disaster Capitalism has been a tough film to shoot.

“In all three countries logistics are tough,” he says. “Security, particularly Afghanistan, is incredibly shady.”

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Review and interview about Disaster Capitalism with US magazine Salon

A review of my book Disaster Capitalism in US magazine Salon followed by an interview with its journalist Ben Norton:

“The corporation is now fundamentally more powerful than the nation-state,” writes journalist Antony Loewenstein in his new book “Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing out of Catastrophe.”

“Many ongoing crises seem to have been sustained by businesses to fuel industries in which they have a financial stake,” he explains. “Companies that entrench a crisis and then sell themselves as the only ones who can resolve it.”

Loewenstein, a columnist for the Guardian, traveled the world in order to understand just how multinational corporations profit off of such chaos. The Australian-born yet decidedly cosmopolitan journalist devotes the meticulous and daring tome to reporting on the foreign exploitation he witnessed in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake and the destructive mining boom in Papua New Guinea, along with seemingly dystopian prison privatization in the U.S., predatory for-profit detention centers for refugees in Australia and ruthless austerity in Greece.

In the book, Loewenstein expertly shows how corporate control of not just the domestic, but also the global political system has led to a drastic “erosion of democracy.”

A quote he chooses as the overture sets the tone for the ensuing pages. “It is profitable to let the world go to hell,” warns scholar Jørgen Randers, a professor of climate strategy at Norwegian Business School, while railing against “the tyranny of the short term.” This quote succinctly summarizes exactly how disaster capitalism operates.

The concept of disaster capitalism is derived from a similar work, “The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism,” an influential 2007 book by journalist Naomi Klein. In some ways, “Disaster Capitalism” can be seen as a sequel to Klein’s book, yet Loewenstein’s formidable work stands out in its own right.

Salon sat down with the journalist to discuss one of the more explosive controversies he uncovers in his book: how the U.S. war in Afghanistan was privatized.

Loewenstein spent time in war-torn Afghanistan, as well as neighboring Pakistan, researching for “Disaster Capitalism.” His compelling recounting of his experiences paints a picture of a crisis-stricken world in which virtually everything has been privatized, in which private military companies, or PMCs — 21st-century warlords — exercise more control over countries than their own inhabitants.

A slew of Western multinational corporations quite familiar to Americans appear throughout the chapter, including Northrop Grumman, DynCorp, Halliburton and more.

The personal interactions Loewenstein has with military contractors on the ground are some of the most fascinating. A British PMC managing director the journalist met in Kabul, whom he refers to simply as Jack, bluntly admits his corporation “survives off chaos.”

Predicting future U.S. wars in Africa, Iran and Korea, the corporate military executive tells Loewenstein, “If we can make money, we’ll go there.”

“I’m my own government,” Jack boldly declares.

“Disaster Capitalism” bolsters Loewenstein’s growing body of important work. Among his other books are “Profits of Doom: How Vulture Capitalism Is Swallowing the World,” a kind of 2013 prequel to “Disaster Capitalism”; “The Blogging Revolution,” a 2008 investigation of how bloggers around the world challenge their oppressive governments; and the best-selling “My Israel Question,” an exhaustive 2007 account of Israel’s crimes against the Palestinians, and a profound and intimate exploration of the author’s Jewish identity.

For his previous books, Loewenstein traveled widely, from Palestine to Iran, from Saudi Arabia to China, from Cuba to Egypt and beyond. For “Disaster Capitalism,” Loewenstein went even further. When Salon contacted him to schedule an interview, the intrepid journalist seemed every time to not only be in a different country, but even on a different continent.

This is the first in a two-part review of Loewenstein’s reporting in “Disaster Capitalism.” Another piece will be devoted to Loewenstein’s findings in Haiti, a small country that has been virtually taken over by Western NGOs. Loewenstein spoke with Salon about both little-discussed yet tremendously important issues.

Jack, the British PMC managing director you met in Kabul, said “we don’t call ourselves mercenaries.” Are they mercenaries? Should they be called that?

Not all private security interests in Afghanistan are mercenaries; many men are just security guards protecting embassies or Western interests. But mercenaries are a little-reported aspect of the war, either directly engaged in killing or capturing suspected insurgents (a key failing of the Western war in the country has been its insistence on designating any opponent of the conflict as “Taliban” and therefore “terrorist”) or training Afghan forces to do the same thing, often inflaming conflicts in local villages.

You call imperialism “the dirtiest word in modern English” and note, “There is not a country I visited for this book in which the legacy of imperialism does not scar the landscape and people.” You also point out that “there were often more contractors than soldiers in Afghanistan.” Jack said it is cheaper for countries to use PMCs than it is to put their own boots on the ground.

Do you see this as an outsourcing of imperialism and neo-colonialism, if you will? Is this how war will work in the future?

The U.S. government, along with its many allies, likes using private assets to further geo-political interests. The initial motivation when invading Afghanistan was revenge for 9/11, but this quickly morphed into a messy project to control the nation and partner with a corrupt central government and warlords across the country.

The reason I use the term “imperialism” to describe the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and beyond — along with U.S.-backed autocratic partners in the Middle East, South America, Asia and Africa — is that there’s no other way to describe attempts to secure energy reserves and economic influence in the modern age.

War has always worked this way, but the inclusion of globalized private entities removes one more level of accountability. Today in Afghanistan there are around 30,000 contractors working for the Pentagon alongside the U.S. military and Special Forces. And the Pentagon won’t acknowledge how many soldiers are truly fighting ISIS in Iraq.

Can you talk more about Afghanistan’s enormous natural resources, the TAPI pipeline, drugs, etc.? This is little discussed. Why do you think that is?

During both the Soviet and American occupations of Afghanistan, huge discoveries of natural resources occurred. There is an estimated U.S. $1-4 trillion of untapped minerals, oil and gas and yet most of it is unreachable due to security concerns and corruption.

I have been investigating these issues for my book, and also the documentary in progress, “Disaster Capitalism,” with New York filmmaker Thor Neureiter.

Natural resources will not sustain Afghanistan after most of the Western aid dries up, and neither the U.S. government nor Afghan authorities have any answers for long-term sustainability (the proposed TAPI pipeline crossing Pakistan, Afghanistan, India and Turkmenistan is ambitious but prone to problems).

Drug cultivation has soared during the U.S. occupation. Too many Western reporters have framed the Afghan war as simply between U.S. forces and the Taliban when in reality Afghanistan has a complex history that never tolerates long-term occupation.

You write about the “military-enforced bubble,” in which the foreign occupying army is completely out of touch with the locals. An Afghan translator told you the U.S. “only understood force.” Can you expand?

A constant refrain I heard in Afghanistan, during my visits there in 2012 and 2015, was the inability and unwillingness of U.S. and foreign forces to listen to the Afghan people. It’s one reason the U.S. relied on faulty intelligence to understand what Afghans were thinking about their presence.

As the security situation deteriorated after 2004-2005, and U.S. forces falsely framed any Afghan who opposed the occupation as Taliban, the U.S. used a failedcounterinsurgency program (designed by David Petraeus and Australian David Kilcullen) that inflamed Afghans.

There has never been accountability for this plan, including by the countless Western journalists seduced by U.S. military talking points.

You talk about the relationships between the U.S. military, USAID and private companies, and say “military and humanitarian work were all too often fused in the post-9/11 world.” Can you comment?

A key component of USAID in the post 9/11 world is using the military to deliver its goals. This fundamentally misunderstands the importance of maintaining neutrality when delivering aid.

The U.S. government’s SIGAR (Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction) regularly reports on the U.S. $110 billion spent in Afghanistan on so-called nation building since October 2001, and how USAID was regularly used as a mask for a corporate and military agenda across the country.

Where else is the private security industry growing?

The definition of private security is expanding to include the growth of private armies in often unregulated and chaotic places (from Iraq to Afghanistan and Libya to Syria). South African mercenaries were working in Nigeria against Boko Haram and Colombian forces operated in Yemen thanks to the United Arab Emirates.

You write “the Bush administration saw its ‘war on terror’ as a boon for the private sector.” Has the Obama administration has done the same?

Post 9/11, the Bush administration saw an opportunity to implement an extreme neoconservative agenda with the support of its friends in the private sector. They claimed it would save money and be more efficient but the reality was uncontrolled mercenaries and private security in countless war zones.

When Barack Obama was a candidate for President in 2007, he pledged to change this out-of-control contracting since 9/11. However, nothing has improved since he took office due to a number of factors including failing campaign finance laws and Congressional inertia to punish corporations breaking the law.

You conclude the chapter saying, “we created chaos.” What do you think the legacy is of the now 15-year U.S. occupation, especially now, with the rise of ISIS and the resurgence of the Taliban?

The Taliban now control more of Afghanistan than at any time since October 2001. President Obama has now pledged to maintain an indefinite occupation and the U.S. military claims U.S. forces will need to stay in the country for decades to support a failing Afghan state.

The presence of ISIS only complicates the picture, especially for Afghan civilians.

The longest war in U.S. history has not achieved any of its stated goals and the Afghan people, often forced to choose between the Taliban and a U.S.-backed warlord, often pick the former. That’s the legacy of the U.S. war.

Ben Norton is a politics staff writer at Salon. You can find him on Twitter at @BenjaminNorton

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The National interview on Disaster Capitalism

UAE newspaper The National interviewed me about my book Disaster Capitalism, especially the privatised military adventure in Afghanistan and failed aid in Haiti:

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Where is all the US aid money in Afghanistan?

My investigative feature in UAE newspaper The National (PDFs of the stunning looking feature DC.front and DC.spread):

The human cost of the Afghan war has been devastating. The United Nations estimates that at least 20,000 Afghan civilians have been killed since 2001 and violence is worsening across the country.

United States president Barack Obama, fearing an Iraq-style state collapse after withdrawing the bulk of US forces from there in 2011, has pledged to maintain an indefinite presence of 10,000 soldiers, tens of thousands of contractors (the Pentagon claims up to 30,000) and an unknown number of special forces. Foreign occupation is seemingly permanent.

Former head of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and commander of US special operations command, General David Petraeus, argued in a recent Washington Post opinion piece that Washington should step up its bombing campaign to halt a resurgent Taliban. There’s no evidence that this failed strategy, advanced in Iraq and Afghanistan over more than a decade, would be any more successful this time.

Afghan resources, estimated to be worth billions of dollars, have provided very little money to the general population.

During my time in Afghanistan last year whilst investigating the mineral, oil and gas industries, I witnessed the suffering of local people around proposed mining sites, such as Mes Aynak in Logar province. They were kicked off their lands, without jobs, and were attacked by the Taliban, ISIL and the Afghan military.

Countless western and Afghan corporations have made a killing in the country since 2001, often replacing functions once undertaken by the state, and with little accountability. This policy has been pursued by both the Bush and Obama administrations.

A 2010 US Congressional report, Warlord, Inc, found that the US military was indirectly paying the Taliban and warlords, via private contractors, to ensure safe passage for their goods across the country.

The ideology behind outsourcing war existed before September 11 but accelerated after the attacks on New York and Washington. Apart from enriching corporate friends of the George W Bush administration, it was framed as a way of saving money for the US taxpayer (the evidence for this is missing) and reducing the responsibility of the state to manage its own affairs.

Afghan civilians have borne the brunt of this policy. There is currently no sustainable vision by Afghan president Ashraf Ghani to support his country when western aid inevitably reduces to a trickle.

The US defence department’s Task Force for Business and Stability Operations (TFBSO) had grand ambitions in Afghanistan. Embarking on its work there in 2009, the Pentagon group pledged to exploit the country’s large and untapped mineral resources and to attract international investment.

Former head Paul Brinkley told the Washington Post in 2011 that, “we do capitalism. We’re about helping companies make money. That mindset cannot exist in a humanitarian organisation. It’s like asking General Motors to make potato chips.”

After being established in 2006 to stabilize war-torn Iraq, TFBSO had remarkable freedom to act independently without adequate oversight. It attracted US$8 billion (Dh29.4bn) in private investment commitment in Iraq with little long-term evidence that former state-run businesses benefitted from the money. In Afghanistan, Brinkley brought Google to Kabul to start an information technology industry while pledging to expand the nation’s fruit and carpet trades.

On-the-ground investigations, however, revealed the paucity of TFBSO’s legacy. The US government-appointed special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction (Sigar) has released a number of reports demanding accountability for the group’s spending. It has been stymied at every step of the way.

The US has spent more than $110bn in US taxpayer funds to support reconstruction in Afghanistan since 2001. It is now the country’s longest war and yet the outcome has been desultory. Sigar head John F Sopko gave a speech in November at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University where he said that more than 300 reports issued since the group launched in 2008 had brought some successes.

Sigar had conducted “nearly 900 investigations, resulting in 103 arrests, 136 criminal charges, 100 convictions or guilty pleas, 78 sentencings, and roughly $945 million in savings for American taxpayers”, he said. This amount is a tiny fraction of the financial commitment made by Washington in the past 15 years.

In a November letter to US defence secretary Ashton Carter, Sigar showed how 20 per cent of TFBSO’s 2010-2014 $822m budget was spent on private villas and security guards in Kabul.

“If TFBSO employees had instead lived at DoD [department of defence] facilities in Afghanistan”, it said, “where housing, security and food service are routinely provided at little or no extra charge to DoD organisations, it appears the taxpayers would have saved tens of millions of dollars.”

Sigar estimated that in 2014 alone, the 10 TFBSO staff would have paid just $1.8m to live at the US embassy.

Another report, released in October, accused TFBSO of spending up to $43m to build a natural gas filling station in the northern Afghan city of Sheberghan when a similar facility in Pakistan cost only $500,000.

“One of the most troubling aspects of this project”, Sigar said, “is that the department of defence claims that it is unable to provide an explanation for the high cost of the project or to answer any other questions concerning its planning, implementation or outcome.”

TFBSO was disbanded last year after consistent allegations of ethical breaches and financial irregularities. But its legacy lives on. The first Sigar report of 2016 found that TFBSO had spent up to $488m since 2009 attempting to develop viable oil, gas and mineral businesses in Afghanistan, but achieved nothing sustainable. Corruption and rampant violence conspired against it.

The lack of accountability of Washington’s war in Afghanistan was exposed when Sigar chief Sopko wrote to defence secretary Carter in October and chastised his department for “no longer having any knowledge about TFBSO, an $800m programme that reported directly to the office of the secretary of defence and only shut down a little over six months ago”.

I asked the department of defence to respond to Sigar’s allegations against TFBSO, and spokesman Army Lt Col Joe Sowers told me that, “we welcome continued review by Sigar in their effort to ensure the TFBSO activities are properly assessed and analysed.  With respect to holding someone accountable, to our knowledge, Sigar has not identified or accused any particular individual of malfeasance. The department will cooperate fully with any investigations.”

Sigar said to me that there had been no official response from the department of defence to its 2015 report detailing extensive TFBSO use of private villas in Kabul. Likewise there was no substantive comment after Sigar accused TFBSO of massively overcharging for the natural gas filling station in Afghanistan.

Former TFBSO head Brinkley now runs the investment company Nawah, in Jordan. Critics accused him of entering the private sector too soon after leaving the US government in 2011 – only four months afterwards – though he told me that he “did so in accordance with the ethical rules established by the government to do so”.

Brinkley explained that during his time running TFBSO, from 2006 to 2011, oversight “was very, very rigorous. The recent media reports about Sigar studying TFBSO spending appear to be focused on activities that occurred after my departure. However, to assist in providing some important context and history, I voluntarily met with four members of the Sigar study team in mid-December”.

Brinkley believed that TFBSO was “based on the belief that the US government can offer economic improvements as instruments of foreign policy. Failing to provide a hopeful future for young people in conflict-ridden countries leads to frustration and sympathy with insurgents … I felt we served the [TFBSO] mission well”.

Amidst all the carnage and mismanagement in Afghanistan, it is the civilians who have suffered the most. The Taliban today control more territory than at any time since they were overthrown in 2001. The prospects for the country, after almost 15 years of foreign occupation, are grim. There is every indication that contractors, such as DynCorp and Fluor Corporation, will continue making a fortune profiting from the conflict. However, according to Sigar, it’s nearly impossible for American auditors to assess their work because they can only access about 10 per cent of the country due to insecurity.

These facts don’t mean that some outspoken Afghans aren’t still fighting for improvements.

Shughla, a Fulbright alumni from Kabul (and member of peace initiative the Afghan Fulbrighters for Peace), told me that she blamed many international agencies for ignoring the real needs of Afghan women since 2001. “There was a limited assessment of cultural and contextual background”, she said, “and gender relations in the policies were one of the reasons why Afghan women made fragile and hindering progress despite the gigantic investment.”

Shughla argued that there needed to be empirical research “undertaken by civil society, government agencies and international donors as to where, what and how to improve the livelihood of Afghan women who are manoeuvring in a highly patriarchal and tribe-oriented society.”

The general failure of the USAID project in Afghanistan can be attributed to many factors, but a lack of local consultation was fatal. “Mohammed”, an Afghan in Kabul working for an international financial organisation who requested anonymity over security fears, said that the majority of USAID-funded projects had “largely failed to have significant impact on the life of Afghan people. Those who develop these projects are sitting in Washington DC with very little understanding of the realities in this country”.

I asked Mohammed why projects condemned by Sigar were so ubiquitous in Afghanistan. “The contractors have little access beyond Kabul city”, he said, “with very poor understanding of the country, and try to remotely manage their projects. In order to keep their senior counterparts in the government happy, they usually provide them favours that can border on corruption. Accountability mechanisms are very weak.”

This accurately articulates a key problem for the US mission in Afghanistan since the beginning. A lack of transparency has bedevilled the project since 2001, and president Obama, despite pledging during his 2007 campaign to clean up the bloated contracting racket, has done nothing.

History will not be kind to the litany of American mistakes and crimes during its longest war.

Antony Loewenstein is an independent journalist and author of Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing Out of Catastrophe.

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What’s happening to Afghanistan’s natural resources

My investigative feature in The Nation:

Before its failed occupation of Afghanistan, the Soviet Union discovered that the country was rich in natural resources. In the 1980s, Soviet mining experts drafted maps and collected data that would lay dormant in the Afghan Geological Survey in Kabul until the rise of the Taliban. These charts documented a vast amount of iron, copper, gold, cobalt, rare earth metals, and lithium.

Fearing what the Taliban might do with this wealth, a tiny group of Afghan geologists hid the maps in their homes until the arrival of American forces in 2001. By 2007, the US Geological Survey had undertaken the most comprehensive study of the mineral deposits below the country’s surface. An internal Pentagon memo claimed that Afghanistan could develop into the “Saudi Arabia of lithium,” referring to the mineral that is an integral component of laptop and smartphone batteries.

Washington was ecstatic about the findings and in 2010 claimed that at least $1 trillion in resources was up for grabs. “There is stunning potential here,” said Gen. David Petraeus, then the head of US Central Command, speaking to The New York Times. US officials said that the deposits could sustain the Afghan economy and generate thousands of jobs, reducing corruption and reliance on foreign aid. Currently, with 60 percent of the country’s budget provided by foreign donors, outside investment is crucial. Acknowledging the inability of the Afghan Ministry of Mines and Petroleum to handle a burgeoning resource industry, the US government pledged to help implement accountability mechanisms. However, regulations like the mining law—revised in 2014 to bring greater transparency—have had little effect on illegal mining and the non-payment of royalties.

The warning signs were there. “This is a country that has no mining culture,” Jack Medlin, a geologist in the US Geological Survey’s international-affairs program, told the Times. During my visit to Afghanistan in May, I often heard from locals that the resource industry was never going to provide enough money to support the economy once foreign aid dried up. Afghan mining expert Javed Noorani told The Nation that President Ashraf Ghani is “more constrained in his actions against the criminal networks operating in the mining sector than President [Hamid] Karzai was. Today there is open plunder of gemstones by the partners in his government, and his silence and passivity puzzle me, like many others.”

Mining and Petroleum Minister Daud Shah Saba told Iranian mining officials in October that only 25 percent of Afghanistan’s mines had been identified, indicating that the US mineral survey perhaps wasn’t as comprehensive as claimed. In 2015, according to Saba, the government will earn only $30 million from resources for the third consecutive year—far less than the projected $1.5 billion. “Unfortunately, we have failed to well manage and well control our mining sector,” the minister told Bloomberg News in October. “With the current fragile and messy situation, it’s really hard to say when Afghanistan should expect any profits from it.”

* * *

The facts on the ground explain the troubles. Logar Province hasn’t seen peace for decades. Situated close to Kabul, the country’s capital, the area was a main supply route for the American-backed mujahideen as they poured in from Pakistan in the late 1970s and early ’80s during the Soviet occupation. Swedish journalist Borge Almqvist visited the province in 1982 and commented that “the most common sight, except for ruins, are graves.”

By 1995, the Taliban controlled Logar, and today, all sides of the modern Afghan conflict intersect there. Insurgents rule large swaths of the area, and suicide bombings kill civilians and Afghan security forces. The locals are caught between the Taliban, a small but growing Islamic State (ISIS) presence, and Afghan troops.

Logar is also home to one of the world’s largest untapped copper deposits, at Mes Aynak. The Chinese company China Metallurgical Group Corp. (MCC) controls the $3 billion mine, having obtained rights to the area in 2007, but operations haven’t commenced because of security concerns and the discovery by archaeologists of ancient Buddhist relics dating back to the Bronze Age.

Local and international archaeologists have spent years finding, cleaning, and preserving the relics, and they remain opposed to the mine. Nor do they have much faith that the security situation would allow the mine to operate successfully. One Afghan archaeologist working at the site, Aziz Wafa, told Reuters in April that “for the Chinese [violence] is a problem, but not for the Afghans. I was born in a war, I grew up in a war, and I will die in a war.”

When Ghani visited Beijing in October 2014, he was asked by the Chinese government to cut the royalty rate from 19.5 percent to roughly 10 percent, which would cost the Afghan government an estimated $114 million annually. Chinese frustrations with the project, especially regarding the lack of security, were behind the demands.

MCC purchased the rights to the copper for 30 years, and the Afghan government has few if any other companies willing to take over the contract in such a volatile region. Global copper prices have dropped 40 percent since 2011; there’s no reliable transportation route for taking the metal out of the landlocked country; and MCC withdrew its workers from the site in 2014. The firm claims that tens of thousands of jobs could be indirectly created if operations commenced. MCC refused my requests for comment.

Logar Province is dangerous, unfriendly to outsiders, and only marginally safe to visit before the afternoon fades into night. I drove there in May with Noorani—who is also a founding member of the Natural Resources Monitoring Network, a grassroots group dedicated to assisting mining-affected communities across the country—and the American filmmaker Thor Neureiter. The journey from Kabul took us over paved roads and past lonely gas stations, chicken sellers, men in salwar kameez and beanies, and many burqa-clad women. Closer to Davo, a village near Aynak, the landscape became lush, with vast green fields, mud houses, and a skyline hazy from heat.

On the ground in Logar Province, civilians are angry, frustrated, and scared. Mohammed Nazir Muslimyar told me that “life is no longer normal here because of the mine. There’s too much hardship. There are engineers in this community who are doing very low-level jobs.” The advertised benefits of Afghanistan’s mining boom had not reached Davo.

I arrived at a mud compound as American helicopters flew overhead and was quickly ushered into an open room with red rugs on the floor. Ten men with long beards, white turbans, salwar kameez, and brown waistcoats were waiting to share their stories, and chief elder Malik Mullah Mirjan said our presence could result in the insurgents intimidating them after we’d left. Over piping-hot tea and biscuits, Mirjan told me that the Chinese had confiscated his family’s property and never paid compensation or explained what they were doing. There was an information vacuum filled with rumors spread by scared locals, corrupt officials, and the Taliban.

“People have been displaced, and there’s been no incentive or employment offered to local people,” Mirjan said. “When the roads are built for the mine, water in the area will be affected. When extraction begins, it will get more polluted under the ground, in the air and the soil. There’s been no good intention on the part of the government and the company. If there were, the small village where I come from would have had some peace over the last five years. We feel like we’ve been invaded.”

Mirjan explained that the police we saw stationed near his home “were to protect the company, not us. They will never come to defend us.” The Taliban attacked these forces almost daily. Meanwhile, the police insulted and beat up the local shepherds, who weren’t allowed to graze their sheep around the mine site. Mirjan and some other elders weren’t absolutely opposed to the MCC’s mine; they would accept its presence if the revenues were spent on developing the local infrastructure, including dams, canals, and electrical service. “We want to turn this into a sustainable economy,” he said. “If the mining elite spend the money on building villas in Kabul, it’s not going to be any benefit to us.”

Despite years of protest by civil-society activists and international NGOs, the contract between the MCC and the Afghan government was never released publicly. Finally, Kabul posted the contract online this year with very little fanfare. The document proposed only lax environmental protections as well as a feasibility study that was never undertaken. According to public comments by Saba, the MCC didn’t consider the social costs of its proposed operations (although the Afghan government was also neglecting its responsibilities when it signed the deal).

During my visit to the country in May, Saba refused to speak to me about his ministry’s work, despite repeated requests for an interview. The Ghani administration was just as secretive and as unaccountable as its predecessor under Karzai. After trying for weeks to obtain an interview with Saba, I spoke to his chief of staff, Shafiqullah Shahrani, who repeatedly assured me that the Aynak mine would go forward and that the local residents were being consulted about how it might benefit them. When I informed him that I had just visited the area and been told the exact opposite, he defended his government’s commitment to raising revenue.

President Obama’s recent announcement of an indefinite continuation of US military presence in the country—9,800 soldiers, plus tens of thousands of private contractors—will result in no meaningful change to this reality. In fact, it may even worsen the insurgency with the expansion of militias under the Afghan Local Police, as such groups have become notorious for heinous abuses across the state. Village elders in Logar Province have said that their livelihoods are increasingly threatened around the Aynak mine because of these lawless militias. In Davo, Mirjan said that the international community—especially the United States—has spent over $100 billion in Afghanistan since 2001 and that “it was stolen. Very little of it came to the people.”

* * *

In April, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), a US government body, released a report noting that Washington “did not have a unified strategy for the development of Afghanistan’s extractive industries.” Since 2009, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Defense Department’s Task Force for Business and Stability Operations (TFBSO) have provided $488 million toward the nation’s extractive industries, supporting a variety of corporations like the accounting firm PriceWaterhouseCoopers and the US-based contractors Expertech Solutions and Hickory Ground Solutions.

This money, SIGAR explained, did nothing to build a viable and well-regulated mining industry in Afghanistan. Instead, the Ministry of Mines and Petroleum lacked “the technical capacity to research, award, and manage new contracts without external support,” while the US government—including USAID and the Defense Department—had failed in its mission to help create “self-sustaining Afghan extractive industries,” which “still seems a very distant goal.”

Take one project central to US government strategy: the Sheberghan-Mazar pipeline in northern Afghanistan. Originally built by the Soviet Union, the pipeline is just one example of how US resource strategies—in this case, to help Afghan engineers repair and maintain aging and damaged equipment—led nowhere. SIGAR found in 2014 that rampant corrosion had left the pipeline in poor shape, and the $33.7 million invested by the US government between 2011 and 2014 had not contributed to its stability. A SIGAR official told The Nationthat this project was now viewed by USAID and the State Department as a “liability…due to safety concerns, lack of sustainability, and other problems.”

The SIGAR official pointed out that the “development of mineral resources is a long-term endeavor and not a quick fix for Afghanistan’s budgetary challenges…. Unfortunately, US assistance in this area does not appear to have [made] much of a difference, and the sector shows virtually no signs of measurably improving in the immediate future.” The SIGAR official also admitted that the Defense Department had offered no response to the April audit and that USAID had “not yet implemented any of [our] recommendations.”

Illegal mining is also rampant throughout Afghanistan, with more than 2,000 such sites raising money for warlords and the insurgency. Historically, Pakistan has been a major recipient of these illicitly obtained minerals. A SIGAR report found that illegal mining has been costing the state up to $300 million annually since the Taliban’s collapse in 2001. Insecurity in eastern Nangarhar Province and elsewhere prompted Saba to warn Afghan lawmakers in 2015 that monitoring the thousands of mines around the country was impossible and that the complete and unrestrained looting of local resources could happen in the absence of a peace deal with the Taliban.

A senior source at the US embassy in Kabul, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, told me that mineral revenues today were barely enough to support the operations of the mining ministry itself. He claimed that although Ghani now recognizes that natural resources won’t resolve the country’s budgetary problems, no alternative solutions have been proposed. “China is absolutely waiting in the wings, with many transport corridors and investment options [contingent on] improved Afghan security,” he explained. “They take a longer view and will be players in time, but for now they’ve been burned over copper [at Aynak], so they’ve stepped back.”

Yet mining remains a key plank of the Ghani administration’s economic plans as international aid dwindles. Stephen Carter, the Afghanistan campaign leader at Global Witness, told The Nation that after meeting with Ghani this year in Kabul, he sensed a new “sensible, strategic approach from the government—they have said they do not want to do any large-scale mining” (Aynak is the major exception), “and even small-scale is doubtful until they get stronger oversight and management capacity.” But, Carter added, “the government will inevitably be judged on actions, not words, and the next six months will be crucial. If there is not progress in substantive reforms in this time frame, it will be very worrying.” Six months after those comments were made, the signs are ominous: There is no evidence that the Ghani government is willing or able to eradicate the massive mineral theft by the Taliban or to institute a regulated resource sector.

Whether Afghanistan should actively pursue a mining industry or ignore its vast mineral wealth is a contentious issue. Pajhwok Afghan News journalist Ahmad Zia Rahimzai told me in Kabul that “many Afghans believe that our resources should stay in the ground until laws and accountability in the country are stronger.” Arguably, the risks incurred by leaving resources in the ground are both fewer and less severe than those posed by rampant exploitation. Noorani has argued that the Ghani administration should “leave the resources underground” because warlords control today’s industry. Indeed, minerals are the Taliban’s second major source of funds, after narcotics.

Global Witness’s Carter concurs, arguing that only in the long term should the country pursue mining: “It is too important a source of revenue and growth to ignore, given the desperate need, [but] be ready not to mine for however long it takes to put in place the right structures.” At this point, Afghanistan is years away from such a resolution.

* * *

The hazards posed by climate change and environmental degradation appear nowhere in the US government’s assessments of the Afghan resource industry. Mining without environmental safeguards guarantees worsening air and water pollution. Countless residents of Kabul visit hospitals every day because of health complications caused by poor air quality. Open sewers and the burning of dung only add to the problem. The illegal and uncontrolled extraction of coal happens daily across the city. In addition to low-quality fuel, Afghanistan is already suffering seasonal shifts in its rain and snowfall, and many farmers complain of declining agricultural yields due to climate change. A huge mining industry in vulnerable parts of the country would only exacerbate these issues.

Carter pointed to the increasingly international initiative to leave resources in the ground to reduce global temperatures. “Afghanistan should be first in line for compensation in return for nonexploitation,” he said, “which might also provide a chance to get the money out of the hands” of local warlords.

President Obama, during his announcement in October of an extended US military presence in Afghanistan, claimed that US troops “could take great pride in the progress that they helped achieve.” He was against fighting an “endless war,” he said. But that’s exactly what Afghanistan has become: the longest war in American history. In terms of civilian casualties, 2014 was the deadliest year for the people of Afghanistan since the United Nations started compiling figures in 2009. Today, nobody is seriously talking about a viable resource industry funding the country’s future. Indefinite occupation is the preferred solution.

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Popular US podcaster Brad Bogner interview on Disaster Capitalism

I was interviewed by the popular US podcaster Brad Bogner about my new book, Disaster Capitalism.

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Chicago radio, This Is Hell!, on Disaster Capitalism

I’ve been interviewed by Chicago radio program, This Is Hell! (“Manufacturing Dissent since 1996”) about my book Disaster Capitalism:

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ABC Radio Sunshine Coast on Disaster Capitalism

I was interviewed by Australia’s ABC Radio Sunshine Coast about profiting from misery and my book, Disaster Capitalism:

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Guardian book review of Disaster Capitalism

This book review by Owen Hatherley, of Disaster Capitalism, was published in the Guardian Review last Saturday:

At one telling moment in this unnerving and convincing book, Antony Loewenstein quotes the managing director of one of the many private military companies (“PMCs”) working in Afghanistan. The United States, says “Jack”, “is not capable of running empires”. Instead, western governments outsource imperialism to people like him in a variety of organisations – Halliburton, G4S, Serco and Capita are the best known of a long list – which make their money from incarceration, the “processing” of asylum seekers or the provision of private “security” in conflict zones. No longer able to sustain itself by selling dreams, capitalism now thrives on the management of nightmares. Even the provision of disaster relief is transformed into profit.

Disaster Capitalism takes us on a journey around the victims of this system: Greece, Afghanistan, Haiti and Papua New Guinea. It then turns its attention to the centres of outsourcing such as the US, the UK and Loewenstein’s native Australia. It charts the consequences of a double crisis: turmoil in the economic system following the financial crash, and the migration that is the unsurprising effect of the wars in Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, Syria and elsewhere. Greece, at the heart of the eastern Mediterranean, has been the victim of both at once. Loewenstein notes that despite Syriza’s promises to challenge austerity, the state’s hands are tied not only by the troika, but by a wave of popular xenophobia, supported by a supine media. So, instead, non-state forces are stepping in: he visits the medical centres set up by leftwing volunteers to help the victims of both crises, and, more depressingly, the Greeks-only food handouts organised by Golden Dawn.

Similarly, in his account of the “relief” that followed the Haitian earthquake of January 2010, Loewenstein argues that the people of Port-au-Prince were able to organise themselves to respond to the devastation – “makeshift clinics were established”, and “young men and women worked to clear the rubble with their bare hands”. After this, however, the international response was quickly monetised, or, to quote the typically direct words of then-US ambassador to Haiti, Kenneth Merten, “the gold rush is on”. The response to the disaster combined outsourcing to the largely USAID-funded contractor Chemonics, with American and Korean companies building factories to produce consumer goods for the western market while paying workers well below the already minuscule Haitian minimum wage. A new development was the intervention of celebrity-backed NGOs. The philanthropic efforts of Wyclef Jean, Sean Penn, Bill Clinton and Bill Gates come in for particularly sharp criticism as unaccountable and aloof. All this activity rests, according to Loewenstein, on a perception of Haitians as incapable of looking after themselves, a view his account attempts to challenge. As Pierre Justinvil, the deputy mayor of Cap Haitien, puts it, surveying a housing development built by a Minnesota-based company, “I personally, with my own hands, have just built a whole school for less than the cost of one of the houses, and more quickly.”

The irony is that Britain, the US and Australia are now inflicting on themselves many of the devastations they have visited on other countries. This is visible in the US’s immense privatised prison system, providing a convict labour force which, the author estimates, is bigger than the Soviet Gulag at its early 1950s height. The militarised response to the Ferguson protests last year are another example: the tooled-up, armour-plated local police “looked like they were equipped to fight insurgents in Iraq”. And they were: a programme had sold off excess military equipment, provided in the first instance by private companies, to local police departments.

In the UK, Loewenstein tracks the results of a decision to open up emergency accommodation for asylum seekers to our beloved volume housebuilders: “Taylor Wimpey, Barratt Homes, Persimmon, Bellway, Redrow, Bovis, Crest Nicholson”. Meanwhile, Britain has become a major exporter of outsourcing, with G4S and Serco being worldwide leaders in the field.

Disaster capitalism comes across as a thuggish operation, largely based on low-wage, low-conditions work where sensitivity to the often vulnerable people being “cared” for is not a major priority. At a nightclub full of PMC staff in Afghanistan, Loewenstein is “reminded of a comment made by a human rights advocate in Kabul, that if you go to a party in the city, ‘a quarter of the men will have no necks’”, a consequence of widespread steroid use. Everyone is dehumanised by what another outsourcer calls “the human warehousing business”.

One major strength of the book is its interviews. We meet a succession of nice, apparently open spokespeople for outsourcers and mercenaries, and even a well-mannered physicist and active member of Golden Dawn. He lets them speak with their own breathtakingly cynical words. Loewenstein is unashamedly partisan, though, especially in the chapter on the Bougainville province of Papua New Guinea, where a mass revolt removed the privatised mining corporation Rio Tinto from the area, leaving it reliant – by popular demand, it would seem – on subsistence agriculture. The corporations are coming back to Bougainville, and Loewenstein gives a sympathetic account of the forces trying to stop them, noting the horrendous ecological record of the companies in question. These divisions can be a little too neat.

After a particularly harrowing account of Australia’s “Pacific solution” to migration (ie, put them all on an island), Disaster Capitalism concludes with a rather pro forma rousing address, insisting that “resistance is never futile” and pointing to those places – small French towns, the city of Hamburg – that have managed to reverse outsourcing and privatisation. That’s fair enough, but as the accounts from Haiti and Papua New Guinea make clear, the system Loewenstein describes thrives by presenting itself as the only possible conduit for development and change. By placing, say, Rio Tinto on the one side and subsistence farming on the other, the choice becomes either virtuous tradition or hyper-exploitation. A model of development that could challenge these ruthless practices would make Disaster Capitalism a lot more convincing, but as an eyewitness account of the vultures’ activities around the world, it does provide a useful warning.

 Owen Hatherley’s Landscapes of Communism is published by Allen Lane. To order Disaster Capitalism for £12.99 (RRP £16.99) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.

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RT TV interview on Disaster Capitalism and terrorism

I was recently interviewed by RT’s Oksana Boyko in London on the Worlds Apart TV program. We discussed my book, Disaster Capitalism, the arms industry and global terrorism:

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Guardian event in London on the UN and its future

During my recent UK book tour for Disaster Capitalism, I spoke on a panel at the Guardian about the UN and its future as it turns 70:

There are few global crises in the world today that do not pull in the UN in some way.

Its security council still sets the terms of reference for war and peace around the world; its peacekeepers take the blue beret to all four corners of the planet, with very differing outcomes. But is it fit for purpose? Where has it made a difference? And what needs reforming?

As the UN turns 70, the Guardian has published a series investigating the organisation’s success and failures. This discussion marked the culmination of the project and featured a panel comprising Harriet Grant (Guardian journalist) Natalie Samarasinghe (executive director, United Nations Association UK) Antony Loewenstein (journalist, documentarian and author) Julian Borger (diplomatic editor, the Guardian) Charles Petrie (20 years experience at policy and operational level within the UN who, at the time of resigning, was the UN secretary general’s representative in Burundi).

This event took place on 14 October at the Guardian’s offices in Kings Cross, London.

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