Prime Minister Tony Abbott has abolished AusAID as a free-standing agency and folded it into the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. He has also announced more than $4 billion in cuts to the aid budget, prompting protests from church and charity leaders. But does foreign aid help those in need or does it enrich corrupt government officials and the multinational corporations that win lucrative aid contracts? And what are the ethical problems that arise from corporations that swoop into countries that have been wracked by disaster or conflict to make profits. Antony Loewenstein, author of Profits of Doom: How Vulture Capitalism is Swallowing the World, discusses the issues with Andrew West.
Reporting from a conflict zone is messy and complicated, rarely as smooth as journalists try to convey. Britain’s Patrick Cockburn, writer for The Independent, is one of the finest chroniclers of post 9/11 madness. His essay in Counterpunch outlines what we should know:
The four wars fought in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria over the past 12 years have all involved overt or covert foreign intervention in deeply divided countries. In each case the involvement of the West exacerbated existing differences and pushed hostile parties towards civil war. In each country, all or part of the opposition have been hard-core jihadi fighters. Whatever the real issues at stake, the interventions have been presented as primarily humanitarian, in support of popular forces against dictators and police states. Despite apparent military successes, in none of these cases have the local opposition and their backers succeeded in consolidating power and establishing stable states.
More than most armed struggles, the conflicts have been propaganda wars in which newspaper, television and radio journalists played a central role. In all wars there is a difference between reported news and what really happened, but during these four campaigns the outside world has been left with misconceptions even about the identity of the victors and the defeated. In 2001 reports of the Afghan war gave the impression that the Taliban had been beaten decisively even though there had been very little fighting. In 2003 there was a belief in the West that Saddam Hussein’s forces had been crushed when in fact the Iraqi army, including the units of the elite Special Republican Guard, had simply disbanded and gone home. In Libya in 2011 the rebel militiamen, so often shown on television firing truck-mounted heavy machine-guns in the general direction of the enemy, had only a limited role in the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi, which was mostly brought about by Nato air strikes. In Syria in 2011 and 2012 foreign leaders and journalists repeatedly and vainly predicted the imminent defeat of Bashar al-Assad.
These misperceptions explain why there have been so many surprises and unexpected reversals of fortune. The Taliban rose again in 2006 because it hadn’t been beaten as comprehensively as the rest of the world imagined. At the end of 2001 I was able to drive – nervously but safely – from Kabul to Kandahar, but when I tried to make the same journey in 2011 I could go no further south on the main road than the last police station on the outskirts of Kabul. In Tripoli two years ago hotels were filled to capacity with journalists covering Gaddafi’s fall and the triumph of the rebel militias. But state authority still hasn’t been restored. This summer Libya almost stopped exporting oil because the main ports on the Mediterranean had been seized by mutinying militiamen, and the prime minister, Ali Zeidan, threatened to bomb ‘from the air and the sea’ the oil tankers the militiamen were using to sell oil on the black market.
Libya’s descent into anarchy was scarcely covered by the international media since they had long since moved on to Syria, and more recently Egypt. Iraq, home a few years ago to so many foreign news bureaux, has also dropped off the media map although up to a thousand Iraqis are killed each month, mostly as a result of the bombing of civilian targets. When it rained for a few days in Baghdad in January the sewer system, supposedly restored at a cost of $7 billion, couldn’t cope: some streets were knee-deep in dirty water and sewage. In Syria, many opposition fighters who had fought to defend their communities turned into licensed bandits and racketeers when they took power in rebel-held enclaves.
It wasn’t that reporters were factually incorrect in their descriptions of what they had seen. But the very term ‘war reporter’, though not often used by journalists themselves, helps explain what went wrong. Leaving aside its macho overtones, it gives the misleading impression that war can be adequately described by focusing on military combat. But irregular or guerrilla wars are always intensely political, and none more so than the strange stop-go conflicts that followed from 9/11. This doesn’t mean that what happened on the battlefield was insignificant, but that it requires interpretation. In 2003 television showed columns of Iraqi tanks smashed and on fire after US air strikes on the main highway north of Baghdad. If it hadn’t been for the desert background, viewers could have been watching pictures of the defeated German army in Normandy in 1944. But I climbed into some of the tanks and could see that they had been abandoned long before they were hit. This mattered because it showed that the Iraqi army wasn’t prepared to fight and die for Saddam. It was a pointer too to the likely future of the allied occupation. Iraqi soldiers, who didn’t see themselves as having been defeated, expected to keep their jobs in post-Saddam Iraq, and were enraged when the Americans dissolved their army. Well-trained officers flooded into the resistance, with devastating consequences for the occupying forces: a year later the Americans controlled only islands of territory in Iraq.
War reporting is easier than other types of journalism in one respect because the melodrama of events drives the story and attracts an audience. It may be risky at times, but the correspondent talking to camera, with exploding shells and blazing military vehicles behind him, knows his report will feature high up in any newscast. ‘If it bleeds it leads,’ is an old American media adage. The drama of battle inevitably dominates the news, but oversimplifies it by disclosing only part of what is happening. These oversimplifications were more than usually gross and deceptive in Afghanistan and Iraq, when they dovetailed with political propaganda that demonised the Taliban and later Saddam as evil incarnate, casting the conflict – particularly easy in the US in the hysterical atmosphere after 9/11 – as a black and white struggle between good and evil. The crippling inadequacies of the opposition were ignored.
By 2011 the complexity of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan was evident to journalists in Baghdad and Kabul if not necessarily to editors in London and New York. But by then the reporting of the wars in Libya and Syria was demonstrating a different though equally potent form of naivety. A version of the spirit of 1968 prevailed: antagonisms that predated the Arab Spring were suddenly said to be obsolete; a brave new world was being created at hectic speed. Commentators optimistically suggested that, in the age of satellite television and the internet, traditional forms of repression – censorship, imprisonment, torture, execution – could no longer secure a police state in power; they might even be counter-productive. State control of information and communication had been subverted by blogs, satellite phones and even the mobile phone; YouTube provided the means to expose in the most graphic and immediate way the crimes and violence of security forces.
One of the literary legacies of the financial crisis is a type of travel writing focused on the local social, economic, and environmental effects of unfettered global capitalism. There are two types of such books. Michael Lewis is perhaps the best known and most widely read author of the first kind, in which the reporter becomes a kind of tour guide to the financial freak show. In Boomerang (2011), Lewis shows how greed overwhelmed both the lenders and the borrowers of cheap money in places like Iceland, Ireland, and the United States. Reading him is like watching the circus through binoculars. The spectacle is both vividly close and comfortably distant; we enjoy the show but feel no direct involvement in the unfolding action.
The second type, exemplified in Antony Loewenstein’s important new book Profits of Doom, is written with the fire of the political activist. Loewenstein acknowledges the influence on his work of Naomi Klein, whose The Shock Doctrine (2007) defined a predatory ‘disaster capitalism’ that seeks to exploit war or natural disaster for private profit at the expense of local populations. Loewenstein writes: ‘Vulture, or predatory, capitalism has easily taken root in Australia and many other self-described democracies because of the limited ability and willingness of the public to scrutinise it and demand change.’
Profits of Doom is squarely a post-9/11 book, focused in large part on the unprecedented expansion of privatised surveillance and detention services on behalf of governments and even the United Nations since September 2001. We begin in remote, if familiar, territory at the Curtin Detention Centre in Western Australia. Leaked documents from the British multinational Serco, which manages refugee detention on our behalf (Australia is the only country in the world to outsource all of its detention centres), reveal price gouging, ‘extreme rates of self-harm among detained refugees’, and the ‘non-reporting of mistakes’ to avoid government penalties. Here and in chapters on Afghanistan and Christmas Island, Loewenstein illustrates the disparity between the argument of most Western governments that outsourcing is cost-efficient and the expensive facts of private service delivery. Instead, he argues that the real value of private operators like Serco is to provide governments with ‘a convenient scapegoat for systemic failures’, and reveals the tactics by which those companies avoid or minimise government oversight. ‘This blurring of responsibility and accountability is a fundamental flaw of exploitative capitalism,’ he concludes.
On Christmas Island, witnessing the arrival of a ‘visibly overcrowded boat,’ he asks those standing at the water’s edge whether ‘anyone cares that a private company is making money from greater numbers of refugee arrivals’. One local man says ‘he feels uncomfortable about it, while a tourist isn’t aware of the fact’. After reading Profits of Doom it would be difficult to remain unaware of the merry-go-round of public policy and private profit in the privatised security industry, let alone comfortable about it. Still, it is hard to agree with the book’s assumption that all outsourcing is potentially corrupt: a privatised rubbish collection and disposal service, for example, is only problematic if the service does not make the savings stipulated in a contract or if that contract is not enforced.
The exploitation of natural resources at the expense of local populations is Loewenstein’s second major theme. In Papua New Guinea, he explores the ‘resource curse’ of poor nations with rich mineral deposits. He travels to Bougainville, twenty-five years after infuriated locals forced the closure of the polluting Panguna mine and sparked a civil war, just as talk of reopening the mine has begun. In Port Moresby he listens to angry locals and records the voices of the otherwise silent majority who seem powerless in the face of a web of vested interests. These moments are among the book’s most powerful.
Some of Loewenstein’s harshest criticism is aimed at non-government organisations (NGOs) in post-disaster zones. He regards them as a ‘conduit that ensures business for Western firms’, concluding that despite noble intentions the ‘NGO-isation of humanitarian relief’ weakens local governments by channelling donor country funds through their own agencies instead of supporting local initiatives.
In the context of these perhaps overly simplistic assessments, the author remains upbeat about the power of democracy, which he optimistically conflates with awareness. As you would expect from the author of The Blogging Revolution (2008), he encourages individual citizen bloggers and social media users to provide the ‘view from the ground’. ‘Awareness doesn’t necessarily bring change,’ he writes, ‘but it’s the first, vital step in doing so.’
Profits of Doom presents research and argument rather than potential solutions. In pressing for greater regulation of NGOs and forms of investment that transcend neo-colonialism, Lowenstein writes: ‘NGOs that are locally accountable, internationally connected and financially independent have made a difference and contributed to the greater sovereignty of those nations.’ It would be easy to think that in all the book’s distressed venues of vulture capitalism there are few such models. Among the despair in Haiti, however, Loewenstein mentions the growth of the renewable energy sector there under a ‘unique model … where local NGOs partner with government departments to reduce deforestation’. This tantalisingly brief reference feels like a missed opportunity to demonstrate what is working amid disaster capitalism’s catalogue of failures. Perhaps it is the beginnings of another book. If so, I for one am looking forward to it.
I’m currently on a seemingly never-ending book tour for Profits of Doom and this week I spoke at a packed event at Stanton Library in North Sydney (the audio is here for 24 September). It was a great opportunity to engage with people, many of whom were over 60, on issues that too rarely receive coverage in the mainstream media. We should never-estimate the passion, commitment and anger over human rights abuses in the wider community.
This was enjoyable. On Sunday an extended interview with John Safran and Father Bob, hosts of Triple J’s Sunday Night Safran, was aired and we discussed detention centres, Serco, Palestine, Haiti, Afghanistan, private war, BDS, democracy and human rights:
With the war thoroughly lost years ago, American troops had to entertain themselves in the time-honoured, imperial tradition of completely ignoring local customs. Good story by McClatchy:
There is nothing quite like coming off a patrol, your body-armor-shaped sweat stains still drying and ears ringing from grenades, only to have the hostess at T.G.I. Friday’s tell you to wait a few. Sorry, sergeant, we’ve got to clear a table.
Or hovering over the desert for hours in a throttled-down Apache helicopter on an oh-dark-30 stakeout, disassembling half a dozen Taliban fighters with your chain gun as they plant a roadside bomb, only to get back to base and discover that the Canadian-themed donut shop is selling just coffee because insurgents blew up the latest inbound shipment of donut mix.
What’s a man gotta do to get a maple-glazed in this war?
Soon enough, he won’t be able to. The Kandahar Airfield boardwalk, for a decade the surreal yet comfortingly familiar heart of the biggest NATO base in Afghanistan, is closing down.
The festive, elevated rectangle of shops and fast-food vendors built around a small soccer field and running track will inevitably live on in the war stories of tens of thousands of U.S. and NATO troops and contractors who’ve lived at Kandahar Airfield or passed through it on the way to smaller combat outposts.
The businesses will shut down in phases, beginning next month, with the final one closing before the end of 2014, base officials said in an emailed statement. Most of the buildings will be torn down, though the walkway and the sports facilities will remain awhile.
The closure plan mirrors the withdrawal of U.S. troops as the NATO coalition here shrinks in advance of ending its combat mission next year. The 62,000 or so U.S. troops still in Afghanistan are expected to begin leaving in significant numbers after this year’s summer fighting season tapers.
“This is a natural evolution as we draw down forces across the country,” U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. John Dolan, the base commander, wrote in the statement. “As our personnel numbers decrease, so will the amenities at our installations.”
Every large base here has amenities to make long tours of duty more bearable, including “local national” markets, with cheap rugs and jewelry, bootleg DVDs, counterfeit watches and other goods and souvenirs. But they are all lowly five-and-dimes to the boardwalk’s Mall-of-America-like grandness, street-corner buskers to Liberace.
Soldiers slurping tea and fruit smoothies browse locally owned shops that offer alterations, patches for uniforms, shoes, flat-screen TVs, cellphones, jewelry and carpets. They line up for American, Mexican, Asian or Middle Eastern fast food, or opt for dine-in at the T.G.I. Friday’s.
Once there was a franchise of the famous-in-Canada Tim Hortons donut shop, though now it’s run by a local owner under the name Coffee Time. The French exchange store also changed hands and names, though it still offers perhaps the only chocolate croissants in southern Afghanistan.
Soon, though, the croissants will be gone, and with them the hotdogs at Nathan’s Famous, the rugs with AK-47 designs, the $700 jackets just like SEAL team operators wear at the German exchange and, heaven forbid, even Gyros for Heroes.
The boardwalk. Famous and infamous. If the war in Afghanistan ever gets its own “Apocalypse Now” film treatment, the movie crew will have to rebuild it for that symbolism-freighted scene about the dizzying gulf between the two cultures fighting the war. KFC vs. whatever the Taliban outside the base are eating.
Retired Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the former U.S. commander in Afghanistan who ate just one meal a day, ran eight miles daily and slept only four hours a night, hated the boardwalk, especially the fast food. It made troops soft. His command sergeant major, Michael T. Hall, once wrote a blog post denouncing it. “This is a war zone – not an amusement park,” he said.
But even McChrystal couldn’t kill it, and he was in charge of the whole war then.
Personal, economic, geopolitical security – this is the panel discussion from the Melbourne Writers Festival.
Who gets to make the decisions in these arenas? And why are we so damned anxious and insecure in this continuing period of affluence? Why are whinging when we’ve had 23 years of uninterrupted growth?
And why is it happening in this country that boasts an anti-authoritarian persona, but in reality, has a very obedient streak?
The panellists who raise these questions are: writer and filmmaker, Antony Loewenstein; Brendan Gleeson, professor of urban planning at Melbourne University; Desmond Manderson from the College of Law at the ANU and George Megalogenis, political journalist and blogger with The Australian. Julianne Schultz, founding editor of the Griffith REVIEW is the moderator.
So, insecurity, national anxiety, secularism, cowardice, conformity, why we’re saddled with dud political leaders; they’re some of the issues in this discussion, along with a good dose of anarchism.
It’s rare to get a chance in today’s media climate to have a long conversation about serious issues.
This interview, about my new book Profits of Doom, was broadcast on Melbourne’s Triple R Spoke program, and we spoke in depth about the reality of privatised detention centres, privatised war in Afghanistan and challenging the seeming inevitability of outsourcing in our societies.
A key theme in my new book Profits of Doom are the ways in which corporations enrich themselves in times of war.
Here’s the latest example, via the New York Times:
Dollar for dollar, Mahmood Karzai may well hold the title for getting the least value out of his pricey American lawyers. Mr. Karzai, a brother of President Hamid Karzai, paid one of them $100,000, and all he got was a single meeting and one follow up e-mail — and then the lawyer died.
Now he is looking for someone new to sue the estate of the dead one. “I need to find a good lawyer,” he said in an interview.
While it may not be surprising that a Karzai has access to high-powered legal help, thanks to an economic boom underwritten by the United States, there are more Afghans than one would imagine who have the money to pay legal talent from places like New York and Washington — and who have the reasons to need it.
It was probably inevitable that lawyers would follow American dollars to Afghanistan, and the arrival of some of the most prestigious law firms on the scene in recent years says a lot about just how good a business opportunity this war has been for many people.
First came the military contracts: deals with Afghans to do all kinds of things, including shipping supplies for American troops and hauling out human waste from military outposts.
Then came the crackdowns, and lawsuits, when jobs did not get done right, or the money simply went missing.
And now many Afghans who grew wealthy off American contracting are learning that the price of keeping their good names, their revenue streams and, potentially, their freedom starts with a six-figure retainer.
“We paid them when they started our work, and we paid them when they finished,” said Ahmad Rateb Popal, chairman of the Watan Group, an Afghan security and logistics firm. There was, he noted, “no bargaining.”
The lawyers in question were from Venable of Washington. The Watan Group hired the firm after being banned in 2010 from doing work for the United States government over allegations that it had paid off the Taliban to keep supply convoys safe.
It cost almost $1 million in legal fees to get the ban reversed in 2011, and Watan still had to agree not to guard convoys for three years, Mr. Popal said. At the time, much of the $25 million to $30 million a year Watan was making on work for the United States was for convoy security.
Venable did not respond to a request for comment.
Before its run-in with the Pentagon, Watan was spending nothing on legal fees, Mr. Popal said. Now, as it has branched out into other business, like oil exploration, it has added to its stable of legal talent, seeking advice on structuring deals and reviewing contracts from other firms. Mr. Popal said they include Fulbright & Jaworski, one of the largest in the United States, based in Houston.
It is hard to say just how many Afghans have sought outside legal counsel to smooth their dealings with the United States — neither the entrepreneurs nor their clients are eager to advertise their relationships. But in general, the owners of big Afghan businesses seem to fall into two categories: those who already have legal problems with the United States government, or those who anticipate they will have them soon enough. To that end, the firms they favor tend to have big Washington practices.
To be clear, most of the billions of dollars spent by the United States in Afghanistan have gone to American companies, which then subcontracted work to Afghans firms — and, when needed, provided their Afghan partners with referrals for legal counsel in the United States. Many of the American companies have also run into legal troubles of their own, but most are used to paying top dollar for legal help as the price of doing business.
It can feel a bit more surreal when the Afghan owner of a used car and spare parts garage in the United Arab Emirates, Yousef Zaland, stops an interview and mentions that perhaps it would be best to call his lawyer in the United States.
“He is in Washington. He is at Patton Boggs,” Mr. Zaland, a businessman who has been accused of aiding the Taliban, said during the interview in July.
My book review appears in today’s Sydney Morning Herald:
Days after the Boston marathon bombings in April, the surviving suspect, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, reportedly told authorities that he and his brother, Tamerlan, watched online the sermons of Anwar al-Awlaki, the US-born cleric who was killed by an American drone in Yemen in 2011.
It was just the latest appearance in the media of Awlaki; his death was praised by US President Barack Obama as a ”major blow to al-Qaeda’s most active operational affiliate”. Two weeks later, the Obama administration killed Awlaki’s son, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, in a drone strike in Yemen. It remains shrouded in mystery. American investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill uncovers evidence that Obama himself was ”surprised and upset and wanted an explanation”. One White House official described it as ”a mistake, a bad mistake”.
In arguably the most comprehensive examination of post-September 11, 2001 ”war on terror” policies, Dirty Wars reveals how Washington’s Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) has risen to become the most elite force in the US arsenal. It led the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, but its more disturbing role is conducting missions across the globe that receive no media.
Scahill, a national security correspondent for The Nation, long-time contributor to Democracy Now! and author of Blackwater, travels to Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan and beyond to report on the war we don’t see with embedded journalism, an all-too-common feature of modern war coverage. Wikileaks-released documents provide essential evidence for his work.
Take the nightly JSOC raids in Afghanistan, reportedly to capture alleged Taliban or al-Qaeda members. The reality is very different, as I heard myself in Afghanistan in 2012.
Scahill uncovers a massacre of civilians by US forces in Gardez in Paktia province in 2010 and the attempts to cover it up by senior military figures including the head of JSOC, William McRaven.
What’s most shocking is not just details of this horrific crime, but also the frequency of such acts.
Journalist Nick Turse reveals similar activities during the Vietnam War in his recent book,Kill Anything That Moves. My Lai-style massacres weren’t an aberration, he proves, but rather a regular occurrence. Scahill’s digging challenges the notion that ”surgical strikes” and ”targeted assassinations” are a clean way to prosecute foreign policy.
”One of the enduring legacies of the Obama administration,” the writer said in May to HBO’s Bill Maher, ”is that Obama has normalised assassination as a central component of US national security policy.”
Dirty Wars is infused with a necessary anger towards the lack of questions in the US about these destructive policies. ”Obama has sold the Bush/Cheney policy to liberals,” Scahill argues, and he’s right that a vast majority of Americans claim to support drones. However, this is only because citizens so rarely see or hear the victims of these covert attacks. The corrective is to speak independently to the civilians apparently being liberated by Western weapons.
The power of Scahill’s work is making the reader question the legality and morality of American policy. Not unlike Ronald Reagan’s dirty wars against left-leaning countries in Latin America in the 1980s – hundreds of thousands of victims were murdered by US-backed thugs in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Chile and elsewhere – today’s proxy forces operate with the same level of impunity.
Scahill spends time with Somalian warlords who are paid by the US to fight al-Qaeda militants, but while in Mogadishu he discovers a CIA-run underground prison that assists Somali intelligence officials.
”We define our society by how we treat the most reprehensible of citizens,” Scahill said on US TV earlier in the year. The success of this book, a New York Times bestseller, is rejecting the official rationale given to pursue a ”war on terror” that causes blow-back on our own societies and destruction across the globe.
Antony Loewenstein’s latest book is Profits of Doom (MUP).
Purchase Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield by Jeremy Scahill here.
DIRTY WARS: THE WORLD IS A BATTLEFIELD
Serpent’s Tail, 672pp, $29.99