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.

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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Civilians in South Sudan bearing brunt of cruel war

My feature in Foreign Policy:

BENTIU, South Sudan — Every day, some 200 people stream into Bentiu, the site of South Sudan’s largest camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs). Women trudge past armed U.N. peacekeepers while carrying large pots and bags on their heads and tiny children in their arms. They sit on the cracked brown earth in the blistering sun and heat, sometimes for hours, waiting to be fingerprinted. Camp workers photograph children for identification purposes, while the World Health Organization and other medical groups vaccinate them against measles and cholera. Nearby, hundreds of camp residents gather as World Food Programme workers distribute basic food rations such as sorghum and oil.

Bentiu, in Unity state near the border with Sudan, sits at the center of South Sudan’s never-ending storm. The United Nations established the camp in December 2013 after a violent power struggle broke out between President Salva Kiir’s ethnic Dinka forces and Nuer-majority rebels under the command of Riek Machar, his former deputy. More than 43,000 lived in the camp at the end of 2014, according to U.N. figures. Its population has now ballooned to 100,000, while 60,000 more live in similar, smaller facilities around the country.

Ruon David Kuol, a tall, 33-year-old man sporting a pressed purple- and white-striped shirt, arrived at the Bentiu camp from nearby Bentiu town in January 2014 with his wife and four children. But after five months, his family set off on foot for the Sudanese capital of Khartoum — some 580 miles away — leaving him behind. They did not feel safe at Bentiu, a place where women are often raped and killed by soldiers when they leave the camp for firewood and charcoal, Kuol said. It’s a problem across South Sudan. On July 21, Human Rights Watch issued a report implicating soldiers of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), South Sudan’s military, and militias in mass rape, looting, the burning of homes, and spreading widespread destruction across Unity.

“Living here is not like home. But my house was burned down by government troops. I cannot leave the camp, even [for] Bentiu town [just] down the road. I’m too scared,” said Kuol, who now serves as a liaison between his community and the camp authorities and who wants the “war crimes” being committed in his country to stop. “The guilty must be held accountable,” he said.

Such justice seems a dim prospect here, a country of 11 million where tens of thousands have died in the fighting between Kiir and Machar. Already dilapidated infrastructure, schools, and medical facilities have collapsed, and the economy is in free-fall, as some 7.8 million suffer from food insecurity; this year, South Sudan topped the Fund for Peace’s Fragile States Index. According to U.N. figures from this July, there are now some 1.6 million IDPs in South Sudan, and nearly 608,000 South Sudanese refugees live in neighboring countries. Currently, some 11,500 overstretched U.N. peacekeepers are stationed across South Sudan.

With the government and international community both unable or unwilling to broker peace, the desperate plight of IDPs like Kuol and his family will grow only more dire. “The country is different shades of shit,” one senior U.N. official in the capital, Juba, said.

Flying this month into Bentiu on a U.N. helicopter, one could see abandoned, burned-out buildings, as well as tens of thousands of cattle gathered near the center of town. The heavy rains had left behind lush, green fields.

The International Organization for Migration says it has registered 6,000 civilians in the area, but the government claims there are 15,000 people in Bentiu town, mostly IDPs. The discrepancy is hard to explain. But the Danish Refugee Council (DRC), an independent humanitarian organization tasked with camp management in Bentiu, said that government officials could be exaggerating numbers to receive more supplies for their own men — a pervasive but tough-to-prove allegation heard across South Sudan. “It should be the job of the government to help its own people,” DRC’s Gilbert Ogeto said.

Nature also seems to be conspiring against those in the camp. When the rain pours in Bentiu, it’s like a torrent of gray and red mud turns everything into porridge. Shopkeepers selling cell phones, flip-flops, sugar, clothes, and other basics navigate the onslaught.

During the rainy season in 2014, thousands of people lived in makeshift shelters in Bentiu’s U.N. camp, where they waded through waters reaching to their waists. Conditions were abominable, with the camp flooding and children drowning in their own homes. Roughly four children under age 5 were dying every day due to disease and malnutrition.

Determined not to face a repeat of this situation in 2015, U.N. officials used the dry months to begin raising land and installing water channels. In 2015, the U.N. and the International Organization for Migration oversaw the expansion of the camp to accommodate the influx of civilians. The new, stronger houses, built from bamboo and plastic sheets, are more resistant to the natural elements. Many IDPs are excited about living in these structures, though weary of war and uncertain when they’ll be able to return home.

But few observers expected the surge of IDPs at Bentiu, a surge largely due to the increased fighting in surrounding areas, Ogeto said. “There were plans to expand the facility in early 2015 for an additional 40,000 people. Now there are over 100,000, and we [are] planning for 120,000,” he added. A U.N. official also said that the facility couldn’t manage the “projected” IDP numbers, and many NGOs worry about being able to fund their activities if the numbers greatly exceed 100,000.

 

While officials are impressed with improvements to the camp, they know that ensuring its total security is impossible. Gunmen, allegedly SPLA troops, have sneaked into the Bentiu camp this year and killed residents. Armed government soldiers stalk its periphery, whose protective barriers and fences are easily breached. Barbed wire to fully secure the expanded areas is also in short supply. “Secure means different things to different people,” one U.N. security consultant remarked, acknowledging the impossibility of completely securing a site with over 100,000 people.

James Madut Ruei, a 50-year-old community elder, has lived in the Bentiu camp for 18 months and has witnessed the worst of the atrocities — including those by the SPLA. In April, government forces began an 18-month campaign against the rebels in Unity. On June 30, the U.N. issued a report alleging that the SPLA has engaged in major human rights abuses. Ruei spoke of a particularly grisly incident, also detailed in the report, of soldiers, reportedly fueled by ethnic hatred, raping women and girls before pushing some of them into huts and burning them alive. “It’s too much. It’s genocide. Only God knows when things will improve,” Ruei said. He often feels helpless in the face of the conflict, he said, and wants the international community, especially the United States, to pressure South Sudanese leaders to broker peace.

None of the horrors of Bentiu were inevitable. They rose, instead, only after the United States and the rest of the international community turned its back on South Sudan.

For decades, Christians in the United States had championed the cause of Christian-majority South Sudan in the region’s bloody fight with Muslim neighbors to the north. They found a strong backer in then-President George W. Bush, whose administration pushed for the peace talks that led to South Sudan’s secession from Sudan. In 2011, President Barack Obama welcomed a newly independent South Sudan as a strategic asset against a resurgent China in Africa. But when the conflict between Kiir and Machar exploded in 2013, Washington was distracted by other things, like the rise of the Islamic State and the war in Syria. Key U.S. posts, including ambassador and special envoy to South Sudan, sat empty for many months as weapons and support flowed to both sides of the conflict from China, Uganda, Sudan, and Israel.

In the years leading up to South Sudan’s independence, through media appearances and meetings with U.S. and U.N. officials, high-profile Westerners like actor George Clooney and John Prendergast, founding director of the Enough Project, campaigned vigorously for South Sudan’s independence, with seemingly little thought for the bloody consequences to come. Fortunately, Clooney and Prendergast are now demanding that the United States, South Sudan, and its neighbors pursue a new peace process, one with “biting consequences for those South Sudanese government and rebel leaders who continue to fan the flames of war and who are completely insulated from the suffering of their people,” as they wrote with a colleague in a recent article. Clooney and Prendergast have also launched a campaign to target the money fueling Africa’s worst conflicts. “With billions in oil revenues missing from state coffers, hundreds of acres of land bartered away for pennies on the dollar, and currency speculation running rampant, South Sudan was hijacked by violent kleptocrats long before it became an independent state,” said Akshaya Kumar, Sudan and South Sudan policy analyst with the Enough Project, in congressional testimony on July 10.

In an interview earlier this year with Foreign Policy, Princeton Lyman, Obama’s special envoy to Sudan and South Sudan in 2010 and 2011, said that Washington’s use of contractors instead of the U.S. military to work alongside South Sudan’s military was a key failing. He argued that the split between Kiir and Machar might have been avoided with deeper U.S. military engagement. “We would have seen the cracks that occurred in December 2013. We might have been able to anticipate it more and do something more about it,” he said.

As the months wore on through 2014 and into this year, Juba felt forgotten by Washington and the international community. The government’s relationship with U.N. officials, in particular, deteriorated sharply, imperiling those at the Bentiu camp and others like it. Speaking off the record, countless U.N. officials at the camp said that Kiir’s government has grown less tolerant of public criticism of its actions. Toby Lanzer, the former top U.N. official in the country, was kicked out in June by the government for being overtly critical of the regime, and other U.N. officials have been threatened with expulsion for placing blame for the endless fighting and abuses on the military and government. South Sudan’s government is also currently blocking passage of a U.N. food barge on the Nile, the latest restriction on civilians getting much needed supplies in rebel-controlled areas. As a result of the growing acrimony, U.N. sources say, the organization now rarely publicly challenges official actions by South Sudan’s government. The U.N. also stands accused of turning a blind eye to a Canadian aid worker who was raped in 2015 at its Bentiu camp.

The U.N.’s patience with the South Sudanese government is wearing thin. While there is no indication that the U.N. will leave South Sudan or be kicked out anytime soon, a senior U.N. official in Bentiu was exasperated with the war’s escalation and the apparent lack of urgency by the government to end it. “Even if the U.N. leaves tomorrow,” he said, “civilians would flee to Sudan, and the South Sudanese government still wouldn’t feed its own people.”

South Sudan seems to be mimicking Sudan’s fraught relationship with the U.N., but “they’re not as clever,” one senior U.N. official said in Juba, “but getting better. They believe they can militarily defeat the rebels or its leader, Machar, will die or be killed. I don’t think the government will yet kick out the U.N. entirely because they still crave international support and legitimacy.”

U.S. policymakers are finally signaling a shift toward accepting reality. On July 9, the four-year anniversary of South Sudan’s independence, U.S. National Security Advisor Susan Rice, criticized by many Africa watchers as being too close to the continent’s dictators, issued a statement congratulating South Sudan on its independence, while ripping into Kiir and Machar “and their cronies [who] are personally responsible for this new war and self-inflicted disaster.” She promised that the United States, “along with the international community, will punish those determined to drive South Sudan into the abyss.”

Calls from activists in the United States and Africa for Obama to strongly engage the South Sudan issue during his visit to Africa were strong. On July 27, the president and regional officials met to discuss the creation of a regional intervention force and the potential for harsher sanctions against South Sudanese leaders. He condemned both Kiir and Machar during his speech to the African Union in Ethiopia. The International Crisis Group released a report on July 27 that argued that a regional solution to the war is “the best — if imperfect — chance to end the conflict and prevent further regionalisation.”

Things in Bentiu, meanwhile, are unlikely to change anytime soon. Nyamai Marko Liah, 27, and Nyawai Puot Chuol, 30, arrived in Bentiu in early July, each with four children. They wore clean, colorful dresses. They’re both married to the same man, Nyak Nong, who escaped to Sudan at the outbreak of the conflict. They haven’t seen him since, but occasionally speak to him via satellite phone. “If I could meet President Kiir and rebel leader Machar,” Liah told me, “I’d ask them to negotiate.… But we don’t see any sign of peace in this country.”

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Why Western leaders love dictatorships

My weekly Guardian column:

Western-friendly dictators can die in peace, knowing they’ll be lauded as soon as they stop breathing. So it was for Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew, who recently passed away at the age of 91. Tributes poured in from across the globe. Barack Obama called him “visionary” while Australian prime minister Tony Abbott mourned a “friend”.

Neither man mentioned that Lee presided over an authoritarian state where dissent was barely tolerated, where even his commemoration was marked by the authorities shutting down events at Speaker’s Corner, the only place in the country where protest is permitted.

Singapore may have become a global business hub in a matter of decades, a remarkable economic feat, but growing numbers of its young citizens no longer believe or accept that silence in the face of repression is acceptable. Clean sidewalks may not be enough anymore to satisfy a public yearning for more.

After Lee’s death, Singapore arrested a local teenager for daring to post a video slamming the deceased leader’s record. Greater freedom of speech and rights is on the agenda for its globally connected youth.

This is the problem with dictators admired in elite western circles for being able to dismiss the will of the people even more successfully than elected politicians; the population eventually wants change.

In the eyes of the west, Singaporean autocracy was less important than the building of a stable Asian nation that enriched western and Asian businesses. Lee Kwan Yew didn’t need to push this message too hard to convince anybody. After all, the west is more than happy to deal with China, another success story with a deplorable human rights record and worsening attacks on civil society.

The tradeoff – stability and prosperity for authoritarianism – is global. When Saudi King Abdullah died in January this year, Australian government buildings lowered their flags to mark the death. Obama flew to the funeral to pay respects to the royal family.

Alongside a massive entourage, including the CIA director and a host of Democrat and Republican figures, Obama’s goal was to confirm the primacy of the special relationship between Saudi Arabia and America and reassure the unelected sheikhs that he wasn’t intending to leave them isolated against an ascendant Iran, which has increasing control over four regional capitals – Sana’a, Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut – as a result of Washington’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 that unleashed a chain-reaction of shifting alliances.

Saudi Arabia beheads its own people, its legal system is opaque, it refuses women basic rights, like permission to drive, and tolerates no criticism of its rule. Its abundant oil is used ruthlessly to keep heads of state in line; Obama, Abbott and other western heads of state are unwilling to challenge a country that is known to export terror.

The response to another autocrat’s death, Indonesia’s Suharto, in 2008, was also enthusiastic. Former Australian prime minister Paul Keating damned critics who dared condemn the dictator as “a cruel and intolerant repressor” when in fact he had “saved Indonesia from destruction”. Left unsaid were the million Indonesians killed after Suharto’s bloody ascension to the presidency in the 1960s and the occupation of East Timor.

The New York Times obituary noted his rule as “one of the most brutal and corrupt of the 20th century”. This didn’t bother Keating, who saluted Soeharto for bringing “stability” on Australia’s doorstep.

How dictators are revered in their death wholly depends on their usefulness to western interests. When US-backed Iraqi-forces executed Saddam Hussein in 2006, few mourned his bloody rule. Yet for decades, Hussein was a close American ally, during a time when he was at his most murderous against internal dissent.

Washington even provided the location of Iranian troops to Saddam’s Iraq in 1988, to assist in a chemical weapons attack. It was only when Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1990 that America designated him an official enemy.

But is the west’s insistence on stability helping reduce violence? Aligning with the darkest forces on the planet for the sake of oil, access or apparent geo-strategic positioning is guaranteed to achieve the opposite. Western leaders inevitably end up preparing grandiose and intrusive plans to control the monsters they’ve unleashed. Dirty alliances, escalation and invasions with unpredictable outcomes; this seems like all our leaders know. Afterwards come the glowing eulogies.

Many leaders are happy to play the Washington game and are feted accordingly. Criticism of abuses in Uzbekistan, Ethiopia, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Vietnam and Israel are muted because military, strategic or economic benefits to both sides are integral to these relationships. Deaths of their rulers would bring salutatory statements from Britain and America. Conversely, Russia is deemed a national security threat because it refuses to be bought by economic threats from the US.

When you dance with the devil, you’ll be bitten on the behind. Democratic security and moral integrity is weakened when western friends commit abuses and they’re ignored or rationalised. You can tell an awful lot about so-called western values when leaders fawn at the feet of autocrats when they die.

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Opposing Washington’s violence against Venezuela

I’m happy to have recently signed this statement on Washington’s unprovoked aggression against Venezuela (via Telesur):

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has added his name to a growing list of Australian journalists, academics, politicians, trade unionists and solidarity activists calling on U.S. president Barack Obama to revoke his executive order against Venezuelan .

On March 9, Obama issued the order which imposed sanctions on a number of Venezuelan state officials and deemed Venezuela to be an “unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States.”

In response, the Venezuela Solidarity Campaign (Melbourne), with the support of the Australia Venezuela Solidarity Network, initiated an open letter to Obama.

The letter has over 70 signatories, including Assange, renowned journalists John Pilger and Antony Loewenstein, Greens senator Lee Rhiannon, two socialist local councillors, officials from four different trade unions, academics from ten universities, and representatives from a range of political parties and solidarity organisations.

The letter urges the U.S. president to revoke the executive order and “stop interfering in Venezuela’s domestic affairs and cease making reckless public statements regarding Venezuela’s democratic processes.”

It also encourages Obama to “demonstrate to Latin America that the U.S. is capable of establishing relations based on the principles of peace and with respect for their sovereignty.”

Obama’s recent actions have seen relations continue to sour between the U.S. and the rest of the Americas. At the recent Summit of the Americas, held in Panama April 10-11, numerous regional heads of states expressed their support for Venezuela and called on Obama to revoke the executive order.

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US Senate report on torture shows state violence goes unpunished

My weekly Guardian column:

The details shocked. Shackled prisoners were treated like cattle, watched by their CIA interrogators. Testimony from one observer stated that men blindfolded and tied “were made to run down a steep hill, at the bottom of which were three throws of concertina barbed wire. The first row would hit them across the knees and they would plunge head first into the second and third rows of wire”.

This wasn’t CIA torture after the September 11 attacks, exposed in detail in a recent Senate report, but the Phoenix programme, instituted by the CIA and US, Australian and South Vietnamese militaries in Vietnam between 1965 and 1972 to “neutralise” the Vietcong. The result was more than 60,000 people tortured and killed. No senior politicians, generals or decision-makers were prosecuted for these crimes. A culture of immunity, despite occasional media and public outrage, thrived across the US.

Questioned before a US House operations subcommittee in the late 1960s to investigate widespread Phoenix-inspired torture, future CIA head William Colby used language that sounds familiar today. It’s just the official enemy that has changed. The “collateral damage” was justified, he said. Phoenix was “an essential part of the war effort … designed to protect the Vietnamese people from terrorism.”

In 2007, decades after its cessation, the CIA was still worried that the public felt Phoenix was an “unlawful and immoral assassination programme targeting civilians.” Instead, they claimed, it was “pacification and rural security programmes”.

Compare this to today’s CIA head, John Brennan, who defends his agency’s behaviour in the “war on terror” as doing a “lot of things right.” This arrogance only exists in an environment that doesn’t punish those who sanction abuses at the highest level and a mainstream media that gives equal time to torturers while virtually ignoring the victims. American torture’s grim legacy in Afghanistan is one of the least reported aspects of the last decade.

While it was the French who first introduced electrical torture to Vietnam, it was the Americans, writes journalist Mike Otterman in his book American Torture, who advised the Vietnamese “how to make the torture more painful and effective. Under American supervision, Vietnamese interrogators often combined electrical torture with sexual abuse”.

Otterman reminds us that US torture wasn’t an invention after the terror attacks of 2001 but part of a continuum of unaccountable US cruelty from Latin America to Asia, the Middle East and beyond. It’s revealing that this pedigree is so rarely explained or investigated in the rush to condemn (or praise, depending on your worldview) Washington-directed brutality under George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

This history is relevant during the current debate over post September 11 torture. The Senate report is an important contribution to the public record but the lack of any prosecution, censure or official condemnation goes to the heart of modern political culture. Obama has acquiesced in this position. The effect, writes journalist Andrew Sullivan, is that America has ensured that these crimes will occur again: “That will be part of his legacy: the sounds of a torture victim crying in the dark, and knowing that America is fine with it.”

A culture that celebrates television shows such as 24, Homeland and Spooks, where torture is central to capturing the bad guys and glamorises its use, makes real-life torment easier to justify or ignore. An Amnesty poll this year found 29% of Britons, higher than in Russia, Brazil and Argentina, believed torture could be justified to protect the public.

A Washington Post-ABC News poll taken after the release of the Senate torture report found that 59% of Americans felt that the CIA’s treatment of suspected terrorists was justified. This is in spite of the fact that one of the key findings in the US Senate report was that CIA torture was ineffective in hunting down extremists. Evidence from a US Senate armed services committee report into torture in 2009 found that such abuses were only guaranteed in bringing false confessions.

The Senate torture report has brought a handful of politicians demanding full transparency of their government’s role since 2001. The head of Britain’s Commons intelligence and security committee, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, wants Washington to release all documents showing London’s role in the CIA’s rendition programme though it’s sad he acknowledges London’s relative weakness when “requesting” the USA to hand over the details.

The silence has been deafening in Australia with no major politicians demanding openness from Canberra on its role under former prime minister John Howard in sanctioning the illegal incarceration of David Hicks and Mamdouh Habib. Independent MP Andrew Wilkie is one of the few modern politicians with a history of questioning the pernicious role of group-think in government. In 2004, he published a searing book, Axis of Deceit, on Australia’s real reason for overthrowing Saddam Hussein, and it wasn’t weapons of mass destruction. Thus far Wilkie has not commented on the CIA report, although he has accused the Abbott government of crimes against humanity for its treatment of asylum seekers.

The failure to punish torturers in the US fits neatly into a wider social malaise. The powerful don’t go to jail; it’s the weak that suffer for their foibles. The lack of any substantial prosecutions for Wall Street illegality is symptomatic of the rot inside the political class. Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi’s shows in his book The Divide how this occurs. “Obsessed with success and wealth and despising failure and poverty”, he argues, “our society is systematically dividing the population into winners and losers, using institutions like the courts to speed the process.”

When “we” break the law, it’s with benign intent and good intentions (an editorial in the Australian makes this spurious case). But when “they” do it, they’re criminals who should be punished. Elites protect elites. Where was the outcry when the CIA hired private mercenary company Blackwater after 9/11 to assassinate “enemies” in Afghanistan?

Instead of trials for those accused of endorsing torture, we’re left with articles, essays and works like The Trial of Donald Rumsfeld, “a prosecution by book”, written by the Centre for Constitutional Rights’ Michael Ratner. It’s a solid tome but desperately short of what’s required in a healthy democracy for individuals at the highest levels of government who order harsh crimes.

The ability of the state to retroactively justify illegal behavior when caught is a feature of every nation on earth, not just the US. But demanding other countries abide by international law, when western nations so blatantly ignore it, is the height of hypocrisy. The shocking details in the US Senate report demand accountability but there’s little public appetite for it.

Retired Navy JAG John Hutson warned in 2008 against trials for post 9/11 crimes because “people would lawyer up”, a tacit admission that the legal system is gamed by the wealthy and powerful to escape justice. There’s hardly a more illustrative example of the modern state’s failure.

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Defending the rights of whistle-blowers in our age

My weekly Guardian column:

Freedom is difficult to resuscitate once extinguished. Australian attorney-general George Brandis recently chastised journalists for criticising his government’s new laws aimed at preventing reporting about “special intelligence operations”. Because he’s a culture warrior brawler, Brandis damned the “usual suspects of the paranoid, fantasist left” but also “reputable conservative commentators” for questioning his judgment over what citizens should and should not learn through the media.

It’s a tragic irony that the loudest voices backing the current war on whistle-blowers are the very politicians who are theoretically elected to protect and enhance free speech and disclosure.

“Never believe anything until it’s officially denied” was a favourite expression of the Irish journalist Claud Cockburn, father of the British reporter Patrick Cockburn. It’s a motto worth remembering as we’re faced with a barrage of state-led and private interest attacks on leaks and leakers.

The examples are many, but what occurred on Thursday raises grave concerns for whistleblowers in Australia. Take the case of Freya Newman, a young and part-time librarian at Whitehouse School of Design in Sydney. She accessed information on the institute’s computer system that showed prime minister Tony Abbott’s daughter, Frances Abbott, received a “chairman’s scholarship” worth $60,000.

Newman has pleaded guilty to the offence of unauthorised access to a computer system, and on Thursday appeared in court. The prosecution appeared not to be pushing for a jail sentence but a record of the crime. The fact remains that Newman has been aggressively pursued for a noble example of exposing a matter of public interest.

Newman’s whistleblowing was defended by lawyer Julian Burnside as vital insights into secret access and clearly should be designated as in the public interest. Crucially, he notes that she would have been likely protected by whistleblower protection if working for a government organisation but she was exposed to legal censure because she was employed by a private organisation.

Independent news website New Matilda has released a slew of leaks this year and faced heavy, but predictable criticism. New Matilda operates differently, aiming to piss off the pompously positioned. The current controversy over Sydney University’s Barry Spurr, a consultant to the Abbott government’s review of the national curriculum, is yet another case of smearing a whistle-blower who released a slew of racist and sexist emails to New Matilda.

In an outrageous attack on press freedom, Spurr has tried to legally force New Matilda to reveal its sources and prevent them publishing anything else related to the story. It’s a case of attempted intimidation that New Matilda has happily challenged, and later on Thursday Spurr dropped his bid to expose the source, although the case is still continuing. I’m yet to read other media outlets offering support for the small publisher.

Rather than address the issues raised by Spurr’s compromised position as a man who longs for colonial times, The Australian’s Sharri Markson reported that the emails may have been obtained by hacking, allegations slammed by editor Chris Graham.

The source of the leak is again questioned in an Australian editorial: “the [New Matilda] website maintains [the story] is based on leaks from a source, rather than hacking, as Professor Spurr alleges”. Even entertainer Barry Humphries has damned the release of the emails, wilfully ignoring the political significance of such a man with vile views to perpetuate white Australia in the education system of the 21st century.

There are many other examples of this war on whistleblowers in Australia. Immigration minister Scott Morrison has maintained a medieval seal on details over his border security policy and yet has been happy to find friendly, News Corp Australia reporters to smear critics of his policy. The government has now referred Save the Children workers to be investigated by the Australian Federal Police over “unauthorised” disclosures of information. It was clear intimidation, designed to make employees shut up.

In a haze of claims and counter-claims, with Operation Sovereign Borders celebrated as saving taxpayer dollars, the detail of a breach of security within the department is ignored or dismissed as insignificant. The source of these allegations against Save the Children was first reported in a Daily Telegraph story as being from an intelligence report that they also appear to have been leaked, and which was published on the day of Morrison’s announcement about the investigation. Leaking to obedient journalists doesn’t indicate a healthy whistle-blower culture but rather a docile political environment that rewards favouritism. It reduces democracy to sanctioned drops into reporter’s in-boxes.

Amidst all the fury over angry ideologues concerned that their bigoted conservative values are under attack lie the importance of whistle-blowing without fear or favour. It’s a global problem that’s being led by Nobel Peace Prize winner himself, US president Barack Obama. His administration is publicly supportive of disclosure while prosecuting countless people including the New York Times’ James Risen and perfecting the selective leak to cosy reporters. It’s a particular problem with national security journalism, where the vast bulk of writing is left to stenographers of the bloated intelligence and military apparatus.

Effective whistleblower legislation in democracies isn’t enough because governments have proven their willingness to protect anything that embarrasses or shames them. The persecution of Julian Assange, Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning and Thomas Drake, amongst others, is about saving face and not lives. Journalists, aggressive media companies and citizens must revolt and challenge the very fundamentals of our secretive age. This means publishing state and business secrets and widening the overly narrow definition of what constitutes being in the public interest.

Rejecting the criminalising of journalism should be in every reporter’s DNA. The Snowden releases have fundamentally altered the ways in which we understand digital journalism and how we must protect sources away from prying private and government eyes.

Over a year ago I wrote an article outlining the range of documents and stories that need to be told by the invaluable work of whistle-blowers. Today I’m calling for all documents that reveal the operational details of Operation Sovereign Borders, the legal justification for providing Iraqi immunity for Australian special forces in Iraq and the evidence of Australian acquiescence in abandoning citizen Julian Assange at London’s Ecuadorian embassy.

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Progressive Podcast Australia interview on Iraq, ISIS and Syria

Last week I was interviewed by the Progressive Podcast Australia on Iraq, Obama’s new war in the Middle East and ISIS:

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Australia’s role as dutiful US client state

My weekly Guardian column:

Back in July, Australian Opposition Leader Bill Shorten delivered a speech at the Australian American Leadership Dialogue at the New York academy of sciences. It was full of motherhood statements – “We are bonded, we are blood cousins” – praise for Israel’s “innovation” (no mention of the Palestinians) and clichéd rhetoric about a pioneering American “legacy” that inspires Australians.

The assembled journalists would have clapped with appreciation, though the vast bulk of the event went unreported. It’s extremely rare for any journalist to criticise the meeting. If they do, their invitations from the US lobby tend to get lost in the mail.

Shorten’s kowtowing to Washington made it unsurprising that he offered his support for Tony Abbott involvement in Obama’s new Middle East conflict, but then again, this is how we’re expected to behave in a US client state.

Our politicians and journalists are duchessed with countless conferences and overseas trips. They’re the willing subjects of endless lobbying, “insider access” and so on. Then there’s the dinners, lunches, breakfasts and off-the-record chats with the cream of the US establishment.

The drip-feed is addictive and consequently the public often receives little more than press releases dressed up with a byline. Even questioning last week’s Australian anti-terror raids brings condemnation. Get with the program, repeat the word “terror”, ask questions never.

So many editors, journalists, politicians and advisors have attended the conferences and forums at the heart of the US-Australia relationship that it’s almost better to ask who hasn’t been, and to thank them. The Australia-Israel Leadership Forum, modelled on the Australian American Leadership Dialogue, has attracted huge numbers of politicians in recent years.

The same month that Shorten was extolling the virtues of the US in New York, Christopher Pyne, the education minister, visited Jerusalem for another leadership forum, which also included the UK. He praised Israel like an excited school-boy and used the word “freedom” 20 times in a very short speech.

Australian politicians and media courtiers constantly praise the “shared values” between Australia and Israel (though it’s clear what values a brutal military occupation of Palestine represents). A rare exception was the former foreign minister Bob Carr, who caused a storm earlier this year when he condemned the extremism of the Zionist lobby, saying that it was damaging Israel’s future. Less was said about Palestinian viability.

Carr was immediately pounced on by both his political enemies and allies – standard practice for critics of Australia’s closeness to the US or Israel. Former Labor leader Mark Latham was similarly condemned after he apparently risked the US alliance by correctly, in my opinion, stating in 2005 that our incestuousness with Washington made us more of a terrorist target. Former prime minister Malcolm Fraser is another of the few high-profile political figures who write honestly about the true nature of the alliance, and he’s in his 80s.

Just how deep does the connection go? Wikileaks cables released in 2010 revealed the long list of Liberal and Labor politicians lining up to praise the US alliance. Many of them were upset that their overly close ties with Washington were exposed in the public domain.

After the cables were released, the Lowy Institute’s Michael Fullilove argued that the cables showed a benign US and resented diplomatic embarrassments being made public. Former Labor politician Stephen Loosley, who writes glowingly about the US, claimed the cables would have a “chilling impact in terms of people speaking very frankly.” Former foreign minister Alexander Downer also talked about “embarrassing” revelations.

A rare voice of establishment dissent came from Paul Barratt, a former intelligence analyst and former secretary of the Department of Defence. He worried that public trust was breached by Australian politicians so uncritically accepting the goals of two foreign powers, Israel and America.

Canberra is described in the Wikileaks documents as “rock solid”, but uninfluential on American thinking. Obsequiousness is Canberra’s permanent stance. Australian academic Hugh White offered a pithy comment on the depth of the unequal relationship:

“I guess what’s striking about it though is how hard people in the Labor Party, people in Australian politics in general, work at being liked by the Americans, and there’s nothing wrong with being liked by the Americans, but what strikes me about what we’ve seen in the WikiLeaks saga so far is so little evidence of us asking for something back.”

Even David Kilcullen, the Australian counter-terror expert, said this week that an open-ended conflict was a “concern” and Australia “should be pushing for a ­pretty definite end [date]” to any new Iraq conflict, though he’s been an active supporter and advisor of failed, US-led policies in Iraq and Afghanistan for years.

In the parallel universe of Washington talking points created by the US-Australia alliance, Obama’s war is about the “battle for hearts and minds” in the Islamic world, not the brutal reality of US policy on the ground in Syria, Iraq, Yemen or Somalia. Alternatives to bombing yet more Arab nations are plentiful if we care to look – but we don’t.

An independent foreign policy requires Australia recognising it has never really become a sovereign nation. The bravado over Isis shows the political elite prefers to live in Obama’s shadow.

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Jeremy Scahill on reality of Obama war against ISIS

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Inside the mind of ISIS

I’m currently in America, investigating disaster capitalism in privatised immigration detention for my 2015 Verso book.

I’ve been watching a lot of cable TV (lord knows why but I’m a masochist) and it’s been ISIS day and night (apart from mostly awful coverage of the killing of Michael Brown and white blindness on racism). Fox News is desperate for President Obama to bomb Muslims and ISIS is the current target in Syria and Iraq (host Justice Jeanine’s monologue reflects the bloodlust inside Murdoch’s station). The former head of Britain’s MI5 stated that the Iraq war massively increased the terror threat. What do you think attacking Iraq (again) and Syria (presumably with the assistance of the once-reviled and now loved Assad regime) will do? ISIS has grown because the Assad regime allowed it to surge, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Understanding the reality and rise of ISIS is clearly too difficult for many in the mainstream media though journalist Patrick Cockburn’s new book is one of the best primers. How to tackle ISIS extremism, especially in the wake of the shocking beheading of US reporter James Foley, brings clear challenges to the press. What to show, how to show it, what is propaganda?

This VICE News film on ISIS is remarkable, scary, intense and vital. Incredible access:

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Don’t mention the Iraqi oil

Perceptive Steve Coll in The New Yorker:

Obama’s advisers explained to reporters that Erbil holds an American consulate, and that “thousands” of Americans live there. The city has to be defended, they continued, lest ISIS overrun it and threaten American lives. Fair enough, but why are thousands of Americans in Erbil these days? It is not to take in clean mountain air.

ExxonMobil and Chevron are among the many oil and gas firms large and small drilling in Kurdistan under contracts that compensate the companies for their political risk-taking with unusually favorable terms. (Chevron said last week that it is pulling some expatriates out of Kurdistan; ExxonMobil declined to comment.) With those oil giants have come the usual contractors, the oilfield service companies, the accountants, the construction firms, the trucking firms, and, at the bottom of the economic chain, diverse entrepreneurs digging for a score.

Scroll the online roster of Erbil’s Chamber of Commerce for the askew poetry of a boom town’s small businesses: Dream Kitchen, Live Dream, Pure Gold, Events Gala, Emotion, and where I, personally, might consider a last meal if trapped in an ISIS onslaught, “Famous Cheeses Teak.”

It’s not about oil. After you’ve written that on the blackboard five hundred times, watch Rachel Maddow’s documentary “Why We Did It” for a highly sophisticated yet pointed journalistic take on how the world oil economy has figured from the start as a silent partner in the Iraq fiasco.

Of course, it is President Obama’s duty to defend American lives and interests, in Erbil and elsewhere, oil or no. Rather than an evacuation of citizens, however, he has ordered a months-long aerial campaign to defend Kurdistan’s status quo, on the grounds, presumably, that it is essential to a unified Iraq capable of isolating ISIS. Yet the status quo in Kurdistan also includes oil production by international firms, as it might be candid to mention. In any event, the defense of Kurdistan that Obama has ordered should work, if the Kurdish peshmerga can be rallied and strengthened on the ground after an alarming retreat last week.

Yet there is a fault line in Obama’s logic about Erbil. The President made clear last week that he still believes that a durable government of national unity—comprising responsible leaders of Iraq’s Shiite majority, Kurds, and Sunnis who are opposed to ISIS—can be formed in Baghdad, even if it takes many more weeks beyond the three months of squabbling that have already passed since the country’s most recent parliamentary vote.

The project of a unified Baghdad government strong enough to defeat ISISwith a nationalist Army and then peel off Sunni loyalists looks increasingly like a pipe dream; it was hard to tell from the Friedman interview what odds Obama truly gives the undertaking.

Why has political unity in Baghdad proven so elusive for so long? There aremany important reasons—the disastrous American decision to disband the Iraqi Army, in 2003, and to endorse harsh de-Baathification, which created alienation among Sunnis that has never been rectified; growing sectarian hatred between Shiites and Sunnis; the infection of disaffected Sunnis with Al Qaeda’s philosophy and with cash and soft power from the Persian Gulf; interference by Iran; the awkwardness of Iraq’s post-colonial borders, and poor leadership in Baghdad, particularly under Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. But another reason of the first rank is Kurdish oil greed.

During the Bush Administration, adventurers like Dallas-headquartered Hunt Oil paved the way for ExxonMobil, which cut a deal in Erbil in 2011. Bush and his advisers could not bring themselves to force American oil companies such as Hunt to divest from Kurdistan or to sanction non-American investors. They allowed the wildcatters to do as they pleased while insisting that Erbil’s politicians negotiate oil-revenue sharing and political unity with Baghdad. Erbil’s rulers never quite saw the point of a final compromise with Baghdad’s Shiite politicians—as each year passed, the Kurds got richer on their own terms, they attracted more credible and deep-pocketed oil companies as partners, and they looked more and more like they led a de-facto state. The Obama Administration has done nothing to reverse that trend.

And so, in Erbil, in the weeks to come, American pilots will defend from the air a capital whose growing independence and wealth has loosened Iraq’s seams, even while, in Baghdad, American diplomats will persist quixotically in an effort to stitch that same country together to confront ISIS.

Obama’s defense of Erbil is effectively the defense of an undeclared Kurdish oil state whose sources of geopolitical appeal—as a long-term, non-Russian supplier of oil and gas to Europe, for example—are best not spoken of in polite or naïve company, as Al Swearengen would well understand. Life, Swearengen once pointed out, is often made up of “one vile task after another.” So is American policy in Iraq.

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How the NSA wants total population control

My weekly Guardian column:

William Binney is one of the highest-level whistleblowers to ever emerge from the NSA. He was a leading code-breaker against the Soviet Union during the Cold War but resigned soon after September 11, disgusted by Washington’s move towards mass surveillance.

On 5 July he spoke at a conference in London organised by the Centre for Investigative Journalism and revealed the extent of the surveillance programs unleashed by the Bush and Obama administrations.

“At least 80% of fibre-optic cables globally go via the US”, Binney said. “This is no accident and allows the US to view all communication coming in. At least 80% of all audio calls, not just metadata, are recorded and stored in the US. The NSA lies about what it stores.”

The NSA will soon be able to collect 966 exabytes a year, the total of internet traffic annually. Former Google head Eric Schmidt once arguedthat the entire amount of knowledge from the beginning of humankind until 2003 amount to only five exabytes.

Binney, who featured in a 2012 short film by Oscar-nominated US film-maker Laura Poitras, described a future where surveillance is ubiquitous and government intrusion unlimited.

“The ultimate goal of the NSA is total population control”, Binney said, “but I’m a little optimistic with some recent Supreme Court decisions, such as law enforcement mostly now needing a warrant before searching a smartphone.”

He praised the revelations and bravery of former NSA contractor Edward Snowden and told me that he had indirect contact with a number of other NSA employees who felt disgusted with the agency’s work. They’re keen to speak out but fear retribution and exile, not unlike Snowden himself, who is likely to remain there for some time.

Unlike Snowden, Binney didn’t take any documents with him when he left the NSA. He now says that hard evidence of illegal spying would have been invaluable. The latest Snowden leaks, featured in the Washington Post, detail private conversations of average Americans with no connection to extremism.

It shows that the NSA is not just pursuing terrorism, as it claims, but ordinary citizens going about their daily communications. “The NSA is mass-collecting on everyone”, Binney said, “and it’s said to be about terrorism but inside the US it has stopped zero attacks.”

The lack of official oversight is one of Binney’s key concerns, particularly of the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (Fisa), which is held out by NSA defenders as a sign of the surveillance scheme’s constitutionality.

“The Fisa court has only the government’s point of view”, he argued. “There are no other views for the judges to consider. There have been at least 15-20 trillion constitutional violations for US domestic audiences and you can double that globally.”

A Fisa court in 2010 allowed the NSA to spy on 193 countries around the world, plus the World Bank, though there’s evidence that even the nations the US isn’t supposed to monitor – Five Eyes allies Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand – aren’t immune from being spied on. It’s why encryption is today so essential to transmit information safely.

Binney recently told the German NSA inquiry committee that his former employer had a “totalitarian mentality” that was the “greatest threat” to US society since that country’s US Civil War in the 19th century. Despite this remarkable power, Binney still mocked the NSA’s failures, including missing this year’s Russian intervention in Ukraine and the Islamic State’s take-over of Iraq.

The era of mass surveillance has gone from the fringes of public debate to the mainstream, where it belongs. The Pew Research Centre released a report this month, Digital Life in 2025, that predicted worsening state control and censorship, reduced public trust, and increased commercialisation of every aspect of web culture.

It’s not just internet experts warning about the internet’s colonisation by state and corporate power. One of Europe’s leading web creators, Lena Thiele, presented her stunning series Netwars in London on the threat of cyber warfare. She showed how easy it is for governments and corporations to capture our personal information without us even realising.

Thiele said that the US budget for cyber security was US$67 billion in 2013 and will double by 2016. Much of this money is wasted and doesn’t protect online infrastructure. This fact doesn’t worry the multinationals making a killing from the gross exaggeration of fear that permeates the public domain.

Wikileaks understands this reality better than most. Founder Julian Assange and investigative editor Sarah Harrison both remain in legal limbo. I spent time with Assange in his current home at the Ecuadorian embassy in London last week, where he continues to work, release leaks, and fight various legal battles. He hopes to resolve his predicament soon.

At the Centre for Investigative Journalism conference, Harrison stressed the importance of journalists who work with technologists to best report the NSA stories. “It’s no accident”, she said, “that some of the best stories on the NSA are in Germany, where there’s technical assistance from people like Jacob Appelbaum.”

A core Wikileaks belief, she stressed, is releasing all documents in their entirety, something the group criticised the news site The Intercept for not doing on a recent story. “The full archive should always be published”, Harrison said.

With 8m documents on its website after years of leaking, the importance of publishing and maintaining source documents for the media, general public and court cases can’t be under-estimated. “I see Wikileaks as a library”, Assange said. “We’re the librarians who can’t say no.”

With evidence that there could be a second NSA leaker, the time for more aggressive reporting is now. As Binney said: “I call people who are covering up NSA crimes traitors”.

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