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Endless War, Humanitarian Crisis, And Perpetual Resistance:
U.S. Foreign Policy In The 21st Century

By Michael Schwartz

29 August, 2010
War Is A Crime .org

In 2009, the mainstream U.S. media reported with satisfaction that the Pakistani government had finally responded positively to the United States and NATO's demands[1] for an aggressive military policy aimed at depriving the resurgent Taliban of “safe havens” in Pakistan.[2] The subsequent offensive, featuring a Pakistani invasion of these areas and aerial assaults by the U.S. and its NATO allies, and has become just another unexceptional element of the open-ended military campaign formerly known as GWOT (the “Global War on Terror”), but which, under the Obama administration has continued without a name. It receives little attention from the mainstream media, which is focusing its limited attention on Afghanistan, to the exclusion of the other “hot wars” the U.S. is currently conducting in Iraq and Pakistan.

In neglecting to cover the process and impact of the Pakistan war, the U.S. media has ignored or recorded in a perfunctory manner (often as add-ons to Afghanistan coverage) major developments in this war, particularly the humanitarian crisis it has created.

One vivid, pregnant, and immensely significant instance of this casual treatment of events that alter the history of the host country was the coverage of a recent United Nations report focused on a single campaign in the Pakistan war. The Associated Press[3] reported it thusly: “More than 200,000 people have fled Pakistan's latest offensive against Taliban militants in the northwest, the United Nations said Monday, as fresh clashes in the remote region killed 41 insurgents and six soldiers.” Later in the article, it emerged that this major displacement in a single region—running at about 50,000 displaced per month—was matched by other campaigns in nearby areas, with a total, according to the United Nations, of 1.3 million refugees “driven from their home by fighting in the northwest and unable to return.”

But even this 1.3 million refugee figure was still a partial number, because it did not include the impact of the various earlier and parallel campaigns carried out by Pakistan, NATO special forces, and the increasingly infamous drone attacks piloted by remote control from thousands of miles away. These offensives had produced, by June of this year, about 3.5 million displaced persons, including several hundred thousand rendered homeless for more than a year.[4] This humanitarian disaster was therefore one magnitude greater than the agony of Darfur, which in mid-2010 was estimated to have displaced 2.7 million people,[5] though Pakistan's disaster still lagged behind the Iraqi total, which had reached or exceeded five million.[6]

What never appears in the U.S. media is the process by which these military offensives translate into massive displacement. Unlike our unformed image of these wars, which pictures people fleeing the fighting and then returning when (and if) peace and/or security returns, these military campaigns leave permanent damage behind that usually—at least given the current goals and policies of the United States—have little chance of being repaired. Therefore, the displacement is likely to be long term for a substantial proportion of its victims, with all the misery that refugee status implies.

Take the casually reported offensive in the tribal regions of Afghanistan. Kathy Kelly, an independent reporter and human rights activist with years of experience in the Afghanistan/Pakistan region[7] described to Democracy Now one facet of the degradation process[8] that she witnessed in her last trip to the tribal areas of Pakistan The linchpin of this particular disaster was the systematic targeting of electrical facilities by the NATO and Pakistani military, considered necessary to disabling the resistance. Soon after the beginning of the offensive, the affected cities were delivering electricity for only part of the day, creating a chain reaction:

The textile industry can't function if their factories are closed down with eight hours' loss of electricity every day. And so the numbers of people that are jobless, homeless, and out on the streets and willing to demonstrate, which is very risky to do in a country with so much military control. But we spent a long time sitting with the Pakistani Clerks Association, who were out demonstrating. They were in their third month. Students were in their tenth day of demonstrating, saying that they had all been summarily dismissed from their jobs, and what would they do?

Situations like those created in Pakistan therefore generate both protests—which becomes more and more insistent as the immiseration deepens—and displacement—in which people search for a location with better prospects. Some do both. Others will seek to wait out the crisis and hope for a better day. But since these kinds of disasters do not go away, people's patience is soon exhausted. They will not sit still when their children are starving or without shelter at night, or without sufficient clothes.

The displaced people come to constitute the visible humanitarian crisis that the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees investigates and seeks to ameliorate. In the meantime, the collateral protests are regularly interpreted (often correctly) as anger against the military, the local government, and the foreign occupation. Whatever form the protests take (ranging from petitions to demonstrations to angry mobs to systematic insurgency to terrorist attacks) they become justification for renewed military onslaughts, thus bringing the process full circle.

This cycle of military aggression, immiseration, displacement and protest, leading to new military offensives aimed at definitive pacification, characterizes the visible (Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan) and less visible (Somalia, Yemen) interventions undertaken by the United States as part of the military strategy formerly known as GWOT.

But why doesn't the U.S. and its client governments move quickly to repair the damage caused by the attack, thus damping the protest and ending mass displacement? In Pakistan, then, one might look for a rapid restoration of electrical service in affected cities, followed as quickly as possible by revival of the textile industry, leading to revival of the local economy and, in the middle term perhaps, improvement over the pre-war conditions. This strategy, currently labeled as Counterinsurgency Warfare, is the official goal of all current U.S. campaigns.

But what actually happens is quite the reverse: a further erosion of local living conditions that it an inevitable part of the strategy formerly knows as GWOT. In pacified areas, where resistance is quiescent or absent, the process of U.S. sponsored reconstruction has a kind of reverse Midas touch, contributing to the immiseration of the local community. Take the example of the Iraqi electrical system, which was also a major military target, both in the earlier Gulf War (in 1990) and in the 2003 invasion. By the time the Hussein regime was overthrown in spring of 2003,[9] electrical generating capacity had been reduced by almost 50% from a 1990 high of 9000 megawatts to less than 5000 megawatts, leading to daily outages everywhere in the country. In the six subsequent years the U.S. invested over five billion dollars in the electrical system aimed at restoring and expanding the system to cover the dramatically increased demand from newly introduced electrical appliances and newly built U.S. facilities. Nevertheless, capacity stagnated at 5000 megawatts, barely above the prewar total, and far less than half the needed output (estimate in 2010 at 14,000 megawatts). All over Iraq, cities suffered with as little as two hours of electricity per day, far less than was available even after the destruction wrought by the 2003 overthrow of the Ba'athist regime.

This failure was not a result of ongoing fighting that prevented reconstruction; in fact, most of the five billion dollar U.S. effort had been invested in areas where there had been very little fighting, though many of these areas became insurgent centers as the electrical and associated crises continued.

The failure to rebuild the electrical system was, instead, a consequence of the ambitious goals that the Bush Administration had for its occupation of Iraq, goals that have become central to the policies of the Obama administration as well. They were summarized succinctly in the 2006 National Security Strategy of the United States, the official statement of U.S. military goals: “We seek a Middle East of independent states, at peace with each other, and fully participating in an open global market of goods, services, and ideas,” which would “ignite a new era of global economic growth through free markets and free trade”[10] The goals were summarized by retired army colonel Douglas Macgregor—a West Point class mate of ousted Afghanistan commander David McChrystal—as an attempt to “reshape the culture of the Islamic world.”[11]

And they were embraced by President Obama in his major policy statement about Afghanistan when he promised a “dramatic increase in our civilian effort” designed to “To advance security, opportunity, and justice -- not just in Kabul, but from the bottom up in the provinces -- we need agricultural specialists and educators; engineers and lawyers. That is how we can help the Afghan government… develop an economy that isn't dominated by illicit drugs.”[12]

In short, a fundamental goal of the full scale U.S. occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan—and the aerial and Special Forces invasion of the tribal regions of Pakistan—is political, social, and economic transformation.

In Iraq, the electrical system reconstruction was part of this larger goal of transforming Iraqi society. In this instance a major feature of the campaign involved destroying the Ba'athist government and replacing its state controlled economic and physical infrastructure with a privatized system integrated into the globalized economy. This meant dismantling state-owned electrical and construction companies and contracting with international businesses to replace the existing facilities with proprietary technology, replace Iraqi professionals with their own technicians, and replace Iraqi workers with their own imported labor force. In implementing this transformation with no-bid cost-plus contracts and no oversight by either the U.S. government or the Iraqis, the politically connected—aptly called “beltway bandits”[13] by journalist Ann Jones— contractors were rewarded for maximizing profit on every element of the operation, creating vast cost overruns, and leaving the work incomplete if and when supplementary funds were not made available.

One incredible example in the reconstruction of the Iraqi electrical grid involved the U.S. based construction company Bechtel, which removed 26 functioning Iraqi oil driven generators and replaced them with new proprietary gas driven turbines rated at twice the megawatt output.[14] However, since Iraq does not capture its natural gas, all but seven of the turbines could not be activated. With no new contracts to remedy the problem Bechtel walked away, taking its profits back to the United States. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers then gerryrigged the turbines so that they could use fuel oil, though this fix-up reduced output by 50%, making the new turbines no more productive than the one that had been ripped out. Iraqi technicians, excluded from the construction process and untrained in operating and repairing Bechtel's proprietary turbines, struggled to maintain the half-capacity output, but the fuel oil clogged the system and—over a two year period—one after another went off line, temporarily or permanently. Ultimately the newly installed system produced far less output than the one it replaced.

What the Iraqi electrical system debacle exemplified is how the effort to rebuild Iraq (and/or Afghanistan or Pakistan) “through free markets and free trade” produced the opposite of reconstruction and revival. The areas served by the Bechtel turbines experienced a further degradation of their living conditions, as the absence or shortage of electricity undermined the viability of local industry and commerce, made household living difficult and sometimes impossible, and led to all manner of social pathologies as desperate people turned to desperate measures. The five billion dollar investment by the United States in the Iraqi electrical system produced ample profits for international businesses and continued immiseration for Iraqis.

The impact of U.S. sponsored reconstruction thus produces a second vicious cycle intermingled and complementary to the military-impelled cycle of pacification, destruction, immiseration, resistance, and re-pacification experienced by the NATO/Pakistani offensive in Orakzai region. In this pattern, pacification—violently accomplished or unresisted—is succeeded by an effort to deconstruct the old system and replace it with service from globalized enterprises. Instead of vivifying local life, this effort produces deconstruction and immiseration, followed by displacement and resistance, leading to new efforts at pacification.

Throughout the six years, the reverse Midas touch applied to the Iraqi electrical system—and to other key targets of U.S. reconstruction, including the provision of potable water, the westernization of education, and the privatization of medical care— has been the focus of discontent and resistance, ranging from peaceful demands for service, siphoning off electricity for private purposes, sabotage when facilities were seen as being misused, and various forms of violent protest. In one dramatic moment, the heat of the summer in 2010 triggered nationwide protests against electrical shortages and prices. In Baghdad, where prices were doubled at the start of the summer, families complained about being charged 100 dollars per month (about a third of average monthly income) for two hours of electricity per day.[15] Protests, especially in the hard hit poorer neighborhoods became a daily event. In Basra, the second largest city in Iraq, police “opened fire on a mob enraged by power cuts that reduced electricity availability to below two hours per day,” killing two and wounded many others. In Nasiriyah, a town with little history of violent resistance to the occupation, police used water cannon to repel demonstrators after they injured 17 police while “trying to storm provincial headquarters.”

The protests produced small but significant concessions from the Iraqi government, including the resignation of the Electricity Minister, price cuts in some areas, and promises of increased output in specific localities where protests had been particularly ferocious The larger structural issue remained unaddressed, with the Iraqi government announcing contracts with multinational electrical companies (General Electric and Siemens) to increase capacity to approximately 70% of demand in the next few years. The new contracts, like that signed by Bechtel, contained all the same incentives that led to the Bechtel debacle six years earlier.

The two concentric cycles—pacification-immiseration-resistance-pacification and deconstruction-immiseration-protest-deconstruction—work together to create a cycle of misery. With or without violent confrontations between indigenous groups and occupation forces, each cycle creates larger masses of destitution, as the social, physical, and economic infrastructure continues to decline—under the weight of military occupation and/or the impact of globalized deconstruction. The double weight of military campaigns and contracts with multinational companies, aimed at reshaping the “culture of the Islamic world”[16] and vivifying the host economies “through free markets and free trade”[17] works only to further the immiseration of the targeted communities, and to guarantee wave after wave of protest. And, in embedded in these cycles of misery are the ever-enlarging humanitarian crises, made visible by growing armies of the displaced, deprived of the basic necessities of human life.

[1] AssociatedPress 100217 – Pakistan Blasted for creating Taliban Safe Haven http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,494446,00.html Pakistan Blasted for Creating Taliban Safe Haven With Islamic Law Deal, Tuesday , February 17, 2009

[2]AssociatedPress 091018 – Taliban vow to defeat Pakistan offensivehttp://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/33367064/

[3] AssociatedPress 100412 – Abbot – Pakistan Taliban offensive causes over 200,000 to felle.

Pakistan Taliban Offensive Causes Over 200,000 To Flee

SEBASTIAN ABBOT | 04/12/10 08:06 PM |

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/04/12/pakistan-taliban-offensiv_n_533 ... - #

[4] DemocracyNow 100610 – Kelly – US secret war in Pakistan

June 10, 2010 Peace Activist Kathy Kelly on the Secret US War in Pakistan http://www.democracynow.org/2010/6/10/peace_activist_kathy_kelly_on_the

[5] http://www1.voanews.com/english/news/Resettling-Darfurs-Displaced-Raises ...

[6] Citation for Iraq.

[7] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/author/index.php?author=kathy-kelly

[8] http://www.democracynow.org/2010/6/10/peace_activist_kathy_kelly_on_the

[9] NYT 100801 – Myers – a benchmark of progress

August 1, 2010 A Benchmark of Progress, Electrical Grid Fails Iraqis By STEVEN LEE MYERS


[10] National Security Council, 2006, National Security Strategy of the United States of America, March, 2006 (DC, White House, U.S. Government) found at
http://www.intelros.org/lib/doklady/usa_nss_2006.html and at

http://books.google.com/books?id=ke0FKjVsvIUC&pg=PA38&lpg=PA38&dq=%22we+ ... (download June, 21, 2010)

[11] Michael Hastings, 2010, “The Runaway General,” Rolling Stone"(June 22), found at http://www.informationclearinghouse.info/article25796.htm (July 7, 2010). Macgregor saw this effort as hopeless: "The entire COIN strategy is a fraud perpetuated on the American people…. The idea that we are going to spend a trillion dollars to reshape the culture of the Islamic world is utter nonsense.”

[12] “A New Strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan” (Prepared Remarks of President Barack Obama Friday 27 March 2009); Transcript ; White House Press Office , Washington, DC http://www.truthout.org:80/032709R

[13] Ann Jones, 2009, “The Afghan Reconstruction Boondoggle,” Tom Dispatch (January 11), found at http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/175019/ann_jones_the_afghan_reconstructi ...

[14] This discussion is taken from Schwartz, 2008, pp. 155-159.

[15] AsiaTimes 100626 = McDermid and Waleed

Jun 26, 2010

Dark days for Iraq as power crisis bites By Charles McDermid and Khalid Waleed


[16] Michael Hastings, 2010, “The Runaway General,” Rolling Stone"(June 22), found at http://www.informationclearinghouse.info/article25796.htm (July 7, 2010). Macgregor saw this effort as hopeless: "The entire COIN strategy is a fraud perpetuated on the American people…. The idea that we are going to spend a trillion dollars to reshape the culture of the Islamic world is utter nonsense.”

[17] National Security Council, 2006, National Security Strategy of the United States of America, March, 2006 (DC, White House, U.S. Government) found at
http://www.intelros.org/lib/doklady/usa_nss_2006.html and at

http://books.google.com/books?id=ke0FKjVsvIUC&pg=PA38&lpg=PA38&dq=%22we+ ... (download June, 21, 2010)