Saturday, October 31, 2009

Fall Back!

In the Fall reset your clocks backward an hour. On some designated Sunday morning (Nov. 1 this year) magically make 2 a.m. into 1 a.m. It’s a good deal we’re told. We get an extra hour’s sleep. What crap!

I sleep 7 or 8 hours a night. I’m not going to sleep 8 to 9 hours tonight just because Daylight Savings Time ends. I’ll just get an earlier start tomorrow morning.

I don’t like this change. In the Spring when we leap forward an hour the magic is different. On that designated Sunday it stays light an hour longer. That it is an hour darker in the morning has no impact on me. It’s win-win.

Tomorrow is the reverse. It’ll be dark before its time. All of a sudden I’ll notice that it’s only 5 in the afternoon and it’s dark. And every day between tomorrow and December 21 it’ll get darker and darker. Come to think of it, that’s the bright side of this dark process. In less than two months the days will start getting longer. They’ll get longer and longer until sometime in March and then, magically, it’ll be a whole hour longer.

Now that’s something to look forward to!

Friday, October 30, 2009

My Search for News

I am a news junkie. Have been for as long as I can remember. Some say that these days we suffer from an overload of news. That’s not the way I see it.

Yes, we have 24/7 cable news networks. And we have online news from around the world. And there are more outlets for opinionating (like this one) than you can count. But all that doesn’t add up to news.

We are inundated with trivia and events that are worth a few seconds of our attention but go on and on and on. To wit: Michael Jackson, the boy (who wasn’t) in the flying saucer balloon, antics of various insipid headline grabbers, and the like.

And we have endless arguments on every subject under the sun, few of which shed any light on the matter being discussed. It’s a predictable pro and con format with more shouting than intelligent discourse.

There are a few exceptions. The best is Charlie Rose. He has calm, in depth conversations with people who know what they’re talking about. I can learn something from his program. And interestingly, a medium that is taking a lot of hits these days and many feel is not far from going under, good old newspapers, are day-to-day the best place for relatively unbiased journalism. Yes, newspapers have points of view that surface beyond the editorial and op-ed pages, but at least I can concentrate on what interests me without wading through a lot of irrelevant noise.

I hear many share my frustration. I don’t hear we’ve been able to make a difference. Suggestions anyone?

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Go Phillies!

It took about three pitches to resolve yesterday's dilemma - followed by a satisfying first game.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Shouldn't I Care?

Tonight is Game 1 – Philadephia vs the Yankees. Shouldn’t I care who wins?

I like baseball. I follow my hometown Giants closely and see about six games a year. But Philadelphia vs the Yankees? I’m not pulled one way or the other.

I have friends who care about the Phillies. Maybe I should go with them. When I lived in New York I preferred the Yankees to the Mets, so maybe I should go with the Bronx boys. I like underdogs, and normally the Yankees would be favored, which pulls me toward Philly. And I hate that the Yankees (like Real Madrid in football) have so much money to spend that the rest of us have no chance to compete, so that’s another vote for Philadelphia.

But if I look at what my heart says, I can’t get any emotion headed toward the City of Brotherly Love. I can get a little positive emotion headed toward the Bronx. If I were betting I’d go with the Yankees because of pitching. Both teams have great hitters.

I loved the Dodgers when they were in Brooklyn. That would have been an easy choice. And until I moved to San Francisco I hated the Giants. The Yankees were kind of out of that equation – unless they were playing the Dodgers.

I dropped all allegiance to the Dodgers in L.A. San Francisco versus L.A.? Puhleeze. The boys in blue are the enemy. “Beat L.A. Beat L.A.” I love the chant. But back to today’s reality. The Giants are on vacation. The Dodgers got beat by Philadelphia – easily.

So where am I left. Dunno. I won’t watch every inning, but when I do watch I’ll know where I stand. The truth will descend on me. Until then I’m in limbo.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009


Pakistan is really tough. As I said the other day, they are not committed to our fight, are sitting on about 100 nuclear bombs, have a weak government, see India as the main threat to their homeland, and are overwhelmingly anti-American. And that’s just for openers.

Add that Pakistan provides a sanctuary for:

1. Their local Taliban

2. Indigenous tribal warlords who hate the government

3. Mullah Omar and the Afghani Taliban leadership

4. Plus Osama Bin Laden with his Al Qaeda buddies

And you get the feeling we’ve got a bit of a problem on our hands.

Our leverage is almost nonexistent. Traditional ploys and genuine good deeds don’t work:

1. We agree to give them $7.5 billion in economic assistance over the next five years and they’re pissed off because they think we’re adding too many conditions.

2. We give them billions in military aid and it’s either the wrong kind or not enough.

3. We talk sweetly to them and they don’t respond.

4. We talk tough to them and they don’t respond.

5. The conventional wisdom on the streets and in the universities is that because of our war in Afghanistan terrorists are killing and maiming their people.

6. From time to time our drones take out some bad guys, but inevitably kill innocents in the process, which fuels their anger at us.

7. It is said they tacitly approve of our actions, but those views never see the light of day.

The main reason we are in this fight is to limit Al Qaeda’s capacity to attack us again. That’s a valid justification. And I could argue that even though our strategy hasn’t succeeded, we have thrown them off balance. But that’s a puny payoff.

Now we’re being asked to take another giant step down this road. The trouble is that the road we’re on doesn’t lead to the bad guys. One, it’s still under construction and two, even if we make it into a sleek superhighway it won’t take us to where we need to go – the mountains of northwest Pakistan.

Again, the hawks will say if we don’t stay the course in Afghanistan the Taliban will retake the country and provide a safe haven for Al Qaeda as they did in the 90’s. And we’ll be back to where we were before 9/11. Maybe they’re right. Which brings us full circle. We cannot win unless the Afghans step up and make it happen.

As for Pakistan – there is a chance. They need to be tough on their internal enemies and stifle the fissiparous tendencies with which they are confronted. If they do they can buy the time they need for education, economic development and social justice to take root. This will open up new possibilities for their people to lead satisfying, peaceful lives. We should offer to be helpful, but in the end it is up to them.

Monday, October 26, 2009

So Now What?

Re-reading what I’ve written the past three days helps clarify my thinking. From a geopolitical point of view the issues we face in Afghanistan and Pakistan are intertwined. Operationally, however, they need to be looked at separately. We have more freedom to make independent decisions in Afghanistan than we do in Pakistan, so that’s where I’ll start.

Fighting the Afghan Taliban and allied bad guys with conventional military means has failed and will continue to fail. We can’t win that war. Adopting a counter-insurgency strategy is a difficult but viable alternative to just giving up. But even if we (the U.S. and NATO) had the requisite resources and troops to win a counter-insurgency war, which we don’t and won’t, without strong Afghan involvement and commitment the war is unwinnable.

It’s their country. In that simple truth is the key to answering our “So Now What?” question. They’re going to have another election in a couple of weeks. No matter who wins it will take some time to determine if he is capable of running a reasonably efficient minimally corrupt government. The odds are not good, but that’s the hand we’re going to be dealt.

The right words will be spoken, so we’ll be able to reaffirm our partnership with them. But we need to make it clear to the Afghans and the American people that our support is contingent on the Government of Afghanistan delivering on their promise to enhance the welfare and security of their people. Otherwise, whatever we do will be insufficient.

It’s OK with me to increase the number of American troops on the ground – IF it is for a defined period of time and IF our main focus is training the Afghan army and police to take over the job of providing security. At the same time the government must provide the people with a better social services alternative than the Taliban is offering.

Critics will say that if we put a time limit on our support all the bad guys need do is wait us out. That’s true if the Afghans can’t deliver on their part of the bargain. But you know what? If they can’t deliver nothing we do will make any difference anyway.

There you go. On to the next problem.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Continuing With Afghanistan

What are the big questions?

1. Do we have a credible partner to work with in Afghanistan? Since ultimately the future of Afghanistan is in the hands of the Afghans, is there a government in place that can sustain gains that may be made even if we choose a strategy that succeeds?

Answer: No.

2. Is it necessary to choose either a counterinsurgency strategy (make friends with the people and avoid killing them, even if it means that terrorists don’t suffer) or an anti-terrorism strategy (kill the bad guys even if there is collateral damage)?

Answer: It’s not clear. In theory counterinsurgency makes sense, but it will take more resources (troops and money) and more time to work and even if it is successful we’re left with the reality of #1 above. In which case it won’t take long for the situation to deteriorate again. If most of the key bad guys are in Pakistan, which seems likely, without the wholehearted support of the Pakistanis (which is unlikely) going the anti-terrorist route will at best have limited success.

3. Whatever strategy we choose, what will improve the odds of success?

Answer: A stable and credible Afghan government and a trained and effective Afghan army and police, both of which are woefully inadequate at the moment.

4. Does it make more sense then to use additional resources to train Afghans rather than to fight the Taliban?

Answer: It’s not either/or, but if we’re not going to just pull out (which we won’t) and if we want to leave a structure in place that can sustain itself, it’s more important to bolster internal Afghan resources than to engage in what looks like a war.

5. And what about Pakistan in all this? They are weak and to a degree uncommitted to our fight, they’re sitting on about 100 nuclear bombs, still see India as the main threat to their homeland, and are overwhelmingly anti-American. Is there any hope with them?

Answer: Seeing a strong, stable and friendly Pakistan in the foreseeable future requires a massive leap of faith and, if you’re so inclined, many prayers. I’ve been following events in South Asia closely since I lived in India between 1962 and 1969. While in Pakistan some circumstances have changed for the better over the past 50 years, fundamentally little has improved. Their economic woes, national paranoia and inability to provide their people with long-term stable governance are ongoing sad realities.

6. Tribal power and fierce loyalties are facts of life in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Is there anything we can do to change them?

Answer: The short answer is ‘no.’ Maybe local leaders or we can co-opt them in the short term, but that is only possible when tribal bosses see that a partnership is clearly advantageous. When the perceived advantage disappears the cooperation will disappear.

7. We really are dealing with a demonic maze inside a 3-dimensional chess game, aren’t we?

Answer: You got that right.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

More On Afghanistan

Yesterday I wrote about how complicated the Afghanistan puzzle is. It’s like a chess game. Every move we make brings forth “check” by the opponent. There is no way out – or so it seems. I’m going to see if I can make sense of this mess.

One thing I know for sure: As an undifferentiated mass the issues, contradictions and challenges are unconfrontable. We have to sort them out before committing to a strategy.

Our starting point is that we have overwhelming evidence that what we have been doing for the past eight years in Afghanistan isn’t working. Okay, agreed. So now what? I’ll begin with the players:

1. U.S. forces on the ground

2. NATO forces on the ground

3. The Afghan government

4. The Afghan Taliban

5. Al Qaeda

6. The Pakistani Taliban

7. Afghan police and security forces

8. The Pakistani government

9. Afghan and Pakistani tribal leaders

10. Village leaders

11. U.S. drones

12. Villagers

13. Pakistani police and security forces

14. I.S.I.

15. U.S. diplomats

16. U.S. military leaders

17. Local bosses and their militias

18. Drug kingpins

19. European governments

Even if I’ve missed some people, that’s enough. Can all these groups be neatly coordinated? Not a chance. What we have are competing interests inside competing interests inside more competing interests.

Are there any commonalities? Sure.

1. The people of Afghanistan would like to live in peace with security

2. The Afghan Taliban would like to regain power

3. The U.S. would like to make sure that Afghanistan will not again be a staging ground for terrorist training and attacks

4. Tribal leaders and other special interests with power would like to maintain their power

5. The Pakistani government would like not to be threatened by internal terrorism

6. The people of Pakistan would like to live in peace with security

To be continued . . .

Friday, October 23, 2009

Writing More Often

I haven’t been writing often enough. I think about things I want to say and haven’t been saying them. I don’t tweet or use Facebook, so this blog is the best way for me to communicate. Rather than stay silent and be annoyed with myself I’ve found a solution – write. This is my first step on a new/old path.

If you haven’t read a five part series by David Rohde in the N.Y. Times this week, find a way to retrieve what you’ve missed. He’s a reporter who was kidnapped by the Taliban in Afghanistan and held for seven months. The story of his captivity and escape is chilling and compelling.

In recent months I’ve paid a lot of attention to Afghanistan and the question of what we should do there – and in Pakistan. For those of us who aren’t responsible for solving difficult problems it’s easy to come up with glib answers. Initially, my knee jerk reaction was to conclude that the situation was fucked, we couldn’t solve it, and therefore sending more troops was a mistake.

The more I learned and thought about it, the more complicated it became. If I were Obama what would I do? My glib answers were insufficient. It really is a demonic maze. Go one way and we hit a dead end. Go another way and we end up back where we started. Go a third way and we’re deeper into the morass with no way out.

We’re bombarded by answers and insights from the experts. Each is sure his way is the right way and/or sure what others are suggesting is a fatal mistake. If the decision were yours how would you sort it all out?

In the end I assume Obama will go with what he thinks are the best choices with no guarantee they’ll succeed. In the end he’ll have to trust his own instinct and his own judgments – and the rest of us can only hope that he chooses wisely.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Time To Rant (Or Not)

The news this morning reminded me I haven’t been expressing myself often enough recently.

First, as Colbert would say, a Tip Of My Hat to a couple of courtrooms:

Brooke Astor’s son, Anthony Marshall, was convicted and will get jail time. Good news.

An Italian court denied immunity to Silvio Berlusconi for corruption charges. More good news.

On the Wag of My Finger side:

Charlie Rangel is still getting a free pass for multiple financial transgressions. Not only should he be stripped of his House Ways and Mean Committee chairmanship, he oughta be tossed out of Congress and jailed for all the laws he’s broken. Shameful!

The French Culture Minister, Frederic Mitterrand, is still in office after admitting he had sex with ‘boys’ in Thailand. Now that’s a great role model for you.

Employees of a museum in the Philippines saved Imelda Marcos’ shoe collection when they were threatened by floodwaters last month. Now, isn’t that sweet.

The Israeli Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, said peace with the Palestinians isn’t likely any time soon. The guy’s a cretin. On the plus side, at least he has the guts to tell the truth.

The National Republican Congressional Committee said Nancy Pelosi should be put ‘in her place’ because of her views on Afghanistan. Very nice, guys. Keep it up. Next time be more specific, like telling her to wash the dishes while we go out for a beer.

Italian football star, Fabio Cannavaro, failed a drug test. Said he took some banned cortisone to prevent an allergic reaction from a bee sting. Yeah, right.

And finally there’s the outrage of the day/month/year: Obama gets the Nobel Peace Prize. I’m pro-Obama, but this is ridiculous. Yes, it says more about the Nobel committee than about Obama, but even so, this is really embarrassing. Well – I’m sure he’ll give a good speech in Oslo.

Friday, October 02, 2009


Congratulations to Rio.

Way to go.