This is not an argument about contraception, it is an argument about power

My little sister, via facebook:

As a woman in America, I have had a lot of reasons to be angry lately, and the controversy over contraception, and the unacceptable statements made by Rush Limbaugh, are only the most recent example. But the fact is, this is not an argument about contraception, it is an argument about power, and the refusal of a certain subset of the population to relinquish even a bit of it.

There is no point in reasoning with these Old White Men. Men who separate women into wives, whores and harpies. Men who hate the poor, the brown, the black. Men who are terrified of the future. Men who can never be allies, who can never see women, queer people, and people of colour as friends, colleagues, and equals. Men like Rush Limbaugh rage against the immorality – the selfishness! – of every person who does not fit the hierarchy they bought as truth, because without that system there are no excuses, no justifications, and no solace for the self-inflicted misery of their lives. They will not change, and they will not willingly relinquish their privilege, because they know that their time is over, the world is changing and we are joyfully counting the hours, waiting for them to die.

Sympathy for the White Land Rover Mafia

It's a little too easy to blame the expat mafia.

It’s been a while since someone wrote an essay-length comment on one of my posts to scold me for things I never actually wrote, so I’m going to reply in full-post form to the comment Farah from Steal This Hijab left on ‘Is it safe?’ (You might want to read my  original post now, if you haven’t already.)

Here’s what Farah wrote:

Interesting to get the perspective of another aid worker in Afghanistan, however, I must disagree with some of the premises of your safety advice. I think aid workers here really need to acknowledge that the majority of people killed either by suicide bombers, armed groups, or military (international and national) are Afghans. Afghanistan is by far most dangerous for the Afghans themselves – not for the aid workers.

Has Farah read anything else on my blog? Both here and at UN Dispatch, I have written extensively about the dangers faced by ordinary Afghan civilians and by Afghan aid workers. And how does dispensing common sense safety advice to other expats demean the sacrifices or diminish the suffering of Afghans? This type of comment falls into category of: ‘You wrote about one thing. I wanted you to write about this other thing. I demand gratification.’

Further, there is a notion that aid workers in this country are people who are interested in noble work for the betterment of humankind – that they are here for selfless reasons, because they believe in democracy, progress, equality, etc. I think this could really not be further from the truth. I think that the vast majority of aid workers are here for career advancement and monetary gains, and thus are willing to take the “risk” of working in Afghanistan.

Farah is either reading lines I never wrote (my post doesn’t discuss motivations for working in Afghanistan), or she’s implying that we’re all so mercenary that, hey, maybe those of us who return home in coffins are getting what we deserve for being greedy careerists. If it’s the latter case, she needs to seriously re-examine her own moral code.

Also, these same workers are treated like elites – getting driven around everywhere, their homes cleaned, their clothes washed, their meals cooked – all expenses paid.

Not every expat lives like this. Many do, sure, but many others do not –or didn’t until recently. I spent my first full year in Afghanistan living in mud houses with only intermittent water and electricity, sleeping on a taushak, cooking my own food and walking to the bazaar by myself. None of my expenses were paid by my employer. I supported myself on a salary roughly equivalent to what I would have made back in the United States. My housemates and most of my expat friends shared in that lifestyle. We refused to live within the Archipelago of Fear.

During my second year in Kabul, walking the streets became more difficult. Men threw large stones at me when I refused to answer their catcalls. Teenage boys surrounded me, groped me, and called me vulgar names in Dari. The police began stopping me more and more often just to stare at my passport picture and pass it around to their buddies, humiliating me in front of my Afghan friends and drawing unwanted attention from passersby.

Then came the Taliban’s summer offensive, with its midnight gunfire symphonies and suicide bombing assassination campaign. My Afghan friends worried I would be kidnapped, so they advised me to take a taxi whenever I needed to leave my home. I still didn’t have a guard or driver, but I began planning my movements more carefully and carrying a switchblade.

There is also the unspoken way expats are engaged with, as if they are the most important people in any situation – their treatment of workers whether they are house cleaners, food delivery workers, drivers, security personal is appalling and would undoubtably be considered racist in their home countries. Whilst I also think that this attitude is really a reflection of the systematic and discriminatory power relations rampant in this country, and reinforced by the international community. Sometimes it feels that the lessons learned by the anti-colonial, anti-racist struggles the world over seem lost on otherwise intelligent, educated “aid workers”, who take no responsibility for their behavior or the elitist treatment they receive citing “security needs” or “that’s just how it is.” Whilst, I am also an aid worker, and also receive this treatment I do my utmost to challenge these norms as much as possible. I also break away from my security “requirements” whenever possible so that I might have a better idea of what this country is like for the majority of its people. I think there needs to be a major change in the attitudes and perceptions of Afghans. International security premises its policies on this idea that every Afghan is a potential threat, which is a really impoverished way to approach the immensely important work and potential present here. I think aid workers should reassess why they are in Afghanistan, and structure their lives/work not around their personal security – but around the potential to make a significant impact on the lives of a people who have suffered 30 years of war. Perhaps, this is best done first by listening.

No, I really don’t think Farah has read much of my blog, because I have addressed these issues and Farah and I are generally on the same page when it comes to security theater and the odiousness of ‘Afghan-Free Zones.’

That said, the security situation in Kabul and elsewhere is very bad now, and worsening by the week. That’s not Chicken Little squawking – that’s an irrefutable fact.

2012 will be my third year in Afghanistan, and almost certainly my last. I won’t be able to live my freewheeling lifestyle anymore. My days of picnics in Kapisa and damboora nights at Qargha are over. This year, I will have to live in a formal guesthouse with a guard, or in a hotel. I won’t be doing much walking outside, if any at all, and I certainly won’t go strolling alone, even in the Kabul neighborhoods I’ve come to know so well I could navigate them with my eyes closed.

I’ll continue taking the roads in civilian vehicles as long as I can, because the fear I feel clawing into my ribs when I’m winding my way through the narrow valley highway between Kabul and Jalalabad keeps me honest, connects me to my colleagues, and saves thousands of dollars that could be –and are– better spent on project beneficiaries.

But going “low profile” and eschewing the typical security measures of armored cars and chartered flights between cities is not risk-free, cost-free or always the more ethical choice. If I take the roads, even while hidden under a burqa, I risk the lives of the Afghans traveling with me. If we are stopped at a Taliban checkpoint and my identity is revealed, I’ll mostly likely be kidnapped, but the Afghans with me will be summarily executed. If I live in an ordinary house in an Afghan neighborhood, instead of an expat compound, I plant a target in my innocent neighbors’ midst. With my mere presence, I knowingly run the chance of drawing evil men onto the streets where their children fly kites.

In a morally muddled conflict like Afghanistan’s, the ‘right thing’ is seldom obvious, and, in my experience, expats –aid workers and others– are usually left with no truly good options.

In defense of Mac McClelland (And the view from where I’m standing)

The indignant responses to Mac McClelland’s personal essay in GOOD about how she used consensual, violent sex to ease the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder she developed while reporting on sexual violence in Haiti are extreme examples of the limiting, self-defeating call-out culture in both journalism and American feminism.

That 36 well-respected women working as journalists, aid workers and researchers deemed it necessary to endorse a letter that shames a reporter grappling with PTSD for things she did not even write is evidence of just how widespread support for self-censorship is among a network that, were it to live up to its ideals, would encourage bold self-expression, but instead mobilizes to stamp it out and sow fear of independent thought. As Jill at Feministe put it in a piece about calling-out in the feminist blogosphere: “We have increasingly focused on shutting down voices rather than raising each other up.”

The letter:

To the Editors:

As female journalists and researchers who have lived and worked in Haiti, we write to you today to express our concern with Mac McClelland’s portrayal of Haiti in “I’m Gonna Need You to Fight Me On This: How Violent Sex Helped Ease my PTSD.”

We respect the heart of Ms. McClelland’s story, which is her experience of trauma and how she found sexuality a profound means of dealing with it. Her article calls much needed attention to the complexity of rape. But we believe the way she uses Haiti as a backdrop for this narrative is sensationalist and irresponsible.

The issue here is that McClelland re-tells the story of the gruesome aftermath of the rape of a Haitian woman, an aftermath McClelland herself witnessed, at the beginning of her piece. But she doesn’t bring up the story to make her piece more shocking –she brings it up because it was the event that set her on a collision course with PTSD. In other words, without telling that story, the rest of the essay wouldn’t make sense. It is a deeply disturbing, completely necessary part of McClelland’s narrative of her own trauma.

Between the 36 of us, we have lived or worked in Haiti for many years, reporting on and researching the country both long before and after the earthquake. We each have spent countless hours in the camps and neighborhoods speaking with ordinary Haitians about their experiences coping with the disaster and its aftermath.

We feel compelled to intervene collectively in this instance because, while speaking of her own personal experience, Ms. McClelland also implies that she is speaking up for female “journalists who put themselves in threatening situations all the time,” women who have “chosen to be around trauma for a living,” who she says “rarely talk about the impact.”

In writing about a country filled with guns, “ugly chaos” and “gang-raping monsters who prowl the flimsy encampments,” she paints Haiti as a heart-of-darkness dystopia, which serves only to highlight her own personal bravery for having gone there in the first place. She makes use of stereotypes about Haiti that would be better left in an earlier century: the savage men consumed by their own lust, the omnipresent violence and chaos, the danger encoded in a black republic’s DNA.


“This is what a hit piece reads like when it’s cloaked in liberal arts school vernacular,”
Conor Friedersdorf wrote in his response to the letter at the The Atlantic.

I couldn’t agree more.

Nowhere in McClelland’s piece are the terms “heart-of-darkness dystopia,” “savage men consumed by their own lust,” or “danger encoded in a black republic’s DNA” used. And since when is it verboten to call men who gang rape homeless women “monsters”?

Sadly, these damaging stereotypes about the country are not uncommon. But we were disturbed to find them articulated in Ms. McClelland’s piece without larger context, especially considering her reputation for socially conscious reporting.

McClelland’s piece for GOOD is not a scholarly article about Haitian history. It is not even a reporting piece about Haiti today. It is a personal essay about one reporter’s literally physical battle with her psychological demons. (How difficult is it for other media professionals to distinguish between these?) McClelland isn’t obligated to fill her essay with any more context than is necessary to make sense of her own actions.

Ms. McClelland’s Haiti is not the Haiti we know. Indeed, we have all lived in relative peace and safety there.

The Afghanistan I know is not the Afghanistan many of my friends who have lived with more safeguards (and those who have lived with fewer) know. In fact, my Afghanistan –that is, the entirety of my experience in this country up to this moment– is known only to me.

Expats in places like Haiti and Afghanistan are not a uniform group. Some of us take more risks than others, live further outside the parameters of what is considered a sensible foreigner’s lifestyle and break more rules, both spoken and unspoken.

Those who live closer to the edge and those who do not stay long enough to experience the very real bursts of joy and love amidst the suffering, are struck more deeply by trauma. (McClelland definitely falls into the second category, and probably the first as well.)

When discussing the rampant, menacing sexual harassment on Kabul’s streets with other expats, I have actually been told that the problem is not serious, that I am being hypersensitive, that I am exaggerating and overreacting. The people who have said these things are, for the most part, people who do not walk alone, have not stood as frozen witnesses to men trying to drag a screaming woman into a car, have not been groped and cornered by Afghan men, do not have female Afghan friends and do not understand when a man shouts “Hey, foreign pussy!” at them in the local language.

But the women who responded to McClelland’s essay aren’t like that. They’ve lived in Haiti for years, even decades, a fact that makes statements like this even more baffling:

This does not mean that we are strangers to rape and sexual violence. We can identify with the difficulty of unwanted sexual advances that women of all colors may face in Haiti. And in the United States. And everywhere.

Now that is just college freshman bullshit. Again, I have to agree with Friedersdorf:

It isn’t fair to say that this paragraph is loaded with the pathologies of left-leaning political discourse. A journalist writing in The New York Review of Books or The Nation or The American Prospect would seek to correct alleged misinformation about the prevalence of rape in a country by providing the most accurate available statistics about the prevalence of rape there.

And this makes no sense whatsoever:

Unfortunately, most Haitian women are not offered escapes from the possibility of violence in the camps in the form of passports and tickets home to another country. For the thousands of displaced women around Port-au-Prince, the threat of rape is tragically high. But the image of Haiti that Ms. McClelland paints only contributes to their continued marginalization.

Actually, the image of Haiti McClelland paints, mostly in her reporting pieces for Mother Jones, is of a place where the threat of rape is tragically high for thousands of displaced women. It’s not at all clear what the authors are taking issue with here, besides McClelland receiving a great deal of attention while being a relatively new name in mainstream journalism and not a Haiti beat long-termer.

While we are glad that Ms. McClelland has achieved a sort of peace within, we would encourage her, next time, not to make Haiti a casualty of the process.

Oh, come on. Haiti has survived worse.

*

One day, when my time in Afghanistan is over, I intend to write about my life here. I do not intend to write a history of the Afghanistan war or a book about the intricacies of Afghan politics. Other people will write those books. Instead, I will write about the things that happened to me, the choices I made, the people I knew, and how my experiences affected me. Will it be self-indulgent? Absolutely. Because that’s what all personal writing –-including every male war correspondent memoir ever written– is.

I have male Afghan friends I trust with my life, but I have been cornered enough times by both strangers and personal acquaintances to fear the footfalls behind me and the grin of the average man on the street. I have learned to distrust before I trust. And when the time comes for me to write about my traumatic experiences with some Afghan men, I do not want to be told that I am marginalizing Afghan women, whining, or being racist.

Those of us who choose to go to work in places like Haiti and Afghanistan do just that –-we choose to work in extremely troubled places where we are outsiders. But the fact that we made that choice while others had it foisted on them at birth shouldn’t mean we aren’t allowed to write honestly and without shame or self-censorship about how we cope with the mental health issues that are among our occupational hazards.

*

And a few more points: Continue reading

Tomorrow never comes*

I am not feeling positive about Afghanistan at this moment. Ok, that is a massive understatement.

If you pay attention to development news, you already know that CBS has exposed what appears to be massive fraud and waste at the Central Asia Institute of ‘Three Cups of Tea’ fame.

Afghanistan has taught me that the field of international development includes no heroes –but has no shortage of villains– and that development successes are the rare exception. Nightmarish, humiliating failures predominate and even those efforts that appear to have met or exceeded expectations often morph into something dark and twisted over time, calling into question their benefit to society.

Media development is one example of this phenomenon. Afghanistan went from having no media outlets except the Taliban regime’s scolding Voice of Sharia radio station in 2001 to dozens of private television channels and radio stations less than a decade later. But the media boom was not accompanied by the development of capable regulatory institutions or a culture of ethical journalism. Today, extremist broadcasters incite violence against women and stoke ethnic and sectarian grievances with near-total impunity. Freedom of speech has become synonymous with the ability to provoke divisive rage and instill fear.

Other much-hyped “successes” are eventually exposed as being too frail to last without drastic reforms –reforms the responsible parties are almost never willing to make. The most devastating, morale-stomping example I can think of is girls’ education.

For years, Western and Afghan politicians touted the expansion of education to school-age girls as one of the greatest accomplishments of the international mission in Afghanistan. Repeatedly, they stated that the post-Taliban increase in female school enrollment was proof that the blood spilled and the billions of aid dollars spent in Afghanistan since 2001 were not in vain.

But, like every other Afghanistan “success” I can think of, the celebrated gains were hollow. Improvements in education ran out of steam years ago and the quality of education available to most girls is abysmally low. The average rural girl is still forced into marriage and motherhood when she is still a child, without ever seeing the inside of a schoolhouse.

Thinking about the future is painful.

All over Kabul, high-rise apartment blocks are going up at a dizzying pace. Most of these developments are being constructed with frighteningly shoddy supplies and none of the safety measures even other very poor countries mandate. Bribes from the powerful construction mafias ensure the government stays quiet. Everyone knows what is happening, yet the urban middle class still flocks to the dream of apartment life, itself synonymous with modernization and progress.

When the next big earthquake hits quake-prone Kabul, the lethal new skyline will come tumbling down, wiping out a vast swath of the educated class in a few violent shakes.

If the entire paradigm here does not drastically shift —politically, economically, socially and environmentally— everything sacrificed for and hoped for in this country will be subsumed under a tidal wave of blood, greed and fecklessness. Even the small, precious victories won at great cost to all involved will be washed away.

Time is running out, if it has not already run out.

*My taxi ride anthem of the moment.

So, here’s me warmongering out of control

Glenn Greenwald wrote a piece that’s been showing up in my facebook feed for the past couple of days. Greenwald opposes the intervention in Libya, but not for any reasons that hold water.

Advocating for the U.S.’s military action in Libya, The New Republic‘s John Judis lays out the argument which many of his fellow war advocates are making: that those who oppose the intervention are guilty of indifference to the plight of the rebels and to Gadaffi’s tyranny:

[…] in Judis’ moral world, there are only two possibilities: one can either support the American military action in Libya or be guilty of a “who cares?” attitude toward Gadaffi’s butchery. At least as far as this specific line of pro-war argumentation goes, this is just 2003 all over again. Back then, those opposed to the war in Iraq were deemed pro-Saddam: indifferent to the repression and brutalities suffered by the Iraqi people at his hands and willing to protect his power. Now, those opposed to U.S. involvement in the civil war in Libya are deemed indifferent to the repression and brutalities suffered by the Libyan people from Gadaffi and willing to protect his power. This rationale is as flawed logically as it is morally.

Why didn’t this same moral calculus justify the attack on Iraq? Saddam Hussein really was a murderous, repressive monster: at least Gadaffi’s equal when it came to psychotic blood-spilling. Those who favored regime change there made exactly the same arguments as Judis (and many others) make now for Libya: it’s humane and noble to topple a brutal dictator; using force is the only way to protect parts of the population from slaughter (in Iraq, the Kurds and Shiites; in Libya, the rebels); it’s not in America’s interests to allow a deranged despot (or his deranged sons) to control a vital oil-rich nation; and removing the tyrant will aid the spread of freedom and democracy in the Middle East. Why does that reasoning justify war in Libya but not Iraq?

Because there was no imminent massacre looming in Iraq in 2003. The no fly zone over northern Iraq, imposed at the end of the first Gulf War to protect Iraqi Kurds, had been effective. The rest of the country was hushed in fear by a totalitarian state and choked economically by international sanctions, but Saddam Hussein was not threatening to send his soldiers into a population center and carry out a house-by-house slaughter in March 2003. Gaddafi, in contrast, had promised to do just that. And not only had he promised a massacre, he’d also very nearly delivered on that promise.

Even after Western air strikes began, Libyan troops entered Benghazi, killing scores of people and sending thousands fleeing eastward. (Two of my journalist friends were among those who believed they would surely die if they did not get away from the city.)

In Foreign Policy, Stephen Walt argues that “liberal interventionists” and neocons share most of the same premises about America’s foreign policy and its role in the world, with the sole exception being that the former seek to act through international institutions to legitimize their military actions while the latter don’t. Strongly bolstering Walt’s view is this morning’s pro-war New York Times Editorial, which ends this way:

Libya is a specific case: Muammar el-Qaddafi is erratic, widely reviled, armed with mustard gas and has a history of supporting terrorism. If he is allowed to crush the opposition, it would chill pro-democracy movements across the Arab world.

Wasn’t all of that at least as true of Saddam Hussein?

Well, no, because, in addition to the reasons I mentioned above, there was no Arab Spring to chill in 2003.

Wasn’t that exactly the “humanitarian” case made to justify that invasion? And wasn’t that exactly the basis for the accusation against Iraq war opponents that they were indifferent to Saddam’s tyranny — i.e., if you oppose the war to remove Saddam, it means you are ensuring that he and his sons will stay in power, which in turn means you are indifferent to his rape rooms and mass graves and are willing to stand by while the Iraqi people suffer under his despotism? How can the “indifference-to-suffering” accusation be fair when made against opponents of the Libya war but not when made against Iraq war opponents?

UNSCR 1973 authorizes the use of force to protect civilians. It was passed in response to the imminent threat of mass killing, not the mere existence of a repressive and often violence regime. The world has no shortage of cruel governments, but instances of regimes planning or carrying out large-scale slaughters of their own people are mercifully rare.

If the lesson the international community took away from the shame of Rwanda was not to wring its hands while the graves overflow, the lesson of Iraq was to not rush into illegal military boondoggles. Both lessons seem to have been applied to Libya.  Action was not taken until the last possible moment and not until it had been sanctioned by a multilateral authority.

But my real question for Judis (and those who voice the same accusations against Libya intervention opponents) is this: do you support military intervention to protect protesters in Yemen, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and other U.S. allies from suppression, or to stop the still-horrendous suffering in the Sudan, or to prevent the worsening humanitarian crisis in the Ivory Coast? Did you advocate military intervention to protect protesters in Iran and Egypt, or to stop the Israeli slaughter of hundreds of trapped innocent civilians in Gaza and Lebanon or its brutal and growing occupation of the West Bank?

The only situation among the many mentioned here that comes anywhere close to the magnitude of Libya is the Ivory Coast. It looks increasingly possible that civilians there might soon face the same terrible prospects civilians in Libya are facing now –or worse. If the Ivory Coast appears to be on the verge of a bloodbath, and force is the last option left untried to prevent the unthinkable, then yes, shit, I guess I would support some kind of intervention in the Ivory Coast.

If not, doesn’t that necessarily mean — using this same reasoning — that you’re indifferent to the suffering of all of those people, willing to stand idly by while innocents are slaughtered, to leave in place brutal tyrants who terrorize their own population or those in neighboring countries? Or, in those instances where you oppose military intervention despite widespread suffering, do you grant yourself the prerogative of weighing other factors: such as the finitude of resources, doubt about whether U.S. military action will hurt rather than help the situation, cynicism about the true motives of the U.S. government in intervening, how intervention will affect other priorities, the civilian deaths that will inevitably occur at our hands, the precedents that such intervention will set for future crises, and the moral justification of invading foreign countries? For those places where you know there is widespread violence and suffering yet do not advocate for U.S. military action to stop it, is it fair to assume that you are simply indifferent to the suffering you refuse to act to prevent, or do you recognize there might be other reasons why you oppose the intervention?

In the very same Editorial where it advocates for the Libya intervention on the grounds of stopping government violence and tyranny, The New York Times acknowledges about its pro-intervention view: “not in Bahrain or Yemen, even though we condemn the violence against protesters in both countries.” Are those who merely “condemn” the violence by those two U.S. allies but who do not want to intervene to stop it guilty of indifference to the killings there? What rationale is there for intervening in Libya but not in those places?

[...]

Gaddafi is crazy and evil; obviously, he wasn’t going to listen to our advice about democracy. The world would be fortunate to be rid of him. But war in Libya is justifiable only if we are going to hold compliant dictators to the same standard we set for defiant ones. If not, then please spare us all the homilies about universal rights and freedoms. We’ll know this isn’t about justice, it’s about power.

[...]

But what I cannot understand at all is how people are willing to believe that the U.S. Government is deploying its military and fighting this war because, out of abundant humanitarianism, it simply cannot abide internal repression, tyranny and violence against one’s own citizens. This is the same government that enthusiastically supports and props up regimes around the world that do exactly that, and that have done exactly that for decades.

Greenwald could have gone on and made the point that the European countries involved in the Libya war have even nastier histories in the Arab world than the United States. All that and more would have been true. But this line of reasoning assumes that countries can never learn from their past mistakes and do better.

No UN Army exists. The Security Council is composed of member states and its writ under Chapter Seven is carried out by the militaries of member states. There are no angelic countries and only a handful capable of employing force thousands of miles from their own borders. At the top of that list is the United States, for better or worse.

By all accounts, one of the prime administration advocates for this war was Hillary Clinton; she’s the same person who, just two years ago, said this about the torture-loving Egyptian dictator: “I really consider President and Mrs. Mubarak to be friends of my family.” They’re the same people overseeing multiple wars that routinely result in all sorts of atrocities. They are winking and nodding to their Yemeni, Bahrani and Saudi friends who are doing very similar things to what Gadaffi is doing, albeit (for now) on a smaller scale. They just all suddenly woke up one day and decided to wage war in an oil-rich Muslim nation because they just can’t stand idly by and tolerate internal repression and violence against civilians? Please.

Clinton’s remarks about Mubarak, and the longstanding policies they represented, are repellent. The US should not be propping up oppressive regimes in the Middle East or anywhere else. At the same time, Yemen, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia are not currently planning any massacres (that we’re aware of) or employing violence on the scale as Gaddafi’s military. And scale should matter when the decision is made to intervene militarily.

For the reasons I identified the other day, there are major differences between the military actions in Iraq and Libya. But what is true of both — as is true for most wars — is that each will spawn suffering for some people even if they alleviate it for others. Dropping lots of American bombs on a country tends to kill a lot of innocent people. For that reason, indifference to suffering is often what war proponents — not war opponents — are guilty of.

That’s why military interventions like the one in Libya should be limited in scope, based on a well-informed calculation that they will result in fewer deaths than inaction, and adhere to international humanitarian law. As I wrote the other day, protecting civilians must be the only objective, even if that one day means protecting them from anti-Gaddafi forces.

But whatever else is true, the notion that opposing a war is evidence of indifference to tyranny and suffering is equally simple-minded, propagandistic, manipulative and intellectually bankrupt in both the Iraq and Libya contexts. And, in particular, those who opposed or still oppose intervention in Bahrain, Yemen, Egypt, Iraq, the Sudan, against Israel, in the Ivory Coast — and/or any other similar places where there is widespread human-caused suffering — have no business advancing that argument.

I wonder if, as Bosnia descended into mayhem, Greenwald argued that the international community would be hypocritical to act there because it wasn’t stopping tandem mass killings of civilians in Chechnya, Burma, Tajikistan and Afghanistan.

I have lived in Bosnia and Afghanistan. I know people from both countries who collected their neighbors’ body parts from the sidewalks and watched their capital cities blown to pieces. I do not think the international community’s limited intervention in Bosnia was made immoral by the fact that it showed indifference to Afghanistan’s ruinous civil war until that war indirectly led to the deaths of thousands of Americans.

The Libya conversation

Gaddafi’s forces are continuing retake ground from the rebels in eastern Libya, and only one town now stands between Gaddafi and the rebel stronghold Benghazi.

Over the past week, Libya has been the main conversation topic among my expat friends here in Kabul. Our conversations have gone something like this:

“Damn. It looks like Gaddafi is going to win.”

“That madman is going to make good on his promises to slaughter the opposition. There’s going to be a bloodbath. The international community needs to immediately impose a no fly zone.”

“But a no fly zone is unlikely to do much good at this point, because Gaddafi is relying more heavily on tanks and artillery.”

“Well, we should amend the arms embargo, so the rebels can buy better weapons.”

“Even if that were easy — it’s not– the rebels are mostly ordinary young people. They’re having trouble using anything more complicated than a Kalashnikov, and friendly fire injuries are rife in the hospitals in Libya’s east. Bigger, more powerful weapons aren’t going to help. “

“I guess we’re back to a no fly zone!”

“Except that imposing a no fly zone won’t do much, and inherently begs the question ‘what next?’”

“So… we should consider the possibility of sending troops?”

“No, because the Libyan rebels and the rest of the Arab publics are firmly against that.  The deployment of Western troops to any Arab country is going to evoke painful memories of Iraq, and popular rage against the United States and its allies.”

“But the rebels are already mad at the West for NOT doing more to help them.”

“True.”

“If the Libyan revolution is brutally crushed, the pro-democracy movements in the rest of the region will be halted and the narrative will be ‘The brave Libyan youth were massacred as the West stood idly by.’”

“The US and NATO cannot be the perpetual fail-safe. The Arab League and the African Union need to take some responsibility.”

“Oh yeah, like the Arab League or the AU will do anything but talk. Gimme a break. Their member governments are watching Al Jazeera and sweating.”

There are non-military steps the rest of the world can take to support the rebels. Governments can recognize the rebels’ council in Benghazi as the legitimate government of  Libya and isolate Gaddafi.

Gaddafi won’t care. It’s not like he’s ever going to be attending swanky trade summits after this, no matter what he does now.

“I need another drink.”

Smart people weighing in on the possibility of an intervention in Libya

Where does the debate stand now?

As Spencer Ackerman reports at Wired, some kind of military action by the west is looking increasingly likely.

The United Nations Security Council has already sanctioned Gadhafi and referred him to the International Criminal Court following his violent suppression of Libya’s revolutionary movement, creating the contours of a hardening international position against Gadhafi. And now most U.S. nationals in Libya have now fled, removing what the Obama administration has considered an impediment to action.

So here comes the Navy. The Enterprise carrier strike group, last seen hunting pirates, is in the Red Sea — and may sail through Suez to the Mediterranean — and the New York Times reports that an “amphibious landing vessel, with Marines and helicopters” are there as well. The Financial Times adds that the British are considering the use of the air base at Akrotiri in Cyprus as a staging ground to enforce a no-fly zone. Any envisioned military action is likely to be a multilateral affair, either blessed by the U.N. or NATO.

That seems to be the harshest policy yet envisioned — one explicitly discussed today by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. (No one’s discussing a ground invasion.) For the time being, the Navy is simply moving assets into place in case President Obama decides to take more punitive measures against Gadhafi.

Andrew Exum of Abu Muqawama is shaking his head.

We are now paying the price for having waged two very difficult wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that far too few Americans have participated in or been made to sacrifice for. I sometimes get accused of being a hawk because I have argued that resource-intensive counterinsurgency campaigns have represented our best chance to salvage bad situations in Iraq and Afghanistan, but my experiences in both countries also taught me that a) force has its limits and b) we should all be very cautious about committing U.S. troops to combat operations in the first place. I’m horrified to read liberal interventionists continue to suggest the ease with which humanitarian crises and regional conflicts can be solved by the application of military power. To speak so glibly of such things reflects a very immature understanding of the limits of force and the difficulties and complexities of contemporary military operations.

MK of Ink Spots has has a different take on the intervention debate.

The last time this debate occurred, Ex put forth four basic questions that cover most of the important ground. Unfortunately, to my knowledge, no one – including Ex – is publicly answering those questions with regard to Libya. Most of us (again, including Ex) just don’t know enough about the country, and what is currently going on there.

However, Ex, Elkus and others are all emphatically pointing out how complicated military intervention can be, and in the past have highlighted the potential for things to go wrong – very wrong, very quickly.

On this, they are absolutely correct, but it’s true of all military operations, regardless of the objectives. Repeating it ad nauseam is not really contributing to the debate. Certainly, those who underplay or obscure the very real dangers should be challenged. But those who draw false analogies with little if any resemblance in the specifics of the situation are equally guilty of misrepresenting reality. And the skeptics of intervention tend to stubbornly ignore examples of success in some very hard cases.

Moreover, those of us who’ve studied this particular type of problem in detail would warn that history has consistently demonstrated that when groups tip over into mass killing, very little short of military action has ever proven effective. Everything else takes too long to bite, or simply doesn’t bite hard enough to change the strategic calculus of the perpetrators. So instead of vague discussions of how difficult and costly it might be, or patronizingly dismissing the other side as not understanding the complexity of military operations, those who want to weigh in should be making specific arguments about the situation confronting us.

I will say this, though: a no-fly zone is unlikely to prove effective unless the perpetrators are only able to attack civilians from the air, or value their air assets above the goals they hoped to achieve through mass killing. Given that mass killing is usually justified or even triggered by a perception of existential threat from the victims, the latter is pretty unlikely. A pair of articles (to which Ex linked) highlight the limitations of no-fly zones in general, and with reference to Libya.

Ok, ok, ok. But what do LIBYANS want? (We should all be asking this.) The Guardian just ran a moving piece by a demonstrator. It begins with stories like this:

“Kiss my mum goodbye for me, and tell her that her son died a hero,” said my friend Ahmed, 26, to the first person who rushed to his side after he was shot in a Tripoli street.

Two days later, my friend Ahmed died in the hospital. Just like that.

That tall, handsome, funny, witty, intellectual young man is no more. No longer will he answer my phone calls. Time will stand still on his Facebook account for ever.

Betraying my age, I’m going to admit that the line above brought me to tears.

This is the kind of story you get out of Tripoli these days. Hundreds of them, perhaps even thousands. The kind of stories that you could never imagine on your doorstep.

Like when you hear a six-month-old baby has been murdered, you just hope with all your heart that Saif al-Islam Gaddafi’s claims turn out to be true that there’s precious little violence here, that al-Jazeera fabricated the story. You hope that infant is right now sleeping peacefully in his mother’s arms. Like when you hear of someone from Tajura who had a bullet in his head for two days before dying, leaving behind a bereaved wife and child. You have been praying to God that this father be there playing with his child. But the photos, the video show you the cold truth. The wails that need no translation: loved ones being snatched away by death. All humans understand that scream.

But the author’s message is this:

Don’t get me wrong. I, like most Libyans, believe that imposing a no-fly zone would be a good way to deal the regime a hard blow on many levels; it would cut the route of the mercenary convoys summoned from Africa, it would prevent Gaddafi from smuggling money and other assets, and most importantly it would stop the regime from bombing weapons arsenals that many eyewitnesses have maintained contain chemical weapons; something that would unleash an unimaginable catastrophe, not to mention that his planes might actually carry such weapons.

Nevertheless, one thing seems to have united Libyans of all stripes; any military intervention on the ground by any foreign force would be met – as Mustafa Abud Al Jeleil, the former justice minister and head of the opposition-formed interim government, said – with fighting much harsher than what the mercenaries themselves have unleashed.

Nor do I favour the possibility of a limited air strike for specific targets. This is a wholly popular revolution, the fuel to which has been the blood of the Libyan people. Libyans fought alone when western countries were busy ignoring their revolution at the beginning, fearful of their interests in Libya. This is why I’d like the revolution to be ended by those who first started it: the people of Libya.

Read the whole thing, but keep in mind that a no-fly zone is a military intervention, whether Libyans see it as one or not, and enforcing a no-fly zone over Libya would almost certainly draw the intervening parties into an air war.

Bill Easterly is wrong again (This time on Libya)

Bill Easterly never wastes an opportunity to use Aid Watch to vent his disdain for all things military. In response to the growing consensus that something drastic must be done to prevent mass bloodshed in Libya, Easterly writes:

What can the rest of the world do? Any military intervention would play into Qaddafi’s hand, especially there really is nobody that can be trusted to do a “neutral humanitarian” intervention.

Other than Bill Easterly, who uses the term “neutral humanitarian intervention”? Such a thing does not exist and never has.

Military interventions are by definition not neutral, even when they are launched in response to humanitarian crises. Whether multilateral or unilateral, this kind of military intervention is aimed at thwarting the mass killing of one group (or more than one group) by an opposing group. A military intervention in Libya would be aimed at removing the Libyan regime’s ability to wipe out the political opposition. Success would almost certainly entail inflicting serious damage to Libya’s military infrastructure, and in the process severely weakening or even causing the collapse of the state.

And the “imperialism” canard isn’t likely to resonate in this case. Consensus in the Arab world supports the demonstrators, and the Arab League just suspended Libya in response to the government’s bloody crackdown. (Is Easterly even paying attention?)

Trade embargo not a good idea — why punish the Libyan people? (True confessions: I went to Libya myself for a trek in the Sahara over Christmas holiday.)

Oh, ew.

Libya’s opening to tourism and trade with the West in the last few years has arguably made this current revolt more possible, not less possible.

That might be so (I don’t know if it is, and I bet Easterly doesn’t either), but we’re not debating the relative merits of different long-term punishments for a repressive regime right now. We’re debating the wisdom of martial measures to keep Libya from becoming the next great argument for why the Genocide Convention should apply to political groups.

Too many NOs for you? Well here’s some Constructive NOs: NO to any aid to Libya, NO to any caving in to Libyan government contract blackmail, NO to arms sales. (Feel free to apply any of that to you, Italian government).

Look, I’m not sold on a military intervention, but any means, but I’m not willing to dismiss that option outright.

Gaddafi is not Ben Ali or Mubarak. Hell, he’s not even Nicolae freakin’ Ceaușescu at this point. He’s an obviously mentally unstable dictator who has already called in air strikes against his political opponents and dispatched foreign mercenaries to gun down protesters on the streets. He and his even scarier son (and likely successor) have both gone on television and told the world, in no uncertain terms, that they intend to slaughter their opponents and won’t hesitate to escalate the violence into a full-blown civil war.

Hundreds of protesters have been killed so far. It’s morally responsible to consider the option of a military intervention, among other options, if those hundreds look poised to become thousands or tens of thousands.

To that end, it’s critical that more information regarding the number of Libyan dead reaches the outside world.

Someone please high-five Charli Carpenter

For tackling torture proponent Marc Thiessen’s central argument in Courting Disaster: How the CIA Kept America Safe and How Barack Obama is Inviting the Next Attack on utilitarian grounds as well as liberal ones.

What if we were to accept that the CIA has made America a wee bit safer by torturing KSM?

Liberals actually need an answer to this question, I would argue, because so many of their fellow Americans will buy Thiessen’s empirical case. So the most important part of his argument to refute is actually not the causal argument. The most important part of his argument is his moral argument.

In fact, the most fascinating chapter of his book is the one in which he poses the question: why should torture be considered an absolute prohibition, when killing is not? He explores just war theory and makes an interesting argument that non-lethal forms of torture – the kinds that are scary more than physically injurious – are a lesser evil if innocent civilian lives can be saved as a result.

But this argument as it turns out can be answered by liberals on Marc Thiessen’s own terms as well, because if you read closely it is clear that Thiessen’s overriding goal is not to promote a torture culture per se, but something much nobler: to protect innocent civilian life. The problem with his analysis is that he simply doesn’t have a clear empirical understanding of the factors that most threaten innocent civilian life.

As a matter of fact, terrorism falls pretty far down that list, but state repression is a rather important risk. Think-tanks that track terror fatalities measure the number of dead from terrorism since 1970 in the tens of thousands. Compare this to the hundreds of thousands killed by their own governments over the same period, a number that rises, RJ Rummel tells us, to a staggering 169,198,000 between 1900-1987. International terrorism may be scary, but in relative terms it’s pretty small beer.

It stands to reason that if the goal is to protect civilians the means used to be consistent with the wider protection of civilians. So although liberals are fond of making the absolutist moral argument and the constitutive argument against torture, it turns out that you can also argue against torture on purely utilitarian grounds. And the argument is not that it’s ineffective. The argument is that even if it’s sometimes effective and even if it’s necessary to protect civilians, civilians stand to benefit far more from preserving a rule of law political culture than they do from avoiding every single risk that comes with living in an era of techno-globalization in which the gap between the haves and have nots is widening.

So, my friends, that’s the argument you use when your crazy uncle starts banging on about how liberals aren’t willing to do what it takes to protect their way of life.

The perils of mapping Afghanistan’s conflict

Afghan soldiers stand near the site of a mass grave outside Kabul. May 2010.

I have a new piece up at UN Dispatch about why the leaked and recently resurfaced UN conflict mapping report on Afghanistan matters.

Five years ago, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR) produced a conflict mapping report of crimes committed by all armed factions in Afghanistan between April 27, 1978 and December 22, 2001.

The report is not available on any UN website.

Some members of the international community claim it was briefly available on the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) website, but was taken down following diplomatic alarm and immediate complaints that naming former commanders now serving in the Afghan government in  connection with serious international crimes would hurt the UN’s political mission. Others say it was never intended to be publicly released. Whatever the case, the report has been passed around on flash drives among a select group of Afghan and international activists and lurked unread and virtually hidden in out-of-the-way corners of the web for years.

It will reach a wider audience now that Thomas Ruttig and Sari Kuovo of the Afghanistan Analysts Network have linked to a leaked pdf version of it in their recent blog post about the good that the Nobel Committee could have achieved had it awarded this year’s Peace Prize to Afghan human rights pioneer Dr. Sima Samar.

The executive summary of the mapping report states:

No document can fully describe what the Afghans have lived through. Every Afghan has a story to tell, or many stories, of suffering and loss, and also of those responsible: the armies, militias, commanders, and gunmen—some Afghan, some foreign—who fought each other for ideals, political power, money, and revenge. Some victims became perpetrators, and some perpetrators became victims in a cycle of violence that has slowed but not yet ended.

Seven things you should know about the leaked report:

Read the rest at UN Dispatch.