Flirting With Disaster in Afghanistan, and a Glimmer of Hope

As chairman of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, Sen. John Kerry has a hand in the crafting of foreign policy second only to the President and the Secretary of State.  The following is a letter sent to him urging a course correction in Afghanistan, which he has the power to effect.

Dear Senator Kerry,

The war in Afghanistan is about to enter a new phase, and we are on the cusp of a new level of violence.  After eight years of occupation, the vast majority of Afghans remain mired in wretched poverty, and offensive operations by the U.S. military have been counter-productive.  The misallocation of aid is well-understood by Afghans, who see the "narco-mansions" and the new SUVs of foreign contractors while most can barely eat.

To say that "nation-building" is outside of the scope of the limited mission is to miss entirely the nature of the insurgency, which is ultimately the result of a failed reconstruction and rampant 40% unemployment.  This places the Taliban in the position of being the employer of last resort, able to pay a young demographic of potential new fighters a wage of $10 per day.

Although the Taliban remains widely unpopular, it is now becoming "less unpopular" than the American presence, which, given the Taliban's reputation for brutality, took some doing. But eight years after the occupation began, 40% of children are underweight, 35% of the population is malnourished, and one in five infants dies before the age of five.  AOL news reports that hunger is Afghanistan's biggest killer.

Allowing people to starve, while spending hundreds of billions on jet fuel contracts, bombs and bullets, is a violation of the Geneva Conventions, which outline the responsibilities of an occupying power at Article 55:

"To the fullest extent of the means available to it, the Occupying Power has the duty of ensuring the food and medical supplies of the population; it should, in particular, bring in the necessary foodstuffs, medical stores and other articles if the resources of the occupied territory are inadequate."

Policy-makers are badly miscalculating the nature of Afghan nationalism, and offensive military operations which harm the Afghan people should be abandoned.  It was believed by Afghans that after the US abandonment to starvation and civil war in the 80's, that this time the promises of a reconstruction would be kept.  In Afghan culture, the second betrayal is far worse than the first.  We are on the verge of letting it happen.

This disaster can be averted, as can civil war.  This can be done at a cost to the US of what we spend on military operations in less than one month, or about $5 billion.  The National Solidarity Program (NSP) is an Afghan government program which is already in place, is of proven competence, and which has the capacity to immediately provide employment on a wide scale.

For far less than the cost of one month of military operations a widespread cash-for-work program could be implemented for everyone.

Some Americans will say this is ridiculous when there are not enough jobs right here in the U.S. But Americans don't work for $5 a day, and Afghans are happy to. It's not the $5 billion we spend on a civilian solution in Afghanistan that will break the bank and take away jobs from Americans. It's the $250 billion and counting that we have spent on counterproductive military operations and hardware.

The crucial aspects of the NSP are:

- The election of nearly 30,000 community development councils (CDCs) by each village, which choose from among different project proposals which both generate employment and benefit the communities,

- The selection of the council treasurer by the villagers themselves, who are best-placed to decide who is honest and competent,

- The sense of "buy in," or community ownership by the community, which both drives the communities to defend NSP projects against Taliban attack, and prevents Taliban attack due to the bad "public relations" it incurs.  

-  The existence of thousands of projects already on the drawing board, ready to implement immediately in order to hire many thousands of workers.  These projects lack only funding. The Honorable Ehsan Zia, the architect of the NSP, has been on Capitol Hill many times requesting this funding.

NSP projects tend to be simple: canal clearing, digging irrigation trench, and basic dirt road improvements using gravel and dirt, anything which puts a cash wage of about $7 per day, good money here, in the hands of economically desperate young men.

Please back an appropriation which is a small fraction of yearly military spending for the NSP.  Surely we can divert one month of what we spend on military operations into something that really works.  It is in ordinary, poor Afghans, and tribal society, that we will find our best allies in the "war on terror."  Let us not betray the Afghan people again, Senator.

Please email this post to John Kerry's Chief-of-Staff: Then call to confirm he received it:

(202) 224-2742 - Phone
(202) 224-8525 - Fax


Climate Bill's Delay May Be A Good Thing

As Charles mentioned, the the long-awaited Kerry-Graham-Lieberman (KGL) energy and climate bill will NOT be unveiled on Monday as expected. Now that Harry Reid plans to move immigration legislation first, Graham is threatening to walk and Kerry has put the bill on hold. With the midterms looming, putting immigration first already virtually assured that climate legislation wouldn’t move this year; Graham’s stunt all but guarantees it.

I’m shocked to hear myself saying this, but: good.

I’ve spent the past year pushing hard for this bill both on MyDD and in my professional life, but over the past few days I have come to believe that a delay might actually be a good thing. That belief may run counter to conventional wisdom – Kerry said this year is the “last and best shot” for passing a bill and Politico’s tone echoes that sentiment – but KGL has deteriorated so much that waiting for a better bill after next January’s filibuster reform might actually be worth it. Once the rules for the next Congress are written, we may be able to get not just a stronger bill but an infinitely stronger bill than what could pass now.

Generally in politics I’m a fan of an incremental, something-is-better-than-nothing approach, and I started out that way on KGL. I hate to say it, but tipping point or not, the goal isn’t to write perfect legislation but to write passable legislation. To this end I was willing to swallow the KGL oil give-aways in exchange for the first carbon price in history and new subsidies for clean energy.

On Friday, however, it was reported that the bill would remove “the states' authority to set tougher emissions standards than the federal government.” And that’s beyond even the most pragmatic pale. So much of current federal energy and environmental laws originated with the states, particularly California. Banning the states from taking tougher action than the federal government would by itself turn this bill from a first step to a last step. It would stymie innovation and destroy our best tool for continuing to move the ball forward. I can swallow imperfection if it allows room for further improvement, but it appears that KGL was going to block such improvement for ever and always.

It now looks like this might be a non-issue. I feel sorry for the three negotiators who have been stabbed in the back, but maybe it’s best this way. The bill contained its many poison pills because of the 60-vote threshold the Repubs have for the first time in history imposed on nearly all Senate business. Come January, however, I am confident that Democrats will still control at least 53 seats and that some sort of filibuster reform will be reality. 

We can get a better bill with fewer votes then than we can with 60 votes now. KGL has sunk so much that the difference between those two bills might actually be enough to make flirting with the tipping point worth it.

There's more...

Next Up: A Climate Bill

Woo-hoo. The healthcare bill is done. People will see many of the provisions go into place immediately and then they can decide how they feel about these reforms based on realityinstead of frenzied, uninformed rhetoric. Let's just take a moment to recognize this historic occasion.

Unfortunately, just when we see Congress starting to pass bills promised during the last election, we get an unwelcomed glimpse of some of the ugliest parts of politics. It disgusts and frightens me that not only were Members of Congress spat upon as they walked to the Capitol, but lunatics threatened to kill the family members of our elected officials. I am disheartened by the actions of my fellow Americans in the last week but I am not without hope because despite all of these threats, they made real progress and that is something to celebrate.

Healthcare Reforms' passage also clears the way for the Senate to take up climate and they are thankfully wasting no time. According to E&E senior reporter Darren Samuelsohn, "Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) is inserting himself into the energy and climate debate with a series of meetings [on Tuesday and Wednesday] with key players engaged in the closed-door negotiations."

Senator John Kerry (D-MA) is also doubling down on climate saying, "In the wake of health care's passage, we have a strong case to make that this can be the next breakthrough legislative fight. Climate legislation is the single best opportunity we have to create jobs, reduce pollution and stop sending billions overseas for foreign oil from countries that would do us harm."

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the undecideds are starting to vocally call for Congress to consider a bill. Earlier this week, Senator Tom Udall lead a group of 22 moderate Senators in calling on Senator Majority Leader Reid to bring up comprehensive climate and clean energy legislation for a vote. The letter is especially significant because most of these folks hadn't been saying much about climate legislation before. And if those in the middle remained silent, that would have deadened any momentum. But they didn't.

Although none of this guarantees that we will get a bill and it certainly doesn't guarantee that any bill that moves will be strong enough to address the problems, it represents significant progress. Members of Congress have had a hard week so I hope that they go home over the Easter recess and take a few days to recuperate. When they get back, there is much to do and a lot of momentum to build upon.

Weekly Mulch: New bills and old money

By Sarah Laskow, Media Consortium blogger

Climate legislation is returning to the Senate’s docket, and leaders on Capitol Hill are hoping that this version, a compromise bill spearheaded by Sens. John Kerry (D-MA), Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Joe Lieberman (I-CT), can pass without getting caught in the morass of money and politics that has delayed action so far.

A long, long time ago…

Remember, there was a time when Congress was going to pass climate legislation before the international climate change negotiations in Copenhagen. President Barack Obama was going to show up with a bill in hand and lead the world towards a better climate future. After the House passed its climate bill in June 2009, the Senate began discussing climate change, and a first stab by Sen. Kerry and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) went nowhere. Now, Kerry has turned to less liberal colleagues to draft an alternative that would appeal to moderates and even Republicans.

Now the Massachusetts senator is promising that climate change isn’t dead. A new bill is coming—more information may be in the offing as early as today, as Kate Sheppard reports at Mother Jones.

Third time’s the charm

Sen. Kerry is trying a new tactic to pass climate legislation. He’s waiting to release his plan until he knows the bill has the 60 supporters it needs to circumvent a filibuster. The details have not been hammered out yet, and even the Senators who’ve been in talks with Kerry, Graham, and Lieberman don’t seem to have a clear sense of what will be in the version that will emerge.

In the House, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA), chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee, released an ambitious draft of the legislation, let lobbyists and members of Congress fight over it, and passed a much-changed edition months later. Sen. Kerry tried a similar plan on his side of Capitol Hill (that was the Kerry-Boxer bill), but it did not work.

With this piece of legislature, Sens. Kerry, Graham, and Lieberman are working out the compromises before they release the legislation. Both reporting and speculation about their bill say that it will abandon the cap-and-trade system passed in the House. Cap-and-trade restricts carbon emissions across the economy; a variation on that policy that the Kerry-Graham-Lieberman bill may favor will limit the system to a few sectors.

Will it work?

Kerry’s expected bill may be a much weaker plan than any proposed so far, yet it is still not certain that the Senate will support it. The lead authors of the bill have been meeting with conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans, as Sheppard reports, but those targets have not promised support yet. Coming out of a meeting, Sen. George Voinovich (R-OH) told reporters: “There were some interesting things that were discussed in there and like everything else in the United States Senate, the devil is in the details.”

From a distance, banner-day climate legislation still seems possible. Environmental groups like the Sierra Club, the National Wildlife Foundation, and the National Resources Defense Council believe that they will see a bill this year that caps carbon. These green groups would be able to live with the incentives handed to industry groups so far, according to Campus Progress’ Tristan Fowler.

“There are compromises [that can go] too far. Fortunately, I don’t think we’re getting near that territory at the moment,” Josh Dorner, a spokesman for the Sierra Club, told Fowler.

Sickly green

Before getting too excited about stamping a green seal of approval on Congress’ legislation, consider Johann Hari’s testimony in The Nation about the relationships between environmental groups and the industries that they oppose.

Hari has reported on climate change issues for years, and at first, he “imagined that American green groups were on these people’s side in the corridors of Capitol Hill, trying to stop the Weather of Mass Destruction. But it is now clear that many were on a different path—one that began in the 1980s, with a financial donation.”

Hari argues that as environmental groups began to reach out to polluters, handing them awards for green behavior and accepting support from their deep pockets, they learned to compromise too readily and accept political excuses for delaying action on climate change. While in other realms these compromises might fly, when the stakes are as high as they are on environmental issues, that behavior turns the stomach.

“You can’t stand at the edge of a rising sea and say, ‘Sorry, the swing states don’t want you to happen today. Come back in fifty years,’” Hari writes.

The green future

When Kerry, Lieberman and Graham do release the compromised bill, watch for a tsunami of money and influence that could pack the bill with prizes for specific industries—or derail it altogether. Just this week, the natural gas industry’s lobbyists told The Hill, a D.C.-based newspaper, that they were ready to fight with the coal industry over incentives in the Senate bill. At AlterNet, Harvey Wasserman writes that the nuclear industry spent $645 million in the past decade to get back into the energy game, according to a new report from American University’s Investigative Reporting Workshop. (Hint: that $645 million is working in their favor.)

In the Senate, the influence of oil companies will play an important role, according to David Roberts at Grist.

“While coal has a lot of power in the House, oil has enormous power in the Senate, particularly over the conservadems and Republicans needed to put the bill over the top,” Roberts explains.

No matter what legislation passes and what incentives it contains, environmentalists need to continue putting pressure on their representatives in Congress and on national environmental groups to push back against polluting industries and work to fix the world’s climate.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the environment by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Mulch for a complete list of articles on environmental issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, health care and immigration issues, check out The Audit, The Pulse, and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.



Bullies and Bystanders

The Climate Bullies

When I was in 6th grade, I fell victim to the school bully. I was new to the school and became an easy target for an 8th grade girl with a bad attitude. She picked on me endlessly while other kids stood by and watched. I was humiliated, scared and completely at a loss about what I should do.

Thankfully I had eventually made some decent friends and one day when the resident bully showed up one of them stepped in and told her to stop. Others quickly backed her up; the bully went away and never bothered me again.

My experience with bullying is far from unique. Bullies get away with their behavior over and over again....In our schools, in our offices and even in Congress.

What gives bullies their power? It certainly isn't the victim. And it isn't even the bully. Instead, those with the most power, the ones who can usually make the bullying stop, are the people on the sidelines.

I have been thinking about this phenomenon as I watch the climate debate in the Senate. I see the climate bill itself (and those of us who are pushing for it) in the role of victim; the fossil fuel industry and the Tea Party are the bullies. The bystanders in this situation are the Senators who aren't doing much of anything on climate either way. It isn't hard to spot them, but it has been hard to get them to stand up.

In the face of a crisis like global warming, we don't need quiet witnesses. We need bold heroes to step in, stop the fight, and solve the problem. We need lawmakers to say that now is the time to confront the crisis and jumpstart America's economy.

It all starts with standing up to the bullies.

Consider the Tea Party. These are the bullies who spun health care reform - something that is still supported by the majority of Americans - into a sordid deal. Now they are going after climate legislation.

At the Tea Party Convention in Nashville last week, global warming skeptic Steve Milloycriticized Republican Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) for working with Democratic Senator John Kerry (D-MA) on a bipartisan climate bill. Then he went so far as to call supporters of strong climate legislation "bad people" with questionable sanity and morals.

And then there are the fossil fuel industries. They bully with money: oil and gas companiesspent at least $154 million on lobbying in 2009. That doesn't even take into account their political donations.

Intimidation and deep pockets are powerful forces, but I do hope those senators who are standing by on climate -- many of whom intend to ultimately support a bill -- realize that this is an opportunity to take a bold stand, to support strong legislation that represents our best tool for generating 2 million new jobs and making America more secure.

Voters love problem solvers; passing clean energy and climate legislation would give senators a chance to fix our economy, clean up our environment, and strengthen our national security.

For instance, Americans spent a record $450 billion on imported oil in 2008. That's $1,400 for every man, woman, and child in this country sent to places like Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, and Nigeria. Passing a clean energy and climate bill would keep a good chunk of that money invested in America.

These are the kind of solutions Americans will vote for right now.

I hope the senators who have been on the sidelines will step in on behalf of all Americans so the bullies don't have the power anymore. If they continue to sit and do nothing, they will in their own way be as much to blame as the deniers, because both of them are impeding progress. The deniers do it noisily with malice, the bystanders do it quietly and often with good intentions, but both are doing a disservice to our nation.

No one said solving the biggest crisis of our time would be easy, but someone needs to stand up to the bullies. 



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