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Nov. 16 2009 — 2:16 pm | 109 views | 1 recommendations | 9 comments

The U.S. pays the Taliban to not attack? We should be shocked! Shocked!

The Nation has a great story this week: the U.S., via its subcontractors, pays the Taliban not to attack its trucks carrying military shocked to find gamingsupplies around the country:

The bizarre fact is that the practice of buying the Taliban’s protection is not a secret. I asked Col. David Haight, who commands the Third Brigade of the Tenth Mountain Division, about it. After all, part of Highway 1 runs through his area of operations. What did he think about security companies paying off insurgents? “The American soldier in me is repulsed by it,” he said in an interview in his office at FOB Shank in Logar Province. “But I know that it is what it is: essentially paying the enemy, saying, ‘Hey, don’t hassle me.’ I don’t like it, but it is what it is.”

As a military official in Kabul explained contracting in Afghanistan overall, “We understand that across the board 10 percent to 20 percent goes to the insurgents. My intel guy would say it is closer to 10 percent. Generally it is happening in logistics.”

Given that the trucking contracts total $2.2 billion, by my math that’s at least $220 million paid to the Taliban. As appalling as this is, it should not be a surprise. It’s been a pattern throughout the “war on terror,” and not just by the U.S.

I’d love to see someone do some real accounting on how much we’ve paid actual or potential adversaries to not attack us, but some quick numbers:

Paying the Taliban to not attack U.S. trucks carrying military supplies in Afghanistan: at least $200 million
Renaming insurgents the “Sons of Iraq” and paying them to not attack U.S. targets: $16 million a month
Getting Pakistan to stay on our side: many, many billions of dollars
Clinging to the notion that this is a “war of ideas”: Priceless

Nov. 14 2009 — 9:51 am | 183 views | 0 recommendations | 3 comments

Vladimir Putin, hip hop, and the ‘battle for respect’

OK, this is priceless. Vladimir Putin showed up at a “Battle for Respect” event, which appears to be a sort of Russian hip-hop contest, to talk about how hip hop promotes a healthy lifestyle. Watching him sway, barely perceptibly, as the kids around him wave their hands in the air like they just don’t care, is enough to make you feel sorry for the man.

Russia Today has the video:

Here are his thoughts on hip hop: “These youngsters who work in this art in our country – they bring unique Russian charm. Street rap may be a little bit rough, but it contains social meaning – raising social problems. Graffiti becomes a real elegant art. Break dance is something special. It is really a promotion of a healthy lifestyle. It’s hard to imagine break dance being combined with alcohol or drugs. When people perform with acrobatic elements, it really calls for respect.”

Well, it’s hard to argue with any of that. And as uncomfortable and out of place as he looks here, I think we have to give him some credit for being game. Can you imagine a US president doing that?

And when you think about it, hip hop’s fixation on “respect” and exaggerating perceived slights — well, it’s actually pretty appropriate for Russia today.

Nov. 13 2009 — 4:10 pm | 110 views | 0 recommendations | 2 comments

The search for Genghis Khan’s grave

Forgive me a completely self-promotional post, but one of the the projects that I was working on during my recent trip to China, Mongolia and Russia has been published, on the search for Genghis Khan’s tomb. It’s one of the great remaining archeological mysteries and it looks like it’s about to be solved, though with a whole bunch of cultural, political and geopolitical complications.

There are five stories. The first is on the background of the search; the second on the two groups now searching for the grave; the third on the Genghis Khan “mausoleum” in China and his legacy there and in Russia; the fourth on the money to be made on Genghis Khan in Mongolia and the fifth on how most Mongolians don’t actually want the grave to be found.

Plus, there are lots of photos. So check it out and enjoy.

Nov. 11 2009 — 10:52 am | 45 views | 0 recommendations | 0 comments

The U.S. and the persecution of Azerbaijan’s bloggers

Emin Milli being escorted into court.

Emin Milli being escorted into court.

Two Azerbaijani political activists and bloggers were sentenced today to prison terms of two and two and a half years, respectively, in obviously trumped up charges of assault. The alleged victim of the beating by these dorky bloggers testified in court that he knew the martial art Wushu and admitted that in his official statement on the incident: “I wrote what policeman told me to write.”

Azerbaijan has a pretty atrocious record on human rights, and I experienced firsthand their thuggish and hamhanded treatment of anyone who opposes them. The more likely cause of the bloggers’ arrest? According to the New York Times, it was:

a video in which a donkey holds a news conference before a circle of gravely nodding journalists. Dressed in a voluminous gray costume, Adnan Hajizada rhapsodizes over the lush life awaiting donkeys in Azerbaijan. To his audience — cosmopolitan young Azeris following his commentaries on blogs and Facebook — the video was a sly send-up of the government, which had been accused in the local news media of paying exorbitant prices to import donkeys.

The U.S. has protested the arrest of the two men, Adnan Hajizada, 26, and Emin Milli, 30. In an August visit to Azerbaijan, one of the top U.S. diplomats in the region, Matthew Bryza (who is rumored to be the next ambassador to Azerbaijan), said “it is essential that these cases [of the jailed bloggers] be resolved according to due process” and that the state respects the fundamental rights of Azerbaijanis and “the advance of media freedom.” A US embassy spokeswoman “expressed concern about the verdicts and said the State Department would issue a formal statement later in the day.

But countries like Azerbaijan know that statements like that are part of the game that diplomats play. Actions speak louder than words, and inaction can speak just as loud.

In October 2003, Azerbaijan had a presidential election. Human Rights Watch described “an election campaign that from the beginning was heavily manipulated by the government to favor Prime Minister Ilham Aliev, son of President Heidar Aliev. The government ensured that election commissions would be stacked to favor Aliev, and banned nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) from monitoring the vote. As the election drew nearer, government officials openly sided with Ilham Aliev, obstructed opposition rallies, and sought to limit participation in them. Police have beaten and arbitrarily detained hundreds of opposition activists, including a seventy-three-year-old woman.”

Did this bother the U.S.? Not especially. According to Mark MacKinnon, a reporter for the Globe and Mail, in his book The New Cold War:

In a message to the Azeri government ahead of the elections, President Bush noted President Ilham Aliyev’s “commitment to a free and fair election” and concluded “I look forward to working with you after these elections.”

The opposition, since then, has more or less given up and in the next presidential elections, in 2008, all of the major opposition parties boycotted. This was deemed “progress” and “an improvement” by the State Department.

By contrast, in neighboring Georgia, less than a month after Azerbaijan’s 2003 elections, the U.S. got heavily involved in supporting the opposition, led by Mikhail Saakashvili, that eventually prevailed in the Rose Revolution. What was the difference? You get one guess.

Yes, you’re right: Azerbaijan has since the collapse of the Soviet Union been a fairly reliable ally of the U.S., while Georgia’s president at the time, Edvard Shevardnadze, was showing signs of being wobbly against the Russians, and Saakashvili is pretty much unrivaled among world leaders in his devotion to Washington.

According to Freedom House, since 2003 Azerbaijan has backslid on human rights, from “partly free” to “not free.” Yet Bryza says they are making progress: “Ilham Aliyev, we believe, is working to modernize the political system of Azerbaijan, to create democracy in the context of Azerbaijan’s culture and traditions — which the president said is necessary, because democracy looks different in every country. That said, they haven’t gone far enough. And we will continue to press President Aliyev — and his opposition as well — to behave constructively, to build and strengthen democratic institutions as we pursue our full range of interests.”

According to another activist who was in court for today’s proceedings, after he was sentenced Hajizada “questioned how alleged witnesses will look into the eyes of their families- we will be done with our sentences but I wonder how they are going to live a life built on lies.” People who claim the Azerbaijan government is improving might think about that, too.

Nov. 10 2009 — 10:50 am | 21 views | 0 recommendations | 2 comments

Iranian media: ‘Fort Hood incident signals fall of US empire’

Was the killing of 12 soldiers at Ft. Hood the work of a deranged man, an Islamofascist plot or a one-man jihad? None of the above, according to a top Iranian military official. It is instead internal “corruption” that portends the fall of the American empire. Press TV reports:

A top official with Iran’s armed forces says the fall of empires begins with domestic corruption after a US Army psychiatrist treating soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan killed 12 soldiers in Fort Hood.

Deputy Head of Iran’s armed forces headquarters Brigadier-General Seyyed Massoud Jazayeri said Saturday that the killing in the US Army base is just a small instance of many challenges inside the US government and the American society.

According to the general, these American challenges have manifested themselves in the form of faulty human relations and family dynamics as well as political differences and other social issues.

“Basically, the reason behind the fall of empires is not corruption outside the country but from within,” General Jazayeri said .”All evidence indicates that the US society will follow [in the footsteps of the Soviet Union].”

“The US government believes that due to the country’s geographical situation, they are safe. But the reality is that ‘the major warning’ comes from within,” he added.

via ‘Fort Hood incident signals fall of US empire’.

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    I'm a freelance writer in Washington, D.C., and a regular contributor to Slate, EurasiaNet and U.S. News and World Report. But before that I was a high school teacher in Bulgaria, an illegal day laborer in Tel Aviv, a wire service reporter in South Dakota, a war correspondent in Iraq and a Pentagon hack. And as often as I can, I try to get myself on a bus or train in a new country, looking out the window and trying to figure out what it all means. (See more at www.joshuakucera.net. And follow me on Twitter.)

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