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You may not have heard about this, but a few weeks ago, in mid-April, the Taliban scored its deadliest battle victory since the US invasion in 2001. Ten Taliban militants slaughtered at least 144 Afghan Army soldiers and wounded 60+ more, at an Afghan army base just outside of Mazar-i-Sharif in the north of the country.

The attack took place about a week after Trump dropped the largest conventional bomb the US has ever used on an area in eastern Afghanistan. I’m starting to wonder if the MOAB was as much a paranoid, desperate attempt to “send a message” to Russia and Iran as it was meant to kill Islamic State fighters in the area, but I’ll get to that in a minute.

The attack on the Afghan Army base in the north was a turkey shoot: The Afghan Army soldiers were largely unarmed and caught by surprise, just emerging from Friday prayers for lunch on their base, when about half a dozen Taliban militants stormed the base with help from four Taliban plants inside the Afghan Army base. The killing lasted 5 hours. The Taliban say they killed 500, and some witnesses claim many more than 140 were killed. It’s even possible that one or two of the attackers got away.

Everything about this slaughter is bad news if you’re looking at it from the US point of view. The Taliban said the attack was in retaliation for the killings of two of their shadow province leaders in the north of the country—and that, along with the ease with which they carried this out, suggests they could do a lot more of these types of massacres if they felt they needed to. The way the Taliban tells it, the massacre was more like a warning: “Don’t kill our leaders like that—we can fuck you up much worse than you can us.”

You can see in this AFP photo report how bad the attack must’ve been. But it’s details like this that make you realize how much worse it can get—and will get:

They were dressed in Afghan army uniforms, multiple sources have told AFP, fuelling suspicions of complicity on the 30,000-strong base, where Western instructors are sometimes called on as part of NATO’s training, assist and advise mission.

At the second checkpoint one officer became suspicious, the source said — only to have two of the militants trigger their suicide vests, as the rest hurtled past at full speed towards the mosque, roughly a kilometre from the entrance.

They knew the base, the source said, stressing the meticulous preparation involved — four of them had trained there in the past, and all carried valid passes.

They knew that in the part of the base they were headed no soldier was allowed to carry a weapon.

The story out of Afghanistan has been getting worse and worse since at least 2007 if not earlier, and nothing we’ve done—Obama’s Surge, or Obama’s non-withdrawal withdrawal; Britain’s alleged withdrawal in 2014, or Britain’s not-really-withdrawal a year later—seems to work. (Packing up and leaving once and for all is one of those pipe-dream ideas that’s far too obvious for any DC hack to consider “credible.”)

Last year alone, a record 6,800 US-backed Afghan Army soldiers and police were killed, an increase of 35% over 2015. And this year is off to such a bad start that 2016 might be remembered fondly as the peaceful salad days. In just the first two months of this year, during what’s usually the Taliban’s winter recess, 807 Afghan Army soldiers were killed, a figure described as “shockingly high” by the US government’s Special Inspector for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR).

And then came April’s massacre, the single worst defeat by the US-backed Afghan military since we invaded in 2001—10 Taliban fighters killed or wounded over 200 of our soldiers. That’s about as clear a sign as any that something is seriously, seriously wrong in Afghanistan, in a very familiar and grim way—as in, ARVN-familiar.

Only about half of Afghanistan is still under nominal control of the US-backed regime in Kabul, and that territory keeps shrinking fast. When things go this badly, you need to either accept responsibility for your failures and be held accountable for them—or blame a bogeyman that everyone in your camp is already prepared to believe in? A lot of jobs and contracts are at stake here, along with military careers and promotions. Accepting responsibility and admitting failure is bad for careers, and bad for contractor lobbying. If you want to pump more money out of taxpayers, you can’t admit you’re failing in a lost cause—you need to scare Washington, to make them think they’ll be in trouble if they don’t fork over the public’s money.

As you can guess, finding that bogeyman isn’t exactly rocket science. By now, even your dog knows who to blame: “Russia is sending weapons to Taliban, top U.S. general confirms” reads a Washington Post headline from April 24.

Actually the US general in charge of Afghanistan, John Nicholson, wasn’t quite as committal in that assessment as the WaPo would’ve liked—he said, “We continue to get reports of this [Russian] assistance.” So the WaPo did what all American hacks do today and went straight to their beloved “anonymous US official” for the money quotes and evidence:

A senior U.S. military official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence on the issue, said the Russians have increased their supply of equipment and small arms to the Taliban over the past 18 months. The official said the Russians have been sending weapons, including medium and heavy machine guns, to the Taliban under the guise that the materiel would be used to fight the Islamic State in eastern Afghanistan. Instead, the official said, the weapons were showing up in some of Afghanistan’s southern provinces, including Helmand and Kandahar — both areas with little Islamic State presence.

That’s quite an odd, slippery paragraph of damning evidence, considering the sorts of things these anonymous US military/intelligence officials are usually quoted saying. Here, weapons in a country that’s been a war zone and small arms bazaar for four decades show up in the wrong province—and that’s proof of Russian intentions? It may be true, but it sure is bizarrely thin proof to back that claim up.

About a week earlier, the WaPo ran another of these “Russia arming the Taliban” stories that’ve been creeping towards the center of our media narrative about Afghanistan lately. This one was given a headline that reads like a playground taunt:

“While the U.S. wasn’t looking, Russia and Iran began carving out a bigger role in Afghanistan”.

If you actually try making sense of the article, paragraph to paragraph—it makes almost no sense at all. That may be more a reflection of the tangled reality on the ground than anything else—but the point is that the headline and thesis of the article, which is what most people will read and remember, finds no coherent support in the body of the article itself, were anyone to actually read it.

And indeed it makes little sense that Russia would agree to a serious alliance with its old enemy the Taliban—which allied with Chechen Islamist separatists in the late 1990s and early 2000s, harbored and trained them, and which threatened Russia’s closest ally in Central Asia, Tajikistan. It makes perhaps even less sense that Shia Iran— which borders Afghanistan—would ally with a radical sectarian Sunni group like the Taliban, which had waged a brutal sectarian war on the Shia Hazara as well as the Persian-speaking Tajiks.

What does make sense is that both Iran and Russia—which supported the initial US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, only to see it go from bad to worse—would be actively positioning themselves for the inevitable moment when the US and NATO pull out of Afghanistan for good, and that moment looks like it’s accelerating. The US has had a bad habit of making a mess of countries it “liberates”—then withdrawing in a fit of grievances about how the locals don’t appreciate them, or can’t manage their own affairs, or, as with Libya, out of regret for doing “stupid shit.” Iran and Russia are neighbors of Afghanistan, and logic would tell you that if you lost to the mujahideen in the 1980s, and the West couldn’t defeat them since the turn of the century—then you better start finding ways to work with them, because chances are you’re going to be stuck with them one way or another.

This explains why both Russia and the Taliban have admitted to holding talks about a political solution. Some on the Russian side have said publicly they think they can work with the Taliban, that the Taliban has transformed from an internationalist Islamist movement to a purely nationalist movement. That sounds like wishful thinking if they really believe it.

There are other reasons Russia would want to work with the Taliban—worries about the Taliban threatening Tajikistan, again; create problems for US forces there, because defeat in war leaves raw wounds that can last decades; to get some leverage with the Taliban before their inevitable return to power; to get some leverage against the US that can be bargained away later for a deal in Syria or Ukraine, or to end sanctions . . . but the guff about Russia “arming the Taliban” seems like a stretch, and so far hasn’t been supported by evidence, or even with much conviction by the US military.

But screaming about Russians arming and allying with the Taliban helps guys like John McCain and Linsday Graham push for more soldiers in Afghanistan, more budget outlays, more weapons, more New Cold War mongering. There’s nothing subtle about this: McCain and Graham wrote an op-ed in the WaPo calling for more troops in Afghanistan—citing the WaPo article on the alleged Russian-Taliban alliance as proof we need thousands more troops there. Talk about deja vu…

It’s also strange to be floating conspiracies about Russian arms making their way to Kandahar bazaars, when we all know who has been backing the Taliban: the ISI, Pakistan’s intelligence service, with funding from the Saudis and the Gulf monarchies. The ISI nurtured, trained, equipped and advised the Taliban from its birth in Pakistani refugee camps, to its conquest of most of Afghanistan in the mid-late 1990s; and the Saudis and Gulf monarchs sponsored the whole thing. This isn’t a big secret. Just a few months ago, the New York Times did a big exposé headlined “Saudis Bankroll Taliban, Even as King Officially Supports Afghan Government”. But stories like that are just bummers, so everyone willfully forgets it and goes back to its version of Pokémon Go—something like “Putínmon Go” where every DC hack and military contractor runs around virtual-Afghanistan catching virtual-Putínmon phantoms…

There’s also a question about another possible sponsor: Turkmenistan, which borders Afghanistan in the northwest. Before 9/11, Turkmenistan had friendly relations with the Taliban. After 9/11, they saw the writing on the wall and cut off support. But a couple of months ago, Ismail Khan, the warlord who more or less controls Herat, accused Turkmenistan of renewing their old friendly ties with the Taliban—arming the group, giving them refuge and providing cover for their local commanders.

An honest assessment would compare whatever support Russia and Iran have given the Taliban, if at all—to the support given the Taliban by our allies Pakistan and the “moderate” regimes in the Gulf—as well as Turkmenistan, the weirdest regime on earth, and one who we won’t say one bad word about because Turkmenistan hasn’t been friendly with Russians since independence. And as we’ve learned once again, for the umpteenth time, the best way to get the human rights poodles from snapping at your ankles is to snap “Russia!” at their owners, and you’ll get the sort of “sanctions relief” extended to Europe’s last dictator Lukashenko.

The real story here may be a broader realignment going on—with the US moving closer to India to counter China as part of Obama’s half-baked “Asia Pivot”—a realignment that’s pushing Pakistan closer to Russia for the first time. But that’s for another blog post. And I doubt that realignment will come any time soon, even if they’re flirting with it around the edges—the ties between the Pakistan military and intelligence with the US and the UK, and the “moderates” in the Gulf, are far too deep.

I’ll end this with an old Siberian punk song, “Afghanskii Syndrome”—it’s a cover version by the great Egor Letov of a song by another Siberian punk band from Tyumen, from 1990, just after the Soviet withdrawal. A rough translation of the final verse:

What’s it mean to lose a war

It means to be ashamed of medals

It means to return to your homeland

Where they shun you like you’re a cattle rustler

What’s it mean to lose a war

It means to learn how to shoot

It means to return and live like a coiled spring

Having grown used to killing with ease

Mark Ames is co-host of the Radio War Nerd podcast with Gary Brecher (aka John Dolan). Subscribe here.

 

 

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Posted: May 7th, 2017

Last week, protesters stormed Macedonia’s parliament injuring over 100 people, among them almost a dozen members of the new ruling parliamentary coalition. The ostensible reason was the naming of an ethnic Albanian in the majority Slavic Eastern Orthodox country—but others had even simpler explanation.

“Macedonia ‘at risk from Russian meddling’”—the Sunday Times screamed, describing the protesters who stormed parliament as “pro-Kremlin thugs.” The Economist blamed the violence on “a party backed by Russia” while the Washington DC think-tank CEPA—funded by the Pentagon and an A-list of military contractors—warned about “Russia’s New Offensive in Macedonia” while on social media, former journalist Maxim Eristavi tweeted,

“Russian fingerprints are all over this dangerous mess in Macedonia. Russia-controlled media are in full hysteria mode inciting ethnic hatred”.

Indeed.

We just did a Radio War Nerd interview with the editor of the Balkanist, Lily Lynch, who’s spent the last several years living in Skopje, the capital of Macedonia, and in neighboring Serbia, and who found this outburst of “Russia did it!” not just wrong, but dangerously stupid.

Local politics anywhere in the world are incredibly messy and complicated and often times just plain stupid-crazy — all the more so in a compressed region like the Balkans— and trying to superimpose a simplistic DC-oriented Cold War narrative, blaming local problems on that dastardly alien villain, Ming The Merciless, is just fake news for respectable people. The real story is messy, granular, more local than you’d care to know, mostly involving Macedonia’s political parties, their constituencies and the meager spoils between them. There is some outside meddling—from Macedonia’s larger neighbors (Greece, Albania, Kosovo, Serbia, Bulgaria) from the EU and the US (which strong-armed the corrupt center-right party VMRO into calling early elections last December). Even George Soros has meddled in Macedonia in the past, though his influence there has waned considerably, just as local hysteria over Soros’ influence has reached fever pitch.

Excerpt from a 1995 New Yorker profile on Soros

The best quick summary of last week’s events, according to a lot of people familiar with the region I talked to, is this piece by Dimitar Bechev—“What Is Happening in Macedonia? It’s not an ethnic conflict, and it’s not Russia’s fault”. As Bechev and Lynch and others tell it, there really isn’t a good guy or a bad guy in this power struggle. It’s more like what the detective says in Zero Effect: “There’s just…a bunch of guys.”

The deeper you dig into the minutiae of Macedonian politics, the harder it is to then retell that story to a foreign audience. Which is one reason why it’s easier for a writer/editor to blame the mess on Putin, or on Soros, or on “ethnic tensions” between the majority Orthodox Slavs and the minority Muslim Albanians. Not only does that simplify the narrative, but it also appeals to built-in audiences—particularly audiences with resources that could be useful for Macedonians in their domestic political struggles. The audience for blaming “Putin” is the EU, NATO, and Washington, whose resources the opposition SDSM party has been leveraging to retake power; the audience for blaming “Soros” includes American neocons and Republicans in Congress, who’ve been backing Macedonia’s corrupt center-right VMRO party. So you have GOP Senators led by Mike Lee and Ted Cruz writing open letters to Tillerson demanding an end to the liberal Soros-State Department plot against Macedonia’s center-right government, because VMRO has convinced some Republicans that Macedonia’s problems are really a proxy war between American liberals and conservatives; and you have others publishing in the Washington DC insider rag, The Hill, warning “GOP Senators, Don’t Side with Russia on Macedonia”—again falsely painting the domestic political fights as an extension of our own.

The point is that these simplified, superimposed framings serve a political lobbying purpose—as well as dumbing down the story to make it easy for dumb-dumbs to read. Sleazy and stupid—that’s how DC likes ’em.

And then there’s always Dana Rohrabacher, the Ur-rightwing hippie from the beaches of Orange County. Rohrabacher’s contribution to this mess came a couple of months ago, when he told an Albanian TV interviewer that Macedonia wasn’t a real country, and that it should be divided up between Albania and Bulgaria—which didn’t go down well in Macedonia. If Rohrabacher put any thought into that comment at all, he was just pandering to his Albanian audience. That’s a big if—considering this is the same guy who once dressed up in drag calling himself “Diana” to visit Sirhan Sirhan in prison, to “solve” Sirhan’s 1968 assassination of RFK.

And yet even this stupid sleazy Rohrabacher story calling for the dismantling of Macedonia couldn’t be reported without somehow pinning it all on Putin. Foreign Policy wrote that of course Rohrabacher would try to destabilize the Balkans—after all he was “once called ‘Putin’s favorite congressman'” [which links to a headline in Politico, the same outlet that still claims Putin offered Poland to carve up Ukraine, a story whose only source, Radislaw Sikorski, retracted it, leading all the other media to issue retractions on the fake news story—except of course Politico]. The Independent just flat-out lied, taking a warning by Lavrov that outside powers were trying to break up Macedonia, which Russia opposes, as an endorsement by Lavrov of that plan:

Mr Rohrabacher’s comments echo a suggestion by Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov. In 2015, he said that “ideas have been floated” about giving the Republic of Macedonia “to Albania, and another part to Bulgaria”.

You can tell by the weird carve-up of Lavrov’s quote that something’s wrong here—and something is wrong. Lavrov was actually arguing that Macedonia was being pressured by its neighbors and the EU to join sanctions against Russia, and being threatened with dissolution if they didn’t obey. This is hardly an endorsement; it’s just crude quote-chopping to fit a pre-ordered New Cold War narrative. But hey, who’s got time to fact-check?

We’re seeing this same superimposed narrative, with Russia as the useful foil, in a lot of places these days. In Albania, opposition protesters have been holding a Maidan-like tent city protest in front of the prime minister’s office since February, demanding fresh elections. A little over a week ago, they vowed to “radicalize” the protests and bring transport to a standstill. So the prime minister, Edi Rama, is doing what a lot of politicians do—turning up the nationalism heat. A couple of weeks ago, Rama warned that Albania would merge with Kosovo, forming the dreaded “Greater Albania,” if EU talks didn’t go their way. Rama also heated up tensions in Macedonia by making sure every Macedonian knew he was exerting some influence over Macedonia’s Albanian political parties. This plays well with Albanian voters, but creates new problems for Rama in Washington and Brussels. So, on point, Albania’s foreign minister flew to Washington late last month warning that Albania was all that stood in the way of the Russian bogeyman.

And then in neighboring Montenegro, going into last October’s elections, the leader of the ruling party since 1991 accused Russia of financing Montenegro’s opposition parties, and then claimed to have busted a plot by Russian and Serbian nationalists to assassinate him. The Pulitzer team at the New York Times has regurgitated this line hook and sinker—the theory being that Russia is trying to destroy Montenegro’s independence and democracy in order to stop it from joining NATO.

Which would perhaps be plausible, but for a few things: First, the Montenegrin leader who claimed he was the target of the Russian assassination plot, Milo Djukanovic, is one of Europe’s leading mafia gangsters, a former Communist Party boss who ruled Montenegro like a Central Asian autocrat since 1991 (he just formally stepped aside for his anointed successor). In 2015, the OCCRP (Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project) named Djukanovic “2015 Man of the Year in Organized Crime” calling him “Europe’s last dictator” who “has built one of the most dedicated kleptocracies and organized crime havens in the world.” Djukanovic was indicted by Italian prosecutors for heading a billion-dollar cigarette smuggling ring with the Italian Mafia, in a crime wave that included numerous assassinations— including of investigative journalists. Ultimately Djukanovic was granted diplomatic immunity—many suspect he worked out a deal with western powers to move Montenegro into NATO in return for immunity. Another problem with this neat framing is that NATO has never been popular in Montenegro. Why? Because NATO bombed Montenegro in 1999, during the Kosovo War. Djukanovic understood what the polls were saying, which is why he refused to hold a popular referendum on the issue. Instead, he and the Montenegrin media beat the “Russia is undermining Montenegrin democracy [sic!]” drum to divide and conquer—and last month, Montenegro’s parliament voted to join NATO, with just under half the parliament members boycotting the vote.

And now DC insiders have figured out how to use this spin on a new front, Afghanistan. This is where the New Cold War framing gets serious. I’ll talk more about that shitshow tomorrow.

Mark Ames is co-host of the Radio War Nerd podcast with Gary Brecher (aka John Dolan). Subscribe here.

 

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Posted: May 5th, 2017

The Guardian just published a piece on Russia’s inequality problem — first and worst in the world, according to a new Credit Suisse report. Funny to see Credit Suisse wringing its hands over Russian inequality, given that bank’s active complicity in designing and profiting off the privatization of Russia in the early-mid 1990s. Shortly before Credit Suisse arrived in Russia, it was the most equal country on the planet; a few years after Credit Suisse arrived and pocketed up to hundreds of millions in profits, Russia was the most unequal country on earth, and it’s pretty much been that way since.

Credit Suisse’s new Russia branch was set up in 1992, and it was led by a young twenty-something American banker named Boris Jordan, the grandson of wealthy White Russian emigres. Jordan was key to the bank’s success, thanks to his cozy relationships with Russia’s neoliberal “young reformers” in charge of privatizing the former Communist country. In the first wave of voucher privatization—when all Russians were issued vouchers which they could then either convert into shares in a newly-privatized company, or sell off—Credit Suisse’s Boris Jordan gobbled up 17 million of Russia’s privatization vouchers, over 10 percent of the total.

Inside connections were the key. While working for Credit Suisse, Jordan advised the Yeltsin government on how to implement Russia’s disastrous voucher privatization scheme. Jordan worked together with the two of the most powerful US-backed Russian free-marketeers: Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar, architect of the shock therapy program that led to the mass impoverishment of tens of millions of Russians; and Anatoly Chubais, architect of Russia’s privatization program, which created Russia’s new billionaire oligarch class. Gaidar’s shock therapy confiscated wealth from the masses; Chubais’ privatization concentrated wealth in a few hands. And Jordan’s Credit Suisse advised, traded off, and profited from this wealth transfer. This was the trio that played a central role in creating the inequality that Credit Suisse is now wringing its hands over. (You can read an interview with Jordan about how he co-advised the voucher implementation in 1992, which is stunning for a lot of reasons— he admits they sped up its implementation of voucher privatization to make sure that Russia’s parliament, i.e. representative democracy, couldn’t interfere with it. Democracy was not something anyone involved in Russia’s privatization in the 1990s gave a shit about.)

The conflicts-of-interest here were so over-the-top, they were almost impossible to wrap your head around: Credit Suisse banker Boris Jordan helped implement the voucher privatization scheme with Russia’s top political figures; and Credit Suisse massively profited off this same privatization scheme. And it was all done with the full backing and support of the US Treasury Department and the IMF.

(Another major beneficiary of Russian privatization vouchers was a murky hedge fund run by the billionaire Chandler brothers. They made a killing snapping up vouchers cheap, converting them into stakes in key Russian industries, and selling their stakes for huge profits. I wrote about them a couple of years ago because one of the Chandler brothers plowed some of his Russia loot into something called the Legatum Institute—a Dubai-based neocon front group that’s been bankrolling the “Russia disinformation panic!” for several years now, issuing report after report after report on the Kremlin disinformation scare by their protege Peter Pomerantsev. You have to let these vulture-capitalist billionaires wet their beaks a little, or they’ll raise an army of human rights activists to regime-change your ass.)

Shock therapy, first implemented in 1992 and not really ended until Russia’s devastating financial crash in 1998, was politically useful in that by confiscating the Russian middle-class’s and lower-class’s savings, it created a massively unequal society. And that alone drove Russia further from its Communist recent past, which was the political goal that justified everything.

In 1994, this same young Credit Suisse banker, Boris Jordan, told Forbes’ Paul Khlebnikov about a scheme he was trying to sell to the Yeltsin regime. It was called “loans-for-shares” and when it was finally adopted at the end of 1995, it resulted in what many considered the single largest plunder of public wealth in recorded history: The crown jewels of Russian industry—oil, gas, natural resources, telecoms, state banks—given away to a tiny group of connected bankers. It was this scheme, first devised by a Credit Suisse banker, that created Russia’s world-famous oligarchy.

The scheme went something like this: The Yeltsin regime announced in late 1995 auctions under which bankers would lend the government money in exchange for “temporary” control over the revenue streams of Russia’s largest and most valuable companies. After a period, the government would “repay” the “loans” and the banks would give the their large stakes back to the government.

In reality, every single “auction” was rigged by the winning bank, which paid next to nothing for its control over an oil company/nickel company/etc. Even the little money paid by this bank was often stolen from the state. That’s because Russia used a handful of private banks as authorized treasury institutions to transfer government salaries and other funds around the country. This allowed the same bankers who were authorized as state treasury banks to keep those funds for themseles rather than distribute them to the teachers, doctors and scientists as salaries—so they did what was in their rational self-interest and kept the money, delaying salary payments for months or even years at a time, while they used the funds for themselves to speculate, or to buy up assets in auctions they rigged for themselves. It was pure libertarian paradise on earth—everything von Hayek and von Mises dreamed of—in practice.

By the time the loans-for-shares was actually put into effect in late 1995, Credit Suisse’s Boris Jordan joined up with an anointed banker-oligarch, Vladimir Potanin, to set up their own investment bank, Renaissance Capital. They raised their first private equity fund, Sputnik Capital—with George Soros and Harvard University as co-investors—and Sputnik Capital went on to take advantage of the loans-for-shares investment opportunities, which had even more help from the fact that Yeltsin made Potanin his Finance Minister in 1996.

This sudden mass wealth transfer from the many to the few had a devastating effect on Russia’s population. Inflation in the first two years of shock therapy and voucher privatization ran at 1,354% in 1992, and 896% in 1993, while real incomes plunged 42% in 1992 alone; real wages in 1995 were half of where they were in 1990 (pensions in 1995 were only a quarter in real terms of where they were in 1990). According to very conservative official Russian statistics, GDP plunged 44% from 1992-1998 — others put the GDP crash even higher, 50% or more. By comparison the Soviet GDP fell 24% during its war with Nazi Germany, and the US’s GDP fell 30% during the Great Depression. So what happened in the 1990s was unprecedented for a major developed country—by the end of the decade and all of the Washington/financial industry-backed reforms, Russia was a basket case, a third-rate country with an even bleaker future. Capital investment had collapsed 85% during that decade—everyone was stripping assets, not investing in them. Domestic food production collapsed to half the levels during perestroika; and by 1999, anywhere from a third to half of Russians relied on food grown in their own gardens to eat. They’d reverted to subsistence farming after a decade of free market medicine.

All of this had a catastrophic effect on Russians’ health and lives. Male Russian life expectancy dropped from 68 years during the late Soviet era, to 56 in the mid-1990s, about where it had been a century earlier under the Tsar. Meanwhile, as births plunged and child poverty and malnutrition soared, Russia’s death-to-birth ratio reached levels not seen in the 20th century. According to Amherst economist David Kotz, over 6 million Russians died prematurely during the US-backed free-market reforms in the 1990s. What’s odd is how little pity or empathy has ever been shown for those Russians who were destroyed by the reforms we backed, advised funded, bribed, coerced, and were accessory to in every way. They weren’t entirely America’s fault; Yeltsin and his US-backed “market bolsheviks” had their own cynical, ideological and political reasons to restructure Russia’s political economy in the most elitist, hierarchical unequal manner possible. But if the US had acted differently, given how much influence the Clinton Administration had with the Yeltsin regime, things could certainly have turned out differently. The point is—they didn’t. The inequality was the surest sign of success. It only became something to wring our hands about later, a soft-power weapon to smack them with, now that we have little to zero influence over Russia.

It’s interesting that our literature is filled with plenty of official empathy for Weimar German victims of that country’s hyperinflation, but nothing of the sort for Russians of the 1990s, who were, it was argued, being ennobled and lifted up by the linear thread of liberal history—they were heading towards the bright market-based future, can’t let a few knocks and scratches distract us! Can’t make an omelet without cracking a few eggs, as the West’s Stalin apologists used to say.

Here, for example, is a typical cheerleader story about the new Russian inequality, published in Businessweek in 1996—a fluff job on Boris Jordan’s Russian backer, Vladimir Potanin. Notice how the headline/subheader make clear that the hero of this narrative is the Russian billionaire, and the villains are the “angry masses” of poor envious Russians:

The Battle for Russia’s Wealth

Can hugely rich new capitalists weather a backlash from the angry masses?

Russia’s answer to J.P. Morgan could not be less like the eccentric, bulbous-nosed original. Vladimir O. Potanin is a shy, athletic man of 35. Holding court in his rosewood-paneled office on Moscow’s Masha Poryvaeva Street, the president of Oneximbank quietly gives instructions to two strapping bodyguards at his door. Cool and controlled, Potanin is a standout in a group of dynamic businessmen who have seized huge slices of the economy.

Which reads a lot like this fluff job in the Los Angeles Times, published around the same time, headlined “Whiz-Kid Banker Named to Russian Cabinet”. Which reads a lot like a Businessweek followup up with even more shameless hagiography, headlined “The Most Powerful Man in Russia”. You can try reading that  last one if you want, but I recommend keeping a vomit bag close by—and a cyanide pill for good measure.

So this is the sordid and depressing backstory to the Credit Suisse report on Russian inequality—the story you definitely won’t and don’t read about in Credit Suisse’s own account. They’re a bank; their reports, while perhaps truthful, are far from The Truth—more like marketing pamphlets than serious scholarship.

Credit Suisse made a killing in Russia in the early-mid 1990s, dominating two-thirds of Russia’s capital markets deals—while tens of millions sank into desperate poverty. That too is inequality.

Jordan himself remained a powerful celebrity-investor through the early Putin era. In 1997, Boris Jordan was caught up in a major scandal surrounding the privatization of the national telecoms concern, Svyazinvest—which was won by a consortium that included Soros, Harvard, and a bank owned by Finance Minister Potanin and his partner, Mikhail Prokhorov, who today owns the Brooklyn Nets. The scandal was this: The government official in charge of auctioning off the telecoms to Soros-Harvard-Potanin-Jordan consortium, Alfred Kokh, had been given a shady $100,000 book advance by a shady Swiss company connected to Potanin’s bank. The book had not been written; the advance was unusually high; and the Swiss “publisher” which had never published a book before was itself incorporated and led by none other than Boris Jordan’s cousin, Tikhon Troyanos.

The revelations led to scandals, and Yeltsin was forced to fire his privatization chief Alfred Kokh, along with a handful of other corrupt US-backed “young reformers” caught getting paid on the eve of a rigged auction.

But what did it really matter? What really mattered to everyone who matters was the political structure of Russia’s economy. No longer egalitarian, no longer a threat to the neoliberal order—it now had the world’s most unequal society, and that was a good thing, because the new elites would identify their interests more with the interests of their Davos counterparts than with the interests of the “backwards” Russian masses, whose fate was their problem, not ours. This is when racist caricatures of the “backwards” Russian masses help—you don’t have to empathize with them, history is sending them to the trash heap of history, not you. The world was safe for business, and that was all the affirmation anyone needed to hear.

At the end of the Yeltsin era, I visited the sprawling suburban Moscow “compound” owned by Potanin and his banking partner, Mikhail Prokhorov, as well as Renaissance Capital—the bank first founded with Boris Jordan in the mid-1990s. It was a huge gated compound with several buildings, a mini-hotel, and a nightclub/concert hall. One of the first things I saw entering the gaming hall building was two familiar-looking men in track suits playing backgammon: Vladimir Potanin, billionaire oligarch; and Alfred Kokh, the fired, disgraced head of Yeltsin’s privatization committee.

The financial crisis of 1998 left Russia’s in complete tatters, and Boris Jordan was never the big shot that he had been before. His real value was providing cover for the new boss Vladimir Putin as he re-centralized power under Kremlin control. The first upstart oligarch that Putin took down was Vladimir Gusinsky. He was briefly jailed and then exiled to Israel. His once-respected opposition TV station, NTV, was “bought” by Gazprom, and Gazprom, needing a western-friendly face for its hostile takeover, hired Boris Jordan as the new general director of the network—and his old partner-in-crime, Alfred Kokh, the disgraced ex-privatization chief, as chairman of NTV’s board. Almost immediately, 25 NTV journalists— half the staff— “resigned”. Jordan’s job was to blunt western criticism of the Kremlin as it destroyed the lone critical voice on Russian television, and two years later, his job done, he moved on.

Today Jordan still runs the Sputnik Fund, such as it is—mostly a web site as far as I can tell. And he is listed as the founder of New York University’s “NYU Jordan Center for the Advance Study of Russia”. He looks like such a minor figure now.

Without any of this context, it’s as though Russia’s extremes of inequality that Credit Suisse just reported on suddenly appeared out of nowhere, as a manifestation of Vladimir Putin’s innate evil. As though nothing preceded him—the 1990s had never happened, and our Establishment has always sincerely cared about how Russians must suffer from inequality and corruption. Erasing history like this has a funny way of making America look exceptionally good, and Russia look exceptionally bad.

Mark Ames is co-host of the Radio War Nerd podcast with Gary Brecher (aka John Dolan). Subscribe here.

Posted: April 26th, 2017

Yesterday I wrote about Nikolai Alekseyev, the very strange and very anti-Semitic Russian gay rights activist who, according to Novaya Gazeta, “provoked” Chechnya’s recent brutal crackdown on gays.

Now he’s suing.

(more…)

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Posted: April 24th, 2017

The current hysteria about Russia ain’t going away, that much is clear. There’s an enormous amount of propaganda, paranoia, fear, and comic lunacy about most of the reporting we’re getting out here. There’re also a lot of locally-generated horror stories coming out of Russia that we’re not receiving here. (more…)

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Posted: April 23rd, 2017

Now that Trump has bombed Syria, everyone from Hillary Clinton to Fareed Zakaria — that is, the American meritocracy — agrees Donald Trump has finally become “presidential.” Trump gets it. He had his “Sputnik Moment.” He Made Washington DC Great Again.

The only question now is: Who is responsible for Trump’s ingenius new war? Who among his closest advisers came up with the novel plan to bomb yet another Muslim country? His heart-broken daughter Ivanka? His beady-eyed son-in-law, Jared Kushner? Carter “I think he’s an idiot” Page? Patton, the family Goldendoodle?

You’re looking in all the wrong places, folks. There’s only one world-famous advisor who gives advice as catastrophically stupid as this: The Great Gazoo. He preys on credulous meat-heads, and offers them the worst, deadliest advice — but with all the snotty confidence of a Bill Kristol:

“Ohhh Donald, you know what would help your tanking ratings? Don’t be a dumb-dumb Donald!”

“Gazoo, where have you been? I need you!”

“Never mind that dumb-dumb Donald, just take my advice and bomb Syria. It’ll be a cinch! You’ll never get sucked into a deeper war there!”

“I won’t?”

“No, dumb-dumb. Don’t bother me again until you’ve launched.”

“Okay Gazoo whatever you say!”

Indeed, the Great Gazoo has been leading world leaders over the cliff throughout the 21st C. Here are a few highlights:

2002:

POOF! “Oh Mister Preeeesident, it’s meeeee, Gazoo. You let Bin Laden get away, dumb-dumb, and now you’ve got a country called Afghanistan that’s of no use. Pretty soon, people are going to start asking questions about 9-11…”

“Boy am I glad to see you, Gazoo. What should I do?”

“If you just listen to me, Mr. President, I can solve your problems.”

“Really? How?”

“It’s not that difficult, dumb-dumb. Invade Iraq. You earthlings are soooo slow.”

“But my dad says invading will be a problem.”

“You’re dad’s an earthling, dumb-dumb. It’ll be a cakewalk. The entire Middle East will become pro-American. I told him that a decade ago but he wouldn’t listen, because he’s a dumb-dumb.”

“I’ll listen to you, Gazoo.”

“I know you will, Georgie. It seems you’re the only earthling who isn’t a dumb-dumb. Now do as I say and invade Iraq.”

“What sort of planning should I do? How many troops should I use, Gazoo?”

“It doesn’t really matter, just have your troops bring lots of vases because the locals will greet them with flowers. Now, about North Korea…”

“I did as you said, Gazoo. I stopped talking to North Korea completely, and pulled everyone out of negotiations.”

“Good, North Korea should be begging to surrender to us in a matter of weeks, not months. Toodle-loo, dumb-dumb!” POOF!

2004…

“Gazoo, where are you? You gotta help me out, this Iraq thing is turning into a disaster!”

POOF! “Don’t be a dumb-dumb, Mr. President! If you’d listened to me and done it right, you wouldn’t be in this mess.”

“But you told me to invade Iraq, Gazoo!”

“Of course I did, dumb-dumb. And everything would have turned out perfectly if only you’d bombed Iran and Syria in the aftermath. Those two are mucking up a perfectly good occupation. Clearly I wasted good advice on a dumb-dumb. Now it’s your mess, not mine.”

“But Gazoo, I can’t invade Iran right now, our forces are overstretched, the Shia in Iraq are in revolt–”

“That’s not my problem, dumb-dumb. I told you to invade Iran, and you didn’t. If you don’t want to listen to me, do so at your own peril, dumb-dumb.”

“No wait, Gazoo, don’t leave me! You gotta help get me outta Iraq!”

“Toodle-loo, dumb-dumb!” POOF!

2006:

POOF! “Oh Ehuuuud Olmert, Mr. Prime Minister? I know how to get rid of the threat on Israel’s northern border. If you just listen to me, I can solve your problems, dumb-dumb.”

“Gazoo, is that you?”

“No, it’s Baal. Of course I’m Gazoo, dumb-dumb.”

“I’m sorry, Gazoo, it’s just.”

“Listen to me and shuttup, dumb-dumb. Now, here’s how to get rid of Hezbollah and win the next elections. Bomb the Shia villages and invade the south of Lebanon with armored columns. It’ll be a breeze, dumb-dumb. They’ll never bother Israel again.”

“Really, Gazoo?”

“Of course, dumb-dumb. You’re the one with the air force and tanks. Use them. Toodle-loo!” POOF!

TWO WEEKS LATER…

“Gazoo! Help me, it’s Ehud! Where are you, Gazoo?”

POOF! “I’m trying to have a bath, dumb-dumb. You earthlings have no manners.”

“But Gazoo, we’ve bombed and bombed and invaded southern Lebanon just like you said, and it’s turning into a military defeat. We’re losing to Hezbollah!”

“Of course you’re losing dumb-dumb, because you didn’t listen to me. Iran is the real problem, so you have to bomb Iran. Do I have to tell you everything, dumb-dumb?”

“But I can’t bomb Iran unless America bombs Iran with me. You said President Bush wouuld bomb Iran if I got in trouble, and they’re not bombing. What happened?”

“He’s a dumb-dumb too, just like his father. Just wait until he finds out that North Korea will set off a nuclear test bomb in a month–of course, if the dumb-dumb listened to me and continued not talking to North Korea, he wouldn’t be in this mess in the first place.”

“But Gazoo, I’m ruined if the war ends in a defeat like this!”

“You’re still here, Ehud? Well look, I can’t help a dumb-dumb who doesn’t listen to me, now can I, dumb-dumb? Call me when you’ve bombed Iran. They wouldn’t dare to retaliate, that’s for certain. Toodle-loo, dumb-dumb!” POOF!

2008:

POOF! “Oh Miiiiiisha, Mr. President of Georgia? Helloooo, it’s me, Gazoo. I know how you can regain South Ossetia and overcome your domestic political problems, if you just listen to me, dumb-dumb.”

“Gazoo? Boy am I glad to see you.”

“I’m sure you are, dumb-dumb. So here’s my plan, if you’re not too much of a dumb-dumb to understand it: invade South Ossetia with the troops that America trained up for you. It’ll be a cinch–the Russians won’t even know what hit them.”

“Really?”

“Yes, really, dumb-dumb. You have Gazoo on your side, and the Russians don’t have Gazoo. Anyone who’s not a dumb-dumb realizes that the side with Gazoo wins.”

“I’m glad I have Gazoo on my side!”

“I see you’re learning, Misha. Maybe you’re not such a dumb-dumb.”

“How will my military victory in South Ossetia solve my political problems, Gazoo?”

“Well, dumb-dumb, you’ll be so popular you won’t need to kill or jail your political opponents anymore, because everyone will support President Saakashvili, war hero!”

“Gazoo, you’re a genius!”

“Tell me something I don’t know, dumb-dumb. Toodle-loo!”

TWO WEEKS LATER…

“Gazoo, help me! Where are you Gazoo??? The Russians destroyed my army, and they’re deep inside Georgian territory!”

POOF! “Do I have to do everything for you, dumb-dumb?”

“But Gazoo, I thought you said that the Russians would never invade after I took South Ossetia.”

“That’s not what I told you, dumb-dumb. I said that Bush would never let Russia invade. Unfortunately, Bush is a dumb-dumb. And even I, the Great Gazoo, am powerless to help a dumb-dumb.”

“What do I do now? I’m ruined!”

“Gazoo has it all worked out. Your friend John McCain is much smarter than the dumb-dumb Bush, and he agrees that it’s time to start a New Cold War with Russia. He understands how easily America will win the New Cold War, unlike dumb-dumb. As soon as McCain is the new president, everything will work out fine. Toodle-loo, dumb-dumb!”

gazoo1

*          *          *

Gazoo’s plan with McCain didn’t quite work out, but that was because McCain was a dumb-dumb. It took some time, but with the election of Donald Trump, Gazoo has finally found another earthling smart enough to take his advice.

How hard can it be to understand that, dumb-dumbs?

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Posted: April 12th, 2017

Roygutman1

This a response to neocon interventionist Roy Gutman’s two-part hit job smearing the leftist Kurdish resistance in Syria, published in The Nation in February (here and here). Since Gutman’s article was published, his own sources accused Gutman of fabricating their quotes and inventing things that never took place. In one case, Syria expert Fabrice Balanche, took to twitter to call out Gutman for fabricating his quote on why 500,000 Kurds fled northern Syria — Balanche says they fled for economic reasons and due to wars, not because they fled the allegedly repressive rule of the leftist YPG:

Gutman’s misquote:

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Balanche responded on Twitter:

Finally, Gutman was forced to retract the quote. But even in something this simple and straight-forward Gutman had a hard time being honest, explaining his fabricated quote as having been “inaccurately compressed”:

I quoted Fabrice Balanche correctly on the numbers who fled, but I inaccurately compressed his estimate into the same sentence as my broader observation. I acknowledge Balanche’s view that most of the refugees fled for economic reasons.

Balanche wasn’t the only one who called out Gutman for fabricating quotes or events.

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John Dolan—aka The War Nerd “Gary Brecher” — sent out a special Radio War Nerd subscriber newsletter to respond to Gutman’s hit pieces. He asked to repost it on eXiled Online, open and free to everyone, so that Gutman can’t escape it and everyone who cares knows Roy Gutman’s sleazy game.

I’ve responded to the article in several Facebook posts, but this is important enough to deserve a more formal response. So here it is.

Gutman’s article is a shoddy, dishonest mess, but it will be effective, because the Nation has a better rep than the author’s usual venue, The Daily Beast. So Gutman’s smear will stick, eroding support for the YPG/J, the one heroic faction in the miserable Syrian War.

Gutman didn’t get a six-month grant to write this just for fun. He’s a serious journalistic hit-man.

When Roy Gutman starts writing attack stories, attack aircraft soon follow.

Of course there have been plenty of hit-pieces on the YPG/J before. (I’ll use “YPG/J” for simplicity here, though the YPG/J is now part of a new alliance called “Syrian Democratic Forces,” or “SDF.”)

Some of these marginal reactions were hilarious, as when American right-wingers, infatuated by photos of the women of the YPJ carrying heavy weapons, volunteered — only to discover that they’d joined up with a bunch of socialists who fought under the red flag.

And among those who fly the red flag themselves, there were the inevitable quibbles — mostly by leaders of “movements” with a two-digit membership, seething with rage at this upstart Kurdish militia for being big, successful, and popular.  This sort of noise is inevitable. War is a nasty business, and often the combat isn’t the nastiest part.

Luckily for the YPG/J, the more sinister elements of the big media were, until now, too busy coming up with stories about atrocities committed by “The Regime” (the Assad government) and its Shia allies to deal with the Syrian Kurds. If you’ve read any Syria stories in The Daily Beast, you’ve seen this kind of atrocity-on-demand reporting, usually bearing the tell-tale byline “Michael Weiss.”

Weiss & co. led the way with reports on the atrocities committed during the “fall” of Aleppo to the Syrian government. If you recall, there were mass rapes,civilians shot on sight, and 250,000 civilians in Eastern Aleppo who would inevitably be slaughtered by “The Regime.”

Except it turned out none of that was true. It was fake news.

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There were not hundreds of thousands of civilians in East Aleppo in the first place, largely because the rule of the chaotic, factionalized jihadi militias was so inept that almost all residents got out as soon as they could. Children were not burned alive. There were no mass rapes. It was all lies, produced by journalists nowhere near Aleppo, swallowing and amplifying the sort of hysterical rumor that inevitably accompanies a big defeat and deploying it for the purposes of their patrons: the deep states of Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and above all the United States — all of whom want regime change in Syria at all costs.

Aleppo “fell”; the stories stopped; no burned children’s bodies were discovered, no mass graves were found other than the ones in which Weiss’s (and RoyGutman‘s) “hero jihadis” buried the prisoners they killed. And of course, apologies were not forthcoming. Weiss & co. are not the sort of people to waste time in vain regret, they moved on to the next front in the propaganda war: slandering the YPG/J. The Turkish state was getting more worried about the Syrian Kurds than “The Regime.” Assad’s Alawites are no threat to Turkey, but the YPG/J, with its strong links to the Turkish-Kurdish PKK militia, could become a real problem.

Enter Roy Gutman. He was doing Weiss’s kind of journalism while Weiss was still checking out Barney for possible war crimes. Gutman won the Pulitzer Prize in 1993 for a series of stories on Serbian “atrocities.” Interestingly, both of the 1993 winners of the “International Reporting” Pulitzer won for stories on Serb “atrocities” that turned out to be, at the very least, exaggerated:

“International Reporting:
Roy Gutman of Newsday, Long Island, NY
For his courageous and persistent reporting that disclosed atrocities and other human rights violations in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.”

The stories paid off in the US-led air war against Serbia in 1999 — in that sense they were very successful. They were not, however, especially accurate. The New York Times’ Balkan correspondent, David Binder, wrote that,

“…Gutman’s stories [on the Balkan War], far from representing on-the-scene reporting, were based on scantily identified sources who never surfaced as real people” and that one of Gutman’s key sources “turned out to be using five different aliases.”

Binder sums up Gutman’s work with Orwell’s phrase “Once a whore, always a whore.” So naturally The Daily Beast thus found Gutman the perfect co-author for Weiss for its endless flow of hit-pieces on Syria. When the Beast told its readers that the Syrian Army was committing mass rapes in Aleppo, Gutman and Weiss shared the byline.

When the Turkish state wanted the Kurds softened up in advance of an attack on Rojava (the de facto Kurdish state in Northern Syria), it turned to Gutman, now based in Istanbul.

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And Gutman came through in his classic style. Let’s have a look at what he managed to do with his assignment: maligning the YPG/J for The Nation.

The first part has a real grabber of a title, using the time-honored ask-a-question method: “Have the Syrian Kurds Committed War Crimes?”

Gutman concludes, inevitably, that indeed they have. Never mind which crimes; most people will simply pass the headline around on social media. You know how it works. I know, everybody knows: somebody sends you the headline, you get the point, you don’t bother reading the story. So, thanks to Gutman and the editors at The Nation, thousands of naive Twitter and Facebook users will draw the easy, lazy conclusion that the Syrian Kurds are just as dirty as Islamic State, Jabhat Fateh-ash-Sham, or any of the other factions in the Syrian war. They’re all the same, right?

Wrong. If you actually get past Gutman’s headline, his evidence for “war crimes” committed by the Syrian Kurds is remarkably feeble. Given what might be called the ambient level of horror in this war, what’s striking is Gutman can’t even accuse the Kurds of the sort of crimes that have become commonplace among other militias. Have they slaughtered civilians for speaking the wrong language? No. Have they said, as the leaders of most of the Sunni militias have done, that everyone must accept their creed, leave, or die? No.

Gutman’s main claim is that the YPG/J has expelled villagers from their houses and even demolished or burned those houses. That’s possible, though people I know who are serving with the YPG/J deny it. And in the Syrian context, where massacre videos have become old news, mere expulsion and property damage hardly register as “war crimes” at all.

Let’s suppose that, for once, Gutman’s sources are telling the truth. Why would the Kurdish militia expel people or burn their houses? Irregular war is not Gettysburg. When an irregular force occupies a village or town dominated by hostile factions, it has limited options. Faced by harassment sniping or collusion with the former rulers among inhabitants, the irregular force can, and usually does, simply kill those it suspects. The YPG/J doesn’t do that, as even Gutmanimplicitly admits.

So, faced with implacable ethnic or sectarian enmity — in practice, refusal to accept “atheist” YPG/J occupation among devout Sunni Arabs — the Kurds may (or may not) have expelled suspects from occupied villages. That may not be Geneva Rules, but by the standards of irregular war, let alone the standards of Syria over the last four years, it’s the mildest reaction possible.

Gutman also claims that the YPG/J has colluded with the Assad regime to divide up parts of the country, notably Hasakah. Very possible. Again, standard multi-faction war behavior. And very sensible, too, since until recently there was a little problem in that part of Syria called Islamic State that called for collusion, a damned sight more collusion than actually occurred.

Gutman implies that this collusion proves that the YPG/J is a creature of the Assad regime. This is nonsense. The guy needs to watch Game of Thrones, even if he can’t do any more serious historical research in the pattern of endless treachery which defines these wars. Actually, Assad’s “Regime” hates the YPG/J. Assad’s defenders on social media never fail to sneer at the YPG/J’s good reputation, and call people like me “Rojava-heads” while vowing to reconquer every inch of Syria. That vow is addressed to Syria’s Kurds, and is an existential threat (as they say) to Rojava. Any collusion between Assad and the YPG/J was a classic alliance of convenience, as local observers have always realized.

Gutman‘s claims all depend on pretending that irregular war is inherently evil, that there are no rules governing unconventional war. If the YPG/J’s tactics are illegitimate, you’re delegitimizing all irregular war. You’re describing tactics practiced by every irregular leader from Collins to Mandela. You have not found evidence of actions that are considered atrocities by legitimate irregular groups: enslavement, sectarian murder, forced conversion, massacre of prisoners.

That last one, “massacre of prisoners,” is the most significant. If you know irregular war, you know that groups can’t afford to keep POWs in nice neat camps. So most of the time, they try to trade them, or kill them outright. Killing of prisoners has been documented among many groups in the Syrian War.

There’s no evidence, no claim even by Gutman that it’s been carried out by the YPG/J.

To decry the tactics of irregular militias by way of advocating high-tech bombing campaigns is Gutman’s standard MO. It’s also a particularly vile, though lucrative, form of hypocrisy.

Oddly, Gutman takes on the YPG/J’s greatest moment, Kobane — a purely conventional battle where no civilians were involved and where the Syrian Kurdish militia behaved heroically.

But look what that struggle becomes in his hands:

“In late 2014, when ISIS attacked Kobani, drawing US air strikes that killed as many as 2,000 ISIS fighters….[a]ccording to former residents, the YPG abandoned the outskirts of Kobani to ISIS without a fight, ordering residents to leave the villages they were eager to defend.”

Even by Gutman‘s very low standards, this is appalling. He accuses the YPG/J of abandoning outlying villages — a “war crime”, apparently.

Remember the siege of Kobane? Remember the situation in Syria in the winter of 2014-15?

IS was advancing on the little Kurdish border town of Kobane with a huge force, complete with all the heavy weaponry it had inherited from the collapse of the US-funded Iraqi Army. YPG/J was holding out — outnumbered, outgunned by IS, which was coming off a string of remarkable victories and considered unstoppable. After all, the much bigger, better-armed Iraqi Army had just abandoned half of Iraq to a few hundred IS troops.

And now they were closing in on Kobane. Erdogan, whose spies were helping IS, gloated in October 2014 that “Kobane is about to fall.” No one doubted him.

As the huge IS force closed in on the town, YPG/J commanders withdrew to the city, and ordered locals to pull back with them. They told civilians to flee across the border, but they themselves set up defensive positions in the town and prepared to die fighting.

They did die, in huge numbers. Estimates vary, but at least 2,000 women and men of the YPG/J were killed in that battle. But they held on. They held Kobane against that formerly unstoppable IS force, and with US air support killed thousands of those slave-dealing sectarian IS fighters. IS was never the same “unstoppable” force after its defeat in Kobane. (And Turkey began to be concerned about this annoyingly undefeated Kurdish militia on its southern border which had failed to collapse on schedule.)

A great moment, one of the few truly heroic moments in our era. But not for Roy Gutman. Hey, that’s not his assignment. Gutman dismisses the Siege of Kobane with a single paragraph implying that ordering an outnumbered defending force to pull back into a central urban position, against the wishes of “former residents” of those “outlying villages,” is in some way blameworthy. Withdrawing to a central, defensible position is the obvious tactic for an outnumbered defensive force. Oh, and in passing he slanders the thousands of Syrian Kurds killed in the battle with the outright lie that it was the “US air strikes” alone that killed IS attackers, as if the defenders of Kobane somehow failed to inflict a single casualty on IS in the entire long siege.

Gutman’s lack of conscience actually frightens me a little. You’d think he’d avoid talking about the Syrian Kurds’ most heroic moments, like Kobane. Au contraire! In the second part of his Nation piece, snidely titled “America’s Favorite Syrian Militia Rules with an Iron Fist,” he takes on another of the Syrian Kurds’ most heroic actions, the liberation of Sinjar.

Again, it helps if you actually know a little about the context, because Gutman and his editors are hoping you don’t. Sinjar is a town in northwestern Iraq inhabited mostly by the Yezidi, a minority religious sect. IS overran the area in the Summer of 2014. The people of Sinjar were expecting to be protected by the peshmerga militia of the KRG (Kurdistan Regional Government) of northern Iraq. For reasons still not clear, the peshmerga fled and left the Yezidi defenseless (rumor has it that this involves PUK/KDP rivalry within the KRG.)

Islamic State zoomed into Sinjar unopposed. And then, because the Yezidi were “kaffir,” “unbelievers,” Islamic State murdered thousands of civilians, saving only young women. They kept the young Yezidi women and girls alive so they could be sold as sex slaves. Even now, Yezidi women are sold as sex slaves. This is not a wild rumor, unlike Gutman’s tales. Islamic State not only admits the massacre and enslavement, they boasted about it in an article, “The Revival of Slavery before the Hour,” in their glossy magazine, Dabiq.

The fall of Sinjar was one of the worst war crimes — real war crimes — in recent history. And it remained unavenged until the Syrian and Turkish Kurds of the YPG/J and PKK freed the area.

Now, let’s have a look at that horrific story as reported for The Nation by Roy Gutman:

“Turkey is not the only US ally at odds with the YPG. Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government in late December threatened to use force if the PKK didn’t withdraw from Sinjar in northern Iraq, which the KRG insists is in its security sphere. (The PKK had moved into Sinjar in 2014 to fight off an ISIS attack against the Yazidi population there.)”

Did you catch that? For Gutman, the liberation of the Yezidi survivors proves only one thing: The YPG and PKK are troublemakers, unpopular not only with Turkey but the KRG which had abandoned the Yezidi to their fate. He gives one sentence—in parentheses, yet! — to the cause which brought these interlopers to Iraq: “..to fight off an ISIS attack against the Yazidi population there.” Yes, Roy, there was a bit of an attack. A bit of a genocide, in fact, but never mind — it’s not going to help your case, so never mind.

You can see Gutman’s core agenda in this disgusting passage. Gutman’s patron is the Turkish state, and its quarrel with the YPG/J is that it’s too closely associated with the Turkish-Kurdish militia, the PKK. The Turkish military/intelligence state fears that a de facto Kurdish state in Rojava will serve as a cross-border sanctuary for PKK fighters within Turkey.

Months before Gutman’s Nation article appeared, Erdogan’s favorite newspaper, The Daily Sabah — the Fox News of Turkey — published an article accusing the YPG/J of being a tool of the PKK. It would have made (may have made, for that matter) an excellent first draft for Gutman’s piece.

So, if the PKK rather than the YPG/J itself is the real villain of Gutman’s piece, what can we say about the PKK? Gutman makes three points about them:

1. The PKK is listed by some countries as a terrorist group.
2. The PKK is funded by Iran.
3. The PKK and YPG/J are really the same organization.

The third claim, that the YPG/J and PKK are basically the same group, is roughly true. “Roughly” because the history of insurgent groups is full of factional splits among groups that were once united. For the moment, at least, it seems that the YPG/J and PKK share leadership.

And the proper response to this is, “So what?” Which brings us to the big question, the one that Gutmanwill never ask: Why is there a PKK in the first place?Why are Turkey’s Kurds, who make up about a quarter of the country’s population, so angry that they’re willing to undergo the horrors of irregular war against a powerful, ruthless security state, in order to win autonomy?

The treatment of Turkey’s Kurds is an appalling story. Modern Turkey was founded as a mono-ethnic state. Everyone inside it was a Turk. Those who were not (Greeks, Armenians) were killed or expelled. Those remaining inside its borders were Turks — by law:

“A 1924 mandate forbade Kurdish schools, organizations and publications. Even the words ‘Kurd’ and ‘Kurdistan’ were outlawed, making any written or spoken acknowledgement of their existence illegal…[B]etween 1925 and 1939, 1.5 million Kurds, a third of the population, were deported and massacred.

“In 1930 the Turkish Minister of Justice declared, ‘I won’t hide my feelings. The Turk is the only lord, the only master of this country. Those who are not of pure Turkish origin will have only one right in Turkey: the right to be servants and slaves.'”

The Turkish state’s hatred for Kurds has been a constant of modern Turkish history. I’ve talked to ethnic Turks who grew up in the Southeast, watching Kurdish kids’ bodies dragged behind M113s. This mistreatment intensified when a Kurdish-oriented political party, HDP, played a role in Erdogan’s only election setback in 2015.

Since that loss, Erdogan’s AKP party has unleashed the state security apparatus on anyone connected with the HDP or any other Kurdish-oriented politics. The co-mayors of Diyarbakir, the biggest Kurdish city in Turkey, have both been arrested, as have thousands of Turkish Kurds suspected of any link to Kurdish activism. So the next time somebody tells you the PKK “engages in violence, why don’t they try peaceful political means?” — ask them to tell you how many peaceful HDP activists are now in Turkish prisons, where torture is SOP.

Remember, Gutman is a journalist based in Istanbul. He must be familiar with this information. It’s not exactly obscure. But you won’t hear about any reasons for Kurdish discontent in Turkey in his PKK-bashing.

As for Gutman’s second point, the PKK’s “terrorist group” designation — it depends on who you ask. The PKK is an irregular militia, or “guerrilla” organization (which for Gutman means it’s automatically in the wrong, since he fails to recognize any rules operating in irregular war) — but the PKK is actually rigorous in trying to avoid random civilian casualties. This can be demonstrated very simply if you go through the record of bombing attacks in Turkish cities. When they target random civilians, even Turkish authorities know they can safely be attributed to Islamist militias. When they are aimed at Turkish police or soldiers, they are inevitably the work of the PKK.

So which countries say the PKK is a “terrorist” group? Turkey, as you might expect. And NATO, because Turkey is a huge part of NATO’s military power. And the US, which has nuclear weapons stored on Turkish bases. All of which proves nothing. Other groups not dependent on Turkish military support refused to classify the PKK as a terrorist group. The UN does not consider it “terrorist.”

Even the tame US media gets a little confused about why the PKK must be called a terrorist group, as in the Washington Post’s headline: “A US-Designated Terrorist Group Is Saving Yazidis and Battling Islamic State” — one of those headlines that seem to have in implied “WTF!?” in invisible ink at the end.

As for Gutman’s claim that the PKK is funded by Iran, it’s impossible to verify or refute with any certainty. If you were running the Iranian state, you might have an interest in funding insurgent groups which could be employed against troublesome neighboring states (and then betrayed to their security forces when relations improved). That sort of Byzantine treachery has been the Kurds’ fate for decades, and no doubt Iran is playing some murky role in the process even now. But again — so what? Why is “Iranian involvement” somehow prima facie evidence of innate evil, when blatant interference in Middle Eastern wars by other states — the US, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Israel, Qatar, Britain — is taken as natural or even beneficent? Iran is a regional power with its own Kurdish population (which it generally treats better than Turkey has treated its Kurds); as such, it may dabble in Kurdish insurgency. One good way for Turkey to stop that would be to end the reason for the PKK insurgency in the first place: by ending the Turkish state’s monstrous oppression of its Kurdish population.

In short, Gutman’s two-part article is a shockingly dishonest, sleazy and incompetent performance. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see it in the pages of The Daily Beast; they have made it very clear they have no standards in reporting on Syria. The surprise is that it appeared in the pages of The Nation. You expect a little more out of them.

Or at least I did. My mistake. Turns out that some editors there have the same dreary Manhattan-Leftist envy and hatred for a victorious, non-sectarian socialist militia as every other dismal basement Trotsky.

John Dolan (aka “Gary Brecher”) co-hosts the Radio War Nerd podcast with Mark Ames. Subscribe today!

 

 

 

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Posted: March 10th, 2017