Friday, September 27, 2013

Ernest Hemmingway Newly published short story from 1924

My Life in the Bull Ring with Donald Ogden Stewart A short story by Ernest Hemingway I had often encountered Stewart in the bull ring before but I had paid no particular attention to him. He seemed one of that type of Americans one encounters only too frequently in continental watering places. The first remark Stewart ever addressed to me was in the Plaza de Toros at Pamplona. "Watch out," Stewart said. "That bull is mad." As I had once known rather well the wife of the American ambassador to Spain when she was on an European tour I knew a little of Americanisims and naturally supposed the fellow meant that the bull was angry. "It's nothing unusual in these circumstances," I said, selecting a brace of banderillas. "The hell it isn't," said Stewart. This was a bit too much even from an American so I did not reply but merely waved my peons back and prepared to incite the bull to the banderillas. But as I prepared to incite the quadruped I noticed an unusual thing. The bull's eyes were fixed on Stewart. I turned to Stewart and said in what I trust was a polite tone, "I say old chap. Do be a good fellow and just step back of that barrier." "I tell you that bull's mad," Stewart shouted. By this time the crowd was taking a hand in affairs and commenced to shout encouragement at Stewart and hurl insults at myself. "We want Don Stewart!" was the burden of their shouting and I soon saw that they had confused his first name with a Spanish title and taking Stewart for a fellow countryman were attempting to make a national hero of him. "Give us Don!" a large red faced fellow was shouting almost into my ear. "Give us our money back!" others cried. "Give us our money back and give us Don!" the red faced chap combined the two shouts. "We want Don Stewart," a section of the arena filled with young roughs commenced shouting. "I say!" a gigantic Spaniard with earrings waving an automatic pistol bellowed above the uproar. "I say. Give us Don Stewart." Just then someone hurled a ripe tomato that struck me full in the face. That was hardly cricket and I turned on the crowd. I raised my hand for silence and the crowd were stilled. I saw that I still retained my old popularity and as I cleared the tomato from my eyes with a handkerchief the Queen Mother had given me I determined to teach the fickle crowd their lesson. "Hombres," I said. "Mujeres, Bambinos," employing the Castilian dialect, "I am through." It took rather more than a quarter of an hour to say this in Castilian but I was well repaid by the roar of applause that went up as I finished. "Don Stewart, Don Stewart, Don Stewart," the young roughs were chanting. The large Spaniard in the seats just behind me seemed in the grip of some blood lust. "Don," he muttered. "Don." Then gripping the railings and his face purpling until I was quite distressed at the sight. "He kills them! He eats them alive!" I turned, bowed at the crowd with the best grace I could muster and handed my sword and muleta to Stewart. Stewart accepted them with a muttered word of thanks. He turned from me with a quick firm handclasp and addressed the crowd. "Hombres! Femini! Piccoli!" he began, employing my own native Andalucian. "Is there a doctor in the house?" A rather seedy individual detached himself from a group of what were obviously medical students and rose to his feet. "I said a doctor," Stewart said in a harsh voice. The fellow sat down. "I thought you said a dentist," he muttered. "Is there no doctor in the house?" Stewart called. "Nada. Nada," the populace shouted. "There was a doctor but he is drunk." "Thank God," Stewart muttered to me in a quick aside. "I am a Christian Scientist." I commenced to like the fellow. Pulling his bowler hat, no, now I recollect it was a cap, Stewart never wore his bowler into the ring, down over his eyes Stewart again addressed the crowd. "I swear to you that I will kill this bull or that he will kill me," he pronounced the oath in the Old Castilian. There was a rustle of applause for his choice of dialects. Stewart turned and cast his sword and muleta into the audience. A deathlike hush fell. "He's going to kill him with his bare hands," someone cried. In back of me the Spaniard with the blood lust rocked back and forth. "He kills them," he moaned. "He eats them alive." Stewart grasped me by the hand. "Will you stand by me Hemingway?" he asked. I looked into his clear gray eyes. "To the death," I said. Stewart jumped sharply to one side. "Don't mention that word," he said. Stewart strode toward the bull and as the bull charged Stewart charged. I had never seen anything like it since the death of Gallito. There was a confused moment that I find it difficult now to reconstruct and I only remember Stewart and the bull tossing each other round and round the ring. Then it was over and Stewart stood clear to let the bull fall. He had killed him with his naked hands. Poor fellow he was a dreadful sight. His ribs stuck out like the bones of an old corset. He was holding his pancreas with his left hand. As I reached him a small boy who had raced from the barrier stooped down in the sand and picked up something. He handed it to Stewart who hurriedly tucked it into place. It was his duodenum. "You'd better wash that," I urged him. "It doesn't matter," Stewart said, and fainted. When he regained consciousness we were surrounded by a crowd. They were trying to cut souvenirs from his clothing. Already a lively traffic in these was springing up all over the Arena. Stewart made a sign to me. I bent close. He whispered in my ear. "Tell them what I did to Philadelphia Jack O'Brien," he whispered hoarsely. I did not know the gentleman in question. But I had seen Stewart in action with that mad bull. Perhaps I let my imagination run a little. But holding Stewart in my arms I told them. In my best Old Castilian which I had reserved for the occasion of my son's twenty first birthday I told them. Stewart only opened his eyes once while I was speaking. "You tell 'em, kid," he said. "You tell 'em." Happily the poor fellow recovered. Written in 1924 Further details:

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Nation Digital Public Library for USA / worldwide

The National Digital Public Library Is Launched!
Robert Darnton

New York Review of Books, April 25 2013

The Digital Public Library of America, to be launched on April 18, is a project to make the holdings of America’s research libraries, archives, and museums available to all Americans—and eventually to everyone in the world—online and free of charge. How is that possible? In order to answer that question, I would like to describe the first steps and immediate future of the DPLA. But before going into detail, I think it important to stand back and take a broad view of how such an ambitious undertaking fits into the development of what we commonly call an information society.

Speaking broadly, the DPLA represents the confluence of two currents that have shaped American civilization: utopianism and pragmatism. The utopian tendency marked the Republic at its birth, for the United States was produced by a revolution, and revolutions release utopian energy—that is, the conviction that the way things are is not the way they have to be. When things fall apart, violently and by collective action, they create the possibility of putting them back together in a new manner, according to higher principles.

The American revolutionaries drew their inspiration from the Enlightenment—and from other sources, too, including unorthodox varieties of religious experience and bloody-minded convictions about their birthright as free-born Englishmen. Take these ingredients, mix well, and you get the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights—radical assertions of principle that would never make it through Congress today.

Yet the revolutionaries were practical men who had a job to do. When the Articles of Confederation proved inadequate to get it done, they set out to build a more perfect union and began again with a Constitution designed to empower an effective state while at the same time keeping it in check. Checks and balances, the Federalist Papers, sharp elbows in a scramble for wealth and power, never mind about slavery and slave wages. The founders were tough and tough-minded.
How do these two tendencies converge in the Digital Public Library of America? For all its futuristic technology, the DPLA harkens back to the eighteenth century. What could be more utopian than a project to make the cultural heritage of humanity available to all humans? What could be more pragmatic than the designing of a system to link up millions of megabytes and deliver them to readers in the form of easily accessible texts?
Above all, the DPLA expresses an Enlightenment faith in the power of communication. Jefferson and Franklin—the champion of the Library of Congress and the printer turned philosopher-statesman—shared a profound belief that the health of the Republic depended on the free flow of ideas. They knew that the diffusion of ideas depended on the printing press. Yet the technology of printing had hardly changed since the time of Gutenberg, and it was not powerful enough to spread the word throughout a society with a low rate of literacy and a high degree of poverty.

Thanks to the Internet and a pervasive if imperfect system of education, we now can realize the dream of Jefferson and Franklin. We have the technological and economic resources to make all the collections of all our libraries accessible to all our fellow citizens—and to everyone everywhere with access to the World Wide Web. That is the mission of the DPLA.

Put so boldly, it sounds too grand. We can easily get carried away by utopian rhetoric about the library of libraries, the mother of all libraries, the modern Library of Alexandria. To build the DPLA, we must tap the can-do, hands-on, workaday pragmatism of the American tradition. Here I will describe what the DPLA is, what it will offer to the American public at the time of its launch, and what it will become in the near future.
How to think of it? Not as a great edifice topped with a dome and standing on a gigantic database. The DPLA will be a distributed system of electronic content that will make the holdings of public and research libraries, archives, museums, and historical societies available, effortlessly and free of charge, to readers located at every connecting point of the Web. To make it work, we must think big and begin small. At first, the DPLA’s offering will be limited to a rich variety of collections—books, manuscripts, and works of art—that have already been digitized in cultural institutions throughout the country. Around this core it will grow, gradually accumulating material of all kinds until it will function as a national digital library.
The trajectory of its development can be understood from the history of its origin—and it does have a history, although it is not yet three years old. It germinated from a conference held at Harvard on October 1, 2010, a small affair involving forty persons, most of them heads of foundations and libraries. In a letter of invitation, I included a one-page memo about the basic idea: “to make the bulk of world literature available to all citizens free of charge” by creating “a grand coalition of foundations and research libraries.” In retrospect, that sounds suspiciously utopian, but everyone at the meeting agreed that the job was worth doing and that we could get it done.
We also agreed on a short description of it, which by now has become a mission statement. The DPLA, we resolved, would be “an open, distributed network of comprehensive online resources that would draw on the nation’s living heritage from libraries, universities, archives, and museums in order to educate, inform, and empower everyone in the current and future generations.”

Sounds good, you might say, but wasn’t Google already providing this service? True, Google set out bravely to digitize all the books in the world, and it managed to create a gigantic database, which at last count includes 30 million volumes. But along the way it collided with copyright laws and a hostile suit by copyright holders. Google tried to win over the litigants by inviting them to become partners in an even larger project. They agreed on a settlement, which transformed Google’s original enterprise, a search service that would display only short snippets of the books, into a commercial library. By purchasing subscriptions, research libraries would gain access to Google’s database—that is, to digitized copies of the books that they had already provided to Google free of charge and that they now could make available to their readers at a price to be set by Google and its new partners. To some of us, Google Book Search looked like a new monopoly of access to knowledge. To the Southern Federal District Court of New York, it was riddled with so many unacceptable provisions that it could not stand up in law.

After the court’s decision on March 23, 2011, to reject the settlement,Google’s digital library was effectively dead, although Google can continue to use its database for other purposes, such as agreements with publishers to provide digital copies of their books to customers. The DPLA was not designed to replace Google Book Search; in fact, the designing had begun long before the court’s decision. But the DPLA took inspiration from Google’s bold attempt to digitize entire libraries, and it still hopes to win Google over as an ally in working for the public good. Nonetheless, you might raise another objection: Who authorized this self-appointed group to undertake such an enterprise in the first place?

Answer: no one. We believed that it required private initiative and that it would never get off the ground if we waited for the government to act. Therefore, we appointed a steering committee, a secretariat located in the Berkman Center at Harvard, and six groups scattered around the country, which began to study and debate key issues: governance, finance, technological infrastructure, copyright, the scope and content of the collections, and the audience to be envisioned.

The groups grew and developed a momentum of their own, drawing on voluntary labor; crowdsourcing (the practice of appealing for contributions to an undefined group, usually an online community, as in the case of Wikipedia); and discussion through websites, listservs, open meetings, and highly focused workshops. Hundreds of people became actively involved, and thousands more participated through an endless, noisy debate conducted on the Internet. Plenary meetings in Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and Chicago drew large crowds and a much larger virtual audience, thanks to texting, tweeting, streaming, and other electronic connections. There gradually emerged a sense of community, twenty-first-century style—open, inchoate, virtual, yet real, because held together as a body by an electronic nervous system built into the Web.

This virtual and real discussion took place while groups got down to work. Forty volunteers submitted “betas”—prototypes of the software that the DPLA might use, which were then to be subjected to “beta testing,” a user-based form of review. After several rounds of testing and reworking, a platform was developed that will provide links to content from library collections throughout the country and that will aggregate their metadata—i.e., catalog-type information that identifies digital files and describes their content. The metadata will be aggregated in a repository located in what the designers call the “back end” of the platform, while an application programming interface (API) in the “front end” will make it possible for all kinds of software to transmit content in diverse ways to individual users.
The user-friendly interface will therefore enable any reader—say, a high school student in the Bronx—to consult works that used to be stored on inaccessible shelves or locked up in treasure rooms—say, pamphlets in the Huntington Library of Los Angeles about nullification and secession in the antebellum South. Readers will simply consult the DPLA through its URL, They will then be able to search records by entering a title or the name of an author, and they will be connected through the DPLA’s site to the book or other digital object at its home institution. The illustration on page 4 shows what will appear on the user’s screen, although it is just a trial mock-up.

Meanwhile, several of the country’s greatest libraries and museums—among them Harvard, the New York Public Library, and the Smithsonian—are prepared to make a selection of their collections available to the public through the DPLA. Those works will be accessible to everyone online at the launch on April 18, but they are only the beginning of aggregated offerings that will grow organically as far as the budget and copyright laws permit.
Of course, growth must be sustainable. But the greatest foundations in the country have expressed sympathy for the project. Several of them—the Sloan, Arcadia, Knight, and Soros foundations in addition to the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Institute of Museum and Library Services—have financed the first three years of the DPLA’s existence. If a dozen foundations combined forces, allotting a set amount from each to an annual budget, they could create the digital equivalent of the Library of Congress within a decade. And the sponsors naturally hope that the Library of Congress also will participate in the DPLA.

The main impediment to the DPLA’s growth is legal, not financial. Copyright laws could exclude everything published after 1964, most works published after 1923, and some that go back as far as 1873. Court cases during the last few months have opened up the possibility that the fair use provision of the copyright act of 1976 could be extended to make more recent books available for certain purposes, such as service to the visually impaired and some forms of teaching. And if, as expected, the DPLA excludes books that are still selling on the market (most exhaust their commercial viability within a few years), authors and publishers might grant the exercise of their rights to the DPLA.

In any case, we cannot wait for courts to untangle legalities before creating an effective administration. The informal secretariat at Harvard is being replaced by a nonprofit corporation organized according to the 501(c)3 provisions of the tax code. The steering committee has been succeeded by a board of directors. And the six groups will evolve into a committee system with carefully defined functions, such as outreach to public libraries and community colleges. The choice of an executive director, Daniel Cohen, a superb historian and Internet expert from George Mason University, was announced on March 5; the first staff members have already been hired; and administrative headquarters are being set up in Boston.

Those first steps will not lead to the creation of a top-heavy bureaucracy. On the contrary, the “distributed” character of the DPLA means that its operations will be spread across the country. Its growing collection of metadata (Harvard has already made available 12 million openly accessible metadata records) will be stored in computer clouds, and its activities will be funneled through two kinds of “hubs.”

The DPLA’s “content hubs” are large repositories of digital material, usually held in physical locations like the Internet Archive in San Francisco. They will make their data accessible to users directly through the DPLA without passing through any intermediate aggregators. “Service hubs”—centers for collecting material—will aggregate data and provide various services at the state or regional level. The DPLA cannot deal directly with all the libraries, archives, and museums in the United States, because that would require its central administration to become involved in developing hundreds of thousands of interfaces and links. But development among local institutions is now being coordinated at the state level, and the DPLA will work with the states to create an integrated system for the entire country.

Forty states have digital libraries, and the DPLA’s service hubs—seven are already being developed in different parts of the country—will contribute the data those digital libraries have already collected to the national network. Among other activities, these service hubs will help local libraries and historical societies to scan, curate, and preserve local materials—Civil War mementos, high school yearbooks, family correspondence, anything that they have in their collections or that their constituents want to fetch from trunks and attics. As it develops, digital empowerment at the grassroots level will reinforce the building of an integrated collection at the national level, and the national collection will be linked with those of other countries.

The DPLA has designed its infrastructure to be interoperable with that of Europeana, a super aggregator sponsored by the European Union, which coordinates linkages among the collections of twenty-seven European countries. Within a generation, there should be a worldwide network that will bring nearly all the holdings of all libraries and museums within the range of nearly everyone on the globe. To provide a glimpse into this future, Europeana and the DPLA have produced a joint digital exhibition about immigration from Europe to the US, which will be accessible online at the time of the April 18 launch.

Of course, expansion, at the local or global level, depends on the ability of libraries and other institutions to develop their own digital databases—a long-term, uneven process that requires infusions of money and energy. As it takes place, great stockpiles of digital riches will grow up in locations scattered across the map. Many already exist, because the largest research libraries have already digitized enormous sections of their collections, and they will become content hubs in themselves.

For example, in serving as a hub, Harvard plans to make available to the DPLA by the time of its launch 243 medieval manuscripts; 5,741 rare Latin American pamphlets; 3,628 daguerreotypes, along with the first photographs of the moon and of African-born slaves; 502 chapbooks and “penny dreadfuls” about sensational crimes, a popular genre of literature in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; and 420 trial narratives from cases involving marriage and sexuality. Harvard expects to provide a great deal more in the following months, notably in fields such as music, cartography, zoology, and colonial history. Other libraries, archives, and museums will contribute still more material from their collections. The total number of items available in all formats on April 18 will be between two and three million.

How will such material be put to use? I would like to end with a final example. About 14 million students are struggling to get an education in community colleges—at least as many as those enrolled in all the country’s four-year colleges and universities. But many of them—and many more students in high schools—do not have access to a decent library. The DPLA can provide them with a spectacular digital collection, and it can tailor its offering to their needs. Many primers and reference works on subjects such as mathematics and agronomy are still valuable, even though their copyrights have expired. With expert editing, they could be adapted to introductory courses and combined in a reference library for beginners.
At one time or other, nearly every student comes in contact with a poem by Emily Dickinson, who probably qualifies as America’s favorite poet. But Dickinson’s poems are especially problematic. Only a few of them, horribly mangled, were published in her lifetime. Nearly all the manuscript copies are stored in Harvard’s Houghton Library, and they pose important puzzles, because they contain quirky punctuation, capitalization, spacing, and other touches that have profound implications for their meaning. Harvard has digitized the originals, combined them with the most important printed editions (one edited by Thomas H. Johnson in 1955 and one edited by Ralph W. Franklin in 1981), and added supplementary documentation in an Emily Dickinson Archive, which it will make available through its own website and the DPLA.

The online archive will enrich the experience of students at every level of the educational system. Teachers will be able to make selections from it and adjust them to the needs of their classes. By paying close attention to different versions of a poem, the students will begin to appreciate the way poetry works. They will sharpen their sensitivity to language in general, and the lessons they learn will help them gain possession of their cultural heritage. It may be a small step, but it will be a pragmatic advance into the world of knowledge, which Jefferson, in a utopian vein, described as “the common property of mankind.”

Robert Darnton is Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor and University Librarian at Harvard. His latest book is Poetry and the Police: Communication Networks in Eighteenth-Century Paris.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The meaning of Macondo

What Happened at the Macondo Well?

Peter Maass

New York Review of Books 29 September 2011

Drowning in Oil: BP and the Reckless Pursuit of Profit

by Loren C. Steffy

McGraw Hill, 285 pp., $27.00

A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea: The Race to Kill the BP Oil Gusher

by Joel Achenbach

Simon and Schuster, 276 pp., $25.99

Fire on the Horizon: The Untold Story of the Gulf Oil Disaster

by John Konrad and Tom Shroder

Harper, 270 pp., $27.99

Deep Water: The Gulf Oil Disaster and the Future of Offshore Drilling

a report to the President by the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling

US Government Printing Office, 380 pp., $39.00 (paper)

The anniversary of the largest oil spill in American history passed with little notice this summer. On July 15, 2010, the ruptured BP oil well in the Gulf of Mexico was finally sealed after gushing oil for nearly three months, but there were few stories to commemorate it a year later, owing in part to the headline-consuming hacking scandal that had broken out at Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. The occasion might have gone unnoticed even if there had been nothing to nudge it aside, because business-as-usual has returned with surprising speed to the Gulf of Mexico and to America.

A drilling moratorium imposed by President Obama was lifted last fall, tourists are back on the area’s beaches, commercial fishing has resumed, energy consumption is rising across the country, and BP has returned to the Gulf drilling scene—a well it owns was given the first permit after the moratorium was lifted. Tony Hayward, the BP chief executive who was forced to step down in October 2010, largely as a result of the disaster, has gotten his life back quite nicely, raising $2.18 billion earlier this summer for a new investment firm he has set up with the financier Nathaniel Rothschild.

The eleven workers who were killed at the ruptured well, and the 4.9 million barrels of oil that spilled, are slipping out of memory. The short-term environmental damage was not as catastrophic as feared, and the long-term impact—the toll the oil will take as it moves through the food chain of Gulf marine life—is not yet known. Yet the reports of the past year and anniversary-themed books on the disaster provide a trove of data that reveals how the oil and gas industry is as reckless and unaccountable as the too-big-to-fail banks that brought on the financial crisis of 2008. The BP disaster revealed the same problems—lax government regulation, corporate profits despite the risks, a fawning press—that characterized the financial meltdown. Big banks and big oil have more in common than their size.

When our attention was still fixed on the spill, which we could watch via underwater cameras that showed oil spewing from the seabed, everyone was beating up on BP, which was doing its best to blame Transocean, the company that owned and operated the drilling rig, and Halliburton, which carried out a cementing job so badly that it may have contributed to the disaster. Hayward was bumped out of his job once the crisis passed but it has been difficult to know who was responsible beyond BP, or the extent to which BP itself was responsible, just as it has been difficult to know whether the disaster was an inevitability in the risky offshore business or a fluke caused by singular incompetence at BP. As it turns out, both theories are correct.

BP recklessly cut corners whenever it could, but so did Transocean, and so did—does—the rest of the fossil fuel industry. For instance, ExxonMobil, with a better safety record than BP in recent decades, accused its British competitor of substandard practices. “When you do things the proper way, these kind of things do not happen,” said Rex Tillerson, the Exxon CEO, at a March conference. In June an Exxon pipeline burst under the Yellowstone River, spilling about a thousand barrels of oil into pristine waters. A few weeks before the spill, facing pressure from local authorities who were concerned that the pipeline could be ruptured by floodwaters, Exxon briefly shut it down but quickly reopened it, assuring everyone that the pipeline was safe. Once the spill happened, Exxon claimed to have closed the burst pipeline quicker than it had. So much for the “proper way” to do things.

Before the Gulf of Mexico disaster, the media generally treated BP in the respectful, do-no-wrong way that Citibank, Washington Mutual, Goldman Sachs, Bear Stearns, Countrywide Financial, and Merrill Lynch were treated until it was discovered they had done quite a bit wrong. John Browne, BP’s chief executive from 1995 to 2007, was credited with turning a sleepy, tradition-encrusted firm into an aggressive top-rank juggernaut. Browne, who earned a business degree from Stanford and spent his most formative years working for BP in the United States, followed the ever-popular American strategy of increasing a company’s size by acquiring other firms (Amoco and Arco) and boosting profitability by laying off workers. In Browne’s first five years as CEO, BP’s stock price more than tripled.

The story of his rise is well told in Loren C. Steffy’s book, Drowning in Oil: BP and the Reckless Pursuit of Profit. Steffy, a business columnist for the Houston Chronicle, reveals the emptiness behind a much-lauded pivot in Browne’s career: his rebranding of BP as a green oil company. At a Stanford speech in 1997, Browne broke ranks with the rest of the oil industry and announced that BP would invest $20 million in a solar plant as well as research into sustainable energy. The company’s logo was changed and BP, we were told, henceforth stood for “Beyond Petroleum.” The press loved it. As Steffy notes, the Financial Times lauded Browne as “the Sun King of the oil industry,” and Vanity Fair described him, in an issue devoted to the environment, as an “oilman with a conscience.”

Browne showed himself willing to run large risks—cutting the number of engineers, slashing maintenance—in order to increase profit margins. In 2005, a deadly explosion occurred at BP’s Texas City refinery, which had been the victim of relentless cuts to its operating budget. The explosion killed fifteen workers and injured more than 170. Afterward, it was revealed that the refinery manager was desperate to stave off funding cuts ordered by corporate headquarters that he knew were turning the refinery into a danger zone. When he commissioned an outside consultant to evaluate safety problems, the report had warned, “We have never seen a site where the notion of ‘I could die today’ was so real for so very many hourly people.’” A year later, the same dynamic of penny-pinching for the sake of higher profits led to the bursting of a corroded BP pipeline in Alaska; 270,000 gallons of crude spilled onto the tundra.

Though BP’s reputation was sullied and a modest number of unfavorable stories were published, its stock price and earnings remained strong; Browne was still loved by Wall Street and, to a great extent, the press. When he was forced to resign in 2007, it had nothing to do with the deaths and pollution caused by BP. Browne, who is gay, had lied to a British court about the origins of his relationship with an estranged boyfriend who was trying to extort money from him; the two had met on an escort website, Suited and Booted, rather than, as Browne had told the court, jogging in a park. Browne was replaced by Hayward, a longtime deputy. Steffy notes that when the Gulf of Mexico blowout occurred three years later, the correct question to ask was not how could such a disaster happen, but “How the hell could this happen again?”

Just as the financial industry was only lightly policed by the SEC and other agencies, the fossil fuel industry got what it wanted from its overseers. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) hadn’t conducted a scheduled or surprise inspection of the Texas City refinery for five years, even though it is the third-largest refinery in America. After the explosion, OSHA found three hundred “willful violations” of US regulations and fined BP more than $21 million—a tiny amount for one of the largest corporations in the world. BP didn’t bother to make all the changes it promised, so in 2009 OSHA imposed an additional $87 million fine for noncompliance. This didn’t hurt, either, because BP’s net income topped $16 billion that year. In the oil industry as in the financial industry, fines that hardly change the bottom line are principally public relations problems, if that.

The truly maddening story took place offshore. The Interior Department’s Minerals Management Service (MMS)was responsible for overseeing offshore drilling yet its staff was too small for the job—just fifty-five inspectors for three thousand facilities in the Gulf. Worse, there was evidence that many inspectors were industry puppets. Even before the blowout, a federal investigation found that MMS staffers accepted golf and ski trips from the industry, had sex with industry representatives, and used illicit drugs with them. Surprise inspections of rigs were almost never conducted, though required by law. These inspections might not have done much good anyway—Steffy notes that a federal investigation concluded that some inspectors “had so little understanding of what they were inspecting that they simply asked company representatives to explain it to them.”

Many firms used a one-size-fits-all environmental impact statement for their wells in the Gulf, even though the statement mentioned types of wildlife, including walruses, that don’t live there. A wildlife expert listed as a contact by Exxon, Conoco Phillips, and BP had in fact been dead for several years. The MMS hadn’t noticed. When BP applied to the MMS for major safety and design exemptions on its Macondo well (its name for the well that ruptured), permission was sometimes granted not within days or hours but within minutes.

After the financial crisis, the Obama administration was criticized for not cracking down hard enough on the banks and investment firms that had nearly destroyed the economy. One of the reasons for its timidity is that the revolving door between Wall Street and government has meant Wall Streeters don’t just continue to influence policy, they continue to make it. The same holds true in the fossil fuel industry. After the disaster at the Macondo well, the Obama administration went through the rituals of change at MMS. The agency got a new name, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement. The people remained pretty much the same—connected to the industry. According to the Associated Press, which in July obtained previously withheld documents from the agency formerly known as MMS,

About 1 of every 5 employees involved in offshore inspections in the Gulf of Mexico has been recused from some duties because they could come in contact with a family member or friend working for a company they regulate. Steffy tells this sordid story well, but his book, like others published within a year of the complex disaster, relies to a great extent on news stories and government reports. It can be hard to know in Steffy’s narrative where his own considerable research leaves off and previously published material begins; attribution and footnotes are not as comprehensive as they could be. We therefore don’t always know what we need to know about the forces that shape our lives. Publishers often follow a newsy calendar that does not allow sufficient time for the original investigatory work required. Steffy’s book was published just a few months after the well was capped; it’s quite an achievement that it reads as smoothly as it does.

The perils of hasty work are exhibited in Joel Achenbach’s A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea: The Race to Kill the BP Oil Gusher, published on the blowout’s first anniversary. The book’s first sentence serves as a warning of sorts: “It came out of nowhere, a feel-bad story for the ages, a kind of environmental 9/11.” The clichés and near clichés get worse. Within the next twenty pages we read that the effort to cap the well was “a white-knuckle enterprise” while engineers were “working cheek by jowl” amid “howling political winds” during which scientists “racked their brains.” Sometimes Achenbach seems to have tried to pack as many clichés as possible into his work—how else to explain the following sentence? “The administration had scrambled all of its jets, had sent Cabinet secretaries into overdrive, had written a blank check to the agencies to do whatever it takes to deal with the spill.”

Achenbach, a reporter at The Washington Post, writes to a great extent about what he saw while covering the disaster for the Post. And what he saw—what most must-file-by-the-end-of-the-day journalists saw, because BP and the government made it difficult to visit the spill site and areas where oil fouled the shoreline—was a media circus featuring officials from BP, the Coast Guard, the Energy Department, and the White House. Many of the villains of Achenbach’s book are in the press and television, which he accuses of hyping the pollution threat (he also criticizes his own reporting for the Post), and in the White House, which comes off as caring too much about its image.

Perhaps that was true, but the battle over image is the least important of issues involved in the spill. Although Achenbach’s book has some useful information about the technical challenges faced and eventually overcome by BP engineers and government officials, there is little attribution in the text and he has no footnotes, endnotes, or bibliography. A note at the back of his book mentions a Web page where this information is supposedly posted, but when I checked repeatedly this summer, the page had a notice that said “Under Construction.”

It’s not easy to write a book of investigation. Sources must be developed and checked. Complex technologies and financial transactions must be understood. Ida Tarbell’s magisterial History of the Standard Oil Company was not produced overnight. How can a writer today, with a mortgage to pay and a kid or two to put through college, do the job if her advance covers only a few months of living expenses? One of the answers is found in a rough gem from the pile of anniversary books: Fire on the Horizon: The Untold Story of the Gulf Oil Disaster, by John Konrad and Tom Shroder. Konrad is an oil rig captain who worked for Transocean and for BP as a contractor. With his insider knowledge of the industry, as well as friendships with some of the crew of the Deepwater Horizon, the name of the Transocean rig that drilled the well for BP, Konrad had a huge advantage over professional journalists, who have little expertise in offshore operations. Before the digital era, insiders like Konrad would have remained on the inside, but a few years ago he started a blog,, and it became a hub for professional mariners. If a rig captain can blog, why not write a book? Konrad teamed up with Shroder, a Washington Post editor, and has written an excellent book that wraps concise explanations of technology into a fascinating story of danger and tragedy on the rig.

Konrad describes with particular clarity the part Transocean played. BP’s actions have gotten a fair amount of attention—the company was pushing Transocean and other subcontractors to work as quickly as possible, in order to reduce costs. BP was paying $500,000 a day to rent the Deepwater Horizon rig, and other costs, such as fuel and supplies, added an additional $500,000 to the daily bill. The sooner the well was drilled, the sooner BP’s financial hemorrhage stopped.

Although BP’s leaders insist that costs are not a factor when safety is involved, their actions, and the statements of people who worked for them, tell a different story. As Oberon Houston, a former BP rig manager, told the presidential commission that investigated the disaster in the Gulf, “The focus on controlling costs was acute at BP, to the point that it became a distraction. They just go after it with a ferocity that is mind-numbing and terrifying. No one’s ever asked to cut corners or take a risk, but it often ends up like that.”

Too much attention is devoted to BP—not because the company deserves a break but because the piling on has fed a perception that BP was a rogue. The rest of the industry has been glad to condemn BP so that our anger focuses on the supposed exception rather than the industry as a whole. This strategy was used in the financial world too, with industry leaders trying to persuade the government and public that misbehavior was limited to egregious lenders like Countrywide Financial, or to reckless traders within otherwise law-abiding firms. It’s the rogue tactic of blame shifting. The truth is that BP, while not the best (as the Texas City disaster showed), was not the worst and was not the only company that put profits ahead of safety. And it’s crucial to remember that BP, Exxon, Chevron, and the other names that we easily recognize aren’t the biggest players in the world of oil—it’s state-owned mammoths like Saudi Aramco, Venezuela’s PdVSA, and Russia’s Gazprom that own and extract most of the world’s oil. If you think BP doesn’t accord sufficient respect to the environment or its workers, just visit a field managed by, say, a Chinese firm. That’s why Konrad’s investigation of Transocean is so important—it reminds us that BP is no exception.

The multibillion-dollar Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, built in a South Korean shipyard and launched in 2001, was an engineering marvel. Rather than being an inert drilling platform towed to a well site and anchored to the bottom of the sea, it had a propulsion system that enabled it to move on its own power across the ocean. Once it reached a drilling site, its dynamic positioning system allowed its engines to adjust for the winds, waves, and currents, so the rig remained stationary over the wellhead on the seabed thousands of feet below. When a well was completed, the rig and its crew of 126 would motor off (slowly—top speed was 4.6 knots) to their next drilling assignment.

With oil prices rising in recent years and offshore drilling increasing, rigs like Transocean’s Deepwater Horizon were in heavy demand; their half-million-dollar-a-day rental price made them lucrative to own and operate. There is a hitch, however. If a rig is unable to drill because of equipment malfunction or maintenance work at port, it earns nothing. The upshot is that just as BP had an incentive to push Transocean to drill as fast as possible, Transocean wanted to keep its rig going even if equipment was aging or breaking down. And that’s what was happening on the Deepwater Horizon, which was overdue for an overhaul. It was beginning to fall apart.

Konrad’s book has much—not always well-sourced, however—about problems on the rig. For instance, the drill shack, which is where the drilling pipe is controlled, had an outdated computer that regularly froze. “It was more than an inconvenience,” Konrad writes. “When the screen froze, the driller was blind.” Even worse, the rig had a faulty blowout preventer (BOP), a four-hundred-ton device placed over the well on the seafloor. In a blowout emergency, the BOP can cut through the drilling pipe and seal off the well, so that oil and gas cannot leak out. But the BOP failed to shut down the rupturing Macondo well. Postmortems have shown that the BOP had faulty batteries and faulty valves that may have contributed to its failure. And the BOP, used on other wells previously drilled by the rig, had not been fully inspected since 2000, even though such inspections were supposed to occur every three to five years.

The most haunting indictment of Transocean’s practices is contained in a report the company commissioned from an outside consultancy just a month before the blowout. The rig was scheduled to undergo long-delayed maintenance after it completed the well, so Transocean wanted a thorough inventory of what needed to be fixed. The report, which Konrad cites without crediting The New York Times, which uncovered it, included interviews with crew members who warned of trouble. “At nine years old, Deepwater Horizon has never been in dry dock,” one worker said. “We can only work around so much.” Another worker described the rig’s rhythm as “Run it, break it, fix it.”

After disasters like the BP spill and the financial meltdown, two outcomes seem possible: real reform and a better system, or superficial change and danger-as-usual. The financial meltdown occurred in 2008, two years before the BP disaster, and it’s pretty clear which way that story is going. Modest financial reforms have been instituted but nobody of substance has been punished, and the big banks are bigger than ever and as powerful as ever, perhaps more so, in view of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision giving corporations greater leeway to make political donations. The banks remain too big to fail and could well fail again. The BP spill is following the same unfortunate path.

When oil was still gushing from the damaged well, President Obama did what presidents often do at moments of calamity—he appointed a committee from which little was expected. But his National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling produced an excellent report earlier this year. Deep Water: The Gulf Oil Disaster and the Future of Offshore Drilling has more detail and prescriptions than most of the anniversary books, and its criticism is sharp. “The blowout was not the product of a series of aberrational decisions made by rogue industry or government officials,” it states. “Rather, the root causes are systemic and, absent significant reform in both industry practices and government policies, might well recur.” The report makes its point with admirable relentlessness. “The accident of April 20 was avoidable,” the committee continues.

It resulted from clear mistakes made in the first instance by BP, Halliburton, and Transocean, and by government officials who, relying too much on industry’s assertions of the safety of their operations, failed to create and apply a program of regulatory oversight that would have properly minimized the risks of deepwater drilling.

We have been warned, but will there be real reform? Will the revolving door between industry and regulators be shut? Unfortunately, it’s hard to imagine President Obama, who supports more drilling in America, enacting the thorough changes his committee recommends. This is not an era in which lots of government jobs are being created to increase the regulation of an industry that, though unpopular with environmentalists, counts a large number of Americans as employees and shareholders.

Yet the peril posed by drilling is rising, because a new frontier beckons to the industry. Preliminary drilling has begun off Greenland in the Arctic Ocean, where the ecosystem is particularly fragile and spill-containment operations particularly difficult to accomplish, and the Obama administration has given conditional approval for Royal Dutch Shell to drill in Arctic waters off Alaska. Last summer, when icebergs threatened a drilling rig off Greenland, tugboats pulled them away. What happens if there are more icebergs than tugboats, or if the icebergs are too large to tow, or if a tug’s engine fails? The spokesmen for the industry, who insisted that a disaster like the BP blowout could not happen in the Gulf, say we can trust their companies in the Arctic. Their promises are even less comforting than the reassurances we hear from Wall Street about the impossibility of another financial crisis.

Oil firms give codenames to their drilling sites, to throw rivals off the scent of where they are finding oil. The US government, when it sold a Gulf drilling lease to BP in 2008, called the site Block 252. BP, to help raise money for United Way, let its employees bid for the right to choose a codename; the winning group of employees decided on Macondo, after the town in Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. No one could know how miserably appropriate the choice would be. Both García Márquez’s fictional town and BP’s Macondo were destroyed. The final twist of One Hundred Years of Solitude is relevant, too. A text that had been impenetrable is finally deciphered at the end of the novel. Written one hundred years earlier, it foretold the events that destroyed Macondo. When it comes to drilling for oil and the hazards of climate change, the texts that predict our future are accumulating. They are all too clear.

Monday, May 02, 2011

President Obama's speech on Osama bin Laden

Remarks by the President on Osama Bin Laden

THE PRESIDENT: Good evening. Tonight, I can report to the American people and to the world that the United States has conducted an operation that killed Osama bin Laden, the leader of al Qaeda, and a terrorist who’s responsible for the murder of thousands of innocent men, women, and children.

It was nearly 10 years ago that a bright September day was darkened by the worst attack on the American people in our history. The images of 9/11 are seared into our national memory -- hijacked planes cutting through a cloudless September sky; the Twin Towers collapsing to the ground; black smoke billowing up from the Pentagon; the wreckage of Flight 93 in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, where the actions of heroic citizens saved even more heartbreak and destruction.
And yet we know that the worst images are those that were unseen to the world. The empty seat at the dinner table. Children who were forced to grow up without their mother or their father. Parents who would never know the feeling of their child’s embrace. Nearly 3,000 citizens taken from us, leaving a gaping hole in our hearts.

On September 11, 2001, in our time of grief, the American people came together. We offered our neighbors a hand, and we offered the wounded our blood. We reaffirmed our ties to each other, and our love of community and country. On that day, no matter where we came from, what God we prayed to, or what race or ethnicity we were, we were united as one American family.

We were also united in our resolve to protect our nation and to bring those who committed this vicious attack to justice. We quickly learned that the 9/11 attacks were carried out by al Qaeda -- an organization headed by Osama bin Laden, which had openly declared war on the United States and was committed to killing innocents in our country and around the globe. And so we went to war against al Qaeda to protect our citizens, our friends, and our allies.

Over the last 10 years, thanks to the tireless and heroic work of our military and our counterterrorism professionals, we’ve made great strides in that effort. We’ve disrupted terrorist attacks and strengthened our homeland defense. In Afghanistan, we removed the Taliban government, which had given bin Laden and al Qaeda safe haven and support. And around the globe, we worked with our friends and allies to capture or kill scores of al Qaeda terrorists, including several who were a part of the 9/11 plot.

Yet Osama bin Laden avoided capture and escaped across the Afghan border into Pakistan. Meanwhile, al Qaeda continued to operate from along that border and operate through its affiliates across the world. And so shortly after taking office, I directed Leon Panetta, the director of the CIA, to make the killing or capture of bin Laden the top priority of our war against al Qaeda, even as we continued our broader efforts to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat his network.

Then, last August, after years of painstaking work by our intelligence community, I was briefed on a possible lead to bin Laden. It was far from certain, and it took many months to run this thread to ground. I met repeatedly with my national security team as we developed more information about the possibility that we had located bin Laden hiding within a compound deep inside of Pakistan. And finally, last week, I determined that we had enough intelligence to take action, and authorized an operation to get Osama bin Laden and bring him to justice.

Today, at my direction, the United States launched a targeted operation against that compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. A small team of Americans carried out the operation with extraordinary courage and capability. No Americans were harmed. They took care to avoid civilian casualties. After a firefight, they killed Osama bin Laden and took custody of his body.
For over two decades, bin Laden has been al Qaeda’s leader and symbol, and has continued to plot attacks against our country and our friends and allies. The death of bin Laden marks the most significant achievement to date in our nation’s effort to defeat al Qaeda.

Yet his death does not mark the end of our effort. There’s no doubt that al Qaeda will continue to pursue attacks against us. We must –- and we will -- remain vigilant at home and abroad.
As we do, we must also reaffirm that the United States is not –- and never will be -– at war with Islam. I’ve made clear, just as President Bush did shortly after 9/11, that our war is not against Islam. Bin Laden was not a Muslim leader; he was a mass murderer of Muslims. Indeed, al Qaeda has slaughtered scores of Muslims in many countries, including our own. So his demise should be welcomed by all who believe in peace and human dignity.

Over the years, I’ve repeatedly made clear that we would take action within Pakistan if we knew where bin Laden was. That is what we’ve done. But it’s important to note that our counterterrorism cooperation with Pakistan helped lead us to bin Laden and the compound where he was hiding. Indeed, bin Laden had declared war against Pakistan as well, and ordered attacks against the Pakistani people. Tonight, I called President Zardari, and my team has also spoken with their Pakistani counterparts. They agree that this is a good and historic day for both of our nations. And going forward, it is essential that Pakistan continue to join us in the fight against al Qaeda and its affiliates.

The American people did not choose this fight. It came to our shores, and started with the senseless slaughter of our citizens. After nearly 10 years of service, struggle, and sacrifice, we know well the costs of war. These efforts weigh on me every time I, as Commander-in-Chief, have to sign a letter to a family that has lost a loved one, or look into the eyes of a service member who’s been gravely wounded.

So Americans understand the costs of war. Yet as a country, we will never tolerate our security being threatened, nor stand idly by when our people have been killed. We will be relentless in defense of our citizens and our friends and allies. We will be true to the values that make us who we are. And on nights like this one, we can say to those families who have lost loved ones to al Qaeda’s terror: Justice has been done.

Tonight, we give thanks to the countless intelligence and counterterrorism professionals who’ve worked tirelessly to achieve this outcome. The American people do not see their work, nor know their names. But tonight, they feel the satisfaction of their work and the result of their pursuit of justice. We give thanks for the men who carried out this operation, for they exemplify the professionalism, patriotism, and unparalleled courage of those who serve our country. And they are part of a generation that has borne the heaviest share of the burden since that September day.

Finally, let me say to the families who lost loved ones on 9/11 that we have never forgotten your loss, nor wavered in our commitment to see that we do whatever it takes to prevent another attack on our shores. And tonight, let us think back to the sense of unity that prevailed on 9/11. I know that it has, at times, frayed. Yet today’s achievement is a testament to the greatness of our country and the determination of the American people.

The cause of securing our country is not complete. But tonight, we are once again reminded that America can do whatever we set our mind to. That is the story of our history, whether it’s the pursuit of prosperity for our people, or the struggle for equality for all our citizens; our commitment to stand up for our values abroad, and our sacrifices to make the world a safer place.

Let us remember that we can do these things not just because of wealth or power, but because of who we are: one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

Thank you. May God bless you. And may God bless the United States of America.


Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Nuclear power secrecy

A cloud of nuclear mistrust spreads around the world
After decades of lies, nuclear reassurances now fall on deaf ears

Michael McCarthy

Independent 16 March 2011

It is unprecedented: four atomic reactors in dire trouble at once, three threatening meltdown from overheating, and a fourth hit by a fire in its storage pond for radioactive spent fuel.
All day yesterday, dire reports continued to circulate about the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, faced with disaster after Japan's tsunami knocked out its cooling systems. Some turned out to be false: for example, a rumour, disseminated by text message, that radiation from the plant had been spreading across Asia. Others were true: that radiation at about 20 times normal levels had been detected in Tokyo; that Chinese airlines had cancelled flights to the Japanese capital; that Austria had moved it embassy from Tokyo to Osaka; that a 24-hour general store in Tokyo's Roppongi district had sold out of radios, torches, candles and sleeping bags.

But perhaps the most alarming thing was that although Naoto Kan, Japan's Prime Minister, once again appealed for calm, there are many – in Japan and beyond – who are no longer prepared to be reassured.

The scale of the alarm is the remarkable thing: how it has gone round the world (Angela Merkel has imposed a moratorium on nuclear energy; in France, there are calls for a referendum); how it's even displaced the terrible story of Japan's tsunami itself from the front-page headlines. But then, public alarm about nuclear safety, as the Fukushima emergency proves, is very easy to raise – and, as the Japanese authorities are now discovering, very hard to calm.

The reason is an industry which from its inception, more than half a century ago, has taken secrecy to be its watchword; and once that happens, cover-ups and downright lies often follow close behind. The sense of crisis surrounding Japan's stricken nuclear reactors is exacerbated a hundredfold by the fact that, in an emergency, public trust in the promoters of atomic power is virtually non-existent. On too many occasions in Britain, in America, in Russia, in Japan – pick your country – people have not been told the truth (and have frequently been told nothing at all) about nuclear misadventures.

To understand the mania for secrecy, we have to go back to nuclear power's origins. This was not a technology dreamt up as a replacement for coal-fired power stations; this is a military technology, conceived in a life-or-death struggle, which has been modified for civilian purposes. At its heart is the nuclear chain reaction, the self-sustaining atom-splitting process ("fission") which occurs when enough highly radioactive material is brought together, and which produces other radioactive elements ("fission products"), and a release of energy.

When it was first achieved by the physicists Enrico Fermi and Leo Szilard, in an atomic "pile" built in a squash court of the University of Chicago in December 1942, it merely produced heat; but all those involved understood that if it could be speeded up, it would produce the biggest explosive power ever known. And so was born the Manhattan Project, the US undertaking to build the atom bomb which was, while it lasted, history's biggest secret.

Secrecy came with nuclear energy, like a birthmark, and, indeed, for 10 years after the first A-bomb was dropped on Hiroshima in August 1945, it remained a covert military technology, although first the Russians, and then the British, followed the Americans in developing it. Britain built a pair of atomic reactors at Windscale on the Cumbrian coast, which produced (as a fission product) plutonium, the material used in the first British nuclear weapon. That was exploded off the coast of Australia in 1952. And it was in one of these reactors that the world's first really serious nuclear accident occurred: the Windscale fire of October 1957. The reactor's core, made of graphite, caught light, melted and burned substantial amounts of the uranium fuel, and released large amounts of radioactivity. It was the most serious nuclear calamity until Chernobyl nearly 30 years later, but the British government did all it could to minimise its significance, trying at first to keep it a complete secret (the local fire brigade was not notified for 24 hours) and keeping the official report confidential until 1988.

It was to be the first of many such nuclear alarms and cover-ups at Windscale. In 1976, for example, the secrecy surrounding a major leak of radioactive water infuriated the then Technology Minister, Tony Benn, who supported nuclear power, when he learnt of it. But similar cover-ups were happening all around the world.

At the US atomic weapons plant at Rocky Flats, Colorado, there were numerous mishaps involving radioactive material which were kept secret over four decades, from the 1950s to the 1980s. In Russia, the province of Chelyabinsk, just east of the Urals, housed a major atomic weapons complex, which was the site of three major nuclear disasters: radioactive waste dumping and the explosion of a waste containment unit in the 1950s, and a vast escape of radioactive dust in 1967. It is estimated that about half a million people in the region were irradiated in one or more of the incidents, exposing them to as much as 20 times the radiation suffered by the Chernobyl victims. None of which, of course, was disclosed at the time. Chelyabinsk is sometimes referred to now as "the most polluted place on the planet".

When we turn to Japan, we find an identical culture of nuclear cover-up and lies. Of particular concern has been the Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco), Asia's biggest utility, which just happens to be the owner and operator of the stricken reactors at Fukushima.

Tepco has a truly rotten record in telling the truth. In 2002, its chairman and a group of senior executives had to resign after the Japanese government disclosed they had covered up a large series of cracks and other damage to reactors, and in 2006 the company admitted it had been falsifying data about coolant materials in its plants over a long period.

Last night it was reported that the International Atomic Energy Agency warned Japan more than two years ago that strong earthquakes would pose "serious problems", according to a Wikileaks US embassy cable published by The Daily Telegraph.

Even Chernobyl, the world's most publicised nuclear accident, was at first hidden from the world by what was then the Soviet Union, and might have remained hidden had its plume of escaping radioactivity not been detected by scientists in Sweden.

So why do they do it? Why does the instinct to hide everything persist, even now, when the major role of nuclear energy has decisively shifted from the military to the civil sector? Perhaps it is because there is an instinctive and indeed understandable fear among the public about nuclear energy itself, about this technology which, once its splits its atoms, releases deadly forces.

The nuclear industry is terrified of losing public support, for the simple reason that it has always needed public money to fund it. It is not, even now, a sector which can stand on its own two feet economically. So when it finds it has a problem, its first reaction is to hide it, and its second reaction is to tell lies about it. But the truth comes out in the end, and then the public trusts the industry even less than it might have done, had it admitted the problem.

It doesn't have to be like this. A quarter of a century ago, Britain's nuclear industry acquired a leader who for a few years transformed its public image: Christopher Harding. He was an open and honest man who thought that the paranoia and secrecy surrounding nuclear power should be swept away. When he became chairman of British Nuclear Fuels, which ran the Windscale plant, he decided on a new order of things. He renamed it Sellafield, and, to general astonishment, decreed that instead of sullenly turning its back to the public, it should welcome them with open arms. He did the unthinkable: he opened a visitor centre!

Harding died young in 1999, but he was, in his lifetime an exceptional man: not only for his charm and his personal kindness – he was revered by Sellafield employees – but for his vision of a nuclear industry which would be better off dealing with its problems through transparency and honesty, rather than through obfuscation and deceit. But he was, unfortunately, the exception who proved the rule.

The rest of the nuclear industry has been dissembling for so long, and caught out in its lies so often, that the chance for trust may have passed. Even if, as I suspect, the Japanese government is trying to be reasonably up front about the problems at Fukushima, it is by no means certain that anything it says about the nuclear part of their nation's catastrophe will be believed.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Afghanistan exit?

The Way Out of Afghanistan
New York Review of Books January 13 2010

Ahmed Rashid

For the 100,000 American forces, 40,000 NATO troops, and their commander, General David Petraeus, it’s Year One of the Surge in Afghanistan. For many Afghans it’s Year Nine of the US Occupation—or, to be kind, Year Nine of the US-led war against the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
US officers say that the war is finally on the right footing, with enough men and equipment to hammer the Taliban in their bases in the south. For US and European diplomats there are larger imponderables. The strategic policy review released by President Obama on December 16 is extremely cautious, noting that recent gains in the south remain “reversible.” The report says the strategy “is setting the conditions” to withdraw a small number of US troops in July 2011, but it does not specify how many of the 100,000 American forces might leave. A Western ambassador posed the problem to me clearly: “Are we creating a sustainable government, are we getting the politics right, will there be an Afghan army and civil service to take over when we leave?”

In Kabul the foreigners breathe a little easier after several months with no suicide attacks. Kabulis say that the protective blast walls and concrete barriers that line the streets are now twenty feet high, suffocating them and eating up their road and living space.

War is always a mixture of different, conflicting stories, depending on whether you are crouching in a ditch or sipping tea at the presidential palace. To have dinner with Petraeus and tea with President Hamid Karzai is a central part of the story, as is journeying to the edge of the city to tiny, unlit, unheated flats to talk to former senior Taliban officials who want to explain to you how the Americans and the Taliban can make peace. Everyone tells you the endgame has started in Afghanistan but nobody can tell you how it will end.

The world is obsessed with the big picture of the Afghan war, not the domestic details that make it so difficult to end. The NATO summit in Lisbon on November 19–20 was a clear example. It tried to clarify the vision of a Western withdrawal but also created confusion. The NATO leaders—speaking for the organization, not the US—said that they planned for a phased transfer of responsibility for security to Afghan forces and the end of NATO’s combat role by 2014. They were committed to stay after that in a supporting role, while the US warned that its forces would continue fighting beyond that date if the security situation deteriorated. Clearly, the US and NATO are on two different timetables.

To confuse Afghans even further, President Barack Obama also added that some US troops would start withdrawing from Afghanistan next July. That date, announced in January 2010 as the US surge began, has proved deeply embarrassing to the White House. It has been challenged by the Republicans, dismayed the Afghans, and created enormous uncertainty among regional countries such as Pakistan and Iran.

Obama’s final words in Lisbon were extraordinarily vague. Apparently speaking about the NATO decision to withdraw in 2014, he said, “It is a goal to make sure that we are not still engaged in combat operations of the sort that we’re involved with now,” but “it’s hard to anticipate exactly what is going to be necessary.” He added, “We are much more unified and clear about how we’re going to achieve our ultimate end state in Afghanistan.”

What Is the End State and How Do You Get to It?

None of the attempts at rebuilding the Afghan state over the past nine years have really worked. What assurance is there that they will work by 2014? The dates and debates in the White House tell only half the story. Afghanistan is going through a series of domestic crises, which will determine whether there will be a functioning state by 2014 or not.
The most immediate issue has been the parliamentary elections, which were held on September 18, but whose final results were delayed until the end of November. After the rigged presidential elections in 2009, which Karzai won after immense controversy and international embarrassment, the United Nations and NATO were reluctant to hold parliamentary elections so soon. However, Karzai insisted—hoping that his preferred candidates would win a majority in the 249-seat lower house of parliament, which would prepare the way for it to endorse Karzai’s peace talks with the Taliban.

Again rigging took place on a huge scale—except this time it was done by individual candidates, not by the government. Karzai’s handpicked Independent Election Commission (IEC), which oversaw the poll, stunned everyone by acting remarkably independently. It invalidated 1.33 million votes for fraud, or nearly a quarter of the 5.74 million cast, and in mid-November disqualified twenty-four candidates who had been declared unofficial winners, including a cousin of the President. The IEC asserted itself but left behind an intractable problem.

Turnout among the Pashtuns of southern and eastern Afghanistan, who make up some 40 percent of the population, was very low. The Taliban, who are largely Pashtuns, had threatened the Pashtun voters, telling them to boycott the polls. As a result the Pashtuns lost between 10 and 20 percent of their seats to ethnic minorities, especially the Tajiks and Hazaras. In the last parliament Pashtuns held 129 seats and now they are down to around ninety. All eleven seats in the important province of Ghazni, which has a mixed Pashtun-Hazara population, were won by Hazaras, a result that infuriated both the Pashtuns and Karzai. Ghazni’s results were announced after much delay and the eleven Hazaras were declared winners. Earlier the results were challenged by the attorney general, who ordered the arrest of several IEC officials, and there were demonstrations in Kabul for the failure to announce the results.

The election drama will continue. The non-Pashtuns are broadly against any peace deal with the Taliban, resent Pashtun dominance, and want to amend the constitution to introduce a parliamentary system in place of the current presidential system, which gives Karzai enormous powers. Karzai is trapped. If he accepts the election results, as he eventually must, he faces a parliament dominated by non-Pashtuns and his political opponents, which could scuttle his talks with the Taliban. Yet if he declares the elections null and void on account of the rigging and orders them redone, he could face open defiance from the ethnic minorities.

These election results have brought the unresolved ethnic problems to the forefront. Nine years after 2001, the divisions between the Pashtuns and the non-Pashtun nationalities that make up the complex weave of the Afghan national carpet are worse than ever. The notorious corruption and incompetence of the Karzai administration are still seen to have benefited the Pashtuns. The American development efforts have focused heavily on wooing the Pashtun south and east where the Taliban insurgency is based, to the neglect of the minorities in the north and west. Non-Pashtuns are furious that an estimated 70 percent of all development funds are being spent in just two provinces in the south to woo the Pashtuns away from the Taliban.

The non-Pashtuns mistrust Karzai’s talks with the Taliban. Despite several attempts by Karzai to arrange a national consensus, the non-Pashtuns are deeply suspicious that any Karzai–Taliban deal will only strengthen Pashtun hegemony in the country and further reduce minority rights. As a result non-Pashtun leaders from all the ethnic groups have launched political and grassroots movements to oppose talks with the Taliban.

Meanwhile the Tajik, Uzbek, Hazara, and Turcomen minorities have achieved advantages that cause immense resentment among the Pashtuns. For the first time the Tajiks and Hazaras dominate the upper officer class in the army and police even though US training and recruitment includes a strict parity between all ethnic groups. Traditionally the Afghan officer class has been Pashtun. Pashtun representation in the army is lower than its proportion of the population, and only 3 percent of recruits are from the volatile south.

The minorities who dominate the north and west have opened up roads and trade networks, imported electricity and gas supplies, and created other profitable links with their neighbors—Iran and the Central Asian states of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. Afghanistan’s drug trade—30 per- cent of which travels into Iran and Central Asian countries such as Tajikistan—has also enriched local elites. All this has improved lives for ordinary people, provided independent sources of wealth for local warlords and elites that are not dependent on Kabul, and given them political power. Meanwhile the Pashtuns in the south are stuck with the power of their neighbor Pakistan, which supports the Taliban and has done little toward improving their lives.

Tajik and Uzbek warlords have become so rich and powerful in the north that they now barely listen to Karzai. Governors of northern provinces have created their own fiefdoms that are left alone by NATO forces based there, because removing them would create further instability. You may not know it from press reports, but the most powerful man in the country after Karzai is probably Atta Muhammad Noor, a Tajik general who once fought the Taliban and is now the governor of Balkh province bordering Uzbekistan. He and his fellow northern warlords are rearming their militias in preparation for what they fear will be a long war with the Taliban.
The fear is justified because the Taliban have already arrived in the north, setting up bases, appealing to local populations, attacking NATO and Afghan forces, and infiltrating militants into Central Asia. For the first time, say US officials, there is evidence of the Taliban winning support from not just northern Pashtuns but even Tajiks and Uzbeks.

Making the Transition

Amid these worsening political problems there is the complex question of transition. After years of neglect, the US and NATO are at last trying to invest more in the numbers, equipment, training, and mentoring of the Afghan army. This year the US alone will spend $11 billion on the Afghan security forces—the largest single item in the US defense budget. The Afghan army has reached its first target of 134,000 men and will expand further, according to US officers involved in the training program. The police now number 109,100.

Yet these figures are seriously deceptive. The attrition rate from the Afghan army is still a staggering 24 percent per year. Some 86 percent of soldiers are illiterate and drug use is still an endemic problem. The Afghan police are even worse. (As a recent report on 60 Minutes showed, they are plagued by elementary incompetence, illiteracy, and corruption that make the creation of an adequate police force one of the country’s most intransigent problems.) Although 80 percent of army units are working with NATO units, no single Afghan unit is ready to take responsibility on its own in the field. Afghan forces are only in command in Kabul, but this is largely because there is a sizable NATO presence there.

Moreover, when there is so little Afghan administrative presence in the provinces, Afghan forces, even if they are well-trained, can achieve very little. There is now a civil service academy turning out bureaucrats, but it will be years before they make a difference.
Equally grave is the failure to establish an indigenous Afghan economy that is not permanently dependent on aid handouts. For the first few years after September 11 President Bush refused to rebuild Afghan infrastructure, including adequate roads and electrical supplies, and this stymied economic growth. Kabul got full-time electricity only this year. Industry failed to develop because of the lack of infrastructure and because neighbors such as China and Iran were dumping cheap goods in the Afghan market and undermining local productivity.

Obama has initiated a program to help the local civilian economy take off, but it needs time. The US Army still buys no local produce, but the Afghan army, at least, is being equipped with locally manufactured boots and uniforms. Another acute problem is that the huge profits of the drug trade are recycled into property speculation rather than economic production.

Thus the key question for General Petraeus is not how many Taliban he kills, but whether the bare bones of an Afghan state—army, police, bureaucracy—which have been neglected so badly in the past nine years, can be set up by 2014. Moreover, can Afghan leaders, including the President, win the trust of a people who have put up with insecurity, gross corruption, and poor governance for many years?

If there is to be progress toward self-government in Afghanistan, a clear-headed Afghan president is badly needed. Yet Karzai is wrapped in contradictions and enigmas. During a two-hour animated conversation I had with him in the presidential palace, he seemed to be straining to not break ties with the US and NATO, while at the same time wanting to throw off their yoke because it makes him appear as a Western puppet.1

Karzai’s on-again, off-again fights with Petraeus about the tactics of the US military surge are essentially about his own role, his own sovereignty, his own image in Afghanistan—in all respects he feels he is losing power. He wants the war to somehow go away. Petraeus wants to conclude it, which means more violence in the months ahead.

Karzai’s view of the world has undergone a dramatic change and he is bitterly critical of the West and everything it has failed to do in the past nine years. He no longer supports the “war on terror” as defined by Washington, and he sees Petraeus’s surge as unhelpful because it relies too much on body counts of dead Taliban, often killed by US drones with civilian casualties that are resented deeply, and on nighttime raids by US special forces. The alternative, says Karzai, is to seek help from nearby countries like Pakistan and Iran, which he thinks could help him talk to the Taliban and end the war.

The Neighbors

Many Afghans would disagree with Karzai. Neighboring states like Pakistan and Iran have a long and bloody record of monumental interference in Afghanistan, propping up proxy Afghan warlords and fighting over the spoils. Afghanistan will not become peaceful unless the neighbors are brought into an agreement not to interfere there that could be monitored by the international community. Obama made a promise to do just that when he was inaugurated but little has been accomplished.

The major problem is Pakistan. All three major Taliban factions have been based in Pakistan for nine years, receiving official and unofficial support, sanctuary, funding, and recruits; yet three successive US administrations have been unable to stop the Pakistan military from continuing that support. The December 16 strategy review avoids direct criticism of Pakistan for failing to crack down on Taliban and al-Qaeda bases. However, two classified intelligence reports given to the President in late November cited Pakistan’s hosting of sanctuaries as a serious obstacle to US objectives.

President Bush never tried very hard, but Obama has offered much larger incentives and a tougher stick to Pakistan. Petraeus has been aggressive and made it clear to Pakistani army chief General Ashfaq Kiyani that its support for the Taliban must end. But the US has no comprehensive strategy that either offers the Pakistani military some of what it wants or changes its assumptions that it must dominate Afghanistan. The army fears growing Indian influence in Afghanistan—an issue that nobody has addressed. It wants to use talks with the Taliban as a card in the endgame, so that maximum concessions can be extracted from the US, India, and Afghanistan in exchange for Pakistan obtaining concessions from the Taliban.
Iran too has learned to raise the stakes. Shia Iran has no love for the Sunni fundamentalists who make up the Taliban, but Tehran has stepped up its support and sanctuary for the Taliban groups operating in western Afghanistan. Like Pakistan, Iran sees them as a useful hedge for the endgame, when the US and NATO will have to bring it in to discuss noninterference in Afghanistan. Iran has joined with India and Russia to ensure that Pakistan is unsuccessful in dominating Afghanistan.

So the region is already sharply divided. On one side stands Pakistan, virtually alone with some support from China, but none from the Arab-Muslim world that used to support the Taliban. Opposing Pakistan are Iran, Russia, India, and the Central Asian states, which are extremely suspicious of Pakistan and the Taliban but lack a strategy to deal with them. They want the US to stay longer in Afghanistan, but are also suspicious of an indefinite US presence.
The Taliban Want to Talk

What of the Taliban?

In separate interviews four former Taliban officials, now living in Kabul, told me that the Taliban leaders want to open a political office in a third country that is not Afghanistan or Pakistan, so that they can start talks with the Kabul regime, the US, and NATO. All four occupied high office in the 1990s when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan and cannot be identified for security reasons.
Some were captured and held for several years by US forces before being freed, and they all now live quietly in Kabul under heavy government guard. Still, they are allowed to remain in touch with the Taliban leadership based in Pakistan and have facilitated Karzai’s attempts to talk to Taliban leaders.

They all said that negotiations would be possible only when they were free to negotiate from a neutral place—preferably an Arabian Gulf state, Turkey, Germany, or Japan. With Afghanistan under US occupation and Pakistan’s Interservices Intelligence (ISI) trying to manipulate them, they needed space, freedom, and an address of their own.

The four former Taliban officials also called for a release of all Taliban prisoners held by the US in Guantánamo and Bagram, the main US base in Afghanistan, and the removal of the Taliban names from a list of terrorists that is maintained by the United Nations Security Council. Three of the four men I talked to said that Taliban–US talks were essential because the US is “the occupying power.” Karzai also admits that in his previous contacts, the Taliban have demanded talks with the Americans and he has tried to persuade Washington to agree.
The NATO summit did not mention anything about talking to the Taliban but it was the elephant in the room. Karzai sees his political survival as being linked to ending the war through a negotiated settlement with the Taliban. Petraeus is less keen, wanting to continue the surge next year, killing more Taliban commanders and weakening others before inviting them to any negotiating table.

Petraeus does not accept the argument that by killing more Taliban you radicalize the movement further, bringing in younger and more militant commanders who owe nothing to the older leadership and are easier for the ISI to manipulate. He believes that the Taliban leadership can be broken, fragmented, and split off one by one. As a result, while drones target Taliban leaders and frequently kill them and people near them, less than a handful of US officials in Petraeus’s headquarters are addressing the issue of reconciliation with the Taliban.
The US administration is divided about the need for talks now or later. Skepticism is greater after the CIA and Britain’s MI6 were duped by a fake Taliban negotiator who twice held talks with Karzai, but turned out to be a Pakistani shopkeeper who was paid $65,000 each time he came to Kabul. Western officials believe the ISI was behind the scam.

Moreover, at the moment neither Karzai nor the Taliban have a clear agenda for talks. They do not even have a clear notion of how to get to actual negotiations—but both sides realize that such a venture would have to include confidence-building measures to create trust on all sides.
The Taliban leaders said that their first political aim would not be to lay down terms for power-sharing with Karzai, but to reach an agreement on a definition of what the future Afghan state would look like—would it be a democratic state or a shariah state? The most sensible among the Taliban also realize that since they could not run the country in the 1990s they will not be able to do so in the future. Rather than trying to grab power and then face isolation by the international community and the denial of funds and aid, they see the logic of a power-sharing formula with Karzai that would retain Western aid and international legitimacy. Their main concern right now seems to be how to break free from Pakistan, something the US can help them do only when it is ready to support peace talks.

An Approach to Peace

To answer these questions and not give away too much to the Taliban at the outset, Karzai, neighboring states, the US, and NATO need to work together on a common agenda that reduces regional tensions and builds trust between the Taliban and Kabul. Any new approach to peace must include reciprocal confidence-building measures by Pakistan, Iran, and India as well as by the Taliban and the West. Karzai has set up the High Peace Council, a sixty-eight-person multiethnic body to negotiate with the Taliban, but he needs to do much more to build a consensus across the country. The main question, of course, will be how soon the White House and the Pentagon decide that it is time to talk to the Taliban. Victory on the battlefield is not possible but peace cannot be achieved without US participation in negotiations.

Here is a possible step-by-step approach, involving all the players, that is intended to build trust and confidence in the region so that ultimately negotiations with the Taliban can take place.

1. NATO, the Afghan government, and Pakistan free most Afghan Taliban prisoners under their jurisdiction and seek to accommodate them safely in Afghanistan or allow them to seek refuge in third countries. NATO guarantees freedom of movement for Taliban mediators opening an office in a friendly third country.

2. Iran enters into negotiations with the United Nations and European countries to end its safe haven for Afghan Taliban and allow them to return home or seek refuge in third countries. None of these actions includes amnesty or safe passage for al-Qaeda and its affiliated groups.

3. The Taliban respond with confidence-building measures of their own such as publicly dissociating themselves from al-Qaeda, ordering an end to targeted killings of Afghan administrators and aid workers, and an end to suicide bombings and burning schools and government buildings.

4. The US, NATO, and the UN declare their willingness to negotiate directly with the Taliban when the Taliban publicly request it, although they insist that the dialogue between Kabul and the Taliban remain the main avenue for negotiating a peace deal.

5. A new UN Security Council resolution calls for negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban to bring the war to an end. The UN resolution mandates its special representative in Kabul to help those negotiations and to start a dialogue between Afghanistan’s neighboring states to reduce their mutual antagonisms and interference; the resolution also calls for Afghan Taliban leaders who do not have ties to al-Qaeda to be struck off the list of terrorism suspects.

6. India and Pakistan enter into secret talks between their intelligence agencies in order to make their presence in Afghanistan more transparent to the other and end their rivalries. Later the two governments come to agreements that would allow each one to tolerate the other’s embassies, consulates, rebuilding activities, and trade interests in Afghanistan. Both pledge not to seek a military presence in Afghanistan or to use Afghan soil to undermine the other.

7. Central to any plan would be a deal with the separatist insurgents in the Pakistani province of Balochistan who make use of territory in Afghanistan to carry out their attacks on Pakistan. To address the problem, Pakistan issues a general amnesty for all insurgent Baloch separatist groups and dissidents and announces its intentions to discuss a new peace formula with all Baloch separatist groups to end the current insurgency. The army and ISI free all Baloch prisoners they are holding including the hundreds of “disappeared” prisoners.

8. The Afghan government makes a commitment to return all Baloch separatist leaders on its soil once agreement is reached on a political deal in Balochistan and safe passage for Baloch leaders to return home is guaranteed by the Pakistan army and an international agency such as the International Committee of the Red Cross.

9. Pakistan issues a timetable and deadline of between six to twelve months for all Afghan Taliban leaders and their families who want to do so to leave Pakistan and return to Afghanistan. Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the UN would jointly help those Taliban not wishing to return home and not on any terrorism list to seek political asylum in third countries. Simultaneously Pakistan would undertake military action in North Waziristan in an effort to destroy remnants of al-Qaeda and Afghan and Pakistani Taliban who may remain and try to sabotage any peace process. Even if such action were not fully successful, the aim would be to limit their capacity to sponsor insurgency.

10. The Afghan government works to build a national consensus inside the country among all ethnic groups, civil society, and the tribes before entering into formal negotiations with the Taliban. Negotiations also start between the US and the Taliban. The US agrees to sharply restrict killing of Taliban leaders by drones and other means.

Many questions hover over such a plan. It is a tragic loss that Richard Holbrooke, who would have been a strong leader in advancing such steps, died before they could be pursued. The former Taliban officials I talked to seemed open to a sequence of this kind. Whether their comrades in Pakistan can be persuaded to make a series of compromises and to estrange themselves from al-Qaeda is far from clear. But if after ten years the war is to be ended and the “end state” is to be actually achieved, then some such series of steps will be needed.

—Kabul, December 16, 2010

NATO’s Dangerous Wager with Karzai

Ahmed Rashid

At the close of its summit meeting in Lisbon on Saturday, NATO announced it had reached an agreement with the Afghan government to continue combat operations in Afghanistan for years to come. But it is far from clear that these plans—which postpone a transfer of responsibility for security to Afghan forces until 2014—will find much support in Kabul. Afghan president Hamid Karzai is a changed man. His worldview now is decidedly anti-Western. When I spoke with him earlier this month at the presidential palace in Kabul, Karzai told me that the US has been unable to bring peace to Afghanistan or to secure cooperation from Pakistan, which continues to give sanctuary to the Taliban. He rejects the barrage of US criticism at his government on issues like corruption and poor administration and says the original sin of all these faults lies with the Americans.

Lasting nearly two hours, my off-the-record conversation with Karzai was vigorous, and at times I strongly pushed back, reminding him of his past commitments and his professed support for such ideals such as transparent democracy—ideals that he had stressed in numerous earlier interviews with me and others. But this time he rejected every argument. By the end of our talk, it was quite clear to me that his views on global events, on the future course of NATO’s military surge in southern Afghanistan, and on nation building efforts throughout his country have undergone a sea change. His single overriding aim now is making peace with the Taliban and ending the war—and he is convinced it will help resolve all the other problems he faces, such as corruption, bad governance, and the lack of an administration.

Karzai’s new outlook is the most dramatic political shift he has undergone in the twenty-six years that I have known him. Although it is partly fueled by conspiracy theories, it is also based on nine years of ever growing frustration with the West.

He no longer supports the war on terrorism as defined by Washington and says that the current military surge in the south by the United States and its NATO allies is unhelpful because it relies on body counts of dead Taliban as a measure of progress against the insurgency, which to many would be a throwback to Vietnam and a contradiction of Petraeus’s new counterinsurgency theory to win over the people. In particular he wants an immediate end to the night raids conducted by US Special Operations forces—a demand that has put him in direct conflict with US commander General David Petraeus. According to Karzai, these raids—which in the last three months have killed or captured 368 mid-level Taliban leaders and killed 968 foot soldiers—are counterproductive because they antagonize the civilian population. Indeed, no one knows how many civilians are included in the casualty figures, which are provided by the US military.
At the NATO summit, President Obama dismissed Karzai’s concerns about night raids,
according to press accounts. “If we’re ponying up billions of dollars to ensure that President Karzai can continue to build and develop his country,” Obama said, “then he’s got to also pay attention to our concerns as well.”

Karzai also maintains that there is a political alternative to NATO: much more of the onus could be placed on countries in the region– especially Iran and Pakistan—to end the war and help reach a settlement with the Taliban. Senior Western and Afghan officials in Kabul say Iran has stepped up its support to the Taliban in western Afghanistan in recent months, possibly as a bargaining chip for future talks on a peace settlement. For its part, Pakistan, where the entire leadership of the Taliban is based, wants a leading part in any talks that NATO or Karzai may have with the Taliban. Yet Karzai told me that in the last six months neither Iran nor Pakistan has provided any substantive support to facilitate peacemaking.

Karzai is desperately tired and angry at the mixed and multiple messages he has received for the past nine years, first from Washington, and now from NATO. He still is irked by the fact that President Bush refused to provide anything close to adequate resources or troops for securing Afghanistan for four years after 2001.

More recently, President Obama has vacillated between bolstering the surge and offering firm dates for the start of a withdrawal. At the NATO summit, Obama dropped his July 2011 date for the start of a US troop withdrawal, adopting instead a “transition” to Afghan forces without a formal US troop withdrawal. The full transition and drawdown of NATO troops will now not happen until 2014, and even that, NATO officials say, may not mean an end to combat operations, with allied forces remaining in a “supporting role.”

Not surprisingly, the Afghans are totally confused. The skepticism in the White House and the CIA about whether Petraeus’s surge is actually working is also a message that reaches Karzai and adds to his own suspicions about what the Americans are up to.
With his weakened position, the war escalating across the country, and Western forces wanting to leave, Karzai still wants to appear presidential and reassert Afghan sovereignty. This is exactly what the communist President Najibullah did as Soviet troops began to leave Afghanistan in 1989—only to find himself in the middle of a civil war.

Karzai may want to imitate Najibullah, but he has none of the earlier president’s base of power, and Karzai’s reassertion of Afghan sovereignty can now only come through an end to the war and a settlement with the Taliban. But he is giving contradictory signals to Afghans by acting as both the government in charge and a one-man opposition who often bemoans the deaths of Taliban at the hands of coalition forces—but not of his own soldiers, who are fighting alongside NATO.

Most of his ministers do not endorse Karzai’s new hostility to the Western forces and continue to work well with NATO. However the extensive corruption charges that swirl about the Karzai family and his ministers continue to put them at odds with the international community.

Karzai and the US will not part ways but there is clearly a fundamental and growing tension between them that does not augur well for either the US or Afghanistan.

November 22, 2010 midnight