Archive for April, 2010


Terrorism Studies

Social scientists do counterinsurgency.

by Nicholas Lemann

This article was taken from The New Yorker. Click here for the link.

A few days after the September 11th attacks—which killed seven times as many people as any previous act of terrorism—President George W. Bush declared that the United States was engaged in a global war on terror. September 11th seemed to confirm that we were in a clash of civilizations between modernity and radical Islam. We had a worldwide enemy with a cause that was general, not specific (“They hate our freedoms”), and we now had to take on the vast, long-running mission—equal in scope to the Cold War—of defeating all ambitious terrorist groups everywhere, along with the states that harbored them. The war on terror wasn’t a hollow rhetorical trope. It led to the American conquest and occupation first of Afghanistan, which had sheltered the leaders of Al Qaeda, and then of Iraq, which had no direct connection to September 11th.

Today, few consider the global war on terror to have been a success, either as a conceptual framing device or as an operation. President Obama has pointedly avoided stringing those fateful words together in public. His foreign-policy speech in Cairo, last June, makes an apt bookend with Bush’s war-on-terror speech in Washington, on September 20, 2001. Obama not only didn’t talk about a war; he carefully avoided using the word “terrorism,” preferring “violent extremism.”

But if “global war” isn’t the right approach to terror what is? Experts on terrorism have produced shelves’ worth of new works on this question. For outsiders, reading this material can be a jarring experience. In the world of terrorism studies, the rhetoric of righteousness gives way to equilibrium equations. Nobody is good and nobody is evil. Terrorists, even suicide bombers, are not psychotics or fanatics; they’re rational actors—that is, what they do is explicable in terms of their beliefs and desires—who respond to the set of incentives that they find before them. The tools of analysis are realism, rational choice, game theory, decision theory: clinical and bloodless modes of thinking.

That approach, along with these scholars’ long immersion in the subject, can produce some surprising observations. In “A Question of Command: Counterinsurgency from the Civil War to Iraq” (Yale; $30), Mark Moyar, who holds the Kim T. Adamson Chair of Insurgency and Terrorism at the Marine Corps University, tells us that, in Afghanistan, the Taliban’s pay scale (financed by the protection payments demanded from opium farmers) is calibrated to be a generous multiple of the pay received by military and police personnel (financed by U.S. aid); no wonder official Afghan forces are no match for the insurgents. Audrey Kurth Cronin, a professor of strategy at the National War College, reminds us, in “How Terrorism Ends: Understanding the Decline and Demise of Terrorist Campaigns” (Princeton; $29.95), that one can find out about Al Qaeda’s policy for coördinating attacks by reading a book called “The Management of Barbarism,” by Abu Bakr Naji, which has been available via Al Qaeda’s online library. (Naji advises that, if jihadis are arrested in one country after an attack, a cell elsewhere should launch an attack as a display of resilience.) In “Radical, Religious, and Violent: The New Economics of Terrorism” (M.I.T.; $24.95), Eli Berman traces the origins of the Taliban to a phenomenon that long preceded the birth of modern radical Islam: they are a direct descendant of the Deobandi movement, which began in nineteenth-century India in opposition to British colonial rule and, among other things, established a system of religious schools.

What is terrorism, anyway? The expert consensus converges on a few key traits. Terrorists have political or ideological objectives (the purpose can’t be mere profiteering). They are “non-state actors,” not part of conventional governments. Their intention is to intimidate an audience larger than their immediate victims, in the hope of generating widespread panic and, often, a response from the enemy so brutal that it ends up backfiring by creating sympathy for the terrorists’ cause. Their targets are often ordinary civilians, and, even when terrorists are trying to kill soldiers, their attacks often don’t take place on the field of battle. The modern age of suicide terrorism can be said to have begun with Hezbollah’s attack, in October of 1983, on U.S. marines who were sleeping in their barracks in Beirut.

Once you take terrorists to be rational actors, you need a theory about their rationale. Robert Pape, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, built a database of three hundred and fifteen suicide attacks between 1980 and 2003, and drew a resoundingly clear conclusion: “What nearly all suicide terrorist attacks have in common is a specific secular and strategic goal: to compel modern democracies to withdraw military forces from territory that the terrorists consider to be their homeland.” As he wrote in “Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism” (2005), what terrorists want is “to change policy,” often the policy of a faraway major power. Pape asserts that “offensive military action rarely works” against terrorism, so, in his view, the solution to the problem of terrorism couldn’t be simpler: withdraw. Pape’s “nationalist theory of suicide terrorism” applies not just to Hamas and Hezbollah but also to Al Qaeda; its real goal, he says, is the removal of the U.S. military from the Arabian Peninsula and other Muslim countries. Pape says that “American military policy in the Persian Gulf was most likely the pivotal factor leading to September 11”; the only effective way to prevent future Al Qaeda attacks would be for the United States to take all its forces out of the Middle East.

By contrast, Mark Moyar dismisses the idea that “people’s social, political, and economic grievances” are the main cause of popular insurgencies. He regards anti-insurgent campaigns as “a contest between elites.” Of the many historical examples he offers, the best known is L. Paul Bremer’s de-Baathification of Iraq, in the spring of 2003, in which the entire authority structure of Iraq was disbanded at a stroke, creating a leadership cadre for a terrorist campaign against the American occupiers. One of Moyar’s chapters is about the uncontrollably violent American South during Reconstruction—a subject that a number of authors have turned to during the war on terror—and it demonstrates better than his chapter on Iraq the power of his theory to offend contemporary civilian sensibilities. Rather than disempowering the former Confederates and empowering the freed slaves, Moyar says, the victorious Union should have maintained order by leaving the more coöperative elements of the slaveholding, seceding class in control. Effective counterinsurgency, he says, entails selecting the élites you can work with and co-opting them.

In “Talking to Terrorists: Why America Must Engage with Its Enemies” (Basic; $26.95), Mark Perry describes a little-known attempt to apply Moyar’s model in Iraq. The book jacket identifies Perry as “a military, intelligence, and foreign affairs analyst and writer,” but his writing conveys a strong impression that he has not spent his career merely watching the action from a safe seat in the bleachers. Much of the book is devoted to a detailed description, complete with many on-the-record quotes, of a series of meetings in Amman, Jordan, in 2004, between a group of Marine officers based in Anbar province, in western Iraq, and an Iraqi businessman named Talal al-Gaood. Gaood, a Sunni and a former member of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party, suggested he could broker a deal that would make the horrific, almost daily terrorist attacks in western Iraq go away.

Perry’s tone calls to mind a Tom Clancy novel. Tough, brave, tight-lipped officers do endless battle not just with the enemy in the field but also with cowardly, dissembling political bureaucrats in the Pentagon, the State Department, and the White House. The crux of his story is that a promising negotiation was tragically cut short, just as it was about to bear fruit, when the key negotiator, a Marine colonel, was “PNG’d”—declared persona non grata—by Washington and denied entry to Jordan. Not long after that, Gaood died suddenly, of a heart ailment, at the age of forty-four (according to Perry, he was so beloved that his wake had to be held in a soccer stadium), putting an end to any possibility of further talks. It’s startling to read about American military commanders in the field taking on a freelance diplomatic mission of this magnitude, and to imagine that there was a businessman in Amman who, on the right terms, could have snapped his fingers and ended what we back home thought of as pervasive, wild-eyed jihad.

What dominates the writing of experts about terrorism, however, is a more fine-grained idea of terrorists’ motives—at the level of ethnic group, tribe, village, and even individual calculation. Pape thinks of terrorists as being motivated by policy and strategic concerns; Cronin, of the National War College, shares Pape’s view that most terrorists are, essentially, terroirists—people who want control of land—but she is also attuned to their narrower, more local considerations. The odds are against them, because of the natural forces of entropy and their lack of access to ordinary military power and other resources, but, if they do succeed, they can be counted upon to try to ascend the ladder of legitimacy, first to insurgency, then to some kind of governing status. (Examples of that ultimate kind of success would be the Irgun and the Stern Gang, in Israel, Sinn Fein and the Provisional I.R.A., in Northern Ireland, and the Palestine Liberation Organization, in the West Bank and Gaza.)

Cronin goes through an elaborate menu of techniques for hastening the end of a terrorist campaign. None of them rise to the level of major policy, let alone a war on terror; in general, the smaller their scope the more effective Cronin finds them to be. She believes, for instance, that jailing the celebrated head of a terrorist organization is a more effective countermeasure than killing him. (Abimael Guzmán, the head of the Shining Path, in Peru, was, after his capture in 1992, “displayed in a cage, in a striped uniform, recanting and asking his followers to lay down their arms.” That took the wind out of the Shining Path’s sails. A surprise ambush that martyred him might not have.) Negotiating with terrorists—a practice usually forsworn, often done—can work in the long term, Cronin says, not because it is likely to produce a peace treaty but because it enables a state to gain intelligence about its opponents, exploit differences and hive off factions, and stall while time works its erosive wonders.

Cronin offers a confident prescription, based on her small-bore approach to terrorism, for defeating the apparently intractable Al Qaeda. The idea is to take advantage of the group’s highly decentralized structure by working to alienate its far-flung component parts, getting them to see their local interests as being at odds with Al Qaeda’s global ones. “Bin Laden and Zawahiri have focused on exploiting and displacing the local concerns of the Chechens, the Uighurs, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the Salafist Group for Call and Combat in Algeria, and many others, and sought to replace them with an international agenda,” Cronin writes. The United States should now try to “sever the connection between Islamism and individualized local contexts for political violence, and then address them separately.” It should work with these local groups, not in an effort to convert them to democracy and love of America but in order to pry them away, one by one, from Al Qaeda. (“Calling the al-Qaeda movement ‘jihadi international,’ as the Israeli intelligence services do,” she writes, “encourages a grouping together of disparate threats that undermines our best counterterrorism. It is exactly the mistake we made when we lumped the Chinese and the Soviets together in the 1950s and early 1960s, calling them ‘international Communists.’ ”)

Eli Berman, an economist who has done field work among ultra-orthodox religious groups in Israel, is even more granular in his view of what terrorists want: he stresses the social services that terror and insurgent groups provide to their members. Berman’s book is an extended application to terrorism of an influential 1994 article by the economist Laurence Iannaccone, called “Why Strict Churches Are Strong.” Trying to answer the question of why religious denominations that impose onerous rules and demand large sacrifices of their members seem to thrive better than those which do not, Iannaccone surmised that strict religions function as economic clubs. They appeal to recruits in part because they are able to offer very high levels of benefits—not just spiritual ones but real services—and this involves high “defection constraints.” In denominations where it’s easy for individual members to opt out of an obligation, it is impossible to maintain such benefits. Among the religious groups Iannaccone has written about, impediments to defection can be emotionally painful, such as expulsion or the promise of eternal damnation; in many terrorist groups, the defection constraints reflect less abstract considerations: this-worldly torture, maiming, and murder.

Berman’s main examples are Hamas, Hezbollah, Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, in Iraq, and the Taliban, whom Berman calls “some of the most accomplished rebels of modern times.” All these organizations, he points out, are effective providers of services in places where there is dire need of them. Their members are also subject to high defection constraints, because their education and their location don’t put them in the way of a lot of opportunity and because they know they will be treated brutally if they do defect.

Like most other terrorism experts, Berman sees no crevasse between insurgents and terrorists. Instead, he considers them to be members of a single category he calls “rebels,” who use a variety of techniques, depending on the circumstances. Suicide bombing represents merely one end of the spectrum; its use is an indication not of the fanaticism or desperation of the individual bomber (most suicide bombers—recall Muhammad Atta’s professional-class background—are not miserably poor and alienated adolescent males) but of the supremely high cohesion of the group. Suicide bombing, Berman notes, increases when the terrorist group begins to encounter hard targets, like American military bases, that are impervious to everything else. The Taliban used traditional guerrilla-warfare techniques when they fought the Northern Alliance in the mountains. When their enemies became Americans and other Westerners operating from protected positions and with advanced equipment, the Taliban were more likely to resort to suicide bombing. How else could a small group make a big impact?

The idea of approaching terrorists as rational actors and defeating them by a cool recalibration of their incentives extends beyond the academic realm. Its most influential published expression is General David Petraeus’s 2006 manual “Counterinsurgency.” Written in dry management-ese, punctuated by charts and tables, the manual stands as a rebuke of the excesses of Bush’s global war on terror.

“Soldiers and Marines are expected to be nation builders as well as warriors,” the introduction to the manual declares. “They must be prepared to help reestablish institutions and local security forces and assist in rebuilding infrastructure and basic services. They must be able to facilitate establishing local governance and the rule of law.” The manual’s most famous formulation is “clear-hold-build,” and its heaviest emphasis is on the third of those projects; the counterinsurgent comes across a bit like a tough but kindhearted nineteen-fifties cop, walking a beat, except that he does more multitasking. He collects garbage, digs wells, starts schools and youth clubs, does media relations, improves the business climate. What he doesn’t do is torture, kill in revenge, or overreact. He’s Gandhi in I.E.D.-proof armor.

Petraeus has clearly absorbed the theory that terrorist and insurgent groups are sustained by their provision of social services. Great swaths of the manual are devoted to elaborating ways in which counterinsurgents must compete for people’s loyalty by providing better services in the villages and tribal encampments of the deep-rural Middle East. It’s hard to think of a service that the manual doesn’t suggest, except maybe yoga classes. And, like Berman, the manual is skeptical about the utility, in fighting terrorism, of big ideas about morality, policy, or even military operations. Here’s a representative passage:


Another tendency is to attempt large-scale, mass programs. In particular, Soldiers and Marines tend to apply ideas that succeed in one area to another area. They also try to take successful small programs and replicate them on a larger scale. This usually does not work. Often small-scale programs succeed because of local conditions or because their size kept them below the enemy’s notice and helped them flourish unharmed. . . . Small-scale projects rarely proceed smoothly into large programs. Keep programs small.

One problem with such programs is that they can be too small, and too nice, to win the hearts and minds of the populace away from their traditional leaders. The former civil-affairs officer A. Heather Coyne tells the story, recounted in Berman’s book, of a program that offered people in Sadr City ten dollars a day to clean the streets—something right out of the counterinsurgency manual. The American colonel who was running the program went out to talk to people and find out how effective the program was at meeting its larger goal. This is what he heard: “We are so grateful for the program. And we’re so grateful to Muqtada al-Sadr for doing this program.” Evidently, Sadr had simply let it be known that he was behind this instance of social provision, and people believed him. For Berman, the lesson is “a general principle: economic development and governance can be at odds when the territory is not fully controlled by the government.” That’s a pretty discouraging admission—it implies that helping people peacefully in an area where insurgents are well entrenched may only help the insurgents.

One could criticize the manual from a military perspective, as Mark Moyar does, for being too nonviolent and social-worky. Moyar admires General Petraeus personally (Petraeus being the kind of guy who, while recuperating from major surgery at a hospital after taking a bullet during a live-ammunition exercise, had his doctors pull all the tubes out of his arm and did fifty pushups to prove that he should be released early). But Moyar is appalled by the manual’s tendency to downplay the use of force: “The manual repeatedly warned of the danger of alienating the populace through the use of lethal force and insisted that counterinsurgents minimize the use of force, even if in some instances it meant letting enemy combatants escape. . . . As operations in Iraq and elsewhere have shown, aggressive and well-led offensive operations to chase down insurgents have frequently aided the counterinsurgent cause by robbing the insurgents of the initiative, disrupting their activities, and putting them in prison or in the grave.”

Because terrorism is such an enormous problem—it takes place constantly, all over the world, in conflict zones and in big cities, in more and less developed countries—one can find an example of just about every anti-terrorist tactic working (or failing to). One of the most prolific contemporary terrorist groups, the Tamil Tigers, of Sri Lanka, appears to have been defeated by the Sinhalese Buddhist-dominated government, through a conventional, if unusually violent, military campaign, which ended last spring. In that instance, brutal repression seems to have been the key. But the Russians have tried that intermittently in Chechnya, without the same effect; the recent suicide bombing in the Moscow subway by Chechen terrorists prompted an Op-Ed piece in the Times by Robert Pape and two associates, arguing that the answer is for Russia to dial back its “indirect military occupation” of Chechnya.

The point of social science is to be careful, dispassionate, and analytical, to get beyond the lure of anecdote and see what the patterns really are. But in the case of counterterrorism the laboratory approach can’t be made to scan neatly, because there isn’t a logic that can be counted upon to apply in all cases. One could say that the way to reduce a group’s terrorist activity is by reaching a political compromise with it; Northern Ireland seems to be an example. But doing that can make terrorism more attractive to other groups—a particular risk for the United States, which operates in so many places around the world. After the Hezbollah attack on the Marine barracks, in 1983, President Ronald Reagan pulled out of Lebanon, a decision that may have set off more terrorism in the Middle East over the long term. Immediate, savage responses—George W. Bush, rather than Reagan—can work in one contained area and fail more broadly. If the September 11th attacks were meant in part to provoke a response that would make the United States unpopular in the Muslim world, they certainly succeeded.

Even if one could prove that a set of measured responses to specific terrorist acts was effective, or that it’s always a good idea to alter terrorists’ cost-benefit calculations, there’s the problem implied by the tactic’s name: people on the receiving end of terrorism, and not just the immediate victims, do, in fact, enter a state of terror. The emotion—and its companion, thirst for revenge—inevitably figure large in the political life of the targeted country. As Cronin dryly notes, “In the wake of major attacks, officials tend to respond (very humanly) to popular passions and anxiety, resulting in policy made primarily on tactical grounds and undermining their long-term interests. Yet this is not an effective way to gain the upper hand against nonstate actors.” The implication is that somewhere in the world there might be a politician with the skill to get people to calm down about terrorists in their midst, so that a rational policy could be pursued. That’s hard to imagine.

Another fundamental problem in counterterrorism emerges from a point many of the experts agree on: that terrorism, uniquely horrifying as it is, doesn’t belong to an entirely separate and containable realm of human experience, like the one occupied by serial killers. Instead, it’s a tactic whose aims bleed into the larger, endless struggle of people to control land, set up governments, and exercise power. History is about managing that struggle, sometimes successfully, sometimes not, rather than eliminating the impulses that underlie it.

For Americans, the gravest terrorist threat right now is halfway across the world, in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. On paper, in all three countries, the experts’ conceptual model works. Lesser terrorist groups remain violent but seem gradually to lose force, and greater ones rise to the level of political participation. At least some elements of the Taliban have been talking with the Afghan government, with the United States looking on approvingly. In Iraq, during the recent elections, some Sunni groups set off bombs near polling places, but others won parliamentary seats. Yet this proof of concept does not solve the United States’ terrorism problem. Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan all have pro-American governments that are weak. They don’t have firm control over the area within their borders, and they lack the sort of legitimacy that would make terrorism untempting. Now that General Petraeus is the head of the Central Command and has authority over American troops in the region, our forces could practice all that he has preached, achieve positive results, and still be unable to leave, because there is no national authority that can be effective against terrorism.

Long ago, great powers that had vital interests far away simply set up colonies. That wound up being one of the leading causes of terrorism. Then, as an alternative to colonialism, great powers supported dictatorial client states. That, too, often led to terrorism. During the Bush Administration, creating democracies (by force if necessary) in the Middle East was supposed to serve American interests, but, once again, the result was to increase terrorism. Even if all terrorism turns out to be local, effective, long-running counterterrorism has to be national. States still matter most. And finding trustworthy partner states in the region of the world where suicide bombers are killing Americans is so hard that it makes fighting terrorism look easy.


Welcome to the New Honduras, Where Right-Wing Death Squads Proliferate

The new regime in Honduras is assassinating union leaders, teachers and journalists. Why does the U.S. support it?

By Kari Lydersen

This article was taken from Alternet. Click here for the link.

Things are back to normal in Honduras.

At least that’s the message of right-wing president Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo Sosa and much of the international community. Several U.S. and international agencies are in the process of restoring aid to Honduras. U.S. biofuels, mining and other businesses are ramping up for increased investment in the impoverished Central American country. The massive repression of public protests, curfews and censorship that followed last summer’s coup d’etat have abated.

But this image ignores a new reality in Honduras: the emergence of what many are calling death squads carrying out targeted assassinations, brutal attacks and threats. They have created an extreme climate of fear for the campesinos (peasants), teachers, union members, journalists and other community leaders involved in the resistance movement that continues to oppose the coup and Lobo’s election.

Dozens were killed in street violence between the June 28 coup and the November 29 election, with the deaths largely attributed to police, military forces and other coup supporters. Lobo has tried to distance himself from the coup regime, but since the election, at least a dozen people have been killed and others beaten or raped in attacks with clear political hallmarks. The victims include a teacher shot in front of his students; a young union leader whose body was found with signs of torture after she disappeared; the daughter of a prominent anti-coup TV reporter shot in her home; five journalists killed in March alone; and a TV reporter killed April 21. In December, well-known gay rights activist Walter Trochez was kidnapped in Tegucigalpa and interrogated about the resistance while being pistol-whipped in the face. He escaped, but was murdered a week later. In February, a woman who was raped after a post-coup protest was kidnapped and terrorized by men including the rapist, who said “Pepe says hi,” a clear allusion to the president.

Authorities have largely attributed the murders and attacks to random crime and gang violence. Street crime has been at epidemic levels in Honduras for years, and has reportedly increased since the coup. And a few prominent victims of attacks or threats have been coup supporters. But international rights groups say a trend of violence and threats against community-based resistance leaders is undeniable and part of a highly orchestrated campaign to tamp down the popular resistance movement which continues to call for a new constitutional assembly and a reshaping of Honduran society, including the restoration of worker protections and social policies instituted under deposed president Manuel Zelaya but terminated since the coup.

“They’ve pulled away from the mass repression in the streets and gone for individual assassinations,” said Victoria Cervantes of the Chicago group La Voz de los de Abajo, who met with resistance groups in Honduras after the coup and the election. “You don’t look like a military regime, and it’s cheaper than sweeping up people in the streets. But it terrorizes large groups of people, perhaps more effectively than the mass repression.”

This spring at least one campesino has been murdered and at least four shot in a land struggle in the Bajo Aguan area, where campesinos are trying to reclaim land from wealthy palm plantation owners. Campesinos who occupy and lay claim to unused land have long suffered violence from police and hired guns. Zelaya was largely supportive of such campesino movements, which are legal under agrarian reform laws, but the conflicts have escalated since his ouster.

In the Bajo Aguan area, locals say, former Colombian paramilitary members have been hired to terrorize campesinos. And Billy Joya, a notorious member of the “Battalion 316” death squad during the 1980s military dictatorship, has reportedly returned to train militias to fight drug traffickers and “guerrillas,” which is taken to mean the resistance movement. Post-dictatorship, Joya was charged with illegal detention, torture and murder of opponents. He has since lived in Spain and the U.S., continually pleading his innocence while working as an international businessman and security adviser. A 2006 report by the Mesoamerica Institute for Central America Studies says Joya worked as an adviser to Zelaya’s security secretary Alvaro Romero. Another of Zelaya’s cabinet ministers, Milton Jimenez, was among the six students Joya was charged with illegally detaining and torturing in 1982.

While the land struggles Joya was hired to fight predate the coup, campesino and resistance leaders say they are integral to the larger struggle over Honduras’s political and economic future which has driven the past year’s events.

In light of the violence and human rights abuses, Honduran and international rights groups have decried Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s move to restore more than $30 million in aid, including military aid. After the U.S. announced on March 4 that it would fully restore all aid to Honduras, the Inter-American Development Bank agreed to release half a billion dollars suspended since the coup. The International Monetary Fund has committed $160 million in new funding, and the World Bank also recognizes the new government. The Organization of American States is considering re-admitting Honduras, at Clinton’s behest. Many Latin American governments have likewise recognized or promised to recognize Lobo’s regime. But governments including Venezuela, Ecuador, Cuba, Argentina, Bolivia and Nicaragua still refuse.

The restoration of aid, while theoretically a boon to the poor, is crucial for the Lobo administration and business interests that backed the coup as a symbol of legitimacy.

“The main lobbyists for lightening the sanctions from the U.S., the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank were coming from the business sector,” said Alex Main, a policy analyst with the Center for Economic and Policy Research. “They were very worried about the economic effects [of the coup] and since they themselves were involved they had to defend it.”

Cervantes and Alexy Lanza, a Honduran now living in Chicago, said during October and January visits resistance members told them they want aid withheld regardless of the economic impacts, to avoid legitimizing the coup and elections.

“The resistance is worried about normalization of this new golpe (coup government), where death squads, privatization and intimidation become the new normal,” said Lanza.

Main pointed to Lobo’s appointment of former military commander and coup leader Romeo Vasquez Velasquez to head the Hondutel telecommunications agency as a prime example of coup plotters profiting from the new regime. Vasquez has said he will use his authority over telecommunications to do surveillance on drug traffickers and others; many take this to include the resistance.

“That’s ugly stuff, and it didn’t even merit rebuke from the U.S.,” said Main. “The U.S. could have crippled Honduras with trade restrictions, the U.S. was in a position to change things in a matter of days, but they chose not to.”

Honduras has relatively little trade with countries other than the U.S. and its small Central American neighbors. And its maquiladora sector, producing textiles largely for the U.S. market, has been hard hit by competition from Asian producers and the economic downturn.

Hence the political situation in Honduras would seem to have little impact on the U.S. or regional economies and to be of relatively little interest to other governments. But Honduras’s economic and political symbolism has far exceeded its actual economic impact since the coup. All sides see it as a symbol of the tension between an increasingly integrated and powerful Latin American bloc excluding the U.S. and based on the social democratic Bolivarian ideals advanced by Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador…or the previously dominant neoliberal model characterized by the influence of the U.S. and multinational companies.

“Honduras can be seen as a test case — people in the State Department are nervous about what they see as the [Venezuelan president Hugo] ‘Chavez menace’ and the growing left in Latin America,” said Adrienne Pine, an assistant anthropology professor at American University and senior research associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA).  “Honduras would seem like a weak link easy to pick off. If they can succeed there, similar coups can be carried out in places like Nicaragua and Venezuela.”

COHA executive director Larry Birns noted that the symbolism is so important, the U.S. has been willing to alienate powerful trading partner Brazil — which vehemently opposed the coup — with its stance. “Washington almost made a calculated decision that Honduras was more important than Brazil, it was a decision which country the U.S. will identify with,” said Birns.

Under the brief reign of coup leader Robert Micheletti, the Honduran Congress voted to withdraw from ALBA (the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas, in Spanish) the Latin American trade and support bloc that had provided low cost or free medical care, tractors and other necessities to Honduras. The prime feature of ALBA is the PetroCaribe alliance wherein Venezuela had provided Honduras oil on generous credit terms: 20,000 barrels of crude a day, 40 percent of it paid at just a 1 percent interest rate over 25 years. The Honduran government is still technically party to the PetroCaribe arrangement, but since Venezuela does not recognize the Lobo government, no oil is forthcoming. The Lobo administration has reportedly engaged Zelaya’s former UN ambassador, Jorge Arturo Reina, as an ambassador to ALBA to try to restore oil assistance.

“Lobo would be happy to keep PetroCaribe and even go into ALBA and get all of the member countries to recognize his administration, but he knows it is impossible for him to do so and not alienate his allies, the Honduran business elites, conservative political groups, the military — all of whom orchestrated, funded and backed the coup — and of course the U.S.,” said Rodolfo Pastor de Maria y Campos, Zelaya’s deputy chief at the Honduran embassy in Washington through February. He now works with the advocacy group Hondurans for Democracy. “He depends on all of the above to remain president and has been warned to behave if he wishes to prevent being kicked out like Zelaya.”

Any aid is sorely needed in the country known as Latin American’s third poorest after Guyana and Nicaragua. But Hondurans say the economic impact of the coup and subsequent repression paired with the economic effects of stepped-up privatization and neoliberal policies mean increasing poverty, rural migration to already overburdened cities and migration to the U.S. and other countries.

“There are people leaving daily, much more than before,” said Luther Castillo Harry, a doctor in the Atlantic coastal communities of Garifuna, African-descended Hondurans considered indigenous. “Many of them are dying on the way to the U.S.”

Since government funding was revoked after the coup, Castillo has seen 11 local community clinics with live-in doctors shuttered, and the hospital he runs struggles to secure basic necessities and medications. This is just one example of how conditions for Hondurans living outside the elite business and military class have deteriorated since the coup. A report by the Center for Economic and Policy Research notes that after healthy economic growth under Zelaya, the economy contracted since the coup, and the coup regime’s curfew alone cost about $50 million.

“Tourism has been crushed, really large sectors of the economy are just not functioning, the whole public sector has just been devastated,” said Pine, author of a book about maquiladoras, violence and alcohol in Honduras. “At the height of the massive repression there were almost constant curfews, so people were forced to stay inside their homes and weren’t able to go to work. Many lost jobs, businesses folded, people who survived by selling things on street had no way to maintain themselves.”

Lobo’s proposed new budget won’t help. It raises taxes but cuts spending on most social, education and health programs, while increasing budgets for the military by 23 percent and expanding subsidies to promote business by 15 percent.

Honduran and international rights groups say the U.S. must reverse course to suspend aid and otherwise pressure the Lobo government to stop human rights abuses and allow the peaceful resistance movement to follow its course, including the call for a popular assembly to vote on drafting a new Honduran constitution. It was exactly this proposal, which, contrary to propaganda would not have extended Zelaya’s term, sparked the coup in the first place.

Honduras is one of few Central American countries that has never had a powerful united leftist movement. Hence during the civil wars that wracked the region in the 1980s, Honduras was not at war itself but served as “an unsinkable aircraft carrier” for the U.S., in Birn’s words, to carry out its proxy wars. Honduran residents and U.S. analysts say events of the past year may have galvanized a new level of political resistance and coordination in Honduras.

“Honduras will become a tinder box,” said Birns. “That was one of the great things that happened under Zelaya – he set forth a chain of events to create a new country no longer willing to tolerate receiving miserable handouts from society.”

Since its days as a banana republic run essentially as a huge plantation for foreign companies, Honduras has been economically enslaved by foreign interests who capitalized on its resources and labor pool giving little in return. Many critics say this pattern was furthered across the region with the adoption of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), which was signed by Zelaya and originally shepherded by former president Ricardo Maduro.

Opponents say CAFTA has already increased poverty, economic inequality and displacement in Central America.

“The recent surge in violence in Honduras — like last year’s coup — has its roots in the country’s profound political and economic polarization, brought on by decades of failed trade and economic policies,” said Todd Tucker, research director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch. “Honduran leaders should have long ago cultivated an economic development strategy with substantial yet targeted state involvement and a focus on value-added manufactures and the domestic and regional market. What Hondurans got instead was a series of governments that did the opposite.”

Main thinks if the targeted attacks, threats and murders continue without censure from the U.S. or international agencies, the resistance movement faces a dim future.

“They’re picking off resistance activists from different sectors,” he said. “If they can keep doing it with impunity, I don’t see how the resistance can survive.”

But Juan Almendares, a Tegucigalpa-based doctor well known internationally for his public health and human rights work over three decades, is confident the resistance will bear fruit. He sees it as the convergence of long-time campesino struggles with a growing awareness of environmentalism, labor rights, LGBT rights and other issues among the Honduran public.

“The resistance is the most beautiful experience of my life,” he said. “It’s transformative. The spirit of the people has been released. This is a pre-revolutionary process, with solidarity and unity. It’s a new pueblo, a new people.”

Kari Lydersen, a regular contributor to AlterNet, also writes for the Washington Post and is an instructor for the Urban Youth International Journalism Program in Chicago.


My Life as an Insurgent, And Why I Quit

A former Iraqi member of al-Qaeda in Anbar province discusses why he chose to fight the U.S. occupation and why he eventually left.

by “Abu Najim”

This article is taken from Alternet and was put out by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting. Click here for the link.

I never thought of fighting the Americans because I didn’t regard the United States as a colonizing country. I thought it was a civilized state. Unfortunately, after the invasion, the opposite proved true.

President Bush didn’t send doctors and engineers, or construction and democracy specialists, or experts from NASA and Google. Instead, he sent uneducated gangsters who didn’t know anything about Arabic and Iraqi traditions. This was one of the main issues that triggered the resistance.

When I saw the first U.S. tanks in Fallujah in 2003 I opposed their presence, but at the same time I had always been against Saddam Hussein’s regime. I just wished that change would not have come from the outside. A perfect change would have been through a coup or an assassination, not an occupation.

I joined al-Qaeda on April 28, 2003, after several U.S. soldiers killed more than 13 Iraqi civilians from the rooftop of an elementary school in Hay al-Nazzal, south of Fallujah. The Iraqis were staging a demonstration and demanded that the Americans leave the school.

The Americans killed the civilians and then refused to let us remove the dead bodies. It was then that I felt the rush to fight. (Editor’s note: The U.S. military maintained that its soldiers were returning fire.)

I met several young men who were thinking of attacking the school. At 1 am, eight of us went to the school carrying RPG7s and AK-47s, which we found at deserted Iraqi army bases. We were surprised to find another group preparing an attack.

We quickly agreed to launch a coordinated assault. It lasted several minutes and we fled quickly, fearing strikes from Apaches and Blackhawks.

The group we met was from al-Qaeda.

Driven By Vengeance

My goal in fighting the Americans was to force them to leave.

The event that made me angry and committed to killing was when my best friend was killed in an air strike on a house in central Fallujah. He was passing by that house.

My anger quickly subsided when I opened fire on a Marine and saw him collapse. I thought, “I’ve avenged my friend.”

My brigade was responsible for engaging the Americans at a distance of less than 200 meters. We were 120 fighters in Fallujah. Only a few are still alive and even fewer would be objective and fair in telling the story.

I had more than 60 engagements with the Americans while I was with al-Qaeda. I did not go out on a mission unless it was to fight them. I feel very lucky to have survived all of these operations. Perhaps it was God’s will that allowed me to survive and tell my story.

Al-Qaeda’s combat technique is similar to guerrilla warfare. It is not systematic, which made it difficult for the Americans to fight back. If we were a regular army the Americans would have then be able to defeat us, but we were like the liquid that slips through your fingers.

Some operations required a lot of planning while others only needed a few hours. The most difficult thing was staging a tactical retreat. Most of our casualties occurred not during our attack but when retreating. The Americans react quickly. Within a few minutes after each operation, their choppers and soldiers would show up and we would come under fire.

As a result, we devised strategies such as wearing black clothing, hiding in trees and orchards and parking getaway cars at a distance.

We received intelligence by bribing police, army and Shia sources. The Americans considered [Shia] more trustworthy than Sunni.

We used to communicate using Thuraya (satellite) phones or through human contacts. We would meet as needed. Sometimes, we would have three meetings over several days, but a week could pass without a single gathering.

One of the things we witnessed was how a $100 dollar improvised explosive device, IED, was capable of destroying an armored vehicle that cost one million dollars. The IEDs were the best weapon for al-Qaeda and the insurgents in Iraq.

I never planted IEDs in cars. I was in a combat brigade against the Americans and this is why I am at ease with myself.

I was seriously wounded four times. We had a small clinic in central Fallujah that treated wounded Arab fighters who couldn’t go to public hospitals. This clinic had medical supplies and medicine donated by pharmacies. The doctors were in Fallujah. Some of them volunteered to treat the wounded. Others were sent for and would show up minutes later.

Islam teaches us to tell the truth, even if it is against us. There was a Marine who fought bravely against us in 2004. He fiercely repelled many of our attacks on his own. But he couldn’t keep it up for long because he was outnumbered by al-Qaeda fighters.

He went down during the engagement, clutching his dog tag. I respected him a lot because of his fighting. I wished that the Iraqi government had half of this Marine’s courage and his sacrifice. Iraq would have been a better place.

Arab “Martyrs”

My brigade consisted of Iraqis and foreign Arabs. The foreign Arabs didn’t want to spend time with us. They carried out their duties and went to their special headquarters in Fallujah, the location of which was constantly changing.

This was one of the main reasons why we did not have strong relations with them. Iraqi (insurgency) leaders were always in direct contact with them.

The sole mission of the foreign Arabs was to fight and die in Iraq. They looked at death as a wish that they wanted to come true so that they could go to heaven.

Suicide or martyr operations, call them what you want, were carried out regularly. Sometimes, it got so competitive that every fighter wanted to drive a detonated car and attack an American or an Iraqi target. They even resorted to drawing lots.

Before a suicide mission is carried out a ceremony is performed, a kind of party in which everyone bids farewell to the driver. During the farewell, there are religious songs, food, laughing and congratulations on his martyrdom. The ceremony concludes with the taping of his will, which is sent to his wife and family.

In every ceremony that was held, I was assured that the Americans had found themselves in a real quagmire because al-Qaeda had come to Iraq to fight the Americans. They would go to Mars if they knew the Americans were there. There is so much hatred and I think it’s because of President Bush, the father and the son. It’s President Obama’s bad luck that he is burdened with past mistakes.

The secret of al-Qaeda’s power was the Sunni tribes. They were aware of our plans and operations, and when we lost this factor we became weak. The Americans realized that and they bought them off.

Al-Qaeda didn’t pay anyone. The fighting was voluntary and based on deep convictions. No one would take such extraordinary risks with his life for money or power.

Back then, I worked as a teacher once or twice a week. The situation was unstable in Anbar so we only worked part-time. No one would go after you if you didn’t show up.

My family was living in fear and apprehension. I felt how much my wife loved me then, more than at any other time. My wife, my son and my brother-in-law asked me to quit fighting because they feared for my life. But I ignored them just as a smoker ignores a doctor’s orders to quit.

Questioning Al-Qaeda

My time with al-Qaeda was a bit unusual because I disagreed with them about many things, such as bombing markets, killing civilians, imposing fatwas (edicts) from Afghanistan and killing Shia. I did not think they should target Christians, American civilians and construction workers. This was very important to them.

I was never involved in killing Iraqi forces, and this was one of the reasons I left al-Qaeda. I used to tell them that I was only fighting the occupiers, just like the Vietnamese, Somalis and Chechens who fought the Russians. They accused me of tarnishing my Islamic faith.

I believed that a ceasefire was imperative for the Iraqi forces to take over security from the Americans. I thought that targeting the Iraqi forces would lengthen the occupation.

Over time, things changed a lot. al-Qaeda was no longer supported among Sunni. It carried out executions and killed hundreds of people in markets.

If al-Qaeda were to rule Iraq, it would not have succeeded because it prohibited so many things and imposed new rules. They saw Shia as infidels who should be killed. Christians were given three options: to pay tribute, convert to Islam or be killed.

Iraq is a complex country. It is impossible to apply al-Qaeda’s rules here because this is a diverse nation. Al-Qaeda would mean the end of Iraq. Everyone would have to flee or be killed. Barely one quarter of the population would have remained.

I left al-Qaeda when I realized that things started to get out of control. Some of the fighters started to disobey orders after [local al-Qaeda leader] Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed.

Zarqawi was a strongman who directed battles in Mosul and in Tal Afar through phone calls from Fallujah. No one dared to act without consulting him. I think if al-Qaeda finds a man with the same characteristics it will stage a huge comeback.

The night I left, I told my neighbors and friends, including a fighter who was very close to me. I had always confided in him about my fears and my opposition to the future of the resistance and jihad because of the actions of some al-Qaeda fighters.

I called another fighter and told him that my son was seriously ill. I said I would have to leave quickly for Syria and stay there for a long time. He told me that my wife could take care of my son, but I told him that she couldn’t survive without me. He was angry and I knew he didn’t believe me.

I left quietly, as anyone with al-Qaeda should. I traveled at night with my family to Syria and stayed there for nine months. I rented my furnished house to a Baghdad displaced family. The rent helped me survive in Syria.

Return to Iraq

When I came back to Iraq, I discovered that all of the fighters I knew were killed, imprisoned or their whereabouts were unknown.

I went to live with one of my relatives in another province. My wife and children went straight to our house to check the situation and see if I could return.

After a few days, my wife confirmed that I was not being chased by the Sahwa (Sunni Awakening Councils) or al-Qaeda. I returned. The Sahwa didn’t pursue any of the fighters who killed Americans, but instead hunted those who carried operations against the tribes.

Al-Qaeda’s biggest strength is its rigidity — its uncompromising, unyielding, non-negotiable stance. If al-Qaeda decides to assassinate someone, they will do it even if ten years have passed. Even if [a politician] leaves office, even if he is on deathbed, they will kill him with a kitchen knife because they see this as a religious obligation, just like praying, fasting and jihad.

I am afraid of being assassinated by those who might believe that I betrayed them. For them, betrayal has many faces, and one is deserting the battlefield. Few people outside my circle of trust know about my involvement with the resistance and I fear them.

Now it’s better to stand back and watch because the battle is not over yet. I worry that the Sunni may ask us to take up arms again if Iran gains political power after the U.S. pullout.

I used to support the U.S. withdrawal but now I don’t want it to happen so quickly. They (the Americans) should end the Iranian influence before they pull out. If they withdraw and Iran is in Iraq this will create a new Sunni armed uprising.

The U.S., the Iraqi government and a large number of al-Qaeda fighters damaged Iraq. This period of history will be revealed by me. I will tell the truth, as I saw it, to future generations.

Abu Najim is the nom de guerre of a former Iraqi member of al-Qaeda in Anbar province. He told his story to an IWPR-trained journalist whose identity is not revealed due to security concerns.


Return to “Indian Country”

The Global War on Tribes

by Zoltan Grossman

This was taken from CounterPunch. Click here for the link.

The so-called “Global War on Terror” is quickly growing outside the borders of Iraq and Afghanistan, into new battlegrounds in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and beyond. The Pentagon is vastly increasing missile and gunship attacks, Special Forces raids, and proxy invasions–all in the name of combating “Islamist terrorism.” Yet within all five countries, the main targets of the wars are predominantly “tribal regions,” and the old frontier language of Indian-fighting is becoming the lexicon of 21st-century counterinsurgency. The “Global War on Terror” is fast morphing into a “Global War on Tribes.”

Tribal regions are local areas where tribes are the dominant form of social organization, and tribal identities often trump state, ethnic, and even religious identities. Tribal peoples have a strongly localized orientation, tied to a particular place. Their traditional societies are based on a common culture, dialect, and kinship ties (through single or multiple clans). Although they are tribal peoples, they are not necessarily Indigenous peoples–who generally follow nature-centered spiritual and cultural systems. Nearly all tribal communities in the Middle East and Central Asia have been Islamicized or Christianized, but they still retain their ancient social bonds.

Yet modern counterinsurgency doctrine only views tribal regions as festering cauldrons of lawlessness, and “breeding grounds” for terrorism, unless the tribes themselves are turned against the West’s enemies. The London Times (1/5/10), for example, crudely asserts that Yemen’s “mountainous terrain, poverty and lawless tribal society make it… a close match for Afghanistan as a new terrorist haven.” This threatening view of tribal regions is, of course, as old as European colonialism itself.

Tribes and Ethnic Nations

Tribes are distinct from ethnic groups. Ethnic group identity is based largely on language, such as Pashtun, Kurdish, Somali, Tajik, and so on. Many ethnic groups also assert a territorial nationhood, whether or not they have their own independent state. Tribal group identity is based on smaller and older regional clans and dialects—such as Zubaydi and Jibbur (Iraq), Durrani and Ghilzai (Afghanistan), Wazir and Mehsud (Pakistan), Wahidi and Zaydi (Yemen), and Darod and Hawiye (Somalia). These internal divisions are familiar to anyone who has studied ethnic nationhood. (The Lakota Nation, for example, contains seven bands such as the Oglala, Hunkpapa, and Sicangu. In most other countries, these “bands” would be termed tribes, and the Lakota Nation would not be called a tribe.)

Tribes can be viewed as the building blocks for ethnic nations, but in many countries the cement has never really dried. (Even in Europe, different local dialect regions were only recently absorbed into modern states, as Eugèn Weber demonstrates in his Peasants into Frenchmen). Tribal regions in the Middle East and Central Asia function as a layer below ethnic and religious territories, which in turn function as a layer below modern states and their 19th-century colonial boundaries. Contemporary armed conflicts in the region can be best understood not as struggles between political ideologies, but between these different layers of collective identity.

Western society tends to portray tribes as primitive, backward peoples, and views “tribalism” as merely ignorant villagers brutally acting in their narrow self-interest. Colonial authorities often diminished the status of ethnic nations by defining them as “tribes,” and employed divide-and-conquer strategies to pit them against each other. Yet in some regions, a local tribal identity may be more inclusive of human differences than larger-scale ethnic or religious identities. For example, some Iraqi tribes include both Sunni and Shi’a Muslims, and help to transcend the tense sectarian divide. Within some tribes around the world, more than one language or dialect may be spoken. Tribal identities and boundaries are not simply fixed in the past—they can be fluid and dynamic.

Tribal Areas under Siege

Afghanistan. In southern and eastern Afghanistan, Pashtun tribes have existed for millennia, and have only nominal loyalty to the modern state. Because Pashtun tribes straddle the colonial “Durand Line” boundary between Afghanistan and Pakistan, they do not recognize the authority of either country, and exhibit their traditional hospitality to Taliban insurgents. Although tribal stature has been weakened somewhat by Soviet occupation, civil war, and pan-Islamic ideologies, the NATO occupation has—perhaps  inadvertently–resurrected a role for  some tribal leaders. The U.S. has been paying and arming them to turn against the Taliban, with only limited success.

The New York Times (1/29/10) reports that “American civilian and military leaders are turning to some of these tribes as potentially their best hope for success…. Led by councils of elders, tribes provided their members with protection, financial support, a means to resolve disputes ….Successfully turning Pashtun tribes against the Taliban… could deliver a serious blow to the insurgency.” The Council on Foreign Relations report A Tribal Strategy for Afghanistan (11/7/08) admits that “Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani journalist… predicted that arming Pashtun militias in the south would renew tribal rivalries that had been dormant for years; some analysts believe that has happened.”

Pakistan. In northwestern Pakistan, U.S. drones and Special Forces raids have attacked insurgents in the Pashto-speaking North-West Frontier Province and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, particularly in the tribal area of Waziristan. President Bush evoked American frontier imagery when he stated in the New York Times (2/18/07)., “Taliban and Al Qaeda figures do hide in remote regions of Pakistan. This is wild country; this is wilder than the Wild West.”

The U.S. media consistently refers to Pakistan’s Northwest as a “lawless” tribal region. But in its fascinating article “Waziristan: The Last Frontier,” The Economist (12/30/09) clarified that “the tribes are mostly free to decide…matters among themselves, which they do, remarkably harmoniously, through jirgas and riwaj—tribal customary law. In Waziristan, as in most of the tribal areas, there is no written land register. Nor, until 2001, was there much crime. ‘The tribal areas was lawless only in the sense that there are no laws. But they have a certain way of going about things there,’ says Major Geoffrey Langlands, 92, a British colonial officer who stayed on…”

Iraq. In central Iraq, tribal traditions and territories are somewhat more critical to Sunni Arabs than to religious Shi’a Arabs in the south or ethnonationalist Kurds in the north. Tribal sheiks serve as community leaders, mediators, intermediaries, and regional power-players, and their support has become critical to both insurgent and occupation forces. The British and Saddam Hussein earlier tried to exercise control over tribes (and larger tribal confederations)–and also attempted to curry their favor–but ended up alienating them from state power.

An article in Military Review (9-10/07) reports that for U.S. operations in Iraq, “Tribal engagement has played a particularly prominent role…This reflects the enduring strength of the tribes in many of Iraq’s rural areas and some of its urban neighborhoods. And tribal engagement has been key to recent efforts to drive a wedge between tribally based Sunni Arab insurgents and Al-Qaeda in Iraq in Anbar province and elsewhere.” This Sunni “Awakening” did more to weaken Al Qaeda than the U.S. “Surge,” but now it appears the tribes are dissatisfied with the weak support shown by Baghdad and Washington.

Yemen. In southern Yemen, the U.S. has launched missile attacks against what it describes as Al Qaeda targets, and assists Yemeni military raids against separatist rebels in the tribal region. Like in central Iraq, instead of the tribes giving haven to Islamist “terrorists,” their sense of independence may end up being directed against both the Pentagon and Al Qaeda.

In the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace report What Comes Next in Yemen? (3/10), Sarah Phillips explains, “Al-Qaeda operatives have found safe haven in some of Yemen’s tribal regions, but their goal of establishing an international caliphate conflicts with many local political realities, potentially limiting this hospitality. Tribal society in Yemen is regulated by complex rules that bind its members to one another. Much of Yemen’s periphery is without effective formal, state-administered governance, but this does not mean that these regions are ungoverned—or there for the taking, particularly by outsiders to the area” (p. 1).

Somalia. In southern Somalia, virtually all Somalis hold the same customs, speak the same language, and practice the same religion. Nevertheless, since 1991 the region has been torn by civil war along clan lines (which in a non-African context could be described as tribal lines). When in 1992 U.S. forces intervened ostensibly as “peacekeepers,” they failed to consult with tribal elders, who are the traditional decision-makers in Somali society. Instead, the U.S. took the side of some militia warlords against other clan warlords, and paid the price in the infamous Black Hawk Down battle.

In 2006, an Islamist front took control of the capital of Mogadishu, and brought a relative calm to the country, which was shattered when the U.S. backed an Ethiopian invasion. The renewed war stimulated a nationalist backlash, offshore “piracy,” and the growth of the small ultra-Islamist Al Shabaab militia. The Pentagon is now using missile strikes, Special Forces raids, and AC-130 aerial gunship attacks to help a new government retake Mogadishu from Al Shabaab rebels. The New York Times (3/5/10) reports that “Even though there is a new religious overlay to Somalia’s civil war… clan connections still matter and could spell success — or disaster.”

Nothing New

If the Global War on Tribes is as old as European colonialism, in the United States it is as old as the doctrine of Manifest Destiny. In U.S. foreign policy, we can trace it back to the Vietnam War (including the tribal highlands of South Vietnam and Laos), and farther back to the Philippine-American War and the Indian Wars. In his classic Facing West: the Metaphysics of Indian-Hating and Empire Building, Richard Drinnon connects the colonization of Native American nations in the West to U.S. overseas expansion into the Philippines and Vietnam, which used the identical rhetoric of insurgent territory as hostile “Indian Country.”

Drinnon concluded, “In each and every West, place itself was infinitely less important …than what the white settlers brought in their heads and hearts to that particular place. At each magic margin, their metaphysics of Indian-hating underwent a seemingly confirmatory ‘perennial rebirth.’ Rooted in fears and prejudices buried deep in the Western psyche, their metaphysics became a time-tested doctrine, an ideology, and an integral component of U.S. nationalism….All along, the obverse of Indian-hating had been the metaphysics of empire-building….Winning the West amounted to no less than winning the world” (pp. 463-65).

One of the hallmarks of American colonization is to pit favored tribes and ethnic nations against the national security threat of the moment— Crow against Lakota, Igorot against Filipino, Montagnard against Vietnamese, Hmong against Lao, Miskito against Nicaraguan, Kurd against Arab. When the minority tribal allies (with their very real grievances) are no longer needed, Washington quickly abandons its defense of their “human rights.” We love ‘em, we use ‘em, and then we dump ‘em. These divide-and-conquer strategies are being revived from Pakistan to Yemen, as the Pentagon arms tribal militias to do its bidding—often against other tribes.

The Global War on Tribes can be traced even farther back in history, to its roots in Europe–including the English colonization of Celtic tribal lands, the mass burning of women who kept tribal healing practices alive, and the suppression of peasant rebellions emerging from local clan resistance (as shown by Carolyn Merchant in her The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology and the Scientific Revolution). Perhaps the ultimate model is the Roman Empire, which itself emerged from three early tribes in Rome (the word “tribe” comes from the Latin for “three”), and waged wars against numerous so-called “barbarian” tribes.

Updating the War

Proponents of the “Global War on Tribes” are seemingly unfraid to connect it to past campaigns against tribes around the world. The analyst and author Robert D. Kaplan wrote in the Wall Street Journal (9/24/04) that “…the American military is back to the days of fighting the Indians. The red Indian metaphor is one with which a liberal policy nomenklatura may be uncomfortable, but Army and Marine field officers have embraced it because it captures perfectly the combat challenge of the early 21st century….The range of Indian groups, numbering in their hundreds, that the U.S. Cavalry…had to confront was no less varied than that of the warring ethnic and religious militias spread throughout Eurasia, Africa and South America in the early 21st century.”

Kaplan brazenly compared Iraq to “Indian Country”: “When the Cavalry invested Indian encampments, they periodically encountered warrior braves beside women and children, much like Fallujah….Indian Country has been expanding in recent years because of the security vacuum created by the collapse of traditional dictatorships….Iraq is but a microcosm of the Earth in this regard.”

Tribal resistance against Western intervention and corporate globalization take different forms in different countries. In Pakistan and Iraq, tribes may fight under the green banner of political Islamism. In India and Peru, some tribal peoples have fought under the red flag of Maoist rural insurgent armies. In Bolivia, Ecuador and Mexico, they have coalesced within their own self-defined indigenist movements, which have effectively intersected with socialist and environmental movements.

But to U.S. counterinsurgency tacticians, the ideology is secondary. The real primary threat is that the people retain a tribal identity and allegiance—an identity that has not been formed or encouraged by capitalism. The goal of the Pentagon and CIA is either to harness tribal loyalties to weaken their enemies, or to destroy tribal identity. Even in supporting tribal allies for their own ends, they may end up destroying the tribes in the process.

In central and northeastern India, the Indian Army has launched a counterinsurgency war against Naxalite rebels, to open up the tribal forest regions to mining and timber companies. The Naxalites are usually described as “Maoists,” but as the writer Arundhati Roy observed in Outlook India (3/29/10), “It’s convenient to forget that tribal people in Central India have a history of resistance that predates Mao by centuries…. Naxalite politics has been inextricably entwined with tribal uprisings.”

On Democracy Now (3/22/10), Roy further explained, “If you look at Afghanistan, Waziristan…the northeast states of India…the entire thing is a tribal uprising. In Afghanistan, obviously, it’s taken the form of a radical Islamist uprising. And here [in India], it’s a radical left uprising. But the attack is the same. It’s a corporate attack…on these people. The resistance has taken different forms.”

In the Americas, powerful and growing Indigenous tribal movements are increasingly being targeted by U.S. military and intelligence agencies, as a potential national security threat to U.S. interests, as explained by Naomi Klein in The Nation (11/4/05). The National Intelligence Council projected in its 2005 report Mapping the Global Future 2020 that “the failure of elites to adapt to the evolving demands of free markets and democracy probably will fuel a revival in populism and drive indigenous movements, which so far have sought change through democratic means, to consider more drastic means” (p. 77).

The Army’s Foreign Military Studies Office (FMSO), headquartered at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, has applied this emerging doctrine to Latin America. In a Military Review bibliography (7-8/99), the FMSO lumped together “Insurgencies, Terrorist Groups and Indigenous Movements,” and in another article warned of Indigenous rebellions and other “insurgencies” in Mexico (5-6/97). FMSO official Lt. Col. Geoffrey Demarest stated in his book Geoproperty: Foreign Affairs, National Security and Property Rights that “The coming center of gravity of armed political struggles may be indigenous populations, youth gangs…or insurgents” (p. 84) and that the Internet is increasingly being used by “Indigenous rebels, feminists, troublemakers…” (p. 243). Counterinsurgency planners are no longer simply targeting “Communists” or “narcoguerrillas” in Latin America, but also Indigenous-led social movement alliances.

Reasons for War

Whether in Mexico, India, Iraq, or the United States and Canada, the Global War on Tribes has some common characteristics. First, the war is most blatantly being waged to steal the natural resources under tribal lands. The rugged, inaccessible terrain that prevented colonial powers from eliminating tribal societies also made accessing minerals, oil, timber and other resources more difficult–so (acre for acre) more of the resources are now left on tribal lands than on more accessible lands.

Resources are not always the underlying explanation for war, but they’re a pretty good start at an explanation. In the case of Indigenous tribal peoples, their historic attention to biodiversity has also enabled natural areas to be relatively protected until now, as corporations seek out the last remaining pockets of natural resources to extract. Look no further than the Alberta Tar Sands, for instance, to see the exploitation of Native lands by modern oil barons.

Like in Avatar, Native peoples often resist the militarization brought by corporate invaders seeking to mine “unobtainium,” and they don’t need a white messiah riding a red dragon to guide them to victory. In his book Resource Rebels: Native Challenges to Mining and Oil Corporations, Al Gedicks notes, “Up until recently, the tendency in the mass media has been to stereotype native people as fighting a losing battle against the onslaught of industrial civilization. But after two decades of organizing local, national, regional and international alliances, assisted by…the Internet, native voices can no longer be ignored in powerful places” (p. 1).

Second, the Global War on Tribes is a campaign against the very existence of tribal regions that are not under centralized state control. The tribal regions still retain forms of social organization that has not been solely determined by capitalism. In her anthology Paradigm Wars, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, Chair of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, comments that “promoters of economic globalization, the neocolonizers, use the overwhelming pressure of homogenization to teach us that indigenous political, economic and cultural systems are obstacles to their ‘progress.’” (p. 14).

The point is not that all tribal peoples pose an egalitarian alternative to neoliberal capitalism. Some (such as Indigenous peoples) certainly do have strong egalitarian principles, but many other tribal peoples –such as in the new conflict zones–certainly do not (particularly toward women). The salient point is not that all tribal cultures are paradise, but that they are not capitalist, and neoliberal capitalism cannot stand anything other than Total Control.

Third, the collective form of organization enables tribal peoples to fight back against state control and corporate globalization. When I asked Arundhati Roy at a Seattle forum (3/29/10) why counterinsurgency wars seem to be focused on tribal regions, she answered that tribal peoples do not have a “bar-coded” view of the world. Tribes still have the social networks to defend their lands and ways of life—networks of trust anchored in deeply held values that citizens of urban industrial society generally lack.

That is why the “lawless tribal regions” have to be “tamed,” so as not to become a “festering sore,” and a source of resistance to the corporate state. The only way for tribal leaders not to be crushed by the counterinsurgency campaign is to accept its aims, its money, and its weapons. Tauli-Corpuz concludes that Indigenous peoples “believe they already constitute a viable alternative to globalization, underpinned by the fundamental values of reciprocity…community solidarity and collectivity” (p. 218).

During European colonial expansion, small, tribal peoples who could not muster large military alliances were more vulnerable to conquest and occupation. In most countries, the colonization process left them divided and fighting each other. In the 21st century– just as many remaining pockets of exploitable resources are located in tribal regions–the only successful pockets of resistance may be found in the mountains, deserts and forests where tribal peoples refuse to die.

Dr. Zoltan Grossman is a faculty member in Geography and Native American & World Indigenous Peoples Studies at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, currently co-teaching a course on “American Frontiers: Homelands and Empire.” He is co-chair of the Association of American Geographers (AAG) Indigenous Peoples Specialty Group. His writings and presentations are at He can be reached at

Maps of Tribal Regions in Conflict


‘Two, Three, Many Afghanistans’

by Michael T. Klare

Obama’s Pentagon is preparing for a number of counterinsurgencies in the developing world.

This was taken from The Nation. Click here for the link.

With little fanfare, the Defense Department has announced a revolution in military strategy–a transformation in global outlook and combat tactics whose only true precedent is the equally momentous turnaround engineered by Defense Secretary Robert McNamara during the Kennedy administration. Then, as now, an incoming administration inherited a strategy heavily weighted toward high-intensity warfare among well-equipped adversaries, mostly in Europe and Asia; now, as then, the response has been to redirect the Pentagon’s attention toward low-intensity combat on the fringes of the developing world. The result back then was Vietnam; today it is Afghanistan and an unknown number of “future Afghanistans.”

When Kennedy assumed the presidency in 1961, the Defense Department was governed by a military “posture” that emphasized nuclear war and massive tank battles on the plains of Europe. Sensing that the main theater of competition between the superpowers had shifted to proxy warfare in Asia, Africa and Latin America, Kennedy ordered McNamara to undertake a massive enhancement of US capabilities for what were then called “brush-fire wars” in the Third World. The president also authorized a vast expansion of the Special Forces–then a small and obscure Army unit intended for partisan operations behind Soviet lines in Eastern Europe–and gave them responsibility for promoting the newly fashionable concept of counterinsurgency.

“Subversive insurgency is another type of war, new in its intensity, ancient in its origins–war by guerrillas, subversives, insurgents, assassins; war by ambush instead of by combat; by infiltration instead of aggression,” Kennedy said at West Point in 1962. “It requires in those situations where we must counter it…a whole new kind of strategy, a wholly different kind of force, and therefore a new and wholly different kind of training.”

Kennedy’s fierce patronage of counterinsurgency doctrine led to expanded US involvement in Southeast Asia and ultimately to the unmitigated disaster of Vietnam. In the wake of the war there, the US military largely abandoned its interest in counterinsurgency, fearing the specter of Che Guevara’s 1967 call for “two, three, many Vietnams.” Instead, it chose to focus on a renewed cold war in Europe and later, under the first President Bush, conventional combat against “rogue” states like Iran, Iraq and North Korea–basically recycling tactics developed for combat against Soviet forces. Although promising to modernize this posture after 9/11, the second President Bush merely grafted his “global war on terror” onto the rogue-state approach, choosing to invade Iraq rather than invent a new strategy aimed at radical Islamist insurgencies.

Now we have President Obama and his domineering Defense Secretary, Robert Gates, both of whom have criticized the Pentagon’s emphasis on conventional combat at the expense of low-intensity warfare. Iraq, Obama has said, was the “wrong” war, a distraction from the more urgent task of defeating Al Qaeda and its network of allies, including the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban. To rectify this strategic bungling, as he sees it, Obama has been redeploying combat resources from Iraq to Afghanistan. But this is just the beginning of his grand vision: Obama seeks to fashion a new military posture that shifts the emphasis from conventional combat to brush-fire wars and counterinsurgency.

“The struggle against violent extremism will not be finished quickly, and it extends well beyond Afghanistan and Pakistan,” Obama declared at West Point on December 1. “Unlike the great power conflicts and clear lines of division that defined the twentieth century, our effort will involve disorderly regions, failed states, diffuse enemies.” To prevail in these contests, “we’ll have to be nimble and precise in our use of military power. Where Al Qaeda and its allies attempt to establish a foothold–whether in Somalia or Yemen or elsewhere–they must be confronted by growing pressure and strong partnerships.”

Clearly, this is a long-term strategy with far-reaching implications. Even if Obama brings some forces back from Afghanistan in the summer of 2011, as he has pledged, US troops are likely to be engaged there (some perhaps in a covert mode) and in a number of other hot spots–“two, three, many Afghanistans,” to put Che’s dictum into contemporary parlance.

This strategy, first enunciated in a series of speeches by Obama and Gates, has been given formal character in the Quadrennial Defense Review, the Pentagon’s Congressionally mandated overhaul of strategy. Released on February 1, the QDR is expected to guide military planning over the next four years and to govern the Pentagon’s budget priorities.

Like earlier Pentagon reviews, the 2010 QDR begins by reaffirming America’s stature as a global power with global responsibilities–a burden no other country can shoulder. “The strength and influence of the United States are deeply intertwined with the fate of the broader international system,” the document asserts. “The U.S. military must therefore be prepared to support broad national goals of promoting stability in key regions, providing assistance to nations in need, and promoting the common good.”

But while this globalist mission has remained unchanged for many decades, the nature of the threats confronted by American forces has changed dramatically. “The United States faces a complex and uncertain security landscape in which the pace of change continues to accelerate,” the QDR indicates. “The rise of new powers, the growing influence of non-state actors, the spread of weapons of mass destruction and other destructive enabling technologies…pose profound challenges to international order.”

The United States also faces a danger not unlike that envisioned by Kennedy in 1961: the emergence of radical insurgencies in the corrupt and decaying nations of the developing world. “The changing international system will continue to put pressure on the modern state system, likely increasing the frequency and severity of the challenges associated with chronically fragile states,” the QDR notes. “These states are often catalysts for the growth of radicalism and extremism.”

In this environment, America’s traditional advantages in conventional conflict–what the QDR calls “large-scale force-on-force warfare”–can no longer guarantee success. Instead, the US military must be prepared to prevail in any number of conceivable combat scenarios and employ the same sort of novel warfighting tactics as those used by America’s rivals and adversaries. Our principal objective, the QDR affirms, is “ensuring that US forces are flexible and adaptable so that they can confront the full range of challenges that could emerge from a complex and dynamic security environment.”

Within this mandate, no priority is given greater weight than the task of preparing for an unending series of counterinsurgency campaigns in remote corners of the developing world. “The wars we are fighting today and assessments of the future security environment together demand that the United States retain and enhance a whole-of-government capability to succeed in large-scale counterinsurgency (COIN), stability, and counterterrorism (CT) operations in environments ranging from densely populated urban areas and mega-cities, to remote mountains, deserts, jungles, and littoral regions,” the QDR explains.

The language used here is instructive–both in the degree to which it reveals current Pentagon thinking and the ways it echoes Kennedy’s outlook. “Stability operations, large-scale counterinsurgency, and counterterrorism operations are not niche challenges or the responsibility of a single Military Department, but rather require a portfolio of capabilities as well as sufficient capacity from across America’s Armed Forces,” the QDR states. “Nor are these type of operations a transitory or anomalous phenomenon in the security landscape. On the contrary, we must expect that for the indefinite future, violent extremist groups, with or without state sponsorship, will continue to foment instability and challenge U.S. and allied interests.” As a result, “U.S. forces will need to maintain a high level of competency in this mission area for decades to come.” (Emphasis added.)

As the QDR makes plain, this will require substantial retooling of military capabilities. In place of “large-scale force-on-force warfare,” the Pentagon must be configured to fight many small-scale conflicts in dissimilar locations on several continents at once. This requires that forces be equipped for counterinsurgency-type operations: helicopters, small arms, body armor, night-vision devices, mine-resistant vehicles, aerial gunships, surveillance drones and the like. Some of this material has already been provided to forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the entire military will have to be re-equipped.

Also required will be increased military aid and training (provided by growing cadres of Special Forces) for the military and police forces of embattled governments in fraying Third World states.

“Terrorist groups seek to evade security forces by exploiting ungoverned and under-governed areas as safe havens from which to recruit, indoctrinate, and train fighters,” the QDR notes. “Where appropriate, U.S. forces will work with the military forces of partner nations to strengthen their capacity for internal security…. For reasons of political legitimacy as well as sheer economic necessity, there is no substitute for professional, motivated local security forces protecting populations threatened by insurgents and terrorists in their midst.”

Except for a slight modernization of terminology, these are exactly the words used by Kennedy to justify the deployment of thousands of counterinsurgency “advisers” in Vietnam, plus hundreds more in Southeast Asia, Africa and Latin America.

The danger is that America’s “partner nations” are not capable of deploying “professional, motivated” forces, so US soldiers will be compelled to shoulder an ever-increasing share of the burden. As proved true in Vietnam–and as is being repeated today in Afghanistan–this will likely be the case when the local army and police are viewed by the majority of the population as tools of a corrupt and unresponsive government.

What should be cause for alarm is that despite the worrisome picture in Afghanistan, the Pentagon is determined to export this model to other areas, many for the first time, including Africa. “The need to assist fragile, post-conflict states, such as Liberia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Sudan, and failed states such as Somalia, and transnational problems, including extremism, piracy, illegal fishing, and narcotics trafficking, pose significant challenges,” the document notes. “America’s efforts will hinge on partnering with African states, other international allies and partners, and regional and sub-regional security organizations to conduct capacity-building and peacekeeping operations, prevent terrorism, and address humanitarian crises.”

The United States is already assisting the Ugandan government in its seemingly futile efforts to eradicate the Lord’s Resistance Army, a brutal guerrilla group with no discernible ideology, as well as the Somali government in its (equally futile) campaign to rid Mogadishu of Al Shabab, a militant Islamic group linked to Al Qaeda. It is likely that advisory teams from the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa, based at Camp Lemonier in Djibouti, are engaged in similar operations in North Africa and the Sahel. (The CJTF-HOA is the combat arm of the US Africa Command, a multiservice headquarters organization established by Bush in 2008 and given expanded responsibilities since then by Obama.)

The Pentagon is also supporting counterinsurgency operations in Colombia, the Philippines and Yemen, among other countries. Typically, these operations entail deploying training and advisory teams, providing arms and intelligence information, and employing (often covert) specialized combat units. According to the QDR, “U.S. forces are working in the Horn of Africa, the Sahel, Colombia, and elsewhere to provide training, equipment, and advice to their host-country counterparts on how to better seek out and dismantle terrorist and insurgent networks while providing security to populations that have been intimidated by violent elements in their midst.” Again, one must ask, Just how deeply is the United States involved? Where is this leading? What happens when the “host-country counterparts” prove unequal to the task?

The worry that this will lead to an endless series of Vietnam- or Afghanistan-like counterinsurgencies is further heightened by the QDR’s call for increased reliance on social scientists to better comprehend the perplexing social and cultural realities of these faraway places. Under its Minerva Initiative, the Defense Department is seeking “the intellectual capital necessary to meet the challenges of operating in a changing and complex environment.” For those whose memory stretches back far enough, this will recall the infamous Project Camelot, a Vietnam-era Army effort to secure academic assistance in assessing public attitudes in Third World countries for counterinsurgency purposes.

The greatest risk in all this, of course, is that the military will become bogged down in a constellation of grueling, low-level wars. This is the prospect of “imperial over-stretch” spoken of by Yale historian Paul Kennedy in his 1987 classic, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. It is also, says Fareed Zakaria in The Post-American World, the scenario we must avoid if the United States is to escape the fate of the British Empire and other failed imperiums. “Britain’s strategic blunder was to spend decades–time and money, energy and attention–on vain attempts to stabilize peripheral places on the map,” Zakaria wrote in 2008. “The United States could easily fall into a similar imperial trap.”

The Pentagon’s renewed commitment to counterinsurgency and low-intensity warfare will also require a substantial investment in new hardware at a time when the country faces a record deficit, further eroding its long-term vitality. To obtain the added funds he deems necessary, Gates has asked for an $18 billion increase in the Pentagon’s base budget for the 2011 fiscal year, raising total spending to $549 billion (which does not include combat costs in Iraq and Afghanistan). To gain additional financing for these projects, he has been willing to sacrifice some big-ticket items intended for major conventional wars, such as the F-22 jet fighter (discontinued in 2009).

Gates calls this shift in emphasis “rebalancing,” and it is said to be the guiding principle of the new Pentagon budget. “Rebalancing our forces in support of these strategic priorities means that US forces must be flexible and adaptable to confront the full range of plausible challenges,” Under Secretary of Defense Michèle Flournoy, one of the QDR’s principal authors, told a Pentagon press briefing on February 1. “To underwrite this flexibility…we need more and better enabling capabilities…like intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, rotary-wing aircraft, language skills and so forth.”

The danger here is that Congress–prodded by powerful interests in the military-industrial complex–will approve the specialized counterinsurgency equipment sought by Gates and Flournoy, as well as an array of costly, super-sophisticated weapons designed to fight a full-scale war with some future, Soviet-like “peer” competitor. Under these circumstances, the Pentagon budget will continue to grow.

The Obama-Gates strategy thus entails a double peril. On the one hand, it risks involvement in an endless series of wars, wearing down the military and turning more and more non-Westerners against the United States–exactly the outcome envisioned by Che in his famous 1967 dictum. On the other hand, the “rebalancing” sought by Gates could lead to higher spending on low-intensity hardware while failing to curb investment in high-end weaponry, thereby producing ever-increasing military budgets, a growing national deficit and persistent economic paralysis. In the worst case, both outcomes will occur, dooming the United States to retreat, humiliation and penury.

There is no reason to doubt that Obama and Gates believe they are acting in the nation’s–and the world’s–best interest by advocating a strategy of global counterinsurgency. Such a strategy could conceivably prevent Al Qaeda from gaining a temporary foothold in some “ungovernable area” on the fringe of the Islamic world. But it will not eliminate the conditions that give rise to Islamist extremism, nor will it ensure lasting peace. The Pentagon’s new strategy can only lead, in the end, to a world of increased anti-Americanism and violence.

Michael T. Klare, Nation defense correspondent, is professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College. His latest book is Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet: The New Geopolitics of Energy.


The Attack on (and fight for) Public Housing in New Orleans

People in New Orleans are Being Pushed Out of Their Homes–And Now, They’re Pushing Back

by Tram Nguyen

April 7, 2010. Public housing demolitions and disastrous redevelopment policies have turned New Orleans’ housing crisis into a human rights emergency.

This article was originally published in ColorLines. Click here for the link.

For 29 years, Sam Jackson lived in a three-bedroom apartment in central New Orleans. He and his wife, Shirley, raised their five children in a tight-knit community within the sprawling, 1,546-unit public housing complex known as the B.W. Cooper. Every summer, Jackson boarded up the windows during the hurricane season, and the family always managed to ride out the storms inside the sturdy walls of one of “the Bricks”—the local name for New Orleans’ public housing projects.

In 2005, the Bricks survived Hurricane Katrina, too. The Jacksons had no water or electricity, though, and after hearing about broken levees and flooding in other parts of town, they packed up their truck and drove to Baton Rouge. A month later, Sam Jackson drove back to check on things at the B.W. Cooper. He found the door to his apartment broken open and the apartment ransacked. When he returned a week after that, there were “No Trespassing” signs everywhere. A metal fence had been put up around the property, and Jackson soon realized that it was the residents themselves who were being kept out.

The Bricks made it through Katrina with little flooding and minor damage. But none of the city’s four big public housing developments—the B.W. Cooper, C.J. Peete, Lafitte and St. Bernard—survived the demolition plans of the government and private developers in the post-Katrina rebuilding. Two years ago, the New Orleans city council cast a controversial, unanimous vote to tear down and redevelop what became known as the Big Four. The demolition of all those homes turned Sam Jackson into an activist.

“We had nowhere to stay when we came back, and I said, ‘We should go and make some noise,’ even though we had only a few residents here to protest,” Jackson recalls.

With a few other returnees, he held one of the first press conferences on the demolitions; eventually, he traveled to Indonesia and Thailand as part of an international delegation to meet with tsunami victims and share rebuilding strategies. “As the process went on, I wanted to let people know we were forced out of our place and we couldn’t return. We have to be the ones keeping the noise up about it. You just can’t give up.”

Community advocates estimate that almost 20,000 people, all black and low-income, remain displaced and separated from their communities. Worse, the 4,500 or so Big Four households have been thrown into a tight rental market, competing with thousands more low-income people also living precariously in a city where rents spiked almost overnight. This includes nearly 9,000 families transitioning out of the Disaster Housing Assistance Program, which provided subsidies for people whose homes were destroyed by hurricanes Katrina, Rita or Gustav.

In New Orleans, “there are more people who are scared of losing their housing than feel secure in it,” observes Eric Tars, an attorney with the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.

He could have said the same about the rest of the country, where the combination of widespread foreclosures, rising tenant evictions and double-digit unemployment hitting like hurricanes is pushing the lack of adequate housing to crisis proportions. According to the National Housing Institute, nearly half of all renters in the United States face unaffordable housing costs, defined as paying more than 30 percent of one’s income for housing.

New Orleans seems a particularly good place to understand the problems engulfing so many U.S. cities, because things here are so extreme and exposed. By some estimates, close to 6 percent of the city’s residents are living in deplorable conditions. They include families with children living out of cars, immigrant workers packed eight or ten in an apartment and many elderly, mentally ill or disabled people squatting in abandoned buildings.

In a city with a total population hovering around 300,000, at least 12,000 people are homeless. That’s double the number before Katrina and Rita, according to the homelessness agency Unity of Greater New Orleans. The group estimates that at least another 5,000 people are living in abandoned properties, of which there are about 65,000—a third of all buildings in the city.

The city’s housing crisis also reflects the disastrous impact of public housing demolitions and redevelopment policies. In New Orleans, many former public housing residents say that on top of losing their homes, they were shut out of participating in the redevelopment process. For many, it was clear that there was just too much money at stake to let the residents get in the way. In the wake of Katrina, Louisiana became a bonanza of federal subsidies for firms ready to take advantage of the opportunity to rebuild. The developers, as a former staffer for one private company put it, stood to “make money hand over fist” through a number of unusually generous bond deals.

That all the homes in the Big Four are gone is a stark reality in New Orleans. So now, after decades of government policies that put housing needs into the hands of private developers, local activists are looking beyond simply fighting for better and more affordable housing. They are joining with housing advocates throughout the nation to emerge from the national crisis with nothing less than the assertion of housing as a human right.

Reasons to Raze

The most common reason given by redevelopment proponents for demolishing public housing is a compelling one: No one should have to live like this, they say. If you drive through parts of the Iberville, the last remaining large-scale public housing complex in New Orleans, you’ll get a sense of what home was like for thousands of people: shattered streetlights, boarded-up windows; there were even reports of raw sewage seeping out of broken pipes.

The state of public housing has become like the proverbial chicken and egg. If housing authorities, from local officials all the way up to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), had not for decades mismanaged and neglected these complexes, the country’s public housing would not have fallen into such disrepair. If public housing were not in such terrible shape, the housing authorities would not have as good a case for getting rid of it.

Public housing is so stigmatized that many Big Four residents take pains to defend their former way of life, which generally consisted of the day-to-day tribulations of working poverty but also the normal joys and traditions of family and community. The Bricks were home to many of New Orleans’ street musicians and Mardi Gras Indians, ironworkers and shipyard workers, cooks, maids and waiters. Public housing was also what passed for a safety net for the elderly, disabled, unemployed and underemployed. For many people, it was the “housing of last resort”—a stable and still-affordable place to call home.

Residents and their allies have fought long and hard, not solely to save their old homes. “It’s not that we don’t want new housing,” says local public interest lawyer Tracie Washington. “We want one-for-one replacement and guarantees that the housing actually gets built.”

But the plans to demolish the Big Four’s 4,500 public housing units never included new-housing assurances for all the inhabitants. The mandate of developers in New Orleans and elsewhere is to “deconcentrate poverty” by building housing to accommodate a new mix of residents: poor, low-wage and middle-class. Thus, in each of the smaller mixed-income developments replacing the Big Four, only 150 or so units are reserved for the original residents.

“We’re trying to reach a middle ground,” says Shawn Escoffery, director of housing at the New Orleans Neighborhood Development Collaborative, part of the team rebuilding the C.J. Peete.

Escoffery, who says he chose a career in housing to address systemic poverty and inequality, speaks passionately about stabilizing the Central City neighborhood surrounding the old C.J. Peete “block by block—to create a domino effect of improvement, fighting gentrification, getting it so that the people who live in the neighborhood can own in the neighborhood and stay.”

For some advocates like Escoffery, mixed-income housing is a strategy to combat the poverty, isolation and crime of the old project neighborhoods. But getting rid of the Big Four has not significantly improved local crime statistics. Despite a slight drop in violent crime, New Orleans had the nation’s highest per capita murder rate in 2008, according to an FBI report issued in June 2009, the most recent available.

“Building new buildings does not solve issues caused by the fact that the educational system is troubled or that people can’t make a living here,” says Audrey Stewart, who organized with public housing residents while at the Law Clinic at Loyola University in New Orleans. “We’ve lost a lot of affordable housing, and the issue of crime and violence did not go away.”

Losing the Battle

At one time, HUD’s own internal study found that fixing the Big Four would be cheaper than leveling them.

In fact, housing authorities originally promised to repair and reopen several thousand units in the buildings by August 2006. The date got moved back again and again, until finally, that June, HUD declared its intention to demolish all four public housing complexes, citing poor maintenance and damage and touting its plans to “redevelop and expand housing” for New Orleanians.

By then, some residents and their supporters had set up a “survivors’ village” in front of the St. Bernard to publicize their plight. The tents, across from the fenced-off buildings and along the median of St. Bernard Avenue, were one of the first public actions by residents to reclaim their homes. As the summer wore on, Tracie Washington and another public interest lawyer, Bill Quigley, working with a national civil rights organization called the Advancement Project, sued to stop the demolition.

All the activity made national news. In early 2007, Congresswoman Maxine Waters, D-California, introduced legislation to reopen the housing developments and replace the units one for one, and that November, the New Orleans city council passed a resolution in support of the bill. But the November 17 elections brought in a new city council—and for the first time in more than two decades, whites were in the majority, holding four of the council’s seven seats.

The city’s electorate had been reduced by half, from the 112,000 votes cast in 2006 to 52,614 votes in 2007. The racial power shift in a majority-black city reflected the fact that more than 200,000 residents did not or could not return or participate in elections.

“I think it’s going to be one for the history books,” says James Perry, executive director of the Greater New Orleans Action Center and a candidate in the mayoral election this year. “People who have not voted in two years have been purged from the voter rolls. The majority of people who are in the Diaspora are low-income citizens. The effect is that there will be fewer lower-income people and people of color voting in future elections.”

The decision to tear down the city’s major public housing developments came despite an escalating campaign by displaced residents and activists that included taking over abandoned housing units and rallies in housing authority offices. That December, hundreds gathered outside the building where the city council was meeting. They were locked out, with police in riot helmets reportedly Tasering and arresting dozens of protestors. Inside, council members voted unanimously to demolish the Big Four.

Money Talks

With so little political clout, displaced residents have fewer and fewer ways to hold private developers accountable. And there is much about the Big Four redevelopment that calls out for public disclosure and accountability.

These redevelopment projects came with nearly $100 million in community development block grants, as well as $34 million in Gulf Opportunity Zone tax credits. These so-called Go Zone credits, designed to provide businesses with incentives for investing in “difficult development areas,” are worth more than typical tax credits. After hurricanes Katrina and Rita, Louisiana received nearly 20 times its regular allocation of tax credits.

Officials at HUD and the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO) gave the Big Four’s tax credits and federal block grants to several big out-of-state firms and their local partners. Some of the developers were later found to have financial and personal ties to Alphonso Jackson, who was HUD secretary under George W. Bush and later faced a federal investigation for alleged misconduct. (Jackson resigned in April 2008.) In a series of investigative stories in the National Journal beginning in late 2007, journalist Edward Pound revealed Jackson’s ties to Columbia Residential, the developer chosen for the St. Bernard. Jackson, who had worked as a private consultant for the company, was still owed as much as $500,000 in fees when Columbia got the contract.

Pound later discovered connections between Jackson’s wife, Marcia, and the design firm Kennedy Associates, which had partnered (under the name KAI Design & Build) with St. Louis-based developer McCormack Baron Salazar and gained the contract for the C.J. Peete. Scott Keller, Jackson’s deputy chief of staff, played a key role, Pound reported, in selecting and participating in the four-member panel that awarded the contracts to replace the Big Four.

A typical project—for the St. Bernard redevelopment, for example—represents $27 million in community development block grants, as well as $7.4 million in Go Zone tax credits to sell to private investors for equity. The cost of demolition and construction is covered by the government funds, and meanwhile, the developer is leasing from the city vast acres of land in the urban core for practically nothing. It costs the developers literally a dollar a year for a 99-year lease of this land—all of it potentially prime real estate near the center city and downtown areas. With the total cost of replacing the Big Four estimated at $762 million, taxpayers are paying developers an average of $400,000 per new apartment.

For ten years, the tax credits can be used on other projects, too. Even more enticing, the contracts specify that the Big Four must be converted to mixed-income housing, which means that just a third of the units will be “deeply affordable” for the poorest public housing residents. Their rent would be based on income levels at 20 percent of the area’s median income. The next third, affordable for another tier of residents, would be rented at 40 to 60 percent of the median income. The last third would be rented at market rates to middle-class residents able to pay up to $1,500 a month for a one-bedroom apartment.

The plan does little for poor New Orleanians—and the reality is likely to be worse. In one of the little-known intricacies of affordable-housing finance, the track record shows that development deals like these eventually phase out the deeply affordable rentals. Typically after 10 to 15 years, developers are allowed to convert low-income properties into market-rate units.

So, in the end, the developers get their cake and eat it, too. At least that was business as usual before 2008, when the U.S. financial system was shaken to its core.

A Financial Storm Hits

By the beginning of 2008, bulldozers had razed three of the four New Orleans complexes, and with great fanfare, groundbreaking for new housing began at the C.J. Peete, B.W. Cooper and St. Bernard sites. Then construction stalled, as the credit markets collapsed and the recession began in earnest. Tax credits, which investors had deemed worth up to 92 cents on the dollar, dropped to 65 cents. Investors, who normally provide capital for development projects by buying tax credits to offset their tax liabilities, had no profits to offset.

By the end of July 2009, about 10,000 new affordable housing units in Louisiana—5,000 of them planned for New Orleans—were at risk of losing their financing. The Big Four developers raced against a 2010 deadline to find investors, secure funds and start construction.

Eventually, with the help of last-minute maneuverings and public money from other federal pots, the developers were reported to have found financing. The C.J. Peete and St. Bernard projects got backing from Goldman Sachs, one of the few big financial institutions in need of a tax shelter. FEMA contributed $17.5 million for demolition on the premise that the buildings were a public safety hazard and HANO shifted funds from stalled projects.

“Obviously, it’s politically untenable for the redevelopments not to move forward,” Morgan Williams, a lawyer for the Greater New Orleans Action Center, said at the time.

The B.W. Cooper development, once touted as one of the largest tax-credit deals in U.S. history, has since fallen short of a needed $22 million in equity, according to its Ohio-based developer, KBK. In 2009, the firm’s CEO, Keith B. Keys, became the subject of an attorney general’s investigation in his home state. (Keys was allegedly involved in a deal to provide prison monitoring devices at exorbitant rates to the corrections department, whose deputy director was a college fraternity brother.) Meanwhile, the Lafitte developers told Congresswoman Waters they would need until 2012 to finish construction.

Stiff Competition for Housing

The longer the delays, of course, the less likely it is that former residents will be able to return, even to the few affordable units available to them. Not only will it be harder to locate people, it’s also more likely that former residents will be priced out of New Orleans housing. Apartments in the city now cost twice as much to rent as they did before Katrina.

And each development is setting its own criteria for returning residents, who must apply for admission. Developers prefer applicants who have jobs; in fact, Columbia Residential is making employment a requirement for adult residents, although that is prohibited under federal housing law. Another problem for locals is the criminal background checks the developers require. Laura Tuggle, a housing attorney with Southeast Louisiana Legal Services, notes: “It’s kind of challenging in this city for a young African American male to have no arrest record.”

Along with employment and credit checks, the developers have rules governing outdoor gatherings, visitors, holiday decorations, even the flowers planted in the yard. This is the developers’ way of ensuring order in their mixed-income neighborhoods, claimed Noel Khalil, Columbia Residential’s president, in the March 2007 issue of the magazine Affordable Housing Finance. “We’ve learned we need to have very clear guidelines about who can come back to the community…You can have different people living with different incomes, but we must make sure people share the same values and hold them accountable.”

Government agencies have apparently given the developers carte blanche in devising criteria and rules, leaving public housing units built with public money in the hands of the private sector. Though some of the developers may be violating fair housing laws in their readmission policies, local activists are not yet able to take on this issue while the rebuilding remains unfinished.

A Human Right to Housing

Late in the summer of 2009, tent cities once again cropped up in the national media. After attracting attention earlier in the year in cities like Sacramento and Seattle, tent cities were now scattered across the country, the Wall Street Journal reported: Nashville, Tennessee; Ontario, California; Ventura, California; East Harlem, New York; Champaign, Illinois. The new face of homelessness, declared the Washington Post, was no longer single men with substance abuse and mental illnesses but rather families with children. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, close to a million people are homeless, with that number expected to double without major intervention to make more housing available and affordable.

“This really is a national crisis,” says Tiffany Gardner, director of housing rights for the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative. “Many people are paying more than half their income for housing. We’re talking about the need for affordability for all Americans, not just poor people.”

Even as millions more families are in need of affordable housing, the supply is dwindling. Public housing buildings are increasingly being replaced by mixed-income developments. The HOPE VI program, one of the major federal vehicles for redeveloping public housing, does not require one-for-one replacement. Studies suggest that HOPE VI redevelopments have managed to bring back fewer than 12 percent of the original residents. Meanwhile, with struggling banks unable to buy tax credits, there’s not much affordable multifamily housing going up.

“There’s been an extreme focus on the private sector in our nation’s approach to housing,” says Gardner. “I’ve worked in Africa and Southeast Asia, and I’ve never seen so much emphasis on this privatized model.”

In the summer of 2009, the fourth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina brought renewed attention to New Orleans’ housing struggles. In late July, a United Nations advisory group made a fact-finding mission to the city. Then, on August 21, Rep. Maxine Waters held a congressional field hearing in New Orleans, spotlighting the status of the city’s public housing redevelopment. International attention culminated in late October with the first official visit to the United States from the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing, Raquel Rolnik.

“As it is now, we can’t get anyone in the [U.S.] government to pay attention to what happened here,” Sam Jackson told Justice Roars, the blog of the Louisiana Justice Institute. “So we bring in the U.N. representatives and let them know what’s happening. And then people start to ask, ‘Why do we have to get folks from outside the country to come visit us? Why couldn’t we get folks from our own government to visit?’”

In her preliminary report, Rolnik stated: “An approach to housing redevelopment has overly emphasized housing as real estate rather than as a basic social need. This approach has led to displacement of public housing residents, disruption of families and the social fabric of neighborhoods.” These days, of course, far more people than the residents of the Big Four have suffered displacement as a result of housing-as-real-estate policies.

The fight for housing for those who once lived in the Big Four is an exceptionally difficult one, but former residents and their advocates are still at it. As of January 2010, volunteers were setting up a new survivors’ village—a rehabbed building now called the Fight Back Center—on the site of a former community center near the St. Bernard to use as a base for community organizing and to help more public housing residents to return. And the battle in New Orleans has prompted larger groups and struggles. One is the Campaign to Restore National Housing Rights, a national coalition of housing rights organizations and community groups—Sam Jackson’s May Day New Orleans among them—working to spread the message of the U.N. visit and to hold congressional hearings on the housing crisis in some of the hardest-hit cities. Other grassroots organizing efforts, such as Miami’s Take Back the Land, are helping families to resist foreclosure evictions or to move into bank-owned, abandoned properties.

It is still unclear how the Obama administration will respond to the fact that, nationwide, housing is a rapidly growing problem that has reached crisis proportions for many low-income individuals and communities of color. The Institute for Southern Studies has issued a report card giving President Obama a D-plus on Gulf Coast recovery, only a little better than the Bush Administration’s D-minus. Advocates acknowledge that the notion of housing as a public good is a long way from mainstream debate in this country. But with the severity and scale of the housing crisis, and a friendlier ear in the White House, there may be more opportunity to make that case than at any time in the last three decades.

Sam Jackson says that national and international attention must be leveraged into political will if anything is to change. “This is a new fight,” he says. “We done been through the old fight. That was about demolition and right of return, and then one-for-one replacement. This is something new here. It’s about housing as a human right.”