Stratfor on Afghanistan (and a bit on Stratfor)

I’ll introduce this post by talking a bit about Stratfor, short for Strategic Forecasting — a private think tank/global security analysis outfit founded and run by George Friedman, a policy wonk in the grand mode. I first heard about them shortly after 9/11, when Chris Barrus pointed them out in the welter of discussion which understandably overwhelmed ILX. Friedman, a self-described conservative Republican, is far from the only voice and site examining global security and the state of the world, public or private, but it’s easy to see why he’s received the attention he has.

While it should be said that the site’s claim that there’s no ‘ideology, a partisan agenda, or a policy prescription’ might be slightly overstated (overt ideology, true, but there’s an unspoken one), Friedman and his Stratfor writers and analysts aim for discussion in as cold a way as possible — not entirely dispassionate, but not arguing ideology either. Rather, this is strategic shop talk on a grand scale, for those who love power politics, amorality and Machiavelli. That may sound extreme, but as much as I do have my own beliefs and deeply held convictions — on capital punishment, torture, individual freedom and so forth — I have a fascination with Realpolitik as it is (often badly) carried out. It’s not that I want to be someone involved with it all, rather that I prefer to try and look at things as coldly as I can in turn. It appeals to a certain part of me that is…not inhuman, I would say, but self-consciously removed.

I remember during 9/11 that I was thinking and discussing in as flat a way as possible as the circumstances allowed (the first couple of hours were rough in that there was a possibility a friend had been caught in the towers; happily he had not gone into work yet that day). Given all the folderol since, that cold flatness has its place more than I might have appreciated before then, and so while I’m not a full subscriber to Stratfor, I appreciate being on the random mailout list and look forward to what I call their ‘tea leaf reading’ — because that’s what they do best, see what can be seen and concluding and speculate, without absolute guarantee of what will happen next, what is likely going on around the world.

Anyway, their latest mailing is on the situation in Afghanistan, and I’ll excerpt a brief bit here to call to your attention. The longer war and battles draw out over there, the more I wonder what the end result will be. Emphasis, towards the end, is mine:

Supporters of the war in Iraq support the war in Afghanistan. Opponents of the war in Iraq also support Afghanistan. If there is a good war in our time, Afghanistan is it.

It is also a war that is in trouble. In the eyes of many, one of the Afghan war’s virtues has been that NATO has participated as an entity. But NATO has come under heavy criticism from U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates for its performance. Some, like the Canadians, are threatening to withdraw their troops if other alliance members do not contribute more heavily to the mission. More important, the Taliban have been fighting an effective and intensive insurgency. Further complicating the situation, the roots of many of the military and political issues in Afghanistan are found across the border in Pakistan.

If the endgame in Iraq is murky, the endgame if Afghanistan is invisible. The United States, its allies and the Kabul government are fighting a holding action strategically. They do not have the force to destroy the Taliban — and in counterinsurgency, the longer the insurgents maintain their operational capability, the more likely they are to win. Further stiffening the Taliban resolve is the fact that, while insurgents have nowhere to go, foreigners can always decide to go home.

The real issue is the hardest to determine. Is al Qaeda prime — not al Qaeda enthusiasts or sympathizers who are able to carry out local suicide bombings, but the capable covert operatives we saw on 9/11 — still operational? And even if it is degraded, given enough time, will al Qaeda be able to regroup and ramp up its operational capability? If so, then the United States must maintain its posture in Afghanistan, as limited and unbalanced as it is. The United States might even need to consider extending the war to Pakistan in an attempt to seal the border if the Taliban continue to strengthen. But if al Qaeda is not operational, then the rationale for guarding Kabul and Karzai becomes questionable.

We have no way of determining whether al Qaeda remains operational; we are not sure anyone can assess that with certainty. Certainly, we have not seen significant operations for a long time, and U.S. covert capabilities should have been able to weaken al Qaeda over the past seven years. But if al Qaeda remains active, capable and in northwestern Pakistan, then the U.S. presence in Afghanistan will continue.

As the situation in Iraq settles down — and it appears to be doing so — more focus will be drawn to Afghanistan, the war that even opponents of Iraq have acknowledged as appropriate and important. But it is important to understand what this war consists of: It is a holding action against an enemy that cannot be defeated (absent greater force than is available) with open lines of supply into a country allied with the United States. It is a holding action waiting for certain knowledge of the status of al Qaeda, knowledge that likely will not come. Afghanistan is a war without exit and a war without victory. The politics are impenetrable, and it is even difficult to figure out whether allies like Pakistan are intending to help or are capable of helping.

Thus, while it may be a better war than Iraq in some sense, it is not a war that can be won or even ended. It just goes on. Political Blogger Alliance


Where and when to test the comfort zone?

A cryptic title for this post, perhaps, but one that best sums up the combined welter of thoughts resulting from an excellent one-two combination of posts today on Idolator.

First, Dan Gibson had an obituary up for Larry Norman, one of those musical figures I’d irregularly heard about over the years but hadn’t really pursued much. There was, frankly, a specific reason — he was, as Gibson notes, legendary for being the ‘Father of Christian Rock,’ and any time I hear that phrase (or CCM, short for ‘contemporary Christian music’), I heave a mental sigh and move on. I’m not offering any excuse for that, it’s as much an ingrained, kneejerk position as any one I’ve heard over the years saying that, say, rap isn’t music or country all sounds the same or whatever have you. I find those attitudes close-minded and mine on these bands, ultimately, is no less so.

The closest thing to any sort of explanation grows out of a few sources — my own disinterest in religious belief, my emphasis on music and sound rather than lyrics when it comes to musical appreciation, a lingering belief that nearly every overtly Christian rock/CCM identified group essentially seem to only offer a cloning of a popular (or alternately, formerly popular) style but with different lyrics and nothing new brought to the table.

It didn’t help that the audience for such music has always seemed rather…self-limited, to perhaps unfairly say. For a while in the mid-nineties I lurked a touch on a Usenet board dedicated to CCM, partially at the instigation of friends who regularly winnowed wheat from chaff in trying to find good bands out there in the field, but I grew tired of the attitude of fans there who would regularly say things like “Is there a band out that sounds like [band x, singer y, whatever], but Christian?” This ended up annoying me because it seemed very shallow — to turn it around, I really don’t have any problem in the slightest with the Christian symbolism prevalent in C. S. Lewis’s Narnia books, say, and while Philip Pullman’s work in creating an alternate children’s fantasy with His Dark Materials is lovely stuff, I didn’t go around asking “Is there a young adult fantasy series that reads like Narnia, but agnostic or atheist?” Frankly, I’m still surprised at the idea — which I’ve encountered more than once, in many guises — that to read/listen/watch something not specifically identified as ‘Christian’ is an attack upon your mental and spiritual integrity, which presumably fed into the worries on the message board noted above, with people desperate to enjoy a sound but only if the lyrics were not simply palatable, but explicitly focused on something to the exclusion of anything else.

The irony of course is that attitude can go many different directions — turn it around and you get people complaining “Love the way that band sounds but I wish they wouldn’t be so preachy,” and not simply in terms of religion. So rather than it being a case of one group locking themselves away from broader possibilities, it’s more like an overwhelming layer of biases, where knowing what works best for an individual means more automatic conclusions on what would be worse than should be made. Gibson notes this in his piece, prefacing a sharp, angry condemnation of the fly-by-night financial practices of supposedly godly independent record labels that regularly ripped off Norman and many others — a good warning sign for anyone who thinks that a fish symbol automatically means financial probity, or probity in general — with this pithy observation:

if someone had been this influential to a more popular genre of music (say, Lou Reed), they’d be lionized with an extensively reissued catalog, allowed to put out whatever their whims brought forth, coasting on whatever brilliant moment flickered once in the past. Instead, Norman’s obituary contained a thanks for “prayer and finance” in the past and a mention of likely future financial difficulties for his survivors.

Intriguingly, this question of audience acceptance and expectation unconsciously dovetails with the other excellent Idolator piece this morning, Michelangelo Matos’s latest entry in the Project X series of posts he’s made for the site. This one is a discussion of the legacy of John Peel, the rightly famed British DJ who was an icon for anybody who had hopes their radio show could somehow change the listening world, as well as for general music obsessives. Matos’s article is in part a response to another from Tom Ewing at Pitchfork, also worth the reading (as Matos notes, Ewing, who is from the UK, has a handle on Peel’s role that’s much closer to home and more knowing by default), and both talk about a quality that distinguished Peel and (sadly) still does in comparison to many DJs and people his age and younger — his sheer breadth of musical enthusiasm and interest in listening to all kinds of music from all over the world, from obscure African highlife to murky-as-hell grindcore and back again. Ewing himself sounds an appropriately aware, cautionary note that this reputation is as much image-making as anything else, but at the same time it’s very much part of the historical record.

Matos captures the spirit of this enthusiasm — and why it is important — perfectly:

His integrity had little to do with specific musical tastes and everything to do with being open to possibility. A good critic, as much as a good broadcaster, aspires to communicating the pleasures to be had beyond that which she encounters regularly, be it singer-songwriters or teen-pop or horrible noise, and that pleasure leads to knowledge, or at least more pleasure.

To fully discuss this in the detail it deserves will take much more time than I have to hand right now — maybe even ever, because it’s been both my own lodestone and problem as listener over the years. Problem because at a certain point a few years back I had to get out of the mindset of trying to keep up with everything at once, to fully explore as I ought, because the sheer volume of available music out there — formerly the type of thing that was an issue faced by a few people like Peel, who had labels and bands worldwide sending him huge streams of physical product on a daily basis — had fully exploded via the Net and mp3s. The adjustment I went through is something I’ve mentioned here and there on the blog and elsewhere and was a fairly internally violent rethink — melodramatic perhaps, but I had to realize (and, I hope, did) that life in the hothouse of music and cultural overload was untenable given all my other interests, and especially given whatever creative endeavours I wanted to pursue, however fitfully.

So while I still hold that Matos’s point about being open to possibility is crucial, I don’t regularly practice it as I could — indeed, we’ve all come to a point now where the accumulation created by decades’ worth of favorite styles and genres, increasingly broad and deep, means it’s easy to dwell in there. Arguably I experiment more these days with food — a recipe or foodstuff is suggested and I go to town with it, seeing what can be done — but I don’t find that a loss, if anything it’s a major gain, in part because it does give an outlet to that creative impulse I mentioned earlier. But the larger point to be had is that this is a natural consequence of finding a new balance in one’s life, as interests and obsessions shift, and as new matters of importance rise.

Matos himself touches on the idea of split decisions and differing priorities at the end of his piece with his irritation at a ‘typical’ Peel fan Festive 50 tempered by his own acknowledgement of his love of classic film noir, wryly noting “There’s a thin line between a lost cause and emergent classicism.” And in a way this ties back in obliquely with Gibson’s point, with his passionate take on a ‘lost cause’ — that of trying to establish the place of Norman in wider musical discussion, in a canon that is now simultaneously hardened into the most sclerotic of forms (look to the Grammy Awards a couple of weeks back if you dare, how all sorts of obvious signifiers and past-worship were piled on to create a formal history of music for the mass market) and fraying at the edges more and more.

More really can and should be said about all this — I’ve only just read these pieces and these are initial thoughts touching on a variety of questions. If nothing else it shows that the question of importance of music (of art, really — even, if you like, of what and how we spend our time in our lives with, a life which as Norman would have argued is only transitional anyway in preparation for something more, thus the title of his early seventies album that Gibson rightly cites as a logical obit meme, Just Visiting This Planet) still holds a prime place in my head and those of others in this time of political uncertainty and future concern. And given that it does, no surprise also, perhaps, that I’m content with a certain comfort zone still — something to rely on in a gathering swirl that might yet be a storm.

How not to advocate for cancer research

[UPDATED INTRO: Hello folks who’ve clicked over from Yahoo’s Buzz list and Rhodri’s LJ feed! Browse around the archives as you like — and trust me, I do write about more things in general than animated cancerous glands.]

I’m going to just copy/paste something I posted over at ILX, but let me just preface what I’m calling attention to here by saying, I’m sorry, but NO. BAD IDEA. Surely SOMEONE realized this was a BAD IDEA.

(And as I said at ILX, I am extremely interested in prostate cancer research and diagnosis for many good reasons — the cancer killed my grandfather and almost killed my uncle, and my dad’s been affected by it as well. I certainly am all for further attention to this, even if motivated by obvious self-interest. And I don’t believe in being humorless about something as grim as this either, humor and lightness can have its place and probably should. But…not…this…way…)

So, I’m reading this article — as I’ve muttered elsewhere, prostate cancer runs in my family and it’s very likely I’ll get a diagnosis one day, therefore reading up on it is something I do as stories catch my eye.

And I notice this paragraph:

Prostate cancer groups have tried to replicate the success of the pink ribbon campaign with their own blue ribbon, but it has yet to gain widespread acceptance. A group advocating the development of imaging technology for prostate screening created a mascot, Prosty the Spokesgland, complete with a theme song, to the tune of “Frosty the Snowman.” Not surprisingly, it has not caught on, either.


So of course I search for it, and I find it, complete with video.

Prosty the Spokesgland
Is a prostate gland, we’re told
Buried deep inside largely out of sight
He’s ignored by young and old

Prosty the Spokesgland
How we hope that lump’s benign
But it’s hard to say
Cause the only way
To diagnose and treat is blind

There might just be some cancer
In that lump they found today
But we really can’t be sure right now
Cause you can’t trust the PSA

Oh. Dear.

Sauteed tatsoi and tofu, plus toasted olive bread

Basic, tasty, simple and great. A little margarine and parmesan on top of the bread for effect. Going uncomplicated has its virtues.