Monday, August 27, 2007

Microsoft is to the OS Market, as Afghanistan...

is to the Opium Market.

"We're going to show Mullah Gates a thing or two about market domination."

- Haji Bashir Noorzai, Afghan Drug Lord

According to the NY Times, Afghanistan increased its share of the opium market from 92% in 2006 to a current 93% so far in 2007.

"With increased bribery, slave labor and old fashioned intimidation tactics, we can get that number up to 95% by the end of 2008," boasted heroin kingpin Haji Baz Mohammed, "and up to 105% by 2011." When told that it was impossible to have more than 100% of any market share, Mohammed responded, "with the grace of Allah, anything is possible." Allah could not be reached for comment.

For years, Afghanistan has produced more opium than all other nations combined, so the 93% market share is actually not much more than their share in the mid 90's (when they had 80-85% share). But to put their production in perspective, Afghanistan produced 4,600 tons of opium in 1998 compared with the estimated 9,000 tons in 2007 (according to the NYT article linked above).

More highlights from the NYT article:
  • "The report is likely to spark renewed debate over an American-backed proposal for the aerial spraying of opium crops with herbicide. Afghan and British officials have opposed aerial spraying, saying it would increase support for the Taliban among farmers who fear the herbicide would poison them and their families."
  • "The report notes that no large increase in world demand for opium has occurred in recent years and that supply from Afghanistan “exceeds global demand by an enormous margin.” It said up to 3,300 tons of opium was being stockpiled in Afghanistan.

    Terrorist groups could be stockpiling the drug, the report warned. “Opium stockpiles, a notorious store of value, could once again be used to fund international terrorism,” it said."

Regarding the first point, I don't see why increasing support for the Taliban amongst farmers is an issue here. Farmers don't support the Taliban because they have a new national health plan and want to reduce government spending. They support the Taliban because AK-47's pointed at their families are pretty persuasive.

"Farmer support of the Taliban" isn't a real issue; it is a symptom of a more obvious issue - the existence of the Taliban. As long as they have power, they will have the "support" of those they can intimidate. If the postulation about the "opium bank" is true... it looks like they'll be in business for a long time.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Whatcha gonna do with all that junk?

Some time ago, I heard a song on the radio. A girl was singing a song about her humps, and her bumps, and her lumps. It struck me as very rudimentary rap; the kind of rap from the early 80's. You know, the kind where every song starts with "Well my name is Coovo and I'm here to say..."

I don't listen to the radio a lot, so I didn't know if this was a really old rap, or a new rap that was kind of a joke, or a new rap that was seriously supposed to be regarded as a good song. I thought the last option was the least likely.

Then I saw the video on You Tube, and as far as I can tell, they're dead serious about her humps.

I only found the video because someone sent me a link to a video Alannis Morrisette did mocking the original. I've never been a real fan of Alannis, but she apparently has a great sense of humor. You should probably watch the aforementioned original video linked above before watching this.

And of course, by law I don't think you can write anything like this without at least mentioning "Weird Al" once. What do you get when you combine Weird Al with Japanese humor?

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Literature for a post-9/11 World

Here at The Loop and The Lou, we keep things on the lighter side. We'd like to talk more politics and religion, but our audience loves puff pieces. "Coovo's trip to the Zoo" and "Roller's Dirty Diaper Nightmare" have garnered much higher ratings than clunkers like "Coovo's trip to the Senate" and "Roller's Dirty Election Nightmare."

So at the risk of alienating some fans, I'm going to take the opportunity give a quick review of some books that I've read related to 9/11, the CIA, al Qaeda, etc. I've become pretty enthralled with this subject matter, and I'd like to spread the word.

While any of these books can be read on its own, and I recommend them all, I'd push for Ghost Wars or The Looming Tower first. They are so comprehensive, and reading them will provide excellent context for the others. Also, I highly recommend listening to the books. I read Ghost Wars and See No Evil first, and then listened to the rest. If you're a slow reader like me, it helps to digest all this content.

The following 4 books are delivered like documentaries, which is to say they remain objective and the stories they tell are all backed with facts (interviews, declassified government documents, etc.). Although that style sounds pretty dry, the subject matter definitely held my attention. I liken these books to a Tom Clancy novel without bad dialog or a romantic sub-plot.

"Ghost Wars" - This book provides a comprehensive history of the intelligence and military players in Afghanistan from 1979 (invasion of the Soviets) through 9/11. You learn how the intelligence agencies of the USA, Soviet Union, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, along with various regional Afghan warlords played their roles in the fight against Soviet occupation, subsequent skirmish for power and the rise of the Taliban and their symbiosis with al Qaeda.

"The Looming Tower" - This book has some overlap with Ghost Wars, but differs in that it does not focus on Afghanistan, but instead the history of al Qaeda. The book introduces one of the main voices of 20th century fundamentalism (Sayyid Qutb), how he influenced Ayman al-Zawahiri (al Qaeda's no. 2) and, of course, the rise of bin Laden and the al Qaeda organization.

While their paths differ before 1995 or so, both Ghost Wars and The Looming Tower provide an excellent account of the al Qaeda network, terrorist activities leading up to 9/11 (WTC bombing in '93, the US Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania and the bombing of the USS Cole off teh coast of Yemen), the planning and execution of 9/11, and what the U.S. knew and did in an effort to neutralize al Qaeda pre-9/11.

"9/11 Commission Report" - This also had some overlap with Ghost Wars and The Looming Tower, but I felt it filled in some of the blanks from the U.S. side; it had a more detailed account of the interactivity (or lackthereof) between various U.S. agencies (CIA, FBI, State Department etc.). It also opened with a minute-by-minute account of the morning of 9/11, including everything that is known to have happened on each plane. I felt this was a balanced, objective report - its criticisms were justified, but I didn't detect any taint.

"No True Glory" - The book includes the invasion in '03 in its intro, but focuses on the battles in Falluja, Iraq, a Sunni town filled with former Baathists, fundamentalist clerics, Sunni insurgents, and your plain ole' run-o-the-mill criminals. Perhaps the biggest problem with the Coalition's approach to Falluja was that they expected residents in Fallujah to welcome troops; after all the troops were there to liberate and protect them. In contrast, residents wanted no foreign presence in their city. Fallujans that were not allied with the insurgents knew that one day the foreign troops would leave, whereas the insurgents lived there and wouldn't forget anyone who even wavered on their support. The book also described the complexities of "instilling freedom" in a country with politics so closely tied to, and yet so fiercely divided by, religion.

The book was filled with the play-by-play of the battles. At first I didn't understand how this was possible, but if you see soldiers in their gear today, they're all wearing microphones as part of their communications. Every minute on the battlefield is recorded, and the stories are about as real as you can imagine. There are no words for the mental and physical toughness of these soldiers. I get a fever and I call in sick for work. These guys get shot and refuse to leave the battlefield.

The following 3 books are told as first-person, first-hand accounts.

"See No Evil" - The autobiography of ex-CIA operative Robert Baer. Although he retired in 1997, he spent years in some of the most hostile, anti-Western places in the world, including Lebanon, Sudan, Tajikistan and Iraq. Baer's career has about 5 Hollywood films worth of material; in fact it was noted that his career was the inspiration for George Clooney's character in Syriana.

"Jawbreaker - The Attack on bin Laden and al Qaeda" - CIA operative Gary Bernsten was the top CIA field commander of the ground assault in Afghanistan post-9/11. This book details the overtake of Afghanistan, from the entry in the Panshir Valley to the chase of bin Laden into the Tora Bora mountains. American military might easily crushed the Taliban, but in the end the most wanted man slipped away as some Afghan commanders' loyalties were up for bidding, and the U.S. wasn't prepared to finish the fight in the mountains. A very captivating book.

"Inside the Jihad" - I've only started this book, but it already has me hooked. This is the auto-biography of a Morrocan Muslim who ended up working for French and British intelligence as a spy. He was initially running guns for extremists in Belgium when he realized the savagery of the fanatics he was supporting. After going undercover, he actually went to al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan.

There are numerous challenges with bringing democracy to a nation in which autocracy/theocracy is woven into the fabric of the culture. Democracy is freedom of choice, a fair chance for all. It is impossible to play by "fair" rules when the opponents play by no rules at all. The U.S. and its allies are berated globally for any appearance of heavy-handed tactics, yet it is the insurgents that resort to the blind killing of innocents, cloaked in religious divinity. It is not only that the fundamentalists believe killing "infidels" is just; they actually believe it to be their duty - and that those who do not fulfill this duty are infidels themselves.

The long-term success of democratic governments in Afghanistan and Iraq is, in my opinion, doubtful. These governments will be viewed by many Muslims as puppets of the West, no more loved than the theocratic alternative. As in Fallujah, one day western troops will leave. The insurgents will not. Camps can be leveled, cities can be cleaned, but the supply of poor, uneducated, impressionable Muslim youth is virtually endless.

Job opportunity and traditional education in many Arab nations scarce, but room and board at religious schools (madrassas), funded by fundamentalist sheiks, is not. Students in these schools are indoctrinated with fundamentalism and hatred of the West, and when they leave they are no more trained for a traditional career than when they entered. But they are mentally prepared for the jobs waiting for them on the front lines of the jihad. The strength of fundamentalist militias may ebb and flow, but it will not die, and from what I've read it's as strong now as it's been since pre-9/11.

I want to make it clear that I am not suggesting U.S. troops be pulled out. I have the luxury of spouting my opinions and predictions 6000 miles from the truth, and reading a few books hardly makes my opinion worth anything. I can only hope that those with the true knowledge of the all the variables and causes and effects of these situations can make the best, most pure decisions.

Well, what began as a book review got a little out of hand. You might say it was a little ... extreme (scary music). I'd love to hear people's thoughts on this. Heck, I just hope someone read this far. And of course I'd love to hear any books that have been enjoyed by our sleeper cell of readers. Until then, Allah ak bu ahkd ba du (Dude, yeah, Allah an all them).