A little transparency, please … on nuclear power

Our present board of directors, Shawn Graham, Jack Keir among others, have come up with a creative proposal in the energy hub concept – a second nuclear power plant at Point Lepreau. However, the shareholders of the province, have not being given much information and no alternatives are being discussed.

In previous columns, I have discussed the urgent need for conservation, and for substitution of NB Power’s oil fired generation, with nuclear being one of the possible options. We are within a few years of the peak of world oil production, supplies are tight and prices are rising. In the current year NB Power will spend roughly $300 million dollars on heavy fuel. Within a short time, the cost of heavy fuel will be extremely expensive and we will have to replace that three million kWh’s from another source.

A privately owned consortium, Team Candu, proposes to construct an 1100 MW nuclear plant adjacent to the existing Point Lepreau reactor on the Bay of Fundy. As part of the “energy hub” developments, we would see Team Candu provide energy to the Maritime Provinces and sell into the export market in New England with the plant operated by NB Power. Team Candu is a consortium of Babcox and Wilcox, GE, Hitachi Canada, AECL and SNC Lavalin who would be the engineers, suppliers of the material, and provide the financing for the project.

What will it cost to build?
If the project were a strictly private merchant power plant, the cost wouldn’t affect us. However, because NB Power will be a major buyer of power in a long-term contract, it does matter greatly. The cost of the original Lepreau station was $1.4 billion in 1983. In present day dollars, that would be $2.8 billion. Although no cost has been officially published by the government, some reports indicate the 4-5 billion range. There hasn’t been a Candu built in Canada for many years so we don’t really know what the ultimate cost might be now. As well, the ACR-1100 is new technology, and design changes during construction could happen, raising costs.

Due to a lengthy licensing process, and since the design process is not yet finished, the roughly four-year construction schedule takes us six or perhaps 8 years to completion (2014 or 2016).

Some concerns arise
Where are the ownership ambitions of the Atlantic utilities? Has AECL nationalism trumped economics? Will the federal government kick in a significant subsidy to compensate for the first build of the ACR class? Does the proposed technology offer the lowest cost construction, and overall simplicity of operation and maintenance? Remember the $25 million maintenance mistake of plywood being left in the piping. Whose responsibility is the waste fuel down the road?

The government approach might raise some flags. As the ultimate owner of Lepreau, only one bidder has been chosen to use the site. (Atomic Energy of Canada – AECL) How will we know the fixed cost construction figure and resultant kWh price from Team Candu is the best deal that we could have received and reasonable value? What value does New Brunswick receive for the use of the Lepreau property?

I do worry that a non-competitive bidding process may leave the door open to charges of “special deals” and that is something that nobody wants, given the volume of dollars involved. A long-term contract with Team Candu will commit NB Power for 6 to10 billion dollars.

The cost of the new plant would be between $3600 and $4500 per kW of capacity ($4 or $5 billion /1100,000 kW). A figure of 500 employees is suggested as the staffing level for the new nuclear plant. Given that the existing plant employs roughly 800 people, one might imagine significantly lower levels due to gains from commonality of function.

Are there alternatives?
One viable alternative could be the proposed Lower Churchill Falls hydro plant at Muskrat Falls and Gull Island, which is estimated between 6 and 9 billion for an output of 2800 MW’s. Even allowing for a lower capacity factor and a submarine cable, the cost is lower or equal to the nuclear option. Operating costs for hydro plants are typically very low and remain almost immune to inflation. Power is expected to be available from the first of two plants in 2015. The cost of power from the original Churchill Falls, which was finished in 1971, is now approximately ¼ of a cent per kWh. The typical life of a hydro plant is 75 to 100 years.

Ironically, it’s another high tech solution that may be one of the competitors eventually for our electric dollars. According to an October article in Fortune magazine, solar has a sunny future. The present cost of 25 to 30 cents per kWh will descend to meet with rising grid power price in the 2015 timeframe. What impact might cheaper solar power have on the sales of a completed nuclear plant?

The MZ consulting report on a second nuclear power plant in New Brunswick has not yet been released to the public and the Team Candu report will not be open to public scrutiny. It may turn out that a second Lepreau unit is a wise investment. One can hope that a little more information would eventually be made available to the general public before we are committed to a multibillion-dollar kWh purchase contract.


Can OPEC save the world from oil addiction?

The word “cartel” has been used to describe OPEC, a union of some oil producing countries. Perhaps a better word would be “association” as the effectiveness of this “cartel” over the years is questionable.

From a low of $10 in 1999 to over $100 a barrel today, price stability has not been one of its success stories. There are good reasons why this has happened – The close relationship between the Saudi Arabian and US governments, and the lack of a long-term vision and solidarity of the member states. There are recent indications that OPEC is becoming more effective and gaining more respect.

The oil age started with discoveries in 1859 and will be effectively finished by 2059, a period of only two hundred years. Even if we go along with the optimists and give it another 50 years, perhaps to 2109, the era of abundant oil will have only been a blink in the history of mankind.

A common human quality around the world is to search for peace and prosperity. Those with a long-term view can see dark clouds on the horizon. Unfortunately, the coming years will be a time of war and deprivation unless we find an efficient way to reduce our usage of oil and transition to other forms of energy in a calm and well planned sequence. Lately, oil has risen to $110 a barrel but still provides great value to customers. There are some preliminary indications that price has slowed the growth of oil usage. One of the contradictions of life is that a lower price of a product makes life easier but will lead to increased usage.

In the case of oil, do we still have the option of wasting this resource on SUV’s, poorly planned communities, and huge homes? How will our morality be judged when we utilize a valuable resource and leave nothing for future generations – our children, grandchildren and beyond? Can we find a way to decrease our usage to a “sustainable” level?

The nature of capitalism is to utilize all resources that are available without regard for the longevity of the reserves. We only have to look at the fish stocks in the world’s oceans to understand the dangers of uncontrolled harvesting. In the same way, we need a method to reduce the volume of oil usage such that efficiency is encouraged and the resource will last for centuries instead of decades.

Good long term planning is generally undertaken at the nation-state level. We would like to think so. In certain cases involving multiple countries, the United Nations can be useful. However, in a case as delicate as the price of oil, there is some doubt that the UN could act effectively when the short-term effects on multiple states, including the US would be negative.

The only group with the necessary tools is the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). To undertake such a mission would require vision and solidarity on the part of its members. It would also require an education campaign on why decreasing production is an environmental necessity – to reduce CO2 and to provide long-term resource planning for future centuries, avoiding “generational injustice”.

A reasonable target might be a reduction of 1% of the daily production of roughly 86 million barrels of liquids. This means that a cut of roughly 860,000 barrels a day would come from the OPEC members.

While OPEC would cut production, OPEC members would not lose overall revenue as the price would drift upwards to $150 a barrel or perhaps higher on a transitory basis. Obviously, rationing by price is not the ideal solution as those least able to pay are forced out of the market. The ultimate goal is to drive efficiencies into and wastage out of energy processes. At some point, countries will realize the necessity of cooperation in energy use by rationing on a country by country basis.

Why should OPEC be asked to show leadership at this particular moment?

First, the world is addicted to oil and no effective remedy is presently underway. Both OPEC and non-OPEC countries are the suppliers of the product going into the world’s veins. As addicts, we will exhaust the supply and future generations will be deprived and impoverished. Reduction of oil supply is the only sure way to ensure that CO2 levels will decline.

Secondly, OPEC is the only organization that has actually cut supply in the past, admittedly for much different reasons, in 1973 and 1979. There are excellent prospects for success today as little surplus supply capacity exists, public support for environmental initiatives can be found and a 1% reduction is a fairly mild cut.

George Bush is now playing the “economic” card to place blame on OPEC if they don’t raise production levels and therefore cause an economic slowdown in the US. Luckily, King Abdullah and other OPEC spokesmen aren’t buying into the guilt fantasy. George’s management of the US economy speaks for itself. Deficit spending due to tax cuts and an expensive war in Iraq are just the tip of the iceberg.

We all need OPEC to put a heart de-fibrillator on the speeding world economy and restart it at a slightly lower rate. Would this be an act of brotherly love for the planet and its inhabitants? Absolutely.

The price of oil has to remain high on a permanent basis if we are to find productivity or technological solutions to our energy problems. Countries who prosper will be those who use oil wisely and with more efficiency.

Afghanistan: What we might choose to do

(Part 5 of a series on the history of Afghanistan, and the role of Canada in the rebuilding of that country)

Six years into the Afghanistan intervention, it is still a failed narco-state state with inadequate aid and opportunities reaching down to affect the masses of poor people. Up to 60 percent of its GDP comes from opium sales. The prognosis is not encouraging. Although they don’t want the Taliban back, Afghans are less sure that the mission is succeeding. Canadian support for the mission is declining. The government is calling on other NATO countries to contribute more soldiers. All is not well and a change is required.

The Taliban’s terrible treatment of women and the need for rebuilding the infrastructure of the war torn country are often cited as the justification for our presence. The benefits that we are bringing to that poor forsaken country are real and good, but are not the reason we are there.

Speaking frankly, we are there because our country is a client state to the US commercial and imperialistic agenda. Our presence and those of others countries provides cover for the US agenda to divide and conquer Arab oil resources. We have a number of choices on the table:

Option A – Leaving Afghanistan when the mandate expires in 2009. Many Canadians reject our participation in the dubious foreign adventures of the United States. The recent years of the Bush administration have been particularly discouraging for those who believe in a world of cooperation and peace. Some argue that responsibility for fixing a broken state rests with those who broke it – in this case, the United States and the Soviet Union with some minor blame on Pakistan and Saudi Arabia for encouraging extremist fundamentalism. On a moral basis, they owe large reparations to Afghanistan for the damage they have caused. Let’s not hold our breath waiting.
Likewise, the hunt for Al-Qaeda and senior Taliban is seen as a responsibility of the US government who created the problem. Supporters of this choice would likely contribute significant foreign aid dollars to the Afghan government or to UN agencies.

Option B – The Manley report (status quo with improvements)
While the Manley report very diplomatically acknowledges that changes are required, it does not provide clear answers on how and if the changes would be implemented. There is no defined end to our commitment. When 10% of foreign money goes for aid and 90% for military action, then we have a serious problem. When the NGO’s cost of program delivery is high and the corruption of the local government is rampant, we are not succeeding. The Manley report is long on optimism and short on creativity.

Option C – Establish 2013 as the firm date for removal of all Canadian soldiers
This approach insists that we take control of our destiny, demand changes from the central government but be prepared to fund the changes. We need to obtain agreement on a strategy to end corruption, to provide aid and jobs to the people, to ensure security and defeat of the extremist Taliban culture, and replace narco-agriculture with a sustainable alternative. Failing to change direction in 2008 means leaving immediately in 2009. These are incredibly difficult goals and will require extraordinary measures. We are in Afghanistan without a workable plan, and we are almost wasting our time.

Setting a firm and irrevocable exit date for Canadian personnel forces the government to increase the necessary resources and focus on accomplishing those tasks. If five more years isn’t enough, then 25 years won’t do it either. Either we wish to win or we do not. There are no half measures in this kind of war.

Here are a few ideas that would change the dynamics of security and accelerate progress.

  • Directly hire and train an army of 100,000 men to aid in security in the Kandahar sector. Afghanistan has 40% unemployment. The ability to stretch our forces by this complementary group could shut down the effectiveness of the Taliban. Who knows the community better than Afghans? We will spend billions on our own forces to hunt down 5000 guerrillas but we hesitate to spend a pittance on an “Afghan strategy”. In the whole country, the National army (ANA) is only at 40,000 of a projected 70,000 men. Who has the best motivation to provide security for their community and their families? Isn’t it strange that Al-Qaeda can hire fighters for their forces but we can’t put together or train a formidable army that can protect its citizens in a country renowned for its pugnacity? At $300 a month for wages, benefits and training costs, this would cost $360 million a year.
  • Supply significant aid and credit to farmers who grow crops other than poppies. Buy a percentage of their crops and distribute to the poor. Perhaps this would cost $100 million in our sector. Don’t try to eradicate poppies by force before a real alternative is developed.
  • Effectively shut down the Taliban bases in the Pakistan federal areas (FATA). This can be done in several ways. This is a sensitive issue but it must be addressed. Search out the funding sources for the Taliban, whether in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia or other locations.
  • Accelerate the reconstruction process with Afghan workers. Mentor them if necessary. We have noted the construction projects where foreign companies and workers are brought in to build highways or schools. Get the local people to work at a cost of $500 million a year.

The last option to spend more, say $2 billion a year and effectively improve the life of ordinary Afghans is tempting. This is the only legitimate reason for our presence in that country, supporting their struggle for a peaceful and sustainable life. The government has just proposed a 2011 end date to the mission. Is this really an end to the current strategy in Afghanistan or just a strategic retreat on Parliament Hill for six months? Stephen Harper makes it clear that he wants a beefed up military with more interventionist roles to come in the future.

When the Prime Minister indicates that he wants NATO to contribute 1000 additional soldiers to Kandahar region, does he realize how silly that sounds? In World War II, Canada had over a million people in uniform out of a population of 12 million. Our present contribution is 2500 soldiers from a population of 33 million.

Mr Harper, either get out of Afghanistan or put a force into place with the appropriate strategy to win. You won’t earn the respect of Canadians by sitting on the fence or being creative with the truth.

The Impediments To Peace In Afghanistan

Why is achieving peace still out of our grasp?  How long does it take defeat an insurgency by a relatively small group of religious hard-liners? Given some of the significant problems that exist, can we succeed?  Beyond a different language and culture, here are a few of the challenges that we face.

Time – In a Washington Post article, a Taliban commander tells villagers “The Americans may have all the wristwatches but we have all the time.”   Does Canada have ten or twenty years to apply to a war that does not affect our national security or interest most Canadians greatly?   The poor Afghan villager has to decide whether the foreigner protecting his village will be there next year when the Taliban comes calling.

Attitude – Unfortunately we are engaged in both a guerrilla war and an anti-terrorism exercise, which has a public relations component and tests our intelligence.  Do Canadians understand the complexity of this type of war?  The people who have studied Mao in China, General Giap in Vietnam or other conflicts, explain that the insurgent destroys, assassinates, and terrifies the population to win.  The intent is to prove that the existing government is not capable of providing a civil society.  Countering the insurgency (COIN), experts indicate that the goal is not necessarily killing insurgents but protecting the population and assets and allowing the citizens to have hope for a better tomorrow. “The more force you use, the less effective you are,” according to an army manual on the subject.

Pakistan – Pakistan works with the United States officially to defeat the Taliban because it is given no choice.  It also “allows” the Taliban to hide in its mountainous areas because it cannot control the Federal Administrated tribal areas (FATA), a 1200 km strip on the north west border of Pakistan.  Pashtun tribes control this mountain country where the army goes at their own risk.  Pakistan has often manipulated Afghanistan in the past to their benefit and would do so in the future.
So, to take on the Islamist mujahadin in a serious way would cause extreme grief to Musharraf’s army.  Pakistan’s support for the Islamists by a succession of Pakistan leaders, including Benazir Bhutto, has blown back in their faces.   Pakistan, that “stable” country with nuclear weapons may become a radical Islamist state within a short time.

Opium production – Afghanistan provides 90% of the world’s heroin from the growing of poppies.  As a cash crop, it works very well for the farmers in this desperate land.  But its illegal nature and resultant profits for middlemen causes corruption in the government of Afghanistan to the highest levels.  Additionally, those profits from transformation to heroin and transportation to foreign lands provide funding to the warlords and the Taliban to hire soldiers, which weakens the central government.

The poppy is drought tolerant and the governments for the past 20 years have been poppy tolerant. The receipts at the farm gate vary from perhaps $600 million to over $1 billion a year.  This return from poppies is ten times that of wheat production.  Poor farmers can get credit to finance fertilizer, build wells to irrigate, hire farm labour to weed and other annual living expenses if they grow poppies.  In a broken state, this is incredibly attractive.  The local middlemen make over a billion dollars, with the wholesale value delivered to world cities is roughly $50 to $70 billion per year.  As in every situation, the farmers get the smallest piece of the pie.

The United States – Working with the Americans as the leader in this adventure has certain benefits and problems.  A small investor like Canada would normally follow the lead of the big investor.  The quality of that leadership and commitment will determine the success or failure.  So far, the leadership and commitment of resources by the US, NATO and ourselves has been inadequate.  The reliance on substantial airpower necessitates collateral damage that turns some Afghans against us.  Will that change?

Secondly, our investment makes us an active participant in the US global domination process. Will the US decide to take on Iran as the next diversion after Iraq?  For many Canadians, interference in the affairs of other nations is counterproductive in the long term.  Thirdly, the return on this investment of one billion dollars a year is at least zero, if not negative for Canada.

The key question for Canadians to ask themselves is – why are we in Afghanistan?  Is our present path working?  Can we succeed? How much are we prepared to expend in lives and money?  As a “liberal” society, are we really prepared for the contradictions between our beliefs and the reality of life in a feudal / tribal society when the rubber hits the road?  Some examples – the Taliban hangs a young boy for having American dollars in his pocket.  A government judge recently sentenced a young journalism student to death for downloading a file from the internet on the oppression of women by some Islamic societies.  Prisoners are tortured after being turned over to Afghan authorities… Need I say more?
More on the options available in the next article

Six Years of Afghan War, But No Lasting Victory

The stated goal of George W. Bush was the capture of Osama, his supporters and the overthrow of the Taliban regime. It is evident that after six years, these goals have not been accomplished.

The actually physical damage and casualties to the US in the World Trade center destruction was fairly insignificant in comparison to the number of people killed in auto accidents in the US each year (42,000) or the carnage in Afghanistan between 1979 and 2001 (1.5 million). However, it had great symbolic value to Al-Qaida by portraying the US as vulnerable despite their great power. When Uncle Sam gets a bloody nose in a sucker punch, it strikes back.

Zbigniew Brzezinki, Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser got his wish for the Soviet’s “Vietnam” in Afghanistan. The contracting out of a cold war battle on Afghan lands to Islamic fundamentalists had the ironic result of training Osama bin Laden who has turned on his former allies by bombing in New York and resistance in Iraq and Afghanistan.

One can speculate that if Osama bin Laden did not exist, would there be a war in Afghanistan today? The answer is probably not. Human rights or mistreatment of citizens alone in any country around the world have not caused the US to intervene. The driver for intervention is always commercial concerns, whether it is oil, or bananas or nationalization of US interests. The US supported the Taliban on their road to power and it could have removed them by supporting the opposition. Likely, they could have convinced the Taliban to accept a pipeline.

The media machine went into overtime after 9/11 to ensure that the case for intervention in the Middle East was built. In fact, since the Bush administration came to power, there was significant interest in deposing Saddam Hussein. Orders were given to the intelligence community – find a Saddam Hussein / Al Qaeda link. A new Homeland security department was created. Threats of anthrax were discovered. Speculation about dirty bombs abounded and the atmosphere of fear allowed freedom of political movement.
The removal of the Taliban sounded like a simple plan for the most powerful nation in the world. The US government ordered Pakistan to stop shipments of arms and other supplies to the Taliban after the destruction of the Twin towers. The northern alliance, now called the United Front, became the “boots on the ground” for the US plan. They didn’t want to repeat the Soviet mistake.

The Taliban, under bombing attack, retreated to the Kandahar region and the leadership eventually took to the hills of Pakistan for safety. The American general Tommy Franks refused to commit American troops to cut off their retreat and as is traditionally done, they bought their way through the warlord’s lines. On January 30, 2002, the US announced the defeat of the Taliban. Mullah Omar and Osama, from their cave in the hills or elsewhere, perhaps didn’t hear the news and have kept on fighting.

In this poor land, there are several realities. Money can recruit an army from the large numbers of desperate young men. Money can buy your way out of prison, or stop the destruction of your poppy crop. Money can allow your opium to cross the border without inspection. Most of the money in Afghanistan comes from narcotics exports, from foreign aid and from countries wishing to mold the government of the day to their will – United States, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Russia, and India. The alliances between ethnic groups are constantly changing as the flow of money or power changes. A former Taliban commander now becomes a Karzai supporter. In an impoverished land, the only constant is the search for survival.

The US soon lost interest in the Afghan war when the Taliban melted away. The real prize was Iraq with its potential for oil production increases. Dick Cheney’s task force on energy predicted shortfalls in world oil supply in coming years. The privatization of that oil and US control would ensure that future US energy problems are reduced. The transfer of human resources to the Iraq project allowed the stated goals of destroying Al-Qaeda to slip away. NATO was strong-armed into playing a role in the security of Afghanistan when the US had visions of Iraq dancing around their head. Canada had played its independence card once in refusing to support the US invasion of Iraq. You don’t refuse “the Don” (Uncle Sam) twice and expect to trade with them.

Hamid Karzai, named the interim president, and elected president in 2004, had worked closely with the US government in the past. He is a member of the majority Pashtun tribe. His excellent command of the English language and good public relations skills have been valuable in obtaining support in the West. His family had been in government circles in the past and he formed part of the Taliban government for a short time. His father was assassinated in 1999, likely by the Taliban. In 2006, Karzai told the UN General Assembly “You have to look beyond Afghanistan to the sources of terrorism and destroy terrorist sanctuaries beyond” referring to Pakistan frontier areas. His government has been described as “cautious” and “seeking to build consensus”. He has survived several assassination attempts.

The Taliban gradually regrouped and have been fighting a guerrilla and terror war using bases in Pakistan hill country in winter, with spring offensives. Some of the tactics are -assassinations of people cooperating with foreigners, IED’s, suicide bombers, and direct attacks where they are superior in force. With the security situation poor, reconstruction efforts have been less than required to build hope for the future.

Now six years later, Prime Minister Stephen Harper wants NATO countries to increase their contribution of troops willing to do the “heavy lifting” and presumably some dying. Do we properly understand the problems causing this lack of progress?

The next article reviews the impediments to peace.

Al-Qaeda, the Taliban and the US tango

Al Qaida was formed by Osama bin Laden in 1988 at the close of the Afghan – Soviet war. His goal was to continue the struggle to protect Islam against another adversary – the USA. With his fortune estimated at $250 million, he becomes the paymaster of operations around the world including New York City. The assassination of Rabbi Meir Kahane in New York in 1990 is one of the first overt acts of that group.

In 1993, the first World Trade Center bombing is organized by bin Laden associate Sheikh Abdul Rahman, who had entered the US on a visa signed by the CIA. His previous work was the recruitment of militants to fight in the Afghanistan war. The tower does not fall at that time and only causes $700 million dollars of damage.

Osama was forced out of Saudi Arabia because of his political views on the monarchy in 1991. Bin Laden operated out of Sudan in the period of 1991 to 96 before US pressure is too great on the Sudan government. He moved to Afghanistan, developed a relationship with the Taliban and was named one of the most significant sponsors of terrorism by the U.S. In the 90’s, Al Qaida is responsible for a significant number of bombings in Kenya, Yemen, US, Saudi Arabia and other locations.

Captured operatives provided considerable information to the FBI or CIA on the organization’s finances, structure and plans. “The United States intelligence community was told in 1998 that Arab terrorists were planning to fly a bomb-laden plane into the World Trade Center, but the FBI and the Federal Aviation Administration did not take the threat seriously” according to a New York Times article.

Back in Afghanistan, the Taliban took control over most of the country in 1996. Support for the Taliban military initiative came from the Pakistan government. The arms, training and technical support made the “students” a viable force.

The government soon consisted of only Pashtun tribe members and a very strict interpretation of Islamic law was instituted, with flogging being a punishment or much worse. Women were forbidden to go to school or to work, which in a country of many widows of war, amounts to a death sentence. War crimes, including mass murder of 15,000 Hazara civilians were noted in the city of Mazar-e Sharif. One of their worst cultural crimes was the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas.

At this time, Unocal and Enron were looking for a pipeline route to permit natural gas from the Caspian Sea reserves to market through a route other than Russia or Iran. Enron allegedly pays millions to the Taliban to encourage the pipeline approval. The US wanted the Taliban to turn over bin Laden to them but they also wanted a pipeline. In 1998, Clinton bombed Al Qaida training camps in Afghanistan with the hope of killing bin Laden and in response to bombing of US embassies in Africa.

Unocal abandoned the idea of a pipeline in late 1998. Clinton banned commerce with the Taliban in 1999. Plans begin for overthrowing of the Taliban during 2000. Prior to 9/11 the new administration of George W made a threat to the Taliban – accept war or a pipeline. The response was an attack on the Twin Towers in New York. The bin Laden – Mullah Omar collaboration were never interested in a pipeline but to turn back the clock to an Islam of many centuries past. The overthrow of secular Muslim states and the formation of Islamic states with Sharia law is the real goal.

When the planes crashed into the twin towers, the tango was over and the Americans knew instantly who had done it. The government had ignored the intelligence community due to commercial considerations of the big energy companies and also because their support for the fundamentalists had been useful in tormenting the Russians and dismantling their empire.

Many books have been written about the subject of the CIA, Afghanistan and Al-Qaida that cover the territory better than I can in a few brief paragraphs. It is clear that the policy of supporting an extreme fundamental Islam has blown back into the U.S.’s face.

Osama bin Laden had previously declared war on the US and bombed embassies in foreign lands. But when he brought his war onto US soil, he had suddenly become almost the highest priority.  The highest priority was alway Iraq.

Next article – Six years of war get us where?

Where God goes to cry

A football quarterback punts when he gets into trouble.  In politics, you ask for a report by an “independent” panel to ensure that nothing sticks to you.  The Manley Report on the future of our mission to Afghanistan is a political sidestep by the Prime Minister around the land mine that awaits him.  Public support for the mission has been less than overwhelming and not likely to improve as deaths of soldiers are announced on a continuing basis.

First, the PM indicated that he would abide by the will of parliament on the question, providing an appearance of respect for the will of the people.  Secondly, the composition of the committee was selected from those who would be sympathetic to his ultimate aim.  The chair chosen was John Manley, a prominent liberal.  This gave him the best of all worlds, the likelihood that a “non-partisan” report would provide favourable justification for his choice and the ability to paint opposing views as being out of step with the majority.

Reports normally use a chain of logic to justify the position that is taken and the Manley Report is no different.  Where we start from determines our world view.   A simple example illustrates – Today, Israel takes the view that rocket attacks on its land are unjustified and retaliates.  The Palestinians view Israel as occupiers of their lands, and that Israeli helicopter gunships attacks are unjustified and retaliate.  Looking back 60 years, the entire area belonged to Palestine and Israel didn’t exist.  But looking back over 2000 years, a Jewish state did exist.  Choosing different starting points for a report can lead to vastly different opinions and approaches to the problem.

The Manley report begins its story with September 11, 2001, but the history of Afghanistan, the Taliban and Al Qaeda didn’t start there.  The story is more complex and there are questions to be answered.  Is this fight a continuation of Afghanistan’s colonial past? If it is indeed a worthwhile venture, how might it be “won” or at least brought to a reasonable conclusion.    If we are to commit money beyond the $6 billion and 78 lives already expended, perhaps we should look beyond the simplistic tale of John Manley to the history of Afghanistan.

Afghanistan is a land of war and assassination punctuated by peace and mismanagement.  Some 31 million people of multiple ethnic groups and many languages live in an area slightly larger than Alberta.  The modern country was formed in 1747 but experienced internal conflict for a large number of years in the late 1700’s and the 1800’s.  There were also great conflicts with outside forces – Russia, England and Persia (Iran).  Afghanistan loses territory to all three, but a bright note occurs in 1842 when the British are defeated with the massacre of over 16,000 soldiers.  One survivor makes it back.  In 1859, it becomes land locked when the British take Baluchistan and attach it to British India and eventually Pakistan.

A third Anglo-Afghan war in 1921 ends with the withdrawal of English troops.  The early part of the 20th century is rife with changes of leaders and assassinations.  The country remains neutral in WWII.  In the 1950’s historical conflicts with Pakistan over borders cause problems with exporting for the landlocked country.  This leads to an alternate trade route and foreign aid from the Soviet Union.  A coup in 1973 ends the monarchy and a republic is formed.  In the late 70’s, the CIA started funding of Islamic militants here as a way of countering Soviet influence and encouraging a Soviet invasion that is intended to become their “Vietnam”.  The financing of Islamic fundamentalism has been part of American cold war strategy since the 1950’s, such as countering Nasser’s nationalism in Egypt. This occurs throughout the Middle East.

Another coup d’etat occurred in 1978. Mass assassinations of teachers and insurrections by Islamists lead to instability of the new communist government. The Soviets believing that the loss of their client state was imminent, invaded in 1979 killing President Amin in the presidential palace, and installed Babrak Karmal as their puppet.

The new government was no more successful in gaining popular support.  Multi billion dollars of weapons and training were supplied to the resistance from the US and Saudi Arabia making the cost of the war to the Soviets higher than they deemed acceptable.  Pakistan’s secret service (ISI) was the conduit for billions of dollars of arms sent to Afghanistan. The radical Islamists received most of the money and training support, with Bin Laden being one of the leaders to gain useful experience in organizing war and mayhem.  A peace treaty was signed in 1988 and the inter-tribal civil war for control began.

As the Soviets withdraw, the funding from the US spirals downward and the country descends into civil war.  In an interview given in 1998, Z. Brzezinski, National Security Advisor to Jimmy Carter, was asked whether he regretted arming and training future terrorists, “What was more important in world history? The Taliban, or the fall of the Soviet empire? A few over-excited Islamists, or the liberation of Eastern Europe?”

In 1994, one of the mujahadeen factions called the Taliban (meaning “student”), led by Mullah Mohammed Omar became popular with its call for peace and unity to a war weary population.  With the help of outside powers, they become the new “stability” everyone desires.  The harsh nature of the new regime soon becomes evident. Poor Afghanistan, after almost 20 years of war and deprivation, is now rewarded with life in a prison.

Next article: The US and the Taliban do the tango.