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Archive for December 9th, 2019

The Daily 202: The Afghanistan Papers show the corrosive consequences of letting corruption go unchecked

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A lesson the US should heed for itself. James Hohmann writes in the Washington Post:

THE BIG IDEA: A toxic mix of U.S. government policies, under the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, directly contributed to Afghanistan’s descent into one of the world’s most corrupt countries.

U.S. leaders said publicly that they had no tolerance for corruption in Afghanistan, but that was one of several topics related to the war effort on which they systematically misled the public, according to a trove of confidential government interviews obtained by The Washington Post.

American representatives often looked the other way at egregious and brazen graft, so long as the offenders were considered allies. Congress appropriated vast sums of money, which was handed out with little oversight or recordkeeping. The ensuing greed and corruption undermined the legitimacy of the nascent government and helped make the ground more fertile for the Taliban’s resurgence.

“The basic assumption was that corruption is an Afghan problem and we are the solution. But there is one indispensable ingredient for corruption — money — and we were the ones who had the money,” said Barnett Rubin, a former senior State Department adviser and a New York University professor.

The adage is as true in Afghanistan as America: Follow the money.

“Our biggest single project, sadly and inadvertently, of course, may have been the development of mass corruption,” said Ryan Crocker, who twice served as the top U.S. diplomat in Kabul, in 2002 and again from 2011 to 2012. “Once it gets to the level I saw, when I was out there, it’s somewhere between unbelievably hard and outright impossible to fix it. … The corruption was so entrenched and so much a part of the lifestyle of the establishment writ broadly…”

Crocker told interviewers from the government that he felt “a sense of futility”: “I was struck by something [then-president Hamid] Karzai said and repeated a number of times during my tenure, which is that the West, led by the U.S., in his clear view, had a significant responsibility to bear for the whole corruption issue,” he explained. “I always thought Karzai had a point, that you just cannot put those amounts of money into a very fragile state and society, and not have it fuel corruption. … You just can’t.”

— The comments from Crocker and Rubin are included among more than 2,000 pages of previously private notes from research conducted by U.S. government investigators. More than 400 people who played a direct role in the war, from generals to diplomats and aid workers, were questioned about what went wrong. The interviews were conducted by the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction between 2014 and 2018 for a “Lessons Learned” project. A report outlined the conclusions in broad brushstrokes in 2016, but a lot of the most noteworthy material was held back. The Post has fought a three-year legal battle, which is ongoing, to get these documents out under the Freedom of Information Act so that the American people can see for themselves what’s been going on.

John Sopko, the head of the federal agency that conducted the interviews, acknowledged in an interview with Craig Whitlock that the records show “the American people have constantly been lied to.” Whitlock has written a six-part series dissecting all the documents. (You can start with Part One here.)

— A key theme underlying many of the most candid interviews is that a short-term focus on maintaining security led to compromises that started small but became bigger and bigger. It’s a cautionary tale that can be cross-applied to a host of other challenges facing the United States.

Gert Berthold, a forensic accountant who served on a military task force in Afghanistan from 2010 to 2012, analyzed 3,000 Defense Department contracts worth $106 billion. He said they calculated that about 40 percent of the money ended up in the pockets of insurgents, criminal syndicates or corrupt Afghan officials. But former government ministers told them it was higher. Berthold said few U.S. officials wanted to hear about the evidence they uncovered: “No one wanted accountability,” he said. “If you’re going to do anti-corruption, someone has got to own it. From what I’ve seen, no one is willing to own it.”

Christopher Kolenda, a retired Army colonel who deployed to Afghanistan several times and advised three U.S. generals in charge of the war, said the Afghan government led by Karzai had “self-organized into a kleptocracy” by 2006. “I like to use a cancer analogy,” the colonel told his government interviewers. “Petty corruption is like skin cancer; there are ways to deal with it and you’ll probably be just fine. Corruption within the ministries, higher level, is like colon cancer; it’s worse, but if you catch it in time, you’re probably ok. Kleptocracy, however, is like brain cancer; it’s fatal.

— A lot of important information is still being concealed by the government. While the agency has turned over previously unpublished notes and transcripts from 428 of more than 600 interviews that were conducted, these documents identify only 62 of the people who were interviewed by their names. The names of 366 others are blacked out. A decision by a federal judge is pending in response to a motion to disclose the other names. But The Post chose to publish what it has now, instead of waiting for the judge to rule on the rest, because these records could contribute to the civic discourse over President Trump’s negotiations with the Taliban and the debate over whether to withdraw the 13,000 U.S. troops who remain in Afghanistan, which has become a flashpoint in the 2020 campaign.

The Post attempted to contact for comment everyone whom it was able to identify as having given an interview as part of the project. (Their responses are compiled here.)

— Here are five of the most striking quotes about corruption from people whose identities are still redacted in the interview summaries:

1. An unnamed senior U.S. diplomat said the early years were “a dark space” with “not much documentation” about who we were giving cash. “We had partnerships with all the wrong players,” this diplomat lamented during an interview in August 2015. “The U.S. is still standing shoulder-to-shoulder with these people, even through all these years. It’s a case of security trumping everything else.”

2. From another unnamed senior U.S. official: “Our money was empowering a lot of bad people. There was massive resentment among the Afghan people. And we were the most corrupt here, so had no credibility on the corruption issue.”

3. From a former National Security Council staffer: “In the beginning, the military kept saying that corruption was an unfortunate short-term side effect then toward the end the feeling was ‘Oh, my God, this could derail the whole thing.’”

4. An unnamed State Department official said that U.S. officials were “so desperate to have the alcoholics to the table, we kept pouring drinks, not knowing [or] considering we were killing them.” This person said that the Americans “had no red lines” for cutting off corrupt partners. “We didn’t spend the money effectively and didn’t consider the implications,” this person told government interviewers. “We wanted to keep the country afloat, not to let the country be a safe haven for the Taliban and al Qaeda.”

5. An unidentified government contractor said his job was to distribute $3 million in taxpayer money each day for projects in an Afghan district roughly the size of a U.S. county. He recalled asking a visiting congressman whether the lawmaker could responsibly spend that kind of money back home: “He said hell no. ‘Well, sir, that’s what you just obligated us to spend and I’m doing it for communities that live in mud huts with no windows.’”

— So often, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Chapter four of Whitlock’s six-part series is a narrative, as told through these interviews, of how Afghanistan became consumed by corruption: “About halfway into the 18-year war, Afghans stopped hiding how corrupt their country had become. Dark money sloshed all around. Afghanistan’s largest bank liquefied into a cesspool of fraud. Travelers lugged suitcases loaded with $1 million, or more, on flights leaving Kabul. … Karzai won reelection after cronies stuffed thousands of ballot boxes. He later admitted the CIA had delivered bags of cash to his office for years, calling it ‘nothing unusual.’ … According to the interviews, the CIA, the U.S. military, the State Department and other agencies used cash and lucrative contracts to win the allegiance of Afghan warlords in the fight against al-Qaeda and the Taliban. …

In 2002 and 2003, when Afghan tribal councils gathered to write a new constitution, the U.S. government gave ‘nice packages’ to delegates who supported Washington’s preferred stance on human rights and women’s rights, according to a U.S. official who served in Kabul at the time. ‘The perception that was started in that period: If you were going to vote for a position that [Washington] favored, you’d be stupid to not get a package for doing it,’ the unnamed official told government interviewers. By the time Afghanistan held parliamentary elections in 2005, that perception had hardened. Lawmakers realized their votes could be worth thousands of dollars to the Americans, even for legislation they would have backed anyway … ‘People would tell each other, so-and-so has just been to the U.S. Embassy and got this money. They said ‘ok now I need to go,’’ the U.S. official said. ‘So from the beginning, their experience with democracy was one in which money was deeply embedded.’”

On Aug. 20, 2009, Afghans went to the polls to choose a president. … Right away, reports surfaced of electoral fraud on an epic scale — ghost voting, official miscounting, ballot-box stuffing, plus violence and intimidation at the polls. Initial results showed Karzai, the incumbent, had won. But his opponents, and many independent observers, accused his side of trying to steal the election. A U.N.-backed panel investigated and determined Karzai had received about 1 million illegal votes, a quarter of all those cast. The outcome put Obama administration officials in a box. They had said corruption was intolerable but also had promised to respect Afghan sovereignty and not interfere with the election. Moreover, they did not want to completely alienate Karzai. If there was another vote, many saw him as the likely victor anyway. In the end, the Obama administration brokered a deal in which Karzai was declared the winner after he agreed to share some power with his main rival. …

Peter Galbraith, a Karzai critic who served as a deputy U.N. envoy to Afghanistan in 2009, was removed from his post after he complained that the United Nations was helping cover up the extent of the election fraud. An American, Galbraith told government interviewers that the U.S. government also stood by when Karzai appointed cronies to election boards and anti-corruption posts.”

It got worse in 2010: “Kabul Bank, the country’s biggest, nearly collapsed under the weight of $1 billion in fraudulent loans — an amount equal to one-twelfth of the country’s entire economic output the year before. The Afghan government engineered an emergency bailout to stem a run on the bank as angry crowds lined up to withdraw their savings. Investigators soon determined Kabul Bank had falsified its books to hide hundreds of millions of dollars in unsecured loans to politically connected business executives, including the president’s brother Mahmoud Karzai and the family of Fahim Khan, the warlord then serving as the country’s first vice president. ‘On a scale of one to 10, it was a 20 here,’ an unnamed U.S. Treasury Department official posted to Kabul as an Afghan government adviser told interviewers. ‘It had elements that you could put into a spy novel, and the connections between people who owned Kabul Bank and those who run the country.’ …

“At first, in public and in private, the Obama administration leaned on Karzai to fully investigate the Kabul Bank scandal — not only to recover the stolen money but also to demonstrate to the Afghan people that no one was above the law. … For about a year after the scandal became public, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, led by then-Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, made the case a top priority and pressed Karzai to take action, three former officials told government interviewers. But they said the embassy backed off after Eikenberry was replaced by Ryan Crocker in July 2011. … Crocker, as well as U.S. military commanders and others in Washington, did not want to risk alienating Karzai, because they needed his support as tens of thousands of additional U.S. soldiers arrived in the war zone. They also said Crocker and his allies did not want Congress or international donors to use the bank scandal as an excuse to cut off aid to Kabul.” . ..

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

9 December 2019 at 1:07 pm

At War With the Truth in Afghanistan

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Craig Whitlock has a special report in the Washington Post:

A confidential trove of government documents obtained by The Washington Post reveals that senior U.S. officials failed to tell the truth about the war in Afghanistan throughout the 18-year campaign, making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hiding unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable.

The documents were generated by a federal project examining the root failures of the longest armed conflict in U.S. history. They include more than 2,000 pages of previously unpublished notes of interviews with people who played a direct role in the war, from generals and diplomats to aid workers and Afghan officials.

The U.S. government tried to shield the identities of the vast majority of those interviewed for the project and conceal nearly all of their remarks. The Post won release of the documents under the Freedom of Information Act after a three-year legal battle.

In the interviews, more than 400 insiders offered unrestrained criticism of what went wrong in Afghanistan and how the United States became mired in nearly two decades of warfare.

With a bluntness rarely expressed in public, the interviews lay bare pent-up complaints, frustrations and confessions, along with second-guessing and backbiting.

“We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan — we didn’t know what we were doing,” Douglas Lute, a three-star Army general who served as the White House’s Afghan war czar during the Bush and Obama administrations, told government interviewers in 2015. He added: “What are we trying to do here? We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking.”

“If the American people knew the magnitude of this dysfunction . . . 2,400 lives lost,” Lute added, blaming the deaths of U.S. military personnel on bureaucratic breakdowns among Congress, the Pentagon and the State Department. “Who will say this was in vain?”

Since 2001, more than 775,000 U.S. troops have deployed to Afghanistan, many repeatedly. Of those, 2,300 died there and 20,589 were wounded in action, according to Defense Department figures.

The interviews, through an extensive array of voices, bring into sharp relief the core failings of the war that persist to this day. They underscore how three presidents — George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump — and their military commanders have been unable to deliver on their promises to prevail in Afghanistan.

With most speaking on the assumption that their remarks would not become public, U.S. officials acknowledged that their warfighting strategies were fatally flawed and that Washington wasted enormous sums of money trying to remake Afghanistan into a modern nation.

The interviews also highlight the U.S. government’s botched attempts to curtail runaway corruption, build a competent Afghan army and police force, and put a dent in Afghanistan’s thriving opium trade.

The U.S. government has not carried out a comprehensive accounting of how much it has spent on the war in Afghanistan, but the costs are staggering.

Since 2001, the Defense Department, State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development have spent or appropriated between $934 billion and $978 billion, according to an inflation-adjusted estimate calculated by Neta Crawford, a political science professor and co-director of the Costs of War Project at Brown University.

Those figures do not include money spent by other agencies such as the CIA and the Department of Veterans Affairs, which is responsible for medical care for wounded veterans.

“What did we get for this $1 trillion effort? Was it worth $1 trillion?” Jeffrey Eggers, a retired Navy SEAL and White House staffer for Bush and Obama, told government interviewers. He added, “After the killing of Osama bin Laden, I said that Osama was probably laughing in his watery grave considering how much we have spent on Afghanistan.”

The documents also contradict a long chorus of public statements from U.S. presidents, military commanders and diplomats who assured Americans year after year that they were making progress in Afghanistan and the war was worth fighting. . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

The US has been betrayed by its leaders.

The sidebar has useful links:

THE AFGHANISTAN PAPERS: At war with the truth

INTERVIEWS AND MEMOS – Key insiders speak bluntly about the failures of the longest conflict in U.S. history

POST REPORTS – Hear candid interviews with former ambassador Ryan Crocker and retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn<

THE FIGHT FOR THE DOCUMENTS – It took three years and two federal lawsuits for The Post to pry loose 2,000 pages of interview records

PART 1 – U.S. officials constantly said they were making progress. They were not, and they knew it.

PART 2 – Bush and Obama had polar-opposite plans to win the war. Both were destined to fail.

PART 3 – Despite vows the U.S. wouldn’t get mired in “nation-building,” it has wasted billions doing just that

PART 4 – The U.S. flooded the country with money — then turned a blind eye to the graft it fueled

PART 5 – Afghan security forces, despite years of training, were dogged by incompetence and corruption

PART 6 – The U.S. war on drugs in Afghanistan has imploded at nearly every turn

Interviewees respond

Share your story about the war

Written by LeisureGuy

9 December 2019 at 12:53 pm

Why the Laws of Physics Are Inevitable

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Natalie Wolchover writes in Quanta:

Compared to the unsolved mysteries of the universe, far less gets said about one of the most profound facts to have crystallized in physics over the past half-century: To an astonishing degree, nature is the way it is because it couldn’t be any different. “There’s just no freedom in the laws of physics that we have,” said Daniel Baumann, a theoretical physicist at the University of Amsterdam.

Since the 1960s, and increasingly in the past decade, physicists like Baumann have used a technique known as the “bootstrap” to infer what the laws of nature must be. This approach assumes that the laws essentially dictate one another through their mutual consistency — that nature “pulls itself up by its own bootstraps.” The idea turns out to explain a huge amount about the universe.

When bootstrapping, physicists determine how elementary particles with different amounts of “spin,” or intrinsic angular momentum, can consistently behave. In doing this, they rediscover the four fundamental forces that shape the universe. Most striking is the case of a particle with two units of spin: As the Nobel Prize winner Steven Weinberg showed in 1964, the existence of a spin-2 particle leads inevitably to general relativity — Albert Einstein’s theory of gravity. Einstein arrived at general relativity through abstract thoughts about falling elevators and warped space and time, but the theory also follows directly from the mathematically consistent behavior of a fundamental particle.

“I find this inevitability of gravity [and other forces] to be one of the deepest and most inspiring facts about nature,” said Laurentiu Rodina, a theoretical physicist at the Institute of Theoretical Physics at CEA Saclay who helped to modernize and generalize Weinberg’s proof in 2014. “Namely, that nature is above all self-consistent.”

How Bootstrapping Works

A particle’s spin reflects its underlying symmetries, or the ways it can be transformed that leave it unchanged. A spin-1 particle, for instance, returns to the same state after being rotated by one full turn. A spin-12 particle must complete two full rotations to come back to the same state, while a spin-2 particle looks identical after just half a turn. Elementary particles can only carry 0, 12, 1, 32 or 2 units of spin.

To figure out what behavior is possible for particles of a given spin, bootstrappers consider simple particle interactions, such as two particles annihilating and yielding a third. The particles’ spins place constraints on these interactions. An interaction of spin-2 particles, for instance, must stay the same when all participating particles are rotated by 180 degrees, since they’re symmetric under such a half-turn.

Interactions must obey a few other basic rules: Momentum must be conserved; the interactions must respect locality, which dictates that particles scatter by meeting in space and time; and the probabilities of all possible outcomes must add up to 1, a principle known as unitarity. These consistency conditions translate into algebraic equations that the particle interactions must satisfy. If the equation corresponding to a particular interaction has solutions, then these solutions tend to be realized in nature.

For example, consider the case of the photon, the massless spin-1 particle of light and electromagnetism. For such a particle, the equation describing four-particle interactions — where two particles go in and two come out, perhaps after colliding and scattering — has no viable solutions. Thus, photons don’t interact in this way. “This is why light waves don’t scatter off each other and we can see over macroscopic distances,” Baumann explained. The photon can participate in interactions involving other types of particles, however, such as spin-12 electrons. These constraints on the photon’s interactions lead to Maxwell’s equations, the 154-year-old theory of electromagnetism.

Or take gluons, particles that convey the strong force that binds atomic nuclei together. Gluons are also massless spin-1 particles, but they represent the case where there are multiple types of the same massless spin-1 particle. Unlike the photon, gluons can satisfy the four-particle interaction equation, meaning that they self-interact. Constraints on these gluon self-interactions match the description given by quantum chromodynamics, the theory of the strong force.

A third scenario involves spin-1 particles that have mass. Mass came about when a symmetry broke during the universe’s birth: A constant — the value of the omnipresent Higgs field — spontaneously shifted from zero to a positive number, imbuing many particles with mass. The breaking of the Higgs symmetry created massive spin-1 particles called W and Z bosons, the carriers of the weak force that’s responsible for radioactive decay.

Then “for spin-2, a miracle happens,” said Adam Falkowski, a theoretical physicist at the Laboratory of Theoretical Physics in Orsay, France. In this case, the solution to the four-particle interaction equation at first appears to be beset with infinities. But physicists find that this interaction can proceed in three different ways, and that mathematical terms related to the three different options perfectly conspire to cancel out the infinities, which permits a solution.

That solution is the graviton: a spin-2 particle that couples to itself and all other particles with equal strength. This evenhandedness leads straight to the central tenet of general relativity: the equivalence principle, Einstein’s postulate that gravity is indistinguishable from acceleration through curved space-time, and that gravitational mass and intrinsic mass are one and the same. Falkowski said of the bootstrap approach, “I find this reasoning much more compelling than the abstract one of Einstein.”

Thus, by thinking through the constraints placed on fundamental particle interactions by basic symmetries, physicists can understand the existence of the strong and weak forces that shape atoms, and the forces of electromagnetism and gravity that sculpt the universe at large.

In addition, bootstrappers find that many different spin-0 particles are possible. The only known example is the Higgs boson, the particle associated with the symmetry-breaking Higgs field that imbues other particles with mass. A hypothetical spin-0 particle called the inflaton may have driven the initial expansion of the universe. These particles’ lack of angular momentum means that fewer symmetries restrict their interactions. Because of this, bootstrappers can infer less about nature’s governing laws, and nature itself has more creative license.

Spin-12 matter particles also have more freedom. These make up the family of massive particles we call matter, and they are individually differentiated by their masses and couplings to the various forces. Our universe contains, for example, spin-12 quarks that interact with both gluons and photons, and spin-12 neutrinos that interact with neither.

The spin spectrum stops at 2 because the infinities in the four-particle interaction equation kill off all massless particles that have higher spin values. Higher-spin states can exist if they’re extremely massive, and such particles do play a role in quantum theories of gravity such as string theory. But higher-spin particles can’t be detected, and they can’t affect the macroscopic world.

Undiscovered Country

Spin-32 particles could complete the 0, 12, 1, 32, 2 pattern, but only if “supersymmetry” is true in the universe — that is, if every force particle with integer spin has a corresponding matter particle with half-integer spin. In recent years, experiments have ruled out many of the simplest versions of supersymmetry. But the gap in the spin spectrum strikes some physicists as a reason to hold out hope that supersymmetry is true and spin-32 particles exist. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

9 December 2019 at 12:32 pm

Posted in Science

New-food watch

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I continue to look for foods new to me, and this morning I picked up and cooked (as part of a melange) an opo squash.

I got a young one, and it’s like a very nice summer squash, nice to find now in December. It was a good melange:

1.5 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
about 1 cup chopped scallions
about 1/2 cup chopped jalapeños
6 large cloves red Russian garlic, chopped small
about 1″ fresh turmeric, minced
about 2 – 2.5 cup chopped fresh oyster mushrooms (they looked very good)
about 1/2 cup diced raw beet
about 3/4 cup chopped fresh asparagus
about 3/4 cup diced opo
about 3/4 cup diced fresh bamboo shoot (and I bought two more — they’re good)
about 7-8 ounces homemade soybean tempeh, diced
1 bunch lacinato kale, chopped
about 3/4 cup sliced San Marzano-style grape tomatoes with chopped dried tomatoes
about 1 cup fresh bean sprouts
1 tablespoon dried majoram
1 tablespoon Mexican oregano
1 tablespoon dried mint
1 tablespoon dried parsley
1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper

I heated the No. 12 Field skillet in the oven, removed it to a hot burner, turned off oven, put a handle glove on the handle, and added the scallions and jalapeños. Once those had cooked for a while, I added garlic and turmeric, stirred and cooked that for about a minute, and then added everything through the tempeh.

I cooked that (over medium-high heat), stirring often. Once it had cooked down and the mushrooms began to release their liquid, I added the rest of the ingredients, adding the kale a handful at a time and stirring it to wilt before adding the next handful.

I cooked then probably 10-15 minutes, stirring occasionally.

I served it over 1/4-1/3 cup cooked intact whole rye and sprinkled it with about 2 tablespoons roasted unsalted pepitas/pumpkin seeds. For the breakfast serving I included the usual ground flaxseed, nutritional yearst, amla powder, ground turmeric, and horseradish.

This makes enough for 4 meals at least and probably 6.

I do have on hand some diced raw carrot and raw carnival squash, but I like to keep ingredients to a reasonable number. 🙂

Written by LeisureGuy

9 December 2019 at 12:10 pm

My decision to set eating window as 10:00am – 2:00pm turns out to be good

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And, FWIW, I’m now at 175 lbs, only 5 lbs above my target weight.

One of the benefits is that I don’t have to fool with breakfast or dinner: no preparation, no cleanup, and more free time.

Written by LeisureGuy

9 December 2019 at 8:18 am

Two-day stubble offers Unconditional Surrender to iKon 102

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Today’s shave is one of the “marvelous” variety. Thanks go to the whole cast for their combined efforts: the Rooney Style 3 Size 1 Super Silvertip, Declaration Grooming’s bison-tallow soap, the incomparable iKon Shavecraft 102 slant, and Chatillon Lux’s peerless aftershave lotion.

It all went right, from the lather through the shave to the splash of fragrant and good-feeling aftershave.

This is the was to start a week. Plus, what with the 4-hour window of eating and making good food choices, I am now at 175 lbs, only 5 lbs from goal. That’s down from the most recent peak a few years ago of 225. One thing I like about the 4-hour window (for me it’s 10:00am to 2:00pm) is that I don’t have to fool with breakfast or dinner: no prep, no eating, no cleanup.

Written by LeisureGuy

9 December 2019 at 8:12 am

Posted in Daily life, Shaving

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