Saturday, December 22, 2007

War is not healthy for children and other living things

Just in time for Christmas, UNICEF has released their preliminary findings from a report on the status of children in Iraq after nearly five years of warfare.

The findings are grim.

Two million children are threatened by disease, inadequate nutrition and inconsistent education. And making matters worse, children are frequently caught in the wars crossfire - literally.

“Iraqi children are paying far too high a price,” said Roger Wright, UNICEF’s Special Representative for Iraq. “While we have been providing as much assistance as possible, a new window of opportunity is opening, which should enable us to reach the most vulnerable with expanded, consistent support. We must act now.”

Among the problems highlighted in the report

  • Only 28 per cent of Iraq’s 17 year olds sat their final exams in summer, and only 40 per cent of those sitting exams achieved a passing grade (in south and central Iraq).
  • Many of 220,000 displaced children of primary school age had their education interrupted, adding to the estimated 760,000 children (17 per cent) already out of primary school in 2006.
  • Children in remote and hard-to-reach areas were frequently cut off from health outreach services.
  • Only 20 per cent outside Baghdad had working sewerage in their community, and access to safe water remains a serious issue.
  • An average 25,000 children per month were displaced by violence or intimidation, their families seeking shelter in other parts of Iraq.
  • By the end of the year, approximately 75,000 children had resorted to living in camps or temporary shelters (25 per cent of those newly-displaced since the Samarra shrine bombing in February 2006).
  • Hundreds of children lost their lives or were injured by violence and many more had their main family wage-earner kidnapped or killed.
  • Approximately 1,350 children were detained by military and police authorities, many for alleged security violations.
And still, against all odds and that reality - UNICEF and other aid organizations managed to deliver critical assistance even though they struggled under the yoke of the lowest funding levels since 2003.

Health care was delivered and house-to-house immunization campaigns were waged, protecting four million children from polio, and three million more from measles, mumps and rubella. Because of dedicated efforts like these, Iraq remains polio-free, and cases of measles dropped from over 9,000 in 2006 to just 156 in 2007.

Nearly five million children benefited from efforts to deliver educational services. Materials and textbooks were supplied, schools were rebuilt and restored, classrooms were added to existing structures to accommodate displaced children who were forced to relocate to flee violence and ethnic strife. (It is estimated that approximately 83% of Iraqi children of primary school age were in school in 2005-2006. The numbers for 2007 are currently in the crunching process.)

Shi'ite children in a refugee camp near Najaf

UNICEF has been instrumental in providing sanitation, hygiene and most importantly - clean, potable water to as many as 500,000 internally displaced refugees. Currently, at least 200,000 Iraqis only access to clean water is a UNICEF tankering project. These are the most desperate and destitute, living in tent cities that have sprung up, populated with people who fled the violence but had no where to go.

As security improves, a clearer picture of the needs of Iraqi children will emerge, but UNICEF stresses that the challenges will be amplified by repatriating families, who will be some of the most vulnerable citizens in need of help. Many have exhausted savings and are returning to homes that may or may not be standing, and if standing, they may be standing on an ethnic battleground.

To meet the coming challenges, UNICEF and its partners are spearheading IMPACT: Iraq. IMPACT: Iraq is an initiative that draws together a network of NGOs and UN teams to rapidly assess and respond when families are vulnerable. The intent is to facilitate local recovery, because strong families make strong communities.

To help seize the current opportunity, UNICEF calls for support to:

1. rapidly increase attention and action to meet the immediate needs of children and families inside Iraq - focusing on all vulnerable groups;
2. widen humanitarian access to Iraqi children and their families in conflict zones, behind security barriers and in detention centres; and
3. strengthen Iraq’s capacity and initiatives to improve governance and mobilize its own resources to invest in national recovery.

“Iraqi children are the foundation for their country’s recovery,” said UNICEF spokesman Wright. “Where children’s lives are protected and revived, community recovery will swiftly follow. We continue to owe them our very best in 2008 and beyond.”

I agree. Now, in the spirit of the season, let's give the late, great, John Lennon the final word:

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Friday, December 21, 2007

Romney's tears

(Cross posted from Gold Star Mom Speaks Out )

There are a lot of things you can say to a Gold Star family and there are also a lot of things you shouldn't say to or about a Gold Star family. While most people are kind and empathetic when speaking to a family who has lost a loved one in war, some people can really be insensitive and insulting.

Mitt Romney, a Republican running for President was the latter this week. The AP reports that Mitt Romney's eyes filled with tears Monday as the Republican presidential contender recalled watching the casket of a soldier killed in Iraq return to the United States and imagined if it were one of his five sons.

How disingenuous. If there was a possibility that any of his 5 sons might serve their country in the military and die as a result, I might give him credit for his imagination. But Romney told us his sons are serving this country by campaigning for their father. What's the worst that could happen to them on the campaign trail? A paper cut? To suggest that serving your country campaigning for one's father is the same as serving your country in the military and underfire is just wrong. If it wasn't so serious, it would be laughable.

While I appreciate that he thinks he could imagine losing a child to war, Romney would have to have a hell of an imagination to get even anywhere near what my life is like since losing my only child, Lt Ken Ballard, to George Bush's war 3 1/2 years ago. There are not enough painful words in our language to describe the anguish that I and nearly 4000 other families feel as we wake up every morning knowing that our loved one is never coming home and that they will never again join us for the holidays. There are no words to describe the gaping hole in our hearts that will never, ever heal.

Perhaps Romney might try to imagine opening the door to the military casualty team to be told that your loved one is dead. He might try to imagine meeting his child's flag covered casket inside the belly of an airplane at the airport as he comes home for the last time. Or maybe he might imagine standing over his son's grave at Arlington National Cemetery with the sound of Taps is being played in the distance. But, mercifully, he will never know, because no one should ever know the reality of a Gold Star family.

If Mitt Romney finds imagining this war so painful, he could take steps to end this endless occupation. As a presidential candidate, Mitt Romney could make ending the war part of his platform. But, a quick search of his website lists issues such as Defeating the Jihadists, Competing with Asia, Taxes, Immigration, America's Culture and Values and others but has no specific statement on Iraq. I'm pretty sure that means it's okay with Mitt for other people's kids to keep getting blown up, as long as it is not one of his own.

Mitt Romney should stick to talking about things he knows. He will never know the pain of losing a child in a war he never supported.

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Thursday, December 20, 2007

Arrested Development

One of the biggest factors driving the insurgency in Iraq has been our ham-handed approach toward the Iraqi populace. In an insurgency, the support of the populace is the ultimate prize--lose that, and you lose the war. General Petraeus' much-vaunted counterinsurgency operations were supposed to address this issue head-on, and they have, up to a point. But one of the most glaring examples of our occupation behaving counter-productively has been our detention operations, where the policy seems to have been to arrest as many people as possible on whatever grounds are handy.

I'm not writing about this from the outside. In 2004-2005, and to a lesser extent this year, I have had close, inside contact with the detention programs in Iraq. I lived and worked at Abu Ghraib and other Iraqi prisons and saw firsthand how mass arrests have negatively affected our image over here. One of the most common refrains I have heard from Iraqis is that the Americans arrest them for no reason, then release them later without even bringing any charges. I would bet a year's salary that there isn't a single Iraqi who hasn't had this happen to someone close to him. It's what they have come to expect from us.

Now Major General Douglas Stone is seeking to change all that. (Link via Iraq Newsladder.) He's finally making the argument that many of us were making back when the war started: if you arrest innocent people, then keep them locked up with genuine badguys, they won't come out on the other end with a positive opinion of you. Or, as General Conway said after hearing out Gen. Stone, "If you roll up 150 guys in a village and you don't have probable cause, you've just created 150 little terrorists."

Actually, it's worse than that. Because it's not just the 150 guys you arrested who radicalize, it's also their families and friends. Moreover, you've just made anyone who has ever heard their story (and again, EVERYONE has) that much less likely to believe you when you roll through town distributing leaflets about how wonderful the "justice" and "democracy" you've graciously bestowed upon them is. If you want to know why the Iraqis have been so hesitant to jump aboard the America bandwagon, maybe this has something to do with it.

Which is what is so confounding about the fact that Petraeus himself planned for 40,000 detainees as part of the surge. Did Petraeus actually believe that locking up 40,000 people would somehow make the Iraqis like us more? How does it make sense that, at the very same time we began talking with insurgents and indeed fighting alongside them, we implemented a policy of arresting them at an even higher rate than previously? It simply makes no sense.

Any idiot could see three years ago that our detention policies were actively fueling the insurgency. Petraeus' counter-insurgency tactics were supposed to address the areas where our actions were fueling the resistance. I'm glad that someone is finally in charge who seems to get it, but why on earth has it taken four and a half years to reach such an obvious conclusion?

(Cross-posted at Decline and Fall)

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Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Iraq Moratorium Fridays is organizing Moratorium Fridays, the third Friday of every month. Since this Friday also happens to be the shortest, darkest day of the year, with many schools closed, and many people ducking out early from work for holiday shopping, they are asking people to organize or join in the various events planned around the country to drum up support for the anti-war advocacy.

Information about planned events can be found on this page.

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Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Remembering homeless veterans, bringing the troops home

Friday is a day to remember the homeless, as well as a day to take some action to stop the war in Iraq.

And, yes, they are related. As the environmentalists remind us, everything is connected.

National Council for the Homeless explains:

Each year since 1990, on or near the first day of winter and the longest night of the year, National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) has sponsored National Homeless Persons' Memorial Day to bring attention to the tragedy of homelessness and to remember our homeless friends who have paid the ultimate price for our nation's failure to end homelessness. This year, the National Health Care for the Homeless Council (NHCHC) has joined us in co-sponsoring this event.

In an effort to maximize the impact of the day, NCH and the NHCHC have encouraged local and statewide organizations to hold memorials of their own. Last year, over 100 cities across the nation, from Detroit to Seattle to Washington, DC, sponsored events to honor those who had died and to recommit to the task of ending homelessness.
The National Council for Homeless Veterans answers the question: How many homeless veterans are there?

Although accurate numbers are impossible to come by -- no one keeps national records on homeless veterans -- the VA estimates that nearly 200,000 veterans are homeless on any given night. And nearly 400,000 experience homelessness over the course of a year. Conservatively, one out of every three homeless men who is sleeping in a doorway, alley or box in our cities and rural communities has put on a uniform and served this country. According to the National Survey of Homeless Assistance Providers and Clients (U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness and the Urban Institute, 1999), veterans account for 23% of all homeless people in America.
Friday, December 21, is also Iraq Moratorium #4, which includes a plea to remember and honor veterans and their families during the holiday season, the fifth Christmas with US troops in Iraq -- at the same time that we take action to end the war and bring the troops home. There is no better way to support our troops than to get them out of Iraq.

(An expanded version of this post is at Docudharma.)

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Monday, December 17, 2007

Out of the Depths: CIA Torture Victim Speaks

Blogger Deep Harm over at Daily Kos did a nice job of writing up a review on Mark Benjamin's recent article at, Inside the CIA's notorious "black sites". Benjamin's article details the case of CIA Yemeni prisoner (now released), Mohamed Farag Ahmad Bashmilah.

Mr. Bashmilah was held for 19 months in a succession of prisons, trapped inside the CIA's secret worldwide gulag. Now the one-time CIA torture victim has filed a declaration as part of a lawsuit brought by the ACLU against Jeppesen Dataplan Inc., a subsidiary of Boeing Company, and implicated in secret CIA rendition flights.

According to Mark Benjamin, Mr. Bashmilah -- a businessman who had travelled from his home in Indonesia to Jordan to help arrange a surgery for his mother -- was subjected to extreme psychological torture and physical maltreatment, first by the Jordanians:

After his arrest, the Jordanians brutally beat him, peppering him with questions about al-Qaida. He was forced to jog around in a yard until he collapsed. Officers hung him upside down with a leather strap and his hands tied. They beat the soles of his feet and his sides. They threatened to electrocute him with wires. They told him they would rape his wife and mother.

It was too much. Bashmilah signed a confession multiple pages long, but he was disoriented and afraid even to read it.

Psychological Torture in Action

Apparently the confession wasn't enough for the Americans, and the Jordanian interrogators dumped Bashmilah into the CIA gulag in October 2003. And, it was not waterboarding that the CIA in its black sites practiced upon their new prisoner, but, as I've been warning, severe psychological torture:

Flight records show Bashmilah was flown to Kabul....

He was then placed in a windowless, freezing-cold cell, roughly 6.5 feet by 10 feet. There was a foam mattress, one blanket, and a bucket for a toilet that was emptied once a day. A bare light bulb stayed on constantly. A camera was mounted above a solid metal door. For the first month, loud rap and Arabic music was piped into his cell, 24 hours a day, through a hole opposite the door. His leg shackles were chained to the wall. The guards would not let him sleep, forcing Bashmilah to raise his hand every half hour to prove he was still awake....

"During the entire period of my detention there, I was held in solitary confinement and saw no one other than my guards, interrogators and other prison personnel," he wrote in his declaration.

The loud music, the isolation, the temperature extremes... all these are hallmarks of CIA psychological torture, and meant to break down prisoners' will and psyche. At some point Mr. Bashmilah was moved to another cell. This time there were two video cameras, another stock staple of CIA torture, as photography of prisoners was mentioned as far back as the early 1960s in CIA interrogation manuals. Think of that while you follow the ongoing controversy over CIA destruction of videos of interrogations of two of their more famous prisoners. No congressional committee to my knowledge is calling for the release of Mr. Bashmillah's tapes.

At the new prison, it was more of the same:

It was another tiny cell, new or refurbished with a stainless steel sink and toilet. Until clothes arrived several days later, Bashmilah huddled in a blanket. In this cell there were two video cameras, one mounted above the door and the other in a wall. Also above the door was a speaker. White noise, like static, was pumped in constantly, day and night. He spent the first month in handcuffs. In this cell his ankle was attached to a 110-link chain attached to a bolt on the floor.

The door had a small opening in the bottom through which food would appear: boiled rice, sliced meat and bread, triangles of cheese, boiled potato, slices of tomato and olives, served on a plastic plate.

Guards wore black pants with pockets, long-sleeved black shirts, rubber gloves or black gloves, and masks that covered the head and neck. The masks had tinted yellow plastic over the eyes. "I never heard the guards speak to each other and they never spoke to me," Bashmilah wrote in his declaration.

One of the more revealing aspects of the Bashmilah case is the appearance of mental health professionals, either psychologists or psychiatrists, or both, in the CIA prisons. Their job appeared to be one of patching up the psyche/emotional state of the prisoner so they didn't break down too much. Or conversely, it was part of a perverse good cop/bad cop regime that contributed to the prisoner's despair and confusion.

Here's what Benjamin reports:

It may seem bizarre for the agency to provide counseling to a prisoner while simultaneously cracking him mentally -- as if revealing a humanitarian aspect to a program otherwise calibrated to exploit systematic psychological abuse. But it could also be that mental healthcare professionals were enlisted to help bring back from the edge prisoners who seemed precariously damaged, whose frayed minds were no longer as pliable for interrogation. "My understanding is that the purpose of having psychiatrists there is that if the prisoner feels better, then he would be able to talk more to the interrogators," said Bashmilah....

He said the doctors told him to "hope that one day you will prove your innocence or that you will one day return to your family." The psychiatrists also gave him some pills, likely tranquilizers. They analyzed his dreams. But there wasn't much else they could do. "They also gave me a Rubik's Cube so I could pass the time, and some jigsaw puzzles," Bashmilah recalled.

PHR Noodges APA

Stephen Soldz reports that Physicians for Human Rights has recently circulated an email highlighting a renewed call for the American Psychological Association to call for a moratorium of psychologists working at national security interrogation sites like Guantanamo's Camp Delta, or CIA "black sites". Signed by Frank Donaghue, PHR's new Chief Executive Officer, it reads in part:

You have probably seen recent news reports about the CIA’s destruction of video recordings of interrogations allegedly showing the use of waterboarding and other “enhanced” interrogation techniques. Last week, PHR released a statement, calling on the Attorney General and Congress to immediately launch independent investigations into both the alleged destruction of evidence of torture and the “enhanced” interrogation program itself. As PHR noted in our report Leave No Marks, waterboarding and other techniques can constitute war crimes.

Recent statements on ABC News and the Today Show by former CIA operative John Kiriakou allege that doctors were present during the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah, which involved the use of sleep deprivation and waterboarding. PHR is calling for the Department of Justice, Congress and major health professional associations to conduct legal and ethical investigations. Those investigations must determine how physicians and psychologists participated in harsh interrogations as monitors and interrogators.

We continue to urge the American Psychological Association (APA) to place a moratorium on the participation of its members in all national security interrogations. Though PHR applauded the APA’s passage of a resolution this August stating that the tactics used by the CIA are unethical, the APA can take more steps to protect detainees from harm and US personnel from engaging in illegal abuse. PHR is asking the APA to follow the examples of the American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association in refusing to allow its members to engage in abusive interrogations.

Finally, the House yesterday passed a bill which would make the Army Field Manual the unified standard for detainee treatment, prohibiting the CIA’s “enhanced” interrogation program. Now it must go before the full Senate.

Reformism and Nihilism in the Fight Against Torture

Well, the House bill passed, but then was blocked on a procedural motion by GOP representatives. But, I've been leery about the whole House bill, and any "reform" that outlaws waterboarding and other atrocities, but leaves intact the kind of psychological torture performed on Mr. Bashmilah -- like sensory deprivation and sensory overload, sleep deprivation, and solitary confinement, not to mention other kinds of psychological manipulations. The Army Field Manual allows manipulation of fear in prisoners, along with isolation, sleep deprivation, and forms of sensory deprivation. And that's what's "legal".

Additionallly, it is a truism by now that all actors and organizations involved in these by now multitudinous stories on torture deny they torture. While the American Psychiatric Association and American Medical Association have enacted their own kind of moratorium of doctor participation in interrogations, it's not clear this ever really stopped. The situation with the American Psycological Association is, if anything, even murkier.

What's left for us critics of U.S. use of torture amounts to a kind of activist nihilism. It's not clear to me that anything has changed in U.S. prisons and GWOT interrogation centers. The recent revelations over the Standard Operation Procedure manuals for Guantanamo got a little play in the press, before dropping like a stone out of sight into the dark pond that is U.S. media coverage (and that includes the bloggers).

Fifty years or more of torture, human rights abuses, covert wars, and hidden histories, have amounted to very little change. There was the UN Convention Against Torture. But then, there was were the Geneva Conventions, too. And the Magna Carta. And this country has chosen to abrogate them all.

It seems to me that only serious political change will bring about an end to the practice of torture. Lawyers will not do it. Doctors and psychologists will not do it. Even Congress will not do it. Only when humanity seizes the reins of history again and steers it back onto the road of progress will we see again appreciable movement against the evils that confront us in the form of torture, repression, and inequality.

This doesn't mean it's not worth fighting. The ACLU, PHR, Amnesty International, the Electronic Freedom Foundation, Human Rights First, etc., all are holding the line against the barbarism of untrammelled militarism and political repression. All of them deserve your support.

There's more: "Out of the Depths: CIA Torture Victim Speaks" >>

Sunday, December 16, 2007

The latest worry for U.S. troops — a superbug

The Observer reports that U.S., U.K. and Canadian troops are bringing back a new virulent bacteria from both Afghanistan and Iraq:

The bacterium, Acinetobacter baumannii, first emerged as a “mystery infection” afflicting US service personnel returning from the war in Iraq in 2003-04. It was described by a scientific journal specialising in hospital epidemiology as the “most important emerging hospital-acquired pathogen worldwide.” The journal added that it was potentially a “major threat to public health” due to its ability to mutate rapidly and develop a resistance to all known drugs.

Although different types of acinetobacter have been known for decades in hospitals, the new “T” strain identified in the injured troops is particularly virulent and has been observed to appear in US servicemen within two hours of being admitted to a field hospital. It affects the spinal fluid, bones and lungs, causing pneumonia, respiratory failure and other complications. Equally worrying is its resilience. Extremely difficult to eliminate from medical facilities once established, the bug can survive for up to 176 days in a human host. US officials concede that, once established in the medical evacuation chain, the germ is almost impossible to stamp out.

It remains to be seen just how bad this may become, but, it doesn’t sound good to read about.

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