Column: Dispatches from the Edge: Deja Vu in Afghanistan; Paraguay Political Challenge

By Conn Hallinan
Friday May 25, 2007

Deja vu all over again? The longer the United States and NATO stay in Afghanistan, the more the place is looking like Vietnam:  

• Body counts. Remember when the United States used to claim things like “250 Vietcong” killed during a firefight, most of whom turned out to be civilians? On April 27 the United States said “more than 130 Taliban” were killed after Special Forces called in air strikes during a two-day battle in western Afghanistan. Except local residents said there were no Taliban in the village and that the dead included many women and children. With U.S. and NATO forces relying more and more on air power, large numbers of civilian casualties are inevitable. 

• Drugs. With the help of the CIA, the U.S.-supported regime in South Vietnam and Laos shipped opium from Laos to Thailand, making the Vietnam War ground zero in the heroin epidemic that gripped Europe and the United States in the late ’60s and early ’70s. For details see “The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia,” and Frontline’s “Guns, Drugs and the CIA.” Well, 2006 was a banner year for opium production in Afghanistan and, according to an investigation by the Financial Times, Afghan government claims that it had eradicated 21,000 hectares of poppies in Kandahar and Helmand provinces “bore little resemblance to reality.” Afghanistan produces 92 percent of the world’s opium.  

• Meaningless battles. Remember the “critical” battles at Khe Sanh and “Hamburger Hill,” where hundreds of Americans and thousands of Vietnamese died? Six weeks after the battles ended, the Vietnamese reclaimed them, and the “critical” clashes disappeared into esoteric military history. The United States has been battling to pacify the Tora Bora region of Eastern Afghanistan, the supposed hiding place of Osama bin Laden. The Russians tried to tame Tora Bora as well, and recently Gen. Victor Yermakov (Ret.), who commanded the Soviet’s 40th Army, commented that he “was very impressed by the Americans. Gaining control of Tora Bora is a great accomplishment. I should know. I did it three times. Unfortunately, the second I turned my back on the place, I needed to conquer it again. It is the same now. It will never change.”  

The rising toll of civilian deaths and the friction created by the on-going occupation led the upper house of the Afghan parliament to demand that the government open ceasefire talks with the Taliban. According to the Independent, the Karazi government has already reached an informal agreement with the insurgent leader and former U.S. ally, Gulbuddin Hikmatayar, that has kept Kabul free from suicide bombers for the past several months.  

Meanwhile, a number of NATO members are having second thoughts about the Afghan adventure. A recent Der Spiegel poll indicates that 57 percent of Germans want to withdraw from Afghanistan. 

Opposition is also on the rise in Canada, where the Conservative government recently beat back a resolution to withdraw troops by 150-134. Canada has suffered more than 50 deaths in Afghanistan—a larger percentage than any other NATO country—and polls indicate increasing unrest among voters. 

Most of the Canadians have been killed by roadside bombs. “It costs a couple of hundred dollars for a bomb,” says Sunil Ram, a professor at the American Military University in West Virginia, “but they can knock out a $3 million or $4 million vehicle, and kill troops that cost millions of dollars to train.” 

Which brings to mind a line about Afghanistan from Kipling’s “Arithmetic of the Frontier:” 

A scrimmage in a border station— 

A canter down some dark defile— 

Two thousand pounds of education 

Drops to a ten-rupee jezail*— 

(*A cheap rifle) 

It’s time to leave. 


• • • 


Up and comer to watch is Monsignor Fernando Lugo Mendez, a former priest and current frontrunner in the presidential race in Paraguay. Lugo, who is strongly influenced by liberation theology, is trying to dislodge the Colorado Party, which has held power since 1947. The Colorado Party was the backbone of Alfredo Stroesser’s brutal and corrupt dictatorship from 1954 to 1989. 

Lugo’s politics are populist—he calls himself “the bishop of the poor” and says he is “inspired by some elements of socialism.” There is a lot to work with in Paraguay. It has the singular distinction of having the most unequal distribution of land in Latin America. Some One percent of the population owns 77 percent of the land.  

It also plays host to U.S. Army Special Forces, and President George W. Bush recently purchased an enormous ranch close to a military base used by the United States. 

According to Jorge Lara Castro, a political scientist at the Catholic University of Asuncion, the Colorado Party is widely discredited, because it is divided “between those who rule with “unbridled corruption” and those who “administer corrupt practices in a more rational and sustainable way.” 

Lugo’s detractors call him the “Red Bishop” and claim he will align himself with Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Evo Morales of Bolivia.  

Benjamin Dangl, editor of, who has traveled widely in the area, says “for Paraguay, Lugo is a revolutionary.” Dangl says Lugo could “significantly” change the culture of repression and corruption, but that “he is not Evo Morales or Chavez. He isn’t likely to do too many radical things economically. Perhaps he will be more like Tabare Vasquez of Uruguay.” He says radicals are more “hopeful” than they are “satisfied” with his candidacy. 

Nonetheless, Dangl says, Lugo “is shaking up the establishment big time in a place where the same party has ruled for a long time. So it is big.” 

But taking the presidency will be an uphill battle, because the Colorado Party has joined forces with the Vatican in an effort to torpedo Lugo’s candidacy. Even though Lugo resigned from the priesthood, the Vatican refuses to accept his resignation. That allows the Colorado Party to say he can’t run because the Paraguyan constitution bars ministers of any religion from holding office.  


• • • 


The little weapons systems that couldn’t. The U.S. Marine Corps will deploy the V-22 Osprey troop carrier in Iraq, despite the aircraft’s troubled record. The ungainly looking craft, a helicopter-airplane hybrid, is designed to carry 24 troops and 20,000 pounds of cargo. However, it has a distressing habit of crashing and killing large numbers of Marines.  

While the Osprey is a disaster in waiting, the eight-wheeled, armored Stryker troop carrier is a current calamity. The vehicles, which carry 11 soldiers and two crew, have been falling to roadside bombs like wheat before the sickle.  

In March, the Second Infantry Division arrived in Baqouba, figuring the 19-ton behemoths, armed with a heavy machine gun and a 105mm cannon, would scare off the insurgents. Instead the Strykers were pounded with machine gun fire, grenades and roadside bombs. Within a few days, the Division had lost five of them.  

So why are weapon systems that don’t work being sent into war? Because Boeing and Bell made $20 billion off of the V-22, and General Dynamics raked in $11 billion on the Stryker. And now the Army and the Marines are pushing for a new Mine Resist and Ambush Protected (MRAPS) armored vehicle. The Pentagon ordered almost 8,000 of them at a cost of $8.4 billion from the International Truck and Engine and an Israeli armor maker. Plans are to order thousands more. 

War may be Hell, but for some, Hell is very profitable.