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Newsletter 8-20-2021

Colin Powers
Colin Powers

Hi everyone. Thanks for subscribing. If you have the means, please consider becoming a paying member. If you have the inclination, please pass this newsletter around to others who might enjoy the read. Now onto this week's edition of No Craic, Mad Craic, and Great Craic.

No Craic

(1) Time is a flat circle, the Taliban are back, and the Afghan people are fucked as they've ever been.

As you're all likely well-versed in by now, the United States' grossly incompetent, corrupt, and indifferent effort in state-building has collapsed in less than a week. Such an ignominious ending to what was always a callous and shameful undertaking was set in motion a decade ago (if not earlier), when an interagency process overseen by the Obama administration determined the US ought acquiesce to the cronyism of the post-Taliban power elite for expedience sake. (Two of Hamid Karzai's brothers were directly involved in some of the biggest grifts of the 2000s: Mahmoud with the absurd KabulBank scandal and Ahmed Wali with the opium trade. The CIA itself directly partook in the corruption as well by buying short-term policy changes with bags of cash, while a whole host of American contractors and development organizations got their piece of the billions in public moneys allocated for Afghanistan through nominally aboveboard procurement processes.)

The impunity with which NATO forces ran their counter-insurgency throughout the last two decades, nested as their operations were inside the sovereign Afghan state, made the latter's eventual dissolution all the more likely, of course. Such an eventuality was all but guaranteed, finally, upon Mike Pompeo's commencement of negotiations with the Taliban over in Doha in 2018. Practicing the art of the deal, Pompeo first forced the Afghan government to release 5,000 Taliban soldiers from prison, including Mullah Baradar. After the Trump administration next announced that American troops would be withdrawn by July of 2021 and began engaging the Taliban in bilateral talks regarding the transition--a move at once vesting the Taliban with the legitimacy of an equal while stripping the Afghan government, wholly excluded from proceedings, of whatever credibility it still retained--the jig was well and truly up. For those inside the government as much as those who were subjected to its rule, the only thing to do was watch the clock tick down.

At this stage, the now former President Ashraf Ghani has absconded (initially to Tajikistan before making his way to Abu Dhabi whodathunkit) and had to deny taking $150 million from the Afghan treasury in severance pay. Large majorities of those who aided the American war effort, worked in the bureaucracy of the previous regime, or found employment in (western-financed) civil society organizations face genuinely harrowing futures. With the US government having frozen $9.5 billion worth of Da Afghan Bank's assets on an interim basis and threatening to install a more permanent sanctions program in the weeks and months ahead, the general population--more than half of which currently lives in poverty--is bracing for terrible pain as well.

See Adam Tooze link below

Necessary and desirable as the end of this American imperial project undeniably was, the manner with which it has been executed means it should hardly be met with champagne popping. Writing in Jacobin, Tabitha Spence and Ammar Ali Jan provide the proper framework for processing what has just happened, and what the foreign policy outlook ought be going forward:

The deteriorating situation points to a new phase of imperialism in which any pretense to development or reconstruction has been wholly discarded. Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Yemen are emblematic of how contemporary Western interventions are geared toward creating zones of imperialist control in order to pursue short-term goals.
Once these tasks are fulfilled, the country is abandoned — the promise of democracy and state-building proving to be mere slogans. The veneer of humanitarianism has given way to a logic of terror and destruction imposed upon “enemy states.” The United States today heads this global demolition squad.
The antiwar movement in America should not pat itself on the back for this withdrawal. The manner in which the United States withdrew from Afghanistan only speaks of imperial hubris and arrogance. Instead of accepting responsibility for the situation it created, the United States scapegoated the Afghan government and is now putting the entire blame for its debacle on Pakistan. The United States can shift blame for the disaster precisely because it cannot be held accountable by the international community and is not willing to accept its fate as a declining empire that has lost the ability to impose order on countries it has destroyed.
Today, progressives are terrified, as the Taliban victory has emboldened extremist forces in Afghanistan and the deep state in Pakistan. The stage is set for more repression of human rights activists and dissenting voices, who will be targeted by authoritarian regimes that have swept the region from New Delhi to Kabul. In these circumstances, the American left has a responsibility to extend all forms of solidarity possible to those bearing the brunt of our generation’s “forever wars.”
Fighting Islamophobia, welcoming refugees, and holding the war machine accountable are essential elements to articulating an anti-imperialist vision for contemporary politics. This is particularly urgent as the United States threatens left-wing governments in Latin America (Cuba and Venezuela in particular) while also building its war machine in Asia. The US ruling class will again use the threat of imagined phantoms and mask their aggression under the veil of human rights and democracy. It would be nothing less than tragic if the American people continue to fall for such tactics that cause unimaginable suffering for countries in the Global South.

For a great long read on America's misadventures in Afghanistan, see Anand Gopal's excellent No Good Men Among the Living. Adam Tooze's write-up for The New Statesmen provides a briefer review of recent history, and Sarah Chayes' essay here provides a personal and insightful take from someone who spent more than a decade on the ground trying to advance the cause of democracy.

(2) Based on a review of one hundred publicly reported real estate money laundering cases, the research group Global Financial Integrity has determined that the United States currently ranks amongst the world's top spots for cleaning illicit funds. Between 2006 and 2015, a single Ukrainian oligarch, Ihor Kolomoisky, managed to park nearly $500 million of funds siphoned off from Privatbank (a commercial bank he was then owner of) in commercial and residential properties throughout the midwest (Cleveland, what's up). Like other skeevy characters, Kolomoisky pulled the trick by funneling his moneys into counties and municipalities where geographic targeting orders--reporting requirements on real estate purchases–are not in effect.

The beneficial ownership registry established this year upon the passage of the Corporate Transparency Act will likely serve to plug some of the regulatory gaps that have been exploited by politically-exposed persons like Kolomoisky. One can expect it will also prompt innovation from the effected, however, which includes a constellation of accountants, lawyers, real estate agents, private equity firms.

(3) Thomas Torslov, Ludvid Wier, and Gab Zucman--three of the best researchers working on corporate tax evasion/avoidance today--have published some new findings, and a cheeky wee map to go with it. On the basis of data gleaned from tax filings and annual reports, they estimate that multinational corporations in the aggregate hid about 40% of their profits (+$900 billion) in an assortment of tax havens in 2018. In so doing, they deprived governments across the world of $200 billion or so in foregone revenues.

The visual below gives a clear indication of who wins and loses from such shenanigans. As it makes plain, the old imperial outposts of the United Kingdom, United States, and Netherlands (amongst others) in the Caribbean, Indian Ocean, and along the periphery of China today function as what can only be described as sanctuaries for a transnational capitalist class. In conjunction with a handful of European states--Ireland, Belgium, Switzerland, Malta, the Netherlands, Luxembourg--these offshore financial centers furnish the legal and logistical infrastructure allowing individuals and corporate persons to preserve income and wealth to the maximum degree.

(4) Ibrahim Hatimi has just published a really interesting piece detailing the history and economics of hashish production in Morocco. The industry centers in the north of the country and has its modern origins in the 1970s, when Europe's imposition of restrictions on North African migration coalesced with the desperation of small farmers--not only exposed to greater competition from agriculturalists across the Med as a result of the Association Agreement that the Monarch signed to with the European Economic Community, but excluded from state aid and access to credit to boot--to push many communities into the trade.

Now centering in the environs of the beautiful city of Chefchaouen, the cultivation and processing of cannabis in Morocco is of a scale sufficient to service much of Europe's demand. By dint of the overuse of fertilizer and the overexploitation of the soil, the ecological costs of delivering product to northern consumers are, of course, far from negligible. The second-order social effects of hashish are also significant. Forced to choose between joblessness or carving out a living in the informal economies of the country's major urban centers, lots of young men and women try to make a living in the upstream and downstream trades of the illicit cannabis industry instead. Thereby drawn into the orbit of law enforcement and organized crime alike, theirs are existences laden with danger and precarity.

Morocco's pending legalization of cannabis cultivation for medical and industrial use--the Ministry of Interior submitted a draft bill for review in March 2021--is unlikely to change much for those at the bottom of the hashish economy. Based on Hatimi's interviews with small farmers, the proposed reforms will primarily serve to lubricate profit seeking for large landowners and wealthy investors in Casablanca.

(5) Despite having far more precise weapons at its disposal, the Israeli Defense Forces opted to rely upon the non-discriminating MK-84 bomb during its campaign in Gaza this past May.

Colloquially referred to as "bunker busters", the MK-84 only manages to hit its designated target and detonate properly about 60% of the time. That 98% of those killed and injured during this spring's attack on Gaza were civilians can, in the most immediate sense, be attributed to the IDF's use of such a vicious and designedly unpredictable technology. Why the weapon is nonetheless favored--because the cruelty is the point; because of a need to clear out inventory; because of pressure from arms' manufacturers--grants insight into the banal perversity of Israel's airwar(s) on Gaza.

(6) Ho-fung Hung has penned a fascinating analysis highlighting Amazon's pandemic-era expansion. In it, Hung lends clarity to contemporary Sino-American relations and to why two decades of monetary expansion in the United States has yielded next to nothing in terms of inflation (or wage gains), protestations of Milton Friedman's heirs notwithstanding.

Hung begins by noting (i) that Amazon's American workforce saw average pay raises of a mere 6% in 2020 despite the firm's profits growing by 84%; (ii) that 40% of sale of Amazon sales as measured in gross merchandise value come from Chinese vendors; and (iii) that 75% of the new sellers on Amazon in 2020 were from China. From here, he traces a broader relationship connecting the weakness of American organized labor and the rise of debt-fueled consumption in the United States to the hyper exploitation of workers in China, and reveals an international political economy within which the cheap credit on offer at the Federal Reserve not only functions to goose profits for Wall Street and Chinese manufacturers, but to underwrite China's capital exports to the developing world (as institutionalized through the Belt and Road Initiative).

The article is certainly worth reading in full.  

Mad Craic

(7) Per Philip Weiss, David Harris--CEO of the American Jewish Committee (AJC)--recently asserted that "hip hop" clubs are gatewaying "fragile...vulnerable" American Jews on college campuses into anti-Zionism.

There's a lot to unpack there, but I'm just going to let you meditate on it alone. Since the mid-2010s, one should know that the AJC has been one of the main players pushing state legislatures to adopt laws criminalizing and/or preventing public moneys from reaching individuals and organizations supporting the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions Movement.

(8) Qatar is set to hold elections for its Shura Council--the country's dominant legislative body--for the first time this October. Though not heralding the arrival of democracy and though matters of voter eligibility have rightly been a source of consternation (relevant election laws dictate that voters/candidates for the Shura Council must be 18+ and able to prove their family resided in Qatar prior to 1930), the elections do represent a positive step forward.

Alas, that is not the way they are being seen in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, where royalist fears of democratic contagion have long festered. Hoping to muddy the waters around the elections some, a few thousand fake social media accounts traceable to the houses of Saud and Nahyan have tried to spread disinformation of various sorts, including claims that popular revolts were emerging throughout Qatar.      

Great Craic

(9) On August 10, after being forced to endure twelve to sixteen hour shifts and 7-day workweeks--and after learning of company plans to slash overtime pay-- employees at a Nabisco bakery in Portland, Oregon went on strike. Since then, they've been joined by Nabisco workers in Colorado and Virginia.

God speed to everyone taking part.  

(10) This lizard is really amazing.

Have a great weekend.    


Colin Powers

Colin received his PhD from Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in 2020. He is a two-time Fulbright Fellow.