US Launches Offensive in Helmand Province

US Marines and Afghan forces launched an attack on the Taliban-held city of Marjah in Helmand, Afghanistan this Saturday morning. The operation is the largest of its kind since President Barack Obama announced 30,000 American reinforcements for the war last December.

Between 400 and 1,000 insurgents are estimated to have gathered in Marjah. The city, with a population of 80,000, is the largest under Taliban control in the south of Afghanistan and the hub of their logistical and opium-smuggling network.

Several hundred US Marines and some Afghan soldiers were among the first wave of troops, flown in by helicopter. The offensive involves close combat in difficult terrain. A close grid of wide canals dug by the United States as an aid project decades ago make the territory a rich agricultural prize, but complicate the advance of American forces.

On the eve of the attack Friday, cars and trucks jammed the main road out of the city as hundreds of civilians fled the area ahead of the assault. For weeks, American commanders have signaled their intention to attack Marjah, hoping that civilians would seek shelter.

The operation, codenamed “Moshtarak,” or Together, is described as the largest joint offensive of the Afghan war. 15,000 troops are involved, including some 7,500 fighting in Marjah and British forces to the north in the district of Nad Ali.

Once the town is secured, NATO hopes to rush in aid and restore public services in a bid to win support among the population. The Afghans’ ability to restore those services is crucial to the success of the operation and to the preventing of the return of the Taliban.

Lessons in Irregular Warfare

Colombia’s success in combating drug trafficking and the ongoing guerilla efforts of the FARC may provide lessons for the war in Afghanistan, said the country’s foreign minister, Jaime Bermudez, last month. “Colombia has learned a lot,” he said and so has the Pentagon which previously cited “Plan Colombia” as a model for its counterinsurgency efforts in the Middle East.

The FARC is typical of modern day “hybrid” combatants: organizations that mix conventional guerilla warfare with terrorist and criminal activities. Other examples include Hamas and Hezbollah in Gaza and Lebanon respectively as well as the Iraq insurgency and the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Both Israel and the Western forces in the Middle East struggle with how to fight this phenomena. The Pentagon’s interest in the Colombian experience is a smart move although at the Small Wars Journal, Niel Smith points out that Sri Lanka’s recent suppression of the Tamil rebellion provides an even better model for defeating a hybrid enemy. He lists the following requirements:

  • Unwavering political will;
  • Disregard for international opinion distracting from the goal;
  • No negotiations with the forces of terror;
  • Unidirectional floor of conflict information;
  • Absence of political intervention to pull away from complete defeat of the [enemy];
  • Complete operational freedom for the security forces — Let the best men do the task;
  • Accent on young commanders;
  • Keep your neighbors in the loop.

Smith admits that, “Most western readers will find the lack of concern for civilian casualties in this strategy disconcerting.” A more “ruthless” counterinsurgency strategy will, however, resolve a conflict more quickly and therefore produce less collateral damage whereas the “population centric” approach, “while humanistic, takes longer, with uncertain probabilities of success.” In the end, such a policy, which is now adopted in Afghanistan, is likely to leave more innocent civilians dead than a campaign ruthlessly focused on defeating the enemy.

Although, for now, Western troops are determined to incur as little damage on the Afghan population as possible, sometimes exposing themselves to greater risk in the process, the United States Defense Department under Robert Gates is anticipating to fight ever more irregular wars in the future. Over objections from legislators, the secretary called the production of the F-22 fighter plane to a halt while investing $700 million in research and development of unmanned craft which are currently flown over Pakistan to combat Taliban sanctuaries there. Plans have already been drawn up for the development of unmanned aircraft systems over the next forty years.

The Navy is also planning ahead, building to much as 55 Littoral Combat Ships which will allow the force, in the White House’s words, to “focus on increasing naval capabilities that support presence, stability and counterinsurgency operations in coastal regions.” The costs of acquiring the LCSs have trippled already and instead of opting for one design, the Navy wants both Lockheed Martin’s Freedom class and General Dynamics’ Independence.

Lastly, the administration is taking serious steps to protect the country from cyber attack.

General James N. Mattis, current Commander, US Joint Forces Command and former Supreme Allied Commander for Transformation of NATO nevertheless believes that the United States “are not superior in irregular warfare” as of yet. “And that’s what we’ve got to be.” He stresses improvisation as the military’s most powerful of tools. Gates can provide all the necessary equipment, but the men in uniform have to change their tactics in order to succeed at irregular warfare.

Admiral Michael Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, reiterated Kruzel’s position when he noted last year that, “Today’s challenges and threats are not strictly military in nature, solved or countered by military means alone. We owe future generations a longer term view of security.”

Punishing Google for Its Success

The Obama Administration’s Department of Justice recently announced that it will dramatically increase enforcement of antitrust laws against successful, dominant companies who allegedly harm competition by wielding too much “market power.” What sorts of companies? Experts agree that the first targets might include one of America’s most beloved. “This will be bad news for heavyweights in the tech industries,” a leading scholar told The New York Times, “companies like Google.”

But wait: Isn’t Google a company whose products and services, centered around its fabulously popular search engine, benefit millions of Americans and businesses? Shouldn’t Americans be celebrating Google, and shouldn’t the government be leaving it alone?

No, antitrust enforcers say. Google has become too “dominant” in the search engine market — that is, too many of us choose to type in http://www.google.com/ instead of http://www.yahoo.com/ or http://www.live.com/. This allegedly gives Google too much power over those who wish to buy its coveted, keyword-based advertising. In an influential article on leading technology blog TechCrunch, Wharton professor Eric Clemons argued that “Google enjoys monopoly power over corporations that participate in its keyword auctions” and “Google is abusing its monopoly position by overcharging corporations for access to consumers.”

But what does it even mean to have “abusive monopoly power?”  Well, consider what the “power” of Google — a company no one is forced to deal with and anyone is free to compete with — really amounts to.

Through incredible technical innovation and brilliant management and marketing, Google has created by far the most popular search engine on the planet, attracting hundreds of millions of users. Through additional innovation, it has created the AdSense program, which offers advertisers the ability to reach users whose searches contain keywords associated with the advertisers’ products. Millions of advertisers eager to reach that Google user-base are willing to pay substantially higher rates than less-popular search engines can charge. Google even holds expensive auctions for top keywords.

Google’s prices and terms, often denigrated as “overcharging” and “unfair,” are in fact earned. And Google’s power to attain them exists only as long as it continues to offer superior value to its advertising customers. The minute AdSense’s rates stop making financial sense to advertisers, Google will see its dominance disappear. Critics bemoan the difficulty faced by competitors trying to overtake Google in search and advertising revenue — but that just proves how much value Google brings to the table, relative to anyone else. This is grounds for admiration of a superior competitornot prosecution for being “anticompetitive.”

Google has no power to force consumers to use its products and no power to prevent competitors from offering products of their own. Consequently, it can pose no threat to anyone’s rights or to the competitive process. (If Google ever does use coercion, as is alleged in a copyright case against the company, it should be prosecuted — but this has nothing to do with antitrust.)

There is, however, one player in today’s market that can thwart competition: the government. By using the vast and arbitrary political power given to it by antitrust law, the government can forcibly control successful companies such as Google and Microsoft, telling them what products they cannot sell, what markets they cannot enter, what prices they cannot charge. Obama’s new push to “protect competition” is the real threat to competition. Under the reign of antitrust, any superior company can be stopped in its tracks because some bureaucrat, company, or academic decides that the prices in its voluntary contracts are too high, or its voluntary terms are too onerous, or evento take another common accusation against Google — that its stable of free products is too large! In other words, Google is to be shackled so that future competitors can catch up to Gmail, Google Maps, and Google Books.

Success earned in a free, competitive process is an achievement. Our Department of Justice regards it as a crime. Thus, we may well see Google undergo the fate of Microsoft, which has been tortured, drained, and shackled by more than a decade of antitrust persecution — for adding a web browser to its fabulously successful operating system. Google famously encourages employees to devote 20 percent of their time to creative projects of their own choosing. An antitrust case could effectively force much of that precious time and energy to be devoted to mollifying and obeying Washington’s economic little Caesars. Let’s challenge this travesty-in-the-making, along with its underlying theory that successful companies possess “monopoly power,” before America commits yet another sin against capitalism.

This story first appeared at the Ayn Rand Center for Individual Rights and was published in Investor’s Business Daily, June 4, 2009.

New START Delayed Again

Further delays in the signing of a new START between Russia and the United States cast doubt upon nuclear arms reduction once again.

The two nuclear powers proved unable to reach agreement in December of last year and again in January in spite of claims that 95 percent of the treaty had been prepared. On February 1, American and Russian negotiators convened in Geneva, Switzerland to work out their differences but so far, little progress appears to have been made.

The Russians are objecting to revised American plans to construct a missile defense system in Eastern Europe. Last year, American president Barack Obama agreed to withdraw his intent to built the system largely in the Czech Republic to appease Russian fears about further NATO entrenchment upon its former sphere of influence. With Iran’s nuclear enrichment program advancing however, current American planning is to operate the missile shield from Poland and Romania. Read more “New START Delayed Again”

Vague Pledge of Support for Greece

European Union leaders convened in Brussels Thursday to discuss the Greek debt crisis. European Council President Herman Van Rompuy promised that the eurozone would provide “determined and coordinated action if needed” to preserve the currency’s stability although Greece, according to Van Rompuy, “did not ask for any financial support.”

Europe’s southern member state has been struggling with grave fiscal deficits and a heavy debt burden, sparking fear that at some point, the country might actually have to declare bankruptcy. The summit is meant to assure financial markets that the EU won’t let that happen. Van Rompuy spoke of the eurozone’s “shared responsibility” but whether this vague pledge of support did the trick is doubtful. After the Council President read his statement, the euro slipped slightly to an eight-month low of $1.37. The currency traded at $1.51 last December.

Van Rompuy stated that Greece will adopt “additional measures” to gets its budget under control. “We call on the Greek government to implement all these measures in a rigorous and effective manner,” he said.

No concrete aid was announced though. European leaders are reluctant to actually bail out Greece. Especially Germany, which, as Europe’s largest economy, would be forced to take the brunt of such a rescue effort, doesn’t care much to help out the nation that for many years violated European rules against overspending.

At the same time, Europe is wary of letting the International Monetary Fund extend help for such interference would be seen a sign of weakness on the union’s part.

Get Rid of Reid

“The one personnel change Obama most urgently needs,” David Rothkopf call it. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid enjoyed a ten vote majority throughout the past year but couldn’t get anything done. It took nearly all of 2009 to pass a health-care reform bill while the Senate hasn’t gotten around to addressing climate chance, energy and financial reform yet.

He may be “a great guy with an inspiring personal story,” notes Rothkopf but the Democrats need stronger leadership in the Senate. If it hadn’t been for Reid, the administration might have accomplished many of its stated goals already.

If the Senate had passed every bill the House has already passed and the President had signed into law major health-care reform and major climate and energy legislation (to pick just two items caught in the Senate logjam), Obama and his team would be hailed for the best opening year since Roosevelt.

Although Illinois Senator Dick Durbin is the next in line, Rothkopf recommends Chuck Schumer, the senior Senator from New York. “He’s the only one with a shot at becoming a Lyndon Johnson-like, master of the Senate.” But he will only be able to pull it off with the active support of the White House. “That’s a one-two punch that might get something done,” writes Rothkopf, and really “the one personnel issue that should be getting the most attention in DC circles these days.”

Obama Doesn’t Begrudge Bonuses

Where President Obama was previously infuriated when large Wall Street firms once again distributed multimillion dollar rewards, he now says that he doesn’t “begrudge” the $17 and $9 million bonuses awarded to the CEOs of JPMorgan Chase and Goldman Sachs respectively. “There are some baseball players who are making more than.”

In an interview with Bloomberg BusinessWeek, which will appear on newsstands next Friday, the president said that he, “like most of the American people,” doesn’t begrudge people success or wealth. “That is part of the free-market system.”

It is, although, as critics point out, these banks received many billions of dollars in government aid. Extraordinarily high bonuses don’t go well with the public right now and Obama, they argue, must consider that.

The president is, however. Read more “Obama Doesn’t Begrudge Bonuses”

Gingrich Explains What’s Wrong Today

Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich appeared on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show last night to talk about what’s wrong in American politics today.

Gingrich, who spearheaded the so-called Republican Revolution of the 1990s which ended over forty years of Democratic rule in the House of Representatives, remarked that both parties have allowed government spending to spin out of control. “We’ve gotten into a cycle of spending money on a scale that’s unsustainable,” he said, admitting that the process begun while George W. Bush was in office.

Under President Clinton, Gingrich worked with the Democratic administration to keep spending under control, balance the budget and actually pay off part of the country’s national debt. Why didn’t Republicans do the same under Bush, asked Stewart, who, for six years, could count on Republican majorities in both House of Congress. They lowered taxes but didn’t downsize government. “And they got punished for it,” Gingrich replied.

A radical reconstruction of the entitlement programs currently financed by the American government is necessary to truly bring down costs, said Gingrich. Without reforming Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, government will continue to run deficits because Republicans, according to the party elder, rather lower taxes and borrow to keep “the smallest possible share of the economy going to the government.”

Republican Hypocrisy At Its Best

Republican legislators who have publicly been denouncing the Obama Administration’s stimulus measures as fiscally irresponsible privately sought to obtain stimulus money for their home states, reveals The Washington Times.

The paper discovered that over a dozen GOP lawmakers have been lobbying with the Department of Agriculture to invest millions of dollars of stimulus funding in their states

Senator Christopher Bond of Missouri defended himself, stating that although he “strongly opposed the stimulus, […] the only thing that could make it worse would be if none of it returned to the taxpayers of Missouri.”

Congressman Joe Wilson of South Carolina invoked the same excuse, having his spokeswoman declare that although he believed the stimulus amounted to a “misguided spending bill,” once passed, the people of South Carolina deserved to get “their share of the pie.”

Senators Mike Johanns of Nebraska, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Robert Bennett of Utah, as well as Congressmen John Linder of Georgia and Pat Tiberi of Ohio were among other Republican lawmakers who criticized the stimulus but secretly sought funding.

Their apology — that they were merely looking out for their constituents — seems insincere, since rather than earmarking spending bills, which would have disclosed their efforts, these Republicans wrote personal letters which normally aren’t subject to public scrutiny.

The incident is the latest show in the Republican Party’s blatant lack of direction. Rather than objecting to the stimulus on principal, Republicans attacked it because it was a Democratic initiative. They could easily sell it as being part of the governing party’s supposed attempt to steer the United States down the path of socialism.

Unless the Republicans take a firm stand as defenders of free-market capitalism, they cannot honestly condemn the Keynesian spending frenzy of the current administration. So long as they rather resort to simplistic populism and scaremongering, expect to see more hypocrisy from the party that is supposed to favor small government.

New Consumer Protection Agency

The upcoming financial regulatory reform bill currently under consideration with the United States Senate Banking Committee will probably call for an agency dedicated to protecting consumers from abusive financial practices and products, reports The Huffington Post. Committee chairman Christopher Dodd of Connecticut is expected to release the latest version of the bill later this month.

According to The Huffington Post, the agency will be authorized to regulate mortgages, credit card policies and consumer loans with a budget of its own, separate from the congressional appropriations process “so it can’t be harmed by lawmakers bent on taking away its power.” In other words: the agency will be able to set its own budget and determine its own policies, with the Senate allowed to confirm candidates nominated by the White House for its executive.

The proposal comes after months of bipartisan negotiations with Dodd and the committee’s ranking Republican, Richard Shelby of Alabama, spearheading the two camps. Where Dodd championed an agency solely tasked to protect consumers, Shelby was anxious about establishing a new institution independent of existing financial oversight.

Last Friday, Dodd admitted that he and Shelby had “reached an impasse” but it would appear that the senior Senator from Connecticut won the argument for, so claims The Huffington Post, “the new organization’s decisions will likely not be subject to vetoes by the regulators in charge of overseeing the health of banks and the financial system as a whole.” That way, it can focus on protecting consumers without having to worry about fellow regulators overruling its decisions for the sake of safeguarding banks.

The danger involved in establishing an array of oversight and protection agencies for different segments of the same market is that each becomes fixated on its own special interest, losing sight of the sector’s interests on the whole — let alone, the economy’s interests on the whole.

There is also a good argument to be made against consumer protection in principle. Such statues elevate the consumer to a status superior to that of the producer for although “consumer protection” applies to everyone, the implication that there exists a separate caste of “consumers” in society opens the door to the creation of a multitude of “protective” agencies, each with varying degrees of independence but all obstructing the workings of the free market — which, of course, is precisely their purpose.

There ought to be no special group rights of any kind; only individual rights which apply equally to all men. All men are protected from injury or fraud, not just “consumers”. If a business willfully injures or cheats men, it is a matter to be proved and punished in a court of law. There is no justice in preventive law which presumes businessmen guilty until proven innocent — especially not when such law is practiced by agencies that can operate almost free of congressional oversight. Who then protects society against the corruption, cupidity and vindictiveness of its so-called protectors?