Thursday, July 30, 2009

Bird and Fortune on Afghanistan

Blogger's Note: I can't get Channel 4, so I had to imagine The Three Hundred Years' War. Sorry.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Landfill on Mars

There is enthusiasm for manned spaceflight to Mars. I’m for it. It’s insane, but better than blowing up Pakistan. We can send our garbage (to Mars, not Pakistan).

So I’m sitting here looking at my Timmy’s chili cup, in its brown paper bag with plastic spoon that has been hermetically sealed in plastic that I can’t open so throw it away with the empty cup and the brown paper bag, and I think, where does this stuff go? Landfill.

Meanwhile, clever robots that are way past their expiry dates (Detroit take notice, if anyone is still there) are sending fabulous photos, some in 3D, showing huge EMPTY CRATERS. Perfect.

The Martian landscape leaves something to be desired. I mean, it’s pretty dull. Where are the Styrofoam coffee cups, the Timmy’s Timbit boxes, McDonald’s hamburger containers, used condoms, dead syringes, ejected machine gun bullet casings from Afghanistan, and paper napkins from Denny’s? Nowhere. This is a sterile landscape. It needs a bit of life, and we can add that by crashing huge containers of garbage at selected sites, and then paving the whole thing over with asphalt products found on the Moon and freighted to Mars at reasonable expense by Halliburton, who by chance have funded a National Institutes of Health Research Initiative: “Sharing the Wealth: How human garbage recreates the possibility of life on Mars.” It’s a win-win-win situation.

Elsewhere, neurosurgeons in Calgary are figuring out how to repair cerebral aneurysms during interplanetary flight, which will be important so as not to crash the garbage at sites that are not landfill, but destined for human habitation. I mean, how would that look? “That’s one small step for man, and a giant step for….” WHAM! …. a container of used Styrofoam, partially decomposed vegetable matter, and the scrapings of two gazillion left over pizza boxes obliterates a poetic human moment.

Obviously, although we can do neurosurgery by robots, we need a human explorer to carefully select the sites at which garbage will be crashed, much like Neil Armstrong saved the day by carefully landing the lunar lander so nobody got killed, although the Mars Viking landers didn't kill anybody either, were cheaper, and much more interesting than Apollo, apart from the human interest side which was considerable.

“Good morning, garbage. This is your captain speaking. We are expecting a smooth flight to Mars, lasting approximately six months, and at your destination will be crashing appropriately. For your comfort and convenience, please consume whatever you find in your containers, or relax and just decompose at your leisure. In the unlikely event that emergency neurosurgery is required, the "neuron" sign will fire intermittently somewhere, and you should return to your container immediately and hope for a miracle.”

Only the most highly selected humans will be needed for Garbage Shepherds, Astronaut Swampers, to cleanse the Earth and prepare Mars for the Awakening, when life springs forth from Timmy’s cardboard containers and a new atmosphere is created that resembles smog, and the Mars rovers, indomitable little machines, finally expire in a wheeze of newly created methane and carbon monoxide.

Obviously, Dick Cheney should be there to supervise the whole thing, and a representative of the Hunt family, “one of us”, to make sure that “we” have things going the way “we” want, as well as George W. Bush to arrange the golf course on which he can play through without inconvenience. Al Shepard golfed on the Moon, and he lived in Texas. Why shouldn’t Bush golf on Mars?

So I’m also designing a golf course on Mars, next to the landfill. OK, it will be ON the landfill. That works. It’s environmentally friendly. There’s already a sandtrap.

"Canada should be proud of role in Afghanistan: ambassador"

"Ron Hoffmann, at left with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, tells the Globe's Omar El Akkad that despite a worsening security situation, there has been progress made by Canadian soldiers."

And I've got some AIG bank shares for Ron....

"The period of great wars is over. Science has put in the hands of children extraordinary means of death. The greatest error the United States is currently making is to think that international military operations can stop a seventeen-year-old child from acting. The focus should be placed instead on alleviating the pain in the most sensitive regions of the world, beginning with Jerusalem."

Germaine Tillion
Anthropologist, leader of the French Resistance, survivor of Ravensbrück conentration camp.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

"This is how we let the credit crunch happen, Ma'am" ...

Fisking the Observer

Heather Stewart, economics editor
The Observer, Sunday 26 July 2009

Queen Elizabeth II and Luis Garicano at LSE

Luis Garicano at LSE shows Queen Elizabeth II a chart explaining how the credit crunch was caused. Photograph: Kirsty Wigglesworth/PA Archive/Press Association Ima

A group of eminent economists has written to the Queen explaining why no one foresaw the timing, extent and severity of the recession.

The three-page missive, which blames "a failure of the collective imagination of many bright people", was sent after the Queen asked, during a visit to the London School of Economics, why no one had predicted the credit crunch.

Signed by LSE professor Tim Besley, a member of the Bank of England monetary policy committee, and the eminent historian of government Peter Hennessy, the letter, a copy of which has been obtained by the Observer, tells of the "psychology of denial" that gripped the financial and political world in the run-up to the crisis.

The content was discussed at a seminar at the British Academy in June that was attended by economic heavyweights including Treasury permanent secretary Nick MacPherson, Goldman Sachs chief economist Jim O'Neill and Observer economics columnist William Keegan. The letter explains that as low interest rates made borrowing cheap, the "feelgood factor" masked how out-of-kilter the world economy had become beneath the surface, with some countries, such as the United States, running up enormous debts by borrowing from others, including China and the oil-rich Middle Eastern states, that were sitting on vast piles of cash.

Despite these yawning imbalances, they say, "financial wizards" managed to convince themselves and the world's politicians that they had found clever ways to spread risk throughout financial markets - whereas "it is difficult to recall a greater example of wishful thinking combined with hubris".

"Everyone seemed to be doing their own job properly on its own merit. And according to standard measures of success, they were often doing it well," they say. "The failure was to see how collectively this added up to a series of interconnected imbalances over which no single authority had jurisdiction."

That meant when the reckoning came it was extreme, starting in summer 2007 and culminating in the near-collapse of the entire world financial system after the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers last autumn.

"In summary, Your Majesty," they conclude, "the failure to foresee the timing, extent and severity of the crisis and to head it off, while it had many causes, was principally a failure of the collective imagination of many bright people, both in this country and internationally, to understand the risks to the system as a whole."

In other words: they blew it. A complete fiasco. And yet, others had warned, had seen the dangers, and said them.

Besley stressed that the experts had not been in "finger-wagging mode" and had agreed that the causes of the credit crunch were extremely complex. "There was a very complicated, interconnected set of issues, rather than one particular person or one particular institution."

Other experts at the seminar last month included Paul Tucker, deputy governor of the Bank of England, Vernon Bogdanor, the constitutional expert from Oxford University, and HSBC's chief economist, Stephen King.

A spokesman for Buckingham Palace said the Queen has displayed a particular interest in the causes of the recession, summoning Bank of England governor Mervyn King to a private audience earlier this year to explain what he was doing to tackle it.

Official figures published on Friday revealed that Britain's economy has now been contracting for 15 months, and the recession is deeper than any since the 1930s, outside of wartime.

Robin Jackson, chief executive and secretary of the British Academy, said: "The global recession is a huge development, and it is reasonable to ask to what extent it could have been foreseen. What's more, we can't say 'never again' if we don't fully understand what occurred. The academy forum was an opportunity to get an exceptional range of experts, participants and commentators in one room, sifting fact from fiction and shedding light on what had gone on. We hope Her Majesty - and indeed others - will find our letter informative."

The academy plans to hold a second seminar later in the year to ask how best to prevent another such crisis occurring. Besley denied that economics as a profession had been discredited by the scale of the crisis, but admitted that unconventional ideas - about how herd psychology and bouts of irrationality can grip financial markets, for example - had sometimes received "less play" during the boom years.

He said the academy hopes to provide a forum for airing economic differences: "What we need is a forum where people can come together on a very open basis, to provide challenges and have a debate."

Professor Luis Garicano, to whom the Queen directed her question when she visited the LSE in November last year, said: "She seemed very interested, and she asked me: 'How come nobody could foresee it?' I think the main answer is that people were doing what they were paid to do, and behaved according to their incentives, but in many cases they were being paid to do the wrong things from society's perspective."

Her Majesty might be better served by having Gillian Tett over for tea.

* © Guardian News and Media Limited 2009

Go to:

"The recession is over."

Ottawa — From Friday's Globe and Mail Last updated on Friday, Jul. 24, 2009 10:24AM EDT

"A billboard appears along U.S. Interstate 95 in Rhode Island. The Recession 101 campaign, which started in the state in July, was funded by an anonymous East Coast donor who was despondent about the way the country was reacting to the economy’s tailspin. It’s appearing on over 1,000 billboards across the U.S.

"Canada's central bank predicts the economy would expand this quarter, but Carney says recovery will drag well into 2010."

Kevin Carmichael

An "anonymous donor, eh? Would that be somebody eager to encourage the Happy Talk and "consumer confidence" that bodes well for, say Goldman Sachs? Mark Carney, the optimistic head of the Bank of Canada, is a GSax alumnus I hear, as is Hank Paulson, who engineered a bank bailout that in its original form could not be reviewed by any American court.

Meanwhile in the "emperor has no clothes" camp, people like Paul Craig Roberts point out that the American economy now consists of finance and services, and therefore, apart from the armaments industries, no recovery is on the horizon, at all.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Farewell, Mr. Marleau

Robert Marleau, Information Commissioner of Canada, has retired. Good on him. He’s well out of it, preferring to spend his time fishing with his grandson. Mr. Marleau by all accounts is a gentleman and a scholar, and therefore totally unfit to be Information Commissioner in an era in which the government dissembles, lies, and manipulates. He's too nice a guy.

I had harsh words for Mr. Marleau, which I don't take back; I was exasperated, no excuse. But now, in my opinion, we need an attack dog.

The problem is, the Information Commissioner is a government appointee, and therefore in the Access to Information Act Schedule I, a “government institution.”

Office of the Information Commissioner
Commissariat à l’information

Office of the Inspector General of the Canadian Security Intelligence
Bureau de l’Inspecteur général du service canadien du renseignement
de sécurité
Office of the Privacy Commissioner
Commissariat à la protection de la vie privée
Office of the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner

Meanwhile, the Access to Information Act states in Section 2:

The last part of Section 2 says decisions to withhold information should be reviewable "independently of government".

Therefore, the Information Commissioner, absent a strong ornery independent streak, is not independent of the government of the day. Stephen Harper chose Mr. Marleau. Is there an attack dog on his short list now?

Saturday, July 18, 2009

"Moving forward on the issues..."


Bush's key men face grilling on torture and death squads

Former vice-president Dick Cheney could be forced to testify to Congress over allegations that a secret hit squad was set up on his orders, as Democrats press for inquiries into the conduct of the 'war on terror'. Paul Harris reports from New York

"The moves reveal a long-awaited desire by elements of the Obama administration and Democrat-controlled Congress to examine alleged abuses of power by Bush officials. They also raise the prospect of a bitter political fight with Republicans, who are likely to portray any attempt to investigate leading Bushites as a witch-hunt.

The inquiries also seem to go against the wishes of some in the White House, including Barack Obama. The president has said he does not want to be distracted by the past and instead intends to focus on economic recovery and healthcare reform. "The White House is more in the mood for going forward on the issues, such as healthcare, by which they want to define their presidency," said Gary Schmitt, a former intelligence official under Ronald Reagan and a fellow of the American Enterprise Institute."

Simon Wiesenthal Center

"Simon Wiesenthal, a survivor of the Nazi death camps, dedicated his life to documenting the crimes of the Holocaust and to hunting down the perpetrators still at large. "When history looks back," Wiesenthal explained, "I want people to know the Nazis weren’t able to kill millions of people and get away with it." His work stands as a reminder and a warning for future generations."

Principles of the Nuremberg Tribunal

Principle Vl
The crimes hereinafter set out are punishable as crimes under; international law:

1. Crimes against peace:
1. Planning, preparation, initiation or waging of a war of aggression or a war in violation of international treaties, agreements or assurances;
2. Participation in a common plan or conspiracy for the accomplishment of any of the acts mentioned under (i).

Friday, July 17, 2009

The Pasadena Defence

“Would you rather fight them here or in Pasadena?” Maybe we could beat them in Pasadena.
Michael Herr

Mr Brown held talks yesterday with President Obama and Sir Jock Stirrup, Chief of the Defence Staff, about the latest developments. He said: "We cannot allow southern Afghanistan and the border areas to remain lawless places sheltering terrorism and the drugs trade."

He added: "There is a chain of terror running from the mountains and plains of southern Afghanistan and Pakistan to the towns and streets of Britain. People in Britain today are safer because of the courageous sacrifice of British soldiers"

The feared invasion of Pasadena by victorious Vietnamese communist hordes has not come to pass. And yet Gordon Brown feebly tried to resurrect it in his tortured (let's bring that word into daylight) explanation of the British involvement in Afghanistan.

We’re fighting in Afghanistan to protect ourselves in London. Then again, the Brits were already in Afghanistan for the July 7, 2005, tube bombings, so the only coherent explanation then would be that either the tube bombings would have been much worse if the British had not been in Afghanistan, and/or not enough British troops were in Afghanistan at the time to prevent them.

This kind of thinking dies hard, and is impervious to contrary evidence. Take the insane statement in the Globe and Mail by Lord Robertson of Whatever:

“Every member state in NATO — and there were 19 of them at that time — agreed that we had to do it, but that it was a big and challenging operation. The choice before us, and every democratic state, was simple and stark: either we go to Afghanistan, or Afghanistan comes to us.”
Lord Robertson of Port Ellen, The Globe and Mail, December 11, 2007

The logical possibilities that Afghanistan might come to us because we went to Afghanistan, or that Pakistan might now come to us, or indeed Saudi Arabia might come to us, as it already has come to New York, seem to be unspeakable and unthinkable. Given what happened on 9/11, an invasion and occupation of Saudi Arabia would seem to be in the cards, using the same logic.

The contrary argument seems to get very little air time, and the British opposition, which has a job to do, seems more obsessed with the quality and quantity of British equipment than interested in asking hard questions, and gives off vibrations of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

The Pasadena Defence, like the Nuremberg Defence, isn't.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Now and Then in Panjawaii

NOW News Staff

Updated: Thu. Jul. 16 2009 4:13 PM ET

Another Canadian soldier has been killed in Afghanistan, making July the deadliest month ever for coalition troops in the country.

Pte. Sebastien Courcy died Thursday during a counterinsurgency mission in the Panjwaii district of Kandahar province.

Reporting from the Canadian base at Kandahar, Dene Moore of the Canadian Press told CTV News Channel the circumstances surrounding Courcy's death were unusual.

"He fell from his position, it was a high position on a cliff. He fell and was killed," Moore said, "there were no other soldiers injured."

It is not clear whether Courcy was involved in a firefight at the time.

Courcy, 26, was a member of the 2nd Battalion of the Royal 22e Regiment, also known as the Van Doos.

Courcy was described as a "fine soldier" by his commander Brig.-Gen. Jonathan Vance.

THEN News Staff

Updated: Sun. Sep. 17 2006 11:54 PM ET

A top NATO general says the alliance's massive, two-week-long anti-Taliban offensive in southern Afghanistan has been "successfully completed."

Lieut.-Gen. David Richards, head of the 20,000 NATO-led force, hailed Operation Medusa in the insurgent stronghold of southern Afghanistan as a "significant success.''

Reconstruction and development efforts will soon begin in three southern areas, said Richards, after coalition forces drove insurgents from their positions.

"The ability of the Taliban to stay and fight in groups is finished," said Asadullah Khalid, Kandahar province's governor. "The enemy has been crushed."

NATO launched Operation Medusa on Sept. 2 with the aim of clearing out Taliban fighters from a Panjwaii district near Kandahar. NATO said its troops killed 512 Taliban and captured another 136.

For the people who lived there, the victory comes at a cost.

"The bombing and the fighting destroyed our mosque, our homes and our vineyards," said one farmer. "The Taliban are gone, but so is most everything else."

Gen. David Fraser, the Canadian NATO commander in southern Afghanistan, said: "There has been battlefield damage largely because of where the Taliban went. We will go back out there and we will help rebuild that."

No damage estimate has been calculated yet, nor has a timeline been set out for rebuilding.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Buck Turgidson* Does Calgary

*Sorry for previous tpyo. Sigh. I can be my own worst editor.

Reminiscent of the famous climactic scene in the classic movie Dr. Strangelove, Canadian General Walt Natynczyk (right) rides a torpedo at the Armed Forces display at the Stampede in Calgary on July 3, 2009. At left is U.S. General David Petraeus, commander of central command. Natynczyk is the Canadian chief of defense staff.
Photograph by: Grant Black, Calgary Herald

Afghanistan allies meet in Calgary

Generals "compare notes" on war in Afghanistan

By Stephane Massinon, Calgary Herald July 4, 2009

And now we hear that that Good Ole Boy of the Military Industrial Complex, General Dynamics, has landed a multibillion dollar contract for new armour, the armour sounding very much like the stuff Thyssen was going to build at Bear Head but didn't, adjacent to the riding of Elmer MacKay, subsequently the riding of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney who took cash in envelopes for a "watching brief" for Thyssen, the watching and the money apparently now stopped, and the new armour, announced by the son of Elmer MacKay, Peter MacKay, who also represents the same riding in Nova Scotia, who worked for Thyssen once upon a time, will cost $5 billion that we don't have, and will produce nothing of consequence for the future of Canada, never mind Afghanistan where we now have very expensive tanks that aren't doing anything.

There should be a revolution, people. This government, Stephen Harper's grotesque acting out of his turgid little world, a world without science, art, industry, innovation, law, or parliamentary democracy, but with lots of punishment, secrecy, and brute force, is a disgrace.

This government does not need to be defeated; it needs to be demolished.

Monday, July 6, 2009

...while there's still time.

“What we should do,” said George...

“ fuck off,” said a voice, which was not that of an officer. “ We should fuck off while there's still time.”

"The advice was so sensible, and the owner of the voice so experienced in these matters, that it remained only to put it into practice.”

Eric Newby
Love and War in the Apennines

Canada should remove itself from the grasp of its delusional southern neighbour, while there's still time. True, we can't leave the continent, but we can tell the truth and resist the madness.

Madness is the current Marine invasion of Helmand, which will end, according to its commander, “never.” And then there's crazy talk about building a wall between Pakistan and Afghanistan, an idea hideously similar in imagination to the Berlin Wall, the Great Wall of China,The Great Firewall of China, the West Bank Wall, and all other futile efforts to separate people who by any sane standard should be together, crazy talk that reminds me of various efforts to build a wall across the DMZ in Vietnam, and some thought to erecting a giant orbiting mirror to reflect the sun onto Vietnam so as to “deny” the Viet Cong the night. I didn't make that up, it was in Time magazine, Friday, January 13, 1967, to be exact.

The American military appears to have some institutional personality disorder marked by a rigid belief that all problems can be solved by American force, particularly overwhelming military force, a belief impervious to repeated disastrous experiences. We could call it the Curtis LeMay Delusional Airpower Disorder, the conviction that bombing will work for any given problem, and if it doesn't, the conclusion is not that bombing isn't the answer, but rather that the bombing was inadequate. And now we can have non-stop bombing, by creepy drones run from the creepy Creach Air Force Base, at zero risk to American air crew.

While all this is going on, Dr. Doom is once more laying it on the line about the future economy. He was right last time, so why wouldn't he be right this time? We're not talking horse-racing here, we're talking about somebody calling the future from a position of evidence, reason, and history.

Also, he's talking about the Chinese, always an interesting story since they seem to be lending the USA money to finance its aimless land war in Asia.

“As I discussed a few weeks ago in a New York Times op-ed the Chinese are flexing their muscles on the question of the global reserve currency system dominated by the dollar.

“With the revision of the SDR basket (so far including only dollar, euro, yen and pound) coming to the table next year it is clear that the Chinese will push for including the renminbi in the new SDR basket. And senior Brazilian policy sources suggest in private that, if the RMB is included in the SDR, so should the Brazilian Real as there is already a much deeper bond market for Real debt and as - unlike China - Brazil has a more liberalized capital account. And the Russians are now openly pushing for commodity currencies - the Canadian and Australian dollar but also the Ruble - to be included in the SDR basket. And the BRICs are on record pushing for the IMF to issue SDR denominated debt.”

And as I understand it, the annual American military budget is almost exactly the annual government deficit.

So let's imagine how this works, the Chinese taking the long view and the Americans taking the ostrich view. The SDR becomes the new world reserve currency (I found out, as a civilian who has access to the Web, that SDR means “Special Drawing Rights”, and that the SDR has an exchange rate with US dollars, calculated daily). As that happens, the Chinese stop buying US dollars, and inflation hits the US as expected. The dollar starts to drop relentlessly against the SDR. The USA finds it can no longer afford to keep 800 military bases overseas, since their expenditures are in SDR. They have to consider selling assets, like the new US$ 1 billion embassy in Islamabad they haven't built yet. The only buyer for such a monstrosity would be the Chinese, who, funnily enough, would want to pay in US dollars, of which they have a considerable store, becoming less valuable by the day, and so are able to pay for a building they lent the Americans money to build, at a price considerably below cost, and the Americans still owe them money! You've got to like this. If you're Chinese.

But meanwhile, back in the immediate future, the Americans have to pull their troops home, home being where they can support them, but at this point there is no more need for so many soldiers, and so quite a few are pensioned off at rates that don't keep up with the now rampant inflation. Civil disorder becomes a problem, and Canada gets nervous, having food, water, and natural resources, not to mention a “civil assistance pact” that would allow for American soldiers, of which there is now a surplus, on Canadian soil. At that point also, we have to wonder about an American coup, which may be happening in slow motion anyway, American military policy being weirdly separate from anything Obama can make a case for. Restless American soldiers can be sent to save Canada from terrorism, supported by drones that were once patrolling the Manitoba/North Dakota border looking for illegal immigrants and terrorists, but are now armed and can identify insurrection from 30,000 feet. The Alberta/Saskatchewan oil fields are “secured”.

This is a very unpleasant picture I'm painting, and I know it's not just me that's worrying. Perhaps Canadians should talk about it.

While there's still time.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Obama's War

"He was – there is no kinder or gentler word for it – a fool."

David Halberstam
The Best and the Brightest

The stupidest operation since Khe Sanh

“And as the first Marine briefings on Khe Sanh took place in Marine headquarters at Danang or Dong Ha, the name Dien Bien Phu insinuated itself like some tasteless ghost hawking bad news.”

Michael Herr

U.S. Marines begin massive Afghan assault

The Globe and Mail
Thursday, July 2

“Thousands of U.S. Marines stormed deep into Taliban territory in an Afghan river valley today, launching the biggest military offensive of Barack Obama's presidency.

"The Marines say Operation Khanjar, or Strike of the Sword, will be decisive and is intended to seize virtually the entire lower Helmand River valley, the heartland of the Taliban insurgency and the world's biggest opium poppy producing region.”

“We're going to seize the population from the Taliban and never let them go,” Marine Lieutenant-Colonel Christian Cabaniss told his troops before they set out in armoured convoys."

FACTBOX: Five facts about Afghanistan's Helmand province
Thu Jul 2, 2009 6:50am EDT
(Reuters) - Thousands of U.S. Marines stormed deep into Taliban territory in opium poppy-producing areas of the Helmand River valley on Thursday at the start of a major new offensive Washington hopes will turn the tide of the war in Afghanistan.

Following are five facts about Helmand province.

* Helmand is Afghanistan's largest province, about 60,000 sq km (23,000 miles), making it slightly smaller than the Republic of Ireland. The U.S. Marines join some 9,000 British troops who have been working under Taskforce Helmand since 2006 and are based near the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah. [The population of Helmand Province is about 740,000, and the total number of troops from NATO, ISAF -- let's face it, nobody knows who's in charge -- is less than 20,000.]

Canadian, Dutch and other NATO troops have been fighting alongside the British troops in Helmand but U.S. military commanders have described the combat situation in the past year as a stalemate. Existing force levels have not been able to cope with the size and difficulty of the terrain, which includes wide deserts in the south and mountains in the north. In May, the deputy commander of NATO-led forces in the south warned of "a bloody summer ahead."

* Helmand's population is mainly made up of ethnic Pashtuns, Afghanistan's largest ethnic group who have also traditionally been the country's power brokers. It borders Pakistan to its south, Kandahar province to its east and Nimroz province to the west, all mainly Pashtun provinces and heavily influenced by the Taliban. Provincial officials estimate that four out of Helmand's 13 districts are under Taliban control.

* Helmand produces more than half of the opium cultivated in Afghanistan, the source of about 90 percent of the global supply, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. In 2008 more than 103,000 hectares of poppy were cultivated. The drug crop is closely tied to the insurgency and the Taliban are mainly funded by the opium trade. [Who says? Last I heard, significant funding for the Taliban, however defined, is from Saudi Arabia, which is not a democracy.]

But NATO forces in Afghanistan are not permitted to engage in crop eradication, a policy which limited British tactics in crippling the insurgency. Britain, the United States and other NATO allies have started a number of civilian programmes to offer farmers alternative crops to opium, such as wheat, but Helmand remains Afghanistan's biggest poppy-producing province.

* Helmand is mostly desert, with agricultural fields cultivating opium poppy and food crops, concentrated around the Helmand River, Afghanistan's longest and which cuts through the center of the province.

Most of the province's population is clustered around the river in north and central Helmand, where British and U.S. troops are also mainly deployed.

* U.S. troops have been deployed to Helmand before to bolster British efforts. In late 2006, months after arriving in the district of Musa Qala, British troops were forced to pull out because of daily Taliban attacks that at times reached their perimeter defenses.

The Taliban seized the town in February 2007 and set up a shadow administration. But 10 months later thousands of British and U.S. troops launched an offensive around the district, paving the way for Afghan soldiers to capture the town.

(Sources: British Ministry of Defense, International Security Assistance Force, Reuters reports, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime)

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