The Lies That Sold Obama’s Escalation in Afghanistan

July 7, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Gareth Porter

A few days after Barack Obama’s December 2009 announcement of 33,000 more troops being sent to Afghanistan, in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Defense Secretary Robert Gates advanced the official justification for escalation: the Afghan Taliban would not abandon its ties with al-Qaeda unless forced to do so by US military force and the realization that “they’re likely to lose.”

Gates claimed to see an “unholy alliance” of the Afghan Taliban, al-Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban emerging during 2009. Unless the United States succeeded in weakening the Taliban in Afghanistan, al-Qaeda would have safe haven in Afghanistan, just as they had before the 9/11 attacks, according to Gates.

Even in comparison with the usual lies that justify wars, this one was a whopper. Gates was deliberately ignoring the serious political split that had become apparent in 2008 between Mullah Omar, the spiritual and political leader of the Taliban, and the leadership of al-Qaeda over fundamental issues of strategy and ideology.

After the July 2007 Pakistani military assault on the militants occupying the Red Mosque in Islamabad, al-Qaeda had openly backed Pakistani militants in their declaration of war against the Pakistani military and the Pervez Musharraf regime. Omar, who needed Pakistani support against the US-NATO forces, began urging Pakistani militants to shun violence against the Pakistani security apparatus, but the newly established militant organization Tehrik-e-Taliban paid no attention to him, as recounted by the recently murdered Pakistani journalist Sayed Saleem Shahzad in a book published just days before his death.

Shahzad’s book reveals, In fact, that one of al-Qaeda’s aims in setting up the new organization was to try to draw Afghan Taliban away from Omar’s influence. Soon after that al-Qaeda move, he sent a trusted adviser, Tayyeb Agha, to a meeting in Saudi Arabia with a delegation of Afghan parliamentarians convened by Saudi King Abdullah in September 2008. That meeting alarmed al-Qaeda leaders, who did not want any move toward peace in Afghanistan, according to Shahzad’s account based on many interviews with al-Qaeda strategists over the past several years.

The ideological-strategic conflict between Omar and al-Qaeda was well known within US intelligence and counterterrorism circles. Two days after Gates made his argument about the Taliban and al-Qaeda, in an interview with me, Arturo Munoz, who had been supervising operations officer at the CIA’s Counter-Terrorism Center from 2001 to 2009 and had extensive experience in Afghanistan, referred to the differences between the Taliban and al-Qaeda over al-Qaeda’s war against the Pakistani military. “The Taliban is a homespun Pashtun locally-based revolutionary movement with a set of goals that are not necessarily those of al-Qaeda,” said Munoz.

In fact, Omar himself had issued a message on September 19, 2009, which had explicitly characterized the Taliban as a “nationalist movement” – an obvious rebuff to the al-Qaeda position that nationalism is the enemy of the global jihad, as jihadist scholar Vahid Brown pointed out  at the time.

Plumping Up the War Rationale

The Obama administration has relied heavily, of course, on the widespread impression that the Taliban regime was somehow mixed up with Osama bin Laden’s plotting the 9/11 attacks. But as opposition to the war has mounted, Bruce Riedel, the former CIA official and National Security Council staffer brought in by Obama to lead the administration’s policy review of Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2009, has sought to reinforce that message.

In his new book, “Deadly Embrace,” Riedel refers to “the remarkable alliance, even friendship,” between Omar and Bin Laden, which “seems to have remained intact to this day.” In a remarkable passage about the period from Bin Laden’s arrival in Afghanistan in 1996 to the overthrow of the Taliban regime in 2001, Riedel writes:

The Taliban promised Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to “control” their “guest,” but he continued to issue statements and no real effort was made to rein him in. Bin Laden moved to Kandahar to be close to Mullah Omar, proclaimed his loyalty to the “commander of the faithful” (Omar’s self-proclaimed title) and married one of Omar’s daughters to further cement their bond.

Riedel goes on to suggest that Omar became an enthusiastic convert to Bin Laden’s global jihadist cause. “Omar found in Osama and al-Qaeda,” he writes, “an ideology that transcended Afghanistan, played to his ego and validated his role as commander of the faithful.”

The problem with this dramatic portrayal of a close relationship between Omar and Bin Laden, however, is that every single assertion in it is demonstrably false. Riedel’s version of the relationship could not be any further from the actual record of interactions between the two men during Bin Laden’s stay in Afghanistan, available from multiple primary sources.

Brown, a research fellow at West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center, reported last year that the memoirs of one of Bin Laden’s close collaborators in Afghanistan, the Egyptian jihadist known as Abu’l-Walid al-Masri, had provided new insights into the relationship between Bin Laden and Omar. Al-Masri recalled that Omar had informed Bin Laden from the beginning of his stay that he was forbidden from issuing statements to the media without the prior consent of the Taliban regime and from doing anything to directly antagonize the United States.

Bin Laden repeatedly violated the injunction against speaking to news media in 1996 and 1997 and Omar reacted strongly to his defiance. In “The Looming Tower,”  Lawrence Wright recounts the story told by Bin Laden’s personal guard Khalid al-Hammadi of what happened after Bin Laden gave an interview to CNN in March 1997. Omar ordered Bin Laden brought by helicopter from Jalalabad to Kandahar airport for a meeting, according to the guard’s account. There, Omar told Bin Laden that he was being moved immediately to Kandahar, citing as the reason a plot by tribal mercenaries to kidnap him. The real reason for the move, of course, was to exercise tighter control over his guest. The order to move was accompanied by a sharp warning to Bin Laden: the contacts with the foreign press had to stop.

Nevertheless, Bin Laden defied Omar a second time. In late May 1998, he arranged to meet with Pakistani journalists and with another US television crew – this time from ABC – in Jalalabad. He declared in those interviews that his aim was to expel US forces and even “Jews and Christians” from the Arabian Peninsula.

An enraged Omar personally called Rahimullah Yusufzai, one of the Pakistani journalists who had reported on the meeting with Bin Laden in Jalalabad and said, “There is only one ruler. Is it me or Osama?” according to Yusufzai. Yusufzai, who has met and interviewed Omar on ten occasions over the years and also knew Bin Laden, says the relationship between the two men was “very tense” and “never cordial.”

In June 1998, Omar told Prince Turki al Faisal, the head of Saudi Arabia’s intelligence agency, that he was willing to expel Bin Laden, but he wanted a joint committee of Islamic scholars to issue a fatwa that would absolve him of his responsibility to protect his Muslim guest, according to Turki’s account to journalist Steve Coll. A month later, a Taliban envoy was sent to Saudi Arabia to reaffirm the deal.

What appears to have turned Omar against the planned expulsion of Bin Laden was the US cruise missile strikes against Bin Laden’s training camps in Afghanistan in retaliation for the August 1998 bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. When Prince Turki returned to see Omar less than a month after the US missile attack, Omar’s attitude had “changed 180 degrees.”

Omar gave the Saudi intelligence chief no explanation for his change of heart. But he was more forthcoming with the Director General of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI), Ziauddin Butt, who met him a few weeks after the missile attacks. The Taliban leader complained that Bin Laden was “like a bone stuck in my throat. I can’t swallow it, nor can I get it out!” The problem, he explained, was that Bin Laden had become such a hero in the eyes of the Taliban rank and file – apparently because of the US missile strikes against his training camps – that “My people will lynch me if I hand him over.”

Although reluctant at first to get rid of the troublesome Bin Laden, Omar agreed to the Pakistani’s suggestion that Bin Laden be tried for the embassy bombings by judges from four Islamic countries, including Afghanistan, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, as the ISI chief later told historian Shuja Nawaz, author of “Crossed Swords.”

In 1999, the Taliban regime actually ordered the closure of several training camps being used by al-Qaeda’s Arab recruits, according to jihadist sources cited by Brown. And an email from two leading Arab jihadists in Afghanistan to Bin Laden in July 1999, found on a laptop that had once belonged to al-Qaeda and later purchased by a strange quirk of fate by a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, referred to “problems between you and the Leader of the Faithful” as a “crisis.” The email even suggested that the Taliban regime might go so far as to “kick them out” of Afghanistan.

Bin Laden’s Phony Pledge of Allegiance

The real story of Bin Laden’s pledge of loyalty to Omar, which Riedel touts as evidence of their chumminess, shows that it was exactly the opposite of that. According to Egyptian jihadist al-Masri’s account, reported in detail by Brown,  relations between Bin Laden and Omar became so tense after the Embassy bombings that some in Bin Laden’s entourage urged him to consider an oath of allegiance (bay’a) to Omar simply to avoid a complete rupture between the two.

But Bin Laden resisted the idea, according to al-Masri, initially arguing that such a pledge of allegiance could only be undertaken by Afghans. And after agreeing, on al-Masri’s urging, to give Omar such a pledge in person in late November 1998, Bin Laden failed to show up for the meeting. Al-Masri told Bin Laden that his no-show would confirm Omar’s impression of him as arrogant and full of himself. Nevertheless, in the end, Bin Laden refused to go to Omar himself to give his pledge, sending al-Masri instead, evidently because he wanted to be able to deny later on that he had personally sworn allegiance to Omar. Al-Masri concluded that the whole exercise was an “outright deception” by Bin Laden of a man with whom he was fundamentally at odds.

Riedel’s claim that Bin Laden married one of Omar’s daughters would certainly represent evidence of a bond between the two men, if true. Unfortunately for the point man for Obama’s policy review, it is another easily provable lie. A recent report on the wives who survived the killing of Bin Laden shows that three of Bin Laden’s five wives were Saudis, one was Syrian and one was Yemeni. None were of Afghan descent.

Riedel cites a 2005 book http://www.amazon.com/Revolution-Unending-Afghanistan-Comparative-Intern... by French specialist on Afghanistan Gilles Dorronsoro. But Dorronsoro told this writer he realized after the book was published that the story was not true and that it may have well been circulated deliberately by Omar’s enemies in the Northern Alliance to discredit him.

Riedel tops off his grotesquely distorted description of Omar’s relationship with Bin Laden by suggesting that the Taliban leader knew that an al-Qaeda attack on the US homeland was coming, citing Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf as the source. But Musharraf says nothing of the sort. He affirms in memoirs what al-Qaeda insider Fazul Abdullah Muhmmad has written in his own memoirs – that Bin Laden kept the plan secret even from his closest al-Qaeda collaborators, except for Mohammed and Abu Hafs al-Masri, until the end of August 2001. Musharraf merely passes on speculation by unnamed intelligence sources that Omar may have guessed that something big against the United States was in the works.

What Riedel fails to inform his readers is that the main planner of the 9/11 operation, Khalid Shaykh Muhammad, told his interrogators that Bin Laden had complained to his intimates late that summer about Omar’s unwillingness to allow any attack on the United States – thus implying very clearly that he could not be brought into their confidence, according to the 9/11 Commission Report.

This writer sent an email to Riedel asking why he had ignored the sources cited in this article, which provide a very different view of the Omar-Bin Laden relationship from the one he describes in his book. “Because the facts were to the contrary,” he responded. “The Taliban did nothing to rein in AQ but they were eager to have their apologists paint a happy picture.”

When I asked him in a second email if he was saying that al-Masri, Bin Laden’s personal guard and all the other sources who have since provided a different picture were “apologists” for Omar, Riedel did not respond.

Riedel probably never bothered to consult these sources. Someone so deeply imbedded in the interests of powerful institutions has no incentive to look beyond the superficial and distorted reading of the evidence that clearly serves those interests. His disinterest in finding facts that would get in the way of the necessary official rationale for war provides a perfect illustration of the way lying to the public is inherent in the nature of national security policymaking.

The story of the lies that took the Obama administration into a bigger war in Afghanistan shows that those lies have structural, systemic roots. The political dynamics surrounding the making of war policies are so completely dominated by the vested interests of the heads of the Pentagon, the military, and other national security bureaucracies that the outcome of the process must be based on a systematic body of lies. Only by depriving those institutions of their power can Americans have a military policy based on the truth.

Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specialising in U.S. national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book, “Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam”, was published in 2006.

Truthout

The Lies That Sold Obama’s Escalation in Afghanistan

July 7, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Gareth Porter

A few days after Barack Obama’s December 2009 announcement of 33,000 more troops being sent to Afghanistan, in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Defense Secretary Robert Gates advanced the official justification for escalation: the Afghan Taliban would not abandon its ties with al-Qaeda unless forced to do so by US military force and the realization that “they’re likely to lose.”

Gates claimed to see an “unholy alliance” of the Afghan Taliban, al-Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban emerging during 2009. Unless the United States succeeded in weakening the Taliban in Afghanistan, al-Qaeda would have safe haven in Afghanistan, just as they had before the 9/11 attacks, according to Gates.

Even in comparison with the usual lies that justify wars, this one was a whopper. Gates was deliberately ignoring the serious political split that had become apparent in 2008 between Mullah Omar, the spiritual and political leader of the Taliban, and the leadership of al-Qaeda over fundamental issues of strategy and ideology.

After the July 2007 Pakistani military assault on the militants occupying the Red Mosque in Islamabad, al-Qaeda had openly backed Pakistani militants in their declaration of war against the Pakistani military and the Pervez Musharraf regime. Omar, who needed Pakistani support against the US-NATO forces, began urging Pakistani militants to shun violence against the Pakistani security apparatus, but the newly established militant organization Tehrik-e-Taliban paid no attention to him, as recounted by the recently murdered Pakistani journalist Sayed Saleem Shahzad in a book published just days before his death.

Shahzad’s book reveals, In fact, that one of al-Qaeda’s aims in setting up the new organization was to try to draw Afghan Taliban away from Omar’s influence. Soon after that al-Qaeda move, he sent a trusted adviser, Tayyeb Agha, to a meeting in Saudi Arabia with a delegation of Afghan parliamentarians convened by Saudi King Abdullah in September 2008. That meeting alarmed al-Qaeda leaders, who did not want any move toward peace in Afghanistan, according to Shahzad’s account based on many interviews with al-Qaeda strategists over the past several years.

The ideological-strategic conflict between Omar and al-Qaeda was well known within US intelligence and counterterrorism circles. Two days after Gates made his argument about the Taliban and al-Qaeda, in an interview with me, Arturo Munoz, who had been supervising operations officer at the CIA’s Counter-Terrorism Center from 2001 to 2009 and had extensive experience in Afghanistan, referred to the differences between the Taliban and al-Qaeda over al-Qaeda’s war against the Pakistani military. “The Taliban is a homespun Pashtun locally-based revolutionary movement with a set of goals that are not necessarily those of al-Qaeda,” said Munoz.

In fact, Omar himself had issued a message on September 19, 2009, which had explicitly characterized the Taliban as a “nationalist movement” – an obvious rebuff to the al-Qaeda position that nationalism is the enemy of the global jihad, as jihadist scholar Vahid Brown pointed out  at the time.

Plumping Up the War Rationale

The Obama administration has relied heavily, of course, on the widespread impression that the Taliban regime was somehow mixed up with Osama bin Laden’s plotting the 9/11 attacks. But as opposition to the war has mounted, Bruce Riedel, the former CIA official and National Security Council staffer brought in by Obama to lead the administration’s policy review of Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2009, has sought to reinforce that message.

In his new book, “Deadly Embrace,” Riedel refers to “the remarkable alliance, even friendship,” between Omar and Bin Laden, which “seems to have remained intact to this day.” In a remarkable passage about the period from Bin Laden’s arrival in Afghanistan in 1996 to the overthrow of the Taliban regime in 2001, Riedel writes:

The Taliban promised Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to “control” their “guest,” but he continued to issue statements and no real effort was made to rein him in. Bin Laden moved to Kandahar to be close to Mullah Omar, proclaimed his loyalty to the “commander of the faithful” (Omar’s self-proclaimed title) and married one of Omar’s daughters to further cement their bond.

Riedel goes on to suggest that Omar became an enthusiastic convert to Bin Laden’s global jihadist cause. “Omar found in Osama and al-Qaeda,” he writes, “an ideology that transcended Afghanistan, played to his ego and validated his role as commander of the faithful.”

The problem with this dramatic portrayal of a close relationship between Omar and Bin Laden, however, is that every single assertion in it is demonstrably false. Riedel’s version of the relationship could not be any further from the actual record of interactions between the two men during Bin Laden’s stay in Afghanistan, available from multiple primary sources.

Brown, a research fellow at West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center, reported last year that the memoirs of one of Bin Laden’s close collaborators in Afghanistan, the Egyptian jihadist known as Abu’l-Walid al-Masri, had provided new insights into the relationship between Bin Laden and Omar. Al-Masri recalled that Omar had informed Bin Laden from the beginning of his stay that he was forbidden from issuing statements to the media without the prior consent of the Taliban regime and from doing anything to directly antagonize the United States.

Bin Laden repeatedly violated the injunction against speaking to news media in 1996 and 1997 and Omar reacted strongly to his defiance. In “The Looming Tower,”  Lawrence Wright recounts the story told by Bin Laden’s personal guard Khalid al-Hammadi of what happened after Bin Laden gave an interview to CNN in March 1997. Omar ordered Bin Laden brought by helicopter from Jalalabad to Kandahar airport for a meeting, according to the guard’s account. There, Omar told Bin Laden that he was being moved immediately to Kandahar, citing as the reason a plot by tribal mercenaries to kidnap him. The real reason for the move, of course, was to exercise tighter control over his guest. The order to move was accompanied by a sharp warning to Bin Laden: the contacts with the foreign press had to stop.

Nevertheless, Bin Laden defied Omar a second time. In late May 1998, he arranged to meet with Pakistani journalists and with another US television crew – this time from ABC – in Jalalabad. He declared in those interviews that his aim was to expel US forces and even “Jews and Christians” from the Arabian Peninsula.

An enraged Omar personally called Rahimullah Yusufzai, one of the Pakistani journalists who had reported on the meeting with Bin Laden in Jalalabad and said, “There is only one ruler. Is it me or Osama?” according to Yusufzai. Yusufzai, who has met and interviewed Omar on ten occasions over the years and also knew Bin Laden, says the relationship between the two men was “very tense” and “never cordial.”

In June 1998, Omar told Prince Turki al Faisal, the head of Saudi Arabia’s intelligence agency, that he was willing to expel Bin Laden, but he wanted a joint committee of Islamic scholars to issue a fatwa that would absolve him of his responsibility to protect his Muslim guest, according to Turki’s account to journalist Steve Coll. A month later, a Taliban envoy was sent to Saudi Arabia to reaffirm the deal.

What appears to have turned Omar against the planned expulsion of Bin Laden was the US cruise missile strikes against Bin Laden’s training camps in Afghanistan in retaliation for the August 1998 bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. When Prince Turki returned to see Omar less than a month after the US missile attack, Omar’s attitude had “changed 180 degrees.”

Omar gave the Saudi intelligence chief no explanation for his change of heart. But he was more forthcoming with the Director General of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI), Ziauddin Butt, who met him a few weeks after the missile attacks. The Taliban leader complained that Bin Laden was “like a bone stuck in my throat. I can’t swallow it, nor can I get it out!” The problem, he explained, was that Bin Laden had become such a hero in the eyes of the Taliban rank and file – apparently because of the US missile strikes against his training camps – that “My people will lynch me if I hand him over.”

Although reluctant at first to get rid of the troublesome Bin Laden, Omar agreed to the Pakistani’s suggestion that Bin Laden be tried for the embassy bombings by judges from four Islamic countries, including Afghanistan, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, as the ISI chief later told historian Shuja Nawaz, author of “Crossed Swords.”

In 1999, the Taliban regime actually ordered the closure of several training camps being used by al-Qaeda’s Arab recruits, according to jihadist sources cited by Brown. And an email from two leading Arab jihadists in Afghanistan to Bin Laden in July 1999, found on a laptop that had once belonged to al-Qaeda and later purchased by a strange quirk of fate by a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, referred to “problems between you and the Leader of the Faithful” as a “crisis.” The email even suggested that the Taliban regime might go so far as to “kick them out” of Afghanistan.

Bin Laden’s Phony Pledge of Allegiance

The real story of Bin Laden’s pledge of loyalty to Omar, which Riedel touts as evidence of their chumminess, shows that it was exactly the opposite of that. According to Egyptian jihadist al-Masri’s account, reported in detail by Brown,  relations between Bin Laden and Omar became so tense after the Embassy bombings that some in Bin Laden’s entourage urged him to consider an oath of allegiance (bay’a) to Omar simply to avoid a complete rupture between the two.

But Bin Laden resisted the idea, according to al-Masri, initially arguing that such a pledge of allegiance could only be undertaken by Afghans. And after agreeing, on al-Masri’s urging, to give Omar such a pledge in person in late November 1998, Bin Laden failed to show up for the meeting. Al-Masri told Bin Laden that his no-show would confirm Omar’s impression of him as arrogant and full of himself. Nevertheless, in the end, Bin Laden refused to go to Omar himself to give his pledge, sending al-Masri instead, evidently because he wanted to be able to deny later on that he had personally sworn allegiance to Omar. Al-Masri concluded that the whole exercise was an “outright deception” by Bin Laden of a man with whom he was fundamentally at odds.

Riedel’s claim that Bin Laden married one of Omar’s daughters would certainly represent evidence of a bond between the two men, if true. Unfortunately for the point man for Obama’s policy review, it is another easily provable lie. A recent report on the wives who survived the killing of Bin Laden shows that three of Bin Laden’s five wives were Saudis, one was Syrian and one was Yemeni. None were of Afghan descent.

Riedel cites a 2005 book http://www.amazon.com/Revolution-Unending-Afghanistan-Comparative-Intern... by French specialist on Afghanistan Gilles Dorronsoro. But Dorronsoro told this writer he realized after the book was published that the story was not true and that it may have well been circulated deliberately by Omar’s enemies in the Northern Alliance to discredit him.

Riedel tops off his grotesquely distorted description of Omar’s relationship with Bin Laden by suggesting that the Taliban leader knew that an al-Qaeda attack on the US homeland was coming, citing Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf as the source. But Musharraf says nothing of the sort. He affirms in memoirs what al-Qaeda insider Fazul Abdullah Muhmmad has written in his own memoirs – that Bin Laden kept the plan secret even from his closest al-Qaeda collaborators, except for Mohammed and Abu Hafs al-Masri, until the end of August 2001. Musharraf merely passes on speculation by unnamed intelligence sources that Omar may have guessed that something big against the United States was in the works.

What Riedel fails to inform his readers is that the main planner of the 9/11 operation, Khalid Shaykh Muhammad, told his interrogators that Bin Laden had complained to his intimates late that summer about Omar’s unwillingness to allow any attack on the United States – thus implying very clearly that he could not be brought into their confidence, according to the 9/11 Commission Report.

This writer sent an email to Riedel asking why he had ignored the sources cited in this article, which provide a very different view of the Omar-Bin Laden relationship from the one he describes in his book. “Because the facts were to the contrary,” he responded. “The Taliban did nothing to rein in AQ but they were eager to have their apologists paint a happy picture.”

When I asked him in a second email if he was saying that al-Masri, Bin Laden’s personal guard and all the other sources who have since provided a different picture were “apologists” for Omar, Riedel did not respond.

Riedel probably never bothered to consult these sources. Someone so deeply imbedded in the interests of powerful institutions has no incentive to look beyond the superficial and distorted reading of the evidence that clearly serves those interests. His disinterest in finding facts that would get in the way of the necessary official rationale for war provides a perfect illustration of the way lying to the public is inherent in the nature of national security policymaking.

The story of the lies that took the Obama administration into a bigger war in Afghanistan shows that those lies have structural, systemic roots. The political dynamics surrounding the making of war policies are so completely dominated by the vested interests of the heads of the Pentagon, the military, and other national security bureaucracies that the outcome of the process must be based on a systematic body of lies. Only by depriving those institutions of their power can Americans have a military policy based on the truth.

Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specialising in U.S. national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book, “Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam”, was published in 2006.

Truthout

Kandaharis Want Peace Talks

May 6, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

By Gareth Porter, Inter Press Service

2010-05-05T121705Z_1095639419_GM1E6551KBZ01_RTRMADP_3_AFGHANISTAN

Afghan women clad in burqas and a child receive food aid in Kabul May 5, 2010. The Afghan Ministry of Defense distributed food aid such as wheat, cooking oil, sugar and beans to 220 poor families.

REUTERS/Ahmad Masood

An opinion survey of Afghanistan’s Kandahar province funded by the U.S. Army has revealed that 94 percent of respondents support negotiating with the Taliban over military confrontation with the insurgent group and 85 percent regard the Taliban as “our Afghan brothers.”

The survey, conducted by a private U.S. contractor last December, covered Kandahar City and other districts in the province into which Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal is planning to introduce more troops in the biggest operation of the entire war. Those districts include Arghandab, Zhari, rural Kandahar, and Panjwayi.

Afghan interviewers conducted the survey only in areas which were not under Taliban control.

The decisive rejection of the use of foreign troops against the Taliban by the population in Kandahar casts further doubt on the fundamental premise of the Kandahar campaign, scheduled to begin in June, that the population and tribal elders in those districts would welcome a U.S.-NATO troop presence to expel the Taliban.

That assumption was dealt a serious blow at a meeting on April 4 at which tribal elders from all over Kandahar told President Hamid Karzai they were not happy with the planned military operation.

An unclassified report on the opinion survey was published in March by Glevum Associates, a Washington-based “strategic communications” company under contract for the Human Terrain Systems program in Afghanistan. A link to the report was first provided by the Web site Danger Room which reported the survey April 16.

Ninety-one percent of the respondents supported the convening of a “Loya Jirga,” or “grand assembly” of leaders as a way of ending the conflict, with 54 percent “strongly” supporting it, and 37 percent “somewhat” supporting it. That figure appears to reflect support for President Karzai’s proposal for a “peace Jirga” in which the Taliban would be invited to participate.

The degree to which the population in the districts where McChrystal plans to send troops rejects military confrontation and believes in a peaceful negotiated settlement is suggested by a revealing vignette recounted by Time magazine’s Joe Klein in the April 15 issue.

Klein accompanied U.S. Army Capt. Jeremiah Ellis when he visited a 17-year-old boy in Zhari district whose house Ellis wanted to use an observation post. When Ellis asked the boy how he thought the war would end, he answered, “Whenever you guys get out from here, things will get better.”

“The elders will sit down with the Taliban, and the Taliban will lay down their arms.”

The Kandahar offensive seems likely to dramatize the contrast between the U.S. insistence on a military approach to the Taliban control of large parts of southern Afghanistan and the overwhelming preference of the Pashtun population for initiating peace negotiations with the Taliban as Karzai has proposed.

Ironically, highlighting that contradiction in the coming months could encourage President Barack Obama to support Karzai’s effort to begin negotiations with the Taliban now rather than waiting until mid-2011, as the U.S. military has been advocating since last December.

Obama told a meeting of his “war cabinet” last month that it might be time to start negotiations with the Taliban, but Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have opposed any move toward negotiations until Gen. McChrystal is able to demonstrate clear success in weakening the Taliban.

The Taliban ruling council has taken advantage of the recent evidence of contradictions between Pashtuns in Kandahar and the U.S. military over the Kandahar offensive by signaling in an interview with the Sunday Times of London that Taliban leader Mullah Omar is prepared to engage in “sincere and honest” talks.

In a meeting in an unidentified Taliban-controlled area of Afghanistan reported Sunday, two Taliban officials told the newspaper that Omar’s aims were now limited to the return of sharia (Islamic law), the expulsion of foreigners, and the restoration of security. It was the first major signal of interest in negotiations since the arrest of Mullah Omar’s second in command, Mullah Baradar, in late January.

The report of the Glevum survey revealed that more people in Kandahar regard checkpoints maintained by the Afghan National Army (ANA) and Afghan National Police (ANP) and ANA and ANP vehicles as the biggest threat to their security while traveling than identified either Taliban roadside bombs or Taliban checkpoints as the main threat.

Fifty-eight percent of the respondents in the survey said the biggest threat to their security while traveling were the ANA and ANP checkpoints on the road, and 56 percent said ANA/ANP vehicles were the biggest threat. Only 44 percent identified roadside bombs as the biggest threat – the same percentage of respondents who regard convoys of the International Security Assistance Force – the NATO command under Gen. McChrystal – as the primary threat to their security.

Only 37 percent of the respondents regarded Taliban checkpoints as the main threat to their security.

In Kandahar City, the main target of the coming U.S. military offensive in Kandahar, the gap between perceptions of threats to travel security from government forces and from the Taliban is even wider.

Sixty-five percent of the respondents in Kandahar City said they regard ANA/ANP checkpoints as the main threat to their security, whereas roadside bombs are the main problem for 42 percent of the respondents.

The survey supports the U.S. military’s suspicion that the transgressions of local officials of the Afghan government, who are linked mainly to President Karzai’s brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, the head of the Kandahar province council and the main warlord in the province, have pushed the population into the arms of the Taliban.

An overwhelming 84 percent of the respondents agreed that corruption is the main cause of the conflict, and two-thirds agreed that government corruption “makes us look elsewhere.” That language used in the questionnaire was obviously intended to allow respondents to hint that they were supporting the Taliban insurgents in response to the corruption, without saying so explicitly.

More than half the respondents (53 percent) endorsed the statement that the Taliban are “incorruptible.”

“Corruption” is a term that is often understood to include not only demands for payments for services and passage through checkpoints but violence by police against innocent civilians.

The form of government corruption that has been exploited most successfully by the Taliban in Kandahar is the threat to destroy opium crops if the farmers do not pay a large bribe. The survey did not ask any questions about opium growing and Afghan attitudes toward the government and the Taliban, although that was one of the key questions that Gen. Michael T. Flynn, the head of intelligence for Gen. McChrystal, had sought clarification of.

12-19

Marjah Offensive Aimed to Shape US Opinion on War

February 28, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

By Gareth Porter, Inter Press Service

Washington – Senior military officials decided to launch the current U.S.-British military campaign to seize Marjah in large part to influence domestic U.S. opinion on the war in Afghanistan, the Washington Post reported Monday.

The Post report, by Greg Jaffe and Craig Whitlock, both of whom cover military affairs, said the town of Marjah would not have been chosen as a target for a U.S. military operation had the criterion been military significance instead of impact on domestic public opinion.

The primary goal of the offensive, they write, is to “convince Americans that a new era has arrived in the eight-year long war….” U.S. military officials in Afghanistan “hope a large and loud victory in Marjah will convince the American public that they deserve more time to demonstrate that extra troops and new tactics can yield better results on the battlefield,” according to Jaffe and Whitlock.

A second aim is said to be to demonstrate to Afghans that U.S. forces can protect them from the Taliban.

Despite the far-reaching political implications of the story, the Post buried it on page A9, suggesting that it was not viewed by editors as a major revelation.

Jaffe and Whitlock cite no official sources for the report, but the evidence supporting the main conclusion of the article clearly came from information supplied by military or civilian Pentagon sources. That suggests that officials provided the information on condition that it could not be attributed to any official source.

Some advisers to Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the commander of the International Security Assistance Force, told him last June that Kandahar City is far more important strategically than Marjah, according to Jaffe and Whitlock.

Marjah is a town of less than 50,000 people, even including the surrounding villages, according to researcher Jeffrey Dressler of the Institute for the Study of War in Washington, D.C.

That makes it about one-tenth the population of Kandahar City. Marjah is only one of a number of logistical centres used by the Taliban in Helmand province, as Dressler observed in a study of Helmand province published by the Institute last September.

Kandahar, on the other hand, is regarded as symbolically important as the place where the Taliban first arose and the location of its leadership organs even during the period of Taliban rule.

Nevertheless, McChrystal decided to commit 15,000 U.S. troops and Afghan troops to get control of Marjah as the first major operation under the new strategy of the Barack Obama administration.

That decision has puzzled many supporters of the war, such as author Steve Coll, who wrote a definitive history of U.S. policy toward Afghanistan and is now executive director of the New America Foundation. Coll wrote in the New Yorker last week that he did not understand “why surging U.S. forces continue to invest their efforts and their numbers so heavily in Helmand.”

Coll pointed to the much greater importance of Kandahar in the larger strategic picture.

The real reason for the decision to attack Marjah, according to Jaffe and Whitlock, was not the intrinsic importance of the objective, but the belief that an operation to seize control of it could “deliver a quick military and political win for McChrystal.”

Choosing Kandahar as the objective of the first major operation under the new strategy would have meant waiting to resolve political rivalries in the province, according to the Post article.

In public comments in recent days, CENTCOM chief Gen. David Petraeus has put forward themes that may be used to frame the Marjah operation and further offensives to come in Kandahar later this year.

Last Thursday, an unnamed “senior military official” told reporters, “This is the start point of a new strategy,” adding, “This is our first salvo.”

On Sunday, Petraeus appeared on NBC’s “Meet the Press” and said the flow of 30,000 new troops that President Obama recently ordered to the region is starting to produce “output”. Marjah is “just the initial operation of what will be a 12-to-18-month campaign,” he said, calling it the “initial salvo”.

Petraeus suggested that Taliban resistance to the offensive in Marjah was intense, as if to underline the importance of Marjah to Taliban strategy. “When we go on the offensive,” said Petraeus, “when we take away sanctuaries and safe havens from the Taliban and other extremist elements…they’re going to fight back.”
In fact, most of the Taliban fighters who had been in Marjah before the beginning of the operation apparently moved out of the town before the fighting started.

Petraeus seemed to be laying the basis for presenting Marjah as a pivotal battle as well as a successful model for the kind of operations to follow.

The Post article implies that Petraeus and McChrystal are concerned that the Obama administration is pushing for a rapid drawdown of U.S. forces after mid-2011. The military believes, according to Jaffe and Whitlock, that a public perception of U.S. military success “would almost certainly mean a slower drawdown.”

As top commander in Iraq in 2007-2008, Petraeus established a new model for reestablishing public support for a war after it had declined precipitously. Through constant briefings to journalists and Congressional delegations, he and his staff convinced political elites and public opinion that his counterinsurgency plan had been responsible for the reduction in insurgent activities that occurred during this command.

Evidence from unofficial sources indicates, however, that the dynamics of Sunni-Shi’a sectarian conflict and Shi’a politics were far more important than U.S. military operations in producing that result.

McChrystal himself seemed to be hinting at the importance of the Marjah offensive’s potential impact on the domestic politics of the war in remarks he made in Istanbul just before it began.

“This is all a war of perceptions,” McChrystal said. “This is not a physical war in terms of how many people you kill or how much ground you capture, how many bridges you blow up. This is all in the minds of the participants.”

McChrystal went on to include U.S. citizens as well as Afghans among those who needed to be convinced. “Part of what we’ve had to do is convince ourselves and our Afghan partners that we can do this,” he said.

The decision to launch a military campaign primarily to shape public opinion is not unprecedented in U.S. military history.

When President Richard M. Nixon and his National Security Adviser Henry A. Kissinger launched a major bombing campaign against the North Vietnamese capital in late December 1972, they were consciously seeking to influence public opinion to view their policy as much tougher in the final phase of peace negotiations with Hanoi.

The combination of the heavy damage to Hanoi and the administration’s heavy spin about its military pressure on the North Vietnamese contributed to broad acceptance of the later conclusion that Kissinger had gotten a better agreement in Paris in February 1973.

In fact, Kissinger had compromised on all the demands he had made before the bombing began. But the public perception was more important to the Nixon White House.

Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specialising in U.S. national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book, “Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam”, was published in 2006.

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US to Iraq: You Need Uncle Sam

July 31, 2008 by · Leave a Comment 

By Gareth Porter, Interpress Service

2008-07-24T083933Z_01_DSI19_RTRMDNP_3_IRAQ

A U.S. soldier from the Second Stryker Cavalry Regiment holds his weapon next to a villager during a joint operation with Iraqi police near Muqtadiyah in Diyala province July 24, 2008.

REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

WASHINGTON – Instead of moving toward accommodating the demand of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki for a timetable for United States military withdrawal, the George W Bush administration and the US military leadership are continuing to pressure their erstwhile client regime to bow to the US demand for a long-term military presence in the country.

The emergence of this defiant US posture toward the Iraqi withdrawal demand underlines just how important long-term access to military bases in Iraq has become to the US military and national security bureaucracy in general.

From the beginning, the Bush administration’s response to the Maliki withdrawal demand has been to treat it as a mere aspiration that the US need not accept.

The counter-message that has been conveyed to Iraq from a multiplicity of US sources, including former Central Command (CENTCOM) commander William Fallon, is that the security objectives of Iraq must include continued dependence on US troops for an indefinite period. The larger, implicit message, however, is that the US is still in control, and that it – not the Iraqi government – will make the final decision.

That point was made initially by State Department spokesman Gonzalo Gallegos, who stated flatly on July 9 that any US decision on withdrawal “will be conditions-based."

In a sign that the US military is also mounting pressure on the Iraqi government to abandon its withdrawal demand, Fallon wrote an op-ed piece published in the New York Times on July 20 that called on Iraqi leaders to accept the US demand for long-term access to military bases.

Fallon, who became something of a folk hero among foes of the Bush administration’s policy in the Middle East for having been forced out of his CENTCOM position for his anti-aggression stance, takes an extremely aggressive line against the Iraqi withdrawal demand in the op-ed. The piece is remarkable not only for its condescending attitude toward the Iraqi government, but for its peremptory tone toward it.

Fallon is dismissive of the idea that Iraq can take care of itself without US troops to maintain ultimate control. “The government of Iraq is eager to exert its sovereignty,” Fallon writes, “but its leaders also recognize that it will be some time before Iraq can take full control of security.”

Fallon insists that “the government of Iraq must recognize its continued, if diminishing reliance on the American military." And in the penultimate paragraph he demands “political posturing in pursuit of short-term gains must cease”.

Fallon, now retired from the military, is obviously serving as a stand-in for US military chiefs for whom the public expression of such a hardline stance against the Iraqi withdrawal demand would have been considered inappropriate.

But the former US military proconsul in the Middle East, like his active-duty colleagues, appears to actually believe that the US can intimidate the Maliki government. The assumption implicit in his op-ed is that the US has both the right and power to preempt Iraq’s national interests to continue to build its military empire in the Middle East.

As CENTCOM chief, Fallon had been planning on the assumption that the US military would continue to have access to military bases in both Iraq and Afghanistan for many years to come. A July 14 story by Washington Post national security and intelligence reporter Walter Pincus said that the army had requested US$184 million to build power plants at its five main bases in Iraq.

The five bases, Pincus reported, are among the “final bases and support locations where troops, aircraft and equipment will be consolidated as the US military presence is reduced."

Funding for the power plants, which would be necessary to support a large US force in Iraq within the five remaining bases, for a longer-term stay, was eliminated from the military construction bill for fiscal year 2008. Pincus quoted a congressional source as noting that the power plants would have taken up to two years to complete.

The plan to keep several major bases in Iraq is just part of a larger plan, on which Fallon himself was working, for permanent US land bases in the Middle East and Central Asia.

Fallon revealed in congressional testimony last year that Bagram air base in Afghanistan is regarded as “the centerpiece for the CENTCOM master plan for future access to and operations in Central Asia."

As Fallon was writing his op-ed, the Bush administration was planning for a video conference between Bush and Maliki, evidently hoping to move the obstreperous Maliki away from his position on withdrawal. Afterward, however, the White House found it necessary to cover up the fact that Maliki had refused to back down in the face of Bush’s pressure.

It issued a statement claiming that the two leaders had agreed to “a general time horizon for meeting aspirational goals” but that the goals would include turning over more control to Iraqi security forces and the “further reduction of US combat forces from Iraq” – but not a complete withdrawal.

But that was quickly revealed to be a blatant misrepresentation of Maliki’s position. As Maliki’s spokesman Ali Dabbagh confirmed, the “time horizon” on which Bush and Maliki had agreed not only covered the “full handover of security responsibility to the Iraqi forces in order to decrease American forces” but was to “allow for its [sic] withdrawal from Iraq."

An adviser to Maliki, Sadiq Rikabi, also told the Washington Post that Maliki was insisting on specific timelines for each stage of the US withdrawal, including the complete withdrawal of troops.

The Iraqi prime minister’s July 19 interview with the German magazine Der Speigel, in which he said that Democratic presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama’s 16-month timetable “would be the right timeframe for a withdrawal, with the possibility of slight changes”, was the Iraqi government’s bombshell in response to the Bush administration’s efforts to pressure it on the bases issue.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack emphasized at his briefing on Tuesday that the issue would be determined by “a conclusion that’s mutually acceptable to sovereign nations."

That strongly implied that the Bush administration regarded itself as having a veto power over any demand for withdrawal and signals an intention to try to intimidate Maliki.

Both the Bush administration and the US military appear to harbor the illusion that the US troop presence in Iraq still confers effective political control over its clients in Baghdad.

However, the change in the Maliki regime’s behavior over the past six months, starting with the prime minister’s abrupt refusal to go along with General David Petraeus’ plan for a joint operation in the southern city of Basra in mid-March, strongly suggests that the era of Iraqi dependence on the US has ended.

Given the strong consensus on the issue among Shi’ite political forces of all stripes, as well as Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the Shi’ite spiritual leader, the Maliki administration could not back down to US pressure without igniting a political crisis.

[Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specializing in US national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book, Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, was published in 2006.]

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