Tinkering with Terror

As the Global War of Terror (GWOT) winds down, desultory firing continues on both sides without significant impact. Rockets drop near U.S. bases in Iraq and Syria, but no one is hit. In return, the U.S. briefly fires back, as if neither side wants to do too much damage. It might be called tinkering with terror if any in fact still exists.

Colonel Douglas Macgregor. Photo by Wikipedia

It’s time to go, says top U.S. military strategist Colonel Douglas Macgregor. The exit doesn’t have to be as calamitous as the departure from Afghanistan. Have a clear plan, leave at night without telling anybody and don’t worry about being called defeatist. Close to two decades under arms is long enough when the cause is murky and the outcome uncertain. We won’t be missed, says the colonel. Life will carry on as before, the same groups in contention but without our participation.

There’s one grievance that a continued U.S. presence will not alleviate, the rather unheroic assassination by drone of the leading Iranian General Qassem Soleimani. Thousands recently gathered in the streets of Baghdad to mark the second anniversary of that event. The neocons had been urging his elimination for many years until President Trump finally gave his approval, doubtless under the pressure of his neocon Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Col. Macgregor, who was a senior adviser to the secretary of defense under Trump, says the President had a lot of good ideas but appointed people of the opposite view to carry them out, a failing he didn’t recognize until late in his administration.

Deputy Director Alan Heil. Photo by Public Diplomacy Council

The U.S. doesn’t have much to show for its prolonged military intervention in the Middle East, a region now in greater turmoil than before with vast numbers of civilian casualties and refugees pouring into Europe. Neocons argue that these wars have destroyed enemies of Israel, but the resulting violence and instability can hardly benefit Israel or any other country in the region. It all began with the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 in response to the 9/11 attack. Instead of targeting the actual culprits, the Bush Administration launched its war on terror -” You’re either with us or against us” – that would be boundless and endless.

The American media rallied behind the attack on Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein on the grounds he harbored weapons of mass destruction and was also involved in 9/11, neither of which was true. But in the clamor of the times, dissenters were hard to find. One notably was the U.S. Government radio, the Voice of America. Under the wise guidance of Deputy Director Alan Heil, his editors – I was one – reported both sides of the contentious issue, allowing listeners to make up their own minds instead of telling them what to think. It shows that at its best a government media can serve as a corrective to private news organizations increasingly and powerfully combining in viewpoint and even language.

How We Might Have Won the Afghan War

The U.S. lost its war in Afghanistan, but not so long ago it won a war in that same country. Without any bombing or use of troops, the U.S. backed the Afghan rebels – Mujahedin – against the Soviet occupiers. With much aid like the Stinger anti aircraft missile, the Afghans forced the invaders into withdrawal, contributing to the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was a signal victory for the U.S. behind the scenes and served as a lesson about relying on indigenous forces in overseas conflicts.

Alas, it was a lesson lost a little over decade later when in the shock of the 9/11 attack, the U.S. followed the Russian example and not its own and directly invaded and occupied Afghanistan. Again, like the Russians, it eventually lost with a humiliating withdrawal. We would answer their bang with a bigger bang, we boasted. We did, but it didn’t win the war.

Another kind of war akin to the earlier one was possible. Local groups, varying greatly among themselves, were available and eager to overthrow the ruling Taliban. Just give us some help, they urged the U.S., as you did the Mujahedin, and we will do the job. But the U.S. wasn’t listening.

The opposition within Afghanistan had been building for some time. Afghans were appreciative of the Taliban for bringing peace to the country after the destructive  clashes of the warlords who had followed the Soviet occupation. But its harsh repression was another matter, along with harboring outsiders like Osama bin Laden. 

Abdul Haq was a top commander against the Soviets renowned for his independence and also reviled for it. Disgruntled Americans who wanted him to obey orders dubbed him “Hollywood Haq.”  Even so, after a meticulous examination of the military scene in her book “The Afghan Solution,” Lucy Morgan Edwards with long experience in Afghanistan concludes that he was ideally suited to lead an insurrection against the Taliban. Because of “a history of excellence in asymmetric warfare, he was able to bring disparate groups together – even across the ethnic divide.” 

Left: Lucy Morgan Edwards. Right: Abdul Haq (photo wikipedia.org)

He also worked closely with his opposite, Mullah Mohmmed Khaksar, a founder of the Taliban who had soured on the movement. A prime source for one of the best reporters on Afghanistan, Kathy Gannon, he made a trip at great personal risk to Pakistan to meet two CIA operatives to ask for U.S. help for his planned coup. Because of his objection to bin Laden and the other foreign fighters, he had been demoted by Taliban leader Mullah Omar from intelligence chief to deputy secretary of the interior, which left him in charge of thousands of police ready to move at his command.

Gannon writes in her book “I Is for Infidel” that other prominent Afghans were reluctant to join him without U.S. backing. He told her:“I know if there had been some flexibility, there were people in the Taliban who wanted to work with the international community, who wanted the foreign fighters gone. But with no help from the outside we couldn’t do anything, and then it was too late.”

Left: Kathy Gannon (AP Photo/The Canadian Press,Darren Calabrese, File) (The Associated Press). Right: Mullah Mohmmed Khaksar (ljworld.com)

Dissension within the Taliban was apparent to me on a trip to Afghanistan for the Voice of America a year before 9/11. First a requisite visit to the Ministry for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, then the added privilege of witnessing a hanging, followed by a meeting with the Taliban leadership – minus Omar and bin Laden – who were not hostile but welcoming The foreign minister in particular, Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil, spoke of the need to get along with the U.S. and the rest of the world. Khaksar was among the group.

Would these Taliban be as good as their word? It wasn’t tested. Khaksar never got a serious reply from the CIA, and after 9/11 President Bush proclaimed “You’re either for us or against us,” ruling out any kind of ambivalence of a Haq or Khaksar. A brilliant strategist like Julius Caesar would have been aghast. You work with anyone, good, or bad or indifferent, to win,  and Caesar always won.

After the war began, Haq was killed by the Taliban. Muttawakil was sent to prison for eighteen months until it was.realized he might be useful. Khaksar, knowing he was on the Taliban hit list, asked for U.S. protection. It was denied and he was assassinated. The Taliban wrapped up their internal divisions as they went on to win the war.

We now face a triumphant Taliban whose behavior is yet to be determined. If an opposition again emerges, will we be prepared this time?

Victory Was Possible in the Afghan War

Tora Bora. The name isn’t engraved in U.S. history, but it should be, says Peggy Noonan in her weekly column for The Wall Street Journal. She writes that in this mountainous region full of caves on the Pakistan border Osama bin Laden, mastermind of 9/11, was making his last stand under heavy U.S. bombardment. It was just a matter of time before U.S. troops would seize or kill him, and he was drawing up his will. The war would be over in a few weeks. Mission accomplished.


Then, astonishingly, writes Noonan, U.S. troops were not supplied but were sent instead to fight the planned war in Iraq, which had nothing to do with 9/11. Bin Laden escaped to Pakistan, where he survived as an icon of error for another ten years until killed in a Navy Seal raid. Deprived of their target, U.S. policy makers assumed the larger task of conquering Afghanistan and turning it into a replica of American democracy.

What were U.S. policy makers thinking? asks Noonan. Incompetence and the fog of war may partially explain the blunder. But was there something else? There were those in Washington, she writes, who may have felt it was too soon to seize bin Laden since it might weaken support for the invasion of Iraq, their basic goal. Noonan doesn’t name them, but the so-called neocons, who figure prominently in U.S. foreign policy, wanted to remove Saddam Hussein as an enemy of both Israel and the US. The war gave them an opportunity at the cost of its lasting another twenty years.

Coincidentally, in the same issue of The Wall Street Journal, a leading neocon, Paul Wolfowtitz, says this longest war may not have been long enough. He writes that given low U.S casualties, a war can go on forever to help keep America safe.  He fails to mention how others may feel about endless wars destroying their homelands and peoples. Also unmentioned is his own role as U.S. deputy defense secretary in the Bush Administration in providing false information leading to the invasion of Iraq. Contrary to his assurances, Iraq had no link to 9/11 and was not building weapons of mass destruction. 

Oddly, the crisis of 9/11 did not lead to a concentration on strategic thinking that largely characterized Cold War policy. Rather impulse and emotion seemed to prevail. In his book “Bush At War,” Bob Woodward quotes a U.S. counter-intelligence chief predicting to a doubtful Russian: “We’re going to kill them.We’re going to put their heads on sticks. We’re going to rock their world.” Forever wars are not conducive to balanced judgment.

Afghans Betrayed

U.S. treatment of Afghans in the unending war has been a mixture of confusion and indifference. Friends and enemies may be indistinguishable, the friend today may be the enemy tomorrow in multi-faceted Afghanistan. How is a hapless Washington bureaucrat going to keep up with all of this? That said, Major Mohammed Naiem Asadi was clearly on our side.

A decorated helicopter pilot, he has logged thousands of flight hours and is said to have destroyed more of the enemy than anyone else in the Afghan air force. In response the Taliban have threatened his life on the ground. They told his father hand over your son or we’ll kill your entire family.

Major Mohammed Naiem Asadi

Knowing the threat is serious, Major Asadi asked for asylum in the U.S. and apparently it was granted. But just before he and his wife and daughter were about to board a plane to the U.S., the decision was reversed on Washington orders. The reason? Like so much else in the Afghan war it was unclear. But orders are orders.

Now Asadi is in hiding no less a target of Taliban wrath.

Mullah Mohammed Khaksar was intelligence chief of the Taliban until its leader Mullah Omar had some doubts and demoted him to deputy interior minister, where he still had control of a large police force. When I met him in Kabul on an assignment for Voice of America a year before 9/11, he seemed friendly and hospitable but clearly the voice of the Taliban.

No so. At great personal risk, he was in contact with the CIA and was furnishing not only useful information but plans on how he and other defecting Taliban leaders could link with an anti-Taliban military force and overthrow Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden. He told Kathy Gannon, a top reporter covering Afghanistan: “There were people in the Taliban who wanted to work with the international community, who didn’t want the foreign fighters, who wanted them gone. But with no help from the outside, we couldn’t do anything, and then it was too late.”

Mullah Mohammed Khaksar

With the war underway, he offered information on where bin Laden might be found. That too was ignored. Knowing he was now an obvious target of the Taliban, he asked for some protection from the U.S. He was turned down and soon executed by the Taliban in the city of Kandahar.

Mullah Khaksar of the past and Major Asadi of today may serve as bookends for a  war that didn’t have to be, and their plight can symbolize what a beautiful country and proud people have endured.

Toppling the Buddhas

Two giant stone Buddhas towered majestically over the Afghan terrain, marking the thriving Buddhist community below. In time, Islam replaced Buddhism, and the mighty carvings were less revered, in fact occasionally threatened. But it took the fiercely dogmatic Taliban to decide their time had come. From their perspective the figures were an affront to Islam.

But driving out this last symbol of Buddhism was no easy task. Chains or ropes would hardly do, considering one statue was 180 feet high, the other 125. The job was entrusted to the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, which normally dealt with human executions but was ready to take on Buddhism. For fire power, it assembled artillery, tanks and anti-aircraft weapons, but the combined assault only produced a few chips.

To get serious, the Taliban rounded up a couple dozen prisoners who were told to bring in the dynamite. One of them, Mirza Hussein, years later told BBC: “We were chosen because there was nobody else. We could be disposed of at any time” – like the Buddhas. One in fact was shot because a bad leg kept him from hauling explosives. For twenty-five days they painstakingly stuffed the dynamite into every available crevice, sometimes drilling holes to make room. Protests from outside were unavailing.

When the statues were finally reduced to rubble, the Taliban rejoiced, dancing, firing their weapons into the air and slaughtering nine cows as a sacrifice. But Hussein was not happy with what he had done. Nor was most of Afghanistan and for that matter the rest of the world. Not just a religion had been obliterated but a crucial part of Afghan heritage. How much did the Taliban care for the country they were intent on ruling?

Giant standing Buddhas of Bamiyan still cast shadows, Sgt. Ken Scar, 17 June 2012

Was the demolition also a signal? Taliban chief Mullah Omar liked to explain that the statues were destroyed to keep the U.S. from threatening his country. If he had no qualms about obliterating a major monument in Afghanistan, why hesitate to do the same to America via bin Laden? Despite the Afghan blast heard round the world and the warnings of dissident Taliban leaders, Washington was not listening. Six months later on 9/11 the World Trade Center at massive human cost joined the Buddhas.

Fighting But Not To Win

Hawkish members of Congress and the media have seized on possible intelligence indicating that Russia is paying bonuses to Taliban who kill Americans. Even if it’s true – and it may not be – it’s a pittance compared to the resources the U.S poured into the effort to overthrow the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the l980’s by aiding the rebel Mujahideen. It’s a policy that worked and contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

There’s no possibility of Russia coming back or even wanting to. Putin, a strict nationalist, hardly compares to the communist Soviet regime spreading a murderous ideology around the world. Yet he has been elevated to the status of foreign devil of the moment by Washingtonians yearning for battle at least from the armchair. Chief among these are the so-called neoconservatives who have managed to play a central role in the foreign policy of the last four Presidencies – Clinton, Bush, Obama, Trump – exhibiting a knack for political survival while promoting a series of misguided wars.

It began with Afghanistan after the 9/11 attack. The perpetrator Osama bin Laden had been harbored by the Taliban in Afghanistan. So the U.S. made a crushing attack on the Taliban and bin Laden was within easy reach. But under neocon pressure, troops were not supplied to keep him from escaping across the border to Pakistan. Instead they were diverted to Bush’s main preoccupation Iraq, where a war was launched on a variety of false pretexts.

With bin Laden still at large, the Bush White House felt free to take on Afghanistan. It was only a matter of weeks, a top anti-terrorism adviser told the Russians: “We’re going to kill them We’re going to put their heads on sticks. We’re going to rock their world.” But as the Russians found out and before them Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan and the British, nobody successfully invades Afghanistan. That now includes the U.S., which today faces an enemy as strong as ever.

The Last Stand of the 44th Regiment at Gundamuck, 1842, by William Barnes Wollen (1898).

Early on Bush proclaimed, “You’re for us or against us.” There was nothing in between, which includes most of humanity, and at the time two top Taliban leaders who were seeking to overthrow the harsh rule of Mullah Omar and form a government that would be true to Islam and also acceptable to the outside world. They spoke the language of moderation.

Mullah Mohammed Khaksar had been a founder of the Taliban but at great personal risk he went to Pakistan in 1999 on the pretext of receiving medical treatment. In fact, he was there to meet CIA agents to seek U.S. help for the new government he envisioned. He had over a thousand police at his disposal and an alliance with the forces of a top anti-Taliban commander.

But he spoke in vain, as did Taliban Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil, who warned the U.S. of an upcoming bin Laden attack. On arriving in Kabul, the Americans continued to ignore both well-placed defectors. Muttawakil was sent to prison for eighteen months and underwent mild torture. Khaksar asked for protection. It was denied and he was killed by his Taliban enemies. If aided, could they have succeeded and spared the U.S. its longest war?

There’s a tendency to conflate the wars before and after 9/11, but they’re not the same. Judge them as you will, the pre-9/11 conflicts all had a clear purpose: escaping British rule, ending slavery, expanding America, defeating a bellicose Germany, stopping the spread of Soviet communism. Post 9/11 wars, while ceaseless, have only a cloudy or shifting purpose, Afghanistan being the prime example. Its unpopularity rivals that of the Vietnam War with this difference: there’s no draft. U.S. combat deaths remain limited while Afghan casualties, military and civilian. continue to climb. So popular outrage is muted and the war goes on.

Did we have to go to war in Afghanistan?

Though the Afghan war has now lasted over fourteen years, it’s still unclear why we are fighting it. Absent are the ringing appeals for freedom and democracy. The outlook is more subdued. The late Richard Holbrooke, deeply involved in our policy – such as it was – had a vague notion of success: “We will know it when we see it.” General David Petraeus, former commander of US troops in Afghanistan and temporarily CIA director, didn’t even envision success: “I think you keep fighting. You have to stay after it. This is the kind of fight we’re in for the rest of our lives and probably kids’ lives.” Right you are, said Senator John McCain at the last Republican convention: “Success at home also depends on our leadership in the world. It is our willingness to shape world events for the better that has kept us safe, increased our prosperity, preserved our liberty and transformed human history.”

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