Mark Perry writes: When the movie “Patton” was released in 1970, in the midst of one of our most divisive wars, it thrilled American theatergoers. The account of our nation’s finest tank commander won seven academy awards, including best picture.
The movie opens with a reprise of George Patton’s legendary speech to the U.S. Third Army just before D-Day, in 1944. In his address, the full-throated Patton extolled the virtues of American manhood and the sanguine character of combat. His words brought howls of appreciation in 1944 — and have ever since.
“Men,” Patton said, “all this stuff you hear about America not wanting to fight, wanting to stay out of the war, is a lot of bullshit. Americans love to fight. All real Americans love the sting and clash of battle.”
Was Patton right? Do we Americans love “the sting and clash of battle”?
The controversy over President Barack Obama’s swap of five Guantanamo detainees for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, held in Afghanistan as a Taliban prisoner since June 2009, places Patton’s claims in a new light, just as Bergdahl’s return has spurred questions about whether he is a hero, or should be put on trial for deserting his post. Claims that the search for Bergdahl might have resulted in as many as six U.S. combat deaths have deepened the controversy. And Bergdahl’s return has aroused impassioned criticism of Obama from his partisan opponents.
The Bergdahl controversy masks the difficulty all militaries have in defining when a soldier has deserted, or “just wandered off” — which might have been the case with Bergdahl. For the U.S. military, the key is intent: A soldier is listed as a deserter when he intends to separate himself from his unit permanently, and forever shirk his service. In wartime, as Article 85 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice makes clear, desertion is punishable by death.
You would think that this punishment, when added to the opprobrium that a deserter suffers from his family and fellow soldiers, would dampen the rate at which men (or women) in uniform leave their posts. But an examination of American military history shows that that’s not true.
Desertion rates in George Washington’s Continental Army peaked in the early years of the Revolutionary War (when desertion rates averaged an astonishing 20 to 25 percent of all men under arms), but fell off when his army became more professional. This didn’t keep Washington from lamenting his losses. The situation was so bad, he said, that the mountainous areas between New Hampshire and Vermont were “populated by hundreds of Deserters from this Army.”
Desertion rates during the Civil War were not as high, with the Union Army suffering a 9 to 12 percent desertion rate. Of the approximately 42,000 Union soldiers court-martialed during the war, just over 14,000 were for desertion, with 147 executions for the offense. The desertion rate among Confederate units was much worse. In the wake of the Gettysburg defeat, Robert E. Lee struggled to keep his army together, with desertion rates peaking at between 20 to 25 percent. In all, more soldiers (North and South) were executed during the Civil War (some 500 in all) than in all our other conflicts combined — two-thirds of them for desertion.
With the Civil War as its model, the Army created a Morale Division after the U.S. entered World War One. The unit’s commander later noted that explaining to recruits why they were fighting kept them on duty. A 1918 memo noted that many U.S. recruits “seemed unclear about the purpose of the war.” The division’s work had an effect: 5,584 men were charged with desertion during the conflict (the lowest rate of any U.S. war), and 2,657 were convicted — with no executions.
Explaining a war’s purpose is a significant factor in the Bergdahl case. His unit was isolated for long periods of time and fighting a conflict that was fast becoming an afterthought for the American people. In truth, most Americans didn’t even know that Bergdahl was being held by the Taliban until his release, a chilling commentary on America’s focus on the war. [Continue reading...]
The New York Times reports: The Taliban seem loose, almost offhand, on camera as they wait for the American Black Hawk to land. Two fighters walk their hostage, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, out to American troops, greeting their enemies eye to eye as they quickly shake hands. They wave as the Americans retreat back to the chopper.
In their viral video to the world on Wednesday, framing dramatic images of their transaction with the United States with music, commentary and context, the Taliban scored their biggest hit yet after years of effort to improve their publicity machine — one bent on portraying them as the legitimate government of Afghanistan in exile.
Within hours of the video’s release, the Taliban website where it was posted was overwhelmed with traffic and the page hosting it crashed, according to Zabiullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the insurgents. The video has since been uploaded in dozens of different versions on YouTube.
It is the product of a Taliban propaganda effort that has grown increasingly savvy.
In recent years, the Taliban have tried to score points by insisting that they, unlike their Pakistani militant counterparts, actively supported polio vaccinations. Two months ago, realizing that they had outraged the Afghan public with an attack by gunmen on the Serena Hotel in Kabul that left children among the dead, the Taliban issued their first public apology. And they suggested that they had purposefully held back on attacking civilians on election day in April, and that Afghans should trust the Taliban over a government being chosen by Western ways.
On Wednesday, several passages in the video went straight to the Taliban’s campaign for attention abroad and political heft at home.
One series of scenes focuses on the fruit of the Taliban’s deal with the United States: the five Taliban detainees who had been freed from the Guantánamo Bay prison camp are shown joyously embracing their comrades at the militants’ diplomatic post in Doha, Qatar.
That site — billed by the Taliban as the political office of the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” the name of the old Taliban government — sums up the heart of the Taliban’s political efforts. It was from there that the Taliban negotiated with American officials, through Qatari mediation, to finalize the detainee transfer deal. And it was there, from the moment of the post’s opening last summer, that the Taliban clearly showed their new bid for international attention, conducting television interviews, giving speeches, and even featuring a ribbon cutting in a news video with Qatari officials. [Continue reading...]
Fred Kaplan writes: My guess is that very few among us remembered — or had ever heard of — Bowe Bergdahl until his release made headlines this weekend. Still, the U.S. military cherishes this same principle (leave no soldier behind) [as does Israel], and his recovery is cause for satisfaction — but not much more than that.
One difference between this case and many others is that Bergdahl wandered off his base. He wasn’t abducted or captured while on patrol. Rather, on the night of June 30, 2009, he simply got up, took his compass and a few other supplies (though not his weapons), and walked away. It’s not clear why. (After he’s nursed back to health, an Army investigation will presumably find out.)
In a lengthy 2012 Rolling Stone article, Michael Hastings painted a picture of Bergdahl as a moralistic home-schooled adventurer, enticed by the romance of do-good soldiers (he tried to enlist in the French Foreign Legion), who studied Pashto, took the nation-building doctrine seriously, grew disillusioned with the Army’s mission and disgruntled by his own unit’s incompetence — and walked off into the mountains. On the other hand, Nathan Bradley Bethea, a retired Army captain who served in the same battalion, recalls Bergdahl — in the Daily Beast and a BBC interview — as a mentally unstable misfit who should never have been allowed to join the service.
Either way (and the two portraits aren’t mutually exclusive), Bethea is probably right that soldiers from Bergdahl’s own unit “died trying to track him down.” Not in some Saving Private Ryan–like search, but aircraft and drones were probably diverted from normal military tasks in the hunt for Pfc. Bergdahl, leaving several units unprotected in the process. (He has been promoted to sergeant, for service, during the years of his captivity.) Again, this is what servicemen and women do for comrades lost in harm’s way; it’s part of their mission, a vital aspect of military culture. But it’s a bit less noble, it feels more like a burden than a duty, when the lost soul got lost on his own free will, when he deserted his post and abandoned his fellow soldiers — whatever the reason.
And so, it felt a bit discordant when Secretary Hagel made a victory lap around Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan, proclaiming, “This is a happy day, we got one of our own back.” And, though more understandable, it seemed a bit excessive, as well, when President Obama called it “a good day” while standing before the White House press corps alongside Bergdahl’s parents. (A low-profile photo-op might have been more appropriate.)
There are a couple more misconceptions in this saga. First, while Obama and his diplomats made the deal on their own (in line with his powers as commander-in-chief), it’s not true that he left Congress out of the picture. He briefed a small group of senators in January 2012, when a deal first seemed in the offing. Sen. John McCain reportedly threw a fit, objecting that the detainees to be released had killed American soldiers, but after talking with John Kerry (at the time, still a senator and a friend), came around to the idea. (This may be why McCain, though displeased with the detainees’ release, is not raising his usual hell in public appearances now.)
Second, it’s not the case — at least if things work out as planned — that the five detainees, some of whom were high-level Taliban officers in their younger days, will go back and rejoin the fight. The deal requires them to remain in Qatar for one year; after that, Americans and Qataris will continue to monitor them — though it’s not yet clear what that means; in the coming days, someone should clarify things.
There’s one more potential bit of good news. This whole exercise has demonstrated that the Taliban’s diplomatic office in Qatar does have genuine links to the Taliban high command. (A few years ago, when fledgling peace talks sputtered and then failed, many concluded that it was a freelance operation unworthy of attention.) And the fact that the exchange came off with clockwork precision (see the Wall Street Journal’s fascinating account of how it happened) suggests that deals with the Taliban are possible, and that a deal signed can be delivered. [Continue reading...]
The New York Times reports: The five were all high-level Taliban members, in their mid-to-late forties, with prominent political or military careers dating back before the American invasion. Counterterrorism experts described the men as effectively gray beards, and unlikely to go back to active fighting. But a concern held by some of those experts and many American officials, including some senior military officers, is that the men will give a boost to the Taliban and provide the leadership with proof of its cohesiveness.
The most important figure is Khirullah Said Wali Khairkhwa, 47, a founding member of the Taliban and a confidant of Mullah Omar. He was the governor of Herat Province in western Afghanistan when the Taliban ruled, and is viewed by many officials in the Afghan government as a reasonable figure and possible interlocutor for future talks.
Mullah Mohammad Fazl, also known as Mullah Fazel Mazloom, was the deputy defense minister and commander of all Taliban troops in northern Afghanistan at the time of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. A short, thickset man with a reputation for cruelty, he is accused by human rights organizations and his opponents of presiding over the massacres of Shiite and Tajik Sunni Muslims across parts of central and northern Afghanistan.
Trapped with thousands of his Taliban fighters in northern Afghanistan under the American bombing campaign in 2001, he surrendered to the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, along with the Taliban governor of Balkh Province, Mullah Norullah Noori, who was also released Saturday.
The other two detainees, Abdul Haq Wasiq, the Taliban’s former deputy minister of intelligence, and Mohammad Nabi Omari, a former high-level Taliban security official, were both detained after reaching out to American officials after the invasion in an offer to help the new power in their country, officials said.
Though the released men have played no role in the renewed Taliban insurgency during their incarceration, many in the Taliban put a high premium on getting the five men back. That included members of the Haqqani militant network, who have claimed loyalty to Mullah Omar even though they carry out independent operations, and who were the people holding Sergeant Bergdahl.
“The Haqqanis will get kudos for being seen to deliver something for the movement,” said Michael Semple, an Afghanistan expert and former adviser to the European Union Mission in Kabul. “They can say, ‘We are Taliban, and we are integral to the movement.’ ”
On Sunday, Mullah Omar himself broke a long silence to hail the men’s return, saying it brought the insurgents “closer to the harbor of victory.” [Continue reading...]
In 2012, reporting for Rolling Stone in “America’s Last Prisoner of War,” Michael Hastings wrote: On June 27th , [Bowe Bergdahl] sent what would be his final e-mail to his parents. It was a lengthy message documenting his complete disillusionment with the war effort. He opened it by addressing it simply to “mom, dad.”
“The future is too good to waste on lies,” Bowe wrote. “And life is way too short to care for the damnation of others, as well as to spend it helping fools with their ideas that are wrong. I have seen their ideas and I am ashamed to even be american. The horror of the self-righteous arrogance that they thrive in. It is all revolting.”
The e-mail went on to list a series of complaints: Three good sergeants, Bowe said, had been forced to move to another company, and “one of the biggest shit bags is being put in charge of the team.” His battalion commander was a “conceited old fool.” The military system itself was broken: “In the US army you are cut down for being honest… but if you are a conceited brown nosing shit bag you will be allowed to do what ever you want, and you will be handed your higher rank… The system is wrong. I am ashamed to be an american. And the title of US soldier is just the lie of fools.” The soldiers he actually admired were planning on leaving: “The US army is the biggest joke the world has to laugh at. It is the army of liars, backstabbers, fools, and bullies. The few good SGTs are getting out as soon as they can, and they are telling us privates to do the same.”
In the second-to-last paragraph of the e-mail, Bowe wrote about his broader disgust with America’s approach to the war – an effort, on the ground, that seemed to represent the exact opposite of the kind of concerted campaign to win the “hearts and minds” of average Afghans envisioned by counterinsurgency strategists. “I am sorry for everything here,” Bowe told his parents. “These people need help, yet what they get is the most conceited country in the world telling them that they are nothing and that they are stupid, that they have no idea how to live.” He then referred to what his parents believe may have been a formative, possibly traumatic event: seeing an Afghan child run over by an MRAP. “We don’t even care when we hear each other talk about running their children down in the dirt streets with our armored trucks… We make fun of them in front of their faces, and laugh at them for not understanding we are insulting them.”
Bowe concluded his e-mail with what, in another context, might read as a suicide note. “I am sorry for everything,” he wrote. “The horror that is america is disgusting.” Then he signed off with a final message to his mother and father. “There are a few more boxes coming to you guys,” he said, referring to his uniform and books, which he had already packed up and shipped off. “Feel free to open them, and use them.”
On June 27th, at 10:43 p.m., Bob Bergdahl responded to his son’s final message not long after he received it. His subject line was titled: OBEY YOUR CONSCIENCE!
“Dear Bowe,” he wrote. “In matters of life and death, and especially at war, it is never safe to ignore ones’ conscience. Ethics demands obedience to our conscience. It is best to also have a systematic oral defense of what our conscience demands. Stand with like minded men when possible.” He signed it simply “dad.”
Ordinary soldiers, especially raw recruits facing combat for the first time, respond to the horror of war in all sorts of ways. Some take their own lives: After years of seemingly endless war and repeat deployments, activeduty soldiers in the U.S. Army are currently committing suicide at a record rate, 25 percent higher than the civilian population. Other soldiers lash out with unauthorized acts of violence: the staff sergeant charged with murdering 17 Afghan civilians in their homes last March; the notorious “Kill Team” of U.S. soldiers who went on a shooting spree in 2010, murdering civilians for sport and taking parts of their corpses for trophies. Many come home permanently traumatized, unable to block out the nightmares.
Bowe Bergdahl had a different response. He decided to walk away. [Continue reading...]
The Guardian reports: President Barack Obama’s decision to keep American troops in Afghanistan until 2016 is likely to mean two more years behind bars for America’s most secret detainee population, according to Pentagon officials.
On the outskirts of the massive Bagram airfield, about an hour’s drive from the capital of Kabul and in what the military calls the Detention Facility in Parwan, the US holds about 50 prisoners. The government has publicly disclosed nearly nothing about them, not even their names, save for acknowledging that they are not Afghans.
These are the last detainees the US holds in the Afghanistan war. It relinquished hundreds of Afghan detainees, and almost all of the detention facility, to Afghan control last year. Sometimes called, in military parlance, “Enduring Security Threats”, the non-Afghans have posed a dilemma for the Department of Defense for years, as officials pondered what to do about them ahead of a pullout that had been anticipated for December 2014. [Continue reading...]
Ahmed Rashid writes: During the Afghan elections in early April I was traveling in Central Asia, mainly in Kyrgyzstan. I wanted to inquire into the fears of the governments there as a result of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. What did they think of the growth of Taliban and Islamic extremism in Afghanistan and Pakistan? Officials in each country cited two threats. First, the internal radicalizing of their young people by increasing numbers of preachers or proselytizing groups arriving from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and the Middle East. The second, more dangerous threat is external: they believe that extremist groups based in Pakistan and Afghanistan are trying to infiltrate Central Asia in order to launch terrorist attacks.
Islamic extremism is infecting the entire region and this will ultimately become the legacy of the US occupation of Afghanistan, as the so-called jihad by the Taliban against the US comes to an end. Iran, a Shia state, fears that the Sunni extremist groups that have installed themselves in Pakistan’s Balochistan province on the Iranian border will step up their attacks inside Iran. In February Iran threatened to send troops into Balochistan unless Pakistan helped free five Iranian border guards who had been kidnapped by militants. (The Pakistanis freed four of the guards; one was killed.)
Chinese officials say they are particularly concerned about terrorist groups coming out of Pakistan and Afghanistan that are undermining Chinese security. Although China is Pakistan’s closest ally, its officials have made it clear that they are closely monitoring the Uighur Muslims from Xinjiang province, who are training in Pakistan, fighting in Afghanistan, and have carried out several terrorist attacks in Xinjiang.
Terrorist assaults from Pakistan into Indian Kashmir have declined sharply since 2003, but India has a perennial fear that Islamic militant groups based in Pakistan’s Punjab province may mount attacks in India. Many Punjabi fighters have joined the Taliban forces based in Afghanistan and in Pakistan, and they have attacked Indian targets in Afghanistan. India is also wary of another terrorist attack resembling the one that took place in Mumbai in 2008.
For forty years Pakistan has been backing Islamic extremist groups as part of its expansionist foreign policy in Afghanistan and Central Asia and its efforts to maintain equilibrium with India, its much larger enemy. Now Pakistan is undergoing the worst terrorist backlash in the entire region. Some 50,000 people have died in three separate and continuing insurgencies: one by the Taliban in the northwest, the other in Balochistan by Baloch separatists, and the third in Karachi by several ethnic groups. That sectarian war, involving suicide bombers, massacres, and kidnappings, has gripped the country for a decade. [Continue reading...]
The Daily Beast reports: The CIA is dismantling its frontline Afghan counterterrorist forces in south and east Afghanistan, leaving a security vacuum that U.S. commanders fear the Taliban and al Qaeda will fill—and leaving the Pakistan border open to a possible deluge of fighters and weapons.
“The CIA has started to end the contracts of some of those militias who were working for them,” said Aimal Faizi, spokesman for outgoing Afghan President Hamid Karzai, a longtime critic of the CIA’s Afghan operatives. “Some of them were in very important locations, so we deployed our troops there.”
U.S. and Afghan military commanders tell The Daily Beast that Afghan forces are stretched too thin to replace many of those departing CIA paramilitaries. Thousands more CIA-trained operatives are about to get the boot ahead of what already promises to be a bloody summer fighting season. That could mean spectacular attacks against U.S. and Afghan targets just as the White House is weighing its long-term commitment to Afghanistan. And it could give the now-small al Qaeda movement inside the country more freedom to grow and eventually hatch new plots more than a decade after the invasion meant to wipe out the perpetrators of the Sept. 11th attacks. [Continue reading...]
The Washington Post reports: In Afghanistan, his presence was enough to cause prisoners to tremble. Hundreds in his organization’s custody were beaten, shocked with electrical currents or subjected to other abuses documented in human rights reports. Some allegedly disappeared.
And then Haji Gulalai disappeared as well.
He had run Afghan intelligence operations in Kandahar after the U.S.-led invasion in 2001 and later served as head of the spy service’s detention and interrogation branch. After 2009, his whereabouts were unknown.
Because of his reputation for brutality, Gulalai was someone both sides of the war wanted gone. The Taliban tried at least twice to kill him. Despite Gulalai’s ties to the CIA and Afghan President Hamid Karzai, United Nations officials and U.S. coalition partners sought to rein him in or have him removed.
Today, Gulalai lives in a pink two-story house in Southern California, on a street of stucco homes on the outskirts of Los Angeles. [Continue reading...]
You might think that 12-and-a-half years after it began, Washington would have learned something useful about its war on terror, but no such luck. If you remember, back in the distant days just after 9/11 when that war was launched (or, in a sense, “lost”), the Bush administration was readying itself to take out not just Osama bin Laden and his relatively small al-Qaeda outfit but “terror” itself, that amorphous monster of the twenty-first century. They were planning to do so in somewhere between 60 and 83 countries and, as they liked to say, “drain the swamp” globally.
In reality, they launched an overblown war not so much “on” terror, but “of” terror, one that, in place after place, from Afghanistan to Somalia, Pakistan to parts of Africa, destabilized regions and laid the basis for a spreading jihadist movement. In so many cases, as at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, they fulfilled Osama bin Laden’s wildest fantasies, creating the sort of recruiting posters from hell for future jihadists that al-Qaeda was itself incapable of.
So many years later, they seem to be repeating the process in Yemen. They are now escalating a “successful” drone and special operations war against a group in that impoverished land that calls itself al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The drones turn out to be pretty good at knocking off various figures in that movement, but they are in another sense like a godsend for it. In what are called “targeted killings,” but might better be termed (as Paul Woodward has) “speculative murders,” they repeatedly wipe out civilians, including women, children, and in one recent case, part of a wedding party. They are Washington’s calling card of death and as such they only ensure that more Yemenis will join or support AQAP.
The process of creating ever more enemies you must then kill started in Afghanistan in 2001, even if that remains news to most Americans. Now, TomDispatch regular Anand Gopal in his new book No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes offers a stunning history of how the U.S. fought its “war on terror” for almost a year in that country against — quite literally — ghosts. In the process, it resuscitated a Taliban movement that had ceased to exist and then found itself in a conflict it couldn’t win. It’s a story that’s never been told before, even if Washington’s second Afghan War makes no sense without it.
For many Americans, as Henry Ford so famously put it, history is bunk. In this case, however, history turns out to be everything that matters, and the rest has proved to be bloody, painful, and costly bunk. If you don’t believe me, read Gopal’s hidden history of the Afghan War at this website today and then get your hands on his book. Tom Engelhardt
How the U.S. created the Afghan war — and then lost it
The unreported story of how the Haqqani network became America’s greatest enemy
By Anand Gopal
It was a typical Kabul morning. Malik Ashgar Square was already bumper-to-bumper with Corolla taxis, green police jeeps, honking minivans, and angry motorcyclists. There were boys selling phone cards and men waving wads of cash for exchange, all weaving their way around the vehicles amid exhaust fumes. At the gate of the Lycée Esteqial, one of the country’s most prestigious schools, students were kicking around a soccer ball. At the Ministry of Education, a weathered old Soviet-style building opposite the school, a line of employees spilled out onto the street. I was crossing the square, heading for the ministry, when I saw the suicide attacker.
He had Scandinavian features. Dressed in blue jeans and a white t-shirt, and carrying a large backpack, he began firing indiscriminately at the ministry. From my vantage point, about 50 meters away, I couldn’t quite see his expression, but he did not seem hurried or panicked. I took cover behind a parked taxi. It wasn’t long before the traffic police had fled and the square had emptied of vehicles.
Twenty-eight people, mostly civilians, died in attacks at the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Justice, and elsewhere across the city that day in 2009. Afterward, U.S. authorities implicated the Haqqani Network, a shadowy outfit operating from Pakistan that had pioneered the use of multiple suicide bombers in headline-grabbing urban assaults. Unlike other Taliban groups, the Haqqanis’ approach to mayhem was worldly and sophisticated: they recruited Arabs, Pakistanis, even Europeans, and they were influenced by the latest in radical Islamist thought. Their leader, the septuagenarian warlord Jalaluddin Haqqani, was something like Osama bin Laden and Al Capone rolled into one, as fiercely ideological as he was ruthlessly pragmatic.
And so many years later, his followers are still fighting. Even with the U.S. withdrawing the bulk of its troops this year, up to 10,000 Special Operations forces, CIA paramilitaries, and their proxies will likely stay behind to battle the Haqqanis, the Taliban, and similar outfits in a war that seemingly has no end. With such entrenched enemies, the conflict today has an air of inevitability — but it could all have gone so differently.
Dawn reports: A leading Taliban peace negotiator has been placed under house arrest in the United Arab Emirates, officials said on Thursday, dealing a blow to President Hamid Karzai’s efforts to jump-start a nascent Afghan peace process before leaving office.
Agha Jan Mutassim, a finance minister during Taliban rule from 1996 to 2001, has been missing for over a week, according to the Afghan government, disappearing after arranging a meeting in Dubai between Afghan and Taliban officials in February.
“Mutassim … one of the key Taliban leaders and who supported Afghan peace initiative, was put under house arrest in the UAE where he lived,” the Afghan High Peace Council, a body formed by Karzai to engage in peace talks with the Taliban, said on Thursday.
“The Afghan government has made requests to the UAE authorities to lift all the restrictions,” it said in a statement.
A Western security source in Kabul confirmed Mutassim had been put under house arrest, and that the UAE was considering deporting him to Afghanistan. [Continue reading...]
In 2007, a new phenomenon reared its ugly head in Afghanistan. With two attacks that year and two more the next, it was first dubbed “green-on-blue violence,” and later the simpler, blunter “insider attack.” At one level, it couldn’t have been more straightforward. Afghan soldiers or policemen (or in a small number of cases Taliban infiltrators) would suddenly turn their weapons on their American or NATO mentors or allies and gun them down. Think of these “incidents” as early votes in the Afghan elections — not, as Lenin might once have had it, with their feet, but with their guns after spending time up close and personal with Americans or other Westerners. It was a phenomenon that only intensified, reaching its height in 2012 with 46 attacks that killed 60 allied soldiers before slowly dying down as American combat troops began to leave the country and far stricter controls were put in place on relations between Afghan, U.S., and allied forces in the field.
It has not, however, died out. Not quite. Not yet. In a uniquely grim version of an insider attack just two weeks ago, an Afghan police commander turned his gun on two western journalists, killing Pulitzer Prize-winning news photographer Anja Niedringhaus and wounding AP reporter Kathy Gannon. And even more recently, just after it was reported that a month had passed without an American death in a war zone for the first time since 2002, Army Specialist Ivan Lopez killed three fellow soldiers in an insider attack at Fort Hood, Texas.
With its hint of blowback, this is not, of course, a comparison anyone in the mainstream American media is likely to make. On the whole, we prefer not to think of our wars coming home. In reality, however, Lopez’s eight-minute shooting rampage with a pistol purchased at a local gun shop fits the definition of an “insider attack” quite well, as did the earlier Fort Hood massacre by an Army psychiatrist. Think of it as an unhinged form of American war coming home, and as a kind of blowback unique to our moment.
After all, name me another wartime period when, for whatever reason, two U.S. soldiers shot up the same base at different times, killing and wounding dozens of their fellow troops. There was, of course, the “fragging” of officers in Vietnam, but this is a new phenomenon, undoubtedly reflective of the disturbing path the U.S. has cut in the world, post-9/11. Thrown into the mix is a homegrown American culture of massacre and the lifting of barriers to the easy purchase of ever more effective weaponry. (If, in fact, you think about it for a moment, most of the mass killings in this country, generally by young men, whether in schools, movie theaters, shipyards, or elsewhere, are themselves a civilian version of “insider attacks.”)
Ironically, in 2011, the Obama administration launched a massive Insider Threat Program to train millions of government employees and contractors to look for signs in fellow workers of the urge to launch insider attacks. Unfortunately, the only kind of insider attacks administration officials could imagine were those attributed to whistleblowers and leakers. (Think: Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden.) So, despite much official talk about dealing with the mental health of military men, women, and veterans, the military itself remains open to yet more insider attacks. After almost 13 years of failed wars in distant lands, think of us as living in Ameraqafghanica.
Today, TomDispatch regular Ann Jones, whose odyssey of a book, They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return From America’s Wars — The Untold Story, captures the truly painful cost of these wars for America’s soldiers like no other, points out just what every commentator in this country has avoided writing about and every government and military official up to the president has avoided talking about, despite the massive coverage of the Fort Hood killings. Tom Engelhardt
How America’s wars came home with the troops
Up close, personal, and bloody
By Ann Jones
After an argument about a leave denied, Specialist Ivan Lopez pulled out a .45-caliber Smith & Wesson handgun and began a shooting spree at Fort Hood, America’s biggest stateside base, that left three soldiers dead and 16 wounded. When he did so, he also pulled America’s fading wars out of the closet. This time, a Fort Hood mass killing, the second in four and a half years, was committed by a man who was neither a religious nor a political “extremist.” He seems to have been merely one of America’s injured and troubled veterans who now number in the hundreds of thousands.
Some 2.6 million men and women have been dispatched, often repeatedly, to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and according to a recent survey of veterans of those wars conducted by the Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation, nearly one-third say that their mental health is worse than it was before they left, and nearly half say the same of their physical condition. Almost half say they give way to sudden outbursts of anger. Only 12% of the surveyed veterans claim they are now “better” mentally or physically than they were before they went to war.
The media coverage that followed Lopez’s rampage was, of course, 24/7 and there was much discussion of PTSD, the all-purpose (if little understood) label now used to explain just about anything unpleasant that happens to or is caused by current or former military men and women. Amid the barrage of coverage, however, something was missing: evidence that has been in plain sight for years of how the violence of America’s distant wars comes back to haunt the “homeland” as the troops return. In that context, Lopez’s killings, while on a scale not often matched, are one more marker on a bloody trail of death that leads from Iraq and Afghanistan into the American heartland, to bases and backyards nationwide. It’s a story with a body count that should not be ignored.
Seth G. Jones writes: On July 7, 2008, insurgents detonated a huge suicide car bomb outside the Indian Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, killing 54 people, including an Indian defense attaché. The attack destroyed the embassy’s protective blast walls and front gates, and tore into civilians waiting outside for visas.
On one level, the attack was merely one among many that occur across this war-torn country, terribly unfortunate but numbingly frequent. But there was something particularly insidious about this one. According to United States intelligence assessments, agents from Pakistan’s chief spy organization, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, were involved in planning the attack. After being briefed by American intelligence officials, President George W. Bush dispatched Stephen R. Kappes, the C.I.A.’s deputy director, to Pakistan.
The involvement of the ISI in such a high-profile attack illustrates one of the most ignominious undercurrents of the war in Afghanistan and the subject of Carlotta Gall’s new book, “The Wrong Enemy”: the role of Pakistan. Ms. Gall, a reporter for The New York Times in Afghanistan and Pakistan for more than a decade, beginning shortly after Sept. 11, is in an extraordinary position to write this important and long overdue book.
At its core, “The Wrong Enemy” is a searing exposé of Pakistan’s involvement in the Afghan war, which Ms. Gall drives home in the book’s opening salvo. “Pakistan, not Afghanistan, has been the true enemy,” she pointedly writes. [Continue reading...]
Graham E. Fuller writes: When is a war “worth it?” It’s a timeless question that still begs a decisive response.
The debacle of Iraq has now drifted off the scope Americans’ attention — US troops are no longer dying there and new challenges beckon Washington elsewhere. Been there, done that. The American part of the war may be over, and we have grown weary hearing about it, but the Iraqi part of the war still continues. And with the recent and symbolic fall, again, of Falluja to al-Qa’ida and other jihadis we are forcefully reminded of the price that we paid in the American cleansing of Falluja ten years ago — for naught. Falluja, massively damaged, seems back to square one.
What about the Iraqis — was the war worth it for them? The figures are pretty well known by now — upwards of half a million Iraqis died, either in the violence of war or subsequent civil strife. That’s roughly equivalent to 5 million US citizens dying in a war. Add at least one million Iraqis displaced from their homes and villages, many now in exile — equivalent to ten million Americans displaced. Saddam was one of the most brutal dictators the world has seen in modern times, but one wonders–Iraqis must wonder — whether anything Saddam could have done could ever have remotely approached such human and structural devastation as the war. And the psychological damage — constant fear, death, mayhem, ongoing massive insecurity, anarchy and civil conflict –is not yet over.
Still, if you talk to some Iraqi Shi’a, the shift of power from the hands of a Sunni minority under a brutal dictator into the hands of the Shi’ite majority was a long term political godsend for them; they are today “better off” — at least politically, than before the war. But that’s a political abstraction.
Was it “worth it” to individual Shi’ite families who suffered loss of husbands, brothers, wives and children, homes and livelihoods? Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, when asked about the deaths of half a million Iraqi children deprived of medicine under the US sanctions on Saddam, said it was “a hard choice… but it was worth it.” That is the comforting Olympian strategic view, uncomplicated by ground realities for real human beings.
What strategic gains can we tote up for the US alongside Iraqi losses? For the US, virtually nothing gained; indeed, it’s been a serious net loss in geopolitical terms. Few Iraqis are grateful. An Iraq that has always displayed strong Arab nationalist tendencies will not likely now change its colors or learn to love Israel.
Iran is now recognized as the real winner of the Iraq war. The Iraqi internal struggle has spread across into Syria, presenting the US with choices nearly all of which are highly unpalatable. Saudi Arabia has now felt the need to unleash a vicious sectarian conflict that destabilizes the Gulf, the Arabian Peninsula, Lebanon, Syria, even Pakistan. [Continue reading...]
Giandomenico Picco writes: The entire region from Pakistan to Lebanon — what I refer to as the Greater Levant — has been affected by profound, seismic changes during the course of the last three decades. These began in the late 1970s, in the Pakistan-Afghanistan-Iran triangle.
Pakistan received the political support of Saudi Arabia, both in its tense standoff with nuclear India and in its increasingly intense relationship with the Soviet Union, which had invaded neighboring Afghanistan in December 1979. The Khomeini revolution (February 1979) in Shiite Iran convinced the Sunni “world” of an epochal change in the making. This little-noticed affair was at the very root of a more open confrontation along sectarian lines. In the mess of the first Afghan War of the 1980s, which I witnessed up close and personal, the underlying Sunni and Shiite conflict was barely noticed by the rest of the world, though it was better perceived in the war between Iran and Iraq in the same decade.
In the 1990s, however, events in Afghanistan revealed the true face of the underlying confrontation between Sunni and Shiite throughout the region. By the mid 1990s, the Taliban, with Pakistani support, began to make their run for total victory in Kabul. Soon the Sunni Afghan tribes (i.e., the Pasthun) and the Shiite Afghan tribes (i.e. the Tajiks and Hazaras), were engaged in open sectarian civil war. The Shiite tribes were supported by Russia and Iran, while the Taliban received support from Pakistan, somewhat from Saudi Arabia and, for a while, from the West, though in a very undecided way.
The tragic events of September 11, which had been masterminded by Sunni men who had trained in Afghanistan, resulted in a new understanding between Iran and the United States. The interests of both countries had coalesced. The 2001 Bonn Agreements between Washington and Tehran revealed that both nations had a common enemy in the Sunni extremists. At the same time, Hamid Karzai, a Pashtun Sunni, became president of Afghanistan and the opposing Tajiiks came back to Kabul and entered into a coalition of sorts with Karzai. While this did not end the sectarian conflict, which continued during and after the U.S. military intervention, post-2001 Afghanistan is an example of a country rife with sectarian conflict, yet one in which compromise of a sort can be sought and even found.
But then came Iraq. Iran welcomed the U.S. war against Saddam Hussein in 2003, seeing it as payback for 1534, an important, sad date in the Shiite narrative. In that year, Suleiman the First (the Ottoman Sultan) conquered Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq) and “the land of the two rivers” came under the control of the Sunni minority. Iran felt that the West had inadvertently given them a chance to reclaim Baghdad for the Shiites. Again, the ancient Sunni-Shiite conflict structured events but was little noticed by the West.
Despite vigorous efforts, there has been little progress on the Israeli-Palestinian question. Indeed, there has been no progress at all since Prime Minister Rabin was assassinated by one of his own fellow citizens in mid 1995. The longest running conflict in the modern Middle East now seems to have little effect on the day-to-day events of the region. Indeed I would submit that the conflict is no longer pivotal in the region.
There are several reasons for this shift in the prominence and perception of the issue: for one thing, the Cold War came to an end and power struggles in the region were no longer proxy conflicts between the superpowers. Globalization, moreover, has weakened national and nationalistic boundaries and created unprecedented economic interdependence. Technology has made the individual more powerful than he or she has ever been before and the very concept of the nation-state is changing. The simple, two-dimensional worldview of decades past has yielded to recognition of a multiplicity of variables in the Greater Levant. Still, the principal, underlying and organizational dynamic of the entire region is no longer the Palestinian-Israeli conflict but the Sunni-Shiite conflict and its cold and hot wars in every country from the Hindu Kush to the Litani River.
The lead actors in this ongoing drama remain Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia. If a new architecture for the entire region is going to be found, then these two countries must take on the responsibility. Yet the chess game between Riyadh and Tehran continues: in Iraq, the Shiites have won a victory of sorts in the West’s defeat of Saddam. Yet Saddam’s Sunni backers in the region do not accept this as the last word. This remains the core line of demarcation for both sides. [Continue reading...]
Andrew J. Bacevich writes: The U.S. military is like the highly skilled, gadget-toting contractor who promises to give your kitchen a nifty makeover in no time whatsoever. Here’s the guy you can count on to get the job done. Just look at those references! Yet by the time he drives off months later, the kitchen’s a shambles and you’re stuck with a bill several times larger than the initial estimate. Turns out the job was more complicated than it seemed. But what say we take a crack at remodeling the master bath?
That pretty much summarizes the American experience with war since the end of the Cold War. By common consent, when it comes to skills and gadgets, U.S. forces are in a league of their own. Yet when it comes to finishing the job on schedule and on budget, their performance has been woeful.
Indeed, these days the United States absolves itself of any responsibility to finish wars that it starts. When we’ve had enough, we simply leave, pretending that when U.S. forces exit the scene, the conflict is officially over. In 2011, when the last American troops crossed from Iraq into Kuwait, President Obama proudly declared that he had made good on his campaign promise to end the Iraq war. Sometime late this year, when the U.S. terminates its combat role in Afghanistan, he will waste no time consigning that war to the past as well. [Continue reading...]
I met a traveler from an antique land,
Who said, “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert…
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
A number of writers have preceded me in quoting Shelley’s Ozymandias to evoke the huge US and NATO bases planted since 2001 in Afghanistan. The comparison is irresistible, but not necessarily apt. Even if only the head and legs were left, bits of Ozymandias’s statue had still presumably survived for three thousand years or so, which is a pretty good record as these things go. Few US or NATO officials, by contrast, seem to be planning seriously much beyond the next three years.
In Kabul, the changes wrought by the West’s twelve-year Afghan adventure have a certain solidity, at least to the point where the banks and office buildings would make for reasonably imposing and long-lasting ruins. Even some more intelligent members of the Taliban seem to recognize that the Afghan capital, a city of some five million people, is no longer the rubble-filled and shrunken city that they ruled in 2001; that the modern educated classes have grown to the point where they cannot be subjected to the moral code of a madrassa in a Pashtun mountain village; and that if a future Afghan government including the Taliban wants the help of these people — those who do not depart following the West’s withdrawal — in ruling and developing Afghanistan, it will have to grant them some freedom.
In the southern Pashtun province of Helmand, however, the atmosphere is very different. The presence of the Taliban is much more palpable both from conversations and the watchfulness of the Western forces. The veil of progress brought by the West is also a great deal thinner. During a recent trip with NATO officials, I was kept within the fortified perimeters of the US and British forces and the Afghan government centers—an indication of the current level of concern about the Taliban.
Visiting US and NATO bases there, I found that the images that came to mind were not Ozymandian images of long-fallen imperial grandeur, but rather those of science fiction: of Ray Bradbury’s human and Martian species meeting under an enormous, indifferent sky amidst the vast and utterly strange landscape of Mars. In an even gloomier mood, I thought of the Strugatsky brothers’ dystopian novel Roadside Picnic, on which Tarkovsky’s film Stalker was based. The premise is that aliens dropped by briefly on earth for some reason of their own, leaving behind a weirdly transformed landscape littered with discarded alien objects. In fact, seen from the air at night, Helmand’s huge Western military installations — Camp Leatherneck, the US Marine base, and the adjacent Camp Bastion, the main British base — look like a giant spaceship, a great blob of blazing lights amid a dark sea of desert. At the height of the Western occupation, the camps used more electricity than the rest of the province put together. Every drop of fuel for the generators had to be shipped in through Pakistan, along with every drop of mineral water and every bite of food consumed by the troops.
And if you want to move from science fiction to Alice in Wonderland, ask yourself this: how has it been possible to bring all that stuff in by road through areas of Pakistan controlled largely by the Pakistani Taliban, allied to the Afghan Taliban — areas from which Pakistani Taliban have launched innumerable attacks on Pakistani forces? Why have there been so few attacks, and those few (to judge by circumstantial evidence) only when the Pakistani military wants to send a message to Washington? The answer appears to be that the Taliban tax these NATO convoys as they tax all other trade in the region: Obtaining tax revenues from mineral water, fruit juice, hamburgers, and other NATO necessities that do them no harm at all is, it turns out, far more advantageous than interrupting our supply routes. In other words, all these years NATO has actually been subsidizing the Taliban’s war effort. [Continue reading...]