Friday, August 27, 2010

"Ghost Wars" and our struggles with Al Qaeda and the Taliban

Thoughts on reading Steve Coll's Ghost Wars (2004): It's clear from this book that Afghanistan is a place we ignore at our peril. It's also clear that this is a most unhappy land: Coll's 576-page narrative covers less than 25 years of Afghanistan's history, from roughly 1979 to 2001.

But the book, subtitled The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001, also makes clear that we have been locked in struggle with Osama bin Laden since years before 9/11. As early as 1998, it seems, President Clinton signed a secret "Memorandum of Notification (MON)" which "authorize[d] the CIA or the Pentagon to shoot down bin Laden's helicopters or airplanes under certain circumstances. There was no pretense in this MON that bin Laden would be captured for trial." (427) Earlier in 1998, we had very seriously considered, but ultimately rejected, a plan for Afghan fighters to try to capture bin Laden at "Tarnak Farm," a compound near Kandahar where family members lived and he periodically visited. Jack Goldsmith, in his book The Terror Presidency (2007) (which I'll have more to say about in a future post), writes that "the Office of Legal Counsel in the Clinton administration secretly concluded in the 1990s -- as a prerequisite to its efforts to capture and if necessary kill Osama Bin Laden -- that the United States was in an armed conflict with al Qaeda.

But these efforts failed, and not long after the decision not to attack Tarnak Farm, bin Laden's agents successfully bombed US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. (And we in turn attacked what we believed were Al Qaeda targets in Afghanistan and Sudan with cruise missiles.) It's worth emphasizing that the embassy bombings were only a small part of the overall effort bin Laden had come to lead. One reason to reject a war paradigm in favor of a crime paradigm in dealing with terrorism is that particular terrorist attacks may be mounted by just a few people, as was the case on 9/11, and so they can have the feel of crimes rather than military assaults. But bin Laden was leading a large operation/movement, training volunteers, financing attacks, binding Afghan's Taliban to him, and aspiring to reshape the life of countries in the Middle East and Central Asia. In 1998 he and others had declared in a manifesto that "[t]he judgment to kill and fight Americans and their allies, whether civilians or military, is an obligation for every Muslim who is able to do so in any country." (381) It seems to me that it's precisely for threats of such magnitude and reach that a military paradigm is designed.

The judgment that an attack on Al Qaeda required an attack on the Taliban also seems supported by this book. It is true that Taliban leaders may have sometimes professed an intention to disentangle themselves from Al Qaeda (notably, in a meeting between the Taliban's Mullah Omar and Saudi intelligence in June 1998 (described by Coll at 400-02). In fact many US policymakers spent years advocating and seeking connection with what we hoped were potentially moderating forces among the Taliban. But by 2001 we had had long experience in trying to bring about this disentanglement, and I think we had strong reason to believe that it would never take place. In fact, an al Qaeda plot killed Ahmed Shah Massoud, the strongest Afghan leader opposed to the Taliban, on September 9, 2001: bin Laden struck for the Taliban, and against the United States, in what must then have seemed to him a triumphant series of days.

It is unfortunate that in retrospect we also had strong reason to believe that Pakistan would never sever its connections with the Taliban either. Pakistan's connections with Afghan Islamist forces had been made long before 2001, and rested, it seems, both on religious conviction and realpolitik calculations driven in particular by Pakistan's anxiety about Indian power. It is not surprising that Pakistan's role remains as ambiguous as it does, as this week's report that Pakistani arrests of Taliban leaders early in 2010 were actually meant to block the progress of peace discussions independent of Pakistan's direction reflects. Dexter Filkins, "Pakistanis Tell of Motive in Taliban Leader's Arrest," New York Times (August 22, 2010). Saudi Arabia, too, proves in this book an endlessly troubling ally.

Finally, one overall perspective: in the world of "ghosts," little is as it seems. Governments move in secrecy, from their own people and from each other. What you see is not necessarily what you get, and particularly for members of the general public, understanding the true course of events may never be entirely possible.