Tag: Taliban

Grasping for Rationales, Feeding Conspiracy Theories

On June 13, the New York Times reported that America “just discovered” a trillion dollars worth of mineral resources in Afghanistan (HT to Katie Drummond over at Danger Room for offering some enlightened skepticism on the topic).

Of course, the U.S. Geological Survey has known about Afghanistan’s “large quantities of iron and copper” since 2007. The Los Angeles Times reported that geologist Bonita Chamberlain, who has spent 25 years working in Afghanistan, “identified 91 minerals, metals and gems at 1,407 potential mining sites” as far back as 2001. Chamberlain was even contacted by the Pentagon to write a report on the subject just weeks after 9/11 (possibly to expound upon the findings of her co-authored book, “Gemstones in Afghanistan,” published in 1996.)

Given the recent failure of Marjah, which Gen. McChrystal recently called “a bleeding ulcer,” this new “discovery” could offer Western leaders a new way to convince their war-weary publics that Afghanistan is worth the fight. Government officials are already touting this new “discovery” as yet another “decisive moment” or “corner turned” in the Afghan campaign.

In the NYT article, head of Central Command, Gen. David Petraeus, said, “There is stunning potential here. There are a lot of ifs, of course, but I think potentially it is hugely significant.”

Afghanistan epitomizes the fate of countries too dependent on foreign patronage, which over time has weakened its security by undermining their leaders’ allegiance to the state. In the long run, $1 trillion worth of mineral deposits could eventually help Afghanistan stand on its own two feet. However, two problems emerge. First, there is little assurance that revenue from mineral resources (which will take years of capital investment to extract) will actually reach the Afghan people and not be siphoned off by Karzai and his corrupt cronies–like much of the international community’s investment does now.

Second, in the short-term, this discovery may feed conspiracy theories that already exist in the region. Though unwise to generalize personal meetings to an entire population, some conspiracy theories that I heard while I was recently in Afghanistan should give U.S. officials pause before announcing that America can help extract the country’s mineral deposits. Some of the wildest conspiracy theories I heard were that the United States wants to occupy Afghanistan in order to take its resources; the Taliban is the United States; the United States is using helicopters to ferry Taliban around northern Afghanistan (courtesy of Afghan President Hamid Karzai); America is at war in order to weaken Islam; and the list goes on.

This “discovery” may force more people in the region to ask: what are America’s real reasons for building permanent bases in Central Asia?

This piece originally appeared on the Huffington Post on June 15, 2010.

Afghanistan: Complicated, Confusing, and Tragic

Kabul, Afghanistan—Malou Innocent and I have been interviewing a range of people in Afghanistan’s capital.  Getting around isn’t easy.  The traffic is horrendous: automobile ownership has grown on roads built for a different era.  Street upkeep is not one of the city government’s strong suits.  Police checkpoints and traffic barriers dot Kabul.

Arriving at your destination is merely the start.  Military bases, government ministries, Western embassies, luxury hotels, and large businesses are fortified with tall walls, barbed wire, concrete barriers, reinforced gates, and guard posts.  Armed personnel man entrances and patrol grounds. 

As so often is the case, it quickly becomes evident on the ground that foreign conflicts are far more complicated than commonly advertised.  Afghanistan is a diverse and complex land.  Parts of it are stable and peaceful.  Ethnic and tribal divisions run deep, but vary around the country.  Although rural illiteracy is high, many urban Afghans are as educated and sophisticated as the Westerners who have flocked to Kabul.  And most everyone evinces a desperate desire for peace and security.

An overwhelming sense of tragedy hangs over this beautiful land.  The evidence of war and instability is everywhere.  The old royal palace still stands, abandoned and wrecked years ago.  The casualties of endless conflict are visible—adults and children hobbling along on only one leg, legless beggars by the road.  “Poppy palaces,” many constructed with drug money, continue to rise while the streets teem with people struggling to find work.  Afghan women covered by burqas walking outside of hotels and restaurants serving alcohol to foreigners.  Westerners abound, fighting the war, running NGOs, advising government ministries, and otherwise attempting to re-engineer Afghan society.

Individual stories remind us how blessed we are to live in America.  As frustrated as we might grow with U.S. government policy, we live in a nation that is prosperous, peaceful, democratic, stable, and still relatively free.  One 27-year-old Afghan, who currently works for a government ministry, told us about how his family decided to flee Kabul after his neighborhood was bombarded as the city was being fought over by various mujahedeen factions.  They returned home from Pakistan after the ouster of the Taliban; now he worries about the future.

The overwhelming message that we have heard so far is that the Afghan government is incompetent and corrupt; as such, it is a poor partner to Western nations seeking to create a functioning state.  Moreover, Western nations, and especially the U.S., are commonly unrealistic in their assumptions, objectives, and tactics.  We have yet to encounter many optimists about allied policy.

Although many foreigners of good intentions are working in Kabul, the flood of money to consultants and NGOs is often wasted or misspent.  Afghans themselves have grown cynical after decades of war; many focus on the short-term and are happy to manipulate Western aid agencies and militaries alike.  At the same time, those who have come forward to idealistically work for a better future are vulnerable and worry about the consequences of an allied retreat.

Every conversation makes it more evident how little we know and hard it is to understand this complex society and conflict.  Malou and I don’t expect our time here to turn us into experts.  But we do hope that we will learn enough to better participate in the Washington debate over U.S. and allied policy towards Afghanistan.

State Secrets, Courts, and NSA’s Illegal Wiretapping

As Tim Lynch notes, Judge Vaughn Walker has ruled in favor of the now-defunct Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation—unique among the many litigants who have tried to challenge the Bush-era program of warrantless wiretapping by the National Security Agency because they actually had evidence, in the form of a document accidentally delivered to foundation lawyers by the government itself, that their personnel had been targeted for eavesdropping.

Other efforts to get a court to review the program’s legality had been caught in a kind of catch-22: Plaintiffs who merely feared that their calls might be subject to NSA filtering and interception lacked standing to sue, because they couldn’t show a specific, concrete injury resulting from the program.

But, of course, information about exactly who has been wiretapped is a closely guarded state secret. So closely guarded, in fact, that the Justice Department was able to force the return of the document that exposed the wiretapping of Al-Haramain, and then get it barred from the court’s consideration as a “secret” even after it had been disclosed. (Contrast, incidentally, the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence on individual privacy rights, which often denies any legitimate expectation of privacy in information once revealed to a third party.) Al-Haramain finally prevailed because they were ultimately able to assemble evidence from the public record showing they’d been wiretapped, and the government declined to produce anything resembling a warrant for that surveillance.

If you read over the actual opinion, however it may seem a little anticlimactic—as though something is missing. The ruling concludes that there’s prima facie evidence that Al-Haramain and their lawyers were wiretapped, that the government has failed to produce a warrant, and that this violates the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. But of course, there was never any question about that. Not even the most strident apologists for the NSA program denied that it contravened FISA; rather, they offered a series of rationalizations for why the president was entitled to disregard a federal statute.

There was the John Yoo argument that the president essentially becomes omnipotent during wartime, and that if we can shoot Taliban on a foreign battlefield, surely we can wiretap Americans at home if they seem vaguely Taliban-ish. Even under Bush, the Office of Legal Counsel soon backed away from such… creative… lines of argument. Instead, they relied on the post-9/11 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) against al-Qaeda, claiming it had implicitly created a loophole in the FISA law. It was David Kris, now head of DOJ’s National Security Division, who most decisively blew that one out of the water, concluding that it was “essentially impossible” to sustain the government’s reading of the AUMF.

Yet you’ll note that none of these issues arise in Walker’s opinion, because the DOJ, in effect, refused to play. They resisted the court at every step, insisting that a program discussed at length on the front pages of newspapers for years now was so very secret that no aspect of it could be discussed even in a closed setting. They continued to insist on this in the face of repeated court rulings to the contrary. So while Al-Haramain has prevailed, there’s no ruling on the validity of any of those arguments. That’s why I think Marcy Wheeler is probably correct when she predicts that the government will simply take its lumps and pay damages rather than risk an appeal. For one, while Obama administration has been happy to invoke state secrecy as vigorously as its predecessor, it would obviously be somewhat embarrassing for Obama’s DOJ to parrot Bush’s substantive claims of near-limitless executive power. Perhaps more to the point, though, some of those legal arguments may still be operative in secret OLC memos. The FISA Amendments Act aimed to put the unlawful Bush program under court supervision, and even reasserted FISA’s language establishing it as the “exclusive means” for electronic surveillance, which would seem to drive a final stake in the heart of any argument based on the AUMF. But we ultimately don’t know what legal rationales they still consider operative, and it would surely be awkward to have an appellate court knock the legs out from under some of these secret memoranda.

None of this is to deny that the ruling is a big deal—if nothing else because it suggests that the government does not enjoy total carte blanche to shield lawbreaking from review with broad, bald assertions of privilege. But I also know that civil libertarians had hoped that the courts might be the only path to a more full accounting of—and accountability for—the domestic spying program. If the upshot of this is simply that the government must pay a few tens, or even hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages, it’s hard not to see the victory as something of a disappointment.

Knocked Out, but Not Knocked Down: Spinning the Taliban Defeat in Marjah

Remember Marjah? The Taliban stronghold in southern Afghanistan captured several weeks ago by U.S. and Afghan forces? I remember the offensive being hailed as a big deal. Well, what happened?

Although they have been pushed out of power in Marjah, Taliban insurgents have slowly been trying to reassert some measure of control.

Marjah residents have told U.S. Marines that Taliban insurgents are coming around at night to threaten and beat Afghans who cooperate with the Americans.

In at least one confirmed case, said U.S. military officials, the Taliban beheaded a local resident suspected of working with U.S. forces. The U.S. Marines are checking out at reports of at least two other beheadings in Marjah.

If that weren’t enough, the newly appointed Afghan official for Marjah, described as “the Afghan face of the American-led military offensive,” is Haji Zahir, who served four years in a German prison for attempted murder after stabbing his stepson.

Maybe this question will come across as obvious, but what discernible interest does America have in clearing regions we can’t hold, and backing ex-cons to disperse hundreds of thousands of U.S. tax payer dollars “to repair schools, clean canals, and compensate Afghan families who lost relatives” to people who will likely turn back to the Taliban anyway?

While residents of Marjah have little affection for the Taliban, they say they nevertheless prefer them over the non-Islamic Americans and the corrupt Kabul government.

This piece in Foreign Policy, “Down the AfPak Rabbit Hole,” confirms my suspicions that the offensive in Marjah was in part a PR stunt intended to galvanize public support for the war back at home (HT: Justin Logan).

The “Rabbit Hole“ ‘s authors, Thomas H. Johnson, a research professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, and M. Chris Mason, a retired Foreign Service officer who served as a political officer in Paktika province, write “this battle—the largest in Afghanistan since 2001—is essentially a giant public affairs exercise, designed to shore up dwindling domestic support for the war by creating an illusion of progress.”

That sentiment was echoed several weeks ago by Greg Jaffe and Craig Whitlock of the Washington Post. They write, “The campaign’s goals are to convince Americans that a new era has arrived in the eight-year-long war and to show Afghans that U.S. forces and the Afghan government can protect them from the Taliban.”

For some sanity on this situation, and how much we have lost our way, listen to “Afghanistan and Conservatives” featuring Joe Scarborough.”

The Red Team’s Spin on The Christmas Bomber

In recent weeks, conservatives have worked themselves into a self-righteous lather over how the Obama administration handled the would-be Christmas bomber.  It’s a complaint you could hear again and again at last weekend’s Conservative Political Action Conference: Mirandizing the 23-year-old Nigerian Muslim was a big mistake, the story goes, because it denied us valuable intelligence, and it’s just so typical of Barack Obama’s callow, weak, law-enforcement-oriented approach to the terrorist threat.

As a constitutional matter, I’ve never been entirely comfortable with the Miranda decision, which smacks of judicial lawmaking, and I don’t think liberty stands or falls on whether one failed terrorist got read his rights.  In fact, I think Mirandizing Abdulmutallab was a pretty silly thing to do.  The administration could and should have continued to question him and gather intelligence (and it’s not as if you’d need his statements to convict when there were scads of witnesses aboard the plane).

Nonetheless, I still find it hard to see all the hubbub as much more than manufactured partisan outrage.

After all, Richard Reid, the failed shoebomber of December 2001, was Mirandized repeatedly by George W. Bush’s FBI, who, rather than questioning him for 50 minutes, read Reid his rights as soon as the Massachusetts staties handed him over. That was barely two months after the largest terror attack in American history, at a time when we had good reason to fear that the terrorist threat was far greater than it now appears to be.  Somehow, though, I don’t recall hearing quite as much wailing and gnashing of teeth from the Right back then. Moreover, outside of the special pleading of former Bush officials, there’s little evidence that Bush would have handled the situation much differently even if it happened much later in his tenure as president.

We’re told that the Christmas Bomber’s treatment reveals Obama’s pusillanimous new paradigm for the War on Terror. But  virtually anyone who’s taken a serious look at Obama’s terrorism policies has concluded they differ from Bush’s mainly in terms of rhetoric, not substance. You can love the Bush approach or hate it, but if you’re drawing a sharp distinction between his policies and Obama’s, you’re misinformed at best.

Jack Goldsmith, the former head of the Bush administration’s Office of Legal Counsel, notes that the

premise that the Obama administration has reversed Bush-era policies is largely wrong. The truth is closer to the opposite: The new administration has copied most of the Bush program, has expanded some of it, and has narrowed only a bit. Almost all of the Obama changes have been at the level of packaging, argumentation, symbol, and rhetoric.

For instance, Goldsmith notes, the Obama team “has embraced the Bush view that, as a legal matter, the United States is in a state of war with al Qaeda and its affiliates, and that the president’s commander-in-chief powers are triggered.” Moreover, Obama’s Justice Department “filed a legal brief arguing that the president can detain indefinitely, without charge or trial, members of al Qaeda, the Taliban, ‘associated forces,’” et al.

The abortive plan to try Khalid Sheik Mohammed near Ground Zero has to count as Obama’s dumbest political move since he tried to strongarm the Olympic Committee.  But it hardly constitutes a repudiation of the Bush approach to terrorism. When the Bush Team was confident of winning, they tried terrorists in civilian courts – including Zacarias Moussaoui, the would-be 20th hijacker (tried and convicted in Alexandria, so horrifyingly close to the Pentagon!). And since the Obama Team continues to use military tribunals, and reserves the right to imprison KSM indefinitely in the unlikely event he’s acquitted, it’s pretty hard to see their plan for selected civilian trials as a departure from Bush-Cheney – much less an attempt to curry favor with the ACLU.

James Carafano, the Heritage Foundation’s homeland security guru, isn’t the sort of guy who carries water for Barack Obama, but he recently told the New York Times

“I don’t think it’s even fair to call [Obama’s policies] Bush Lite. It’s Bush. It’s really, really hard to find a difference that’s meaningful and not atmospheric.”

Atmospherics seem to matter a great deal to GOP partisans these days, though. Asked what specific policies Obama could adopt to reassure supposedly terrified Americans, Peter King, the ranking Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee (formerly R-Derry), could do no better than: “I think one main thing would be to — just himself to use the word terrorism more often.”

The essence of King’s complaint seems to be that, policies aside, Obama isn’t stoking fear enough, isn’t talking tough enough, and seems reluctant to act the part of “the strong father who protects the home from invaders.” Forgive me if I’m unmoved.  Thus far the discussion serves to remind one of the fact that, though Republicans talk a good game about reducing the size of government, when the rubber meets the road, they repair to reliable political gambits that allow them to duck the hard choices: flag-burning amendments, the Pledge of Allegiance, Terry Schiavo, and the like.

If you’re sincerely concerned about the best way to handle terrorist suspects in the United States, then trying to score cheap political points isn’t the best way to start the conversation.

The Capture of Mullah Baradar in a Regional Context

The capture of the Taliban’s top military commander, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, is a success in the broader war on terror; however, only time will tell whether it signals Pakistan is convinced that its future security no longer lies in its support for Islamist proxies.

It is important to recognize that this apprehension was not a result of blunt military force, but a direct result of diligent intelligence gathering by the military and CIA, in close cooperation with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence. This fact serves to further question our objectives in Afghanistan, where blunt military force is the main solution. Indeed, over 100,000 U.S. and coalition troops are deployed, large amounts of resources are expended, and lives are continually lost for what President Obama’s national security adviser, Gen. James Jones, noted in October, “is less than 100 [al-Qaeda] operating in [Afghanistan].”

Another important point is that for years the United States and Pakistan were not on the same page at the strategic level. Pakistan’s cooperation in this recent operation could signal a shift in its strategic thinking; however, U.S. policymakers must recognize that along with an increased push toward negotiating with ground insurgents, they must also acknowledge how Pakistan’s strategic orientation and its regional tensions with India impact Afghanistan. Only by developing a comprehensive South Asia strategy and moderating the strategic competition between India and Pakistan will there be hope for anything more than temporary peace in Afghanistan. In this respect, while Mullah Baradar’s capture is great news, it might do little to compel regional belligerents to alter their policies as it impacts Afghanistan—the underlying source of the Afghan mission’s vulnerability.

In short, the broader policy prescription of remaining in Afghanistan without addressing Pakistan’s use of extremist proxies vastly oversimplifies the conditions that exist between Pakistan and India and the ability of present solutions to influence their policies. Long-term stability will only come about when all countries in the region are on the same page, but judging from history, that prospect looks unlikely.