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The Bergdahl Swap and Beyond

The Fundamental Lie of the Afghan War

by GARY LEUPP

As a general rule, U.S. wars are based on lies. Some of these are soon exposed; the lies about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction and al-Qaeda links used to justify the invasion and occupation of Iraq were exposed (to anyone paying attention) within a few months, or at least by the end of 2003. The lie that Spaniards mined the USS Maine in Havana Harbor in 1898, used to justify U.S. war and the colonization of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, Hawaii and the Philippines, was exposed much later. The lies about the Gulf of Tonkin Incident of 1964, used to justify the escalation of the Vietnam War, were only exposed in the 80s and 90s. The Big Lie surrounding the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan has not yet been adequately exposed and discussed.

The lie was hinted at, rather than expressed outright. The lie was there that was no distinction between the Taliban and al-Qaeda. “We make no distinction between terrorists and those who harbor them,” declared George W. Bush. This is the heart of the Bush Doctrine. The point was to justify the overthrow of a regime by actively confusing distinctions, encouraging people to see the Taliban as actively in cahoots with al-Qaeda plots, hence enemies of America and “terrorists” by definition.

Most people in the U.S. initially bought Barack Obama’s differentiation between the second Iraq War as “war of choice” and “strategic blunder” and the Afghan War as a “necessary war” to punish and crush al-Qaeda.. (That’s what the polls suggested; they never, unfortunately, allowed those polled to describe either conflict as neither a necessary war nor a war of choice but as a “criminal war.”)

But now (or as of February, according to a Gallop poll) 49% of people in this country consider the war beginning in 2001 as a “mistake,” while 48% disagree. If there was once a consensus that Iraq was a mistake, but Afghanistan a good cause, there is a growing realization that there is no “good war,” or at least little likelihood that U.S. troops will enter one on the right side anytime soon. Look at the splendid results of the U.S./NATO assault on Libya, and the ongoing agony of an Iraq wrecked by its encounter with would-be “liberators.”

Sen. John McCain, who is not one to apologize for any war or acknowledge the lies behind them, recently called the five Taliban leaders released from Guantanamo “hard-core military jihadists who are responsible for 9/11.” This is patently false; there is no evidence that any of these men even knew what bin Laden was up to, or had any stake in or desire for attacks on the U.S. Only if you believe that al-Qaeda and the Taliban are one, the distinctions between them unworthy of your attention, can you blithely assign responsibility for the attacks on the released men.

It needs to be repeated again and again: the Taliban is not al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda is not the Taliban.

Al-Qaeda is an Islamist global terror outfit that wants to provoke and intensify conflict between the Muslim world and the West (and Israel). It had bases in Afghanistan dating back to the 1980s, when Osama bin Laden was cooperating with the CIA to overthrow the pro-Soviet regime. Bin Laden returned to Afghanistan in 1996, having been expelled at U.S. order from Sudan; he was welcomed by anti-Taliban friends. When the Taliban swept to power later that year, they allowed bin Laden to remain out of appreciation for his role in the mujahedeen efforts in the 1980s, and in accordance with the Pashtunwali code of hospitality. They accepted funds and other assistance from al-Qaeda but neither steered the other. In all likelihood the regime of Mullah Omar knew nothing about an al-Qaeda attack on the U.S. and subsequent U.S. attack.

The Taliban is a xenophobic Pashtun-nationalist movement rising out of the disorder of the period from 1978 to 1996. It is dedicated to the implementation of Sharia law in Afghanistan, which it thinks the only way to maintain peace and order. For better or worse it has a broad social base, rooted in the traditional religiosity of the culture.

(Of course the Taliban is not alone in implementing Sharia law. Saudi Arabia, once one of the Taliban regime’s major supporters—with Pakistan—also cuts off thieves’ hands and stones adulterers. But are administrators of a system of draconian punishment, specified according to the Qur’an or to their interpretation it by God Himself, necessarily “terrorists”? Does the word retain any utility when applied so broadly?)

Afghan-born U.S. State Department official Zalmay Khalilzad, who served as ambassador to both Afghanistan (2003-5) and Iraq (2005-7)—a neocon close to Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle—once welcomed the overthrow of the Northern Alliance regime and the ascension of the Taliban to power. “The Taliban does not practice the anti-US style of fundamentalism practiced by Iran,” he wrote in a Washington Post op-ed in 1996. “It is closer to the Saudi model.” As a UNOCAL executive after temporarily leaving government Khalilzad attempted to negotiate with Taliban members to construct an oil pipeline from the Caspian Sea through Afghanistan to the Indian Ocean. He entertained Taliban with a barbeque at his Texas ranch. Should he be detained for consorting with terrorists?

McCain calls the Taliban Five “the worst of the worst, the hardest of the hardest” and “the hardest and toughest of all.” He wants us to think that Obama has just unleashed five Osama bin Ladens intent on striking America at the earliest opportunity. Who are they really?

There are three considered “first tier”: one Taliban cabinet minister (former Minister of the Interior, Khalrullah Khairkhwa), and two deputy ministers (former Deputy Minister of Intelligence Abdul Haq Wasiq, and Deputy Minister of Defense Mullah Mohammed Fazl). The other two are considered “second tier” in terms of importance, both senior military commanders: Muhammed Nabi Omari and Mullah Horullah Noori.

Guantanamo documents indicate that they all had (or might have had) some connection to al-Qaeda, mostly following the U.S. invasion when the Taliban united with other, including rival, groups to resist. Wasiq, Fazl and Omari are accused of al-Qaeda ties, but also of ties to Hezb-e-Islami, a formerly a bitter foe of al-Qaeda but willing, from October 2001, to join a sort of coalition. One should not imagine that every attack on U.S./NATO forces that occurs in Afghanistan today is staged by the Taliban. Many others oppose occupation as well.

Wasiq as intelligence minister reportedly sought al-Qaeda assistance to train his ministry’s staff in “intelligence methods” at some point. But he was also in contact with Hezb-e-Islami. Khairkhwa is accused in a 2006 “threat assessment” of probable association with the mysterious al-Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, but he is also identified as a member of a delegation that met with Iranian officials to discuss Iranian aid to the Taliban and a possible Tehran-brokered alliance between the Northern Alliance (which Iran had supported) and the Taliban against the U.S. (This came to naught.) He is also accused of narco-trafficking. (A number of warlords governing parts of Afghanistan and some of Karzai’s relatives are accused of this as well.)

In one document Noori is described as “associated with…senior al-Qaeda members and other extremist groups.” He “fought alongside al-Qaeda as a Taliban general” versus the Northern Alliance. This makes it sound like the Taliban played a supporting role to al-Qaeda. But the conflict then was principally between the Northern Alliance (the former rulers, who’d toppled the pro-Soviet regime) and the Taliban, with al-Qaeda playing a supporting role.

The worst of the worst? Kate Clark of the Kabul-based Afghanistan Analysts Network disagrees. “Fazl,” she declares, “is the only one of the five to face accusations of explicit war crimes… ” But these are crimes (against Shiite Hazzara civilians) that occurred in Afghanistan before the U.S./NATO invasion. They have nothing to do with the U.S. and were not a cause for that invasion. They are simply grounds to declare Fazl some sort of “terrorist” hoping the public paying attention assumes his terror was somehow directed at the U.S. (and thus the justification for his long confinement).

Defending the Bergdahl-Taliban Five trade, State Department spokesperson Marie Harf explains that “being, you know, mid-to-high-level officials in a regime that’s grotesque and horrific also doesn’t mean they themselves directly pose a threat to the United States.” (She is perhaps thinking of the grotesque and horrific regimes that are dear friends of Washington.)

The former chief military prosecutor at Guantanamo, Air Force Col. Morris Davis from 2005 to 2007, says, “I wasn’t familiar with any of these [Taliban Five] names … we had more than 12 years. If we could have proven that they had done something wrong that we could prosecute them for, I’m confident we would have done it, and we didn’t.” The unprosecutable detainees languished as hostages until they were exchanged for Bergdahl. I doubt they were sent off with apologies for years of detention and torture, during which they were not found guilty of any crimes in any court.

For years U.S. military commanders have acknowledged that the Taliban cannot be defeated militarily. There will have to be a negotiated settlement. Current Afghan president Hamid Karzai, while wary of U.S.-Taliban talks that sideline his weak government, favors negotiations with the Taliban (and even occasionally, when piqued by the U.S., threatens to join the group again, as he had in 1996 as their first foreign minister). As negotiations take place, likely in Qatar, U.S. representatives will have to treat the Taliban with some modicum of respect. (A Taliban report on the handover of Bowe Bergdahl expresses contempt for one of the three U.S. Special Forces involved for refusing to shake hands.)

Respect for reality requires that we clearly distinguish forces and resist such simplistic thinking as that represented by Sen. McCain’s remarks. You cannot tell yourself, “Well, the Taliban and al-Qaeda were aligned at the time of 9/11, so it’s true enough to say these freed men were responsible for 9/11. Or if not, there’s no harm done by saying it—since they’re all evil. You’re either for us or against us.” Such is the culture of lies that continues to churn out wars.

GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and holds a secondary appointment in the Department of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: gleupp@granite.tufts.edu