Open Mouths and Closed Brains

The recent US commander in Afghanistan, Lieutenant General David Barno, said April 18 that the Pakistan Army was about to begin an operation against al-Qaeda terrorists supposedly being given refuge in the frontier region of Pakistan, along the Afghan border.

Next day the Pakistan army commander in the area, Lieutenant General Safdar Hussain, a genial and intelligent officer, said “LtGen Barno should not have made that statement. It was a figment of his imagination.” Pakistan Army HQ then announced that “no such military operation is being launched, and we decide for ourselves what needs to be done, and where.” Barno had put his tongue in motion before engaging his brain. (And even if he had been correct in what he said, it is bizarre that a foreign general should give warning to terrorists that an operation against them by allied security forces was about to begin. — “Gee, thanks for telling us, Dave; we’ll get the hell out of the way. Do the same for you, sometime. All the best from your buddy Osama.”)

Any organization other than the Pentagon (CEO [failed]: D Rumsfeld), would have rebuked an oaf who had gravely offended an ally, but orders from Karl Rove are that nobody in the Bush administration is allowed to admit failure. If truth-telling and failure admission were to be accepted as normal in Bush Washington, who knows what horrors would be revealed. It is permissible and indeed essential to vilify and fire only those who are correct in their judgments and honest in their reports. Kick down and kiss up is the order of the day, as exemplified by the boorish Bolton. Stuff up and move up, as we used to say in Vietnam.

Pakistan is in a dangerous position. It wants to rid itself of terrorists and to help the US in its pursuit of them. But very many of its citizens, especially in the region bordering Afghanistan, are vehemently anti-American, and the Pakistan government has a hard time trying to keep the lid on religious extremism and violence. The last thing it needs is a US general mouthing off about what Pakistan should or should not do, because loony obscurantists in Pakistan will always take advantage of such stupidity to whip up even more anti-American sentiment. The Pakistanis are trying hard to play down US military involvement in their country for the good reason that religious fanatics are capable of bringing mobs into the streets and encouraging violence and murder on a large scale if they can find a reason to do so. And when over 60 per cent of Pakistanis detest George Bush and are convinced he is waging a crusade against Islam, the pitfalls are obvious. Well; you might think they would be obvious to even the meanest intelligence.

Well, no. Barno ignored Pakistan’s sensitivities and justifiable annoyance and went on to make an even bigger fool of himself. Ten days later he gave an interview to the New York Times about what (according to him) was going on in Afghanistan. It might be expected he would have been careful in what he said, because he had obviously got up the nose of the Pakistan army; but no. The general swung into mouth-mode and made matters worse by saying his soldiers “had been training Pakistanis in night flying and airborne assault tactics to combat foreign and local fighters in the tribal areas of Pakistan near the Afghan border.”

OK; so anyone who pays close attention to that part of the world knows that US special forces have been involved with Pakistan’s Special Services Group and that air assault techniques have been practiced with the new US helicopters. But the point is that Barno should have kept his mouth shut and not spoken of US-Pakistan military cooperation, because that sort of thing is likely to infuriate some very dangerous people.

Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas, or FATA, are volatile, to put it mildly. The region is subject to tribal law, and not that of the country as a whole. Further, FATA is in North West Frontier Province which is governed by a democratically elected (repeat: democratically elected) and entirely off-the-wall bunch of religious nutters whose idea of progress is to ban television (they must have been watching Faux News), forbid movies and DVDs, and prohibit music and dancing. Their notion of a perfect world involves winding the clock back by six or seven hundred years, and their general philosophy would fit well with that of Frist, DeLay, Boykin and all the other Christian zealots whose thinking is quite as intolerant, mediaeval and bigoted as those of any Muslim fundo. The tribes protect fugitives who seek sanctuary in their strongholds and regard hospitality as their duty, especially when foreigners demand they surrender their guests to the tender mercies of the psychotic sadists of Guantanamo Bay, Bagram, and heaven knows how many other torture dens around the world.

The tribes have to be treated with firmness, understanding and lots of cash. (Their principles, like those of politicians, can be modified if the price is right.) Direct action against them is futile. Last year, after direct pressure by Washington, Pakistan was forced to conduct military operations intended to kill or capture foreign militants in a region called South Waziristan. The army and the para-military Frontier Corps lost some 250 soldiers killed and over 600 wounded in eight months. They didn’t get any al Qaeda people. Sure, the usual claims were made about hundreds being killed and detained, but no independent observer saw anything of this. But what is known is that scores of civilians were killed and that the operation resulted in a massive surge in tribal hatred not only for the US but for the government of Pakistan. The Pentagon-inspired bash and crash operations, using exactly the failed and totally counter-productive tactics ordered by dullard military leaders in Iraq (and does anyone remember the Somalia debacle?), set back Pakistan’s carefully planned integration program for the region by about fifty years. But no Bush official could give a tinker’s cuss about that.

Nobody asked Barno if there was going to be a military operation against the tribes. Nobody asked him direct questions about US involvement with Pakistan’s commandos, which the government in Islamabad is trying to keep low key in order to avoid bloody demonstrations on the streets. Not at all: he volunteered all that dynamite on his own.

You would think that having been in the region for eighteen months the man would know about the problems in Pakistan and especially those in South Waziristan and the tribal areas as a whole. You would imagine he might have an inkling concerning the rage (some of it manufactured and ridiculously false, to be sure) that would be caused by irresponsible statements concerning US military influence on the Pakistan government. But no; in he went with both boots to create massive problems for an important ally of his country.

In spite of the fact that the State Department (like the Pentagon and, alas, the army) has become politicized, there is a majority who, in the best traditions of the foreign service, can give their professional best for their country. Unfortunately they cannot now offer advice that would conflict with the Pentagon’s bellicose and confrontational foreign policy which is based on a simple but destructive theology; everyone takes orders from us. Generals can say what they like, when they like, and how they like, and if the State Department and foreigners object to what they say, and if their words are immensely damaging to the image of the US, then tough titty. The same goes for senators.



In January four US Senators led by the egregious Bill Frist MD visited South Waziristan and met with tribal representatives in a Pakistan army camp near a tiny town called Wana which is close to the Afghanistan border and even closer to being the armpit of the known universe. They were accompanied by the US defense and air attaché in Islamabad (she was not wearing uniform, but was recognized by an acquaintance of mine) and their hour-long meeting with thirteen tribal leaders was excruciatingly funny. The Marx brothers would have loved it. After the performance, the official handout stated: “The elders of the Ahmadzai Wazir tribe profusely praised the Pakistan Army during the meeting [with the senators] . . . They stressed that military operations against foreign militants enjoyed the support of the tribes.” Like hell they do.

The tribal leaders, who weren’t told who they were going to meet before they were taken to the army camp, and then when they met the senators had no idea who they were talking to — it really was a farce — were naturally furious concerning the operations that flattened so many of their houses and killed so many of their people, for which they blame the US just as much as Pakistan. The tribes are firmly convinced that the US was deeply involved — which, in a political sense, it certainly was.

The really funny thing is that when the tribal elders told the Senators all the nonsense about “supporting operations against foreign militants” (as if a tribesman would ever use the word ‘militant’), the ten-minute-expert visitors actually believed them. Nobody in the US Embassy in Islamabad was going to say it was a load of baloney and that it if wasn’t for the fact that the Senators were surrounded by hundreds of Pakistani troops plus helicopter gunships and a close protection team they would have been seized and subjected to treatment that would make the military savages in Abu Ghraib, Bagram and Guantanamo Bay suck their teeth with admiration at its novelty.

Come to think of it, that might have done Bill Frist a power of good. And Barno, for that matter. But the point is that US foreign policy is being conveyed and interpreted by those who are least equipped to do so, and in consequence has become a joke. Frist’s press release after his visit to Pakistan was preposterous and unintentionally comical.

Senator Frist MD, this Bush mouthpiece whose knowledge of regional affairs would fit into a bonsai peanut shell, announced in his “Notes from the Road” travelogue on his no-expense-spared swing round the sub-continent that “Afghanistan has a growing national economy – 6% last year – led by strong manufacturing, increasing exports, a solid service sector, and growth in agriculture. There is a strong desire to increase trade with the US.”

Rarely has there been such utter garbage produced by a US senator. It cannot be overemphasized that what he spouted is absurd, irresponsible, and totally misleading.

Afghanistan is in a state of anarchy. (Frist and his entourage didn’t go there.) Its president has to be guarded by foreign mercenaries and dare not venture out of the capital for fear he will be killed. The main part of the economy that is growing is the drug sector which has increased by very much more than 6 per cent since Bush invaded the country. The US government itself estimates that opium poppy cultivation shot up from 150,000 acres in 2003 to 510,000 acres last year in a shining example of Bush progress and freedom and free market influences. “Strong manufacturing”? What tripe. The Afghans produce hand-loomed carpets, a few other textiles, furniture, some fertilizer, and small quantities of cement; there isn’t a proper manufacturing industry in the entire country. But indeed there are rising exports. They are raw opium and heroin.

You might think that the massive drug production crisis that threatens Afghanistan’s very existence and is an enormous problem for much of the world would get a mention from Senator Doctor Bill Frist MD; but no: not a peep. The Bush script says that everything is just fine in Afghanistan and that the drug mess is entirely the fault of President Karzai. And Bill Frist MD is nothing if not loyal to his master.

Frist’s “solid service sector” exists all right: it services drug producers, drug smugglers, warlords and rich westerners in Kabul. And the “growth in agriculture” — well, that’s spot on, because poppy is growing ever increasing quantities, making it necessary for the country to import a million tons of wheat each year to feed its people. As the State Department says, “Millions of Afghans, particularly in rural areas, remain dependent on food aid.” Then what about “a strong desire to increase trade with the US”? — Of course there is: because most of the heroin currently goes to Europe, and the drug lords would very much like to increase trade with the US by expanding their exports in that direction.

Frist is an ignorant, mischievous, parochial dimwit. He has tried to create a picture of normality where none exists. Just as Barno (no longer in Afghanistan, praise be) lives in a world of self-delusion and interferes in matters he knows nothing about, so does Frist MD demonstrate invincible denseness. The problem for civilized America — the non-Bush US — is that Frist, Barno and countless others are regarded as important people by many foreigners and when they make silly statements it is not always understood that they are simpletons. They haven’t got the wit to be cunningly deceitful: they are merely boneheads. But that doesn’t matter, because they are faithfully spreading the word about Bush progress and freedom. That process relies on open mouths and closed brains.

BRIAN CLOUGHLEY writes on military and political affairs. He can be reached through his website




Brian Cloughley writes about foreign policy and military affairs. He lives in Voutenay sur Cure, France.