Arguments both for and against, say the war in Iraq, or in Afghanistan, tend to get clouded by whatever tangential political vocabulary is popular in any given week or month (surgical determinations of troops levels, robustness of U.S.-trained security forces, corruption in the governments we’ve set up, etc.). Nothing like a sworn enemy of the United States to clarify what it’s really all about.
I recently stumbled across a secret government document from 1998 (declassified in 2008) via the National Security Archive at George Washington University. This documents the only known direct negotiations between the spiritual leader of the Taliban Mullah Omar and a U.S. official. These occurred shortly after the U.S. cruise missile strikes against Afghanistan ostensibly in retaliation for al Qaeda’s (then stationed in Afghanistan) attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. I can’t say the cable summarizing the conversation was revealing, as anyone who has even briefly looked anti-American Islamic terrorism will find the commentary mundane, but it is a reminder of the underlying essentials regarding U.S. military engagement in the Middle East and South Asia. Excerpts:
Omar warned that the U.S. strikes would prove counter-productive and arouse anti-American feelings in the Islamic world. While he was in no way threatening, he claimed that the strikes could spark more terrorist attacks.
[…] Omar said that the U.S. should remove its forces from the Gulf and he warned that the U.S. was seen as a threat to Islam’s holiest sites, including the Kabbah. He said that eventually the people of Saudi Arabia would force the Saudi government to expel the Americans.
Back to basics. Does anybody hear anything coming from the Obama administration that even vaguely references these central issues to the “War on Terror?” How about anybody at all with any influence in Washington? Any mention of Muslim resentment of U.S. militarism in these regions? Any at all? What we do hear is half-truths and distractions about nation building and safe havens. To directly address the most salient issue would mean self-ruin, pronouncing the one thing simultaneously out of the question to those in Washington and enthusiastically supported by both American and Muslim populations.
Another interesting bit from the Archives regarding these airstrikes on Afghanistan in the late 1990s was the revelation that the strikes not only failed to produce any constructive results for the U.S., but may have been hugely counter-productive in solidifying the Taliban relationship to bin Laden and al Qaeda:
Washington D.C., August 20, 2008 – On the tenth anniversary of U.S. cruise missile strikes against al-Qaeda in response to deadly terrorist attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, newly-declassified government documents posted today by the National Security Archive (www.nsarchive.org) suggest the strikes not only failed to hurt Osama bin Laden but ultimately may have brought al-Qaeda and the Taliban closer politically and ideologically.
A 400-page Sandia National Laboratories report on bin Laden, compiled in 1999, includes a warning about political damage for the U.S. from bombing two impoverished states without regard for international agreement, since such action “mirror imag[ed] aspects of al-Qaeda’s own attacks” [see pp. 18-22]. A State Department cable argues that although the August missile strikes were designed to provide the Taliban with overwhelming reason to surrender bin Laden, the military action may have sharpened Afghan animosity towards Washington and even strengthened the Taliban-al-Qaeda alliance.
Following the August 20 U.S. air attacks, Taliban spokesman Wakil Ahmed told U.S. Department of State officials “If Kandahar could have retaliated with similar strikes against Washington, it would have.” Such an attack, although unfeasible at the time, was at least in part actualized by al-Qaeda on 9/11.
…in retrospect, the August 20 retaliatory cruise missile strikes may have caused long-term political harm to U.S. national security and counterterrorism interests [see pp. 18-22].
So on the one hand, the continued harboring and supposed non-cooperation* of the Taliban post-9/11 may have been our own doing and potentially could have gone down much differently if we had chosen less aggressive approaches. On the other hand, these revelations unfortunately had no influence on policymakers who ended up choosing (and are still choosing) the same violent, counter-productive approach.
*As this Chomsky piece shows, the oft-cited non-cooperation was much less obvious than what people generally characterize it as.
Update: I’ve been reminded by the great Scott Horton of this related Gareth Porter piece from earlier this month. Do read it!