Bush and Obama: Two Middle East Legacies

The Citizen

In January 2017, Barack Obama will be handing over the presidency to a successor after eight years in the White House. In the April 2016 issue of The Atlantic Magazine, President Obama speaks to Jeffrey Goldberg, and gives an overall view of his presidency. Goldberg’s article headlined “The Obama Doctrine” is based on a series of conversations in which the president explains, and to an extent justifies, the hardest decisions he took and why.

Alongside his own explanation, an independent and critical analysis of the Obama legacy, and comparison with that of his predecessor George W. Bush, is necessary.

Barack Obama’s victory in November 2008 was historic, not only because he was the first ever African-American to be elected president of the United States, but also because of its timing. After eight years of George W. Bush’s “war on terror” in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks, Barack Obama’s victory over his hawkish Republican opponent John McCain promised change. Many millions in America and abroad felt that an era of peace was near.

The “war on terror” was primarily directed against Muslims, seen by Bush’s vice president Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and most of America’s military-intelligence complex as a threat. It defined the George W. Bush presidency, and sharply polarised the world. Nonetheless, it was a happy irony that the United States elected a president, a Christian, whose father was Muslim. The manner in which Obama’s victory was greeted made it appear like a possible antidote to treat the afflictions created under the Bush presidency.

Those afflictions were everywhere. Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq at the centre of war; the Greater Middle East, where abductions, hostage-taking, torture and extra-judicial killings were carried out in the name of “war on terror” without boundaries; sweeping depiction of Muslims and their religion as if they were the root cause of all evil. It shaped opinion in much of the non-Islamic world against Muslims. It also reinforced perceptions of the west in the Islamic world, widening the breach. George W. Bush’s presidency ended with the financial earthquake of 2008/2009.

In January 2009, Obama’s presidency began from a low point. Now that he approaches the conclusion of his eight years in office, the time is ripe for an appraisal of his journey through multiple crises in the Middle East. What kind of Middle East is it going to be when he leaves the White House in January 2017?

The high point of President Obama’s engagement with the region came soon after his inauguration. In his June 2009 address at al-Azhar University in Egypt, he struck the right tone. Praising a thousand-year-old al-Azhar as a beacon of Islamic learning, he said he carried with him the goodwill of the American people; he acknowledged that great tension existed between the United States and Muslims around the world; many Muslims were denied rights and opportunities by colonialism.

Muslim-majority countries, he said, were treated as proxies during the Cold war without regard to their own aspirations; sweeping changes by globalization and modernity led many Muslims to view the West as hostile to the traditions of Islam; remarkably for an American president, Obama cited the situation between Israelis, Palestinians and the Arab world as “a major source of tension”, albeit making clear America’s strong bond with Israel.

Obama’s comment about the sufferings of Palestinians – Muslims and Christians – in the pursuit of a homeland, their pain and dislocation could not have gone down well with Israel’s political establishment, and many in Israel’s majority Jewish community. But that America will not turn its backs on “the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity and a state of their own” was music to the ears of numerous people in the occupied Palestinian territories and the wider Arab world.

As President Obama prepares to complete his term, his record repeats the history of American presidency. It shows that even the world’s most powerful elected leader has his limits. The plight of Palestinians in the occupied territories that Obama so eloquently spoke of in 2009 continues, as changes to Israel’s citizenship laws narrow the space in which Arab citizens of Israel can exercise their rights. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel remains defiant of the Obama administration’s wishes, helped by the Israel lobby’s influence in the American Congress. Obama has given up on the Palestinian cause.

Elsewhere in the Arab world, his stance on the popular revolution against the dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak was hesitant. The revolution did lead to Mubarak’s fall from power, and victories of the Muslim Brotherhood in the presidential and parliamentary elections. However, with the Mubarak era military and judiciary remaining opposed to the new order, and President Mohamed Morsi facing persistent rebellion at home, the short-lived elected order in Egypt was crushed by the military in July 2013, leading to the rise of the military chief Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to power.

The military overthrow of Egypt’s elected government that President Obama still does not recognise as a coup was carried out under his administration’s watch, with the National Security Adviser Susan Rice being close to events. Obama also gave in to the sustained pressure from the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, and the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, to intervene in the Libyan civil war to overthrow, after which Muammar Gaddafi was brutally assassinated. In his interview with Jeffrey Goldberg for the Atlantic Magazine, Obama lamented the intervention in Libya, and disastrous repercussions thereof in the Arab world and beyond – repercussions for which he pointed the finger at the British government.

It is true that the Obama administration has not used vitriolic language like the preceding administration against Muslims and Islam, though leading politicians continue to use such language in Congress and outside. However, those killed by drone attacks ordered by President Obama are overwhelmingly Muslim, and the total number of drone strikes is about ten times greater than those ordered by his predecessor. Among the killings ordered by Obama from the White House was that of Osama bin Laden in the Pakistani city, Abbottabad, in an American special forces’ operation in May 2011.

If George W. Bush left behind a vast amount of wreckage in Iraq and Afghanistan, Barack Obama is about to leave similar wreckage in Libya and Syria. Both legacies attest a historical record of the exercise of power with impunity. In one respect, though, Obama has forced a fundamental change in the Middle East. He has gone against Israel and Saudi Arabia, America’s closest allies, to enable US rapprochement with Iran after 35 years. In doing so, he has moved the balance away from Sunni Islam towards Shia Islam. Whether he has made this important shift too late to be permanent, and it could revert again under a successor administration, remains to be seen.



Drone Wars from Britain: How Many More?

CounterPunch, October 29, 2012

Urgent Purchase

Now we know that not only did the United Kingdom already have drones, but more are coming to join the Royal Air Force for surveillance and combat operations in foreign lands. And, for the first time, they will be controlled from Britain.

According to a report in the Guardian, the United Kingdom has made urgent purchase of five more Reaper unmanned aerial vehicles, which will double their number with the British military. Initially they will be deployed in Afghanistan and are expected to start operating within weeks. So, instead of sitting with their American counterparts in Nevada, the British “pilots” will be playing with videogame killing machines from RAF Waddington in the English county of Lincolnshire. These latest developments come as the United Nations has finally decided to investigate American drone strikes and other “targeted killings” of “terrorist suspects.”

In the main, three factors have influenced the British government’s decision: the prolongation of the war in Afghanistan beyond the military planners’ original estimates; the rise in the deaths and injuries of British and other Nato soldiers at the hands of Afghan security personnel; and President Obama’s plan to withdraw most of the U.S. combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. Surely other Nato troops cannot stay in the country beyond that point.

Whether President Obama is reelected or Mitt Romney wins on November 6, it can be taken as certain that drone wars will continue in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and their use will be extended to other places. So mechanized, refined and cheap to manufacture are these instruments of the “war on terror.” In the present economic difficulties, the governing coalition of Conservative prime minister David Cameron and his Liberal-Democrat deputy Nick Clegg probably feels that Britain’s urgent purchase of Reaper drones is a “good investment.”

Sources in touch with American policymakers in Washington confidently predict that drone wars will continue. So, there seems to be no reason for the British government to withdraw its aircraft from the region. Under rules imposed by the European Union and the Civil Aviation Authority, drone missions can only be flown in certain places in Britain.

Civilian Deaths

In a recent article, I discussed a study by Stanford and New York universities’ law schools. It concluded that the CIA’s targeted drone killings in Pakistan’s tribal areas were politically counterproductive, killing many civilians and undermining respect for international law.

That British drones have been in operation from Creech air base in the United States has been a less known fact. The Ministry of Defence in London insists that only four civilians have died in its drone operations in Afghanistan––in line with the Obama administration’s claims of there being very few civilian casualties. However, British defence officials say they have no idea how many insurgents have died because of the “immense difficulty and risks” of verifying who has been hit.

Clive Stafford Smith, founder of the legal charity Reprieve, says that “decisions are being made that will ripple through the generations.” In a recent comment, he wrote: “Just as the secret Manhattan Project ushered in the nuclear age, so the military and their corporate colleagues are pressing forward with policies with very little public disclosure or debate.”

It is wholly inconsistent for any Western leader or government to assert that they have no idea how many insurgents have died because of “immense difficulty and risks” and yet for Prime Minister David Cameron to claim that by December 2010 British drones had “killed 124 insurgents in Afghanistan.” No wonder defence officials denied that the information came from them, and said that “they had no idea where the prime minister got the figure.” So the question arises, as Smith has raised, whether the kill-numbers are being “conjured up by politicians.”

For several years since the “war on terror” started a decade ago, the British government has sought to deny accusations that its forces have been involved in terror and torture––against mounting evidence. The Stanford and New York universities’ report is among the latest and most damning. The truth about the use of circling drones to terrify the 800000 citizens––men, women and children––in a remote tribal region is a kind of war forbidden under the Geneva conventions. But the rules of war are being changed with disregard for established conventions and law. The West’s drone policy is on trial.

In a legal challenge before the High Court in London brought by a man who lost his father in a CIA drone strike, Britain once again faces accusations of providing intelligence for such attacks and therefore of complicity. After reading a harrowing account of drone terror from Noor Khan, a resident of northwestern Pakistan, Lord Justice Moses described the evidence as “very moving.” It is our responsibility as citizens wherever we may be to read Noor Khan’s testimony and ask ourselves, “How many more?”


America, Iran and an Unashamedly Interventionist Secretary of State

The war is not over yet in Libya after the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi and the Obama administration has turned its attention to Iran. Attorney General Eric Holder’s announcement of a “plot” to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in the United States, and warnings of dire consequences for Iran, mark a new escalation between the two countries.

The Obama administration says the offender behind the “plot” is an Iranian-American used-car salesman based in Texas, Mansour Arbabsiar, who believed he was hiring assassins from a Mexican drug cartel for a meager one-and-a-half million dollars. It was a trap set up by federal agents. Not for the first time, it seems, the American law enforcement agencies are responsible for planting ideas into the mind of someone naïve and ordinary and making an arrest as soon as the individual looks interested.

The evidence has to be tested in courts. Reports say the man in custody will plead “not guilty.” But the Obama administration has already found him guilty. Further, according to the Obama administration, the trail points all the way to the Iranian regime. That the government in Tehran would use an American citizen of Iranian descent to hatch a scheme with a Mexican drug cartel to kill the Saudi ambassador to the United States, involving less than two million dollars, is bizarre.

Why the Saudi ambassador and not a bigger target? For only one-and-a-half million dollars? Why would the authorities in Tehran take such a risk? What purpose would be served? Honest answers to these and other perplexing questions are hard to come by. Juan Cole, the University of Michigan scholar, raises even more questions and concludes why it could not be the work of the Iranian government. Tehran, not surprisingly, rejects Washington’s accusations.

There will be those who will see the latest developments as part of a consistent pattern of U.S. foreign policy conduct in the Middle East, especially with regard to Iran. The motive––to teach Iran a lesson in any way possible. Like the bizarre accusations against Muammar Gaddafi that he was employing mass rape of women as a weapon against opponents, to justify NATO’s war in Libya.

Human rights organizations like Amnesty plainly contradicted the U.S. secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, and the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, who made the fantastic claim that “we have information that there was a policy to rape in Libya those who were against the government. Apparently he [Colonel Gaddafi] used it to punish people.”

Now, as doubts increase over the “plot,” but the campaign against Iran is pushed by Washington regardless, expressions of incredulity abound. Respected magazine,Veterans Today, which represents American servicemen, has an article titled “Mr. President, We Believe Holder Lied on Iran Terror.” Senior editor Gordon Duff commented, “Within 24 hours of the announcement of a new Iranian plot, the truth started leaking out. That leak is now a flood. The FBI made up the whole thing, invented it and you and they aren’t going to get away with it. Why something this outrageous, this incompetent?”

There seems to be no limit to which Hillary Clinton’s war of vengeance will go. It is worth noting her unrestrained outburst about Iran during the final phase of her unsuccessful bid for the Democratic Party’s nomination in the 2008 presidential election. She said that as president she would “totally obliterate” Iran if it foolishly considered attacking Israel–– a scenario not very likely. Contrary to what some in Washington’s corridors of power think, the Iranians are more sensible than they are given credit for. At the time, Hillary Clinton’s opponent, Barack Obama, dismissed her outburst as “sabre rattling.”

The Obama administration’s character today is vastly different from Obama the candidate’s. Hillary Clinton, ex-New York senator and a committed supporter of Israel, is his secretary of state. I believe she is the most powerful figure to have arrived at the top in the State Department since Henry Kissinger during the Nixon presidency more than 35 years ago.

Even then, Nixon was a formidable and liberal figure in international politics. An architect of détente, his foreign policy goals were radically different from Washington’s objectives in the twenty-first century.

Hillary Clinton is arguably the most interventionist secretary of state of the past half century. While Obama struggles at home with an increasingly belligerent Congress, Hillary Clinton has, in effect, seized control of U.S. foreign policy, which she conducts with far less diplomacy than military threats. Like the Bush-Cheney administration, we are witnessing an Obama-Clinton presidency, which brazenly engages in targeted killings in any country it wishes and, at the same time, accuses another country of plotting an assassination in Washington.

A Democratic administration has embraced the neoconservative Project for the New American Century. Its aggressiveness and stupidity compete with each other. It represents the law of the jungle.


Reflections On A Savage Decade

International Policy Digest   CounterPunch 

The September 11, 2001 attack on America produced extraordinary human reaction as most events involving great violence and mass casualties do. Shock, anger, defiance and an instinct for retribution are the usual ingredients of that reaction, but societies that allow this mix to overcome themselves in the long run have to pay a price. To ensure that the price is not too high requires a sense of proportion, an agency to soothe, to reassure, to guide and to take corrective action. In the wake of September 11, that burden fell upon President George W. Bush. The leaders of the United Kingdom, Italy and Spain were minor players. The last decade has been one of poor judgment and high cost, human, economic, moral. Even the best estimates of the overall cost paid during the last decade tend to be meaningless, for  the numbers are colossal and rising.

Coinciding with the anniversary of September 11, 2001, two recent developments remind us of the nature of the long litany of failures. The inquiry by Sir William Gage into the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by British soldiers, particularly the death in custody of hotel receptionist Baha Mousa, is devastating for the British army’s reputation. Sir William, a distinguished judge, described the British soldiers’ brutality as “systematic.” Robert Fisk, writing in the Independent, said it’s the lying about it that is so. First the Americans at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison; now the British in Basra. The trail of notoriety is long.

NATO this week also admitted “accidently” shooting to death a BBC journalist in Afghanistan last July. The journalist, Omaid Khpalwak, was shot eleven times by American soldiers, involved in a battle with “militants.” Khpalwak spoke good English and, as it turned out, raised his hand carrying his identity card to show that he was a journalist. Military officials, apologizing for the “mistake,” said the troops mistook him for a suicide bomber, and that they had “complied with the law of armed conflict and acted reasonably.”

Even this concession had to be pulled out of the military officials’ teeth. Their explanation immediately after the shooting was that he was killed by the “militants.” Khpalwak’s family and the BBC insisted on a proper inquiry and answers to get what we now have. His relatives say they are receiving “threats after speaking against the foreign military.”

The culture of impunity at the top has affected the thinking and behavior of people in ways not imagined a decade ago. Western leaders at the time had pledged “not to let the terrorists change our way of life,” but that is precisely what has happened.  Fear and suspicion pervade societies. Citizens are asked to be distrustful of fellow citizens and monitor neighbors and strangers. The “national security” agenda has come to dominate societies while poverty, hunger, famine, disease and climate change have been pushed back.

The wars for which the Western powers bear a heavy responsibility have produced millions of refugees, but the law governing the rights of refugees struggles to maintain its legitimacy, as Western governments pass the buck on to whoever they can. Refugees have come to be seen as a threat to national security. Leaders have been overcome by Churchillian ambition and have acquired a habit of using the language of war. Their nationalist rhetoric often has a divisive effect instead of encouraging harmony between communities.

The “war on terror” transferred casualties abroad. In the decade since September 11, 2001, more than 7,000 foreign troops died in Iraq and Afghanistan, including more than 6,000 U.S. soldiers. The number of wounded returning home is undetermined, but far in excess of half a million in America alone as indicated by disability claims. For each foreign casualty, there are multiple local victims that few care to count.

The costs of the Afghan and Iraq wars this year are some 10 billion dollars every month and unlikely to be cut in the near future. The West has suffered a catastrophic economic collapse. Governments are cutting everything else, from jobs and services to social benefits, maintenance and development of the infrastructure and education. Elected leaders are resorting to repression to deal with the outbreaks of social tension and anti-terrorism laws are increasingly in use in the larger sphere of life. The price for the follies of the last decade will have to be borne by the future generations.


Credibility Gap

Journal of Foreign Relations column –

Egypt’s deposed president, Hosni Mubarak, lying on a stretcher in a cage, at the start of his trial has provided some of the most vivid images in recent days. A ruthless and proud man, who could do no wrong during his thirty-year rule, pleaded “not guilty” to all charges of corruption and violence against peaceful demonstrators, whose uprising eventually swept him from power. As Mubarak and his co-defendants appeared in court, thousands in Cairo streets greeted the event with jubilation and disbelief and millions watched on television.

The charges related to the killings of protestors in his final days in power convey no more than a fraction of the brutal repression under Mubarak’s regime. For it imprisoned, tortured and killed countless Egyptians. Its record includes collaboration in the torture of people abducted from other parts of the world in the CIA’s “war on terror” – people handed over to the Egyptian secret police after September 11, 2001.

At the same time, a far more disturbing episode was unfolding in the United Kingdom, America’s leading ally in the “war on terror.” That unquestioned support for President George W. Bush for the invasion of Iraq and the broader war on terror was largely responsible for ending the political career of Tony Blair, then Britain’s prime minister, is a little understood fact in the corridors of power in Washington. On the day Mubarak appeared in court in the Egyptian capital, a message from the human rights charity Reprieve dropped into my email box, about a subject not far removed. But before going any further, I must declare an interest. I am a supporter of Reprieve.

The message said that, as part of ten leading human rights organizations, Reprieve had withdrawn from the inquiry, set up by the British government, into allegations that the authorities were involved in the mistreatment of detainees in the “war on terror.” These include organizations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Liberty. Lawyers representing Guantanamo Bay detainees and torture victims also pulled out. Reprieve’s Executive Director Clare Algar explained why every single human rights body had decided to shun the inquiry. The two most important reasons given were the lack of transparency and the non-representation of torture victims.

The inquiry is headed by Sir Peter Gibson, a former appeals court judge. However, it will be the British government that will determine what material is made public. Already, the government has excluded from disclosure evidence from foreign intelligence agencies, including the CIA. The inquiry was announced by the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, in July 2010, after he assumed office following the general election. Sir Peter’s appointment as its head immediately generated controversy, for he had previously served as the Intelligence Services Commissioner. There were those who said that his impartiality was “fatally compromised” because of his past relationship with the security services. Now, those pulling out have told him: “Plainly an inquiry conducted in the way that you describe and in accordance with the protocol would not comply with Article Three of the European Convention on Human Rights.” So there will be a boycott.

Critics say that the exercise is going to be “secretive and toothless.” It follows the U.S. line under President Barack Obama, who, contrary to his lofty campaign promises, now says that he does not want to look back, only ahead. The road ahead is a darkened alley.

Fortunately, there have been bigger, much more credible investigations elsewhere, conducted without fear or favor. In 2007, the Council of Europe’s investigation by the Swiss Senator Dick Marty found European governments guilty of collusion in CIA torture, in running secret CIA prisons on their soil, in deceit and misinformation. Senator Marty’s report concluded that large numbers of people had been abducted, kept in detention without any “precise charge” in camps where torture was “common practice.”

In a high-profile case in Britain, a bench of top judges found that the British intelligence service MI5 was involved in the ill-treatment of British resident Binyam Mohamed, who spent years in the Guantanamo Bay prison camp. In a draft judgment, Justice Lord Neuberger wrote that the security service failed to respect human rights, misled parliament and had a “culture of suppression” which undermined government assurances about its conduct. The judge’s remarks would never have come to light had it not subsequently emerged that the British government’s senior lawyer, Jonathan Sumpton Q.C., secretly pleaded that the judge soften his criticism before handing down the ruling. The judge agreed, but Sumpton’s letter was made public. That letter referred to an MI5 officer, described as Witness B, who was understood to have interrogated Binyam Mohamed in Pakistan in 2002.

That the latest inquiry has become trapped in a crisis of credibility is therefore not surprising. However, it does not stop there. The Guardian newspaper has just disclosed the existence of a top secret document showing how MI5 and MI6 officers were allowed to extract information from prisoners being illegally tortured abroad. Further, it has emerged that the government was worried about the application of this policy becoming public. For the document warns that if it became known that information had been obtained through the mistreatment of detainees, then the British public could be at a greater risk of a terrorist attack, and the disclosure could result in damage to the reputation of the [intelligence] agencies.

Disturbing questions therefore arise even before the inquiry has begun. How can it be credible if such documents exist, but are not made public? Is there not a risk of the inquiry being seen as a whitewash? What purpose will it serve if, in the light of what is already known, questions remain afterward about British complicity and torture? It would be a supreme irony if more people ended up having faith in Egypt’s trial of Hosni Mubarak than Britain’s official inquiry into its own security services.


The Killing of Osama bin Laden

History News Network (May 2, 2011)

Ten years after the dreadful events of September 11, 2001, Osama bin Laden is dead. His killing in a CIA operation in the Pakistani colonial city of Abbottabad, about thirty miles from the capital, Islamabad, brings a closure for relatives of many thousands of victims of al Qaeda violence around the world. It will be seen as ultimate justice for the man viewed as the chief perpetrator of international terrorism for two decades. The sentiment is understandable, even justified. However, there is a bigger truth. The 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in the heart of America unleashed a global crisis. The subsequent ‘war on terror’ so polarized the world that there will be those who will mourn bin Laden’s death. It is an uncomfortable truth, but should not be overlooked. For although his physical presence may be behind us, the legend of Osama bin Laden still lives.  

The biblical expression – Those who live by the sword will die by the sword – comes to mind. On the other side of the coin is the phrase – The enemy of my enemy is my friend. The simplicity and perils of this mindset are revealed by the manner of Osama bin Laden’s death now and his creation at the outbreak of the CIA proxy war against the Soviet occupying forces in Afghanistan three decades ago. There is no dearth of experts associated with think tanks inside the Washington Beltway who claim with confidence that the United States had no contact with bin Laden, and did not help him. These claims are often based on the logic that bin Laden was already so hostile to the West that any warm relationship with the United States was out of the question. But Mujahideen warlords like Hikmatyar, Rabbani and Haqqani were hostile to Western ideology as well. Their opposition was strengthened during the time they spent in the Arab world. Yet they and the West became allies in the war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.

Comments made by Britain’s ex-foreign secretary Robin Cook in an article in the Guardian newspaper are worth noting at this point (The struggle against terrorism cannot be won by military means, July 8, 2005). In one passage, Cook, who had earlier resigned from Tony Blair’s cabinet because of his opposition to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, said:

Bin Laden was … a product of a monumental miscalculation by western security agencies. Throughout the 80s he was armed by the CIA and funded by the Saudis to wage jihad against the Russian occupation of Afghanistan. Al-Qaida, literally “the database”, was originally the computer file of the thousands of mujahideen who were recruited and trained with help from the CIA to defeat the Russians. Inexplicably, and with disastrous consequences, it never appears to have occurred to Washington that once Russia was out of the way, Bin Laden’s organisation would turn its attention to the west.   

Robin Cook was a politician of immense credibility. An ex-foreign secretary and leader of the House of Commons (another cabinet post) with access to classified information, his revelation after resigning would reasonably have to take precedence over other expert opinion. Cook did not live long after writing his article in the Guardian. He died unexpectedly of a heart attack barely a month later in August 2005. Had he lived, we may well have learned more from him. The purpose of my reference to the past is to make a point about the present. Hiring armed men driven by ideological zeal, and willing to fight your enemy for dollars, is a highway that goes through minefields, whether it is Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya or anywhere else.

The killing of bin Laden in a US special forces operation will go a long way toward assuring the reelection of President Obama in November 2012. In the short run, though, the outcome has implications for al Qaeda, Pakistan and the West, including the United States. Bin Laden’s demise has taken out America’s most recognized and resourceful enemy, who inspired those discontented enough to kill innocent people. A wealthy man in his own right, he could both finance al Qaeda activities, and attract money from other sources. Many of those channels will surely be cut. But the risk of revenge attacks is real. The ruling establishment in Pakistan has to tread carefully. Already angry by frequent American drone attacks in the tribal areas, Pakistan’s public opinion remains extremely sensitive to any US military incursion so deep inside the country. Official reaction in Islamabad is therefore brief and non-committal.

Conflicting messages are coming from Washington and Islamabad about the degree of cooperation between the CIA and Pakistani military’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI). Some sources claim that the Pakistani authorities had no idea about the US operation. President Obama, announcing that bin Laden had been targeted and killed by American forces, nevertheless said, “It is important to note that our counterterrorism cooperation with Pakistan helped us lead to bin Laden and the compound where he was hiding.”

The episode raises many questions. For instance, could it be true that Osama bin Laden had been living in an expensive home, especially built five years ago, next to the Pakistan Military Academy a few miles from the capital city, without the authorities having a clue? Would anything similar be possible close to West Point in the United States, Sandhurst in Britain or one of the military academies in India? Were there any Pakistanis who might have advised bin Laden to move from his hideout in Pakistan’s northwestern tribal belt to a garrison town deep inside the country? If so, who were they?

The construction of a new mansion-style house in a colonial city is a big project and requires the planning permission, preparation and supervision. In whose name was the application made? Who managed the building project so close to the country’s premier military establishment? Was it all due to a series of monumental failures on many fronts? Or was there any involvement of Pakistan’s security agencies, or individuals serving in them, and what may have been their motive? The whole episode is shrouded in mystery. Answers to some of these questions may come in time, but nothing is straightforward in the world of spies and clandestine operations.

There exists a difficult relationship between the United States and Pakistan’s ISI, supposedly America’s partner in the ‘war on terror’ and simultaneously close to militant groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan. In reality, the past conduct of the ISI shows that the agency has sometimes kept certain al Qaeda and Afghan Taliban figures from Washington, and handed others over to the CIA at other times. In a high-profile case, the arrest of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, a leading al Qaeda figure, was announced in March 2003 from a ‘safe house’ of a Pakistani military officer. The officer had family links with one of Pakistan’s religious parties, Jamaat-i-Islami, which supported the military ruler General Pervez Musharraf, a close partner in President George W Bush’s war on terrorism.

In my book Overcoming the Bush Legacy in Iraq and Afghanistan, I have described how Sheikh Mohammed was protected and moved around by the ISI until he was handed over to the United States (Chapter 4, p 52). The conduct of Pakistani military and intelligence agencies in recent years suggests that while they have been willing to hand over ‘low-value’ suspects, or in many instances innocent people, to the CIA, they have withheld the most valuable individuals. These people were passed on to the Americans when there was likelihood of extracting a high price in return, or when the CIA confronted the Pakistani authorities with evidence that a wanted person was in Pakistan and the United States knew the location. Whether this was true in Osama bin Laden’s case, or whether the recent controversy over the arrest of the CIA contractor Raymond Davis after the reported deaths of two Pakistani nationals in a firefight is relevant remains a topic of speculation.

The success of the operation to kill Osama bin Laden is certainly a major coup for President Obama – something his predecessor, George W Bush did not manage in nearly eight years. It will boost Obama’s popularity in the United States, and greatly improve his prospects in the November 2012 presidential election. However, it is unlikely to bring the threat of terrorism to an end, given the continuing conflicts in which the United States and allies are involved in the region. Since assuming the presidency more than two years ago, Obama has often repeated his intention to make sure that Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda are no longer a threat to America’s security. The influence of al Qaeda seems to have declined in recent years, and the killing of bin Laden is the latest, most serious setback to the organization. Instead, the ‘Arab Spring’ is sweeping across the region. While the peaceful mass movement demanding basic freedoms appears to have achieved some success in Egypt, the ‘Arab Spring’ has to endure suppression in Bahrain, Jordan, Yemen and Syria. The conflict in Libya is more akin to tribal warfare, with Muammar Gaddafi’s military apparently determined to crush the armed opposition which NATO supports. With bin Laden no longer on the scene, will President Obama seize the moment, refocus on the ‘Arab Spring’ and let flowers bloom?  


Q&A: History News Network

HNN (January 13, 2011)

You’ve worked in Afghanistan and Pakistan as a BBC correspondent. How does the Afghanistan of today compare to the pre-civil war Afghanistan of 1978?

Before the 1978 communist coup which triggered the war, Afghanistan was fairly quiet and, especially for foreign visitors, very safe. People were hospitable. It was a desperately poor country, but people went about their day-to-day living. The king had been overthrown by his cousin, but Afghanistan was in practice ruled by the royals.

So what happened? Did the Soviet invasion cause the subsequent thirty-odd years of unrest, or did it uncork simmering problems in Afghan society?

In broad terms, internal disturbance began with the overthrow of the king by his cousin, who was a modernizer and didn’t like the king’s non-interventionist approach. His coup began internal feuds among factions.

Young, relatively educated, communists were among them. But the 1978 coup by pro-Soviet army officers triggered internal strife and greater Soviet intervention. It was to save the communist regime that was deeply unpopular and collapsing that the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in December 1979.

Where does Islamist ideology enter the picture?

I said earlier that there were factions during the king’s cousin, Mohammad Daud’s rule from 1973 to 1978. His vigorous drive for modernization brought Islamist groups to the fore to oppose him.

But we must always remember, Afghanistan is a deeply religious country, although historically Afghan society was heavily influenced by the most liberal of the Muslim sects, the Hanafi sect. However, with conflict escalating moderation declined.

Tell us a bit about the Hanafi sect—I’ve never heard of them before.

The Hanafi sect is based on local practical considerations to find resolutions to local problems. Hanafis have tended to favor social harmony. It was because of this moderation that followers of other religions—Hindus, Buddhists in particular, lived in peace. Hindu merchants in Kabul, a tiny minority, were quite powerful. When I was in Afghanistan in the early 1990s, I went to Afghan Hindu money changers. However, with the Soviet invasion and American help to mujahideen groups, which incidentally began under the Carter administration in mid-1979, and then under the Regan administration from January 1981, Arab fighters began to arrive to confront the Soviet occupation forces, the nature of Afghan society began to change dramatically and violently.

Why did the Soviets make the decision to invade? More specifically, who within the Soviet government was an advocate of invasion and who was opposed?

I explain in my book Breeding Ground the long sequence of events. In brief, there is evidence that the Soviets were deeply unhappy with factionalism in Afghanistan’s communist regime, which is to say the government after the 1978 coup. And the Afghan communist regime’s brutal suppression of opposition made it increasingly unpopular. The communists tried to impose Stalinist land reforms. This was at a time in the late 1970s when Stalinism was completely out of fashion within the Kremlin. In short, the Soviets in the end invaded after some reluctance and long reflection to protect communism at the helm in Kabul but without the Stalinist ruler Hafizullah Amin, who was assassinated in the December 1979 coup by the Soviets. They installed a puppet, Babrak Karmal, but he had his own problems, including the perception of being a Soviet puppet.

Did religiously-motivated resistance to the invasion begin immediately?

Almost immediately, because the Soviets were seen not only as foreign invaders but infidels, non-believers. This is very offensive to most Afghans. However, as I discuss in Breeding Ground, the involvement of Pakistani and Saudi Islamist extremists, as well as Afghan extremist groups like Gulbuddin Hikmatyar’s Hizb-i-Islami, the picture began to change. Islamic fighters, among them there was one Osama bin Laden, began to arrive to fight alongside Afghan mujahideen. The American administration and the Saudis, Egyptians and the Chinese, all formed an anti-Soviet alliance. While these external players gave money and weapons, even copies of the Quran among mujahideen fighters, the actual job of training and distributing weapons was outsourced to the Pakistani military ruler General Zia-ul Haq and Pakistan’s military intelligence service, the ISI.

How important was this Pakistani support in the 1980s, and how important is Pakistani support to the Taliban (and other insurgent groups) today?

In the 1980s it was vital. Otherwise, the United States could never have fought the proxy war against the Soviet Union in the 1980s. America’s recruitment of General Zia as the foremost ally, in return for military and economic aid—and respectability, no less important for Zia, played a big role, too. As for now, the Taliban represent two distinct phenomena—one in Pakistan itself; the other, the Afghan Taliban have their top leadership in Pakistan’s tribal belt. Pakistan’s tacit approval of their stay in the tribal belt, and possible support by some sections of the Pakistani military intelligent service, the ISI, play a very important role. I should say in conclusion here that from the Pakistani ruling military/political elite’s geopolitical point of view, support for the Afghan Taliban seems rational. It is a tragedy that this strategy has brought disastrous results in the long term.