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Anand Gopal, How to Lose a War That Wasn't There

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

[Note for TomDispatch Readers: This is really simple.  If you only read one book on America's war in Afghanistan, it has to be Anand Gopal's just published No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes. It's an instant classic, a brilliant piece of reportage, and a stunning exploration of the lives of three Afghans (a housewife with a remarkable story, a local warlord, and a Taliban commander) behind whom lurk the Americans (mis)fighting their "war on terror." Mother Jones calls it "a brilliant analysis of our military's dysfunction and a startlingly clear account of the consequences." The New York Times describes it as "devastating," as well as "essential reading for anyone concerned about how America got Afghanistan so wrong." It's a tale of the Afghan War that, so many years later, has simply never been told and it couldn't be more dramatic. In addition, for a contribution of $100 (or more) to this site -- money we'll use to help out future Anand Gopals -- he will sign a personalized copy of his book for you. Check out our donation page for the details. Finally, for those of you in New York City, Gopal is giving a free lecture about his book and the Afghan War at the Cooper Union tonight at 6:30 pm. Check it out here. Tom]

You might think that 12-and-a-half years after it began, Washington would have learned something useful about its war on terror, but no such luck. If you remember, back in the distant days just after 9/11 when that war was launched (or, in a sense, "lost"), the Bush administration was readying itself to take out not just Osama bin Laden and his relatively small al-Qaeda outfit but "terror" itself, that amorphous monster of the twenty-first century. They were planning to do so in somewhere between 60 and 83 countries and, as they liked to say, "drain the swamp" globally.

In reality, they launched an overblown war not so much "on" terror, but "of" terror, one that, in place after place, from Afghanistan to Somalia, Pakistan to parts of Africa, destabilized regions and laid the basis for a spreading jihadist movement. In so many cases, as at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, they fulfilled Osama bin Laden's wildest fantasies, creating the sort of recruiting posters from hell for future jihadists that al-Qaeda was itself incapable of.

So many years later, they seem to be repeating the process in Yemen. They are now escalating a "successful" drone and special operations war against a group in that impoverished land that calls itself al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).  The drones turn out to be pretty good at knocking off various figures in that movement, but they are in another sense like a godsend for it. In what are called "targeted killings," but might better be termed (as Paul Woodward has) "speculative murders," they repeatedly wipe out civilians, including women, children, and in one recent case, part of a wedding party. They are Washington's calling card of death and as such they only ensure that more Yemenis will join or support AQAP.

The process of creating ever more enemies you must then kill started in Afghanistan in 2001, even if that remains news to most Americans. Now, TomDispatch regular Anand Gopal in his new book No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes offers a stunning history of how the U.S. fought its "war on terror" for almost a year in that country against -- quite literally -- ghosts. In the process, it resuscitated a Taliban movement that had ceased to exist and then found itself in a conflict it couldn't win. It's a story that's never been told before, even if Washington's second Afghan War makes no sense without it.

For many Americans, as Henry Ford so famously put it, history is bunk.  In this case, however, history turns out to be everything that matters, and the rest has proved to be bloody, painful, and costly bunk.  If you don't believe me, read Gopal's hidden history of the Afghan War at this website today and then get your hands on his book. Tom

How the U.S. Created the Afghan War -- and Then Lost It 
The Unreported Story of How the Haqqani Network Became America's Greatest Enemy
By Anand Gopal

It was a typical Kabul morning. Malik Ashgar Square was already bumper-to-bumper with Corolla taxis, green police jeeps, honking minivans, and angry motorcyclists. There were boys selling phone cards and men waving wads of cash for exchange, all weaving their way around the vehicles amid exhaust fumes. At the gate of the Lycée Esteqial, one of the country's most prestigious schools, students were kicking around a soccer ball. At the Ministry of Education, a weathered old Soviet-style building opposite the school, a line of employees spilled out onto the street. I was crossing the square, heading for the ministry, when I saw the suicide attacker.

He had Scandinavian features. Dressed in blue jeans and a white t-shirt, and carrying a large backpack, he began firing indiscriminately at the ministry. From my vantage point, about 50 meters away, I couldn't quite see his expression, but he did not seem hurried or panicked. I took cover behind a parked taxi. It wasn't long before the traffic police had fled and the square had emptied of vehicles.

Twenty-eight people, mostly civilians, died in attacks at the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Justice, and elsewhere across the city that day in 2009. Afterward, U.S. authorities implicated the Haqqani Network, a shadowy outfit operating from Pakistan that had pioneered the use of multiple suicide bombers in headline-grabbing urban assaults. Unlike other Taliban groups, the Haqqanis' approach to mayhem was worldly and sophisticated: they recruited Arabs, Pakistanis, even Europeans, and they were influenced by the latest in radical Islamist thought. Their leader, the septuagenarian warlord Jalaluddin Haqqani, was something like Osama bin Laden and Al Capone rolled into one, as fiercely ideological as he was ruthlessly pragmatic.

And so many years later, his followers are still fighting.  Even with the U.S. withdrawing the bulk of its troops this year, up to 10,000 Special Operations forces, CIA paramilitaries, and their proxies will likely stay behind to battle the Haqqanis, the Taliban, and similar outfits in a war that seemingly has no end. With such entrenched enemies, the conflict today has an air of inevitability -- but it could all have gone so differently.

Though it's now difficult to imagine, by mid-2002 there was no insurgency in Afghanistan: al-Qaeda had fled the country and the Taliban had ceased to exist as a military movement. Jalaluddin Haqqani and other top Taliban figures were reaching out to the other side in an attempt to cut a deal and lay down their arms. Tens of thousands of U.S. forces, however, had arrived on Afghan soil, post-9/11, with one objective: to wage a war on terror.

As I report in my new book, No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes, the U.S. would prosecute that war even though there was no enemy to fight. To understand how America's battle in Afghanistan went so wrong for so long, a (hidden) history lesson is in order. In those early years after 2001, driven by the idée fixe that the world was rigidly divided into terrorist and non-terrorist camps, Washington allied with Afghan warlords and strongmen. Their enemies became ours, and through faulty intelligence, their feuds became repackaged as "counterterrorism." The story of Jalaluddin Haqqani, who turned from America's potential ally into its greatest foe, is the paradigmatic case of how the war on terror created the very enemies it sought to eradicate.

The Campaign to Take Out Haqqani: 2001

Jalaluddin Haqqani stands at about average height, with bushy eyebrows, an aquiline nose, a wide smile, and an expansive beard, which in its full glory swallows half his face. In his native land, the three southeastern Afghan provinces known collectively as Loya Paktia, he is something of a war hero, an anti-Soviet mujahedeen of storied bravery and near mythical endurance. (Once, after being shot, he refused painkillers because he was fasting.) During the waning years of the Cold War, he was beloved by the Americans -- Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson called him "goodness personified" -- and by Osama bin Laden, too. In the 1980s, the U.S. supplied him with funds and weapons in the battle against a Soviet-backed regime in Kabul and the Red Army, while radical Arab groups provided a steady stream of recruits to bolster his formidable Afghan force.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch Interviews (more...)
 
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