Andy Worthington on the Mess That’s Afghanistan

Afghanistan: The Brutal and Unnecessary War the Media Aren’t Telling You About
By Joshua Holland

27/02/08 “AlterNet” — – They say journalists provide the first draft of history. With the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, that draft led to an almost universal consensus, at least among Americans, that the attack was a justifiable act of self-defense. The Afghanistan action is commonly viewed as a “clean” conflict as well — a war prosecuted with minimal loss of life, and one that didn’t bring the kind of international opprobrium onto the United States that the invasion of Iraq would lead to a year later.

Those views are also held by many Americans who are critical of the excesses of the Bush administration’s “War on Terror.” But there’s a disconnect there. Everything that followed — secret detentions, torture, the invasion of Iraq, the assault on domestic dissent — flowed inevitably from the failure to challenge Bush’s claim that an act of terror required a military response. The United States has a rich history of abandoning its purported liberal values during times of war, and it was our acceptance of Bush’s war narrative that led to the abuses that have shattered America’s moral standing before the world.

In his book, The Guantánamo Files, historian and journalist Andy Worthington offers a much-needed corrective to the draft of the Afghanistan conflict that most Americans saw on their nightly newscasts. Worthington is the first to detail the histories of all 774 prisoners who have passed through the Bush administration’s “legal black hole” at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. But his history starts in Afghanistan, and makes it abundantly clear that the road to Guantánamo — not to mention Abu Ghraib — began in places like Kandahar.

AlterNet recently asked Worthington what that road looked like at its point of origin.

Joshua Holland: I think most Americans believe that we went into Afghanistan to rout anti-American or anti-Western “jihadi,” but your book captures the fact that the U.S. entered on one side of a long-standing civil war that had nothing to do with any sort of “clash of civilizations” between East and West. Can you give us some sense of what that conflict was about?

Andy Worthington: Sure, it’s a very good question, actually. Briefly, the roots of the conflict lie in the Afghan resistance to the Soviet invasion in the 1980s, when the United States, via Pakistani intermediaries, and the Saudis vied to fund the mujahideen — Afghan warlords and their soldiers, backed up by a rather smaller number of Arab recruits.

At the end of the 1980s, when the Soviet Union withdrew, the country was plunged into a civil war, as the various warlords, pumped up with billions of dollars of U.S. and Saudi aid, fought each other to gain control of the country. Tens of thousands of civilians died, and crime and human rights abuses were rife.

Largely in response to this lawlessness, the Taliban — initially a group of ultraorthodox religious students from the south of the country — rose up to cleanse the country by creating a pure Islamic state. Their project, too, was soon derailed by brutality and by a religious fundamentalism that shocked the West, but it was the struggle between the Taliban and the warlords of the Northern Alliance that attracted thousands of foreign foot soldiers to Afghanistan in the 1990s, summoned by fatwas issued by radical sheikhs in their homelands, which required them to help the Taliban in their struggle against the Northern Alliance.

Osama Bin Laden, who had been living in Saudi Arabia and Sudan in the post-Soviet period, returned to Afghanistan in 1996 and became involved in funding military training camps and building up his plans for a global, anti-American jihad, but — although there was some overlap between Al Qaeda and parts of the Taliban leadership — the vast majority of the recruits, as I’ve indicated, were involved not in a grand “clash of civilizations” but in a provincial inter-Muslim civil war.

Holland: That’s an important point. There’s a common belief that a seamless integration existed between the Taliban and Bin Laden’s group, and that integration justified our attacking Afghanistan, a nation-state, in “self-defense.” But in reality, the Taliban was busy fighting this inter-Muslim civil war and had little or no role in Al Qaeda. Let’s go a bit further: just how much overlap was there?

Worthington: According to a senior intelligence official interviewed by the journalist David Rose in 2004, the overlap was very small. Rose was told, “In 1996 it was nonexistent, and by 2001, no more than 50 people.” Now this official was referring to an overlap of fairly high-level people in both organizations, and certain commentators have pointed out that Al Qaeda’s “Arab Brigade” of around 500 soldiers contributed to the Taliban’s military strength, but, to return to what we discussed before, this was in the context of an inter-Muslim civil war, and not a war against the United States.

There were certainly major divisions within the Taliban leadership regarding Bin Laden, and even Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader, was apparently unimpressed by Bin Laden in the years after his return to Afghanistan. In 1998, Omar had even been planning to betray Bin Laden to the Saudis, but when Al Qaeda attacked the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and the U.S. retaliated by launching cruise missile attacks on training camps in Afghanistan, Omar drew closer to Bin laden. Even so, the Taliban offered to hand over Bin laden after 9/11 if proof was offered of his involvement in the 9/11 attacks.

Holland: They were so close in 1998 — the deal had been done, and two jets carrying Saudi Prince Turki and a group of Saudi commandos had actually landed in Afghanistan and were waiting to pick up Bin Laden when the deal soured.

Worthington: That’s right. And another clear sign of the lies involved in the “seamless integration” you refer to happened on Oct. 7, 2001, the first night of “Operation Enduring Freedom,” when the U.S. military announced that it had bombed 23 Al Qaeda training camps. As I mention in the book, of the dozens of training camps established in Afghanistan from the 1980s onwards, most were funded by Pakistan and wealthy donors in the Gulf countries. Some were run by Afghan warlords, others by Pakistani groups and others by militant groups from other countries. Although bin Laden had a few camps of his own, it was inappropriate to describe all the training camps in Afghanistan as “Al Qaeda camps.”

Holland: OK, let me go back briefly to an earlier point. Supporters of Bush’s global network of “black” prisons say that those who ended up in them were “unlawful combatants.” And you said that a lot of people from around the Muslim world were drawn to serve as foot soldiers in Afghanistan’s civil war, but in the book, you also make it clear that many were not even foot soldiers — not combatants at all — but religious students, aid workers and other adventurous young people, and many of them would later get caught up in the chaos that followed the invasion and ended up at Gitmo.

Worthington: Yes, that’s right. I’d say that between 70 and 100 of the foreign — non-Afghan — detainees had traveled to Afghanistan to provide humanitarian aid to the Afghan people, to teach or study the Koran, as economic migrants, or even because they were curious about the “pure Islamic state” that, in some quarters, the Taliban was alleged to have established. A similar number were captured in Pakistan. Charity workers were captured near the border, where they had traveled to provide assistance at refugee camps, and others — including missionaries, entrepreneurs, economic migrants, refugees and students — were actually captured elsewhere in Pakistan, in towns and cities far from the “battlefields” of Afghanistan.

And then, of course, there are the Afghan detainees, who made up over a quarter of Guantánamo’s total population. Many of these were unwilling conscripts, who were forced to serve the Taliban, and most of the rest were picked up either on the basis of false intelligence — because the U.S. forces did not know who to trust — or were handed over by their rivals, in business or in politics, who told false stories to the Americans.

Read the entire interview here.

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