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Thugs Make Unreliable Allies | The Nation

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Thugs Make Unreliable Allies

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Are we losing it? Have the recent acts of terrorism caused us to cut our moorings in a flood of outrage and frustration? Is that what led respected New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman to write that "we need to be just a little bit crazy" and enlist the Russian mafia, Afghan drug lords and ex-KGB spymaster Vladimir V. Putin to provide us with security?

About the Author

Robert Scheer
Robert Scheer, a contributing editor to The Nation, is editor of Truthdig.com and author of The Great American Stickup...

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At first, everyone from the President on down appeared so rational in the immediate aftermath of the horror of the terrorist attacks. Now a pervasive sense of impotence in the face of terror seems to have overwhelmed us.

The problem is that the President's perfectly delivered speech upped the ante too high and too fast. After promising to eliminate terror and its sponsors from every nation on the globe, and after Congress granted him unprecedented power to do just that, now comes the recognition that terrorism cannot be fought with war. Terrorism is more analogous to a virulent, malignant illness, a plague that needs to be exposed, contained and then, yes, eradicated with the most precise surgical and other means. It was the responsibility of Congress to debate those means, to provide oversight in our system of checks and balances. Yet, in an act of collective dereliction of duty, only one member--Oakland Democrat, Rep. Barbara Lee--had the integrity to ask tough questions, and she has been excoriated for it.

The $340 billion that we will spend on the military this year has only an incidental connection with fighting terrorism. It is intended to fight a Cold War that no longer exists. This new enemy does not present for battle of that sort.

On the other hand, our massive but secret intelligence and covert operations budget is designed to provide the necessary tools for monitoring and containing terrorism. Yet the failure of US intelligence in thwarting Osama bin Laden is alarming, given that the CIA has been under presidential order since 1998 to incapacitate the man and his movement. That they did not come close should be the subject of a major congressional investigation if that body ever gets around to a serious consideration of this tragedy's origins.

Our intelligence agencies messed up big-time, but that's no reason to abandon them for reliance on the world's freelance thugs and criminals to do our dirty work for us. As documented by the CIA's own published review, the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations tried that when they attempted to unleash the Las Vegas mafia, upset with the loss of its Havana gambling operations, to assassinate Fidel Castro, but it was just one of many such fiascoes. Criminals are not reliable allies.

Yet that point is lost on columnist Friedman, who last week advocated bypassing the CIA in favor of those who can fight the enemy on their own terms: gangsters of our own.

If the battle were in Central America, he argues, we should enlist the services of the Cali drug cartel. They don't operate in Afghanistan, Friedman ruefully reports, "but the Russian mafia sure does, so do various Afghan factions, drug rings and Pakistani secret agents."

These last home-grown groups, Pakistanis included, are deeply involved in the heroin trade, which until a year ago was the only significant crop in Afghanistan and is still the main source of revenue for the Taliban as well as the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, with which the US is now allied.

The irony in now turning to drug criminals to overthrow the Taliban is that in August, during talks in Pakistan with the Afghan ambassador, the US assistant secretary of State for South Asian affairs, Christina B. Rocca, praised the Taliban for its progress in eradicating the opium crop. She pledged additional aid to ease the burden on Afghan farmers forced to give up their one cash crop.

Last May, top State department and Drug Enforcement Administration officials crowed about the drug eradication program after visits to Taliban-controlled areas. James P. Callahan, the State Department's narcotics expert for Asia, credited the Taliban for getting farmers to stop growing opium by resorting to religious appeals rather than coercion.

Believe that, and you can believe that the $43 million in aid that Secretary of State Colin Powell announced that same week--to help the Afgans, "including those farmers who have felt the impact of the ban on poppy cultivation, a decision by the Taliban that we welcome"--was simply humanitarian aid and not really a reward to the Taliban for helping the US in its drug war.

Recent evidence is overwhelming that the Taliban conned us and retained massive stockpiles of drugs to fund their operation. The drug trade is alive and well, and columnist Friedman will find ample recruits for his war against terrorism. The Administration as it embraces the enemies of the Taliban should remember that today's terrorists--particularly Bin Laden--were yesterday's freedom fighters.

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