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Jeremy Scahill | The Nation

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Jeremy Scahill

Jeremy Scahill

Dispatches on wars, the military-industrial complex and national security.

Was the Assassination of Four US Citizens Legal?

 

For the first time, the Obama administration has admitted to the drone-killing of US citizens overseas. But "Despite that there are these overtures to the anti-targeted killing or assassination crowd, where they're trying to say, well, we're going to do this in a cleaner way," Nation correspondent Jeremy Scahill says, "the whole thing has just been one massive dirty operation." Scahill, author of Dirty Wars, joins Democracy Now! to break down what's at play for Congress and the executive branch.

—James Cersonsky

Just how many Guatemalan leaders have genocidal blood on their hands? Read Frank Smyth's analysis.

Lawmakers Ask Hillary Clinton to Explain Erik Prince's Mercenaries in the UAE

Five members of Congress have called on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to clarify if Blackwater founder Erik Prince’s recently disclosed deal to provide a small mercenary army to the United Arab Emirates complies with US law and export regulations. “We question whether private US citizens should be involved in recruiting and assembling forces, as well as providing military training and support to foreign governments and militaries,” wrote the lawmakers, led by Representative Jan Schakowsky, a member of the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. “The implications of allowing a US citizen to assemble a foreign legion in any foreign country, and especially in a combustible region like the Middle East, are serious and wide-ranging.”

On May 14, the New York Times revealed that Prince was leading an effort to build an army of mercs 800 strong—including scores from Colombia—in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. They would be trained by US, European and South African special forces veterans. Prince’s new company, Reflex Responses, also known as R2, was bankrolled to the tune of $529 million from “the oil-soaked sheikdom,” according to the Times, adding that Prince was “hired by the crown prince of Abu Dhabi” Sheik Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nahyan.

According to the lawmakers, under US law, Prince’s company is exporting a defense product and therefore falls under the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), requiring him to “first seek the approval of the Directorate of Defense Trade Controls before the defense services are provided.” The DDTC is controlled by the State Department. “Has Mr. Prince, or any of the other Americans involved in the training contract, received such approval from DDTC?” the lawmakers ask Clinton in the May 23 letter [PDF], a copy of which was obtained by The Nation. Past attempts by The Nation to obtain certain DDTC records on Blackwater-affiliated companies have been rejected by the State Department.

They further ask Secretary Clinton for “any clarification as to US policy toward private US citizens who recruit, assemble, or train foreign militaries, and toward foreign countries that hire private US citizens to train their militaries.” They add: “We have long expressed concerns about the US government continuing to do business with Blackwater, despite that company’s growing list of misconduct, and we are concerned that Mr. Prince is now exporting his services. In addition, the Emirati regime’s use of an American-created and trained force of foreign troops has the potential to introduce further instability and suspicion into an already volatile region (and at a particularly sensitive time).” In addition to Schakowsky, the other signers of the letter are: John Conyers, Maurice Hinchey, James Moran and Peter Welch.

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Erik Prince, You're No Indiana Jones

When Erik Prince, founder of the infamous mercenary company Blackwater, claimed in early 2010 he was leaving the soldier of fortune business, he said he'd decided to pursue a less dangerous and controversial line of work. “I’m going to teach high school,” he said, straight-faced, in an interview with Vanity Fair. “History and economics. I may even coach wrestling. Hey, Indiana Jones taught school, too.” It was an interesting comment. As fans of Indiana Jones will recall, the whip-wielding archaeologist was indeed a professor. But what he did on the side—traveling the globe in search of potentially history-altering artifacts—was his real passion. In one confrontation with his arch-nemesis, archaeologist René Emile Belloq, who is working for the Nazis, Jones threatens to blow up the Ark of the Covenant with an RPG. "You're going to give mercenaries a bad name," Belloq tells him.

Erik Prince did leave the US, but he isn't teaching high school and is certainly not out of the mercenary business. In fact, far from emerging as a neo-Indiana Jones, the antithesis of a mercenary, Prince is more like Belloq, offering his services to the highest bidder. Over the weekend, The New York Times revealed that Prince was leading an effort to build an army of mercenaries, 800 strong—including scores from Colombia—in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. They would be trained by US, European and South African Special Forces veterans. Prince's new company, Reflex Responses, also known as R2, was bankrolled to the tune of $529 million from "the oil-soaked sheikdom," according to the Times, adding that Prince was "hired by the crown prince of Abu Dhabi" Sheik Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nahyan. Erik Prince is not mentioned by name in corporate documents outlining the deal, but is instead referred to as "Kingfish."

The contract between R2 and the UAE kicked in last June and is slated to run through May 2015. According to corporate documents on the private army Prince is building in the UAE, its potential roles include "crowd-control operations," defending oil pipelines from potential terrorist attacks and special operations missions inside and outside the UAE “to destroy enemy personnel and equipment.” Other sources said the Emiratis wanted to potentially use the force to quell potential rebellions in the country's massive labor camps that house the Filipinos, Pakistanis and other imported laborers that fuel the country's work force. Prince also has plans to build a massive training base, modeled after the 7,000 acre private military base Blackwater built in Moyock, North Carolina. 

The US government is aware of the arrangement. “The gulf countries, and the UAE in particular, don’t have a lot of military experience. It would make sense if they looked outside their borders for help,” one Obama administration official "who knew of the operation" told the Times. “They might want to show that they are not to be messed with.” 

Rep. Jan Schakowsky, an Illinois Democrat who serves on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence told The Nation she is launching an investigation into Prince's work in the UAE. "The man who brought us Blackwater, a company whose name has become synonymous with the worst of contractor abuses in Iraq and Afghanistan, has been hired to put together a mercenary army that could be used to suppress a revolt or attack pro-democracy protesters," Schakowsky said. "I will be pursuing the question of whether Mr. Prince obtained the necessary licenses to conduct the training of foreign troops and whether his actions in UAE have broken any U.S. laws.  Regardless, I do not believe private US citizens should be providing mercenary forces for foreign governments." 

While much of the focus on R2's arrangement with the UAE has detailed its work within the Emirates, an official statement from General Juma Ali Khalaf Al Hamiri, of the UAE military, suggested that the services of R2 and other Western firms have helped the UAE "to make meaningful and significant contributions in theatres of operations such as Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan and most recently Libya."

The Times reports that part of the UAE's motivation in getting into bed with Prince was the hope that his "troops could blunt the regional aggression of Iran," adding: "Some security consultants believe that Mr. Prince’s efforts to bolster the Emirates’ defenses against an Iranian threat might yield some benefits for the American government, which shares the U.A.E.’s concern about creeping Iranian influence in the region. 'As much as Erik Prince is a pariah in the United States, he may be just what the doctor ordered in the U.A.E.,' said an American security consultant with knowledge of R2’s work."

In a speech Prince delivered in late 2009, a copy of which was obtained by The Nation, Prince spoke of the need to confront Iranian influence in the Middle East, charging that Iran has a "master plan to stir up and organize a Shia revolt through the whole region." At the time, Prince proposed that armed private soldiers from companies like Blackwater be deployed in countries throughout the region to target Iranian influence. "The Iranians have a very sinister hand in these places," Prince said. "You're not going to solve it by putting a lot of uniformed soldiers in all these countries. It's way too politically sensitive. The private sector can operate there with a very, very small, very light footprint." In addition to concerns of political expediency, Prince suggested that using private contractors to conduct such operations would be cost-effective. "The overall defense budget is going to have to be cut and they're going to look for ways, they're going to have to have ways to become more efficient," he said.

Former employees of R2 "said that in recruiting the Colombians and others from halfway around the world, Mr. Prince’s subordinates were following his strict rule: hire no Muslims," according to the Times. "Muslim soldiers, Mr. Prince warned, could not be counted on to kill fellow Muslims." One of the Colombians who worked for Prince in the UAE told the Times“We were practically an army for the Emirates,” adding: “They wanted people who had a lot of experience in countries with conflicts, like Colombia.”

This particular choice is interesting given the past treatment of Colombians by Prince's companies. In 2006, thirty-five former Colombian troops on contract in Iraq with Blackwater claimed that the firm had defrauded them and was paying them just $34 a day for a job that earned exponentially more for their US and European counterparts. The Colombians said they were originally promised $4000 a month but learned of their greatly reduced pay only after arriving in Iraq. When they protested and demanded to leave Baghdad, Blackwater officials reportedly “threatened to remove us from the base and leave us in the street in Baghdad, where one is vulnerable to being killed, or, at best, kidnapped.” Eventually the Colombians were repatriated. In 2007, one of the Colombian recruiters who had hired the men for Blackwater, was gunned down in Bogotá. This time around, the Colombians were reportedly paid about $150 a day and were recruited by a Caribbean-based company called Thor Global Enterprises. The Colombians were issued visas by the UAE's military intelligence branch, allowing them to breeze through customs without being questioned.

An American who runs another security company in the UAE told The Nation that news of Prince's company is "a fricking PR disaster" for the UAE, adding that it will mean "some of the other Sheikhs will want answers about what a private Christian army was intended for." Prince's name has also surfaced in connection with another mercenary company, Saracen, in Somalia. The United Nations has suggested that the company violated a UN arms embargo.

Among the other Americans working closely with Prince on building the private army in the UAE is a former FBI Agent named Ricky "CT" Chambers. He recently ran Blackwater's training program in Afghanistan that was registered under the shell company name of Paravant. That arrangement remains the subject of multiple Congressional and federal investigations in the US and two former Paravant operatives were convicted in March of the manslaughter of two Afghan civilians. Chambers is being paid about $300,000 a year, while US contractors, with experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, are being offered pay packages worth up to $200,000 a year to work for Prince in the UAE.

When Prince moved to the UAE last summer, he said he chose Abu Dhabi because of its "great proximity to potential opportunities across the entire Middle East, and great logistics," adding that it has "a friendly business climate, low to no taxes, free trade and no out of control trial lawyers or labor unions. It's pro-business and opportunity." 

The timing of Prince's move was auspicious to say the least. It came just month after five of Prince's top deputies were hit with a fifteen-count indictment by a federal grand jury on conspiracy, weapons and obstruction of justice charges. Among those indicted were Prince's longtime number-two man, former Blackwater president Gary Jackson, former vice presidents William Matthews and Ana Bundy, and Prince's former legal counsel, Andrew Howell.  The UAE does not have an extradition treaty with the United States. "If Prince were not living in the US, it would be far more complicated for US prosecutors to commence an action against him," said Scott Horton, a Columbia University Law lecturer and international law expert who has long tracked Blackwater. "There is a long history of people thwarting prosecutors simply by living overseas." The UAE, Horton told me when I first learned Prince was moving to the UAE last summer, is "definitely a jurisdiction where Prince could count on it not being simple for the US to pursue him legally." The UAE is made up of seven states, the most powerful among them being Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Since 9/11, they have emerged as hubs for the US war industry. "Global service providers" account for some three-quarters of Dubai's GDP, while oil represents only 3 percent. "They have established themselves as the premiere location in the Middle East for offshore banking and professional services," said Horton, who has legal experience in the UAE. "If you have connections to the royal families, then the law doesn't really apply to you."

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JSOC: The Black Ops Force That Took Down Bin Laden

The team of US Special Operations Forces who killed Osama bin Laden in a pre-dawn raid on a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, were led by elite Navy SEALS from the Joint Special Operations Command. Operators from SEAL Team Six, also known as the Naval Special Warfare Development Group, or just DevGru, are widely considered to be the most elite warriors in the US national security apparatus.

Col. W. Patrick Lang, a retired Special Forces officer with extensive operational experience throughout the Muslim world, described JSOC’s forces as “sort of like Murder, Incorporated.” He told The Nation: “Their business is killing Al Qaeda personnel. That’s their business. They’re not in the business of converting anybody to our goals or anything like that.” Shortly after the operation was made public, retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey called JSOC’s operators the “most dangerous people on the face of the earth.”

“They’re the ace in the hole. If you were a card player, that’s your ace that you’ve got tucked away,” said Gen. Hugh Shelton, who was the Chair of the Joint Chiefs on 9/11, in an interview with The Nation. Shelton, who also headed the Special Operations Command during his career, described JSOC as “a surgical type of unit,” adding “if you need someone that can sky dive from thirty miles away, and go down the chimney of the castle, and blow it up from the inside—those are the guys you want to call on.” Shelton added, “They are the quiet professionals. They do it, and do it well, but they don’t brag about it. Someone has to toot their horn for them, because they won’t, normally.”

JSOC, which is headquartered at Pope Air Force Base and Fort Bragg in North Carolina, is an all-star team made up of the Army’s Delta Force, SEAL Team Six, Army Rangers and the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, also known as the “Night Stalkers.” JSOC performs strike operations, reconnaissance in denied areas and special intelligence missions. More recently, JSOC added a Targeting and Analysis Center in Rosslyn, Virginia, to its list of key facilities. For much of the Bush administration, JSOC was headed by Gen. Stanley McChrystal. Its job was to hunt down and kill individuals designated as “High Value Targets.” McChrystal’s successor at JSOC, Vice Admiral William McRaven, is himself a former SEAL. The current commander of SOCOM, Admiral Eric Olson, is a former SEAL Team Six commander. McRaven was recently been tapped to replace Olson as SOCOM commander. Several Special Operations sources have described for The Nation a very close relationship between President Obama and JSOC. Some allege Obama has used them to “hit harder” than President Bush.

Marc Ambinder described the bin Laden raid in his excellent report on National Journal: “From Ghazi Air Base in Pakistan, the modified MH-60 helicopters made their way to the garrison suburb of Abbottabad, about 30 miles from the center of Islamabad. Aboard were Navy SEALs, flown across the border from Afghanistan, along with tactical signals, intelligence collectors, and navigators using highly classified hyperspectral imagers. After bursts of fire over 40 minutes, 22 people were killed or captured. One of the dead was Osama bin Laden, done in by a double tap—boom, boom—to the left side of his face. His body was aboard the choppers that made the trip back. One had experienced mechanical failure and was destroyed by US forces.”

It remains unclear what, if any, role Pakistan’s military or intelligence forces played in the operation to kill bin Laden. US officials have said only that Pakistani intel aided the eventual operation. “We shared our intelligence on this bin Laden compound with no other country, including Pakistan,” said an unnamed senior administration official. “That was for one reason and one reason alone: We believed it was essential to the security of the operation and our personnel.” The fact that bin Laden’s compound was a stone’s throw from a Pakistani military installation in an urban area raises disturbing questions about how Pakistan’s military or intelligence services would not be aware of his location. As of this writing, the White House has not commented on this fact.

The United States has a lengthy history of US Special Operations Forces conducting targeted kill or capture operations inside Pakistan. “I would like to point out one sensitivity of Pakistan and its people and that it’s a violation of the sovereignty of Pakistan,” former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf told NDTV after bin Laden’s killing was announced. “American troops coming across the border and taking action in one of our towns, that is Abbotabad, is not acceptable to the people of Pakistan.” Musharraf’s comments are ironic given that he personally made a deal with General McChrystal to allow US Special Ops Forces to cross into Pakistan from Afghanistan to target bin Laden or other Al Qaeda leaders. The so-called “hot pursuit” agreement was predicated on Pakistan’s ability to deny it had given the US forces permission to enter Pakistan.

Both President Bush and President Obama have reserved the right for US forces to operate lethally and unilaterally in any country across the globe in pursuit of alleged high value terrorists. The Obama administration’s expansion of US Special Operations activities globally has been authorized under a classified order dating back to the Bush administration. Originally signed in early 2004 by then–Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, it is known as the “AQN ExOrd,” or Al Qaeda Network Execute Order. The AQN ExOrd was intended to cut through bureaucratic and legal processes, allowing US special forces to move into denied areas or countries beyond the official battle zones of Iraq and Afghanistan. Gen. David Petraeus, who is poised to become director of the CIA, expanded and updated that order in late 2009. “JSOC has been more empowered more under this administration than any other in recent history,” a Special Ops source told The Nation. “No question.”

SEAL Team Six also carried out the operation that killed the Somali pirates that hijacked the Maersk Alabama in April 2009. They flew from a discreet US base in Manda Bay, Kenya. “If it comes down to putting sharpshooters up on the deck of an aircraft, and making sure that first shot doesn’t miss, who do you want to do it?,” asks General Shelton. Referring to Team Six, he adds: “They’re deadly accurate.”

The vast majority of JSOC’s missions are highly classified and compartmentalized. In some cases, JSOC operators have conducted operations without informing the combatant commanders of their presence. “Only a very small group of people inside our own government knew of this operation in advance,” a senior Obama administration official said shortly after bin Laden’s killing was announced.

Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, who served as Secretary of State Colin Powell’s chief of staff from 2002 to 2005, has alleged that then–Vice President Dick Cheney and former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld often circumvented the traditional military command structure in how they used JSOC. “What I was seeing was the development of what I would later see in Iraq and Afghanistan, where Special Operations forces would operate in both theaters without the conventional commander even knowing what they were doing,” Colonel Wilkerson told me in late 2009 for a story about JSOC in Pakistan. “That’s dangerous, that’s very dangerous. You have all kinds of mess when you don’t tell the theater commander what you’re doing.”

Wilkerson said that almost immediately after assuming his role at the State Department under Colin Powell, he saw JSOC being politicized and developing a close relationship with the executive branch. He saw this begin, he said, after his first Delta Force briefing at Fort Bragg. “I think Cheney and Rumsfeld went directly into JSOC. I think they went into JSOC at times, perhaps most frequently, without the SOCOM [Special Operations] commander at the time even knowing it. The receptivity in JSOC was quite good,” said Wilkerson. “I think Cheney was actually giving McChrystal instructions, and McChrystal was asking him for instructions.” He said the relationship between JSOC and Cheney and Rumsfeld “built up initially because Rumsfeld didn’t get the responsiveness. He didn’t get the can-do kind of attitude out of the SOCOM commander, and so as Rumsfeld was wont to do, he cut him out and went straight to the horse’s mouth. At that point you had JSOC operating as an extension of the [administration] doing things the executive branch—read: Cheney and Rumsfeld—wanted it to do. This would be more or less carte blanche. You need to do it, do it. It was very alarming for me as a conventional soldier.”

While JSOC—and the Navy SEALs in particular—will become legendary in a much broader circle as a result of the bin Laden killing, the secretive unit has had its share of controversy. JSOC forces were responsible for the botched rescue that ended up killing British aid worker Linda Norgrove in Afghanistan on October 8, 2010. JSOC also carried out a raid in Gardez, Afghanistan, in February 2010 during which two pregnant women and a US-trained Afghan police commander were killed. In that case, senior Afghan security officials and eyewitnesses claimed that US forces dug the bullets out of the dead women’s bodies. Initially, JSOC’s forces tried to cover up the incident by blaming the killings on a Taliban “honor killing.” Eventually, Admiral McRaven took responsibility for the botched raid and apologized to the family.

Several Special Ops sources say that President Obama has taken concrete steps to once again integrate JSOC more fully into the broader US military strategy globally. The bin Laden operation, which was done in concert with the CIA, seems to be evidence of that. The primacy of JSOC within the Obama administration’s foreign policy—from Yemen and Somalia to Afghanistan and Pakistan—indicates that he has doubled down on the Bush-era policy of targeted assassination as a staple of US foreign policy.

For links to The Nation’s complete coverage of Osama bin Laden’s death, click here.

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The Changing US Tune on Yemen

Note: Read Jeremy Scahill’s in-depth cover story on “The Dangerous US Game in Yemen.”

Over the weekend of April 2–3 in Yemen, the death toll of anti-government protesters continued to rise as security forces loyal to President Ali Abdullah Saleh reportedly shot dead twelve people and injured hundreds of others in the southern city of Taiz. Amid the violence, news broke late Sunday night that the Obama administration has quietly begun to withdraw its support for Saleh’s regime. Over the past two months of violence in Yemen, the United States has continued to back Saleh despite his violent response to widespread nonviolent protests against his regime.

Citing US and Yemeni officials, the New York Times reports: “The United States, which long supported Yemen’s president, even in the face of recent widespread protests, has now quietly shifted positions and has concluded that he is unlikely to bring about the required reforms and must be eased out of office.” The report adds, “For Washington, the key to his departure would be arranging a transfer of power that would enable the counterterrorism operation in Yemen to continue.”

The US counterterrorism operation in Yemen was launched under the Bush administration and then greatly expanded by President Obama, as I reported last week in my article “The Dangerous US Game in Yemen.” The US military presence, composed of special forces troops who not only conduct counterterrorism training for Yemeni forces but engage in their own unilateral “kinetic” actions against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), have operated with great freedom in the country with President Saleh’s blessing.

The current negotiations in Yemen between the Saleh government and a bloc of opposition forces, known as the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), center around a proposal to temporarily hand power to Saleh’s vice president, Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi. According to the JMP’s five-point plan released over the weekend, Hadi would then preside over a restructuring of Yemen’s security and military forces, including a purge of Saleh’s relatives. A transitional council would also be formed and parliamentary and presidential elections would eventually take place.

Washington’s counterterrorism campaign in Yemen, which is responsible for the deaths of dozens of civilians, may encounter vocal popular opposition if democratization proceeds. A March 2011 Glevum Stability Assessment found that an “overwhelming majority of Yemenis disapprove of President Saleh’s cooperation with the U.S.,” with only four percent approving strongly or somewhat of the cooperation. Meanwhile, the study found that 96 percent of Yemenis believe the “West is at war against Islam” and a majority view AQAP’s violence as “self-defense.” However, the overwhelming majority of Yemenis, according to the study, do not view AQAP as the “true defender of Islam.”

“It is unfortunate that the Obama administration’s policy only began ‘to shift in the past week.’ Saleh’s demise has been self-evident for much longer than that, and consistent US refusals to see that and the resulting dithering and calls for negotiations (asking protesters to give up the only leverage they have) has only put US security interests more at risk,” observed Yemen expert Gregory Johnsen, adding: “We should be clear, both scenarios—Saleh leaving or staying—are potentially dangerous for US national security, which is one of the reasons the Obama administration is so hesitant to withdraw its support from Saleh.”

 

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A Real Sharia Law Promoter for Peter King to Investigate

As Representative Peter King begins his hunt for Islamic radicals in our midst, including infiltrators of the US government and military, I hope that part of his inquiry focuses on those who really advocate Sharia law in the United States. I have a suggestion for a witness for that panel: Joseph Schmitz, the former inspector general of the Department of Defense. Schmitz was among a group of conservative activists and former senior CIA and military officials, led by Lt. Gen. William “Jerry” Boykin and Lt. Gen. Edward Soyster, who last September issued a report: “Shariah: The Threat to America.”

In the report, the authors argued, “Today, the United States faces what is, if anything, an even more insidious ideological threat: the totalitarian socio-political doctrine that Islam calls shariah.” They concluded, “proponents of an expansionist shariah present a serious threat to the United States.”

So, why should Schmitz be called to testify on this? Because Schmitz himself has advocated for the United States to recognize Sharia law. After he left the DoD in late 2005, Schmitz went straight to employment with Blackwater, serving as the General Counsel for its parent company, The Prince Group. He coordinated Blackwater’s legal defense stemming from a series of lawsuits filed by Iraqi civilians, former employees and families of Blackwater employees killed in war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan.

One of these lawsuits was brought in 2005 by the widows of US servicemen killed in November 2004 in Afghanistan in the crash of Blackwater Flight 61. There was ample evidence the pilots were reckless, the flight had inadequate equipment and that they should not have flown. Bolstering the families’ case was the fact that the US Army Collateral Investigations Board found Blackwater at fault for the crash, determining after a lengthy investigation that the crew suffered from “degraded situational awareness” and “inattention and complacency,” as well as “poor judgment and willingness to take unacceptable risks.” The investigation also determined it was possible that the pilots were suffering from visual illusions and hypoxia, whose symptoms can include hallucinations, inattentiveness and decreased motor skills. Further, the Army said there was demonstrated evidence of “inadequate cross-checking and crew coordination.” The National Transportation Safety Board concluded that Blackwater’s pilots “were behaving unprofessionally and were deliberately flying the nonstandard route low through the valley for ‘fun.’ ”

In 2008, in attempting to have the case thrown out of federal court in Florida, Schmitz argued that because the crash occurred in Afghanistan, Sharia law should be applied. Conveniently, Sharia law does not hold a company responsible for the actions of employees performed within the course of their work. Schmitz and Blackwater’s other lawyers argued that the crash lawsuit “is governed by the law of Afghanistan,” declaring that “Afghan law is largely religion-based and evidences a strong concern for ensuring moral responsibility, and deterring violations of obligations within its borders.” To his credit, the judge in that case did not buy Schmitz’s Sharia law argument. (Needless to say, when Blackwater operatives gunned down seventeen innocent Iraqi civilians in Baghdad’s Nisour Square, Blackwater was not eager to have its men prosecuted under Iraqi law.)

While there is a sea of craziness about President Obama and Sharia law promoted by right-wing charlatans, Peter King could actually do this country a service by investigating those who actually seem to see a place for Sharia law in America—in defending corporate misconduct that leads to the deaths of US servicemen in war zones. Schmitz is a man who managed to infiltrate the Pentagon, serve as its inspector general and ascend to the highest ranks within Washington’s most sensitive security contractor, and who has continued to win lucrative contracts overseeing Afghan contracting oversight, including a $95,000 contract to work with the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction last year. (What makes the story all the more rich is that Schmitz is a member of the Sovereign Military Order of the Knights of Malta.)

I hope Peter King focuses his laser sights on this potential threat in our midst before it’s too late.
 

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Washington Embraces Al Jazeera

If it weren’t for Al Jazeera, much of the unfolding Egyptian revolution would never have been televised. Its Arabic- and English-language channels have provided the most comprehensive coverage of any network in any language hands-down. Despite the Mubarak regime’s attempts to shut it down, Al Jazeera’s brave reporters and camera crews have persevered. Six Al Jazeera journalists were detained briefly on Monday, their equipment seized. The United States responded swiftly to their detention, with the State Department calling for their release. “We are concerned by the shutdown of Al Jazeera in Egypt and arrest of its correspondents,” State Department spokesperson PJ Crowley tweeted. “Egypt must be open and the reporters released.”

The Obama White House has been intently monitoring al Jazeera’s coverage of the Egyptian revolt. The network, already famous worldwide, is now a household name in the United States. Thousands of Americans—many of whom likely had never watched the network before—are livestreaming Al Jazeera on the Internet and over their phones. With a handful of exceptions, most US cities and states have no channel that broadcasts Al Jazeera. That’s because cowardly US cable providers refuse to grant the channel a distribution platform, largely for fear of being perceived as supporting or enabling a network that for years has been portrayed negatively by US officials.

For people who have followed Al Jazeera’s history with the United States, the fact that it is now perceived by the White House and the American public as a force for democracy and freedom is an ironic, some would say hypocritical, development. The contrast between Washington’s posture toward Al Jazeera from the Bush era to the Obama presidency could not be more stark.

During the Bush administration, nothing contradicted the absurd claim that the United States invaded Iraq to spread democracy throughout the Middle East more decisively than Washington’s ceaseless attacks on Al Jazeera, the institution that did more than any other to break the stranglehold over information previously held by authoritarian forces, whether monarchs, military strongmen, occupiers or ayatollahs. Yet, far from calling for its journalists to be respected and freed from imprisonment and unlawful detention, the Bush administration waged war against Al Jazeera and its journalists.

The United States bombed its offices in Afghanistan in 2001. In March 2003, two of its financial correspondents were kicked off the trading floor of NASDAQ and the NY Stock Exchange. “In light of Al-Jazeera’s recent conduct during the war, in which they have broadcast footage of US POWs in alleged violation of the Geneva Convention, they are not welcome to broadcast from our facility at this time,” said NASDAQ’s spokesperson. Later NASDAQ backed off from that claim and said the network’s accreditation had been revoked for “security reasons.”

In April 2003, US forces shelled the Basra hotel where Al Jazeera journalists were the only guests and killed Jazeera’s Iraq correspondent Tareq Ayoub a few days later in Baghdad. The United States also imprisoned several Al Jazeera reporters (including at Guantánamo), some of whom say they were tortured. Among these was Sami al-Haj, an Al Jazeera cameraman who spent seven years at Guantánamo and was repeatedly interrogated by US operatives attempting to falsely link Al Jazeera to Al Qaeda. In addition to the military attacks, the US-backed Iraqi government periodically banned Al Jazeera from reporting in Iraq. Indeed, Al Jazeera was shut down in Iraq under both Saddam Hussein and the US-backed government.

Then in late November 2005 Britain’s Daily Mirror reported that during an April 2004 White House meeting with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, George W. Bush floated the idea of bombing Al Jazeera’s international headquarters in Qatar. This allegation was based on leaked “Top Secret” minutes of the Bush-Blair summit. At the time of Bush’s meeting with Blair, the Administration was in the throes of a very public, high-level temper tantrum directed against Al Jazeera. The meeting took place on April 16, at the peak of the first US siege of Falluja, and Al Jazeera was one of the few news outlets broadcasting from inside the city. Its exclusive footage was being broadcast by every network from CNN to the BBC.

The Falluja offensive, one of the bloodiest assaults of the US occupation, was a turning point. In two weeks that April, thirty marines were killed as local guerrillas resisted US attempts to capture the city. Some 600 Iraqis died, many of them women and children. Al Jazeera broadcast from inside the besieged city, beaming images to the world. On live TV the network gave graphic documentary evidence disproving US denials that it was killing civilians. It was a public relations disaster, and the United States responded by attacking the messenger.

Just a few days before Bush allegedly proposed bombing the network, Al Jazeera’s correspondent in Falluja, Ahmed Mansour, reported live on the air, “Last night we were targeted by some tanks, twice…but we escaped. The US wants us out of Falluja, but we will stay.” On April 9 Washington demanded that Al Jazeera leave the city as a condition for a cease-fire. The network refused. Mansour wrote that the next day “American fighter jets fired around our new location, and they bombed the house where we had spent the night before, causing the death of the house owner Mr. Hussein Samir. Due to the serious threats we had to stop broadcasting for few days because every time we tried to broadcast the fighter jets spotted us we became under their fire.”

On April 11 senior military spokesperson Mark Kimmitt declared, “The stations that are showing Americans intentionally killing women and children are not legitimate news sources. That is propaganda, and that is lies.” On April 15 Donald Rumsfeld echoed those remarks in distinctly undiplomatic terms, calling Al Jazeera’s reporting “vicious, inaccurate and inexcusable…. It’s disgraceful what that station is doing.” It was the very next day, according to the Daily Mirror, that Bush told Blair of his plan. “He made clear he wanted to bomb al-Jazeera in Qatar and elsewhere,” a source told the Mirror. “There’s no doubt what Bush wanted to do—and no doubt Blair didn’t want him to do it.”

Al Jazeera’s real transgression during the “war on terror” was a simple one: being there. That is what Al Jazeera is doing today in Egypt and why it is so dangerous to the Mubarak regime. While critical of US policy, Al Jazeera is not anti-American—it is independent. In fact, it has angered almost every Arab government at one point or another and has been kicked out of or sanctioned by many Arab countries (the one country which Al Jazeera arguably does not cover independently is its host nation of Qatar). It was the first Arab station to broadcast interviews with Israeli officials and is hardly the Al Qaeda mouthpiece the Bush Administration wanted us to believe it was. Now that is abundantly clear to Americans who over the past week have come to depend on Al Jazeera for accurate news on the developments in Egypt.

The real threat Al Jazeera poses to authoritarian regimes is in its unembedded journalism. That is why the Bush Administration viewed Al Jazeera as a threat, it is why Mubarak’s regime is trying to shut it down and that is why the network is so important to the unfolding revolutions in the Middle East. It is the same role the network plays in reporting on the disastrous US war in Afghanistan.

Part of why Al Jazeera has become acceptable is that, unlike throughout much of the Bush era, it now has a full twenty-four-hour English language news channel filled with veteran reporters who came to the network from CNN, the BBC and other Western news outlets. When it was an Arabic language–only network, it was a lot easier to demonize and malign because fact-checking US officials’ fabrications and pronouncements required a real effort.

At the end of the day, the real test of whether there is a substantive change in Washington’s stance toward independent, unembedded journalists and journalism will likely not involve Al Jazeera but some other news outlet or journalist. And that test will be real only when that journalist or media outlets’ rights are in direct conflict with Washington’s agenda.

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Did US Special Operations Forces Want to 'Target' Refugee Camps in Pakistan?

In the fall of 2008, the US Special Operations Command asked top US diplomats in Pakistan and Afghanistan for detailed information on refugee camps along the Afghanistan Pakistan border and a list of humanitarian aid organizations working in those camps. On October 6, the US ambassador to Pakistan, Anne Patterson, sent a cable marked "Confidential" to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the CIA, US Central Command and several US embassies saying that some of the requests, which came in the form of emails, "suggested that agencies intend to use the data for targeting purposes." Other requests, according to the cable, "indicate it would be used for “NO STRIKE” purposes." The cable, which was issued jointly by the US embassies in Kabul and Islamabad, declared: "We are concerned about providing information gained from humanitarian organizations to military personnel, especially for reasons that remain unclear. Particularly worrisome, this does not seem to us a very efficient way to gather accurate information." 

What this cable says in plain terms is that at least one person within the US Special Operations Command actually asked US diplomats in Kabul and/or Islamabad point-blank for information on refugee camps to be used in a targeted killing or capture operation. It also seems possible whoever made that request actually put it in an email (FOIA anyone?). It is no longer a publicly deniable secret that US special operations forces and the CIA have engaged in offensive operations in Pakistan, but this cable is evidence that they sought to exploit the US embassies' humanitarian aid operations through back channel communications to conduct potentially lethal operations. Needless to say, this type of request is extremely dangerous for aid workers because it reinforces the belief that USAID and other nongovernmental organizations are fronts for the CIA. In November 2009, a US military intelligence source told me that some Blackwater contractors working for US special operations forces in Pakistan have posed as aid workers. "Nobody even gives them a second thought," he said. Blackwater, at the time, denied it was operating in Pakistan.

Speaking of contractors, the cable also reveals that in addition to the requests from SOCOM and the US Defense Attache, a SOCOM contractor had also asked US diplomats for "information on camps along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border which are housing Afghan refugees and/or Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs)." Specifically, the cable adds, SOCOM and its "contractor" have "requested information on camp names and locations, camp status, number of IDS/refugees and ethnic breakdown, and NGO/humanitarian relief organizations working in the camps." The name of the contractor has been blacked out on the cable released by Wikileaks. 

It is certainly possible that the contractor referred to in this cable is Blackwater, which held several contracts in 2008 with SOCOM, though that world is the murkiest of the murky and any contract for lethal operations would be shrouded and heavily compartmentalized. (For a detailed explanation of Blackwater and Pakistan, see "The Secret US War in Pakistan"). By Blackwater owner Erik Prince's own admission, his private army has long been in the thick of things along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, precisely where, according to the cables, SOCOM wanted information on refugee and IDP camps. In a speech in January, Erik Prince described Blackwater's operations at four Forward Operating Bases (FOBs) he said he controls in Afghanistan.  "We built four bases and we staffed them and we run them," Prince said. He described them as being in the north, south, east and west of Afghanistan. "Spin Boldak in the south, which is the major drug trans-shipment area, in the east at a place called FOB Lonestar, which is right at the foothills of Tora Bora mountain. In fact if you ski off Tora Bora mountain, you can ski down to our firebase," Prince said, adding that Blackwater also has a base near Herat and another location. FOB Lonestar is approximately fifteen miles from the Pakistan border. "Who else has built a [Forward Operating Base] along the main infiltration route for the Taliban and the last known location for Osama bin Laden?" Prince said earlier this year. In the January speech, Prince called those fighting the US in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan "barbarians" who "crawled out of the sewer."

Whether Blackwater was directly involved in the requests to US diplomats for information on refugee camps may never be known. Whether it was Blackwater or another contractor, the role of a private US company in a potentially lethal operation in Pakistan is an important aspect of this cable to be probed further.

From the October 2008 cable, it is evident that US diplomats in Kabul and Islamabad were disturbed by the requests; in it they ask various US military, intelligence and government entities for "clarification of the origin and purpose of this task." At the same time the cable suggests that if the CIA or Special Operations Forces wanted such information, they "should send a front channel cable to the appropriate Embassy" or a representative of the director of national intelligence rather than by emailing or orally requesting the information from embassy personnel. Clearly, the back-channel approach was used for a reason.

 
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The (Not So) Secret (Anymore) US War in Pakistan

Despite sustained denials by US officials spanning more than a year, US military Special Operations Forces have been conducting offensive operations inside Pakistan, helping direct US drone strikes and conducting joint operations with Pakistani forces against Al Qaeda and Taliban forces in north and south Waziristan and elsewhere in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, according to secret cables released as part of the Wikileaks document dump. According to an October 9, 2009 cable classified by Anne Patterson, the US ambassador to Pakistan, the operations were "almost certainly [conducted] with the personal consent of [Pakistan's] Chief of Army Staff General Kayani." The operations were coordinated with the US Office of the Defense Representative in Pakistan. A US special operations source told The Nation that the US forces described in the cable as "SOC(FWD)-PAK" were "forward operating troops" from the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), the most elite force within the US military made up of Navy SEALs, Delta Force and Army Rangers.

The cables also confirm aspects of a Nation story from November 2009, "The Secret US War in Pakistan," which detailed offensive combat operations by JSOC in Pakistan. In response to the Nation story, Pentagon spokesperson Geoff Morrell called it "conspiratorial" and explicitly denied that US special operations forces were doing anything other than "training" in Pakistan. More than a month after the October 2009 cable from the US embassy in Pakistan confirming JSOC combat missions, Morrell told reporters: "We have basically, I think, a few dozen forces on the ground in Pakistan who are involved in a train-the-trainer mission.  These are Special Operations Forces.  We've been very candid about this.  They are—they have been for months, if not years now, training Pakistani forces so that they can in turn train other Pakistani military on how to—on certain skills and operational techniques.  And that's the extent of our—our, you know, military boots on the ground in Pakistan." According to the October 2009 cable, Morrell's statement was false.

In one operation in September 2009, four US special operations forces personnel "embedded with the [Pakistani] Frontier Corps (FC)…in the FATA," where the Americans are described as providing "ISR": intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. The support from the US forces, according to the cable, "was highly successful, enabling the FC to execute a precise and effective artillery strike on an enemy location." A month later, according to the cable, the Pakistan Army again "approved deployment of US special operation elements to support Pakistani military operations." To the embassy staff, this was documented in the cable as a "sea change" in Pakistan's military leaders' thinking, saying they had previously been "adamantly opposed [to] letting us embed" US special ops forces with Pakistani forces. According to the cable, "US special operation elements have been in Pakistan for more than a year, but were largely limited to a training role," adding that the Pakistani units that received training from US special operations forces "appear to have recognized the potential benefits of bringing US SOF personnel into the field with them."

In another operation cited in the cables, the US teams, led by JSOC, were described as providing support to the Pakistani Army's 11th Corp and included "a live downlink of unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) full motion video." Whether the drones were used for surveillance or as part of a joint offensive is unclear from the documents. While the US government will not confirm US drone strikes inside the country and Pakistani officials regularly deride the strikes, the issue of the drones was discussed in another cable from August 2008. That cable describes a meeting between Ambassador Patterson and Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani. When the issue of US drone strikes came up, according to the cable, Gillani said, "I don't care if they do it as long as they get the right people. We'll protest in the National Assembly and then ignore it."

The ability of US special operations forces to operate in Pakistan is clearly viewed as a major development by the US embassy. "Patient relationship-building with the military is the key factor that has brought us to this point," according to the October 2009 cable. It also notes the potential consequences of the activities leaking: "These deployments are highly politically sensitive because of widely-held concerns among the public about Pakistani sovereignty and opposition to allowing foreign military forces to operate in any fashion on Pakistani soil. Should these developments and/or related matters receive any coverage in the Pakistani or US media, the Pakistani military will likely stop making requests for such assistance."

Such statements might help explain why Ambassador Richard Holbrooke lied to the world when he said bluntly in July 2010: "People think that the US has troops in Pakistan, well, we don't."

A US special operations veteran who worked on Pakistan issues in 2009 reviewed the Wikileaks cables for The Nation. He said he was taken aback that the cable was not classified higher than "SECRET" given that it confirms the active involvement of US soldiers from the highly-secretive, elite Joint Special Operations Command engaging in combat—not just training—in Pakistan. And offensive combat at that. JSOC operations are compartmentalized and highly classified.

Pentagon spokespeople have repeatedly insisted that the US military's activities in Pakistan are restricted to training operations. Even after the October 2009 cable and multiple JSOC operations in Pakistan, US and Pakistani officials continued to hold official meetings to discuss "potential" joint operations. In January 2010 in Washington DC, US and Pakistani military officials gathered under the umbrella of the "US-Pakistan Land Forces Military Consultative Committee." According to notes from the meeting, they discussed US military operations in Pakistan aiming to "enhance both US and Pakistan Army COIN [counterinsurgency] capabilities" and "potential US COIN Center/Pakistan Army interactions." Among the participants were representatives of the Special Operations Command, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs' Pakistan-Afghanistan Coordination Cell, the Office of Defense representative-Pakistan and a Pakistan delegation led by Brigadier General Muhammad Azam Agha, Pakistan's director of military training.

A special operations veteran and a former CIA operative with direct experience in Pakistan have told The Nation that JSOC has long engaged in combat in Pakistan—which raises a question: How in-the-loop is the US embassy about the activities of JSOC in Pakistan? Just because Ambassador Anne Patterson approves a cable saying that US special ops forces have only done two operations with Pakistani forces and plays this up as a major-league development doesn't make it true. JSOC has conducted operations across the globe without the direct knowledge of the US ambassador. In 2006, the US military and Pakistan struck a deal that authorized JSOC to enter Pakistan to hunt Osama bin Laden and other Al Qaeda leaders with the understanding that Pakistan would deny it had given permission. JSOC has struck multiple times inside Pakistan over the years, regardless of what Ambassador Patterson's cables may say.

In 2006, twelve "tactical action operatives" from Blackwater were recruited for a secret JSOC raid inside Pakistan, targeting an Al Qaeda facility. The operation was code-named "Vibrant Fury." Which raises another issue: the activities described in the October 2009 cable very closely align with what a US military intelligence source, a US special forces source and a former Blackwater executive told The Nation in November 2009, namely that JSOC was running an operation in Pakistan where "members of an elite division of Blackwater are at the center of a secret program in which they plan targeted assassinations of suspected Taliban and Al Qaeda operatives, 'snatch and grabs' of high-value targets and other sensitive action inside and outside Pakistan.… The Blackwater operatives also assist in gathering intelligence and help direct a secret US military drone bombing campaign that runs parallel to the well-documented CIA predator strikes." The arrangement, which involved a web of subcontractors, allowed the Pakistani Frontier Corps—the force cited in the cable—to work with JSOC operators while simultaneously denying that Americans were involved. From the Nation article, "The Secret US War in Pakistan," in November 2009:

A former senior executive at Blackwater confirmed the military intelligence source's claim that the company is working in Pakistan for the CIA and JSOC, the premier counterterrorism and covert operations force within the military. He said that Blackwater is also working for the Pakistani government on a subcontract with an Islamabad-based security firm that puts US Blackwater operatives on the ground with Pakistani forces in counter-terrorism operations, including house raids and border interdictions, in the North-West Frontier Province and elsewhere in Pakistan. This arrangement, the former executive said, allows the Pakistani government to utilize former US Special Operations forces who now work for Blackwater while denying an official US military presence in the country. He also confirmed that Blackwater has a facility in Karachi and has personnel deployed elsewhere in Pakistan. The former executive spoke on condition of anonymity.

[…]

According to the executive, Blackwater works on a subcontract for Kestral Logistics, a powerful Pakistani firm, which specializes in military logistical support, private security and intelligence consulting. It is staffed with former high-ranking Pakistani army and government officials. While Kestral's main offices are in Pakistan, it also has branches in several other countries.

[…]

Blackwater operatives also integrate with Kestral's forces in sensitive counterterrorism operations in the North-West Frontier Province, where they work in conjunction with the Pakistani Interior Ministry's paramilitary force, known as the Frontier Corps (alternately referred to as "frontier scouts"). The Blackwater personnel are technically advisers, but the former executive said that the line often gets blurred in the field. Blackwater "is providing the actual guidance on how to do [counterterrorism operations] and Kestral's folks are carrying a lot of them out, but they're having the guidance and the overwatch from some BW guys that will actually go out with the teams when they're executing the job," he said. "You can see how that can lead to other things in the border areas." He said that when Blackwater personnel are out with the Pakistani teams, sometimes its men engage in operations against suspected terrorists. "You've got BW guys that are assisting...and they're all going to want to go on the jobs—so they're going to go with them," he said. "So, the things that you're seeing in the news about how this Pakistani military group came in and raided this house or did this or did that—in some of those cases, you're going to have Western folks that are right there at the house, if not in the house." Blackwater, he said, is paid by the Pakistani government through Kestral for consulting services. "That gives the Pakistani government the cover to say, 'Hey, no, we don't have any Westerners doing this. It's all local and our people are doing it.' But it gets them the expertise that Westerners provide for [counterterrorism]-related work."

The military intelligence source confirmed Blackwater works with the Frontier Corps, saying, "There's no real oversight. It's not really on people's radar screen."

* * *

In November 2009, Capt. John Kirby, the spokesperson for Adm. Michael Mullen, Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told The Nation, "We do not discuss current operations one way or the other, regardless of their nature." A defense official, on background, specifically denied that Blackwater performs work on drone strikes or intelligence for JSOC in Pakistan. Captain Kirby told The Nation if it published the story it would "be on thin ice." The US embassy and Pakistan's interior Minister Rehman Malik both denied Blackwater was operating in Pakistan.

In January 2010, on a visit to Pakistan, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, appeared to contradict that line, telling a Pakistani TV station, "They [Blackwater and another private security firm, DynCorp] are operating as individual companies here in Pakistan," according to a DoD transcript of the interview. As Gates's comments began to make huge news in Pakistan, US defense officials tried to retract his statement. As the Wall Street Journal reported, "Defense officials tried to clarify the comment…telling reporters that Mr. Gates had been speaking about contractor oversight more generally and that the Pentagon didn't employ [Blackwater] in Pakistan." The next day, Pakistan's senior minister for the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), Bashir Bilour, said that Blackwater was operating in Pakistan's frontier areas. Bilour told Pakistan's Express News TV that Blackwater's activities were taking place with the "consent and permission" of the Pakistani government, saying he had discussed the issue with officials at the US Consulate in Peshawar, who told him that Blackwater was training Pakistani forces.

Since the Nation story originally ran, Blackwater has continued to work under the Obama administration. In June, the company won a $100 million global contract with the CIA and continues to operate in Afghanistan, where it protects senior US officials and trains Afghan forces. Earlier this year, Blackwater's owner, Erik Prince, put the company up for sale and moved to the Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. Whether Blackwater or former Blackwater operatives continue to work in Pakistan is not known. What is clear is that there is great reason to believe that the October 2009 cable from Ambassador Anne Patterson describing US special operations forces activities in Pakistan represents only a tiny glimpse into one of the darkest corners of current US policy in Pakistan.

 
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America's Failed War of Attrition in Afghanistan

At the end of the NATO summit in Lisbon, Portugal this weekend, the leadership of the Afghan Taliban issued a statement characterizing the alliance's adoption of a loose timeline for a 2014 end to combat operations as "good news" for Afghans and "a sign of failure for the American government." At the summit, President Barack Obama said that 2011 will begin "a transition to full Afghan lead" in security operations, while the Taliban declared: "In the past nine years, the invaders could not establish any system of governance in Kabul and they will never be able to do so in future."

While Obama claimed that the US and its allies are "breaking the Taliban’s momentum," the reality on the ground tells a different story. Despite increased Special Operations Forces raids and, under Gen. David Petraeus, a return to regular US-led airstrikes, the insurgency in Afghanistan is spreading and growing stronger. "By killing Taliban leaders the war will not come to an end," said the Taliban's former foreign minister, Wakil Ahmad Muttawakil, in an interview at his home in Kabul. "On the contrary, things get worse which will give birth to more leaders."

Former and current Taliban leaders say that they have seen a swelling in the Taliban ranks since 9/11. In part, they say, this can be attributed to a widely held perception that the Karzai government is corrupt and illegitimate and that Afghans—primarily ethnic Pashtuns—want foreign occupation forces out. "We are only fighting to make foreigners leave Afghanistan," a new Taliban commander in Kunduz told me during my recent trip to the country. "We don’t want to fight after the withdrawal of foreigners, but as long as there are foreigners, we won't talk to Karzai."

"The Americans have very sophisticated technology, but the problem here in Afghanistan is they are confronting ideology. I think ideology is stronger than technology," says Abdul Salam Zaeef, a former senior member of Mullah Mohammed Omar's government. "If I am a Taliban and I'm killed, I'm martyred, then I'm successful. There are no regrets for the Taliban. It's very difficult to defeat this kind of idea."

But it is not simply a matter of ideology versus technology. The Taliban is not one unified body. The Afghan insurgency is fueled by fighters with a wide variety of motivations. Some are the dedicated jihadists of which Zaeef speaks, but others are fighting to defend their land or are seeking revenge for the killing of family members by NATO or Afghan forces. While Al Qaeda has been almost entirely expelled from Afghanistan, the insurgency still counts a small number of non-Afghans among its ranks. Bolstering the Taliban's recruitment efforts is the perception in Afghanistan that the Taliban pays better than NATO or the Afghan army or police.

The hard reality US officials don't want to discuss is this: the cultural and religious values of much of the Pashtun population--which comprises 25–40 percent of the country--more closely align with those of the Taliban than they do with Afghan government or US/NATO forces. The Taliban operate a shadow government in large swaths of the Pashtun areas of the country, complete with governors and a court system. In rural areas, land and property disputes are resolved through the Taliban system rather than the Afghan government, which is widely distrusted. "The objectives and goal of the American troops in Afghanistan are not clear to the people and therefore Afghans call the Americans 'invaders,'" says Muttawakil. "Democracy is a very new phenomenon in Afghanistan and most people don’t know the meaning of democracy. And now corruption, thieves and fakes have defamed democracy. Democracy can’t be imposed because people will never adopt any value by force."

The US strategy of attempting to force the Taliban to surrender or engage in negotiations rests almost exclusively on attempts to decapitate the Taliban leadership. While Taliban leaders acknowledge that commanders are regularly killed, they say the targeted killings are producing more radical leaders who are far less likely to negotiate than the older-school Taliban leaders who served in the government of Mullah Mohammed Omar. "If today Mullah Omar was captured or killed, the fighting will go on," says Zaeef, adding: " It will be worse for everyone if the [current] Taliban leadership disappears."

In October, there were a flurry of media reports that senior Taliban leaders were negotiating with the Karzai government and that US forces were helping to insure safe passage for the Taliban leaders to come to Kabul. The Taliban passionately refuted those reports, saying they were propaganda aimed at dividing the insurgency. Last week the Taliban appeared vindicated on this point as Karzai spoke in markedly modest terms on the issue. He told The Washington Post that three months ago he had met with one or two "very high" level Taliban leaders. He characterized the meeting as "the exchange of desires for peace," saying the Taliban "feel the same as we do here—that too many people are suffering for no reason."

UPDATE: [On Tuesday, The New York Times reported that NATO and the Afghan government have held a series of "secret" peace negotiations with a man who posed as a senior Taliban leader, Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour. A Western diplomat involved in the discussions told the Times, "[W]e gave him a lot of money.” It is unclear who, if anyone, the impostor was working for, though the Times speculated that he could have been deployed by Pakistan's ISI spy agency or by the Taliban itself. “The Taliban are cleverer than the Americans and our own intelligence service,” said a senior Afghan official who is familiar with the case. “They are playing games.” Last month, the White House asked the Times to withhold Mansour’s name "from an article about the peace talks, expressing concern that the talks would be jeopardized—and Mr. Mansour’s life put at risk—if his involvement were publicized. The Times agreed to withhold Mr. Mansour’s name," according to the paper.

This incident is significant on a number of levels. If true, it underscores the ineffective and inaccurate nature of US, NATO and Afghan government intelligence. It also confirms what Taliban leaders have stated publicly and to The Nation, namely that it has not negotiated with the Afghan government or NATO and that it will not negotiate unless foreign troops leave Afghanistan. The fake Mullah Mansour, according to the Times, "did not demand, as the Taliban have in the past, a withdrawal of foreign forces or a Taliban share of the government."

In October, an American official said that reports in US media outlets of senior Taliban negotiating are propaganda aimed at sowing dissent among the Taliban leadership. "This is a psychological operation, plain and simple," the official with firsthand knowledge of the Afghan government's strategies told the McClatchy news service. "Exaggerating the significance of it is an effort to sow distrust within the insurgency."

Today on MSNBC, Pentagon spokesperson Geoff Morrell continued to insist that US and NATO forces have facilitated safe passage for Taliban leaders for reconciliation meetings in Kabul. The Taliban maintain there have been no meetings.

The Taliban imposter incident also calls into question scores of deadly night raids that have resulted in the deaths of innocent Afghans. Several survivors of night raids recently told The Nation that they believed they were victims of bad intelligence provided by other Afghans for money or to settle personal grudges.

Contrary to the rhetoric emanating from NATO and Washington, the Taliban are not on the ropes and, from their perspective, would gain nothing from negotiating with the United States or NATO. As far as they are concerned, time is on their side. "The bottom line for [NATO and the US] is to immediately implement what they would ultimately have to implement…after colossal casualties," stated the Taliban declaration after the recent NATO summit. "They should not postpone withdrawal of their forces."

Depending on whom you ask, the fact that General Petraeus has brought back the use of heavy US airstrikes and is increasing night raids and other direct actions by Special Operations Forces could be seen as a sign of either fierce determination to wipe out "the enemy" or of desperation to prove the United States and its allies are "winning." Over the past three months, NATO claims that Special Operations Forces' night raids have resulted in more than 360 "insurgent leaders" being killed or captured along with 960 "lower-level" leaders and the capture of more than 2400 "lower-level" fighters. In July, Special Operations Forces averaged five raids a night. Now, according to NATO, they are conducting an average of seventeen. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the raids "intelligence-driven precision operations against high value insurgents and their networks," adding, "There is no question that they are having a significant  impact on the insurgent leadership."

The raids undoubtedly have produced scores of successful kill or capture operations, but serious questions abound over the NATO definitions of Taliban commanders, sub-commanders and foot soldiers. Most significantly, the raids consistently result in the killing of innocent civilians, a fact that is problematic for NATO and the Karzai government. "A lot of times, yeah, the right guys would get targeted and the right guys would get killed," says Matthew Hoh a former senior State Department official in Afghanistan who resigned in 2009 in protest of US war strategy. "Plenty of other times, the wrong people would get killed.

Sometimes it would be innocent families." Hoh, who was the senior US civilian in Zabul province, a Taliban stronghold, describes night raids as "a really risky, really violent operation," saying that when Special Operations Forces conduct them, "We might get that one guy we’re looking for or we might kill a bunch of innocent people and now make ten more Taliban out of them."

Hoh describes the current use of US Special Operations Forces in Afghanistan as a "tremendous waste of resources," saying, "They are the best strike forces the world’s ever known. They’re very well trained, very well equipped, have a tremendous amount of support, and we’ve got them in Afghanistan chasing after mid-level Taliban leaders who are not threatening the United States, who are only fighting us really because we’re in their valley."

In an interview with the Washington Post in mid-November, President Karzai called for an end to the night raids. "I don't like it in any manner and the Afghan people don't like these raids in any manner," Karzai said. "We don't like raids in our homes. This is a problem between us and I hope this ends as soon as possible.... Terrorism is not invading Afghan homes and fighting terrorism is not being intrusive in the daily Afghan life."

Karzai's comments angered the Obama administration. At the NATO summit, President Obama acknowledged that civilian deaths have sparked "real tensions" with the Karzai government, but reserved the right to continue US raids. "[Karzai's] got to understand that I've got a bunch of young men and women...who are in a foreign country being shot at and having to traverse terrain filled with IEDs, and they need to protect themselves," Obama said. "So if we're setting things up where they're just sitting ducks for the Taliban, that's not an acceptable answer either." Republican Senator Lindsey Graham blasted Karzai's statement calling for an end to night raids, saying, “it would be a disaster for the Petraeus strategy.”

Along with Afghan government corruption, including a cabal of war lords, drug dealers and war criminals in key positions, the so-called Petraeus strategy of ratcheting up air strikes and expanding night raids is itself delivering substantial blows to the stated US counterinsurgency strategy and the much-discussed battle for hearts and minds. The raids and airstrikes are premiere recruiting points for the Taliban and, unlike Senator Graham and the Obama administration, Karzai seems to get that. In the bigger picture, the United States appears to be trying to kill its way to a passable definition of a success or even victory. This strategy puts a premium on the number of kills and captures of anyone who can loosely be defined as an insurgent and completely sidelines the blowback these operations cause. "We found ourselves in this Special Operations form of attrition warfare," says Hoh, "which is kind of like an oxymoron, because Special Operations are not supposed to be in attrition warfare. But we’ve found ourselves in that in Afghanistan."

 
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