As security worsens in Afghanistan and Pakistan, it is clear that al-Qaeda and its Taliban allies outwitted President George W. Bush and his neoconservative advisers by tying down U.S. forces in Iraq for five years while the Islamic militants rebuilt their forces for the war on their “central front.”
The growing U.S. casualty list in Afghanistan and the Taliban advances in nuclear-armed Pakistan also underscore the significance of a late 2005 message from a top al-Qaeda operative, known as Atiyah, to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was then leading al-Qaeda’s faction in Iraq.
“Prolonging the war [in Iraq] is in our interest,” Atiyah said in a letter that upbraided Zarqawi for his reckless and hasty actions. Atiyah, who is believed to be a Libyan named Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, emphasized the need for Zarqawi to operate more deliberately in order to build political strength and drag out the U.S. occupation of Iraq.
[The Atiyah letter was discovered by the U.S. military after Zarqawi was killed by an airstrike in June 2006. To view the “prolonging the war” excerpt in a translation published by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, click here. To read the entire letter, click here.]
It's easy to see the logic behind Atiyah's advice. In 2002 and 2003, as Bush redirected U.S. military and intelligence resources to Iraq, al-Qaeda and the Taliban gained a valuable respite. After the U.S. invasion, Bush got bogged down in the Iraqi quagmire, giving al-Qaeda and the Taliban more time to revamp and re-arm their forces.
Now, as the Obama administration moves to wind down U.S. involvement in Iraq and shift attention to the Afghan-Pakistan region, that belated interest may be too late to achieve American goals at anything approaching an acceptable cost.
Instead of the relatively receptive Afghan population that by 2001 had grown weary of the Taliban’s harsh fundamentalism, the Obama administration faces a populace that has come to regard the eight-year U.S. and NATO military presence as a foreign military occupation, resented for killing thousands upon thousands of Afghan civilians.
What might have been possible eight years ago – in rebuilding Afghanistan and winning the hearts and minds of many Afghans – has become almost impossible because of Bush’s “muddling through” strategy regarding what became “the forgotten war.”
‘Central Front’ Myth
To sell the Iraq War to the American people, Bush and the neocons called it “the central front in the war on terror,” a claim that was buttressed by false information fed to the Bush administration by captured al-Qaeda operatives in the face of torture or threatened torture.
Those lies told about an Iraqi-Qaeda alliance -- whether coerced or intentionally misleading -- reflected a symbiotic relationship that had grown between the neocons and al-Qaeda, at least over their mutual desire to kill Saddam Hussein, a secular Muslim who brutally repressed Islamic extremists and also was an enemy of Israel.
By invading Iraq, Bush and the neocons gave three key gifts to al-Qaeda: they shifted U.S. military focus away from the Af-Pac border region where Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders were hiding; eliminated al-Qaeda’s rival Saddam Hussein; and intensified anti-Americanism, which helped al-Qaeda recruit more suicide bombers.
Beyond that, Bush and the neocons upgraded the prospects for Islamic extremists to destabilize the Pakistani government, whose collapse could deliver nuclear weapons into the hands of al-Qaeda terrorists, exactly the nightmare scenario that Bush and neocons cited to justify the invasion of Iraq.
How misguided the Bush-neocon Iraq strategy was comes into focus in a recently released letter by a U.S. Foreign Service officer and ex-Marine captain, Matthew Hoh, who resigned his reconstruction post in Afghanistan because he concluded that the drawn-out U.S. occupation no longer made any sense, nor offered reasonable hope of success.
“I have doubts and reservations about our current strategy and planned future strategy,” Hoh wrote in a Sept. 10 resignation letter to a State Department superior, “but my resignation is based not upon how we are pursuing this war, but why and to what end.
"To put simply: I fail to see the value or the worth in continued U.S. casualties or expenditures of resources in support of the Afghan government in what is truly a 35-year-old civil war.”
Hoh described the Afghan conflict as “a tragedy that not only pits tribes, valleys, clans, villages and families against one another, but ... has violently and savagely pitted the urban, secular, educated and modern of Afghanistan against the rural, religious, illiterate and traditional.”
This latter group, Hoh said, is at the heart of “the Pashtun insurgency, which is composed of multiple, seemingly infinite, local groups [and] is fed by what is perceived by the Pashtun people as a continued and sustained assault, going back centuries, on Pashtun land, culture, traditions and religion by internal and external enemies.
“The U.S. and NATO presence and operations in Pashtun valleys and villages, as well as Afghan army and police units that are led and composed of non-Pashtun soldiers and police, provide an occupation force against which the insurgency is justified. ...
“The United States military presence in Afghanistan greatly contributes to the legitimacy and strategic message of the Pashtun insurgency. In a like manner our backing of the Afghan government in its current form continues to distance the government from the people.”
Hoh cited serious problems with the U.S.-backed regime of President Hamid Karzai, including widespread and “glaring corruption,” top appointees implicated as drug lords and war criminals, and a recent presidential election permeated by fraud.
“Our support for this kind of government, coupled with a misunderstanding of the insurgency’s true nature, reminds me horribly of our involvement with South Vietnam, an unpopular and corrupt government we backed at the expense of our Nation’s own internal peace, against an insurgency whose nationalism we arrogantly and ignorantly mistook as a rival to our own Cold War ideology,” Hoh wrote.
Hoh called the stated reason for the long U.S. war in Afghanistan, i.e. denying a haven for al-Qaeda terrorists, to be “specious,” adding: “If honest, our stated strategy of securing Afghanistan to prevent al-Qaeda resurgence or regrouping would require us to additionally invade and occupy western Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen, etc.
“Our presence in Afghanistan has only increased destabilization and insurgency in Pakistan where we rightly fear a toppled or weakened Pakistani government may lose control of its nuclear weapons. However, again, to follow the logic of our stated goals we should garrison Pakistan, not Afghanistan.
“More so, the September 11th attacks, as well as the Madrid and London bombings, were primarily planned and organized in Western Europe; a point that highlights the threat is not one tied to traditional geographic or political boundaries.”
Regarding the Afghan mission that the U.S. military was handed by the Bush administration – and now the Obama administration – Hoh wrote:
“I do not believe any military force has ever been tasked with such a complex, opaque and Sisyphean mission as the U.S. military has received in Afghanistan. The tactical proficiency and performance of our Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines is unmatched and unquestioned.
“However, this is not the European or Pacific theaters of World War II, but rather is a war for which our leaders, uniformed, civilian and elected, have inadequately prepared and resourced our men and women. Our forces, devoted and faithful, have been committed to conflict in an indefinite and unplanned manner that has become a cavalier, politically expedient and Pollyannish misadventure.”
Further, Hoh wrote: “We are mortgaging our Nation’s economy on a war, which, even with increased commitment, will remain a draw for years to come. Success and victory, whatever they may be, will be realized not in years, after billions more spent, but in decades and generations. The United States does not enjoy a national treasury for such success and victory.”
As for the human toll among the U.S. forces, Hoh cited “the sacrifices made by so many thousands of families who have been separated from loved ones deployed in defense of our Nation and whose homes bear the fractures, upheavals and scars of multiple and compounded deployments. Thousands of our men and women have returned home with physical and mental wounds, some that will never heal or will only worsen with time.
“The dead return only in bodily form to be received by families who must be reassured their dead have sacrificed for a purpose worthy of futures lost, love vanished, and promised dreams unkept. I have lost confidence such assurances can anymore be made. As such, I submit my resignation.”
Hoh, 36, who served as a Marine combat officer in Iraq before taking a reconstruction assignment in Afghanistan, told the Washington Post that he reached his decision to resign with pain and regret.
“I realize what I’m getting into ... what people are going to say about me,” he said about his decision, adding that in composing his resignation letter, “I felt physically nauseous at times.”
Yet while Capt. Hoh may have struggled to reach a painful personal decision, it is far from clear that senior U.S. officials and American opinion-makers have come to grips with an even more troubling realization: that President Bush and his neocon advisers committed the United States to two wars whose chances for success were crippled by ill-defined goals and ill-considered strategies.
Indeed, one of the most remarkable aspects of life in Washington today is how the neocons remain exceptionally influential. They keep their well-paid jobs at prestigious think tanks, write books for major publishing houses, and control key opinion columns in the Washington Post and, to a lesser degree, the New York Times.
Even now, as President Obama ponders what to do with the botched war in Afghanistan, the neocons bait him about alleged weakness and defeatism. Their allies in Congress, the likes of Sens. John McCain and Joe Lieberman, seem determined to undermine the Obama administration at every turn if the President doesn’t take the neocons' advice and escalate the war.
It seems that Official Washington can’t face up to its disastrous misjudgments over the past eight years.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
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This story was published on October 29, 2009.