Imperial Wizards: The Nangarhar Massacre and U.S. Plans for Central Asia

At first, the Pentagon denied that American planes had slaughtered dozens of Afghan civilians on their way to a wedding in the Nangarhar mountains. "Pure propaganda," said the usual media and blogosphere sycophants. "It's always 'a wedding' being hit, the same old story." The military brass promised the usual investigation, no doubt hoping it would all go away. But then Afghan government officials confirmed the truth, and the BBC's Alastair Leithead was the first outsider to visit the actual site of the massacre:

What began as celebration ended with maybe 52 people dead, most of them women and children, and others badly injured.

The US forces said they targeted insurgents in a strike. But from what I saw with my own eyes and heard from the many mourners, no militants were among the dead....

It appears the wedding group was crossing a narrow pass in the mountains which divides the valleys where the two families live. From nowhere a fast jet flew low and dropped a bomb right on top of the pass near a group of children who had impatiently rushed ahead and were resting, waiting for the women to catch up...

But then [came] the second blast - the bomb had been dropped on top of the women and almost all of them had been killed. Three girls escaped, among them the bride, but as they ran down the hillside a third bomb landed on top of them....

The BBC team I was with were the first outsiders to see where the bombs hit - even the Afghan investigators did not climb up the steep mountainside - and there was much evidence to support the story. The fact we could travel to the area in local cars was proof that Taliban insurgents, al-Qaeda operatives or foreign fighters were not present in the valley.....

Civilian casualties are not new to Nangarhar province - last year a convoy of US Marines was hit by a bomb attack and in the chaos they opened fire in a bazaar killing 19 people. They were sent home and their officers charged, but a subsequent ruling cleared them of any responsibility for the deaths....

Mirwais Yasini, a local MP and the deputy speaker of Afghanistan's lower house, made the point that civilian casualties widen the gap between the people and the government, and the international forces....

These mistakes are incredibly costly in a counter-insurgency campaign which relies on winning people over, not forcing them against the authorities. I wonder how many enemies have been created in Nangarhar as a result of the latest bloodshed?

Enemies like these, for example (from the NY Times' Carlotta Gall):

Taliban insurgents carried out a bold assault on a remote base near the border with Pakistan on Sunday, NATO reported, and a senior American military official said nine American soldiers were killed.

The attack, the worst against Americans in Afghanistan in three years, illustrated the growing threat of Taliban militants and their associates, who in recent months have made Afghanistan a far deadlier war zone for American-led forces than Iraq...

The militants have since regained strength in the tribal areas of Pakistan, which they have often used as a base for raids into Afghanistan, an increasingly sore point for the American and Afghan governments.

The militants have regained strength precisely because of incidents like the Nangarhar Massacre -- incidents which are inevitable when you are occupying a country by force. People flock back to the Taliban banner because they are seeing their families slaughtered without mercy, and without justice.

But of course "Taliban" has become a catch-all term for all armed resistance to the American-European occupation: both because it is a handy scare-word that sets off connotations with al Qaeda and 9/11, and because it obscures the true, more complex nature of the insurgency. As US News reports, much of the violent resistance in the eastern border area near Pakistan is led not by adherents of the ousted Taliban regime but by extremist warlords once in the pay of the United States:

U.S. forces are keenly aware that they are facing an increasingly complex enemy here—what U.S. military officials now call a syndicate—composed not only of Taliban fighters but also powerful warlords who were once on the payroll of the Central Intelligence Agency. "You could almost describe the insurgency as having two branches," says a senior U.S. military official here. "It's the Taliban in the south and a 'rainbow coalition' in the east."

Indeed, along with a smattering of Afghan tribal groups, Pakistani extremists, and drug kingpins, two of the most dangerous players are violent Afghan Islamists named Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Jalaluddin Haqqani, according to U.S. officials. In recent weeks, Hekmatyar has called upon Pakistani militants to attack U.S. targets, while the Haqqani network is blamed for three large vehicle bombings, along with the attempted assassination of Karzai in April.

Ironically, these two warlords—currently at the top of America's list of most wanted men in Afghanistan—were once among America's most valued allies. In the 1980s, the CIA funneled hundreds of millions of dollars in weapons and ammunition to help them battle the Soviet Army during its occupation of Afghanistan. Hekmatyar, then widely considered by Washington to be a reliable anti-Soviet rebel, was even flown to the United States by the CIA in 1985.

Yes, Hekmatyar was one of the "freedom fighters" so beloved by Ronald Reagan and the Bushes -- even though the American leaders were well aware of the true nature of the sadistic, woman-hating, obscurantist thugs they had hired to irritate the Soviets in Afghanistan:

In his early years, the warlord distinguished himself by throwing acid in the faces of unveiled women. Today, a senior defense official says Hekmatyar is "as vicious as they come."

But of course he is no more vicious now than in those "early years" when, while he was throwing acid in the faces of unveiled women [and having recalcitrant minions torn apart by tying them to tanks going in different directions], he was being financed and feted by Reagan and Bush. Just as Saddam Hussein was no more vicious in 1991 -- or 2003 -- than he was when Reagan and Bush were plying him with money, guns, WMD technology and military intelligence to guide his chemical weapon attacks on Iran.

U.S. officials had an even higher opinion of Haqqani, who was considered the most effective rebel warlord....Haqqani was also one of the leading advocates of the so-called Arab Afghans, deftly organizing Arab volunteer fighters who came to wage jihad against the Soviet Union and helping to protect future al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden....

Today, the Haqqani network [now led by his son] is driving the recent rise in violence in eastern Afghanistan, according to U.S. military officials. Haqqani "is definitely the strongest" enemy in the border provinces of Paktia, Paktika, and Khost, known among military officials as p2k.

Of course, some caution is always in order when dealing with the statements of "U.S. military officials." No doubt there is a great deal of savage mischief being wrought by the ex-CIA warlords. [Or are they really "ex"? Are they still being run, by one bloc or another in the vast labyrinth of America's security apparat? Probably not -- but there is absolutely no way to be sure, not in a "National Security State," where a myriad of unaccountable agencies and secret armies ply their black ops with off-the-books billions.] And it's always good to see any mainstream media report that provides more nuance to the fairy tale of the "Good War" in Afghanistan. But the emphasis on the warlord's Pakistan connection plays into the PR push now under way to prepare the ground for an extension of the war into Pakistan's western frontier.

The Central Asian region has been roiled with anxiety in the last week following an unscheduled visit to Pakistan by U.S. Joint Chiefs honcho Admiral Mike Mullen -- believed by some normally astute observers to be one of the "grown-ups," like Pentagon chief Robert Gates, who have allegedly outfought the bellicose Cheney faction in the Bush Administration and are now keeping us safe from an expansion of the Terror War into Iran. And there may even be a kernel of truth to the view that Mullen and Gates oppose an attack on Iran -- for tactical, not moral reasons, of course. (Which was precisely how former CENTCOM chief William Fallon -- often depicted as some kind of anti-war "hero," even as he directed Terror War fronts in Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia -- looked at it. As Fallon said about the human beings in Iran: "These guys are ants. When the time comes, you crush them." It's the timing -- not the justice -- of an attack on Iran that concerns the "grown-ups.")

But if the "grown-ups" are leery of attacking Iran at the moment, they seem eager -- or at least very willing -- to expand the Terror War into Pakistan. (Grown-up Barack Obama is also on board with this idea.) As Gall notes, it was grown-up Gates, at the express order of George W. Bush, who told grown-up Mullen to go to Pakistan to lean on the new government to bring the "havens" on the western frontier to heel -- or else.

Yet an attack on nuclear-armed Pakistan could have even more catastrophic effects than a strike on nuke-less Iran. An American incursion is adamantly opposed by almost every faction in Pakistan, and would certainly unleash a nationalist backlash of tremendous fury, and fan the flames of extremism into a conflagration.

Pakistan is already reeling from years of authoritarian rule by Bush's client dictator, Pervez Musharraf, along with the collapse of hopes raised by the recent democratic elections. The new government, led by the  party of assassinated faction leader Benazir Bhutto, has quickly sunk into corruption, as well as reneging on earnest promises to restore the rule of law. As Tariq Ali reports in the London Review of Books (payment required for the full article):

The immediate impact of the stunning electoral defeat suffered by General Musharraf’s political party and his factotums was to dispel the disillusionment of the citizenry. Not for long. Musharraf is still clinging on to the presidency; [Bhutto's husband, Asif] Zardari is running the government with the help of his old cronies; the judges dismissed by Musharraf have still not been reinstated; the economy is a mess; and the US Air Force has started dropping bombs on the North-West Frontier Province again....

Five months on, democratic fervour, or naivety, has turned to anger. Old Corruption is back. The country is in the grip of a food and power crisis. Inflation is approaching 15 per cent. The price of gas (used for cooking in many homes) has risen by 30 per cent and the price of wheat by more than 20 per cent since November 2007. Food and commodity prices are rising all over the world, but there is an additional problem in Pakistan: too much wheat is being smuggled into Afghanistan to feed the Nato armies...

[Another] major problem confronting the government was the Nato occupation of Afghanistan... In March, Admiral Olson, the head of the US Special Operations Command, arrived in Islamabad for consultations with the Pakistan military and surprised locals by demanding a meeting with the country’s elected leaders. Olson asked the politicians how they would respond to the US need to make cross-border incursions into Pakistan. The Pakistanis made their opposition clear. The most senior civil servant in the Frontier Province, Khalid Aziz, told Olson that ‘it would be extremely dangerous. It would increase the number of militants, it would be . . . a war of liberation for the Pashtuns. They would say: “We are being slaughtered. Our enemy is the United States.”’

...Two leaders of the ANP [the secular party that defeated the Islamists in the frontier province during the elections], Asfandyar Khan and Afrasiab Khattak, were summoned to Washington for meetings with Stephen Hadley, the national security adviser, and John Negroponte. There was only one issue on the agenda: cross-border raids. Washington was determined to find Pakistani politicians who would defend them. The ANP leaders refused. ‘We told them physical intervention into the tribal areas by the United States would be a blunder,’ Khattak later told the New York Times. ‘It would create an atmosphere in which the terrorists would rally popular support.’

...Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, Nato’s secretary-general, [implied to] the Brookings Institution in February that the continuing occupation had less to do with good governance than with the desire to site permanent military bases (and nuclear missiles?) in a country that borders China, Iran and Central Asia. Contributors to the organisation’s house magazine, Nato Review, have argued that the preservation of Western hegemony in the Asia-Pacific region requires a permanent military presence.

Confirmation for this aim can be found in Monday's Washington Post, which buried an article on a funding bill passed by Congress for bolstering the key American base in Bagram. The Pentagon has been forthright in its view of the base's permanent importance. As the WP notes, the funding request states clearly that "as a forward operating site, Bagram must be able to provide for a long term, steady state presence which is able to surge to meet theater contingency requirements."

And that anti-war hero Admiral Fallon was even more up-front about the base's long-term imperial function, calling Bagram "the centerpiece for the CENTCOM Master Plan for future access to and operations in Central Asia." The American military intends to have a "forward presence" in Central Asia for a long, long time.

Ali continues:

There are three interrelated power blocs in Pakistan. Of these the US lobby is the most influential, the most public and the most hated. It is currently running the country. The Saudis, who use a combination of wealth and religion to get their way, are second in the pecking order and less unpopular. The Chinese lobby is virtually invisible, never interferes in internal politics and for that reason is immensely respected, especially within the army; but it is also the least powerful outside military circles. In Cold War times, the interests of the three lobbies coincided. Not now. The War on Terror has changed all that.

What is missing is a Pakistan lobby, a strong group within the ruling class that puts the interests and needs of the country and its citizens above all else. A survey carried out in May for the New America Foundation revealed that... 52 per cent regard the United States as responsible for the violence in Pakistan; that 74 per cent oppose the War on Terror in Afghanistan. A majority favours a negotiated settlement with the Taliban; 80 per cent hold the government and local businessmen responsible for food scarcity; only 11 per cent see India as the main enemy.

When you consider that the world is still reverberating from the enormous blowback of the American intervention in the region almost 30 years ago -- when Jimmy Carter and Obama advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski began building the jihad army that Reagan and Bush greatly expanded -- the extent and duration of the blowback from a "surge" into Pakistan is incalculable. Yet the grown-ups of our bipartisan foreign policy establishment seem increasingly inclined to "project dominance" into this volatile situation, where the United States is already hated, launching yet another cycle of violence, chaos, and suffering.

Death will yet have many more brides -- and an endless brood of children -- as the empire sinks its boots deeper into the soil of Central Asia.