Mullah Omar of Afghanistan must have been one of the last people in the world with a deep, abiding faith in the lawfulness of the American government. Certainly, the American people had long been accustomed to – and largely approving of – their government bending, twisting and breaking the rule of law, especially in matters of foreign policy and “national security.” And of course, the millions of people around the world on the receiving end of invasions, subversions and coercions from the Potomac potentates were well aware of America’s infinitely elastic notions of law.
Yet in the days after 9/11, there was Mulllah Omar — the half-blind leader of a group of rural zealots who had stepped into the power vacuum left behind by decades of ruinous Great Gaming by foreign powers and vicious civil war – clinging firmly to the belief that the United States would never attack his country. After all, the Taliban had no prior knowledge of the attacks in New York and Washington – attacks which the Taliban had condemned unequivocally and publicly the next day, while calling for the perpetrators to be brought to justice. If the Americans suspected Osama bin Laden, the former CIA ally living in Afghanistan, then surely they would produce documentary evidence of his guilt. And if such incriminating evidence was forthcoming, then the Taliban, as publicly promised, would cooperate in finding ways to bring bin Laden to trial. Thus, America had no legal reason to attack Afghanistan; and so the country was safe.
This was the reasoning that Mullah Omar expressed to one of his top foreign affairs advisers, Abdul Salam Zaeef, the Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, as Jonathan Steele recounts in an excellent article in the latest London Review of Books. Omar simply could not conceive that the United States would simply shred all notions of law and due process to launch a devastating attack on an entire country, in order – ostensibly – to get revenge on handful of men: men whom the Taliban were more than willing to give up – in accordance with the rule of law and due process. But the dossier of “hard proof” of bin Laden’s guilt promised by Colin Powell in the few remaining days of peace after 9/11 never materialized (and still has not materialized). And so, despite Mullah Omar’s touching faith in the American system, the war came. — Omar escaped the American onslaught (as did bin Laden, of course); but Zaeef was captured. Steele recounts his story:
The only detailed insider account of the Taliban is a memoir by Abdul Salam Zaeef, the movement’s former ambassador to Pakistan. … My Life with the Taliban usefully shows that its leaders saw themselves as nationalists, reformers and liberators rather than Islamist ideologues…. Arrested after the Taliban collapse in 2001, Zaeef was sent to Guantánamo. On the way he spent time in US custody in Kandahar and Bagram, where he was kept in solitary confinement with his hands and feet tied for 20 days. In Kandahar – shades of the abuse in Abu Ghraib – Zaeef says he was stripped naked and mocked by male and female US troops, one of whom took photos. After three years in Guantánamo, he was offered release on condition he signed a statement that he had been a member of al-Qaida and the Taliban and would cut all ties with them. ‘I was a Talib, I am a Talib and I will always be a Talib, but I have never been part of al-Qaida,’ he retorted. Eventually they allowed him to go after signing a declaration: ‘I am writing this out of obligation and stating that I am not going to participate in any kind of anti-American activities or military actions.’
Zaeef maintains that he was shocked by al-Qaida’s attack on 9/11, of which he had no foreknowledge. He says he wept when he watched TV pictures of the burning buildings and people throwing themselves out and falling to the ground like stones: ‘I stared at the pictures in disbelief.’ He immediately saw the likely repercussions. ‘I knew that Afghanistan and its poverty-stricken people would ultimately suffer for what had just taken place in America. The United States would seek revenge.’ He admits that some of the Taliban watching the scene were jubilant and thought the US was too far away to retaliate. ‘How could they be so superficial?’ he asks.
Mullah Omar rang to consult Zaeef about how to react. Next morning Zaeef called a press conference in Islamabad and read a statement condemning the attacks. ‘All those responsible must be brought to justice. We want them to be brought to justice and we want America to be patient and careful in their actions,’ it said. Zaeef returned to Kandahar, where he found Mullah Omar blindly sure that the US was unlikely to attack. He tried to warn the Taliban leader. He told him Pakistan was urging the US to launch air strikes on Afghanistan and had already started talks with the Northern Alliance in the expectation that they would be the leaders of a post-Taliban government. But Omar claimed America could not attack Afghanistan without valid reason. He had asked Washington to deliver proof incriminating bin Laden and said the Taliban would take no further action until it was given hard evidence. Zaeef’s account seems plausible given that the Taliban made no preparations for war, but it shows how out of touch Omar had become.
Out of touch indeed. Scarcely two years before, the United States had launched a devastating – and patently illegal – war on a European nation, deliberately targeting its civilian infrastructure (which was expressly against the laws of war), unleashing chaos and ruin that led to the deaths of thousands and the suffering of hundreds of thousands. If it would do this to Serbia, to white Christian Europeans, what wouldn’t it do to swarthy exotic Muslims in the back of beyond? And for ten years before 9/11, the United States had been inflicting a genocidal stranglehold of sanctions on Iraq, leading directly to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of children and other innocents, while constantly bombing the country in flagrant violation of any law.
Yet poor unlearned Omar actually thought the Americans would not attack his country “without a valid reason” – and of course no such a valid reason existed. – Nor does any valid reason exist today for the continuing – and expanding, and ever-more destructive – American operation in Afghanistan. The only thing the American presence is doing is delaying the start of what is sure to be a long and difficult process of national reconciliation. Yet almost every sector of Afghan society is calling for the beginning of such a process. As Steele reports:
Recent reports suggest that most Afghans, tired of the all-pervasive insecurity, want negotiations with the Taliban. A survey of 423 men in Helmand and Kandahar, carried out in May by the International Council on Security and Development, found that 74 per cent were in favour of negotiations. In Kabul in March, I interviewed several women professionals, the people who suffered most from the Taliban’s restrictions on girls’ education and women working outside the home. To varying degrees they all supported the idea of dialogue with the Taliban. They felt the top priority was to end what they saw as a civil war – not an insurgency, as Nato calls it. They saw the Taliban as authentic nationalists with legitimate grievances who needed to be brought back into the equation. Otherwise, Afghans would go on being used as proxies in a long battle between al-Qaida and the US. It was time to break free of both sets of foreigners, the global jihadis and the US empire. Shukria Barakzai, an MP and women’s rights campaigner, put it like this: ‘I changed my view three years ago when I realised Afghanistan is on its own. It’s not that the international community doesn’t support us. They just don’t understand us. The Taliban are part of our population. They have different ideas but as democrats we have to accept that.’
Yes, but there are other Democrats – and Republicans as well – who will not accept that. This is the bipartisan American foreign policy establishment, addicted to war and domination, and to their own pathetically inflated self-image as movers and shakers of the world. (Oh yes, and the power and privilege and loot that accrues to the leaders and lickspittles of empire, of course.) All-party negotiations are the only way forward, Steele notes. Straining to end on a note of optimism, Steele holds out the wan hope that Barack Obama – whose embrace of militarism has been as ardent and aggressive as any of his predecessors (and has outstripped many of them) – might recognize this reality and make the choice to “go into the 2012 campaign as a president who has started the endgame” of accommodation and negotiation.
Far more likely, however, is Steele’s alternative scenario: that Obama will instead “play the tough guy even though he must know any hope of defeating the Taliban militarily is doomed.” And why not? As we’ve noted here for years, the Terror War is a win-win situation for America’s militarists, among whom Obama now stands foremost: whether they defeat the designated enemy of the day or not, the aforementioned accrual of power, privilege, loot and self-aggrandizement that attends the imperial project remains the same.