Monday, August 23, 2021

Afghanistan: the Triumph and Tragedy of Misinformation

 "Biden administration stunned by speed of Taliban’s takeover" -- Associated Press

As twenty years and trillions of dollars of U.S. effort in Afghanistan get erased in a matter of a few weeks, the stunning speed of the Taliban takeover is only one example of how we have remained largely uninformed about reality in Afghanistan. "We" in this case seems to extend from us minions up to the highest ranks of the government. The misinformation ranges from intentional deception to self-delusion, along with the usual failure of information to migrate vertically from the ground to the upper echelons--a weakness to which all large organizations are prone.

As the news media seeks explanations for what went wrong, there are interviews with troops who could see that the war effort was doomed to failure early on, articles that explain that Biden was in a bind, limited by the Trump agreement with the Taliban, and not having wanted to signal, through an early and rapid exit, a lack of trust in the Afghan government and its military. 

Gazing back across the full breadth of the 20 year long debacle reminds me of a visit long ago to the Grand Canyon, but the awe is generated not by vast radiant beauty but by the sheer scale of human folly. To better understand the full arc of American dishonesty and misjudgement in Afghanistan, I delved into Chapter One of a book by a CIA insider, Bruce Riedel, entitled The Search for Al Qaeda: Its Leadership, Ideology, and Future

His account suggests that over that 20 year span, many of us have suffered from a combination of indifference and lingering fallacies. Once misinformation takes hold, it is very difficult to correct. The American mind, like Afghanistan itself, has proven very difficult to change. We are finally leaving Afghanistan, but we are still stuck with the tendency of people to remain uninformed or actively misinformed here at home.

Quoting generously, here is what I learned.

On the months of warnings in 2001 of an imminent attack by al Qaeda:

"The attacks had all the hallmarks of al Qaeda and were preceded by months of warning that an assault on America was coming."

You can read about how the CIA repeatedly sent urgent warnings to President George W. Bush and Condoleeza Rice about imminent attack in the months prior to September 11, 2001, and how one of the key warnings, made on July 10, did not make it into the 9/11 Commission's final report. Several factors contributed to the lack of adequate response by the Bush administration to warnings of imminent attack. It was Bush's first year, he was focused elsewhere, e.g. on education issues, his administration was stuck in a Cold War mindset that believed global threats lay elsewhere, he distrusted the Clinton appointees who were sending him the warnings. In addition, August is a traditional time for vacations in Washington, DC. Amidst all the warnings, George W. Bush took a month long vacation prior to the September attack, part of a record-setting year's worth of vacations he took during his eight years in office. 

There was a precedent for the 9/11 attacks: an attempt to fly a hijacked airplane into the Eiffel Tower. The claim that "no one saw it coming", that using commercial airplanes as weapons was unheard of, was false.

"First, the operation was inspired by a terrorist attack that took place six years earlier. On December 24, 1994, four Algerian terrorists dressed as policemen took control of Air France’s flight 8969 as it prepared for takeoff at Houari Boumediene International Airport in Algiers. On board were 220 passengers and 12 crew members bound for Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris. The Algerian authorities surrounded the plane and refused to let it depart. The terrorists then began executing hostages until the plane was allowed to leave late on December 25. French counterterrorism authorities learned that the terrorists were planning to crash the aircraft into the Eiffel Tower to cause a mass casualty disaster in Paris. They persuaded the terrorists to let the plane land in Marseilles on the pretext that it was running short of fuel. Once in Marseilles, the terrorists demanded that the plane be fueled to its maximum capacity: 27 tons of jet fuel, far more than needed to get to Paris and a clear indication of their intention to crash into the tower. Elite French commandos then stormed the aircraft and in an intense firefight killed all four terrorists and saved the hostages. 
At the time, I was serving as the CIA’s national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia, with a special concern for Algeria because of the growing strength of the Islamist jihadist movement there. As I followed the events in Algeria and France, it was clear to me and other observers that the idea of using an aircraft as a guided missile to attack a target on the ground meant a new and horrific threshold had been crossed in international terrorism. Save for the French commandos and their counterterrorism expertise, 9/11 would have happened on Christmas 1994. 
The counterterrorism community was not the only one keeping an eye on this incident. Terrorists were watching too—including Osama bin Laden and a young Pakistani, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, or KSM, as he is known in the intelligence world—and were inspired by it. In 1994 KSM was already planning terrorist operations involving aircraft. He and the mastermind of the first attack on the World Trade Center, Ramzi Yusuf, were working on a plot to blow up several American aircraft flying over the Pacific." 

Bin Ladin's aim was to draw the U.S. into a protracted war in Afghanistan. The Bush administration's invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, then, though surely punishing in their intensity, also played into al Qaeda's hands.

"From all that bin Laden and other al Qaeda spokesmen have said since 9/11 and the testimony of captured lieutenants like KSM, their objective was to provoke the United States and it allies to retaliate: specifically, to invade Afghanistan and enter into a long and bloody war of occupation in a repeat of the Soviet struggle there in the 1980s. Al Qaeda believed that the United States would bleed to death in the mountains of Afghanistan just as the Soviet Union had bled into collapse at the hands of Afghanistan’s Muslim guerrilla warriors, the mujahedin." 

Palestine was also a powerful motivator. This came as a surprise, though perhaps it shouldn't, and gives still greater relevance to the assassination in 1995 of Yitzak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister who was the best chance for peace between the Israelis and Palestinians.

"Taken together, these statements clearly indicate that the Arab conflict with Israel, especially the perceived grievances of the Palestinian people, is the all-consuming issue for the terrorists." 

Lingering ignorance about our enemies, and the danger thereof:

"And yet many in America fail to comprehend the realities surrounding the assault. That ignorance leaves the United States vulnerable to committing the same policy errors that helped lead to 9/11 and to the quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan that flowed from it.
In large part the public’s ignorance and vulnerability are a result of a decision by the George W. Bush administration not to clearly explain to the American people the nature of the enemy, namely al Qaeda. The president chose to declare war not on al Qaeda, but on “terrorism,” a concept that he and Vice President Dick Cheney arrived at by confusing 9/11 with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. They have also argued that the attacks were motivated by a hate for America’s “freedom.” As former governor of Arkansas Michael Huckabee has written, “The Bush administration has never adequately explained the theology and ideology behind Islamic terrorism or convinced us of its ruthless fanaticism. The first rule of war is ‘know your enemy’ and most Americans do not know theirs.”

The need of Bush/Cheney to sustain misinformation (the belief that Saddam Hussein was behind the 9/11 attacks) in order to legitimize irrational policy:

"What is more remarkable is that this misperception lingered several more years. A Zogby poll in September 2006 found 46 percent of Americans still believed Saddam was connected to the attacks, and among Republican voters the figure jumped to 65 percent." 

Al Qaeda and the Taliban were almost destroyed. According to Riedel's account, the war in Afghanistan might have ended quickly, with the capture of the al Qaeda and Taliban leadership in the mountains, but the Bush Administration failed to deploy enough troops and allowed the leadership to escape to Pakistan and regroup. 

"But bin Laden and Mullah Omar miscalculated. Instead of entering with a heavy footprint that would produce another guerrilla war, the United States made a light counterattack, spearheaded by CIA teams working with the Northern Alliance, which had survived Massoud’s death. Backed by American airpower, they defeated the Taliban on the battlefield in a matter of weeks. Moreover, bin Laden and Omar did not anticipate that their Pakistani friends—who had helped create the Taliban and with whom both had worked for years—would change sides and desert them. The reasons for this betrayal and its temporary character are examined in chapter 4. For now, suffice it to say that Musharraf’s change of heart, from being de facto defender of al Qaeda and the Taliban to colluding with the invasion, was quite unexpected. The invasion in the winter of 2001–02 should have destroyed al Qaeda and the Taliban. The leadership was rapidly cornered along the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Bin Laden was caught between what was supposed to be an American hammer and a Pakistani anvil." 

The decision to invade Iraq allowed al Qaeda and the Taliban to survive and regroup:

"The invasion in the winter of 2001–02 should have destroyed al Qaeda and the Taliban. The leadership was rapidly cornered along the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Bin Laden was caught between what was supposed to be an American hammer and a Pakistani anvil. Two events saved him and his organization: the U.S. decision to go to war with Iraq and the Pakistani decision to provoke a crisis with India. Invading Iraq diverted key resources from the job of finding the al Qaeda leadership. As Max Cleland, former U.S. senator from Georgia, noted: “Attacking Iraq after 9/11 was like attacking Mexico after Pearl Harbor.”13 Key intelligence and military forces were withdrawn from the Afghan-Pakistani borderlands as early as March 2002 to prepare for the war in Iraq. Gary Schroen points out that “the U.S. military did this in order to allow them to regroup and train in preparation for the coming war with Iraq.” The best Arabic-speaking CIA collection officers were removed as well.14 According to Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States, Mahmud Durrani, “We had almost licked al-Qa’ida after 9/11 because of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. . . . But what happened? The focus shifted to Iraq big time. This was a rebirth of al-Qa’ida.”

Even if bin Ladin and other leaders were captured earlyon, might al Qaeda and the Taliban have merely regrouped with new leadership? Some evidence of how dependent the success of the 9/11 attacks was on bin Ladin's judgement and experience follow:

The plot's tactical leader:

"In early 2000 bin Laden personally recruited the plot’s tactical leader, Mohammed Atta, in Afghanistan. 

Bin Laden also personally recruited all the so-called muscle terrorists— the fifteen operatives who would control the passengers during the hijackings." 

Al Qaeda had enemies in Afghanistan. It wasn't a uniform country at all:

"Bin Laden agreed to give his emir more time, probably because another key aspect of the plan—the assassination of al Qaeda’s main enemy in Afghanistan, the strongest leader in the Northern Alliance, Ahmad Shah Massoud—was not fully ripe for action either" 

The Taliban, hosts of al Qaeda, also considered the Northern Alliance an enemy.

"Bin Laden personally handled other essential elements of the plot as well, bringing on board the Taliban—the Afghan militia that hosts al Qaeda in the badlands of Afghanistan and Pakistan—and its leader, Mullah Omar. 

For the Taliban leadership, the critical prerequisite to an attack on the United States was another al Qaeda plot in which they had a vital interest, the murder of Massoud, their principal enemy in Afghanistan. 

The timing was critical because it had to coincide with the U.S. strike, which in the end it did. Bin Laden and Omar wanted Massoud killed on the eve of 9/11 to decapitate Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance and thus render it impotent when America would need it to retaliate. The two operations were interdependent." 

The Taliban leadership was not at first supportive of bin Ladin's planned attack on the U.S., knowing it would provoke an attack on Afghanistan. Killing the Taliban's enemy in the Northern Alliance was bin Ladin's way of gaining the Taliban's support for the 9/11 attacks.

"Gary Schroen connected those two things as soon as the second aircraft hit: “I was standing in the parking lot at the CIA, saying, ‘Ah, that’s what Massoud’s death was about. It made Mullah Omar indebted to bin Laden for removing his only major enemy.’” 

Bin Ladin's family background in construction helped him understand the level of damage he could inflict:

"Osama was in Kandahar on September 11 and gathered some of his closest lieutenants together to watch the plot unfold on television. Apparently he alone anticipated the magnitude of the destruction, perhaps because of his work in construction for his father, although he was surprised at the total collapse of the two towers." 

Other attacks were planned, but not carried out. The original plot was to include the west coast in the attack.

"Meanwhile Khalid Sheikh Mohammed watched events unfold in an Internet café in Karachi.12 He returned to Kandahar later in the month and immediately began working on another plot, this time to repeat 9/11 in London, targeting Heathrow and Canary Wharf and using aircraft hijacked in Eastern Europe. The al Qaeda infrastructure in Saudi Arabia was tasked to find the pilots, but KSM’s capture in Pakistan upset the plot." 

Quotes taken from:

The Search for Al Qaeda: Its Leadership, Ideology, and Future, By Bruce Riedel

Bruce Riedel joined Brookings in 2006 after 30 years service at the Central Intelligence Agency including postings overseas in the Middle East and Europe. Riedel was a senior advisor on South Asia and the Middle East to the last four presidents of the United States in the staff of the National Security Council at the White House.

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