National Security Advisor John Bolton’s firing may be the 9/11 anniversary gift the war-weary American public wanted, but the support he received from the establishment demonstrates that the war machine is much greater than one man.
Bolton, the neoconservative movement’s standard bearer in the Trump administration, took up a crusade against high-level talks between Trump and the Taliban at Camp David — what appears to be the impetus for his firing. That made him the momentary champion for the interests of the traditional GOP establishment and the liberal establishment. In effect, he was trying to pull the brakes on U.S. disengagement from Afghanistan.
The national security advisor’s reputation as a war hawk preceded him. He was a director of the influential Project for a New American Century (PNAC) think tank, which is widely credited for providing much of the political support needed to invade Iraq, and a hype man for hire for the MEK. When Bolton met then-Defense Secretary Gen. James Mattis for the first time after joining the Trump administration, the latter quipped “I’ve heard that you’re absolutely the devil incarnate.”
The war in Afghanistan, phase one of the War on Terror, is going worse for the United States than it ever has before, by a number of metrics. The regime-change campaign against the Taliban may have been swift, but as with other regime-change projects of the United States, the blowback would be enormous and enduring. It meant the militarization of American police through the Pentagon’s 1033 Program, more than two thousand American troops killed, scores of innocent civilians murdered and the complete destruction of the society — at a price tag of $975 billion by the end of 2019. That money has largely fallen into the hands of contractors.
The occupation of Afghanistan itself will soon be old enough to enlist in one of America’s forever wars.
“We should withdraw from Afghanistan,” Max Abrahms, a leading expert on terrorism and Professor of Political Science at Northeastern University, told MintPress, adding “I don’t see a lot of progress. The Taliban’s territorial holdings are substantial. The violence that the group wields is substantial… I have no illusions that the U.S. staying there will dramatically improve the country.”
One may be tempted to view the peace talks with the Taliban and Bolton’s departure from the White House as signs of a turning tide; of Trump making good on his anti-interventionist campaign promises. This, however, is a misguided reading, even beyond Trump saying that the peace talks “are dead” in response to the killing of an American soldier. Abrahms told MintPress News that the negotiations are really a tactic to keep the United States in Afghanistan indefinitely.
But perhaps the best single explanation for why the war in Afghanistan has dragged on so long, why the tide is not turning, and why there has been so little progress is that many of the U.S. officials and businessmen who worked in support of the precursor to the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan continue find shelter in Washington as they try to put out the fire they started 40 years ago, politically unhindered by the repeated failures of U.S. policies since.
As the number of civilian casualties continues to mount at the hands of American forces and the U.S.-trained Afghan military, with bombings up and peace now off the table, the dire situation in Afghanistan today is a direct result of U.S. policies spearheaded in part by Zalmay Khalilzad, a neocon who was able to quietly shape both the Afghanistan and Iraqi governments under George W. Bush. For a time, Khalilzad even flirted with seizing power for himself, but today he leads the United States in negotiations with the Taliban.
For Trump, the clear goal of the talks was to have some term-defining foreign policy moment to bring into the 2020 election, but the advanced negotiations with the Taliban have already proven undeniable diplomatic progress.
As such, the decision to call off the meeting that would have seen top Taliban officials flown in to Camp David, Maryland brought a fresh breeze into the swamp. Beltway creatures could go on with their business of selling bombs, aircraft, and all other kinds of weapons of war to the United States and Afghan military in the fight against the Taliban.
Imagine getting fired for the advice "Don't throw a 9/11 party for the Taliban" https://t.co/wkZf9v6PbN
— The Daily Show (@TheDailyShow) September 10, 2019
Former CIA director and Obama’s air force commander for Afghanistan, Gen. David Petraeus, said the meeting’s “’symbolism would’ve been troubling.” Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY), former Vice President Dick Cheney’s daughter, blasted the proposed meeting on Twitter. Gen. Jack Keane, a Fox News talking head and supporter of the Iranian terrorist cult MEK, called out the president as well. As Washington Post columnist Henry Olsen put it: “The establishment is surely pleased with Trump’s decision” to cancel the peace talks. The meeting was panned across establishment media.
It bears repeating to an American audience that the Taliban did not conduct the attacks on September 11, 2001 — the hijackers were based in the United States. The Taliban harbored Osama bin Laden, who helped construct tunnels for the CIA against the Soviets, and al-Qaeda, an organization that similarly grew to prominence in the Afghan civil war, a conflict fueled by the $630 million provided annually for weapons by the United States during the years prior. The CIA itself endorsed bin Laden’s passage back to Afghanistan after the Taliban took power, according to journalist Max Blumenthal.
The life’s work of a lesser-known neocon
John Bolton wasn’t the only veteran of the conflict in Afghanistan now charged with resolving it. Nor was he the only PNAC veteran in the Trump administration. U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad, the top American official in the negotiations, was a PNAC charter member and has been quietly overseeing the destruction of Afghanistan for most of his political career — longer than the Taliban has existed as an organization.
Khalilzad worked closely with late National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, who took a leading role in Operation Cyclone under President Carter. The secret CIA program pumped the Afghan Mujahideen up with cash, weapons, training, and jihadist school books. The Brooklyn-based Al-Kifah Afghan Refugee Center — a front for Maktab al-Khidamat, an organization co-founded by Osama bin Laden — would become key to this endeavor.
Brzezinski’s aim, as he stated, was to give the Soviets their own Vietnam quagmire. Back then, his message to the Mujahideen fighters that would become al-Qaeda and the Taliban was: “Your cause is right and God is on your side.” Even after the devastating attacks of September 11, Brzezinski defended the decision to support the Mujahideen in the name of defeating the Soviet Union.
The United States’ support for the Mujahideen in Afghanistan, and later Bosnia, was intended to bleed the Soviet Union. It is no surprise that the same leeches — the Taliban and al-Qaeda — that were trained by the United States, would turn on their masters. In the case of the Taliban, clinging on to the U.S. for nearly two decades, slowly sucking away all the while. In the case of al-Qaeda, the attacks on the World Trade Center dealt massive blows. The end-game tactics mirror the CIA’s philosophy in training the Mujahideen against the USSR.
U..S officials like Khalilzad would spend decades in luxurious buildings in and around Washington while the people of Afghanistan would continue to suffer nearly another two decades of conflict because of their policies.
Driven by prospects of an American oil pipeline through Afghanistan to combat Iran and Russia’s energy dominance in the region, President Clinton sought to build a coalition government that included the Taliban, according to The Management of Savagery: How America’s National Security State Fueled the Rise of Al Qaeda, ISIS, and Donald Trump by Max Blumenthal. The consensus was that they were the best defenders of such a project — and so they got the contracts from the company, Unocal. Members of both the Taliban and al-Qaeda were flown into the U.S. by the government and the company in 1997, where they were joined by Khalilzad for a reception. He was spotted “chatting pleasantly” with “leaders of Afghanistan’s Taliban regime about their shared enthusiasm for a proposed multibillion-dollar pipeline deal,” according to a story in the Washington Post a few months after 9/11.
Khalilzad advised the company in 1996. According to the Institute for Policy Studies:
[Khalilzad] had been an early supporter of the Taliban during the brutal internecine fighting that accompanied the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan. And he remained in touch with the fundamentalist forces after they trounced opposing warlords and took power in Kabul in 1996.”
By this time, Khalilzad had worked with Brzezinski under President Jimmy Carter, served as a senior State Department advisor on the Soviet-Afghan war under President Ronald Reagan and worked for the Pentagon under George Bush senior. Under George W. Bush, Khalilzad worked on “preparations for a post-Saddam Hussein Iraq” according to a White House press statement. That was until 9/11, when his experience with Afghanistan propelled his rise in the administration as Special Presidential Envoy for Afghanistan.
Hamid Karzai, a former Mujahideen fundraiser, was installed as president by the U.S. after the Taliban was toppled, largely thanks to the political support of Zalmay Khalilzad. Karzai had been offered the post of ambassador to the UN by the Taliban, but the regime never attained formal recognition.
Khalilzad would even play a leading role in the drafting of Afghanistan’s new constitution. This under-scrutinized behemoth in the American foreign policy scene would go on to help shape the new Iraqi government as U.S. ambassador to the country. His continued “service” in the United States government is itself a humanitarian threat.
A violent backdrop to a shaky peace process
The New York Times reports that American negotiations with the Taliban have been “undergirded by increasing battlefield pressure by the American military.” What is being opaquely alluded to is the increased bombings and engagements under Trump, with 2018 marking the most bombings on record and 2019 so far outpacing even that. Meanwhile, the White House is reportedly seeking to up the CIA’s arsenal of supposedly anti-extremist mercenaries to transition through the withdrawal of 5,400 of its 14,000 troops under the conditions of the unofficial agreement with the Taliban. As MintPress News has previously reported, some of these CIA-backed death squads are able to call in airstrikes and are frequently accused of torture. One medical worker whose home was raided by one of these units even mistook them for ISIS. “I thought it was the caliphate people,” he said.
The Taliban’s five-year regime was quickly shut down within months of the American invasion. It’s likely they want to maintain the territorial gains they have since fought so hard to reclaim. While the U.S. abruptly stopped tracking the amount of area controlled by the government and the Taliban in late May, Washington think tanks estimate that about 49 percent of the country is contested and 16 percent of it is under Taliban control. According to the BBC, the Taliban now controls more territory than it has since the United States expelled them in 2001.
….an attack in Kabul that killed one of our great great soldiers, and 11 other people. I immediately cancelled the meeting and called off peace negotiations. What kind of people would kill so many in order to seemingly strengthen their bargaining position? They didn’t, they….
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 7, 2019
Prof. Abrahms favored the cancellation of the Camp David meeting and has been generally critical of the negotiations, arguing that the United States could withdraw from the country and promise the group a swift return should they again harbor terrorists:
It seems to me that negotiations are actually an impediment to the United States reducing its military involvement in that country. If we wait for negotiations to go through the U.S., the Taliban and the Afghan government, then we’ll never leave that country.”
Abrahms went on to call the peace process a “tactic to keep the U.S. there indefinitely,” adding that he had not come across any solid arguments in terms of U.S. national security interests. He went on to characterize the threat from the Taliban:
The Taliban is a murky group. It is different from say ISIS in terms of its target selection. You don’t see Taliban attacks all over the world. This is true in their target selection and their code of conduct. ISIS was following a playbook calling for indiscriminate targets all over the world. If you look at the Taliban’s guidelines for the places where it’s permitted to strike — which I have — they’re local and not civilian. The focus of Taliban violence is against what it considers government targets: the Afghan government, NATO targets, and not indiscriminate ones against civilians.
That said, the Taliban does have a lot of blood on its hands against Afghan civilians. The Taliban doesn’t attack American civilians. The Taliban doesn’t do terrorism against Americans.”
The Taliban certainly has no shortage of innocent blood on its hands and deserves absolutely zero material support given its treatment of women, homosexuals, and ethnic and religious minorities. Yet so far in 2019 the United States and the Afghan military it oversees have killed more civilians than has the Taliban, according to a July 30 report from the UN Mission in Afghanistan. The UN body found 717 deaths attributable to the U.S. and its partner on the ground compared with 531 to “anti-government forces.”
Representing the Taliban at the most recent talks with the United States in Doha, Qatar were co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar and Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzaim, both of whom are former Mujahideen fighters. Baradar was advocating for a peace process in 2010 when he was arrested by Pakistani authorities at the request of the United States. He was released at the direction of Zalmay Khalilzad after the first round of talks, which Khalilzad has been heading for the Americans.
Stanikzaim came to the United States in 1996 as the Taliban’s foreign minister to ask the Clinton administration to extend diplomatic relations with the government. According to journalist Michael Rubin, Khalilzad “arranged for a senior Taliban official to come to the United States to meet with Clinton administration officials and business leaders.” While the attempt to get recognition from the White House was unsuccessful, the Clinton administration continued to use the bin Laden-connected Al-Kifah Afghan Refugee Center to funnel misguided young American Muslims to the killing fields in Bosnia.
Dr. Frankenstein chases his monster
Though al-Qaeda and the Taliban’s relationships with the United States are both closing in on four decades, the nature of the two have differed dramatically. Unlike the Taliban, which has spent the post-9/11 era in open conflict with the United States, al-Qaeda went on to resume its role as an American ally of convenience.
Over the past year, the United States has been trying to stave off a Syrian government liberation of the Idlib province. In 2017, then-Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS Brett McGurk called Idlib “the largest al-Qaeda safe haven since 9/11, tied directly to Ayman al-Zawahiri,” the leader of al-Qaeda. McGurk added:
The approach — I obviously will not talk about anything the U.S. government has done in certain parts of Syria on this problem — but the approach by some of our partners, to send in tens of tons of weapons and looking the other way as these foreign fighters come into Syria, may not have been the best approach, and al-Qaeda has taken full advantage of it.”
Throughout the war on Syria, the United States funneled weapons to the so-called “moderate rebel” groups fighting to depose President Bashar al Assad. But as they were often in the same trenches as al-Qaeda’s Syria affiliate, those weapons invariably ended up in al-Qaeda hands.
Abrahms painted a more complex portrait of Afghanistan than Syria, which he argued was in many ways less complex. The professor has been a consistent advocate against U.S. military assistance to the anti-government jihadist factions of Syria. “I never want to be in the position of actively supporting al-Qaeda,” Abrahms said.
In January, al-Qaeda took over complete control of Idlib, a move which has not yet stopped the United States from defending the last bastion of its proxy insurgency against Syria’s Assad.
In Yemen, the United States also finds itself partnered with allies of al-Qaeda. The Arabian Peninsula affiliate of the terrorist organization has fought alongside the Saudi-led Coalition against the Houthi government, being allowed safe passage out of cities they have pillaged and looted for spoils to fill their war chests.
The Taliban has offered the exact deal that the United States is now trying to reach before — one that would see the group refuse to provide a haven for future attackers in exchange for a troop withdrawal. They offered “legal guarantees” that Afghanistan would not be used as a launch pad for terrorist attacks in 2009, which the Obama Administration ignored.
“There was a time when … leaders of the Taliban movement were seeking peace but at that time the Americans and the Pakistanis … both were against peace in Afghanistan,” former President Karzai has said. But it wasn’t just Karzai and the Taliban vying for power in Afghanistan during the Obama years. Khalilzad reportedly tried to have himself installed as ruler of the country after leaving the Bush administration.
While Prof. Abrahms characterizes negotiations as a means of forestalling a meaningful withdrawal, it is not for that reason that the meeting at Camp David was so unanimously opposed by the Beltway elite, which wants the war in Afghanistan to go on forever in order to keep weapons contractors’ pockets lined and to keep an eye on Iran. While “post-9/11 wars have caused military contracts to increase to their highest levels since World War II” according to the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University,” the number of contractors in Afghanistan has increased by 65 percent under Trump.
John Bolton is far from the only player with such inclinations, and a handful of PNAC holdovers continue to subvert peace around the world, with the Trump administration as their vehicle.
Progressive icon Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN), who famously grilled PNAC member Elliott Abrams during hearings related to his nomination into the Trump administration, called supporters of the Camp David meeting “hypocrites.” The implication was that Trump — not herself, as has been the narrative in right wing media — was soft on the Taliban. These kinds of knee jerk responses to Trump’s dovish posturing do not support peace.
If progressives in Congress really want to support peace in Afghanistan and put an end to an 18-year-old bloodbath of an era of United States foreign policy, they should renew their own push for a troop withdrawal as an alternative to Trump’s proposal and refuse to confirm any more appointees with ties to the Project for a New American Century, or any of Washington’s pro-regime-change outfits. They should also call for the resignation of policy makers like Khalilzad, who have consistently failed over the years at huge cost to human life and the pockets of U.S. taxpayers. They should call for a new era of accountability in Washington so that the American public doesn’t continue to get lied into wars and the American government can no longer arm.
The impunity granted to the likes of Bolton, Elliot Abrams, and Khalilzad established their permanency on the scene. There will be no peace with former PNAC cadres in power.
Americans should demand that the United States stop its tacit political support for al-Qaeda’s mission in Syria’s Idlib and demand that Afghanistan is given the opportunity to be the master of its own destiny. This is the only way to put an end to the cascading violence that has continued through the Cold War and into the War on Terror, starting with the deranged experiment in Afghanistan. It is up to the United States to decide whether the world will have a future without the scourge of terrorism.
Feature photo | Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad speaks at the U.S. Institute of Peace, in Washington, Feb. 8, 2019. Jacquelyn Martin | AP
Alexander Rubinstein is a staff writer for MintPress News based in Washington, DC. He reports on police, prisons and protests in the United States and the United States’ policing of the world. He previously reported for RT and Sputnik News.