– Army Times
“Mission compromised” may best describe U.S. military efforts in Afghanistan. According to journalists Elizabeth Gould and Paul Fitzgerald, American foreign policy and military officials are making several costly miscalculations of Afghanistan’s politics, history, and culture. In their new book, Invisible History: Afghanistan’s Untold Story, Gould and Fitzgerald demolish the myths, falsehoods, and assumptions that are being perpetuated since the 1980s.
In 1981, Gould and Fitzgerald were the first US television crew granted visas to enter Afghanistan. One year later, they produced the landmark PBS documentary, Afghanistan Between Three Worlds. Gould and Fitzgerald continued to write about Afghanistan including a script with Oliver Stone and contributed to another book called, Women for Afghan Women: Shattering Myths and Claiming the Future. Since the release of Invisible History, Gould and Fitzgerald appeared on Democracy Now!, GRITtv, and C-SPAN Book TV.
I caught up with Gould and Fitzgerald and discussed recent developments in Afghanistan. Here’s what they had to say.
– Christian Avard, formerly known to all of you at Docudharma as “ctrenta.”
Last Wednesday, president Barack Obama launched a major military operation in southern Afghanistan. How will this affect the U.S.’s relationship with Pakistan?
Paul Fitzgerald: This has been foretold for some time that it was going to be happen. We knew quite a while ago that 17,000 troops would be going into Helmand Province and fight the Taliban. This has been one of the more curious aspects of the way in which the war was being fought. When we were there in 2002, we were told by Time Magazine correspondent Rob Schultheis that the Inter-Services Intelligence was all over the place down there. That was well-known in 2002 and the United States wasn’t doing anything about it.
Elizabeth Gould: What we’ve been observing over and over again is that the United States (and its goals and objectives) keeps coming up against a reality check that doesn’t add up. One of the concerns that even though General Stanley McChrystal is making statements that Afghan civilians are his top priority, there are other issues which have been contentious and very difficult for the United States to really incorporate in a meaningful way. What we’re dealing with is the follow-up, the actual ability to change the way in which we approach the region, which is still through a military lens and has already been designated as a failure. One of the reasons it’s a concern is because it’s simply isn’t enough to change the military position. Something like 400,000 troops would been needed to stabilize the country. That’s one of the experiences we had in 2002. When the Iraq War started, there was absolutely no question [in everyone’s mind] that the Taliban was going to return to Kabul. That was a given and in the ensuing years, it built and built.
Fitzgerald: The original force structure was 1.6 soldiers per thousand residents. That was the combined force of the United States and NATO and like Elizabeth said, it would have required between 400,000 and 450,000 soldiers [to stabilize the country]. So it was inadequate from the very beginning. What’s going on in Helmond is the Obama Administration is trying to establish some credibility for the first time. The United States doesn’t have any credibility, militarily or civilly, in terms of backing up the civilian government.
Would you say that the U.S. presence in Afghanistan is emboldening or strengthening the Taliban?
Gould: Well, first of all we have to define the Taliban. We’re dealing with Pakistani Taliban and we’re dealing with Afghan Taliban. The Pakistani Taliban is linked to the ISI, which is running the action arm of the Taliban. The Pakistani Taliban is what we have to be concerned about. It’s not that Afghan Taliban hasn’t utilized their tactics, but they’re not the engine of this process. If we don’t deal with the Pakistani situation, we’re not going to solve Afghanistan situation. The truth is that a majority of the Afghan Taliban could very well be non-ideological Afghans who are only in the Taliban because they do not have an economy at this point. This could be the real motivation for many Afghanis [to join] the Taliban at this point.
Fitzgerald: What the United States has been doing since 2001 has essentially been empowering the Taliban. These predator drone strikes have been an absolute disaster. They have been using the predator drones in bombing raids because they did not have enough troops to begin with. It was a cascading series of problems with one thing leading to the next and the next. The more Afghan civilians they killed, the worse it became for the U.S. The more you kill, the worse it gets for you to the point where the United States had very little support in the areas it was conducting predator drone strikes. So the United States handed victory to the Taliban on a silver platter.
Then how can the United States win the hearts and minds of Afghanis?
Fitzgerald: Well, you really don’t have to look very far within Afghanistan itself to see the areas of Afghanistan where reconstruction efforts are working. [In other areas where] where there is a lighter footprint, there are nations conducting reconstruction efforts or providing security to the Afghan people where the Taliban has no influence. In Herat, they’ve been able to rebuild the city. They’ve been able to rebuild the roads and they have consistent electricity. They don’t have that in Kabul or other Pashtun areas because of the insurgency.
Gould: But again, most of the insurgency is coming from Pakistan to keep things unstable. The Afghan Pashtuns are joining the Taliban primarily because of the economy.
Fitzgerald: I would say the central problem with what’s going on in Afghanistan right now has been the strange U.S. relationship with Pakistan. That is at the core of it. Former president Pervez Musharraf pretended to hunt the Taliban and Al Qaeda and the Bush Administration pretended to believe them. It was like that old Soviet joke about “they pretended to work and the bureaucrats pretended to believe them.”
What are the questions the American media is not asking about the situation in Afghanistan? What should they be asking and investigating?
Fitzgerald: Well, the big issue is broad-brushing in terms of who the Taliban are. The differences between the Afghani Taliban and the Pakistani Taliban is the Pakistani Taliban are really the ones behind the whole thing. They take their orders and funding from Al Qaeda and they give the orders to the Afghan Taliban. The other thing is there is no general understanding of what Afghanistan was prior to the Soviet invasion. We keep coming against that all the time. We keep coming up against ‘Well, the Afghans never had a society anyway, they were never civilized, they were always backward, and therefore you couldn’t reform them.’ It’s a logic train that was profoundly wrong from the very beginning.
Gould: Here’s a very current example of how the mindset really has been. Jon Stewart, of The Daily Show, had an Afghan filmmaker on as one of his guests. In the film, there was footage from the 1980s and it showed women in mini-skirts (or something like that) that totally shocked Stewart. Stewart said ‘My God! I had no idea that place had anything modern. I just assumed it was like in the dark ages.’ This is part of the propaganda campaign that really got going in the 1980s that pigeon-holed Afghanistan vis-a-vis the Freedom Fighters or the idea that the Taliban and their extreme interpretation of Sharia Law was somehow normal. This was phony.
Charles G. Cogan wrote in the fall 2008 World Policy Journal that the Taliban was a wholly-owned subsidiary Pakistani ISI and it was created with the intent of setting up a Pakistani-friendly government in Afghanistan. When the Mujahideen were not able to take over Afghanistan from 1992 to 1996, the Taliban were sent in to do the job. It may have had Afghans as a part of it, but this was a Pakistani-friendly government.
Zbigniew Brzezinski, former president Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor, was on Rachel Maddow talking about how the Taliban is indigenous to Afghans. Brezezinski should know full well that the actual creation of the Taliban is Pakistani intelligence. People just sign on to it because they don’t know the difference between the Afghan Taliban, the Pakistani Taliban, and the real origins of these things.
In our book, we want to give a single source so that you can get the straight goods on what role the United States played and how various agencies interacted that resulted in this crisis for Afghanistan.
Elizabeth Gould and Paul Fitzgerald