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Sunday, September 19, 2004

Chain of Command book review, Part 1: Terrorism, Communism, Capitalism, Racism

As promised, here's the first part of a several-part series of reviews for Seymour Hersh's book "Chain of Command". I'm not a literary fiend like my co-blogger Bran so I'm not going to do alot of style review. If you've read Hersh's work in the New Yorker, you'll be familiar with his general approach. He's spare, to-the-point, and does a good job at keeping his prose out of the line of fire of the narritive. These, in my opinion, are all good things. Besides, all the really flowery writers in International Relations and Foreign Policy, such as Henry Kissinger, are dangerous.

As the headline here suggest, Hersh gives us the big picture of the road leading to the abuses at Abu-Ghraib. Full disclosure: I'm about half-way through the book, so for the most part I'm still getting backstory. This is important because those four -isms mentioned above play a large part in the history of the U.S.' current troubles with the Middle East. So, what do we get from Hersh vis-a-vis the story behind the War on Terrorism?

First off, we get alot of operational details, all of which serve to drive home a few main points:

US. actions in Pakistan and Afghanistan in the 1980's (scroll down for some snippets on those issues from our Labor Day Flash Back Weekend posts) set the stage for Islamic terrorism to take hold in Afghanistan. Essentially, it went like this:

a.) The Soviet Union invades Afghanistan.
b.) In response to this invasion, and with the election of President Reagan and a marked rightward shift in foreign policy in comparison to the Carter administration, the U.S. courts Pakistan as its main ally in the region. It does this for one big reason, namely:
c.) The U.S. hatches a plan to defeat the Soviets in Afghanistan and to increase U.S. influence in the region to counter-balance India's ties to the Soviets. Pakistan is key to the success of this plan.
d.) The U.S. funnels hundreds of millions of dollars worth of aid to the Mujahedin fighting in Afghanistan via Pakistan. The Reagan administration also chooses to ignore or downplay Pakistani nuclear weapon development.
e.) Pakistan takes advantage of this opportunity to develop nuclear weapons and to spread nuclear technology around the world. Pakistani ISI agents also use the huge influx of cash to support anti-Communist _and_ anti-American forces in Afghanistan, specifically supporting those forces that are anti-American in sentiment.
f.) The U.S. was fully aware of these developments; however, counterbalancing the Soviets was the big issue and thus Pakistan was allowed to proceed unhindered.
g.) The Soviets leave Afghanistan (after being successfully routed by the Mujahedin with a major assist from American arms and money) and the Cold War comes to an end.
h.) Having achieved its objective, the U.S. abandons Afghanistan and ceases all CIA operations there. In the process, it leaves Afghanistan in chaos and burns potentially important intelligence bridges in the process. This happens under both President George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton, thus no particular political party is to blame for this glaring oversight. It's important to understand the impact this had on Afghanistan's trust of the U.S., something that Hersh explains quite clearly and quotes one source as saying that it may have been the largest strategic mistake the U.S. made at the end of the Cold War.

So, with anti-American sentiment on the rise in Afghanistan in the early 90's, combined with Pakistan's selective support for anti-American elements in the Mujahedin, we get a better picture of the dynamics that led to the ascencion of the Taliban and Osama Bin Laden. All of this is there in Hersh's account, although it does help to have some background knowledge before diving in. I must point out that the above analysis simplifies things a bit -- reality is rarely easy to sum up in bullet points. After reading and thinking about the war on terrorism for several years, that's the basic gist of developments with respect to Pakistan and Afghanistan as I see it. Someone with more experience and knowledge may come to a different conclusion, but for the most part the U.S. allowed its ideological anti-Communist blinders to keep realities on the ground in Pakistan from interfering with policy decisions.

Hersh does an excellent job of highlighting another very important point, somewhat related to h above. The U.S. was drastically unprepared for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In terms of intelligence, the U.S. didn't have assets in Iraq after 1998 other than Ahmed Chalabi's associates. In Afghanistan, there was no one. Language skills were, and are, woefully inadequate to deal with running wars in two countries where English is not the first, or even second, language. Throughout the war in Iraq, the U.S. has had little to no actual intelligence on the insurgency. America has long neglected the human intelligence necessary to carry out such operations.

The big picture drawn by Hersh, therefore, is that a woeful lack of preparedness on the part of the U.S. has contributed enormously to the pressures which led the Bush administration to authorize torture methods for use in the war on terrorism. That such methods were used as torture is not in dispute -- the shocking pictures of Abu Ghraib along with the mountain of evidence provided via first-hand accounts from prisoners and from human rights organizations were enough to prove it. The temptation to try and get easy intelligence via interrogation was simply too much, considering the pressure to deliver suspects and take out Sadddam. Of course, much of this pressure originated from the White House (as we're bound to learn when the second half of the 9/11 commission's report -- the half that deals specifically with administration pressure on the intelligence community to support going to war with Iraq -- is released after the elections).

I will have more to say as I get further along in the book. My preliminary review grade is "highly recommended".

Andrew 11:20 PM : |


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