Independent journalist Anand Gopal discusses his interview with Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar about peace talks with the Karzai government, the probable short tenure of whatever political entity (including the Taliban) fills the void after US departure, why COIN-inspired night raids that succeed in killing Taliban commanders are still counterproductive and why Hamid Karzai’s dominion is even less than his derogatory “Mayor of Kabul” title suggests.
MP3 here. (28:23)
Anand Gopal has reported in Afghanistan for the Christian Science Monitor and the Wall Street Journal. His dispatches can be read at AnandGopal.com. He is currently working on a book about the Afghan war.
Scott Horton interviews Anand Gopal, June 28, 2010
Scott Horton: All right, y’all, welcome back to the show. This is Antiwar Radio. I’m your host, Scott Horton, and our next guest on the show today is Anand Gopal. He writes about Afghanistan for the Christian Science Monitor, the Wall Street Journal, TomDispatch and other places. You can see interviews of him on RT, on The Real News, and in fact there’s even a YouTube of my previous interview of him, of Anand, from February, at YouTube.com/AntiwarRadio, and of course you can find him at Antiwar.com/Radio/ as well. Welcome back to the show, Anand, how are you?
Anand Gopal: I’m doing fine, thank you.
Horton: Well I really appreciate you joining us on the show today. Obviously there’s a lot of important developments about the Afghan War that need covering here, and I can’t think of too many better to plug us into what’s really going on on the ground there. First of all, I guess, I want to ask – well, we can get to all the McChrystal stuff – I want to ask you about Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and your recent interview with him. First of all, can you explain what his relationship is to the American occupation, or what it has been over the years?
Gopal: Well, Hekmatyar is an insurgent leader, a warlord, one of the three most prominent insurgent groups, he’s the head of that. And he’s been fighting in Afghanistan for years, going back to the ’80s. Back then he was close allies with the CIA and to the Pakistani intelligence services. Over time he’s turned against the Americans and now he’s, as I mentioned, an insurgent leader leading troops mostly, leading insurgents mostly in the north and the east of the country.
Horton: And now, I remember a news report, I don’t know if this was really true, but I remember a news report from say 2-3 years ago where he was bragging that he had helped Osama bin Laden escape from Tora Bora, that he took the CIA’s money and then he went and turned around and helped Osama escape, and “Ha ha, how do you like that?” he said.
Gopal: Well, that’s what he says. We don’t know if it’s the case, but he’d always expressed admiration for bin Laden in the past, at least.
Horton: All right, now, so you had this e-mail interview with him. It says that his identity was verified by high-ranking associates of his who you were able to, I guess, personally identify there. And now you asked him all about the status of possible peace negotiations. Now, I guess before you get too far into what he said, I’m curious whether these are the peace negotiations that Hamid Karzai has been pushing for, or wasn’t there a conflict where Karzai wanted negotiations now and the Obama team wanted negotiations but they didn’t want them to start for another year or so. Is that – do I understand that right?
Gopal: That’s right. Karzai wants negotiations now. I think he and other people in the Afghan government feel that they’re in a very bad place and they need to bring the insurgents to the table any way they can. Whereas the Obama administration would like to push this off for at least a year or more to try to regain momentum before they bring the insurgents to the table. And Hekmatyar reached out to the Afghan government this spring and basically offered to stop fighting and bring his fighters over to the government’s side in return for the US withdrawal or a timetable for US withdrawal and in return for a couple of other concessions.
Horton: Well, and he says in here, although I don’t know if anybody would take his word for it, that part of what he’s absolutely willing to agree to is that no so-called al Qaeda, I guess he means no Egyptian and Saudi friends of Osama or Zawahiri, will be welcome in Afghanistan at all and they are perfectly willing to make that deal with us, that they promise to keep Afghanistan al Qaeda-free from here on.
Gopal: Well, that’s right. I think what they’re looking for is power, or at least some pieces of the pie, because they’ve been kept out of power for the last nine years and I think they’re willing to trade power, or willing in return for getting power are willing to push out al Qaeda, but the real question is whether they even have the ability to exclude al Qaeda from the country, because they’re not the most powerful insurgent group, they’re only the second most powerful. The most powerful is the Taliban.
Horton: Yeah, well, even there, could you help me define Taliban? Because, I guess, you know, it used to mean Mullah Omar and his government, and to hear Hillary Clinton throw the word around, it means any Afghan who owns a rifle no matter which direction he’s shooting it, I’m pretty sure.
Gopal: Well, and that’s right. It’s a really slippery term and anybody who takes up arms against the US is labeled as Taliban, or even any sort of insecurity or instability they throw the term Taliban on, even if you look beneath the surface, it could be all sorts of other things. There’s mobs, there’s warlords, there’s gangs, they just forge all those men who don’t have any other means of making a livelihood, all of these get lumped together under the Taliban.
Horton: Yeah, well, and I mean to a drone operator apparently a guy with a gun on the ground is a legitimate target. Doesn’t matter who he is. How are you supposed to tell from the air? All you know is, he is holding a rifle, go ahead and “light him up,” right?
Gopal: Which is an extraordinary thing in a place like Afghanistan or Pakistan, because almost everybody there has weapons. This is a country that’s been at war for 30 years. Almost every household has a Kalashnikov or at least another sort of weapon. So if you’re basing it on who has weapons, then you’re going to start shooting everybody.
Horton: Okay, now, so I saw an essay, it was an opinion piece in the Washington Post a few days ago, I guess over the weekend, maybe it was Saturday, that said, “Eh, you know, maybe we need to negotiate an exit that will end up leaving Afghanistan looking more or less like Lebanon,” and in fact he even suggested in there, I’m not sure who the guy was, I forget, but you know it was in the Washington Post, so that’s something, and he was saying, “Eh, maybe we even need to give up Kabul to the Taliban, but still we could have an agreement with them.”
Gopal: Well, I think this shows just the extent to which things have gone poorly, because these are the same people who four or five years ago would have never even dreamed of giving up an inch of soil for the Taliban. But a lot of Afghans today are pushing for this. Particularly those Afghans living in areas where the fighting is happening. They’re pushing for an end to fighting, a negotiated settlement. And what I hear again and again is that the only people who are able to really deal with the Taliban problem are Afghans themselves and that the US military presence hasn’t really even been dealing with that problem.
Horton: In fact I even saw Dana Rohrabacher point out that it was the Northern Alliance, obviously with the help of, you know, CIA laser designators and the U.S. Air Force dropping gigantic bombs – but it was the Northern Alliance, the outsourced war, that overthrew the Taliban. And as Rohrabacher put it, the more troops we put in there, the stronger the Taliban gets in response. We’re going about this all wrong. And he’s the guy who, of course, was a big fan of the mujahideen in the 1980’s fighting against the Russians.
Gopal: Well that’s absolutely right. What we’ve seen in the last eight or nine years is a steady rate of troop increase. Every year there’s a few more thousand troops that come, but yet every year the violence gets worse. And what we essentially did in the ’90s – there was a civil war going on between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance – we intervened on one side of that civil war, the losing side, the Northern Alliance was on the losing end. But we intervened and basically put them into power, and that sort of, that battle is still going on today, although through different means.
Horton: Well, do you think it’s plausible that if we cut and run then that the Northern Alliance, with a little bit of help, would have been able to hold onto the power there, or is it the case that the people in power in Kabul now are just not the natural power monopoly in that country, that they only are there in power because we’re there protecting them?
Gopal: The Northern Alliance had their backs to the wall in the late ’90s and early 2000’s until the US invasion, so what we did was we took a losing force and put them up into power.
Horton: But I mean if we kept them – if we’d stayed around long enough for them to take Kabul but we hadn’t done this thing where we keep adding troops and adding troops and creating more and more reaction, could they have possibly been able to hold Kabul, or the Taliban would have just come right back anyway?
Gopal: I think the Taliban would have come back in that case as well because part of the problem was that the people that we aligned with were rapacious warlords. These are people who have been discredited for years, at least throughout the ’90s in the civil war there, and so these warlords, mostly Northern Alliance warlords or people associated with them, came back into power after 2001 and treated the population very, very poorly, and that’s what really created the space for the Taliban to come back.
Horton: And now it’s the case, though, isn’t it, that the Taliban isn’t really the natural government of even the Pashtun tribesmen and stuff, it’s basically kind of been grafted on, a movement that’s been grafted on top by the Pakistani intelligence agencies, right? Oh, I’m sorry to ask you a question right as we’re going to break here. We’ve only got 20 seconds, so hang tight right there, I’ll ask the question again when we get back from the break. It’s Anand Gopal. He writes for the Christian Science Monitor and the Wall Street Journal, great stuff, great coverage of the Afghan war, great answers to my questions. We’ll be right back.
Horton: All right, y’all, welcome back to the show. It’s Antiwar Radio, I’m Scott Horton, and I’m talking with Anand Gopal, who formerly wrote for the Wall Street Journal, has written also for the Christian Science Monitor and TomDispatch.com, our friend Tom Englehardt’s site. You can find at least a couple of his TomDispatch articles at Antiwar.com, that would be original.antiwar.com/engelhardt, and he is an expert on the Afghan War, and before we went out to the break, Anand, I was asking you whether you thought, whether you agreed with my very sort of slippery and half-informed interpretation here that the Taliban seems, my best understanding is that the Taliban is really not the natural kind of representative party or whatever of the Pashtun tribesmen of Afghanistan. It’s more like all they got. Is that basically right?
Gopal: That’s absolutely right. The Taliban are not popular at all, but they derive legitimacy from the fact that they’re not the Americans and they’re not the Afghan government. The real tragedy in Afghanistan is that the Americans aren’t popular either, nor is the Afghan government, so there’s really no force on the ground that can win the allegiance of the Afghans, and they’re sort of caught in between all of them.
Horton: Well, so, if the Americans just turned tail and ran or if I could get I Dream of Jeannie to just disappear them all back out of the country and back home again and leave Afghanistan to the Afghans, I guess it’s pretty clear that the Taliban would take Kabul, but would they be able to stay the government of Afghanistan even if they beat the Northern Alliance. Would the Pashtuns, for example, continue to allow them to be the state over the long term, you think?
Gopal: I think maybe over the next two or three years, yes, but over time possibly not because in the ’90s the Taliban showed that they really didn’t have much to offer to the Afghans. When they initially came to power in 1994 they were actually quite popular amongst the Pashtuns, but over time, by 2001, they became quite unpopular because they really didn’t deliver anything and, based on that, and at that point by 2001 there were starting to be opposition groups forming against the Taliban, but I think given enough time there would be a resistance movement against the Taliban.
Horton: All right, now, Hamid Karzai, the democratically elected president of Afghanistan, he has been known over the years as simply the Mayor of Kabul, and in Michael Hastings’ recent piece in the Rolling Stone there that caused all the controversy and cost McChrystal his job, they talk about how he just stays sick in bed with a cold all day and won’t even leave the walls of his palace, and I think it’s one of McChrystal’s men says he hasn’t left the palace in a year.
Gopal: Well, that’s right. He was the Mayor of Kabul and now he’s just a mayor of his own house. Just shows how much the Afghan government has really shrunk. And this is the case throughout the country where you have small towns of maybe 1,000 or 2,000 people surrounded by vast stretches of countryside, and in those small towns you maybe you have one or two government officials, a few police officers. Outside of that it’s completely Taliban country, or it’s controlled by warlords or drug traffickers. There’s no presence of the government at all.
Horton: Well, so, if Gen. Petraeus had an unlimited budget and an unlimited clock, is it possible, never mind the morality of it or anything like that, is it possible for America to wage a counterinsurgency war, clear, hold, build a modern state in the place that they clear, and have an allied state there in Afghanistan for the long term, say, a Korean type situation where we get to keep our troops there forever as the invited guests of the government that we help install?
Gopal: Well, to answer that, you can look at the last offensive in Marja, which happened in February, where the US sent I think 15,000 troops into this area which was really nothing more than a few villages, a small number of hamlets, and today Marja still the Taliban has a very strong presence and by even the administration’s accounts it’s not going well there. So 15,000 troops for a tiny area like Marja wasn’t enough to do the job. What does that tell you for the rest of the country or for more populous areas like Kandahar? I think no matter how many troops you have it’s going to be really difficult if not impossible to turn the situation around because it’s so much more than just troops, governance, it’s delivery of services, it’s creating security, all of that, and troops, soldiers aren’t trained to do all of those things. I think that’s a fundamental problem.
Horton: Well, and it seems too like even with the artificially high opium prices from all the global drug war, that Afghanistan could never have the gross domestic product to support the size of a state that America supposedly is nation-building for them over there. They want to have an army with I don’t know how many hundreds of thousands of men and they want to have a modern air force and helicopters and everything else. This could only come at the expense of the American people. There is no way that Afghanistan could ever, even with all the gold in them thar hills afford what we’re building for them, right?
Gopal: That’s right. And I think the Afghan army would not survive a single day without our financial support and physical support on the ground. I think the way this number is now is for the Afghan government to be sustainable would require the US to fund it for at least 20 more years. So, really, Afghanistan traditionally hasn’t had its own sources of wealth and it has relied on donors and foreign states and that’s been one of the reasons why it’s been so susceptible to foreign invasions and foreign manipulations.
Horton: Now, when it comes to al Qaeda, McChrystal basically admitted to Michael Hastings that there is no al Qaeda, and this is, you know, TV at least says there is no more than 100 inside Afghanistan. How many real al Qaeda friends of Osama and Zawahiri do you think there are inside Pakistan and/or Afghanistan? And how about those two, bin Laden and Zawahiri, whatever happened to them?
Gopal: I would say that there is probably no more than 100 between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Now there are some affiliate groups who aren’t Arab, but, for example, Uzbek or Pakistani. So if you include them, the numbers can get a little higher, but…
Horton: Well, just to clarify there, you say approximately 100 on both sides of the border, all told?
Gopal: All told, yeah. I think the number of Arabs in al Qaeda proper is no more than 100.
Horton: Wow. And now what about bin Laden and Zawahiri? Is bin Laden still alive up there in the Hindi Kush Mountains somewhere podcasting, or what?
Gopal: Well, I’m, if I were to bet I’d say he’s still alive. Every once in a while you hear some murmur, some sign that he is, but you know just the fact that he’s alive I think is the sort of thing, is the glue that holds together these 100 or 150 people. Because beyond that there’s not that much that puts al Qaeda together. They’re a really fractured, weak group. They don’t really have that much ability to alter the course of events anywhere in the world, including Afghanistan or Pakistan.
Horton: And now, Eric Margolis is a good friend of mine and a regular guest on this show, and he says he believes bin Laden is alive simply because his associates, or, you know, friends that he knows, his sources inside the Pakistani intelligence agencies and the military, they would tell him if he died. Everybody would know. It would be probably celebrated on TV all over the place, that kind of thing. Do you have any specific reason to think that he’s still around? Because you know a lot of people say that the tapes that they put out are faked and that kind of thing.
Gopal: Some of my sources in Pakistan that are close to the intelligence agency, they seem to believe that he’s still alive. Also, there were a couple of other instances where they have captured al Qaeda operatives. For example, I believe one that they captured in Belgium who had mentioned he had met bin laden somewhere a couple of years ago.
Horton: All right, we’ll have to hold it right there. We’ll be right back with Anand Gopal for one more segment after this. Antiwar Radio.
Horton: All right y’all. Welcome back to the show. It’s Antiwar Radio. I’m your host, Scott Horton. All right. I’m talking with Anand Gopal. He is a journalist who has written for the Wall Street Journal, the Christian Science Monitor, TomDispatch. You can also see interviews of him at The Real News. I have so many questions here. Let me get back to the question of the negotiations. Do you think that the Taliban – we talked about Haqqani and his interest in such a thing. But do you think that Mullah Omar at least, the actual Taliban such as it is, that they would be interested in truly negotiating, or they’d rather just wait around till we get tired or broke and leave?
Gopal: I think the Taliban are interested in negotiating. They feel that they have the upper hand right now. They can sense the fighting as well on the American side, and they’ve made a number of moves in that direction. They’ve reached out to Afghan government representatives and even went through the Pakistanis to reach out to the Afghan government. But negotiations, the real question is whether the Americans are on board or not.
Horton: Right, and, well, to read the New York Times version, anyway, they’re not. They don’t want to have anything to do with this.
Gopal: Right. At least in the White House and on the military side, that seems to be the case.
Horton: All right, now, so, what effect is the replacement of McChrystal by Gen. David Petraeus going to have on the war, do you anticipate there?
Gopal: I think largely very little, particularly from the Afghan point of view. However, McChrystal was a Special Forces guy and he was very into the sort of targeted assassinations, night raids and everything that has come to mark the war in the last year. And there was always a tension with him between kicking down doors and getting bad guys on the one hand and winning hearts and minds, which is part of counterinsurgency doctrine, on the other hand. Now it remains to be seen where Petraeus is going to strike that balance and if he’s going to sort of rely as heavily on the Special Forces as McChrystal did or if he’s not, then going to go with more traditional conventional battle.
Horton: Now, The Independent reported the other day that McChrystal actually had filed one last report about how, in so many words, all is lost, and people started speculating whether maybe he spilled his guts to Rolling Stone like that because he wanted to get fired, let the 2006 moment, as Gareth Porter calls it, comparing it to Iraq, happen on somebody else’s watch. But it also said in here that his last order was to stop the night raids.
Gopal: Yeah, I’d heard that, although he had made that order at least twice before and it doesn’t seem to really have made an effect. So it’s unclear to me if that was actually something that was done for public consumption, or if there was a real order that was actually meant to stop night raids.
Horton: Yeah. Well, I guess we’ll give him the less charitable interpretation for now, it’s most likely. Now the last time we spoke, one of the topics we talked about was a report that some students, none of them over the age of 18, were taken out, I don’t know, put on their knees and shot in the back of the head. Assassinated, basically, by Special Operations troops, and you said that a colleague of yours was going to investigate the nature of those accusations, and I wonder whether he ever told you what he found out.
Gopal: Well, yes. He found out in that case that the people who were killed were civilians and they ran between the ages of 14 and 25. It’s still unclear whether they were taken out and executed or if they were killed in the heat of the raid, I mean the heat of the action. And it’s been very difficult to reconstruct that because there are so many different accounts and you can imagine people burst into your house in the middle of the night and you’re scared or disoriented, how difficult it is to exactly give a coherent retelling of events. So we don’t know exactly, but we do know that there have been civilians that were killed.
Horton. And, yeah, I mean, heck, when the cops get the wrong door in a drug raid here in America – there was a guy for example named Cory Maye who was sentenced to death but then had his sentence commuted to just life in prison for defending himself against, as you say, armed men storming into his house in the middle of the night. He had no way to know who they were. And if one can imagine that any civilian who was able would attempt to defend themselves in a situation like that, but I guess if you pick up a weapon now you’re all fair game, huh?
Gopal: Right. This is the problem. Or even sometimes people aren’t even picking up weapons. They’re reaching for lights. There was one case that I investigated in which soldiers broke in and somebody went to get a torch. And they turned the torch on and the soldiers mistook that for some sort of fire and so they opened fire themselves and killed some of the family members.
Horton: Yeah, well, it’s a shame. And of course we know that they use robots to shoot Hellfire missiles at people all day in Afghanistan and in Pakistan, so I guess that one’s just notable particularly because when – innocent people are killed in night raids often too – that one was particularly notable though because some of the accusations were that they were taken out and executed.
Gopal: Right. Which are pretty serious accusations, and again the fog of war is pretty thick here and the area in which this happened is pretty difficult to get to, so we still don’t know exactly what happened.
Horton: All right, and then, let’s talk about the network of secret prisons around the country that we spoke about a little bit last time we were on the show. Of course there has been coverage since then, more coverage, of Appendix M, the part of the Army Field Manual that actually allows torture after John McCain and them rewrote it, and, but what you were talking about was this isn’t just going on at the secret black site at the annex over there at the Bagram prison, but that this is happening all over Afghanistan.
Gopal: That’s right. There’s a number of prisons that are on US military bases throughout the country. These are typically small prisons that are meant for interrogations. And as of early this year there were a lot of allegations surfacing that there was abuse taking place there. There has been a review of the process since we last spoke, and we haven’t heard of that many allegations coming out since then, so perhaps that’s a good sign that something’s changed, but it’ll take a few more months to actually see if that’s actually a real turnaround.
Horton: Yeah, well, and it does go to, I guess, what you call the “balance” there between trying to clear, hold and build while at the same time taking out “the bad guys” as they’re called by the military, and that means, I guess, people getting abducted and taken off to secret prisons, it means people getting shot and killed, and then somehow this is the same population that, I mean, I guess, according to the counterinsurgency doctrine, by the time we’re done winning their hearts and minds they’d elect us if they could, right? We’re trying to be their favorite people in the whole society. How do those things work together, or do they at all?
Gopal: I think this is a real tension that they haven’t, the US hasn’t really figured out how to get through. I mean, looking at the particular night raid is just – US policy for targeting Taliban leaders and midlevel commanders has actually been very successful in the last few months. They’ve killed a large number of midlevel commanders. However, that hasn’t changed the political dynamic on the ground at all because for every two or three commanders they’re killing, they’re also killing a couple of civilians, and so they’re actually continuing to turn the population against them at the same time as decapitating the Taliban on the local level.
Horton: Well, what about the idea that all this stuff about counterinsurgency this way or “Counter-Terrorism-Plus” that way, or whatever, is all just a smokescreen for staying forever? It seems like as long as there’s somebody shooting back, then there’s somebody to shoot.
Gopal: Right, and even the “Counter-Terrorism-Plus,” or [more limited -ed.] counterterrorism option, presupposes that we stay in the country and have an ability to intervene when and wherever we want, if something comes up.
Horton: Right. So, I mean, do you think that basically the military knows that all this counterinsurgency is nonsense but they got to call it something while they stay forever, which is basically the real doctrine?
Gopal: Well I think they believe in it, or at least there’s a big performance, they believe that they can actually go in there and make this work, but it’s a convenient belief because it does presuppose the idea that you have to stay there for an extended period of time.
Horton: All right, now, I apologize, I did not mention the name of your website, which is AnandGopal.com where you can find the links to all your writings, and I just want to thank you again for your time on the show today, Anand, it was great. I learned a lot.
Horton: All right, y’all, we’ll be back. This is Antiwar Radio. Again, that’s AnandGopal.com for all his work.