News that suicide bomber Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, (the man who targeted the forward CIA operating base Chapman) was a trusted informant, should prompt more than just a reassessment of President Obama's AfPak war. The shocking infiltration of a key CIA operating facility indicates that either America's former partners in its covert war against the Soviet Union are so well schooled in American methods and practices that they have become all but invisible, or, that in their desperation, America's best operatives are failing to follow precautions. Just when the administration was hoping to build on a solid foundation of reliable intelligence, it must now question not only the intelligence it has received, but also the fundamental assumptions on which the intelligence has been operating from the start.
We heard the rumblings of apprehension from local Afghans when we visited Kabul in the fall of 2002. What exactly was the United States doing by hurting those who wanted to build a stable Afghanistan and re-empower those who had already torn it to shreds? In a conscious effort not to lose Afghanistan the way Vietnam had been lost, the U.S. was going back to the same fractious warlords it had empowered during the 1980s without ever questioning whether they had been backing the right people to begin with.
At the time, insurgent leaders, whose ideology was as alien to Afghanistan as any foreign colonial power, made it clear that the U.S. was only an ally of convenience and that once the Soviet Union was defeated the tide of radicalism would be turned loose on the United States. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, America's largest beneficiary, made his disdain clear when he refused to visit President Reagan at the White House on a 1985 trip to the United Nations in New York. All through the 1990s South Asia expert Selig Harrison made it clear to the CIA that they were creating a "monster" in the Taliban. Yet this, and an ocean of clear and unambiguous information was overlooked, discredited or just plain ignored.
Now the U.S. must look back at all the information this "trusted informant" from Al Qaeda's Lashkar al-Zil (Shadow Army) provided and determine what is real and what is "shadow." But there is nothing in the CIA's history to indicate that any internal examination can correct the mistakes that encouraged small bands of religious extremists to grow into a powerful insurgency or for that matter to define exactly which enemy is the most dangerous.
Did other reliable informants bordering Helmand province intentionally target Baluch nationalists for Predator drone assassinations, knowing that they would turn the long- suffering Baluch population against the United States? According to Amnesty International, Pakistan's war on Baluch and Sindhi nationalists has claimed more than 900 activists who have disappeared without a trace, exceeding the massive human rights violations perpetrated by Pinochet's Chile in the 1970s. Have reliable informants also singled out moderate Afghans and Pakistanis for elimination while protecting Afghan Taliban who prey on American units in the long contested Pakistani border region? Under the best of circumstances intelligence gathering is a tricky business, requiring expert skills, experience and knowledge of the indigenous culture. But good intelligence also requires the wisdom to know who your enemy is and the war you are fighting, and by all indications, that remains the black hole of American efforts.
In a report released by the Center for a New American Security on Monday January 4,
NATO's highest intelligence officer, U.S. Major General Michael T. Flynn, writes that "our intelligence apparatus still finds itself unable to answer fundamental questions about the environment in which we operate and the people we are trying to protect and persuade. This problem or its consequences exist at every level of the U.S. intelligence hierarchy, and pivotal information is not making it to those who need it."
Either unable or unwilling to adapt to a post-cold war, multi-polar world, and after eight years of failure in Afghanistan, the Obama administration now wants the Afghan and Pakistani people to believe that the United States is on their side. But until the American intelligence bureaucracy catches up to the President's rhetoric, Al Qaeda's army will continue to operate effectively from the shadows while the U.S. will continue to stumble along in the dark.
Paul Fitzgerald and Elizabeth Gould are the authors of Invisible History: Afghanistan's Untold Story published by City Lights. They can be reached at www.invisiblehistory.com
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