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2010-03-30

"Our President Is Deceiving the American Public": Pentagon Papers Whistleblower on President Obama and the Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq

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We are joined by a man who played a major role in efforts to end the Vietnam War in the 1970s. In 1971, the then-RAND Corporation analyst Daniel Ellsberg leaked to the media what became known as the Pentagon Papers, a 7,000-page classified history outlining the true extent of US involvement in Vietnam. After avoiding a life sentence on espionage charges, Daniel Ellsberg has continued to speak out against US militarism until the present day. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

ANJALI KAMAT: President Obama returned to the United States Monday after making his first trip to Afghanistan since taking office. In just a six-hour visit, Obama met Afghan President Hamid Karzai and other top Afghan officials before addressing a group of US soldiers at Bagram Air Base. Echoing a theme often voiced by former President George W. Bush, Obama said the US invasion of Afghanistan was not a war of choice.

    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We can’t forget why we’re here. We did not choose this war. This was not an act of America wanting to expand its influence, of us wanting to meddle in somebody else’s business. We were attacked viciously on 9/11. Thousands of our fellow countrymen and women were killed. And this is a region where the perpetrators of that crime, al-Qaeda, still base their leadership. Plots against our homeland, plots against our allies, plots against the Afghan and Pakistani people are taking place as we speak right here.

    And if this region slides backwards, if the Taliban retakes this country and al-Qaeda can operate with impunity, then more American lives will be at stake, the Afghan people will lose their chance at progress and prosperity, and the world will be significantly less secure. And as long as I’m your commander-in-chief, I am not going to let that happen.

    That’s why you are here. I’ve made a promise to all of you who serve: I will never send you into harm’s way unless it’s absolutely necessary. I anguish in thinking about the sacrifices that so many of you make. That’s why I promise I will never send you out unless it is necessary.

ANJALI KAMAT: President Obama’s visit comes four months after he ordered 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, bringing the total to 50,000 since he took office. It’s one of several decisions that have led antiwar critics to accuse Obama of adopting a foreign policy much in line with President Bush’s second term.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re joined now by a man who played a major role in efforts to end the Vietnam War in the ’70s. In 1971, the then-RAND Corporation analyst Daniel Ellsberg leaked to the media what became known as the Pentagon Papers, a 7,000-page classified history outlining the true extent of US involvement in Vietnam. After avoiding a life sentence on espionage charges, Daniel Ellsberg has continued to speak out against US militarism until the present day. He joins us now from the University of California at Berkeley.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Dan Ellsberg. In the wake of the surprise visit by President Obama to Afghanistan, your thoughts?

DANIEL ELLSBERG: President Obama is taking every symbolic step he can to nominate this as Obama’s war, just as the Vietnam War became Nixon’s war in November of 1969, just about the time I was copying the Pentagon Papers in hopes of forestalling that, and Johnson made Vietnam his war, Johnson’s war, and McNamara’s war in June of 1965, when I was working for him, when he decided to escalate, an open-ended escalation there, following the previous commitment of Eisenhower and of Kennedy that made it an open-ended war, just as Obama is doing there now, and, I think, with very much the same results in the end, tragic results, especially for the country involved and for the Americans, and with probably the same kinds of pressures on him, actually, as Johnson faced.

AMY GOODMAN: I saw you speak, Dan Ellsberg, here in New York after a production of Top Secret, a very interesting play about not the New York Times and the Pentagon Papers — they were the first to begin to print them but were then enjoined by the Nixon government, and then the Washington Post started to print the Pentagon Papers, and that’s what this was about. But afterwards, you talked about the US ambassador to Afghanistan and how important what Ambassador Eikenberry had to say in these memos and cables that were made public. Can you talk about those?

DANIEL ELLSBERG: Yeah. Well, for years now, really since we set out to go into Iraq on much the same kinds of lies in 2002 that sent us into Vietnam when I was in the Pentagon, since then, I’ve been saying to officials in the government, “Don’t do what I did. Do what I wish I had done in ’63 or ’64, before we had entered the war, before the bombs had fallen. Don’t wait, as I did, ’til we were in the war and the war was essentially unstoppable, before telling the truth about the hopelessness, understood within the government, and the impossibility — the unlikelihood of any kind of victory there. But do it now.”

Actually, almost as I — in recent times, that call has been answered. I don’t know whether it was direct or not, but some government official who is now the most dangerous man in America in the eyes of President Obama, I’m sure — I’m sure there’s a Plumbers operation going on right now to find out who leaked the cables, the secret cables, of our ambassador in Kabul, Lieutenant General, retired, Karl Eikenberry, who had been in charge in Afghanistan, and first in charge of training Afghan troops and then in charge of all of our operations in Afghanistan, before McChrystal, and is now our accredited ambassador to Karzai, the head of the so-called government that we’re supporting there now.

And in those cables, secret cables, which someone leaked in January, after the President had announced his decision, I’m sorry to say — I wish he had done what I most called for, and that is, send the cables, the truth that he was telling, in before that decision had been announced. Still, the decision hasn’t been fully implemented, especially by Congress, in terms of appropriation. And they would do well to read what it is they’re appropriating money for.

Eikenberry’s cables now, at this stage, read like a summary of the Pentagon Papers of Afghanistan. And that’s the first installment of papers that we need right now. Just change the place names from “Saigon” to “Kabul” and the Afghan national forces serving as the surrogate of our mercenary ARVN of Vietnam, and they read almost exactly the same. He’s describing the President, Karzai, to whom he’s accredited and who he just visited with President Obama. And Karzai has presumably read Eikenberry’s assessment of him as — that he is not an adequate strategic partner for the United States, and for reasons of corruption and inefficiency.

Allegedly, we hear that Obama’s reason for going seventeen hours over to Afghanistan was to convey in person our desire that he clean up his government. I’m really reminded of when Kennedy and Johnson decided to enlist our Mafia in an effort to get Castro. I don’t think they spent time telling the Mafia, “By the way, it’ll be helpful to us, if you’re going to be our partner, to clean up your act, get out of the drug business.” In Karzai’s government, as in the Mafia, corruption are us, drugs are us. Corruption is his government. That’s his constituency, his source of income. There is no chance whatever that he’ll, for instance, root out his brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, from Kandahar, which is our next base of operations, despite the fact that our chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff says no success is possible in Kandahar while corruption is still the heart of that, while drug dealing is the heart of that, so long as Wali, the President’s, Karzai’s brother, is in charge there.

It’s obviously — it’s not just a symbolism. It’s the fact that we have a government there that has no prospect of achieving legitimacy in the eyes of the people we’re supposedly appealing to in Afghanistan. And that’s symbolic of the whole effort. There is no prospect of any kind of success in Afghanistan, any more than the Soviets achieved in their ten years there, just as in Vietnam we really had no realistic prospect of more success than the French. But countries find it very hard to learn from the failures of other countries.

ANJALI KAMAT: And Dan Ellsberg, what’s your assessment of the counterinsurgency strategy that the Obama administration is pushing, that General Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal are pushing?

DANIEL ELLSBERG: I’m very familiar with that theory, because that’s what I was working in in Vietnam for so many years, the counterinsurgency theory, strategy theory. My job was to evaluate its, quote, "progress," which meant lack of progress, total stalemate, total lack of progress in Vietnam. And to that end, I visited thirty-eight of the forty-three provinces of Vietnam and reported stalemate, which McNamara heard and understood, even while the word “progress” was the word to be used, just as Obama was talking about progress.

What it ignores is that the recruiting tool of our adversaries there is predominantly the presence of foreign troops. And when we add more foreign troops, we are sustaining that recruiting tool. And for every enemy trying to eject foreigners from his country that we kill, and especially his families, the wedding parties, and the funeral parties after we’ve hit the wedding parties, all of those recruit more people in a way that will — assures us that, contrary to what President Obama is saying, we will not prevail. When he does say we aren’t going to quit, in the short run, at least, he’s right, unfortunately. We have many years ahead of us.

I believe, by the way, that that applies to Iraq, as well, that I believe that our president is deceiving the American public — I don’t say that lightly — in the same way that all of his predecessors deceived us with respect to Vietnam, including the ones I served, which included Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon. Specifically, when he says in his State of the Union message that we will — he will get all troops, not just combat troops, but all troops, out of Iraq by the end of 2011, I believe that’s false and that he knows that’s false, and he has no real plan or intention of removing American bases manned by American military personnel, not just mercenaries, ever. By his second term or the second term of his successor, whoever that is, I think we have a future of 30,000 to 50,000 Americans in Iraq indefinitely. And I’m talking about the lives of our children, in terms of actual planning.

And in Afghanistan, in the same State of the Union address, when he implies that this first installment of extra troops in Afghanistan, which Ambassador [Karl] Eikenberry specifically recommended against to the President, saying that it would make the situation worse, not better, make the Karzai government more dependent on us and postpone any possible date of our withdrawal, rather than shorten it — that’s just the first installment. He implies that by the end of next year — or this year, rather, when we have those extra 30,000 to 40,000 troops there and are up to the level of 100,000, which, with NATO troops, will bring us up to the level at which the Soviets occupied Afghanistan and failed after ten years, the thought that that’s the last request by McChrystal is simply absurd. McChrystal himself was asking for 80,000 troops at this point, and that, too, was a first installment.

My knowledge of counterinsurgency doctrine, which is, from what I read of McChrystal and Petraeus’s doctrine statements, is as good as theirs, or as bad as theirs, says that in a country of that size, hundreds of thousands of troops are needed. That is not going to come from the Afghan troops, who desert about as fast as we recruit them and who are not very highly motivated working for foreigners, like the government of Vietnam soldiers we worked with. They are not going to fill that gap. As troops do come out of Iraq, bringing us down from 130,000, or perhaps 90,000 now, down to 30,000 to 50,000, that extra 100,000 troops will have a short time at home with their parents and their spouses and their kids and then go to Afghanistan. I believe that four years from now we will have more troops in Afghanistan than we have two years from now. The public doesn’t seem to understand that, and when they look at cost estimates, they come up with figures like a trillion dollars for our effort in Afghanistan eventually. Try doubling that. It’s going to be more troops. Those estimates are based on the notion — in Iraq, as well — that we’re getting all troops out of Iraq. That’s not going to happen.

AMY GOODMAN: Dan Ellsberg —-

DANIEL ELLSBERG: So those estimates are illusory. You could double them.

AMY GOODMAN: Military officials in Kabul have admitted US and NATO troops have killed thirty Afghans and wounded eighty others in or near military checkpoints since last summer. In no instance did the victims prove to be a danger to troops. In a recent videoconference, military commander General Stanley McChrystal said, “We have shot an amazing number of people, but to my knowledge, none has ever proven to be a threat.” Your response to this?

DANIEL ELLSBERG: That’s an amazingly, amazingly candid assessment by McChrystal. I’ll give him credit for saying that. He also, for the first time, talks about wanting to reduce civilian casualties. But by increasing the number of US troops over there greatly and increasing the number of engagements, even if you reduce the rate of civilian deaths per engagement, the overall effect is going to be that you’re killing the relatives of people who are going to enlist in the insurgency.

You’re talking about a country, like Vietnam, that has 2,000 years of a tradition, and not just of self-image, but of actual success, in ejecting foreign invaders. They aren’t organized for much there. You could say it’s a state of disorganization, valley by valley and tribe by tribe. They’re ideally organized for ejecting control by foreigners, and even control by a central government -— that’s somewhat unlike Vietnam — controlled by Kabul, even if Kabul were to clean up its act, which is — means to transform its nature altogether.

One of Eikenberry’s points is that there is no basis for assuming that Karzai, at this point in his life, is going to change his nature or the nature of his government. By the way, that was in secret cables to the President. That’s like the Pentagon Papers. In public testimony, what we heard from Eikenberry in front of Congress was, “Oh, I fully support McChrystal’s program,” which he had just demolished in secret. “I fully support the program. I have every confidence.” In short, like any official working for the President, after the President had made his decision, Eikenberry lied, or, at any rate, he contradicted his secret testimony. And what Congress should do is simply bring him back and let him clarify the difference between his secret cables, which were published on the New York Times archive, which anyone can get, and his public testimony and give him a chance to tell the truth and resign.

ANJALI KAMAT: Dan Ellsberg, your leaking of the Pentagon Papers helped bring the Vietnam War to an end. What do you think needs to happen now to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?

DANIEL ELLSBERG: Congress, somehow, has to be brought to have the courage to follow its convictions and cut off the funding for the wars, for escalation, in particular. Barbara Lee, the one congressperson who had the guts to vote against the Tonkin Gulf Resolution with respect to Afghanistan back in 2001, pointing out that it had been done without — like the Tonkin Gulf Resolution years before, without hearings, without debate, without evidence, just a blank check to the President — one person in Congress who did that, now has a bill — I think it’s 3966 3699, something like that —- calling for cutting off appropriations for further escalation in Afghanistan. And that bill, that appropriations lie ahead.

The head of the Appropriations Committee, David Obey, Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House, Harry Reid in the Senate have all said they oppose further escalation, just like Eikenberry, the general who is our ambassador in Afghanistan. But does that mean they will vote against the appropriations that send those people over there to die and to kill? No, very, very unlikely. But some of their colleagues will.

AMY GOODMAN: We have ten seconds.

DANIEL ELLSBERG: And if we press our colleagues that that’s what we want, ultimately that’s the way the war can be ended. The only way the Vietnam could have been ended was by Congress cutting off the money. It’s the only way this war will be ended, and it will take a very long time -—

AMY GOODMAN: Dan Ellsberg, we have to leave it there.

DANIEL ELLSBERG: — in what I call Vietnamistan.

AMY GOODMAN: We have to leave it there, but we will continue the conversation and put it online at democracynow.org. Dan Ellsberg — Henry Kissinger called him “the most dangerous man in America.”

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