The Other War: Pentagon’s Own Report On Afghanistan Invasion Blasts U.S. War Strategy

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A report commissioned by the Pentagon on the invasion of Afghanistan was turned away after it concluded there was a wide gap between how the White House represented the war and what was actually taking place. We speak with the New Yorker’s Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Seymour Hersh who says, “It’s a great trifecta for this administration. In three-and-a-half years of office, we have destroyed Afghanistan, destroyed Iraq and we are in the process of destroying the UN too.” [includes rush transcript]

As the nation and the world focus attention on the increasing violence and turmoil in Iraq–few are noticing the plight of the other nation invaded by the U.S. in the last two and a half years–Afghanistan.

The Bush administration has consistently labeled the invasion of Kabul a success. But reports from humanitarian organizations, United Nations officials and Afghanis themselves paint a very different picture–warlords dominate much of the country, the Taliban is still a force in many parts, and the illegal drug trade is flourishing.

But the latest criticism of the conflict comes from within the Pentagon itself.

In late 2002, the Pentagon commissioned a report from a retired colonel and leading military expert in unconventional warfare to examine the invasion of Afghanistan.

Retired Army Colonel Hy Rothstein, who served in the Army Special Forces for more than 20 years concluded the US failed to adapt to new conditions created by the Taliban’s collapse and created conditions that have given “warlordism, banditry and opium production a new lease on life.” This according to the New Yorker magazine.

After Rothstein submitted the report in January, the Pentagon returned it with a request he cut it drastically and soften his conclusions. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Joseph Collins said of the report “There may be a kernel of truth in there, but our experts found the study rambling and not terribly informative.”

Rothstein wrote that the war “effectively destroyed the Taliban but has been significantly less successful at being able to achieve the primary policy goal of ensuring that al Qaeda could no longer operate in Afghanistan.”

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

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to Seymour Hersch who highlights this report in The New Yorker, his latest article, The Other War: Why Bush’s Afghanistan Problem Won’t Go Away. Welcome to Democracy Now!

SEYMOUR HERSCH: Glad to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Why don’t you go through retired army colonel, Hy Rothstein’s report and what happened to it.

SEYMOUR HERSCH: First of all, you should know it’s about 120 pages. And they wanted him to cut it back to 20 pages, I think. They didn’t obviously look and you always behead the messenger, and this is an administration in which if you support their policy, you’re a genius, if you disagree, you’re not just somebody who disagrees, you’re a traitor. This has been the mantra for these people since they took office. Basically, what he simply said is that this was never really what the President and Mr. Rumsfeld, the Secretary of Defense, said when we first began to attack Afghanistan it was called an unconventional war, he said that’s not true. The same old thing, lots of bombing, lots of civilian casualties, lots of overwhelming force. Instead of really going in and trying to convince the local population, particularly in the areas where the Taliban and Al Qaeda were operating in the south and east, along the border with Pakistan, for example. Instead of doing serious work of rebuilding and trying to improve life, and spending money to get schools going and roads, et cetera, et cetera, we just went and whenever we found somebody or heard from one of our warlord buddies this is a bad guy, we would go bomb straight and the same thing that is happening in Iraq. The same pattern, which seemed to be the overwhelming victory in the beginning, the success of the first air campaign in the fall of 2001, Bush and Rumsfield™fs first success, the one that became the pattern for the war in Iraq in their eyes, anyway. It really wasn’t, it was just a tactical victory and strategic defeat we’re looking at. It’s not only that drugs haven’t been eradicated-a new U.N. poll Survey shows it’s growing, going up every year dramatically since we have taken over. The farmers are now going to plant 70-75 percent more poppies and at least put that much more area under cultivation for poppies, more heroin and hashis to come than even last year, which was also a big year, 3600 tons. We have turned Afghanistan into the opium market and heroin market of the world. They write and it’s buried in the story, but it’s very much part of the story, that one of the problems we™fre having inevitably, is that some of our troops are getting on heroin or horse as they call it. That’s a considerable problem that’s been snuffed out in terms of any kind of publicity.

AMY GOODMAN: We are talking to Pulitzer Prize winning reporter, Seymour HERSCH. His latest piece in The New Yorker is called “The Other War, Why Bush’s Afghanistan Problem Won’t Go Away.” What about the issue of bombing Afghanistan and hunting for Osama bin Laden?

SEYMOUR HERSCH: The problem is just as you see in Iraq, it’s totally counter productive the way we do it. We have allied ourselves with warlords, the gangsters and drug runners of Afghanistan that control many of the provinces particularly as I say in the south and east of Afghanistan, where sort of it’s a no-man’s land. The Taliban are the most effective political force in the area, despite the fact that we allegedly defeated them. And what we do is with each raid, we over fire and do overwhelming force is what we do. And we make enemies. We’ll have — what Rothstein was saying is that there is a way to wage unconventional warfare, particularly when the real issue in Afghanistan then, before we went in and now, is security. Everybody wants a secure life. Instead of going in with unconventional forces that understood some of the languages, some of the customs, well trained military guys who had the capacity to be tough, but also had the capacity to give the local people what they needed in terms of security and protection-instead of doing that, we used special forces simply as a means of trying to get at Al Qaeda and the Taliban and hitting anything that we are told smacked of them. So, inevitably, you have civilian casualties and you have a lot of violation of religious rules. We bust into homes and search through it, and paw the women, et cetera, et cetera, the same we have heard the story in Iraq many times, the same thing in Afghanistan of violating local amores and customs and making enemies. At the same time, the only stable economy is the drug economy. We have a guy that allegedly is president that speaks wonderful English. Hamid Karzai, an honorable guy, a decent guy, but he has no power. I quote Richard Clarke, the famous Richard Clarke these days all over television. I did speak to him about this. He describes Karzai as the mayor of Kabul. He has no authority outside of the one town where he’s ensconced. It’s a failure, basically. The operation there is a failure. They keep on double-talking us about it. Amy, just as you are not — you know, the American press today can’t come to grips with the analogy for what’s going on in Iraq today as in 1968 TET offensive. War is breaking out all over. If you listen to the European journalists, you will hear this, but not in the American press. We have sold ourselves. It’s a great trifecta for this administration. In three-and-a-half years of office, we have destroyed Afghanistan, destroyed Iraq and we are in the process of destroying the U.N., too.

AMY GOODMAN: Seymour HERSCH, the U.S. invaded Iraq more than two years after bombing Afghanistan, the beginning of the bombing of Afghanistan. What lessons do you think can be learned for the U.S. in Iraq today, from Afghanistan?

SEYMOUR HERSCH: Well, the only lessons are that we don’t learn from our past mistakes. One of the things that is sort of fascinating about Afghanistan-I thought the most compelling aspect of Richard Clarke’s testimony was not so much whether or not we could have stopped 9-11, because that will never be answered, but the fact that after 9-11, they focused immediately on Iraq. That had an enormous impact on the Afghanistan war, too. Once we got past the initial bombing of Afghanistan in the fall of 2001 and the Taliban fled the major cities to fight in the mountains, obviously and second line of defense, historically, that’s what the Afghans do, they retreat and then continue to fight. Once we got past that, by the early spring of 2002, we began diverting assets from Afghanistan, some our best units some of the sophisticated units that did know. We had people that did know Arabic, some of the special force units and Green Beret units and we began diverting everybody, including our intelligence people into the Middle East, into the gulf. We drew down. We were looking so much at Iraq, this administration was so preoccupied, it also not only set us in a position where we started this insane war that we’re in now, this counter productive war that God knows where it’s going to end. This isn’t like Vietnam, this is going to be more strategic in consequence, this mistake we’re making, but we are also walked away from the issues that we had in Afghanistan, which was continuing to make the country secure, et cetera. So, we sort of double whammied ourselves. We not only started a war that we couldn’t win in Iraq, that wasn’t necessary in terms of the war on terror, but we also walked away from the one area where you probably could have done some good, if you concentrated on getting rid of Al Qaeda there. And so, I think that what we have learned is that we don’t learn.

AMY GOODMAN: Seymour HERSCH, you talked about the parallel with Vietnam in Iraq right now, certainly an issue that has been coming up repeatedly, a high U.S. military official talking about pacifying Fallujah.

SEYMOUR HERSCH: You know, it’s just that it’s obviously a different war. It’s the Middle East and it’s much more, as I say, this is a strategic issue, because there are 1.4 billion Muslims in the world that we’re offending. The analogy is the same. You have good soldiers for which your heart goes out. They’re suffering casualties. This is terrible. There are a lot of civilian casualties. That’s also terrible. A lot of collateral damage, destruction to the city, and we have a President bunkered down wherever he is now in Texas, I think, living in a fantasy land because nobody wants to tell him what’s going on. The analogy would be Lyndon Johnson. We have the military saying lights at the end of the tunnel. It’s inevitably; the press doesn’t get it, for a lot of reasons, one it’s dangerous to move out of Baghdad. I was frustrated beyond belief last night watching the stand-ups from Baghdad when the fighting is somewhere else. The only footage we get, the networks are buying from strangers risking their lives or from some of the Arab journalists. We are not getting much coverage. We are getting coverage that’s dominated by the military because they’re supplying the statistics: 12 Marines dead, et cetera, et cetera. The analogy in terms of how it shapes up in terms of how we, the public get our information is so frighteningly the same. We still have Bremer saying we’re on track for June 30th. June 30th what? I guess the goal is you get to June 30th, and then on July 1st, you publicly say, well, it’s the U.N.'s problem now. I don't know what the goal is. I don’t think they have an exit plan and as in Vietnam, as we all know, if we could have held down, I’m going to stretch everybody’s memory, in the end, we were surrounded around the presidential palace. If we could have held out, we would probably still be airlifting supplies into 25 years later. The only thing that got us out is they drove us out. I don’t know what’s going to happen in Iraq. Whether we will be forced into some sort of a retreat, but nobody is coming to help us, Nato, not the U.N., and there’s no end strategy. And I think it’s time for all of us to begin asking very, very tough questions of these people running the war. They have done nothing but mislead us and make mistakes and not correct them, and once again we have them this in the same position, and I could tell you right now, the American military and this I do know, because these are people I talk with, they are very unhappy about the position they’re being put into.

AMY GOODMAN: Seymour Hersch won the Pulitzer Prize for exposing the melai massacre. Right now, in just a day, Condoleezza Rice will actually testify publicly, but I think the important operative words are 'under oath'. Can you respond to that, the significance of this testimony and also that the president of the United States, George Bush, will not testify alone, but only with his Vice President, Dick Cheney, at his side.

SEYMOUR HERSCH: Well, you know, as long as you’re asking me, I’m not big on self emulation, but I think clearly Condoleezza Rice is one of the least — the most inadequate and most incompetent national security advisers we have had in terms of having an understanding and a thesis, she’s basically a parrot for the views of her President. God knows that it doesn’t matter — I for one have never been persuaded that there was ever going to be any smoking gun that’s going to convince the average person that we could have stopped 9-11. That’s counter intuitive, but in terms of not recognizing the issues, of course, you know, the — this is something that’s going to be, I’m sure, a huge issue in the commission. But we really have a leadership without question, the worst leadership we have had since the early days of the Vietnam war just in terms of — I wish I could tell you, I thought it was simply they were all lying. They are not liars. They believe what they believe and hear what they want to hear. This is the most isolated group of people. I think the question we really have to ask, we’ll stagger through this, because we’re a huge country with a lot of resources. And we have to ask ourselves how eight or nine people with a radical agenda, neoconservative agenda managed to take over the country so completely, how fragile our democracy is in terms of these few people manage to mute the press, which probably isn’t that much of a feat, but they did. The congress and the bureaucracy and but they’re less and less muted. There’s going to be more people talking and I don’t think really her testimony to me isn’t that interesting. It’s just that we are going to have to come face-to-face with the inadequacy of these people in terms of their leadership. I think we are gradually getting to that place. I think foreign policy will end up eventually being the critical issue in this election. And not jobs, and not the economy, which everybody always thinks it is. There’s nothing but bad news ahead for America in the next three or four months in Iraq and in Afghanistan. Whether we get Osama bin Laden, which we’re going to try to do again next month, perhaps later this month it, doesn’t really matter. That’s not the issue.

AMY GOODMAN: Seymour HERSCH, I want it thank you very much for joining us. His latest piece is in The New Yorker magazine, it’s called “The Other War.” This is Democracy Now!. We’ll be back in a minute.

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