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Obama Touts War’s End in Afghanistan, But Critics See Election-Year Guise for Prolonged Occupation

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On a surprise visit to Afghanistan, President Obama marked the one-year anniversary of the assassination of Osama bin Laden and announced the signing of a long-term strategic partnership with the Afghan government. In a speech to the U.S. public, Obama said the agreement heralds “a future in which the war ends, and a new chapter begins.” We’re joined by writer Tariq Ali and former U.S. diplomat Ann Wright, who helped reopen the U.S. embassy in Kabul in 2001. [includes rush transcript]

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

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We begin with Afghanistan, where several large explosions rocked the capital Kabul hours after President Obama’s surprise visit to the country on the one-year anniversary of Osama bin Laden’s death. The suicide attacks were claimed by the Taliban and resulted in at least seven deaths and numerous wounded. Taliban spokesperson Zabiullah Mujahid said, quote, “It is a message to Obama that he and his forces are never welcomed in Afghanistan and that we will continue our resistance until all the occupiers are either dead or leave our country.”

During his brief visit, President Obama delivered a prime-time address to the American public from Bagram Air Base. Obama signed an agreement with President Hamid Karzai on future Afghan-U.S. relations in Kabul Tuesday ahead of a NATO summit in Chicago later this month.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Good evening from Bagram Air Base. This outpost is more than 7,000 miles from home, but for over a decade it’s been close to our hearts, because here in Afghanistan more than half a million of our sons and daughters have sacrificed to protect our country. Today I signed a historic agreement between the United States and Afghanistan that defines a new kind of relationship between our countries, a future in which Afghans are responsible for the security of their nation and we build an equal partnership between two sovereign states, a future in which war ends and a new chapter begins.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: President Obama, speaking at Bagram Air Base Tuesday night during an unannounced trip to Afghanistan. The Strategic Partnership Agreement pledges American support for Afghanistan for 10 years after the withdrawal of the last U.S. soldiers at the end of 2014. President Karzai said the agreement signaled a new chapter in bilateral relations between Afghanistan and the U.S., one marked by, quote, “mutual respect.”

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, a new Pentagon report issued Tuesday said even though there has been a decline in violence, the U.S. has made limited gains on key issues in Afghanistan. The report says the most pressing concern remains the safe haven provided to insurgents in Pakistan, stating, quote, “The Taliban-led insurgency and its al Qaeda affiliates still operate with impunity from sanctuaries in Pakistan.”

Well, to talk more about the significance of President Obama’s surprise trip and the agreement, we’re joined by two people. Ann Wright is with us, retired Army colonel and former U.S. diplomat. She spent 29 years in the military, later served as a high-ranking diplomat in the State Department. In 2001, she helped oversee the reopening of the U.S. embassy in Afghanistan, where she served as deputy chief of mission. In 2003, she resigned her State Department post to protest the war in Iraq. She has been back to Afghanistan twice.

We’re also joined via Democracy Now! video stream from California by Tariq Ali, the British-Pakistani political commentator, writer, activist, editor of the New Left Review, author of numerous books, including The Obama Syndrome: Surrender at Home, War Abroad, joining us from Santa Monica.

We’re going to go first to Tariq Ali. Can you talk about President Obama’s announcement last night from Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan?

TARIQ ALI: Well, Amy, I mean, A, why is he there? It’s clearly a lot more to do with the re-election campaign, where the execution of Osama bin Laden is obviously going to be a key feature, and they’ve started using it, and secondly, to pretend that somehow this war is over. But it’s not over, because the United States can stay there or use the so-called Afghan bases until 2024. And forgotten, Amy, are the pools of blood, the embers, the cries of rage, the sobbing of women and children, and the horrors that have been inflicted on that country. And this is what the real cause for continuing terrorism is. I noticed the President saying, “I am in Bagram Air Base, 7,000 miles away.” He could have said, “And not far from here is Bagram Prison, where prisoners are still being tortured without any recourse to law at all.” So it’s essentially a PR visit designed to aid the re-election campaign. As far as Afghanistan is concerned, everyone, including the Pentagon, knows that this war is unwinnable.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: But Tariq, can you say something, Tariq, about the actual agreement that was signed, because a number of people have pointed out that key issues have not been resolved, including how long some U.S. forces will stay in the country even after the formal withdrawal in 2014?

TARIQ ALI: Well, you know, formal withdrawals are useless, because essentially what the agreement—Karzai has signed. And who does he speak for? He’s not a sovereign leader. Afghanistan is not a sovereign state; it’s an occupied state. So having President Obama go there and sign a deal with a puppet president who represents nobody and who can barely travel inside the country itself is a joke. And for this guy to agree that U.S. forces can use the bases 'til 2024 is a total joke, because he won't be there. If the Americans really leave Afghanistan, they’d be well advised to take him with them.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s talk about President Hamid Karzai for a minute. During an interview with Christiane Amanpour on CNN, he talked about the massacre of 17 Afghan villagers earlier this year. He denied calling U.S. soldiers demons but said the killings were an act of intentional terrorism.

PRESIDENT HAMID KARZAI: Demons, I have never used the word “demon” in the English language. The word “intentional terror,” yes, I did use in the English language. It was my input into the statement that we made. This was intentional. When someone walks out of a military barrack and goes to kill villagers, that’s intentional, and that’s terrorism.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai. Tariq Ali?

TARIQ ALI: I know. Well, what else could he say, Amy, when it was such an obvious, blatant violation of everything the West is supposed to stand for? And, of course, pretending that this is an individual act by one guy, not part of a general problem. I mean, this is one guy doing it. Essentially, U.S. military policy in the region is to do it systematically in different parts of the country. That’s the real problem. And the fact that Karzai has to come out and say this in these conditions shows how much anger there is. And by the way, 60 percent of U.S. citizens, according to the last Pew foundation opinion pollings, are against carrying on in that country. So the Afghans don’t want it, American citizens don’t want it, but the United States president is carrying on.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: But one of the points that Obama made in his speech last night was that the U.S. will work with Afghanistan over the next decade, but will not be establishing permanent bases in the country.

TARIQ ALI: Well, I mean, you know, their bases are already there.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We will work with the Afghans to determine what support they need to accomplish two narrow security missions beyond 2014: counterterrorism and continued training. But we will not build permanent bases in this country, nor will we be patrolling its cities and mountains. That will be the job of the Afghan people.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Tariq, your response?

TARIQ ALI: It’s, you know, surreal. The Afghan people have made it clear they don’t want them. The training he talks about, the number of incidents there have been of trained Afghan soldiers actually then breaking loose and carrying out attacks on the occupying armies in Afghanistan are now legion. The special agents they have trained have turned on intelligence agents from the West and killed them. And the reason for that is that large numbers of Afghans join the army and the police forces to get training, because that is what the insurgent leadership tells them to do, and then they turn these guns on the occupiers. So the notion that everything is calm and that Karzai somehow represents something is a totally grotesque analysis.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: I want to bring in Ann Wright into the conversation. Ann Wright, there was an AP report issued earlier this week that found that the number of attacks against ISAF and U.S. forces in Afghanistan by Afghan soldiers and the police are increasing and are also underreported. So that’s one concern. The other is that Afghan forces are in fact unprepared to take over once U.S. forces leave. Can you—

ANN WRIGHT: Well, indeed, the U.S. government is loath to let everyone really know what the extent of displeasure is for U.S. forces to be there. I mean, when you have the president of the United States having to come into Afghanistan in the middle of the night, and the agreement is signed at midnight, not in the middle of the day, you know that the security is lax. The idea that—you know, we’ve had 1,941 U.S. soldiers alone and probably 500 NATO soldiers have been killed, lots of contractors. In fact, the kidnapping of contractors and aid workers is rife right now. Not to—I mean, and then you talk about the numbers of Afghans that have been killed, I mean, in the tens of thousands. There is a reason why Afghans are shooting Americans: we have invaded and occupied their country. And the numbers of warlords that are a part of the government, who have their militias that are now being retrained, re-equipped in the new national army, means that they will come back to those warlords later.

AMY GOODMAN: Ann Wright, I saw you yesterday at the May Day protest, and you were out there protesting through the day, so you hadn’t heard the news that had just broken that President Obama had made the surprise trip to Afghanistan. Now, you have a unique relationship with the United States and Afghanistan. You reopened the mission there in 2001 as a U.S. diplomat. You had been an Army colonel. Talk about what happened then and your thoughts today.

ANN WRIGHT: Well, 10-and-a-half years ago, when we went in as the first U.S. mission to the—with the U.S. embassy, we were giving the U.S. probably a year and a half to two years to whatever they needed to do with al-Qaeda and then do some quick humanitarian assistance, civic actions, schools, health clinics, things like that, and then remove ourselves, because we know the history of what foreign involvement is in Afghanistan. The invaders and occupiers always leave, and seldom in very good shape. We’ve seen that with the British, the Russians, and now the United States, where we’ve spent trillions of dollars in Afghanistan, we’ve been there for ten-and-a-half years, and now the president of the United States has to fly in at midnight.

AMY GOODMAN: You, then, worked under Ryan Crocker.

ANN WRIGHT: That’s correct. Ryan Crocker—


ANN WRIGHT: —was the first chargé d’affaires that we had at the U.S. embassy. And now he is back as a retired Foreign Service officer, but now reappointed by the Obama administration as the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan.

AMY GOODMAN: At yesterday’s May Day march, Democracy Now! spoke to Eli Wright of Iraq Veterans Against the War, who served in Iraq from 2002 to '08. This is what he said about Obama's visit to Afghanistan.

ELI WRIGHT: I mean, obviously, I don’t support either of these wars, so, you know, I—our organization calls for immediate and unconditional withdrawal from Iraq, and we also oppose the war in Afghanistan, as well. I think what we’re doing is creating more terrorism. We’re creating more enemies of our country by engaging in these wars. And all we’re doing is spreading further hatred around the world. I don’t think that we—you know, I don’t think that the record will show that we have brought liberty or freedom or democracy to either of these countries that’s worth the human costs and the economic costs that it’s—you know, that we’re all paying.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Eli Wright yesterday at Iraq Veterans Against the War, the group, at the May Day protest. Ann Wright, is there anything positive you see in what President Obama did yesterday, holding his news conference from Bagram and saying at some point in the future the U.S. will be out of Afghanistan?

ANN WRIGHT: Well, the positive part is at least he’s talking about removing the majority of the troops from Afghanistan. However, we have to be very cautious about what he’s saying and hold his feet to the fire on this. We don’t know for sure how many troops are going to be left behind, where they’re going to be—supposedly there to continue to train the Afghan army. One would always question why Afghans need any more training, because it sure seems like they know how to use weapons and they know how to target facilities. In fact, within hours after the President left, a major U.S. compound in Kabul came under attack with RPGs, grenade launchers and all sorts of things, with seven people being killed. So it’s not like they need more training in military operations, in my opinion.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: I want to turn to another issue that’s been quite controversial, and that has to do with the use of drones. President Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser has publicly confirmed that the United States has used drones to conduct targeted killings overseas. John Brennan spoke on Monday at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He detailed and defended the killings.

JOHN BRENNAN: President Obama believes that, done carefully, deliberately and responsibly, we can be more transparent and still ensure our nation’s security. So let me say it as simply as I can. Yes, in full accordance with the law and in order to prevent terrorist attacks on the United States and to save American lives, the United States government conducts targeted strikes against specific al-Qaeda terrorists, sometimes using remotely piloted aircraft, often referred to publicly as drones. And I’m here today because President Obama has instructed us to be more open with the American people about these efforts.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: That was President Obama’s special adviser on homeland security and counterterrorism. John Brennan’s speech was disrupted by Medea Benjamin of CODEPINK. Over the weekend, Benjamin helped organize the International Drone Summit in Washington, D.C.

MEDEA BENJAMIN: How many people are you willing to sacrifice? Why are you lying to the American people and not saying how many innocents have been killed?

MODERATOR: Thank you, ma’am, for expressing your views. There will be time for questions and answers after the presentation.

MEDEA BENJAMIN: I speak out on behalf of Tariq Aziz, a 16-year-old in Pakistan, who was killed because he wanted to document the drone strikes. I speak out on behalf of Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, a 16-year-old born in Denver, killed in Yemen, just because his father was someone we don’t like. I speak out on behalf of the Constitution, on behalf of the rule of law. I love the rule of law. I love my country. You are making us less safe by killing so many innocent people.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: That was Medea Benjamin of CODEPINK, and she was actually dragged out while speaking. Tariq Ali, your comment on the use of drones in Pakistan, in particular?

TARIQ ALI: Well, I mean, this is part of the cycle of war, vengeance, terror, response from insurgents, more war, more vengeance, more terror. These drone attacks, we know full well—anyone in Pakistan will tell you about them—kill large numbers of innocents. Now, by “large numbers,” I don’t mean tens of thousands, obviously, but I mean several hundreds, occasionally more than that, over a year and a half. And Obama has upped the drone attacks. During his period in office, the number of drone attack—during his first year in office, there were more drone attacks in Pakistan than during the previous five years of the Bush administration. So here he’s been much worse, much more aggressive, and much more militaristic.

And the real problem, apart from all the moral and ethical problems, is they have nil impact. They kill people, they kill innocents, and they create more problems for the United States. As for the notion that these drone attacks somehow are defending the United States and making it safe against terror, that is so crazy. It really is crazy thinking. And if these people still haven’t realized it, I don’t know whether they ever will. These drone attacks, most people, many, many international lawyers regard them as illegal anyway. Targeting your own citizens abroad, targeting your own citizens where they are, is an added dimension to this. This is the first president who’s now acquired the right, the legal right, to order the targeting and killing of any U.S. citizen without recourse to law. This has happened under this particular president, so—

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s bring Ann Wright in to get a last comment on this, retired Army colonel, the diplomat who helped to open—reopen the U.S. mission in Afghanistan in 2001.

ANN WRIGHT: Well, John Brennan saying that he, on behalf of the President, was telling the American people about this program, well, we’re the last to learn then, because the rest of the world certainly knows about this targeted assassination program. And in fact, before Medea interrupted John Brennan on Monday, we had had a tremendous day on Sunday as we got John Brennan, as he went in to CNN, Fox News and ABC News, to let him know the irate feeling we have, by the American people, about this weapons program. It needs to stop. It is, you know, the targeted assassination of Pakistanis, Yemenis, Somalis, Afghans, and Americans now, where we have now had four Americans that have been killed by these assassin drones at the direction of the senior leadership of our country, extrajudicial killings by these drones, and they must stop.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to leave it there. I want to thank you very much, Ann Wright, retired Army colonel, a former diplomat, spent 29 years in the U.S. military, returned to Afghanistan twice after, in 2001, reopening the U.S. mission there as one of the top diplomats. Tariq Ali, thanks for being with us, editor of the New Left Review, latest book, The Obama Syndrome: Surrender at Home, War Abroad. This is Democracy Now! We covered May Day around the world. Stay with us.

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