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    South Asia
     May 2, 2009
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BOOK REVIEW
Behind the Afghan propaganda

Invisible History: Afghanistan's Untold Story by Paul Fitzgerald and Elizabeth Gould

Reviewed by Anthony Fenton

Nearly 30 years after their first foray into the land-locked buffer state, married couple and journalist-historians Paul Fitzgerald and Elizabeth Gould could not have chosen a more appropriate time to publish their comprehensive Invisible History: Afghanistan's Untold Story.

Having taken a back seat to Iraq since the drumbeat for war began in the autumn of 2002, the ongoing escalation of the United States-North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) counter-insurgency war and occupation have made "AfPak" the center of

 

sustained US media attention for the first time since "shock and awe" temporarily drove the Taliban underground in October 2001.

A chronically disinformed US public should leap at the chance to familiarize themselves with an honest overview of their country's historically scandalous involvement in the region.

Despite Afghanistan's recent return to the spotlight, few among the public realize the full extent of the US's historical meddling in Afghanistan. Sadly, many Americans will believe the version of events that were popularized by George Crile's book-turned-Hollywood film, Charlie Wilson's War: The Extraordinary Story of how the Wildest man in Congress and a Rogue CIA Agent Changed the History of Our Times (New York: Grove Press, 2003).

Crile's account presents an ahistorical blend of fact and fantasy as it romanticizes the largest covert operation in US history during the US-Pakistan-Saudi Arabian-financed and armed proxy war against the Soviet Union from 1979-1989. It is this collective propaganda-imbued blindspot that Fitzgerald and Gould attempt to reveal and counter. As Gould stated in an interview with Asia Times Online, Charlie Wilson's War "is a complete flip flop of the reality".

As such, one of the concerns that Gould and Fitzgerald are seeking to address is the problem that "there are still people in administration positions, in journalistic positions, in academic positions who still believe the fundamentals of Charlie Wilson's War". As Fitzgerald added, "every line cook and bottle washer in and around Washington is now an expert on Afghanistan", reflecting a popular discourse that is "far detached from reality".

As the first Western journalists to gain entry into post-Soviet invasion Afghanistan with CBS News in 1981, Fitzgerald and Gould learned that the reality on the ground was "far from the simplistic portrait of black and white, good against evil, portrayed by the American media". (p 13) When their story aired on anchorman Dan Rather's show on their return, key parts of it that ran counter to the official Washington narrative were left on the cutting room floor. Rather himself would later be accused of airing fake footage of US-backed "freedom fighters" for anti-Soviet propaganda purposes. (p 247-48)

Fitzgerald and Gould returned to Afghanistan in 1983, along with Roger Fisher, the founder of the Harvard Negotiation Project, which was created through his involvement in negotiations surrounding the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979. Fisher's key finding on meeting with Afghan and Soviet leaders was that, far from wishing to expand beyond Afghanistan's borders as purported by the Ronald Reagan administration, the Soviets "wanted out ... in no uncertain terms". (p 188)

The problem was that the US would have none of it. As Gould explained to AToI:
There was absolutely no interest on the part of Congress or the mainstream media to really get that out into the public space. As Roger stated on Nightline, "clearly I don't know for sure whether they are going to actually get out but we have to try." This is certainly what anyone with common sense would have thought. And what did we discover but no, there was absolutely no interest in getting them out. The reason being that the actual insurgency that was coming from Pakistan, that was being financed by the United States and by the Saudis; this was exactly the reason that the Soviets were staying in Afghanistan.
Having gone to great lengths to draw them into Afghanistan in the first place (beginning as early as 1973, see below), the US wanted the Soviets to stay so that their mujahideen proxies could deliver a mortal blow to the "Evil Empire". As an example of the typical approach of the US media toward the secret war, when Fisher returned to the US to report his findings on ABC's Nightline with Ted Koppel, he was sand-bagged by another guest, "Soviet dissident" Vladimir Bukovsky, who parroted the Reagan administration's fabled line that the Soviets were "moving toward the Persian Gulf". (p 189) Koppel made it clear that any reality-based account such as Fisher's, then, had to be "concealed for the benefits of propaganda".

It would take more than 15 years for Fitzgerald and Gould's analysis to be corroborated by the slow trickle of document declassification and the publication of the memoirs of key political and intelligence actors. With a heavy dose of footnotes (over 1,100), Fitzgerald and Gould rely on a mixture of interviews (some conducted during a subsequent trip to the country in 2002), primary source documents, prior historical accounts, and (Chomskyan) "impeccable sources" to flesh out their narrative, which spans three periods: antiquity to the 1960s, the height of the Cold War period up to September 11, 2001, and the period since, up to mid-July of 2008.

The first section lays the groundwork for understanding the 21st century context by tracking the development of Afghanistan as a strategic buffer state, locked between imperial powers. The most fateful development for modern Afghanistan was Britain's creation of the Durand Line in November 1893. This line continues to separate the Pashtun people, who are in the center of the insurgency and counter-insurgency that is being waged today. (p 281)

Fitzgerald and Gould argue that "no border division in the history of colonial conquest could match the ongoing consequences posed" (p 51) by this unilateral demarcation of Britain's western boundaries. As such, any external power that has dealt with Afghanistan since the demarcation can be measured by their countenance toward Pashtun demands for self-determination. Although through a loya jirga (tribal grand council) Afghans themselves "authorized the Afghan government to abrogate all of Afghanistan's treaties with Great Britain regarding the trans-Durand-Pashtuns" in 1948, by 1953 the US under president Dwight D Eisenhower and vice president Richard Nixon had "informed the Afghans that they had no justifiable claim to Pashtunistan". (p 92)

With Pakistan, the British and the rising US empire disposed against Pashtun self-determination, it was only natural that the Afghans would lean toward the Soviets, who expressed sympathy with the Pashtun cause. As the Cold War deepened and the Afghans drew closer to the Soviets, US interest in the country increased proportionately. Afghanistan would soon become a battleground on which the fantasies of Washington's Cold War policy planners would be played out.

Fitzgerald and Gould trace the origins of the post-World War II national security state to National Security Directive 68 (NSC 68) of 1950, which was premised on the "containment" of the Soviets who were said to be bent on "world domination". Accordingly, the policies that flowed from NSC 68 were designed "to foster the seeds of destruction within the Soviet system", and, conveniently, in order to pursue such policies, the US military needed to be able to project force globally, requiring the entrenchment of a vast military-industrial complex. In turn, justification for NSC 68 was provided by a core of "defense intellectuals" who became "the new seneschals of America's emerging national security and foreign policy intelligentsia". (p 88-90)

Fitzgerald and Gould emphasize the historical role of the "imperial brain trust" and covert war methods of the US during the Cold War, including, most prominently, that of propaganda and mysticism. Chapter 5, "A Background to Cold War Policy", is the longest, most heavily foot-noted, and, arguably, the most important. They also give important space to the role of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and CIA-front organizations such as the Asia Foundation (which today still works extensively in and around Afghanistan).

"Large numbers of American intellectuals participated in [Asia] Foundation programs, and they - usually unwittingly - contributed to popularizing of CIA ideas about the Far East. Designed ... as an overseas propaganda operation, the Asia Foundation also was regularly guilty of propagandizing the American people with agency views on Asia." (p 97)

The important propaganda role of CIA-linked, Orwellian-named organizations such as Freedom House, the International Rescue Committee and the Committee for a Free Afghanistan are contextualized, the latter being "an odd assortment of extreme anti-communist right Republican and liberal Democrat". (p 175-79) Together, they "represented the cream of the right-wing, neo-conservative ... defense-intellectual class, controlling public opinion of the Afghan war". (p 190).

Invisible History also shows how covert US meddling began as early as 1973 under president Nixon, following the ouster of King Zahir Shah by Mohammad Daoud. The US had not even extricated itself from its own Vietnam War when such plans were afoot as part of the "Chinese-Iranian-Pakistani-Arabian peninsula Axis" to give the Soviets theirs. (p 123-4)

By fostering the rise of fundamentalist Islam in Afghanistan beginning in the period leading to the Soviet intervention, the US helped "set in motion a series of events that would eventually demolish the country's embryonic infrastructure and political aspirations ... " (p 126) According to a former US political officer in Afghanistan, the conscious intent was "to set back the clock socially on a wide front". All told, this served the interests of both the US's cynical Cold War policies, paralleling US support for fascist regimes and insurgencies in Latin America, as well as the "forward policy" of Pakistan, which included plans "to conquer South Central Asia". (p 308)

Under pressure from the covert hand of external intelligence agencies and their proxies in the mid-1970's, Afghanistan shifted rightward under Daoud, who was overthrown in April 1978, after which the country again drew closer to the Soviets. Although the 1978 coup "was a product of Afghanistan's complex internal dynamics, not the sinister product of the Kremlin's geostrategic planning", nevertheless, "by Cold War definition, the coup automatically became a self-fulfilling prophecy, easily fitting the mantle 'Soviet inspired'." (p 123-4) This was "consistent" with the narrative provided by NSC 68 and the group of Cold War intellectuals and policy planners who would become known as "Team B".

The origins of Team B, traced in another important chapter (p 139-157), are rooted in Nixon's "secretive brain trust", and in former CIA director George H W Bush's opening "an outside door to a small, right-wing corps of like-minded defense intellectuals". Setting about to destroy detente and restore the US's post-Vietnam War "military mythology", Team B was "drawn together by their anti-communism and mutual affiliations" with the military-industrial complex, as they began fostering a false narrative that said "the Soviets were preparing for a 'third world war' and were nakedly expansionist".

The January 16, 1979, overthrow of the US allied Shah of Iran and the February 14 kidnapping and murder of the US ambassador to Afghanistan, Adolf Dubs, were keystone events that "would permanently turn the tide of detente and arms control, and shift the balance of authority toward [Jimmy Carter's national security advisor Zbigniew] Brzezinski and Team B, while making Afghanistan a permanent base for holy war”. (p 160) By the time the Soviets entered Afghanistan - at the request of the Afghan government at the time - the pieces were in place to lock them into a protracted counter-insurgency war that they had no desire to wage. 

Continued 1 2  


Farewell, the American Century
(May 1,'09)

Old military hardware in a new bottle (Apr 23,'09)

Staring at the sun in Afghanistan
(Apr 23,'09)


1.
Indus Valley code is cracked - maybe

2. The myth of Talibanistan

3. Farewell, the American Century

4. Ideas before bullets

5. So far, so good

6. Beijing battles with unauthorized TV

7. The global politics of swine flu

8. Stress tests flunk stress test

9. German potash finds growth in China

10. Black-hole balance sheets

(24 hours to 11:59pm ET, Apr 30, 2009)

 
 



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