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Gareth Porter, an investigative historian and journalist, speaks to Paul Jay about Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s new job as the head of US operations in Afghanistan. Porter says McChrystal’s appointment will hardly change US policy in Afghanistan, but could intensify US commando raids and air strikes in the region. He also comments on Obama’s plans for a civilian surge saying, “a civilian component to a counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan is essentially empty talk, in the sense that they don’t really know how to do it. They don’t have the means to do it. They don’t have people that are trained in Pashtun, the language of southern Afghanistan, where the ethnic group that basically inhabits the area, where most of the Taliban gains have been made, is located.”

Story Transcript

PAUL JAY: Welcome to The Real News Network, coming to you from our studio in Washington, DC. Last week, President Obama fired General McKiernan as head of the Afghan operations and appointed General McChrystal to head the new Afghan war. To help us understand this appointment, we’re joined by Gareth Porter. He’s an investigative journalist, a historian. Thanks for joining us, Gareth.

GARETH PORTER: Thanks, Paul.

JAY: So let me see if I can get this right. This is a new man? Do we have a new man because the old man failed at the old policy? Do we have a new man because he’s going to better execute the old policy? Or is this a new policy? Or are we seeing that there ain’t much of any policy?

PORTER: Well, I think it’s a bit of all of those things. The fact is that the Obama administration sort of admits at this point quite explicitly that they do not in fact have a clear new strategy at all. In fact, they’re not sure what their strategy is. They don’t know how to defeat this so-called Taliban in Afghanistan. What they do know is that it wasn’t working under McKiernan, and they hope that putting somebody new in there will somehow help them, but they don’t really know how.

JAY: So tell us a bit about McChrystal.

PORTER: McChrystal is known exclusively for the fact that commanded the joint command of special operations forces, which was essentially created to carry out targeted killings after 9/11, particularly under Donald Rumsfeld when he was secretary of defense. He set up this special command to go after Saddam Hussein, to find, capture Saddam Hussein, and then Zarqawi, the al-Qaeda leader in Iraq. And the whole idea, really, was for this joint command to go after [inaudible] targeted to target and kill or capture, particularly kill, the mid-level and high-level operatives of al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. They did. The JSOC [Joint Special Operations Command] went into Pakistan briefly in 2002 and then 2003, and then they were kicked out by the Musharraf government. So then they did not operate further on the ground in Pakistan, but they continue to operate [inaudible]

JAY: So does this suggest this is going to be the new emphasis of tactics in Afghanistan?

PORTER: Well, it’s difficult to say whether they’re going to publicly give—.

JAY: What happened? (02:36) … (04:11) So does this represent a change of tactics? So target assassinations are going to be the new solution in Afghanistan?

PORTER: Well, I can’t say that there’s going to be a whole new formal emphasis on this at all, but what we do know is that there’s no evidence whatsoever that the Obama administration is seriously planning to change the policy of having special operations forces in Afghanistan on the ground, going into areas, trying to find out who the Taliban are, and grabbing people, interrogating them, trying to identify somebody as a Taliban, and then going after them with air strikes where they think it’ll do any good, or commando raids where they think they can do that. So I think this is going to continue and very possibly will be increased under McChrystal, because he is a specialist in that. There’s no question that he’s going to continue to support that as a major element of the policy. And the problem, of course, is that this is understood by virtually everybody who’s involved in Afghanistan, on the ground there, who’s in touch with Afghans. This is one of the things that causes the greatest anger among Afghans of a very wide array, politically.

JAY: The air strikes in particular.


JAY: And when Karzai was in Washington, he specifically called for no more air strikes. And Gates said, “Well, we’re not going to tie our hands behind our back.”

PORTER: Karzai has been very explicit about it. He’s repeatedly called for an end to these. Now, you can say that he’s only politically posturing, but that simply underlines the fact that this is clearly such a alive and very intense political issue in Afghanistan. This is something that no political figure in Afghanistan can avoid condemning, because of the popular outrage.

JAY: Well, so then why does this move to McChrystal take place? I mean what you get from your sources?

PORTER: Well, I think the reason McChrystal was pushed into the gap here is that he was the head of the Joint Staff. After he left the JSOC, he became the head of the Joint Staff in Washington, the guy who was in charge of the staff for the joint chiefs. And he was in all the meetings on Afghanistan. He knew what Admiral Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Robert Gates, the secretary of defense, were thinking and saying about what needs to be done, what they would like to done in Afghanistan. He’s nodding his head in these meetings, and they’re saying, “Oh, well, this is a guy who understands what we want. We’ll put him in there.” So one of the things that they want is to speed up the creation of a big Afghan army. And, apparently, this is one of the issues in which there wasn’t happiness with General McKiernan: he was not moving fast enough; he was moving very slowly in training the Afghan army. So we know that there will be an effort to speed up that process.

JAY: Now, when President Obama announced his Afghanistan plan, one piece of it was what he called a “civilian surge” and a new emphasis on reconstruction. What message does the appointment of McChrystal make in that context? And, also, [Richard] Holbrooke’s been talking about even some kinds of coalition governments, bringing some sections of the Taliban in, so sort of one set of language over here, but the reality seems to be they still seem to be focused on a military solution.

PORTER: I think it does send that message, basically, that all the talk about really new emphasis on a civilian element, a civilian component to a counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan is essentially empty talk in the sense that they don’t really know how to do it. They don’t have the means to do it. They don’t have people that are trained in Pashtun, the language of southern Afghanistan, where the ethnic group that basically inhabits the area where most of the Taliban gains have been made is located. They don’t really have the people that are trained in the language or who understand those people, who would work with them. And, therefore, this simply is not really going to happen. It’s not going to be an important component. And to name McChrystal as the next commander sends the message, it seems to me, that they have nothing left to fall back on except a military approach.

JAY: So what is another approach? I mean, in terms of their objective, President Obama said the only real objective now is to make sure al-Qaeda doesn’t have a base of operations. There seems to be no other objective, and talk about reconstruction and such doesn’t seem to be too serious.

PORTER: You know, the problem with the Obama emphasis on al-Qaeda and sort of appearing to limit our objective to making sure that al-Qaeda cannot get a toehold or a foothold in Afghanistan is that it’s essentially a way of selling the war in Afghanistan. The fact is that, you know, there are no al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.

JAY: Which Petraeus said.

PORTER: Petraeus has said that. It’s very clear that the inter-agency group that issued a report in March said the same thing. So it’s really almost a Bush-like way of selling the war, to talk about al-Qaeda.

JAY: Well, is it because it’s really now, in fact, all about Pakistan?

PORTER: Well, they understand that it really is about Pakistan, that that’s where the major threat is of al-Qaeda. That’s where the greatest national security problem exists. It’s in Pakistan. And yet they are fighting a bigger war in Afghanistan. They know that they’re in danger of losing public support for that because it’s not going well. It may not go well.

JAY: And they’ve just created a situation in Pakistan with a million refugees leaving, all furious. You see the interviews with the refugees. Most of them are blaming the United States and blaming the Pakistani government for dealing with the situation at a military level that was unnecessary. So they created a million more angry people. This whole thing really seems to be spinning out of their control.

PORTER: I really believe that there is an element here of a war that somehow Obama imagined could be managed rationally. You could sort of pull this lever and, you know, adjust things in a fine-tuning manner, and it really doesn’t work that way. Once you decide to go in with a larger troop contingent, you commit yourself to a bigger war militarily. It eats up everything else. That’s the lesson of Iraq; that’s the lesson of Vietnam; that’s the reality every time you commit yourself to a military approach to something. Everything else really tends to go out the window, and you cannot manage the conflict. You are a prisoner of the military approach that you get committed to, and I think that’s the problem that Obama faces. Once he took that first step, he finds that he can’t fine-tune [inaudible]

JAY: And I thought it was very interesting that, in his election campaign, candidate Obama had promised something akin to Marshall Plan for Afghanistan. In his statement as president, he didn’t talk about anything of the sort. He said a civilian surge [inaudible] more American experts. They actually did talk about $1.5 billion a year for the tribal territories in Pakistan, but no dollar amount for Afghanistan. The seriousness about reconstruction seems to have ended. Thanks very much for joining us. And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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Gareth Porter is a historian and investigative journalist on US foreign and military policy analyst. He writes regularly for Inter Press Service on US policy towards Iraq and Iran. Author of four books, the latest of which is Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam.