Gareth Porter on the new book by recently murdered Pakistani journalist
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. Shaleem Shahzad, a Pakistani journalist murdered whose body was found on May 31 in a canal outside of Islamabad. Saleem was a Pakistan bureau chief for Asia Times Online. He was an often-contributor to The Real News Network. In fact, we interviewed Saleem only a few days before he disappeared and then was later found killed. Saleem had recently written a book that was published just days before his death, titled Inside al-Qaeda and the Taliban: Beyond 9/11. Gareth Porter, investigative journalist and historian, has a copy of the book, has been going through it, and he’s going to report now on its contents. Thanks for joining us, Gareth.
GARETH PORTER, INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALIST AND HISTORIAN: Thank you, Paul.
JAY: So what’s the first main beat in his book?
PORTER: Well, I think the major theme that emerges from this book that is extremely important is just how the al-Qaeda strategists who were–to whom Saleem Shahzad was given unique access over the past few years, were telling him that their real objective beyond Afghanistan was to divide the Islamic world sharply between the rulers, the regimes of these countries that are largely Islamic, and the populace, whom they hoped they could provoke into uprisings against them, or Khorooj, in the Arabic term. And in order to do that, what these al-Qaeda strategists told Shahzad was that they saw the US-NATO occupation of Afghanistan as the biggest single benefit to their strategy. And, of course, this would also apply as well to Iraq. But the strategists of al-Qaeda were located there in Pakistan and were involved directly in the war in Afghanistan. And so that’s what they were focusing on in terms of their view of what would benefit their bigger global strategy. So they viewed the US-NATO occupation as good for al-Qaeda, and they wanted to continue. And that, I think, is really a major story that has not been covered at all by the world’s press.
JAY: I mean, there’s some irony to this is that in the aftermath of 9/11, instead of a full-scale invasion of Afghanistan, because of a quite separate agenda, we now know, by the Bush-Cheney regime of wanting to go after Iraq, they used 9/11 not as a big-scale invasion of Afghanistan, but they head to Iraq. And, of course, the irony of all that for al-Qaeda is that it creates a situation where in fact Iran benefits greatly in the final analysis in Iraq, having a government in Iraq that’s very–probably as friendly or more friendly with Iran than it is with the United States. But then the double irony is, after all of that, US does do a full-scale invasion of Afghanistan. So, in the end, al-Qaeda kind of gets what apparently it wanted.
PORTER: Well, that’s exactly right. I mean, there’s no doubt that al-Qaeda was the primary benefactor of the US-NATO war in Afghanistan. They were able to use that to show the populations around the world, the Islamic populations around the world, that in fact not only was the United States, you know, on the wrong side of history and against Islam because they were occupying Islamic lands, but that al-Qaeda in fact was the primary force helping the resistance to fight the United States and NATO in Afghanistan, and, of course, as well in Iraq. So it was viewed as really, strategically, the single most important thing going on for al-Qaeda. And what also emerges, very interestingly, in Shahzad’s book is that al-Qaeda strategists, the single biggest thing that they worried about was that there would be some kind of a peace deal that would allow the United States to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan. That’s the one thing that al-Qaeda more than anything else wanted to avoid. So when Saudi Arabia in 2007 had a meeting to which they invited a representative of Mullah Omar’s leadership, as well as some former officials of the Taliban and some people from the Karzai regime, the al-Qaeda strategists were absolutely apoplectic. They regarded this as a very serious and dangerous American plot which they had to respond to. And that was according to Shahzad’s account why the al-Qaeda strategists then launched this offensive by the Taliban, the Pakistani Taliban, into Swat, which of course caused a huge panic in Washington, DC.
JAY: Swat being on the border, Pakistan-Afghan border.
PORTER: That’s right, in Pakistan. And this was the furthest reach of the Pakistani Taliban towards Islamabad in the entire conflict in Pakistan. So there was a great deal of concern in Washington and very strong response from Washington threatening Pakistan that they had to do something about. Well, what was really going on there was that al-Qaeda was very concerned that they needed to buck up the Taliban in Afghanistan by having this diversionary move in Pakistan, so that the balance of forces would again be in favor of the Taliban in Afghanistan, and that the Taliban would not be tempted to [inaudible] any deal with the United States.
JAY: When I talked to Saleem about just what is al-Qaeda now, he estimated that there’s probably only about 100 members of al-Qaeda. But the point he made–that is, it almost represents sort of almost like an intelligentsia in some ways. They’re strategists, they’re some of the senior members of the Taliban, he said, are also members of al-Qaeda. So it’s not that they represent some large fighting force. As he described to me, it represents more that it’s a way to influence other fighting forces. Is that the picture you get in the book?
PORTER: Very clearly. That’s right. What he was very impressed by in terms of al-Qaeda’s strategy was just how clever they were in using the tribal areas, the population of the tribal areas of Pakistan, as a military-political base of operations, not just for the Taliban in Afghanistan, but for the global strategy of al-Qaeda to turn this population into really the first major Islamic insurgency against a government of an Islamic country, that is, the state of Pakistan. And so what he argues, I think quite cogently, that is to say, Shahzad argues in the book, is that al-Qaeda basically merged into primarily the Pakistani Taliban organization. And essentially that organization then took on the ideology and the strategy that al-Qaeda’s strategists really came forward with originally.
JAY: Now, this points to a date which you talk about in an article you have coming up and is in his book, which is that in fact there seems to have been a deal to begin with between Musharraf and al-Qaeda after 9/11, leave each other alone and we’ll leave you alone, which then, under American pressure, Pakistan starts going after al-Qaeda, and the deal breaks. Is this part of what leads to this Pakistan-Taliban taking on the Pakistani state?
PORTER: Definitely. The way Shahzad tells this story, both sides, both the ISI and the Pakistani military under Musharraf, as well as al-Qaeda, were ready to continue to have a live and let live policy, because both of them had interests that overlapped, particularly on Lashkar-e-Taiba, the terrorist organization that was operating in Kashmir. And so after 9/11 they were continuing that very ginger cooperation. But soon after that, in 2003, you had a series of incidents which really caused the breakdown of that relationship. On one hand, you had an attack by the Pakistani military using helicopters in South Waziristan, which caused the deaths of a number of al-Qaeda militants. And clearly the al-Qaeda organization was very upset about that, and they decided to retaliate. And the way Shahzad tells this story, the two attempts on Musharraf’s life in December 2003 were clearly a followup, a retaliation to the Pakistani military attack, through helicopters, against al-Qaeda. And of course at that point then Musharraf decided to crack down on al-Qaeda. And I think both sides then went into a kind of cycle of revenge, about one side taking revenge against the other, and I think it has never recovered from that.
JAY: I guess Saleem’s main point, from what I take from what you’re saying, is that US policy–in your article you quote the book–they rely on American cowboyness, or you could rely on the US to come in swinging, and they essentially wanted that. So we would take from that, the longer the US and the more US is in Afghanistan, the better al-Qaeda likes it.
PORTER: Well, that’s right. And, by the way, one of the key points that Shahzad makes in his book is that the fundamental strategy of al-Qaeda to use the aggressiveness of the United States against it was really something that came from Dr. Ayman Zawahiri, not from Osama bin Laden. It turns out, according to Shahzad–and he has–as, again, I said, he has unique access to al-Qaeda strategists over the years, and I think this is really an authoritative view–it was Zawahiri who convinced bin Laden that if he attacked the United States on its own home soil, the United States would respond with an attack on Afghanistan, and then there would be a whole new situation which al-Qaeda could exploit for its own advantage. And so it was really Zawahiri who was the strategic genius, if you will, who was able to take advantage of this analysis to benefit al-Qaeda’s global strategy.
JAY: Now, the articles that Saleem was writing before he was killed was more specifically about support for the Taliban and al-Qaeda within the Pakistan military. He was writing about the attack on the Pakistani naval base, talking about that there may have been an actual al-Qaeda cell within the Navy. And then in our interview he talked quite a bit about how retired and formerly purged members of the Pakistan intelligence agencies and military had actually joined up with either the Taliban or al-Qaeda. What do you know about this piece of it?
PORTER: Well, that’s right. He does talk about the fact that some veterans of the Pakistani military did go into al-Qaeda. In fact, one of the people that he talks about was instrumental in some very key al-Qaeda terrorist operations in Pakistan. And so, you know, he regards the contribution of some ex-military people as important to al-Qaeda’s strategy there. But he doesn’t really talk in his book about anything about infiltrating specific parts of the Pakistani military by al-Qaeda. That’s something he did not talk about.
JAY: In the interview he did with The Real News, he says that this new pressure since the capture and killing of bin Laden, that this increased US pressure on the Pakistan intelligence and military to cooperate, has further split the Pakistani Armed Forces. He actually used the word, in our interview, of possible mutinies within the Pakistan military, because there’s such discontent and anger over the extent to which Pakistan is collaborating with the US War in Afghanistan and generally in the region.
PORTER: Well, he certainly anticipates, that is, Shahzad anticipates the further development of splits within the Pakistani political system over the issue of pressure from the United States, because he talks about the anticipation by the al-Qaeda strategists earlier on, that US pressure on the Pakistani military would cause the Pakistani military to join up fully with the US war on terrorism, and that that in turn would again benefit the larger strategy of al-Qaeda in Pakistan. It would make it possible to launch an uprising within Pakistan against the Pakistani state. So I think he was certainly anticipating that this would continue to take place. But I think the developments that he was referring to in his interview with you, were things that have happened since his book was completed, so it’s not really discussed there.
JAY: So the fundamental theme of the book, it seems, is that the more aggressive the US gets, the more it strengthens AQ forces. And so they’re quite happy with the current policy.
PORTER: Absolutely. And this, of course, is exactly the opposite of the narrative that you get from the US military and the Pentagon when Robert Gates and Admiral Mullen were testifying before the Congress in early December 2009 to provide a justification for the escalation of the war in Afghanistan by the United States. I mean, they took the line, of course, that the worst thing that could happen was for the United States to withdraw from Afghanistan, because then the Taliban and al-Qaeda would have won against the world’s only remaining superpower, and that that would have had terrible consequences for the United States and the world. Of course, this represented a complete misunderstanding of the al-Qaeda global as well as local strategy. And, by the way, it also misunderstood fundamentally the relationship between the Taliban and al-Qaeda. One of the other revelations in his book, although it’s not the only place where there’s evidence of this, is that al-Qaeda and Taliban had very, very different views, of course, on strategy with regard to, you know, where the emphasis should be, and indeed whether al-Qaeda should be carrying out an uprising, trying to launch an uprising against the Pakistani regime. Taliban, Mullah Omar was very strongly opposed to that. And one of the very interesting revelations in the book by Shahzad is that the creation of the Tehrik-e-Taliban, the neo-Taliban, in Pakistan by al-Qaeda was in large part to try to draw the Afghan Taliban away from the leadership of Mullah Omar, because they viewed Mullah Omar as somebody who was not ready to go along with al-Qaeda’s strategy. So, once again, I mean, the whole idea that Mullah Omar is somehow in bed with bin Laden and al-Qaeda strategy is completely wrongheaded. It always was from the beginning.
JAY: Well, the book, again, is called Inside al-Qaeda and the Taliban: Beyond 9/11, by Saleem Shahzad. I guess it will be available soon somewhere. Maybe we’ll try to get a hold of it, make it available here. Thanks for joining us, Gareth.
PORTER: Thanks very much, Paul.
JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
End of Transcript
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