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Khost massacre: a point of inflexion in Obama's war?

January 20, 2010 16:49 IST
The Jordanian suicide bomber, Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, who infiltrated the CIA's Forward Base Chapman in Khost, Afghanistan, and killed seven CIA operatives and his Jordanian handler on December 30, 2009, carried out a picture-perfect strike. He devastated the operational capacity of the US Special Operations on the ground, and also dented the aura of invincibility that Hollywood and the popular imagination -- think Bond, James Bond -- have invested in western spooks.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal on January 7 ('The Meaning of Al Qaeda's double agent'), former CIA agent Reuel Marc Gerecht suggests that -- eerily biblically -- Al Qaeda did unto the CIA what the CIA wished to do unto Al Qaeda. Says Gerecht: 'Indeed, Al Qaeda did to us exactly what we intended to do to them: use a mole for a lethal strike against high-value targets. In the case of al-Balawi, it appears the target was Ayman al Zawahiri, Osama bin Ladin's top deputy.'

It was a brilliant operation, and the Americans were sitting ducks. The question is: why? The fact that the CIA threw normal caution to the winds when the Jordanian double-agent dangled some confidence-building carrots -- in the form of verifiable information about low-level terrorists -- indicates American incompetence, or, chillingly, desperation. They are dying (no pun intended) to get some good intelligence. Ergo, the likelihood is that they fear they are losing the war.

Conversely, ever since President Obama unveiled his timetable for an American pull-out, the Taliban and the Al Qaeda have gone from strength to strength -- they are winning the psychological war. An indication of their new-found confidence comes from three recent, high-visibility incidents: the shooting of 13 soldiers at Fort Hood (although this did happen a few weeks before Obama's actual speech, the contours of 'surge, bribe, declare victory and run like hell' were already known then); the Christmas Day (talk of a significant day!) attempt to blow up Northwest flight 253 over Detroit; and then the Khost incident itself.

Aren't all of these highly demoralising for the Americans? Even the normally placid Obama is showing the strain -- he is under pressure to do something. He is reincarnating himself as a war president, however reluctantly. 2012 and re-election loom large in the background.

Going back to the Khost attack, Gerecht also maintains that normal operating procedure was violated under the orders of the station chief in Khost -- startlingly, a mother of three -- and several regional CIA staff flew in to have a face-to-face meeting with the supposed informant; he apparently was also not subjected to the usual detailed security check including pat-downs. What had the informant done to earn such unquestioning trust?

One answer may lie in the critical dependency of the CIA on others -- for reasons of lack of language skills and of length of tenure. Since they seldom speak Arabic or Pushto or Urdu, they are forced to depend on third parties -- in this case on Jordanian intelligence, which apparently does have a good track record in West Asia.

The fact that the CIA underestimated the enemy's resourcefulness and smarts also bodes ill for the future. They should have learned that their enemy is capable of surprisingly good tactical operations, and they should have taken due care. There have been at least two previous instances where the jihadis -- whether they call themselves Al Qaeda or Taliban or something else is a moot point -- demonstrated a clear grasp of tactics.

The first was the assassination of Ahmed Shah Massoud in his Panjshir Valley redoubt. An unquestioned military genius, Massoud had held off the formidable Soviets with age-old tactics of perimeter defense, tactical withdrawals, and hit-and-run. He was assassinated in September 2001, just two days before 9/11 -- and it is unlikely that it was a mere coincidence. Massoud had in a previous speech warned about a major attack planned against America: he might have had inklings about 9/11.

Massoud was the Taliban's principal foe as the military commander of the Northern Alliance, and the major obstacle in their overrunning all opposition in Afghanistan. Undoubtedly a cautious and careful man, Massoud was tricked into accepting an interview by two Tunisians bearing Belgian passports, who posed as journalists -- they had hidden a bomb in the video camera, using which they were able to kill him. Possibly the assassins were supplied to the Taliban by the Al Qaeda.

Then there was the singular incident of the siege of Kunduz in November 2001. In this 'Airlift of Evil', the US allowed Pakistan to spirit away hundreds, if not thousands, of Taliban operatives cornered by the advancing Northern Alliance in Kunduz. Most of the so-called Taliban who were evacuated were senior officers of the Pakistani Army or the ISI. At the time, I wrote (see my column "What happened in Kunduz?") that this was an historic blunder.

Clearly, the CIA was bamboozled by the ISI and the Pakistani Army in allowing the airlift. Left to themselves, the Northern Alliance would have overrun the fort in Kunduz and captured the insurgents, thereby breaking the back of the Taliban. The Pakistanis had a big stake in preventing these strategic assets of theirs from being eliminated -- and apparently they convinced the CIA that their potential capture, and subsequent interrogation, would reflect badly on the CIA too.

These chickens have now come home to roost. The CIA has a history of strategic blunders in Afghanistan, surely because they are misled continuously by the Pakistanis. For instance, as much as 20 per cent of all the billions of CIA dollars funnelled into fighting the Soviets went to the ISI's then favourite, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who is now an implacable foe of the Americans. Furthermore, some reports suggest that Ilyas Kashmiri, a HuJI jihadi, allegedly killed by a drone in September, resurfaced and planned the Khost operation in revenge. (Americans have consistently interfered in Kashmir on behalf of Pakistan and its jihadis.)

There is now great confusion about the motives of the double-agent al-Balawi. The most obvious hypothesis is that the Taliban/Al Qaeda wished to disrupt Predator and Reaper drone flights that are inconveniencing them by pinpointing their cadre from the air. Since the Taliban are a strategic asset of the ISI, the intelligence and the planning for the operation almost certainly came from the ISI.

But there is a nice new twist -- a videotape has surfaced in which al-Balawi appears with Hakimullah Mehsud and vows to avenge the killing of Baitullah Mehsud by a drone. There are a couple of ways of looking at this. One is that there are clearly tactical alliances between the Al Qaeda and various Taliban factions. Despite the fine distinctions made between 'good Taliban' (eg, the Haqqani tribe that the ISI refuses to move against) and the 'bad Taliban', there apparently is no such difference on the ground. The much-ballyhooed Pakistani Army surge in South Waziristan against the Mehsud tribe may be an eyewash, and the ISI may still be in cahoots with them.

A second possibility is that the tape is ISI-manufactured disinformation (digital doctoring of videotape is possible), because the Mehsud are now considered 'bad Taliban' (translation: people who are not advancing the Pakistani agenda), and surely this is a good way of directing American ire at them.

That, indeed, is the $64,000 question: will there be any American ire? It is not going to be easy for President Obama to continue with his soft approach. His Cairo and Ankara speeches, his munificence to Pakistan, etc, have caused him to be perceived as a pushover. Maybe it is time for Obama to break out his trusty copy of the Arthashastra and to realise that after sama (dialogue), and dana (bribery) come other tactics -- bheda (manufacturing dissent) and danda (force).

I hear from those in the know that American surveyors and geologists have discovered a veritable trove of minerals, including copper, iron, gems and hydrocarbons, in Afghanistan. Indeed, the Chinese have already started work on a giant copper mine there. Perhaps the Americans may stay in Afghanistan for the long term: the minerals would be tempting, and much more so than merely the prospect of the TAPI (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India) oil pipeline, which Amoco once salivated over. From India's point of view, this is probably a bad thing, but then nobody is bothered about India's interests.

The minerals may cause Obama to rethink the "declare victory and run like hell" part. In any case, that is a losing strategy against the jihadis in the long run because they are nothing if not triumphalist. Obama, the Nobel peace-prize winner, is perforce going to be a war president, glimpses of which he displayed in his reaction to the alleged systemic failure in regards to would-be bomber Abdulmuttab.

In any case, whether Obama stays on or not, he has to acknowledge that the Taliban/Al Qaeda have demonstrated a surprisingly sophisticated grasp of both geo-politics and about which strings, when pulled, provide the greatest benefit. It is a mistake to underestimate them -- they have the ISI, the kings of covert action, to help them plan their operations. In this context, I was amused to come across a story from The Economist of January 24, 2009, titled 'The growing, and mysterious, irrelevance of Al Qaeda'. Famous last words. A year later, it is not the Al Qaeda that seem irrelevant.

Rajeev Srinivasan