Saturday, September 18, 2010

State Cables From 2001 re: Af/Pak (And What We Can Learn From 'Blazing Saddles')

The National Security Archive has been publishing declassified documents about the origins of our current involvement in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and this week it released a batch of State Department cables from 2001 that depict how we engaged Pakistan's leadership in the days and weeks after 9/11.

Here's a bit of NSA's introduction to this week's material:

Pakistani tribal areas where Osama bin Laden found refuge were momentarily open to the Pakistani Army when "the tribes were overawed by U.S. firepower" after 9/11, but quickly again became "no-go areas" where the Taliban could reorganize and plan their resurgence in Afghanistan, according to previously secret U.S. documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act by the National Security Archive and posted today at

The declassified documents describe the consequences of these events. According to U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ronald E. Neumann, the 2005 Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan was a direct product of the “four years that the Taliban has had to reorganize and think about their approach in a sanctuary beyond the reach of either government." This had exponentially increased casualties as the Taliban adopted insurgency tactics successful in Iraq, including suicide bombings and the use of IEDs. Ambassador Neumann warned Washington that if the sanctuary in Pakistan were not addressed it would "lead to the re-emergence of the same strategic threat to the United States that prompted our OEF [Operation Enduring Freedom] intervention" in 2001.

That warning came in a February 2006 cable from Kabul (read it here) four years before the U.S. government was prompted to send a surge of 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan and raise our commitment there to new peaks in people, money and casualties.

Ambassador Neumann is now the president of the American Academy of Diplomacy, and he is no doubt far too polite to issue a massive I Told You So. But, he told them so.

Speaking of Ambassador Neumann, I notice that he consistently has extremely pertinent thing to say about Pakistan and Afghanistan - like this article and this book - and that he says them with pithy phrases. Example: when asked by the New York Times to comment on how much leverage President Obama has over Afghanistan's President Karzai vis-a-vis U.S. demands that Karzai crack down on corruption, Neumann offered a movie analogy:

“You know that scene in the movie ‘Blazing Saddles,’ when Cleavon Little holds the gun to his own head and threatens to shoot himself?”

That answer is so good, and works on so many different levels, that I can't even talk about it.

Neumann has also said something equally as good about Fortress Embassies, which I often have cause to quote in the course of my day job:

"If you're going to have people live in a car bomb-prone place, you are driven to not have a light footprint."

Exactly so. I would love to read an oral history account of the quotable Ambassador Neumann's career, but it seems that he has so far not participated in the Library of Congress's oral history collection on U.S. foreign policy. Too bad.

To get back to NSA's document release, it's highlights include:

* September 13, 2001 – U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage gives Pakistani Intelligence (ISI) Chief Mahmoud a list of seven demands [snip]

* September 14, 2001 – Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf accepts U.S. demands “without conditions.”

* September 13 - 24, 2001 – Pakistan advocates negotiating with the Taliban to get Osama bin Laden. Wendy Chamberlin tells President Musharraf “There was absolutely no inclination in Washington to enter into a dialogue with the Taliban.”

* September 14 – November 16, 2001 – Pakistan asks the U.S. to clarify if its counterterrorism mission is against the Taliban or just al-Qaeda and repeatedly asks the U.S. not to let the Northern Alliance take over Kabul. Throughout the 1990s the Northern Alliance was supported by foreign states opposed to the Taliban, including India.

* September 17 – September 24, 2001 – Pakistani Intelligence (ISI) Chief Mahmoud flies to Afghanistan twice to meet Taliban leader Mullah Omar and discuss U.S. demands, al-Qaeda, and the future of Afghanistan. It is unclear if anything comes of these talks. President Musharraf replaces Mahmoud as ISI Chief in October 2001 and Pakistan and the U.S. move forward with military action against the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

* Both Pakistani and American officials have doubts whether Pakistan has enough control over the Federally Administered Tribal Areas [FATA] to combat Taliban and al-Qaeda-allied forces active in the region. A Pakistani military official calls certain sections of FATA “no-go areas” for the Pakistani Army.

* Pakistan denies anti-American forces are active within its territory, while the U.S. is certain “some Taliban leaders operate with relative impunity in some Pakistani cities, and may still enjoy support from the lower echelons of Pakistan’s ISI.”

This is good stuff. I have to wonder whether all those Big Brains who are currently agonizing over U.S. policy toward Afghanistan would not be better served by closing their PowerPoint briefings for a couple hours and reading these old cables.

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