Commentary Magazine


Topic: Mullah Omar

Obama’s Dishonorable Deal

Even I, a consistent and at times quite a harsh critic of President Obama, have been taken aback by the latest turn of events.

To recapitulate: Mr. Obama released five high-value, high-risk terrorists from Guantanamo Bay in exchange for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who it appears was a deserter–and has been known to be a deserter for a couple of years. People who served with him are calling on the military to court martial Bergdahl. Media reports indicate that at least six Americans died  in their efforts to rescue him.

In de facto negotiating with the Taliban and acceding to their demands, the president violated a law he signed, requiring him to inform Congress 30 days in advance of any prisoner release from Guantanamo Bay. And the effect of this deal will be to incentivize the capture of more Americans, since it obviously pays dividends.

Yet the Obama administration took this humiliating accommodation and portrayed it as a victory of American values and purpose. The president held a Rose Garden event on Saturday extolling the deal. National Security Adviser Susan Rice referred to it as an “extraordinary day for America” that deserves to be “celebrated.” And Ms. Rice said of Sgt. Bergdahl, “He served the United States with honor and distinction.” 

Really, now? A deserter who, according to the New York Times, “left a note in his tent saying he had become disillusioned with the Army, did not support the American mission in Afghanistan and was leaving to start a new life,” is a person who served with “honor and distinction”? By what ethical calculus does she claim this to be so?

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Even I, a consistent and at times quite a harsh critic of President Obama, have been taken aback by the latest turn of events.

To recapitulate: Mr. Obama released five high-value, high-risk terrorists from Guantanamo Bay in exchange for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who it appears was a deserter–and has been known to be a deserter for a couple of years. People who served with him are calling on the military to court martial Bergdahl. Media reports indicate that at least six Americans died  in their efforts to rescue him.

In de facto negotiating with the Taliban and acceding to their demands, the president violated a law he signed, requiring him to inform Congress 30 days in advance of any prisoner release from Guantanamo Bay. And the effect of this deal will be to incentivize the capture of more Americans, since it obviously pays dividends.

Yet the Obama administration took this humiliating accommodation and portrayed it as a victory of American values and purpose. The president held a Rose Garden event on Saturday extolling the deal. National Security Adviser Susan Rice referred to it as an “extraordinary day for America” that deserves to be “celebrated.” And Ms. Rice said of Sgt. Bergdahl, “He served the United States with honor and distinction.” 

Really, now? A deserter who, according to the New York Times, “left a note in his tent saying he had become disillusioned with the Army, did not support the American mission in Afghanistan and was leaving to start a new life,” is a person who served with “honor and distinction”? By what ethical calculus does she claim this to be so?

This illustrates quite well the fundamental differences the president and his aides and I have. My response to what has occurred is not just intellectual but visceral. I consider what occurred, when everything is taken into account, to be substantively indefensible and morally dishonorable. The president, in my estimation, has rendered a great service to our enemies, and they know it. (Mullah Omar, the head of the Taliban, hailed the release of the top five Taliban commanders from Guantanamo as a “great victory” for the mujahideen of Afghanistan.) The president’s decision may well endanger American lives down the road. And his administration has elevated an apparent deserter–one whose actions were reported on in the past (see this 2012 Rolling Stone article by Michael Hastings) and who is responsible for the death of fellow soldiers who tried to rescue him–into a hero. 

This strikes me as morally grotesque. Yet for Mr. Obama and some of those in the progressive movement, the events of the last few days count as a fantastic achievement, one worth venerating and exalting.

Years ago John Gray wrote a book called Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus. In this case, it’s the president and I who occupy different worlds, including different moral worlds. Mr. Obama is proud of a series of acts that I would think he would, after careful reflection, feel regret for and even (when it comes to his administration lionizing Sgt. Bergdahl) some shame.

At times individuals interpret the same events at such different angles of vision that their actions are nearly incomprehensible one to another. I will confess that more than I ever imagined, I have that feeling with my president.

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Mullah Omar’s Triumphalism

On Wednesday, Mullah Omar, the elusive leader of the Taliban, released a message for the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, which this year falls on October 26. Omar’s message is well worth reading, especially against the backdrop of Obama administration efforts to negotiate with the Taliban.

As Ahmad Majidyar—probably the most astute Afghanistan analyst in the United States—points out, Mullah Omar used his address to redouble his commitment to a complete military victory. “We will continue to wage Jihad against the invaders who have invaded our country until the occupation ends completely,” he declared. Obama and Governor Romney might both have reaffirmed the 2014 pullout date during their most recent debate, but let us hope that they did so fully cognizant that no amount of spin will convince Afghans and Afghanistan’s neighbors that the withdrawal is anything but a Taliban victory.

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On Wednesday, Mullah Omar, the elusive leader of the Taliban, released a message for the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, which this year falls on October 26. Omar’s message is well worth reading, especially against the backdrop of Obama administration efforts to negotiate with the Taliban.

As Ahmad Majidyar—probably the most astute Afghanistan analyst in the United States—points out, Mullah Omar used his address to redouble his commitment to a complete military victory. “We will continue to wage Jihad against the invaders who have invaded our country until the occupation ends completely,” he declared. Obama and Governor Romney might both have reaffirmed the 2014 pullout date during their most recent debate, but let us hope that they did so fully cognizant that no amount of spin will convince Afghans and Afghanistan’s neighbors that the withdrawal is anything but a Taliban victory.

Mullah Omar celebrates the “Green on Blue” attacks which have brought the Taliban to the verge of victory. I’ve addressed the ideological motivation behind the “Green on Blue” attacks, here. The Pentagon continues to hamper itself by rooting insider attacks more in grievance than in jihadist ideology. Hopefully, Mullah Omar’s message will put a rest to that silly notion:

We call on the Afghans who still stand with the stooge regime to turn to full-fledged cooperation with their Mujahid people like courageous persons in order to protect national interests and to complete independence of the country. Jihadic activities inside the circle of the State militias are the most effective stratagem. Its dimension will see further expansion, organization and efficiency if God willing. I urge every brave Afghan in the ranks of the foreign forces and their Afghan hirelings who may find an opportunity to utilize this opportunity effectively and quash the enemies of Islam and country in their centers and use all possible means, opportunities and tactics to strike them. This is because Jihad is an obligation enjoined on every one. It is the duty of every individual of the nation from religious perspective and on the basis of his conscious to strive for the liberation and independence of his country.

Likewise, it is essential the Obama administration and the State Department pay attention to what Mullah Omar says of negotiations and diplomacy, especially as that has become the central pillar of the Obama administration’s exit strategy. Omar makes no secret that his goal in talks is the release of prisoners—not peace with the Afghan government. He assures Afghans that the Taliban is “neither thinking of monopolizing power nor [do we] intend to spark off domestic war,” but any Afghan knows to take such assurances at his peril. After all, Mullah Omar made the same assurances upon taking Kandahar in 1994 and again in 1996, right before the Taliban seized Kabul and purged all opposition.

Afghans have never lost a war; they just defect to the winning side. At a dinner party a month ago, a CIA operative who recently returned from Afghanistan said she thought that soft-partition was going to be the best possible outcome. Partition—soft or hard—will be impossible in Afghanistan, however, because it ignores the importance of momentum. Mullah Omar appreciates what the CIA doesn’t. “Our Jihadic momentum has reached a phase that enjoys comprehensive global Islamic support.”

Jihadists issue declarations all the time. They are not without meaning. Some are defensive, and others are fantastical. Mullah Omar’s tone and statements, however, are illustrative of his goals and strategy. Let us hope that a desire to withdraw “on schedule” will not affirm Mullah Omar’s triumphalism.

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Atran’s Silly Thesis

Anthropologist Scott Atran shows that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Having studied the battle against Islamist extremists in Indonesia, he argues in the New York Times that we should be using similar methods in Afghanistan — namely leaving the battle to local authorities who have a better understanding of local tribal dynamics than we do. I too have visited countries where the locals are doing very well in fighting against guerrillas and terrorists with much less assistance than we have poured into Afghanistan and Iraq; see my reports from the Philippines here and from Colombia here.

But while admiring the efforts of the Filipinos and Colombians — just as I respect the efforts of the Indonesians and others — I am acutely conscious that their example cannot be replicated in Afghanistan, a country whose government disintegrated when our forces entered in 2001. It takes a long time to build up a functioning state, and in the meantime, we have to send our own forces to provide security. A failure to do enough in that regard results in dangerous gains for the enemy, as we saw in Iraq from 2003 to 2007 and in Afghanistan from 2005 to today.

Atran doesn’t seem to realize this. Instead he comforts himself with foolish fairytales about how supposedly benign the Taliban would be if only we left them alone. He adopts the “accidental guerrilla” thesis propounded by Dave Kilcullen, which holds that it is American military action that is driving the Pashtuns into the Taliban’s hands. This flagrantly ignores the historical record which shows that the Taliban were far more powerful back in the 1990s when there was not a single American soldier on the ground in Afghanistan. In those days, too, the Taliban cemented a close alliance with al-Qaeda, which they have never renounced even though it would have been to their advantage to do so. This suggests rather strongly that if we followed Atran’s advice and left Afghanistan to its own devices, it would soon be taken over by jihadists bent on attacking not only Pakistan but also Europe and the United States.

To argue otherwise, Atran engages in ridiculous speculation. He writes:

After 9/11, the Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, assembled a council of clerics to judge his claim that Mr. bin Laden was the country’s guest and could not be surrendered. The clerics countered that because a guest should not cause his host problems, Mr. bin Laden should leave. But instead of keeping pressure on the Taliban to resolve the issue in ways they could live with, the United States ridiculed their deliberation and bombed them into a closer alliance with Al Qaeda. Pakistani Pashtuns then offered to help out their Afghan brethren.

In other words, he believes that our initial decision to intervene militarily in Afghanistan after 9/11 was a major mistake. He thinks we should have relied on the Taliban’s good graces to kick out al-Qaeda, ignoring the fact that we offered them an opportunity to do just that and they passed on it. Atran’s argument is not a serious analysis; it is wishful thinking. To President Obama’s credit, he considered such views during the course of his Afghan policy review—and rejected them.

Anthropologist Scott Atran shows that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Having studied the battle against Islamist extremists in Indonesia, he argues in the New York Times that we should be using similar methods in Afghanistan — namely leaving the battle to local authorities who have a better understanding of local tribal dynamics than we do. I too have visited countries where the locals are doing very well in fighting against guerrillas and terrorists with much less assistance than we have poured into Afghanistan and Iraq; see my reports from the Philippines here and from Colombia here.

But while admiring the efforts of the Filipinos and Colombians — just as I respect the efforts of the Indonesians and others — I am acutely conscious that their example cannot be replicated in Afghanistan, a country whose government disintegrated when our forces entered in 2001. It takes a long time to build up a functioning state, and in the meantime, we have to send our own forces to provide security. A failure to do enough in that regard results in dangerous gains for the enemy, as we saw in Iraq from 2003 to 2007 and in Afghanistan from 2005 to today.

Atran doesn’t seem to realize this. Instead he comforts himself with foolish fairytales about how supposedly benign the Taliban would be if only we left them alone. He adopts the “accidental guerrilla” thesis propounded by Dave Kilcullen, which holds that it is American military action that is driving the Pashtuns into the Taliban’s hands. This flagrantly ignores the historical record which shows that the Taliban were far more powerful back in the 1990s when there was not a single American soldier on the ground in Afghanistan. In those days, too, the Taliban cemented a close alliance with al-Qaeda, which they have never renounced even though it would have been to their advantage to do so. This suggests rather strongly that if we followed Atran’s advice and left Afghanistan to its own devices, it would soon be taken over by jihadists bent on attacking not only Pakistan but also Europe and the United States.

To argue otherwise, Atran engages in ridiculous speculation. He writes:

After 9/11, the Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, assembled a council of clerics to judge his claim that Mr. bin Laden was the country’s guest and could not be surrendered. The clerics countered that because a guest should not cause his host problems, Mr. bin Laden should leave. But instead of keeping pressure on the Taliban to resolve the issue in ways they could live with, the United States ridiculed their deliberation and bombed them into a closer alliance with Al Qaeda. Pakistani Pashtuns then offered to help out their Afghan brethren.

In other words, he believes that our initial decision to intervene militarily in Afghanistan after 9/11 was a major mistake. He thinks we should have relied on the Taliban’s good graces to kick out al-Qaeda, ignoring the fact that we offered them an opportunity to do just that and they passed on it. Atran’s argument is not a serious analysis; it is wishful thinking. To President Obama’s credit, he considered such views during the course of his Afghan policy review—and rejected them.

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