Forever Wars: Afghanistan-Iraq. Part 1: 2001/2004

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Forever Wars Afghanistan-Iraq. Part 1: 2001/2004 FOREVER WARS   1


have the pleasure to welcome you to the third in a series of e-books recovering the Pepe Escobar archives on Asia Times.

The archives track a period of 20 years – starting with the columns and stories published under The Roving Eye sign in the previous Asia Times Online from 2001 all the way to early 2015. The first e-book tracked the interplay between China, Russia and the U.S. between 2017-2020. The second tracked the Islamic Republic of Iran throughout the “axis of evil” era, the Ahmadinejad years, the nuclear deal, and “maximum pressure” imposed by the Trump administration. This one closely tracks the Forever Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, starting one month before 9/11 in the heart of Afghanistan. The unifying idea behind this e-book series is to recover the excitement of what is written as “the first draft of History”.

Cover photo: Mujahideeen facing al-Qaeda at Tora Bora, Afghanistan, December 2001. Photo: Pepe Escobar


Once again, you may read the whole compilation chronologically, as a thriller, following in detail all the plot twists and cliffhangers.

You will find the last interview by commander Masoud before he was killed two days before 9/11; the expansion of jihad as a “thermonuclear bomb”; life in “liberated” Kabul; life in Iraq in the last year under Saddam Hussein; on the trail of al-Qaeda in the Afghan badlands; who brought us the war on Iraq; the Fallujah tragedy; what went wrong – from Kabul to Helmand and from Baghdad to the “triangle of death”; the failed surge in Iraq; the failed surge in Afghanistan; the myth of “Talibanistan”; all the games of Pipelineistan; the – still unanswered – key questions about 9/11; the killings of Osama bin Laden and al-Baghdadi; Afghanistan and Iraq dreaming of the New Silk Roads. The absolute majority of the articles, essays and interviews selected for this e-book were written in Afghanistan and in Iraq and/or before and after multiple visits to both countries. So welcome to a unique geopolitical road trip – depicting in detail the slings and arrows of outrageous (mis)fortune that continue to shape a great deal of the young 21st century. Pepe Escobar, Bangkok, December 2020 FOREVER WARS   3

A screen capture of the FBI’s wanted poster – updated with Osama bin Laden’s “status”.

Get Osama! Now! Or else … Less than two weeks before 9/11, Asia Times revealed the original American plan: to snatch Osama bin Laden inside Afghanistan and “bring him to justice”. The plan was scotched by Pakistani President Musharraf. By PEPE ESCOBAR AUGUST 30, 2001

PESHAWAR, Pakistan – American commandos likely to descend on Pakistan’s tribal areas may not be too keen on acquiring the supreme fashion accessory of 2001 in the region, the Osama bin Laden T-shirt, boasting such inscriptions as “World Hero” and “The Great Mujahid of Jihad.” They’re selling briskly in Peshawar’s Saddar bazaar for less than US$2 a pop. 4   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES


The US special forces guys could also take back home a few examples of Osama rappin’, available on cassette tapes. They could collect Osama mug shots with lovely psychedelic overtones, and even an Osama video – where the No 1 on the FBI’s most wanted list on charges of international terrorism preaches from a mosque and talks to his faithful jihadis in the field. Osama says, “You gotta leave all these places run by ‘allies of Jews and Christians’ and come to me to do the jihad.” He calls for “blood, blood and destruction, destruction” – referring to an array of Muslim victims from Palestine to Chechnya, from Lebanon to Kashmir. Osama bin Laden – also the No 1 target of the CIA’s counter-terrorism center – is now a superstar playing the bad guy in some sort of planetary Hollywood fiction. Yet inside Afghanistan today, where the Saudi Arabian lives in exile, Osama is a minor character. He is ill and always in hiding – usually “somewhere near Kabul.” Once in a while he travels incognito to Peshawar. His organization, the Al Qa’Ida, is split, and in tatters. The Taliban owe him a lot for his past deeds towards the movement and in putting them in power in Afghanistan – contributing with a stack of his own personal fortune of millions of dollars. But no longer an asset, he has become a liability. General President (or vice-versa) Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan is not sleeping very well these days since the full force of the George W administration requested his direct input into a high-tech “Get Osama” operation any time soon. Peshawar is full of rumors concerning an American commando infiltrating Afghanistan from Pakistan, supported by formidable airpower. Call Jerry Bruckheimer! This is the stuff Hollywood is made of – and also the stuff of debacles such as Jimmy Carter’s attempted rescue of US hostages in Iran. Any Mujahid worth his Kalashnikov in Afghanistan these days – up to commander Ahmadshah Masoud himself – is on the record as saying that Cruise missile attacks will cause no damage whatsoever to the already ravaged country. Officially, Musharraf has rejected his support for this 6   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

latest Hollywood ploy, and has been frantically trying to convince the Americans any brutal action against Osama or his so-called “terrorist sanctuaries” will fuel a radical Islamic backlash in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia of “burn, baby, burn” proportions. It doesn’t matter that the strike would have the full approval of the United Nations and the G-8 countries – this would be an added reason for a series of Islamic counter-strikes across the industrialized world. Under an army of spinners, this nifty “George W does Rambo” number will be played to the galleries as one of the latest American foreign policy initiatives concerning Afghanistan. It’s no secret America wants even more sanctions against the Taliban – and maybe against Pakistan. But as many people either in the Pashto belt on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border or in the Tajik-speaking areas have been saying out loud for months, there is no Western policy concerning Afghanistan – except the UN sanctions, which among others, call on the Taliban to hand over bin Laden. The UN has now posted more than 20 monitors in countries bordering Afghanistan – part of a sanctions enforcement support team – to ensure full implementation. This means, in practice, a lot of electronic surveillance on the very porous 1,200 kilometer Pakistan-Afghanistan border, and a lot of “counter-terrorism tactics.” An array of hardcore Islamic parties in Pakistan have already announced that they will make the life of the “Team” as miserable as possible.

and also all the accounts held by jihadi outfits inside Pakistan. Pakistani government officials, though, remain afraid. They know that even a semblance of minimal cooperation with the “Get Osama” scheme will be devastating for the Musharraf government. They know that since 1996 the Taliban have become masters at using any kind of conflict inside the Pakistani establishment to their full advantage. They always extract maximum benefit from Pakistan without any political concessions. The Taliban are closely intertwined with Pakistani society. Their ultra-conservative – and for the West, demented form of Islam – is widely admired by a young generation of Pakistani madrassas (fundamentalist religious school) students. All it takes to understand the process is a visit to one of the thousands of madrassas in the tribal areas where Osama is the “World Hero of jihad.” It is quite clear that one way or another the jihad T-shirt vendors in the Peshawar bazaars will keep on rollin’ – with or without customers from the land of George W.

Most of all, Musharraf cannot sleep well because one thing he doesn’t need in Pakistan right now is more trouble from Islamic hardliners. What he needs is a lot of cash from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank to keep the economy afloat. If he says yes to the Americans, all hell will break loose concerning the radicals, but he will certainly bag a crucial US$3.5 billion Poverty Reduction Growth Fund from the IMF, as well as other loans from Western nations. There are some signs that the Musharraf administration is at least doing something to restrain the hardliners. It has frozen all the accounts of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan held with the State Bank of Pakistan, FOREVER WARS   7

Masoud just after our interview. Photo: Jason Florio

Masoud: From warrior to statesman The Lion of the Panjshir’s next to last interview, granted only two weeks before he was assassinated on the eve of 9/11 By PEPE ESCOBAR SEPTEMBER 12, 2001

THE PANJSHIR VALLEY, Afghanistan – For millions all over a digital world desperate for a bit of romance, he is as iconic as Che Guevara: the romantic ideal of the intellectual warrior. He looks like a beat generation poet – with his trademark felt Chitral hat from the Pakistan region of the Hind Kush always cocked to the side, and a 8   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES


Sartrean existential twinkle in his eyes. He wanted to be an architect when, as a youth, he was studying at the French Lycee in Kabul. Instead, he was to spend half his life as Afghanistan’s Master of Guerrilla Warfare.

departed to inspect one of the frontlines. A dedicated Francophile, he understands French well, but does not speak the language, out of shyness: the conversations are always in Dari, a Persian language.

He started waging war with just 20 men, 10 Kalashnikovs, one machine-gun and two rocket launchers. The intellectual arsenal was certainly deadlier: Mao, Che, Ho Chi Minh, revolutionary tactics adapted to the Afghan mind to rouse rural peasants. In more than two decades he defeated an Afghan dictator (Muhamad Daoud) and then the mighty Red Army of the Soviet Union. For someone who escaped countless total encirclement situations by ultra-hardcore Soviet generals, fighting the black hordes of the almost Monty Pythonish Taliban could even be labeled a joke.

Whenever he is not commuting in his military helicopter number 570 between the Panjshir, the various frontlines, and the Tajik capital Dushanbe, he may take some time off to swim in his pool with his five children, or to read in his fabulous library which contains more than 3,000 volumes – including some that are centuries old.

Ahmad Shah Masoud is as modern as one can be in a legendary crossroads of empires such as Afghanistan. His Islam is as soft as a Panjshir peach – bearing not even a remote comparison with the demented Taliban version. According to Afghan astrologers, Masoud will live another 40 years – he is 48. This should be enough time for him to liberate Afghanistan, put the house in order, and die in peace. It is a mythology as uplifting as the Shangri-La landscape of the Panjshir Valley in the north of the country which is his home. Masoud sleeps less than four hours a day. Officially, he is the vice president of the Islamic State of Afghanistan – a government that despite controlling only 10 percent of Afghanistan is recognized by the United Nations and the international community as the legitimate. The Taliban control the non-recognized Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.

Madame Masoud – also a Panjshiri – is proud to open her closet to reveal she does not wear a chadri, the Afghan dress that completely veils a woman’s body and which is obligatory attire in Taliban-controlled parts of the country. All over the Panjshir, Masoud is revered as a feudal lord – almost as a king. He appears to have learned much from his major setback, between 1992 and 1996, when he controlled Kabul after the Soviet withdrawal, but could not effect the transition from strategist to statesman. Nowadays, he is midway through the complex process. War is not his only strategy: he is actually creating a state from scratch – with key ministries such as foreign affairs, defense and education. Nevertheless, everything is still subordinated to the war effort. He has only 10 military helicopters and no jets – compared to the Taliban, who now may have no more than three jets from an original total of 10 old MiGs and Sukhois.

It is Masoud though, who has the final word on practically everything regarding the Panjshir Valley and the war effort. Through a bunch of satellite phones and walkie-talkies he coordinates a war financed mostly through revenue from emerald and lapis lazuli mining.

Masoud wants to establish a regular state army trained by experienced Mujaheddin (fighters), stationed in a base in Khwaja Bahaouddin, a desert wasteland near excavations of Greek ruins, the Amu Darya River and the Tajik border. This army will have between 10,000 and 14,000 fighters. The Taliban militia is believed to number about 45,000 – but most have minimal training.

In the morning immediately after our interview, Masoud received two commanders from torrid Shamali plains in the central region of the country to discuss war strategies, attended Friday prayers at the Bazarak mosque, signed a mountain of executive orders, and

Masoud’s military mantra in 2001 is “active defense”: opening many fronts simultaneously, a strategy that is driving the Taliban crazy. One of the most brilliant among his young commanders has been capable not only of resisting the Taliban, but is about to unleash


An Afghan guard of honour places a wreath in memory of slain Afghan national hero Ahmad Shah Massoud during a ceremony marking the twelfth anniversary of his death in Kabul on September 9, 2013. Photo: Shah Marai / AFP

an offensive to recapture the key city of Taloqan in the northern province of Takhar. Masoud smiles when asked about the possibility of legendary commander Ismail Khan reconquering the Persianized Herat in western Afghanistan – a key source of revenue for the Taliban by way of taxes. “I’m not saying we’re going to take it back today or tomorrow, but he’s going further step by step.”

“Most of the people with economic problems living in Afghanistan are non-Pashtuns, especially in Kabul. [Pashtuns, or Pathans, are the dominant ethnic and linguistic community in the country.] The Taliban are trying to intensify these problems so these people leave Afghanistan for Pakistan. Half of the financial budget of Osama bin Laden’s organization is spent on buying the houses of people who are not Pashtun.”

Masoud is closely monitoring the arrest and trial in Kabul of several foreign non-government organization workers from Shelter Now International, accused of attempting to convert Afghans to Christianity. He explains the big picture. “The Taliban have a special program to expel foreigners. They need excuses for it, and to fill their places with Arabs and Pakistanis. There is an organization named Al Rashid which has promised the Taliban it will help accomplish this task. In the next weeks and months there will be more and more episodes like this. And behind all this there is a tribal problem.

Masoud does not believe there will be a dramatic American attempt to capture bin Laden inside Afghanistan, as has been widely rumored in Pakistan. The exiled Saudi Arabian is wanted on charges of international terrorism by the United States. “There will be negotiations between the Taliban and the American government, but no action.” Masoud is keen to emphasize that “Cruise missiles don’t have any effect in Afghanistan. Thousands of Scuds were fired inside Afghanistan during Najibullah’s FOREVER WARS   11

regime [1986-1992]. Around 14 or 15 Scuds were fired into the Panjshir. Actually we don’t know where they landed, and what effect they had.” Masoud’s forces still have around 20 Scuds stationed in the Panjshir. Masoud believes that the UN economic sanctions against the Taliban “are a very positive step.” The UN sanctions include a travel ban on senior Taliban officials, an arms embargo which has not yet been monitored, and a ban on international flights. “They’re saying these sanctions are against the Afghan people, but that is not true. We want these sanctions enforced.” He emphasizes “there is no military solution” to the Afghan crisis. “But to make the Taliban ready for negotiation – because they are not ready right now – there are two points to be considered: the resistance inside Afghanistan, and the international pressure against Pakistan. The resistance inside Afghanistan is getting stronger day by day, especially this year. And if the government of Pakistan stops interfering in the Afghan issue, I’m sure there will be no Taliban in five or six months.” He acknowledges, though, that the Taliban are an ultra-hard nut to crack: “We have had negotiations with the Taliban in the past, especially the one in the presence of the UN in Ishq Abad two years ago. We had some agreements, but when their delegation went back to Kandahar, everything was refused.” Tribalism is rampant, but Masoud refuses the notion that all of the troubles in Afghanistan are tribal-related. “For example, (exiled king) Zahir Shah is Pashtun, and he cannot live under the Taliban. In the same breath, we have some Tajiks who cannot live with us. The tribal problems that exist now are intensified by Pakistan.” So it’s inevitable that Masoud does not trust Pakistan’s President General Musharraf, who is trying hard to project a moderate image despite assuming power in a bloodless coup. “He is following the same line of his military, from General Zia [ul Haq] to now.” Masoud is in close contact and receives a lot of help from his former foes, the Russians. But when asked about the human rights abuses of the Russian army 12   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

against the civilian population of Chechnya, he declines a direct answer. “It is a conflict that should be solved by diplomatic means.” The same applies to the independent Chechen president, the moderate Aslan Maskhadov, elected in 1997. Masoud says, “nobody recognizes him for the moment, not even the UN. When the UN does, I’ll state my position.” Independent European sources confirm that Masoud is definitely pro-Chechnya. But of course he cannot afford to publicly antagonize Moscow. Even in Masoud’s tolerant brand of Islam some things are forbidden. Cigarettes, for instance. Two of Masoud’s bodyguards recently assembled all the cigarette packs confiscated in Panjshiri bazaars and set fire to them in the middle of a busy road. The commander explains, “cigarettes have been banned since the beginning of the resistance against the Russians – for economic reasons. People smoke too much. The region spends too much money on cigarettes, and they don’t eat as much as they should.” Nobody actually respects the ban – decided by a council of elders: people continue to puff away by driving south to the Shamali plains, north of Kabul, where the ban does not apply. The most striking contrast between Masoud’s Islam and the Taliban’s ultra-hardcore version regards the situation of women. For Masoud, on paper, women could even compete in free elections. He asked a recent visitor for a copy of the Swiss constitution: for him, this is a typical example of democracy that could work in Afghanistan, with different ethnic groups and different languages. According to Masoud, officially there are no Mujaheddin women. Actually there is one – an already famous commander in Takhar province, but she is not regarded as a Mujaheddin. Masoud insists, though, that all the women in the Panjshir are combat-ready – and this is normal in a war situation. “They all know how to operate a weapon. Not to make war, but to defend themselves in case the Taliban attack.” There is a Kalashnikov in every home, but informally it was possible to ascertain that most women in the Panjshir don’t know how to fire a gun.

Masoud is adamant that in Afghanistan women have suffered oppression for generations. He says that “the cultural environment of the country suffocates women. But the Taliban exacerbate this with oppression.” His most ambitious project is to shatter this cultural prejudice and so give more space, freedom and equality to women – they would have the same rights as men. This means giving Afghan women the chance to study. Masoud even wants to build a university in the Panjshir Valley – besides developing more schools for women. “But these are things that I can do only step by step.” For him, “women themselves also have to follow an evolution, and this could take one generation, maybe two.” As far as the university project is concerned, it is essential because under the Taliban reign of cultural terror people cannot go to the capital Kabul anymore to study, they are forced to go to the northern town of Faizabad, or to Pakistan, Iran or New Delhi – if they have a lot of money. Most, including the most able, don’t come back. For Masoud, unlike the Taliban, equality between men and women is totally logical. In Afghan practice, it is another matter. Masoud develops a political discourse that does not correspond to the reality on the ground. His eagerness for more opening contrasts with a 95 percent illiteracy rate among women across the country. Many are still enveloped in the chadri because the culture is like that. Masoud recognizes the hurdles: “I don’t have the power to change Afghan culture.” It is important to note that for his democratic plans, Masoud refers to the Panjshir Valley, a much less conservative area than, for instance, Faizabad in Badakhshan province, where Burhanuddin Rabbani, the titular head of the Islamic State, lives. Rabbani himself is very conservative about women. There are only two high schools for girls in the Panjshir, compared to about 10 for boys. Basically, there is no money available for education, but the priority is to educate the boys first. Masoud again recognizes he can’t go against this cultural tendency. His obsessive dream, though, is more democracy for more of Afghanistan. In the unlikely event of a referen-

dum in the near future, Masoud says that “depending on the time of the election, most of the population of Afghanistan would vote for a national political party that could have the power to reconstruct the country.” For him, “the future has to be solved through only one way: democracy.” And in a unified country. “I’m not interested in a partition of Afghanistan. We have our country and we respect its integrity.” This could only happen, of course, if he is capable of reconquering Afghanistan. “I’m not waging war against the Taliban. I’m at war with Pakistan.” Masoud is certain that “forty percent of the people in the frontlines are not Afghans, they are foreigners – mostly Pakistani military, Taliban-educated in Pakistani madrassas, [fundamentalist religious schools] and Saudis faithful to Osama bin Laden. These people can come from all over – since Osama has issued a worldwide appeal for ‘good Muslims’ to come to Afghanistan to engage in a jihad [holy war].” So, along with Russians, Americans, Chinese and everybody else, Masoud is also clearly worried about the possible Talibanization of Central Asia. Masoud has spent most of his life at the frontlines. Today he is regarded world-wide as the only credible savior of Afghanistan. But he knows he is no solitary Messiah. “It’s not only me resisting the Taliban. This involves people from all over Afghanistan. Their numbers grow larger and larger every day. As you can see in the IDP [internally displaced persons] camps and with other refugees in the Panjshir. They don’t have enough food and clothes. But even with these problems they do not want to live under the Taliban, they prefer to stay here [in the Panjshir Valley]. I’m completely sure our resistance will be successful one day, Inch’ Allah [By the grace of God]. This country will go toward peace.” And when it does, Masoud’s vision for the future couldn’t be more straightforward. “To be honest, I would spend the rest of my life reconstructing my country.” This way, and only this way, the warrior turned statesman can die in peace – as the Afghan seers read it in the stars. FOREVER WARS   13

The student leader of Pakistan’s main fundamintalist party, Jamaat-i-Islami, holds a copy of the koran and a sword as he takes an oath of jihad during an anti-US rally in Islamabad in 2001. Photo: AFP

Jihad: ‘The ultimate thermonuclear bomb’ A Pakistani scholar deconstructs everything “infidels” need to know about jihad By PEPE ESCOBAR OCTOBER 10, 2001

ISLAMABAD – Arif Jamal, born in Lahore into a traditional Punjabi family, is arguably the leading Asian expert on jihad. He was educated in Pakistan, France and the US. He is married and lives in Islamabad, where he works as a consultant for leading media organizations in Europe and in Pakistan. Although he describes himself as a journalist, he is also a scholar. For the past three years Arif Jamal has been engaged in monumental research that will yield at least four books – all of them related to jihad. 14   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES


“Jihad” is now the supreme mantra in Pakistan’s tribal areas after the beginning of American strikes on Afghanistan. Jamal is fond of remembering a certain scene at the White House in the mid-’80s, when Ronald Reagan – with his unflinching Californian eye for drama – was receiving a bunch of bearded and rugged frontier characters in the Oval Office: they were the Afghan mujahideen fighting the mighty Red Army of the “Evil Empire,” the Soviet Union. Reagan on that occasion proclaimed the mujahideen “the moral equivalent of the Founding Fathers.” Among these mujahideen a place could easily be found for a certain Arab millionaire named Osama bin Laden. Today Osama bin Laden – formerly the “moral equivalent” of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson – on the receiving end of America’s fury. History can be very fond of symmetries. In the ’80s, the Afghans were fighting a jihad against an Evil Empire, financed in part by America’s CIA. At the beginning of the 21st century, Afghans are about to engage in a jihad against America itself. As Jamal puts it: “Now it’s time for America to pay the price for the jihad in Afghanistan.” Asia Times Online: What is the true meaning of jihad? Jamal: Jihad literally means “holy struggle.” But in common parlance, when people use the word jihad, it means jihad in the way of Allah – or “the holy war.” Prophet Muhamad stressed a lot the concept of jihad all his life. And he fought jihad more than 20 times in his own life. The real objective of jihad in the life of Prophet Muhamad was to defeat the infidels and establish an Islamic state in Mecca, Medina and the Arabian island later on. This essential meaning of jihad remains even today. The main objective of jihad even today is to defeat the infidels and establish Islamic states all over the world. Muslims believe that the Earth belongs to Allah and they should establish the system of Allah on Allah’s Earth. The infidel system must go. ATol: What are the rewards of waging jihad? 16   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

Jamal: Prophet Muhamad also offered a lot of incentives for those who would wage jihad in their lives. The mujahideen were assured of entering Paradise before the first drop of their blood fell to earth. The Holy Scriptures of Islam also say that houris [beautiful virgins of the Koranic Paradise] come down to Earth to take the spirit of the mujahid who is about to die before the first drop of his blood falls to earth. The martyrs are promised 72 hours in Paradise. These hours are more beautiful than all the beauties of the world combined. I have studied more than 600 wills of Pakistani mujahideen who were fighting in Kashmir. There is hardly any will that escapes this concept. All the mujahideen have mentioned the houris as an important incentive for waging jihad. The Paradise with hours is the prime objective of these mujahideen. ATol: What is the Koranic view of “infidels” – especially Christians and Jews? Jamal: In the beginning Prophet Muhamad did try to evolve alliances with Jews of the Arabian island against the nonbelievers. But they did not prove long-lasting. And ultimately the Jews, Christians and nonbelievers were bracketed in the same fashion by the Prophet. Prophet Muhamad wanted to establish an Islamic State in the Arabian island. It was not possible by evolving alliances with non-Muslims in those days. The Holy Koran is very clear about Jews and Christians; it very clearly says in several places that Jews and Christians cannot be friends with Muslims. The mujahideen today are propagating this concept from every available pulpit. Prophet Muhamad also asked to throw Christians and Jews out of the Arabian island. And this is the foundation of the concept of jihad of Osama bin Laden. Osama’s contention is that it is un-Islamic to have the Christian and Jewish army of the United States of America in the Arabian island. He wants them out. Many of his close associates say that if the American troops leave Saudi Arabia, Osama bin Laden can be convinced to appear before an Islamic court of law. This shows that his jihad is based on the sayings of Prophet Muhamad. A big problem is that jihad has

intensified the hatred between Muslims and Christians and Jews. ATol: Could we say that Osama’s jihad is a misinterpretation of jihad according to Prophet Muhamad? Jamal: I don’t think it is a misinterpretation of the Islamic concept of jihad. It may be a narrow interpretation of the concept. ATol: So Osama’s jihad in thesis only applies to Saudi Arabia, it would not apply to Palestine and Israel. Jamal: Basically, the important thing is the presence of Christians and Jews of the American army on Saudi soil. But with the passage of time his jihad has also assumed many other aspects. It has come to be a jihad to liberate the whole world from the infidels, and establish an Islamic system all over the world. The practical problem is once you start jihad or guerrilla warfare you cannot come back to normal life. Your interest lies in the continuation of jihad. ATol: Do great Islamic religious authorities like grand muftis, for instance, agree with the concept of a global jihad? Jamal: I think no Muslim on Earth would disagree with the concept of jihad, because if they did they would become infidels. Most Muslims don’t take part in practical jihad. Even moderate Muslims would not disagree with the concept of jihad. They may disagree with the attacks on the World Trade Center, but they do not disagree with the concept of jihad as such. Most would certainly like to see the establishment of an Islamic state all over the world. Most Sunni Muslims condemned the Iranian revolution which established a Shia Islamic state. This is a sectarian problem. Shias believe they waged a real Islamic revolution, and Iran is the only Islamic state at the moment. Sunnis don’t believe so. The Wahhabis, for example, believe that Saudi Arabia is the only Islamic state in the world. As I said, Islam is a very sectarian religion. Different sects

interpret different concepts according to their own wishes. ATol: The concept of jihad itself was elaborated in seventh century Arabia. In your opinion, what is the relevance of such a concept to the 21st century? Jamal: Jihad as we know it now started only after the CIA and ISI [Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence agency] started jihad in Afghanistan. Before that, jihad was a dormant concept, and Muslims were waging mostly nationalistic struggles. In the last two decades, jihad has come to mean “armed struggle.” After the collapse of the Soviet Union and its Eastern European empire, jihad has been adopted by the have-nots in Muslim countries. And these have-nots are waging a sort of class struggle against the Western haves. Jihad has become a thermonuclear bomb in the hands of the have-nots in Muslim states. So if Marx were alive today he would say that the new class struggle is the Islamic have-nots against the Western haves Sum Probably Marx would not agree with this because he was in favor of a class struggle without the involvement of religion Sum But this is one form of class war, yes. ATol: Who is entitled to start and wage a jihad? Do you need special qualifications for it? Jamal: According to the Holy Scriptures, it is the Commander of the Faithful – the Amir-ul-Momineen – who is entitled to declare jihad. But in the absence of a commander-in-chief, any Muslim can wage jihad. The Holy Scriptures say that jihad will continue till the Day of Judgement. This means that the mujahideen will not revert to ordinary life. You cannot simply abandon jihad. Once you get training to wage jihad, and you wage jihad, you only change locations, but you have to continue the struggle. That is why the mujahideen from Afghanistan were directed to Kashmir. ATol: So how do you internalize jihad? Apparently FOREVER WARS   17

once you start waging jihad, your whole world-view is subordinated to jihad. Everything else is not important. Even if you have to kill innocent people, this is subordinated to the higher purpose of jihad. Jamal: The end justifies the means. When you start jihad, it starts dominating you, because it gives you power over the rest of the world. All other things become subordinated to jihad. Even the concept of Islam boils down to jihad for the mujahideen. All other Islamic concepts – even when they are important – they become subordinated to jihad. Jihad becomes the ultimate end even for the Islamic belief system. These mujahideen ignore many, many important Islamic concepts. For example, Prophet Muhamad said that marriage is important for Muslims. It is “half of your belief,” according to Him. But when I read the wills of mujahideen, I find they refuse to get married because they want to get married in Paradise. ATol: So most mujahideen are single. Jamal: Yes, most mujahideen prefer to get married in Paradise. Apart from jihad, they do practice namaz (the ritual of five prayers a day) regularly, they very regularly fast, but they ignore other concepts of Islam. They say jihad is the summit of Islam. So if you have found the summit, you have found the whole thing. This is what they are taught. They believe jihad will bring them honor in the world, they will become powerful. The heroes of the mujahideen have always been generals. No Muslim scientist, or intellectual, or artist has ever become a hero. It’s a military tradition that dominates the mujahideen. ATol: Some influential Muslim scholars say that the great problem with Islam is that unlike Christianity, it did not go through a Renaissance and a Reformation. Jamal: Something to this effect has been said by the Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi. Regarding your question, I think this is an influence of Christian scholars on Muslim scholars. I think the West devel18   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

oped only after it abandoned Christianity and adopted science. It did not develop because it had Renaissance and Reformation. They developed only after they abandoned Jewish and Christian dogmas and adopted science as a way of life. I think this is the only solution for Muslim societies as well. Unless they adopt science and technology, they will not be able to fight the West. ATol: How many different faces may jihad adopt? Jamal: Jihad can take many forms. The concept of many Pakistani organizations of mujahideen is the liberation of Kashmir from Hindu domination. Many of them say that if India quits Kashmir they will stop jihad. ATol: Could we make a comparison with the jihad in Afghanistan in the ’80s? Many might have said that after the Soviets were expelled, they would quit jihad; instead they started fighting with each other. Jamal: Certainly this will happen in Kashmir as well if India quits, because Islam is very sectarian in the Indian subcontinent. All the jihadi and Islamist parties in the subcontinent are based on sects. They cooperate with one another for the sake of convenience. But essentially they do not consider other sects as the “right” sects. ATol: How do you describe the current jihad against Shias inside Afghanistan itself? Jamal: When the CIA started jihad in Afghanistan, Shias in Afghanistan also participated in the struggle against the Soviets. But later the anti-Shia forces took over jihad – and the jihad started eating its own children. The Shias in Afghanistan are mostly concentrated in the Hazarajat region. They are also slightly spread out in the west. This phenomenon has international aspects as well. One reason is the Saudi influence on the Afghan jihad. You remember the Saudis were matching America dollar for dollar. And Saudis had a

lot of influence over the mujahideen in Afghanistan. This influence was one of the important factors which turned the mujahideen and the Taliban against the Shias in Afghanistan. The second reason is related to internal Pakistani politics. In Pakistan, Zia-ul-Haq was seeking a support base among the Sunnis of this country. And he strengthened a lot of Sunni organizations and parties, a lot of them Deobandi – which eventually turned against the Shias because they were also receiving money from the Saudis and other Middle Eastern shaykhdom (kingdoms). Since the Middle Eastern monarchs were against Iran, these parties also turned against Shia in Pakistan. The Afghan factor multiplied the tension between Pakistani Shias and the Deobandi organizations. ATol: Why are the Taliban so fiercely anti-Shia? Jamal: Shias have always been part of Muslim societies. They are a significant part of most Islamic countries in the world. Normally Shias are associated with Iran only, but there are many other countries with a sizable Shia majority, like Syria or Iraq. In Pakistan, 10 percent of the population is Shia. But in Afghanistan, when the Taliban came to power, they represented a certain Islamic sect – the Deobandis. And Deobandi is the most aggressively and ferociously anti-Shia sect. This hatred is rooted in history and politics. In 18th century Lucknow (in India), the rulers , the Muslim rajahs, were Shias, whereas the populaton was Sunni. When the Deoband movement emerged, they used the class hatred of common people in Lucknow and the environs against the Shia rulers. From that point in history, the tension between the Deoband movement and Shias started rising. But it never took a bloody shape until the military regime of Zia had to depend on the Deobandi organizations and parties in Pakistan to prop up and support his government. ATol: Can you mention some examples of Deobandi parties and organizations? Which ones are considered terrorist organizations?

Jamal: The important Deobandi political parties are the three factions of the JUI (Jamiat Ulema Islam) – directed by Fazlur Rahman, Samiul Haq and Maulana Ajmal Qadri. The other national parties are Sipah-I-Sahaba Pakistan (“The Soldiers of the Companions of Prophet Muhamad”), and there are also four Deobandi organizations involved in the jihad in Kashmir. One is Harakat-ul-Mujahideen – which has been designated a terrorist organization by the US. The others are Harkatul-Jihad-al-Islami, Jaish Muhamad and Jamiat-ul-Mujahideen. The Taliban, of course, are also Deobandis. ATol: Is there any substantial difference between Deoband practiced by the Taliban and Deoband practiced by these religious parties in Pakistan? Jamal: There’s very little difference. In Pakistan they cannot practice their version of Islam the way the Taliban can in Afghanistan. Given freedom in Pakistan, they would behave in the same way as the Taliban do. And this is exactly what they are striving for. And their influence is of course increasing day by day. ATol: In terms of percentage, how big are they? Jamal: It’s very difficult to estimate. It’s an important minority, maybe around 10 percent, spread all over the country. Once again, it’s important to say that Islam in the subcontinent is very sectarian. The Islamic sects in the subcontinent are as well defined as the castes are defined for Hindus. All the sects hate one another. Deobands believe that Shias are not Muslims. This has come to be their fundamental principle. The Brelevis – which are the largest sect in Pakistan and India – believe Deobandis are not Muslims. Brelevis also believe that Wahhabis are not Muslims. It’s a war of all sects against all sects. They could unite sometimes against a bigger enemy – like the United States. But given a relaxed atmosphere, they are at each other’s throats. ATol: Could we talk about different manifestations of FOREVER WARS   19

jihad – in Palestine, Kashmir, Chechnya, maybe Southeast Asia?

ATol: Is there a Javanese connection to the jihad, or maybe from Aceh?

Jamal: I believe jihad has been spreading since the Afghan jihad started. Before that, the nationalist struggles were mere nationalist struggles even when Muslims were involved. In the case of Palestine, it was not jihad unless the jihad in Afghanistan started in 1980. In the last two decades, jihad has been spreading because the Muslims have found a very lethal way of combating their enemies – and expressing themselves – thanks to the CIA. The reasons and the causes of the spread of jihad are certainly valid – but it is an irrational way of reacting to those real problems in life. Hamas did not come into being in the early days of the Palestinian struggle. It was only after the Palestinians learned armed jihad in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In the Philippines, the Abu Sayyaf group is very much linked with organizations in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In Chechnya as well, the Saudis are very much involved – through Wahhabi organizations in Pakistan. There is an international network of jihadi movements which has come into being. All these organizations all over the world are becoming closer and closer linked to one another. They give all kinds of assistance to other jihadi organizations, and civil society is unable to resist them. Most of these jihadi movements are one way or another linked to jihadi movements in Pakistan and Afghanistan. And both countries have become a source of training, arms and ammunition to these organizations. There is a respite sometimes, because of some government policies, but once these policies go away the jihadis re-emerge. One of the latest examples is in Burma. The jihad in Burma subsided when there was an arms embargo by the Huseena Wajid government in Bangladesh, and the price of a Kalashnikov went up three times – but now the jihadis can again support the Burmese mujahideen against the Buddhist government of Burma. These mujahideen are concentrated in the Burmese province of Arakan. A sizable number of Burmese fighters came to Pakistan; here they collect donations, and get religious military training.

Jamal: I haven’t come across any visible link between Pakistani and Afghani jihad organizations and Indonesian or Malaysian mujahideen. But some Indonesian and Malaysian mujahideen got training in Pakistan and Afghanistan. There are no significant organizational ties – as yet.


ATol: Could we explain the attacks on America as organized by a coalition of jihadi organizations – with no Super-Brain giving the executive orders? Jamal: Yes, in the sense that there are mujahideen from many countries involved in this operation. But we have to wait for the details. It is certainly not the handiwork of one organization, one group or one individual. If Osama and the Al-Qaeda are involved, they are not alone. It was certainly a collective effort. ATol: Let’s talk about the training of a jihadi. How do you form a jihadi? What do they learn in those training camps? Jamal: In 1980, when the CIA and ISI started jihad in Afghanistan, they concentrated on training the Afghans in the art of guerrilla warfare. There was very little religious indoctrination. According to a former ISI officer, they trained something like 80,000 Afghans in the art of guerrilla warfare during the ’80s. But after some time they found out that military training was not enough. So the CIA and the ISI – with the help of Saudi money – started establishing madrassas (Koranic schools) all over the country, for Afghans and Pakistanis, and certainly along the Pakistan-Afghan border. These madrassas produced hardened Islamist guerrillas. The early fighters were freedom fighters. But they were slowly replaced by the Islamist guerrillas. And that is why when the mujahideen came to power in Afghanistan after the overthrow of Dr Najibullah’s government in 1992, they could not sustain power. The students from these madrassas took over the government in the

name of the Taliban Islamic movement. ATol: So they were the second generation of jihadis. Jamal: Yes – and these madrassa-trained students were the best jihadis. The CIA and the ISI set up many training camps inside Afghanistan and in the Northwest Frontier Province of Pakistan. When the jihad in Afghanistan came to an end, these guerrillas needed employment somewhere. And luckily for them, the Kashmir front was opened. So most of them were diverted to Kashmir. Kashmir was a nationalist cause for Pakistan. And Pakistanis responded to it very liberally – unlike in Afghanistan, where the cause was not a Pakistani cause. Kashmir was a Pakistani cause. So they set up scores of training camps. My own calculations show there are somewhere near half a million military-trained Islamist guerrillas in this country. ATol: How many of these are operating right now in Kashmir? Jamal: At any one time, there are between 3,000-4,000 Islamist guerrillas inside Indian-controlled Kashmir. These guerrillas are full-time guerrillas. Military training is only a part of their syllabus. Most of the time they learn about the holy scriptures of Islam and the rituals of Islam. The stress in the training camps is on religious training rather than military training. Once you train somebody to give his life in the way of Allah, it compensates for lack of training. This is why 3,000-4,000 guerrillas are holding more than half a million Indian troops in Kashmir. And the Indian army does not seem to be winning. If they were only mercenaries fighting for money, they would not have done so well. It’s their Islamist belief, it’s their desire to establish the sovereignty of Allah all over the world which keeps them going. ATol: So they don’t study anything else apart from the Koran – no history of the subcontinent, no math, no languages?

Jamal: Certainly not. They read the Holy Koran and other religious texts like the sayings of the Holy Prophet. These organizations also produce a lot of literature of their own. They are encouraged to read that literature as well. Once the students finish their training they come back to society and start proselytizing. They don’t sit back at home. So half a million guerrillas in Pakistan are very much active in imparting to others the Islamist solution to their problems. ATol: What does the military training consist of? And who are the instructors? Jamal: Most of the instructors are Pakistanis. There are some Muslim deserters from the Indian army as well. The concept is not to wage jihad only. The important thing is to get prepared to fight jihad if one has to. That is why all the trained mujahideen do not go to Kashmir or elsewhere. They get training because the Koran orders Muslims to remain always prepared to fight against the infidels. They usually follow a basic military course of 21 days – to get minimum training in Kalashnikov-handling, hand grenades, ambushing. You come back to get advanced training only when you are planning to practically wage jihad. Even those who have minimum guerrilla training are better fighters than the Pakistani policemen. And the advanced guerrillas are certainly better than most conventional armies. The proof is what is going on in Indian-held Kashmir. ATol: Have you had any reports of a massive transfer of jihadis from Kashmir to wage jihad against America in Afghanistan? Jamal: No, there is no mass transfer to Afghanistan. There are only four organizations who are engaged both in Kashmir and Afghanistan. But they have different agendas for Kashmir and Afghanistan. Those who fight in Kashmir are not necessarily involved in Afghanistan, and vice-versa. In Kashmir the fighters are mostly Punjabis – and Punjabis have proved themselves to be very good guerrilla fighters. In Afghanistan they FOREVER WARS   21

need Pashtun fighters, because the Pashtuns do not like guerrilla warfare. They feel they are being cowards, because they attack the enemy from behind. They have the tradition of coming out in the open and fighting the enemy. Most of the Pashtun fighters in Kashmir failed and died: they could not match the Indian army because they came into the open. Only Deobandi organizations are involved both in Kashmir and Afghanistan. The Taliban expelled all other jihadi organizations from Afghanistan when they came into power – because they consider only Deobandis as good Muslims. ATol: What is the future direction of jihad? Jamal: Jihad has tremendously affected Pakistani society. With increasing poverty, most people have very little to do with their lives. In this uneducated society, they have found a solution – an irrational solution – to their problems. They don’t want to labor to find better solutions. They think if they wage jihad all their problems will be solved. It is very interesting: all their problems are worldly, and the solution is spiritual. But when they join jihad, they forget about their worldly problems. The Kalashnikov in their hands gives them respect, power and raison d’etre. Somebody who has nothing in life and nothing to lose, who has been for many years idling away his time in the streets of a Pakistani village, suddenly finds a cause to live for in a jihadi camp. And that gives him not only spiritual power but also practical power over one of the biggest armies in the world. He is almost intoxicated with that power. And he will do everything to retain that power. These guerrillas very often praise themselves for winning against the

Soviet Union – a former superpower. They have turned the Indian army – a big conventional army – into a wreck. And they believe they can defeat the sole superpower today – the United States. And they believe they are the intermediaries who can establish the rule of Allah on Allah’s Earth.

A Taliban fighter sits in front of a house destroyed by a US air strike near Jalalabad in October of 2001. Photo: AFP

ATol: Assuming the scenario of the fall of the Taliban government – which is now the supreme desire of the “fantastic coalition,” as George W. Bush put it, do you think jihad will be waged against the government inside Pakistan? Jamal: In Afghanistan there is no viable alternative for the Taliban at the moment. The Afghan king, Zahir Shah, has been away from the country for more than 25 years now. He doesn’t know anything about today’s Afghanistan. He ruled Afghanistan in different times. The Northern Alliance is itself divided. It can speak for small minorities such as the Uzbeks, Tajiks, and Shias – but they cannot provide strong government in Afghanistan. The removal of Taliban will create a vacuum, which will ultimately lead to further bloodshed. In Pakistan, where the state is stronger, there is every possibility of bloodshed, but not on the same scale, at least in the beginning. The Pakistani jihadi organizations have an enemy before them: the United States and their collaborators in Pakistan. Ultimately Pakistani jihadi and Islamist organizations won’t agree to form a government because they hate one another more than they hate the biggest enemy – the United States. So there is more of a possibility of an eternal clash among the jihadi and Islamist parties than jihadis against the Pakistani government.

A glimpse into the Taliban mind Trying to decipher a riddle by talking to the Afghan vice-consul in Peshawar By PEPE ESCOBAR OCTOBER 30, 2001

PESHAWAR – Ahmad Faiz, a soft-spoken young man, is the Afghan vice-consul and official spokesman in Peshawar. In this capacity he is one of the few Taliban diplomats – or Taliban, for that matter – with a window to the outside world: the Taliban, the most isolated regime on the planet, are left nowadays with just an embassy in Islamabad, and two consulates – in Peshawar and Karachi. It was Faiz who revealed to Asia Times Online early last Friday that commander Abdul Haq had been captured by the Taliban (although



at the time he did not know that Haq would be executed). Faiz is not exactly keen on disclosing a lot of information: he says he is “from Afghanistan” – but as he speaks Dari, not Pashto, it is fair to assume he may be from Kabul. He says he “studied in Afghanistan” – which means he does not hail from the network of Pakistani madrassas which contributed most of the Taliban leadership. Faiz comes across not as a hardliner, but not as a “moderate” Taliban either: the Taliban themselves have been trying hard to demonstrate to the world lately that a moderate Taliban is a dead Taliban. As infuriating as interviews with Taliban officials can be – and considering many overtones that are lost in translation – Faiz’s words and silences can be a useful barometer of the Taliban mindset as the relentless bombing campaign reaches its fourth week. On a post-Taliban coalition government including “moderate” Taliban: “In the name of Allah, many people are saying something about an adventure in our country that has not happened yet. They object to our government. And some of them made some government against us – they want to send them here as government. And some say we are pulling out. I don’t know who has given this authority to them. Our present and future time is in the hands of only one God.”

On the Taliban strategy to counter various plans to capture Kabul:

On the use of cluster bombs and maybe chemical weapons by American forces:

“Up to now they didn’t take Kabul. They have failed. And they will never take Kabul. And even if they take Kabul, they will never be able to keep it. The people who took Kabul in the past, at first they were very proud. But whenever they were escaping, they could never find their way out.”

“For three weeks crimes have been committed against our people. The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan has asked the Organization of the Islamic Conference to send a delegation into Afghanistan to see what is happening to civilian life. Again I ask organizations who take care of human rights: why they are so quiet now?”

On the willingness of the Taliban to talk to the UN envoy Lakdar Brahimi:

Once again, on how many civilians have been killed:

“He hasn’t come yet.” On Iran and Russia saying the Taliban cannot be part of a future Afghan government: “The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’s government is a government made by the people of Afghanistan. Destroying such a government is not easy because the people won’t let them. The people who are coming with the airplanes of America will not be accepted by the Afghan people. The Russians created many problems, they destroyed our country. How can they say such words?” On what’s the situation inside Afghanistan, and how many civilians have been killed:

“The crimes of America have no limitations. They say by themselves that in one strike more than a hundred aircraft take part. They don’t understand what is human rights. As they are failing, everything else they try will fail in the future. The protests against their crimes are increasing day by day in the world.” On how public opinion in the West cannot fully measure the suffering of the Afghan civilian population – because information disclosed by the Taliban is always so vague: “Americans always try to trick and deceive other people in the world. In their actions they are not standing on truth. So why is the press hiding what is happening? Basic circles of the press are in the hands of America.

I wish the press could have freedom. This is why we called the OIC to send an envoy to Afghanistan.” On freedom of the press: “Some press organizations are not showing the reality, the real pictures, they are just explaining the opinions of the American government. Why does the press not object to these media organizations? Our policy is clear for real journalists. Many people coming to Afghanistan introduce themselves as journalists. We deal with them as journalists. If there is any delay now for travelling to Afghanistan, that is because we respect the security of the journalists. When the American bullets are killing innocent people, these are blind bullets – they don’t see if somebody is a journalist, a child, a woman. We are winning this war. When we finally win, then we will let people in to see what happened to the Americans.” On the remote possibility of allowing the media into Afghanistan: “We may consider that, taking into account the fact that any real journalist has to be independent. But Bush or Blair will have no place on the soil of Afghanistan.”

“The people have not healed from the suffering during the war against the Russians. Now another powerful country attacks us, which is a criminal action against human beings. The people clearly understand what the world does to them. But we are not nervous “The American strategy is clearly understood, it is to trouble the people, with aggression over the freedom of or frightened – as the American union is so nervous other peoples. I think Americans are taking pleasure in killing the people. We will resist against this crime. They are bombing hospitals, common living places, killing innocent people. Our strategy is very clear: we will do the same as we did to the past aggressors of our killing children, women. Where are these organizations which claimed in favour of human rights to country.” question these cruel people?” On what is the Taliban strategy from now on – compared to the American strategy of destroying the Taliban:



Ahmad Wali Karzai, the brother of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, speaks at a press conference in Kandahar in 2008. Photo: AFP

Operator, call a sat-phone number in Toba The harrowing scene in Quetta, Balochistan, as an invisible Hamid Karzai becomes the most sought after Afghan on the planet By PEPE ESCOBAR NOVEMBER 10, 2001

QUETTA, Pakistan – Baluchistan this Friday felt like Tibet, and Quetta a sister city to Lhasa – under an occupation army in full regalia. A general strike was called by the Pak-Afghan Defense Council – a coalition of religious parties – against the Musharraf government’s support for Washington. As far as the strike was concerned, it was a total success: virtually all businesses were shut down, the streets deserted – and not because Islamabad had made it a public holiday in honor of the national poet Iqbal.



But street protests were another matter entirely. Roughly 100 protesters, mainly Afghan, gathered in front of Kandahari mosque, in Quetta’s famous Kandahari bazaar after Jumma prayers. There were at least 2,500 fully armed police – but no troops – in the city and its surrounds, according to Dr. Muhamad Shoaib Suddle, inspector-general of police for the whole of Baluchistan. With a rate of more than 25 police for each protester, and with 25 religious leaders in custody, to be released only late in the afternoon – including the vice-president of the Jamaat-I-Islami, Maulana Abdul Haq – Dr. Suddle was country-club-relaxed in his Toyota Hi-Lux. The protest turned into a media parade with a few “Down with Musharraf ” cries thrown in for the cameras. Journalists in Quetta don’t get a security guard as part of their visit: they get an apprentice spy, some with guns, some with bamboo sticks, generally gentle, shy souls who earn 2,000 rupees a month (little more than US$30) and can barely fire a gun. The spy is the media’s American Express: don’t leave home (the New Mexico-style Serena Hotel ) without it. This is a glimpse of Musharraf ’s democracy in action. The official line invokes the usual suspect – “security reasons.” But the real picture reveals an Islamabad extremely alarmed with foreign press snooping around American-controlled bases in strategic Baluchistan. Mohin Khan Baluch, head of the Baluchistan National Party, which he defines as a “nationalist Baluch and secular party,” confirms America is using four landing strips in Baluchistan – Pasni, Omara, Gowader and Jiwni – and fully controlling four airports – Pasni, Panjgur, Shansi and Dalbandin: “And they tried to get Quetta airport as well,” he adds. All the roads leading to these bases are blocked. Mohin Khan says that “angry people already fired at Panjgur, a crowd tried to get hold of Dalbandin,” and according to a report in a Baluch local paper, “fired at US personnel in Pasni, killing two Americans.” He does not measure his words: “Pakistan has made Baluchistan a US cantonment, which has affected a lot the relationship between the Afghan and the Baluch 28   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

peoples.” In Ghousabad bazaar – an extended Afghan village and a center for around 25,000 people, most living in the place for the last 10 or even 20 years – most semi-destitute locals agree with Mohin Khan’s assessment. In a more sedate part of this desert frontier town, Ahmad Wali Karzai – Hamid Karzai’s younger brother – juggles more pressing questions concerning a sat-phone. Ahmad Wali lived in the US for 10 years. He even had an NGO, from 1992 to ’98 – the Environmental Foundation Agency (EFA). Until recently he was basically concerned with the show-stopping French soccer superstar Zinedine Zidane: nowadays he has to hold court to the world media trying to find out where exactly his brother is. Hamid Karzai, 45, educated in Kabul, holder of a Master of Political Science degree from India, former deputy foreign minister of the pre-Taliban Rabbani government, with a wife living in Quetta, and now a man on a mission of peace, may be at the moment the most sought after Afghan in the whole planet. But where, exactly, is Hamid Karzai? According to his brother, Hamid Karzai “is safe, in Afghanistan, in the south of Uruzgan province” – in Deh Rawad village, not far from Tarin Kowt, where elusive Taliban supremo Mullah Omar was born. His brother says Karzai is “talking to tribal leaders, on a peace mission, continuing his work to try to form a loya jirga [grand council] and a broad-based government in Afghanistan.” This is obviously a long-term process: nobody expects Hamid Karzai to round up a couple of tribals and topple the Taliban before Ramadan. Ahmad Wali stresses that “loya jirga.” This is the real Afghanistan. “If we have a problem in a village, the elders come together and solve the problem.” In tribal Uruzgan, according to Ahmad Wali, “there is very strong support for us. The Taliban are only 6 years old, but our relation to the tribes is more than 100 years old.” In the view of both Karzai brothers, former king Zahir Shah’s return is “an acceptable solution to Tajiks and also to Pashtuns.”

Ahmad Wali says “Afghan people were always religious – not fundamentalists. Islam didn’t come with the Taliban. The Taliban have nothing to do with Islam. People even in the countryside do not agree with them.” But he admits, “In the beginning we even supported them, until the middle of 1996,” because the Taliban were promising security. At the time, he adds, the Taliban were saying, “We are mullahs, we will go back to the madrassas. But then they became power-hungry.” Ahmad Wali insists that nowadays “everyone is in favor of a Loya Jirga all over Afghanistan.” Farid, Karzai’s cousin, adds that “People think that Afghans are Taliban. But we want freedom, and a government with rights. Islam says every human being has rights. We don’t want to insult our religion.” The younger brother stresses that “Hamid is always in touch with the people.” Ahmad Wali also reveals that Hamid left Quetta almost a month ago – that is, even before the capture and execution of former jihad commander Abdul Haq by Taliban intelligence. On the day he left Quetta, “he said he would drive to Karachi and then take a plane to Islamabad. But he drove straight to Kandahar, and crossed the main checkpoints with no problem.” After all, Hamid Karzai is an Afghan, and a beard is the only passport for a travelling Afghan. Unlike Abdul Haq, Hamid Karzai was never a fighter or commander. Neutral sources note that the Karzai clan – which originates from the small village of Kar – supports the Taliban morally, but does not take active part in Afghan politics. Before the Taliban, Hamid Karzai was a representative of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s government at the UN: “But then America approached him, bought him, and he withdrew himself from the Taliban, still in their early stages,” says a source. That’s when he started his campaign in favor of a loya jirga. Ahmad Wali says Hamid Karzai, for the moment, “is not contacting any Taliban commanders. He is just working with tribal leaders.” He has not been in contact with the Northern Alliance either: their last

meeting – which included the presence of the subsequently assassinated “Lion of the Panjshir,” Ahmad Shah Masoud, was in early 2001. The Karzai political mantra is predictable: “The Pashtuns have to be part of any government in Kabul. Otherwise, it won’t survive. The largest, most populous areas are Pashtun.” As we talk, Ahmad Wali says he just spoke with his brother a few hours ago – by sat-phone. The BBC also talked to Karzai on his sat-phone. He placed the call – not the network. The BBC forgot to mention that they wanted badly to call Karzai, and then Ahmad Wali arranged for his brother to make the call. We ask for the sat-phone number. Ahmad Wali replies: “He will call you.” But a few minutes later he says “he called” his brother to tell him about Abdul Haq’s execution. On his BBC appearance, Karzai said he was in Afghanistan, he had to fight his way to safety, and then he made a worldwide appeal so Afghanistan can “get rid of these foreigners” – meaning the Al-Qaeda Arabs. Last Tuesday, US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said off the record during his return trip from Central and South Asia that Hamid Karzai had been “extricated” from Afghanistan. A number of American sources have confirmed they had sent a helicopter to “extricate” Karzai from Afghanistan. Afghan Islamic Press, on the other hand, said more than a week ago he had been arrested with 25 other people and could be hanged. Will Hamid Karzai be back? “Nobody knows. But it won’t be soon,” says Ahmad Wali. The road is long, “and our mission started already 20 years ago.” The Taliban insist that Hamid Karzai is in Toba, a deserted Baluch area northeast of Quetta. An usually well-informed source in Islamabad, a consultant to Al-Jazeera, confirms that he is in Toba. The fact is, Hamid Karzai could be in Deh Rawad. Hamid Karzai could be in Toba. And Hamid Karzai, a confirmed bon vivant, could be hitting jackpots in Vegas. Place your bets – and track that sat-phone number.


A member of the International Security Assistance Force shows his rifle to Northern Alliance soldiers while on patrol near Kabul airport in 2002. Photo: Mandel Ngan / AFP

Friend or foe? Deep into the New Afghan War, only 30 km away from Kabul, with the Taliban surrounded on three sides By PEPE ESCOBAR NOVEMBER 27, 2001

MAIDANSHAR, Vardak province, Afghanistan – It may sound and feel sometimes like a toy battle in slow motion around desert and bare mountains – without the drama of thunderous mayhem in the trenches. But in a minute it can become ferociously deadly. The New Afghan War is alive and kicking a mere 30 kilometers southwest of Kabul – less than a halfhour’s drive, in the village of Maidanshar, on the main road to Ghazni and Kandahar. Figures in Afghanistan notoriously stretch the imagination, but local commanders say about 4,000 Taliban – including Arabs, Pakistanis and Chechens – are holding back 5,000 Northern Alliance troops. Arabs are basically concentrated on bunkers on top of three hills and in high moun30   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES


tains, armed basically with cannons. According to Maulavi Ahmad Jan Ahmadi, editor of the now-defunct “The Islamic Emirate” – the Taliban’s wacky monthly mouthpiece in English – “the month of Ramadan is a month of jihad, martyrdom and action, and not a month of idleness, inactivity and laziness.” The Taliban are strictly following the dictum. Although some argue these Taliban and Arabs were left behind during the Mullah Omar-induced “strategic retreat” from Kabul, most probably they’ve positioned themselves to cause maximum trouble to Northern Alliance forces in the capital. In Maidanshar, the Taliban are actually surrounded on three sides. Northern Alliance positions encircle them on a 180-degree arc across the newly-paved road to Ghazni. The Alliance is receiving help from troops of Rasool Sayyaf, the Pashtun intellectual heavily supported by Saudi Arabia. Behind the hills are 600 to 1,000 Hazara troops – who answer directly to commander Khalil Khalili, one of the top Northern Alliance commanders. The Taliban have two possibilities for a way out, according to local commanders: to Bamiyan province, towards the northwest, or to Ghazni province, towards the west, through a series of mountain passes. The Taliban have no tanks, but a cluster of RPGs and BM-12 heavy mortar launchers, with a range of fire of around six kilometers, and a few rocket launchers. The Northern Alliance started with a T-55 tank with a 10- to 12-kilometer range on top of a hill, a BM-40 opposite, plus another two T-55 tanks and a few extra BM-12s – but soon got reinforcements. Local mujahideen are extremely upbeat. One of them, from the north side of Kabul province, relishes his prospects, “I will kill the Taliban,” he says with a smile. These mujahideen answer to commander Amanullah Guzer – for the moment in Kabul for consultations with General Mohammed Fahim, army chief of the Northern Alliance. Another mujahideen insists that the Taliban “can resist only for a few days. Then they will run out of ammunition. They cannot receive more supplies.” 32   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

Further on down the road, the situation is far murkier. Ghazni is controlled by the Northern Alliance, but with many Taliban lurking outside the city’s perimeters. There are also plenty of Taliban on the road to Kandahar. It is clear that the Taliban are adopting the classic guerrilla strategy outlined in 1998 by Al-Qaeda’s Al Zawiri – the “government forces” may control the day, but the Taliban want to control the night. The main Arab commander in Maidanshar is Abu Yousuf, a close supporter of Osama bin Laden. The main Taliban commander is Ghulam Muhamad – notorious for his financial gluttony and elaborated ruses to deceive his enemies. The “government forces” – as the Northern Alliance is now referred to – tried to buy his surrender and that of his troops for US$300,000. When they were about to deliver the money, apparently there was $100,000 missing, so Ghulam decided to open fire. The mujahideen, a lot of them coming from Parwan, with the Sayyaf people coming from Paghman, are now waiting for permission from commander Fahim – now minister of defense in Kabul – to mount an offensive. Ghulam added more sauce to the mix when he decided that if resistance was impossible against the mujahideen, he would surrender – but to the ethnic Hazaras. The Hazaras are reportedly unhappy with the “government forces” because they were not given permission to enter Kabul. The Hazaras are not attacking Taliban’s positions: they are adopting a wait-and-see attitude. Ghulam is sure to explore these ill feelings, although a knowledgeable source from Takhar province says that the relationship between Fahim and Khalili is “good” and that they are “determined to agree with each other.” If the whole set-up sounds tortuous, it’s because it is. In an improvised press conference in a mujahideen-filled room inside a dilapidated roadside gas station – the local commander’s headquarters – tightlipped commander Abdul Ahmad Dorani, with a hashish-like gaze in his eyes, tried to share some perspective. It’s a miracle that the glaringly obvious gas station has not been shelled yet by the Taliban. Dorani is a former member of the Taliban forces, but

he now has pledged his allegiance to “the Islamic State of Afghanistan.” It’s very simple: you just trade the turban for a camouflage jacket. He still looks and talks like a mullah, though. Dorani says that he has given a deadline for the evacuation of civilians from nearby villages – between 15 and 20, according to him – “and then we resume fighting.” The reason, “We don’t fire on civilian targets.” Dorani quotes a hard-to-believe figure of 30,000 to 40,000 civilians living in the area. Some of them can be seen walking by the roadside, bumping into incoming tanks, carrying their few belongings on their way to Kabul. In one of his famous “messages,” Amir-ul-Momineen (Leader of the Faithful) Mullah Omar said, “We order you gravely and severely to refrain from killing women and children, irrespective of the party with which they are affiliated. And if there falls into your hands combatants and elderly men, we forbid you from killing them without permission, even if the field commanders order you to kill them.” The Taliban and the Northern Alliance are not exactly following this code of ethics of not killing without permission, much to the horror of the “deeply concerned” United Nations, invoking a number of international humanitarian conventions in the daily press briefings in Kabul. There were massacres in Mazar-e-Sharif, there could still be a massacre in Kunduz, and nothing would prevent another massacre in Maidanshar. But according to Dorani, “if we capture Afghans, we will let them escape because they are Afghans.” Fighting in Afghanistan is a way of life, regardless of who you fight for, and since allegiances can be forgotten without a blink, today’s enemy may be tomorrow’s best friend. Both sides – Northern Alliance and Taliban – are in constant radio communication. They devise specific breaks in the action to collect casualties – not many so far, because “there has not been fierce fighting.” Dorani negotiates extensively with the Taliban: he is a local, and he knows the local elders. But the Arabs and Pakistanis are another matter entirely. “We will keep them and then send them to the defense ministry in Kabul.”

Dorani would welcome American aerial bombing to smash the Maidanshar front. “We’ve already pointed their positions to the Americans.” As we mention the possibility of a coordinated offensive with the Hazaras to dislodge the Taliban – after all, the Hazaras are on the other side of the hills – he simply says, “We are in contact with Khalili.” Dorani agrees that the situation in Maidanshar is similar to Kunduz: the Taliban are willing to surrender – or merely switch sides – but the Arabs are bent on becoming martyrs and earning eternal glory. As we finish talking, a Taliban shell lands only a few yards away from a Northern Alliance tank. The mujahideen disperse and engage in a lot of radio talk. It’s time to pack up, and come back the next day for the sequel. The sequel is relatively uneventful. The village in the first line of fire is empty. Some 2,000 Taliban did surrender – according to commander Amanullah. An unspecified number fled to Vartak town, 10 kilometers ahead through the mountains. The mujahideen “will go after them.” Commander Amanullah – from the Shamali plains – steps out of his jeep filled with mujahideen to tell us there were no Arabs. The area is now totally controlled by the Northern Alliance – and it will be one of their bases. But “the battle is not finished.” We jump onto a Toyota pick-up filled with deliriously happy mujahideen – Panjshiris, Hazaras – to visit the fallen village in the first line of fire. We meet a few of the Taliban who surrendered. One of them – a Taliban who should be featured as a cover story of the men’s fashion magazine L’Uomo Vogue – tells us that he abandoned the Taliban two years ago: “And what have you been doing all these years?” we ask. He’s been living in the village as a shepherd – he replies. He still keeps his turban, though. Commander Ziahuddin – not dressed in military fatigues, but simply enveloped in a blanket, in charge of 300 mujahideen – looks at him and declares, “It’s a talib.” But he’s now a free Talib – socializing with the mujahideen. We go back to the main road, catching a lift with commander Ziahuddin – happily enjoying the ride in his brand new, confiscated, former Taliban Toyota Corolla. “The battle is not finished.” FOREVER WARS   33

Afghan refugees flee US-led military strikes on their homes in 2001. Photo: AFP

Freedom riders In the heart of liberated Kabul By PEPE ESCOBAR NOVEMBER 28, 2001

KABUL – The feeling on a splendid late autumn afternoon is one of absolute elation. Thousands of beardless, grinning Kabulis are cycling about, enveloped in their dark brown blankets, welcoming the Northern Alliance patrol units in their brand new Russian-made combat fatigues. This joy, though, is juxtaposed with images of death – endless carcasses of bombed buildings. Trucks loaded with TV sets speed past in the direction of liberated Jalalabad. Women walk around unescorted, many of them burqa-less. A Fiddler-on-the-Roof look-alike taxi driver plays his Indian pop music cassettes at ear-splitting volume while performing Formula-1 stunts in his white-and-yellow Corolla. He takes us to the remains of the house of the Taliban’s former minister of 34   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES


education, Amir Mutaqqi, gutted by formidable American precision bombing. He also takes us to the former office of the ATC – a United Nations-sponsored demining agency – near the airport, totally destroyed by American imprecision bombing. Ragged kids roam about collecting precious scrap metal. Welcome to the ultimate 21st Century Devastation Showpiece: Liberated Kabul. We arrived in Kabul a few hours before the beginning of Ramadan, not by the north – like the Northern Alliance – but by the improbable east, by taxi, through the mountains, straight from a Jalalabad voided of Taliban a few days earlier. In Jalalabad, the mujahideen were so excited they were about to eat their rocket launchers. They said that they comprised no less than 20,000 fighters, mostly from Nangarhar province, but also from the neighboring Kunar, Laghman and Nuristan regions – all of Pashtun majority areas. Brandishing their Kalashnikovs in front of the governor’s palace, they stressed that the Pashtuns were united. An anti-Taliban Kunar was a big surprise: according to surefire sources in the pakistani border city of Peshawar, this was to be the Taliban’s strategic retreat headquarters. There were absolutely no Taliban at the Pakistan-Afghan border. There was not even a border. The Durand Line that officially divides the country had just melted away, as if in a dream. On the way to Jalalabad we were saluted like we were in the Paris-Dakar rally. Everybody was out in force in Jalalabad – previously a Taliban stronghold – wanting to know who would decide their future. A shura (tribal council) was hastily convened to determine power: 100 wise men representing the wishes of a key Afghan province bordering volatile tribal areas in Pakistan. The mujahideen said that they had captured nine Arabs, but a few thousand had fled in the direction of Kandahar, soon after Pashtun commander Azad Ali entered the city. Some would be hiding in the hills and caves of Nangarhar. There was virtually no gunfight. The next day we finally learned for sure that Abdul Qadir, the de facto man in control of Nangarhar province, had been elected by the shura as the new governor. Qadir, a former governor, is the brother of Abdul Haq – the 1980s jihad commander executed by the Taliban 36   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

during his mission to convince Pashtun commanders to subvert the Taliban rule. Ironies of history: as Ahmed Shah Masoud, the Lion of the Panjshir, only conquered Kabul after he was murdered, Abdul Haq only conquered eastern Afghanistan after he was executed. The bloodless fall of Jalalabad was even more surprising than the fall – or the Taliban’s “strategic retreat” – from Kabul, according to Mullah Omar’s perverse formula. Nobody saw anything because of the dazzling speed of the facts accumulating on the ground, and because there were absolutely no reporters to verify whatever happened. It is amazing how a state is capable of melting away without leaving any traces. In Jalalabad, the only remains of Taliban rule are a few white billboards with black Koranic inscriptions. The Radio Shariat building is in ruins. Only less than a week ago, according to the mujahideen, the streets were empty: everybody was afraid of the Taliban and afraid of the devastating American bombing. By this time it was clear that eastern Afghanistan was living an involuntary experiment in anarchy. Anarchy under control – by the Northern Alliance – but with some worrying signs already in the horizon. On the way to Kabul we passed through Khuram, a former village totally destroyed by bombing, with more than 100 civilian deaths. The survivors are now grinning to passing cars and trucks from the dusty roadside. In Sarobi, the danger is palpable. Sarobi clings to a strategic pass – ideal for staging guerrilla operations. The local population is hyper-religious, and pro-Taliban: “They guaranteed law and order,” says a crowd in the dreadfully poor bazaar. And in a curve of the road, between the naked Tagao mountains, our translator – an engineer student in Jalalabad, born in Kabul – points in the distance to a column of Arab fighters, clearly visible as they march towards their caves. The guerrilla army is in place and ready to strike at any moment. Liberated Kabul is all smiles, even fighting the Islamic-induced daylight hunger of Ramadan. About 10 minutes after five in the evening everybody grabs a bucket and drinks from water pumps on the sidewalks, and eats plenty of delicious potato pancakes

from street stalls. There are pressing rumors that Dr Abdullah Abdullah, the Northern Alliance’s minister of foreign relations, fluent in English, the Alliance’s de facto spokesman, has presidential intentions. The splendidly dilapidated Kabul Intercontinental – an early 1960s bossa nova relic which should be packed for a permanent exhibit at the Design Museum in London – is the new epicenter of the media planet. Ultra high-tech digital equipment worth the GNP of a cluster of Afghan provinces is now camped out on the roof of the hotel, in one of the poorest corners of the world. And still the media is struggling to put all the pieces of the puzzle together as no-one knows for sure what is happening in allegedly divided Kandahar – the news trickle in via Pakistan – or how may Taliban are actually encircled in Kunduz city. It is a great pleasure to meet again young Jabah, a Kabuli, our translator during an interview with commander Masoud, the last he gave in the Panjshir before his assassination in Khwaja Bahauddin by an Al-Qaeda suicide commando two days before September 11 – a “gift” to Mullah Omar from his best mate Osama bin Laden. “Everybody is happy, but not very happy because he is not here,” says Jabah, visibly moved. Every Northern Alliance truck or jeep in Kabul displays a Masoud photo. Saturday morning in Mandaii bazaar, near Kabul’s famous Blue Mosque, the largest in Afghanistan: scenes straight from a Central Asian take of a Renaissance Brueghel painting. Probably for the first time since the late 1970s the streets are absolutely thronged with people feeling normal, relaxed, under no pressure at all. Piles of Afghani notes change hands in the money market. Before September 11, the official rate was 66,000 Afghanis to the dollar. Now it is 40,000 Afghanis. The money changers say that the Taliban looted the market before fleeing. All the fresh money comes via the United Arab Emirates, American dollars changed into Afghanis. Young, educated Kabulis are adamant: they and everybody else are in favor of the return of former King Zahir Shah. Some are keen to remind us, “Please give thanks to Tony Blair and George Bush.” They say that even before the Taliban fled, “kids

were flying kites and women were going to the market alone.” This means that the Taliban, discreetly, spent days preparing their flight. In the middle of the hustle and bustle we find Palwan Janagha, a celebrated wrestler in the Afghan national team during three successive Olympic Games: Tokyo (’64), Mexico (’68) and Munich (’72). Palwan claims that he is just 48. For the past 20 years he has had a shop in the bazaar, fixing broken bones and supporting his family of eight. He is wildly happy with the liberation. And he is of course in favor of Zahir Shah. In the bombed-to-oblivion (during the mujahideen wars) and predominantly Hazara neighborhood of Karte Sakchi – not far from the prison where the Taliban used to lock up men with short beards – there is a Shia mosque where Hazaras flock to their prayers on Wednesdays and Sundays. The Hazaras – descendants of Genghis Khan’s army – were routinely harassed and massacred by the Taliban. Thousands of them still live in the extremely poor surrounding bare hills. A Hazara man who came from Uruzgan province six months ago, because of the drought, sells dates and dried fruit to invisible customers. He says, “there were too many Pakistanis and Arabs in Kabul. Now I’m very happy.” He doesn’t bother about the heavy presence of the Northern Alliance in town. “We just want peace.” Like virtually anyone else, he wants Zahir Shah back. “I don’t know if he can control our country because he’s been away for more than 20 years.” But it does not matter. “Long live the king” is the new mantra. Zahir Shah was the monarch during an Afghan golden age, when Afghanistan was a proper country, not a heap of spectacular ruins. Afghans want their country back. Muhamad Ali, an old man, remembers vividly life under Zahir Shah, when he was a shopkeeper. He remembers the wild street parties during the anniversary of independence – usually celebrated at the end of August. Today, Muhamad Ali is a beggar. He says, “the Northern Alliance is not bad,” but he is hoping to “kiss Zahir Shah’s hands.” The ministry of interior is where the political action is FOREVER WARS   37

swinging in Kabul. It’s being entirely run by the Northern Alliance military – mostly Panjshiris. There is a uniform behind every desk, beside their inseparable walkie-talkies, portable heaters and the Afghan flag, not the white Taliban version but the green-white-andblack Islamic State of Afghanistan version. Some rooms even have working phones – another tribute to miraculous Afghan handiwork. The acting minister of interior is Younous Qanooni, probably the busiest man in Kabul at the moment. At the office of brigadier Salam Ichan, every morning we are told to wait for Qanooni and then come back the next day. It is surprising that a machinery of government is running after all – and relatively smoothly. Kabul feels exceedingly “normal.” Ali Ahmad spent three months in a Taliban jail. His “crime” was to have a brother living in Khwaja Bahauddin, in northern Afghanistan: for the Taliban, this meant that he was a collaborator. Ali took us back to his cell in Kabul jail. He lived in a lower bunk on cell number 5, a tiny compartment, with 22 other inmates who were later reduced to 15. Ali explains that the real Taliban motive for keeping him in jail – with no trial – was that they wanted the Ali family house. This is absolutely in line with a Taliban policy outlined to this correspondent by Masoud himself last August: Masoud said that the Taliban were engaged in repopulating Kabul, expelling as many Afghans as possible and bringing in Pakistanis and Arabs. A prison guard tells us that 40 Taliban had manned the compound. They all left at about 7 pm on Sunday, the day before Kabul fell. There were 800 prisoners at the time. The prisoners escaped at 10 pm. And the Northern Alliance forces arrived at the empty prison on Monday morning. Now it’s not that empty: there are six new “guests,” including one-legged Wali Muhamad, wearing dark glasses even inside the corridors: he was caught selling heroin in Kabul. The Northern Alliance also caught “some Arabs and Pakistanis,” and 10 Afghan Taliban, according to the prison guards, but they were taken to the “intelligence police,” an unidentified new body that should be answering to the interior ministry. The UN was quick to return to Kabul, with spokesman 38   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

Eric Falt proudly announcing in the Intercontinental vaults, “The UN international staff returned to Kabul after 65 days.” The mission, led by Francesc Vendrell, deputy special emissary to Afghanistan – with 10 members from 10 countries and seven different agencies – has a Herculean, or more appropriately Genghis Khanian task ahead. On the political front, Vendrell met again with UN-recognized Afghan President Barhanuddin Rabbani (the previous time was in Dushanbe), and for the first time with Rasool Sayyaf, a key element in the bag-of-tricks United Front (the Northern Alliance plus everybody else, minus the Taliban). Vendrell is certainly meeting everybody and his neighbor – including commander Mohammed Fahim (the acting minister of defense), Qanooni, Hazara leaders, and sooner or later representatives of shuras in the Pashtun south. The whole political carousel now spins around the new bible: the Brahimi plan, concocted by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s special representative, Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi. The extremely complex Brahimi plan is inexplicable to the average Kabuli in the bazaar – who just want Zahir Shah back. And it is inexplicable to most other people for that matter, including UN officials. As far as the Northern Alliance is concerned, it is a waste of time: after all, there is already a “government” in place. Anyway, the plan breaks down roughly into five steps, as Eric Falt explained: 1) A conference of all Afghan factions – including moderate Pashtuns – leading to an agreement; 2) a loya jirga (Grand Council), according to Afghan tradition, leading to; 3) adoption of a constitution; 4) another loya jirga to ratify the constitution, and; 5) the creation of a new government. Meanwhile, Masoud, the hero, survives in Kabul as a legend. And so does the sheik, as Kabulis call bin Laden – in many parts of the world. Between controlled anarchy and euphoria, between the bombing apocalypse and a deep yearning for peace, the hardcore Taliban nucleus, the Al-Qaeda Arabs and fugitive supreme bin Laden prepare to spend the Afghan winter hiding in their caves, and they are deadlier than ever. In Afghanistan, all players should remember that history always repeats itself – not as farce, but as tragedy.

Kabul cinemas introduced Hollywood movies after the fall of the Taliban. Photo: Shah Marai / AFP

Life is a movie Bollywood bliss: The First Picture Show in liberated Kabul By PEPE ESCOBAR NOVEMBER 29, 2001

KABUL – Scenes of absolute mayhem are taking place right in front of the Bakhtar cinema in Kabul. It’s Tuesday morning, November 20, and the crowd is going mad, getting ready for the midday show of El An (The Announcement), an Indian Bollywood movie. The Bakthar had finally reopened the day before – more than five years after the Taliban took over Kabul – and instantly became the greatest show in town. The capacity crowd is 650 – but there may be at least 5,000 trying to catch this performance. FOREVER WARS    39

One ticket costs only 5,000 Afghanis (a little more than 10 US cents). Lost in the crowd, Naseem can barely contain his excitement. The last film he saw in his life was Rambo 4: “There wasn’t any life here. For us, it’s like being born. We feel like we died.” The Bakthar lobby is filled with ragged posters of dodgy Indian movies such as Aatish (directed by Sanjay Gupta), Sadak (directed by Makesh Bhatt) and Kaali Ganga (directed by Raj Sippy). Some 40-odd prints miraculously survived the Taliban cultural holocaust, according to cinema owner and “businessman” (he used to sell pottery), Saleh Muhamad. This is his cinema, and has been for 28 years now. When the Taliban rode into town in 1996, he was arrested and jailed for 22 days. The cinema was closed and he had to pay a fine of 500,000 Afghanis (almost US$20 at the time). “Because for the Taliban, I was a criminal,” he says. An extraordinary cast of characters manages to get past the human and iron barriers on the way to the screening room. There are soldiers, heavily injured people, kids; there are Tajiks and Hazaras; they are enveloped in robes and blankets or in ghastly “Made in China” leather jackets. But in this sweating sea of humanity there’s not a single woman or girl in sight. And if there were any, they would not be able to survive the mayhem. A guard intervenes, “Please don’t take a picture when we are beating people.” People are indeed being mercilessly beaten with sticks and leather whips. Everybody is frisked. The improvised security team manages to confiscate two machine guns, one revolver, four knuckle dusters, 14 knifes, eight radios (“there could be a bomb inside”) and a menacing collection of butcher’s knives. Northern Alliance soldiers leave their magazines at the security check, but they keep their rifles. Local police, dressed in gray uniforms, do the same. Even in the middle of this crazy mess, everybody is deliriously happy, like the punter exclaiming, “All of six years I wanted to see a movie! Very good! Good night!”


The Bakhtar will now be in business with three or four shows a day – fascinating thousands with Rambo 4, old Jackie Chan epics and even an Afghan movie, Uroj, whose poster features a “bad” communist smashing a bottle of vodka on some poor soul’s head. Flush with literally mountains of cash, the manager hopes to start importing films from India pretty soon – “American films are very expensive.” Life is a movie in liberated Kabul – so many dramatic, extraordinary stories that would have driven Federico Fellini crazy. Gogochor – a ravishing Iranian singer – is the ultimate music smash in all cassette mini-booths. A satellite dish factory is making 25 units a week – and selling them all. The Kabul branch of the City Bank of Afghanistan is very well protected – the security includes a guy with a rocket launcher – but there’s absolutely no money inside the bank: people saved their money at home during Taliban time, and they never spent it. Now they are having fun buying radios, cassettes – and satellite dishes. Speaking perfect French, Abdul Aziz Bakhshi – an electronics engineer who received his degree in Uzbekistan – can be found in a stall in an open-air bazaar selling tacky second-hand Chinese clothes. Bakhshi studied in Kabul’s famous Lycee Istliqal, just as legendary commander Ahmad Shah Masoud, the slain army head of the Northern Alliance, who was one year his senior. He used to work for French NGO Acted – which is still conducting many projects in Northern Afghanistan (but not in Kabul, because of the Taliban). He makes roughly 400,000 Afghanis a day (about $10) in the bazaar, he keeps educating all the family in French, and most of all he is happy with the return of his female customers, shopping by themselves, with no harassment, and many not bothering to wear even a scarf. Bakhshi’s dream: to get his job back with the NGO. Hajatullah’s bakery used to be supported by the World Food Program (WFP) until five months ago. Hajatullah, a Panjshiri, has been the proud owner of this bakery for the past eight years. He used to get flour

from the WFP, but under the Taliban he had to start buying the flour himself: 950,000 Afghanis (about $24) for 100 kilos. He employs 11 people and sells around 2,000 nans – the Afghan flat bread – a day. He says, “If the WFP starts helping us again, we can even help the poor.” All over town, the Taliban’s psychotic hatred of women’s education has left deep scars, but still they could not beat the Kabulis’ resourcefulness. Samira, 15, from an upper middle class, secular Kabuli family, recalls how she was beaten up by a young Taliban from the religious police in the bazaar because she was not wearing her burqa properly. But her “revenge” was sweet. She managed to fool the Taliban, along with other 17 girls, for a whole year, one hour a day, from 4 pm to 5 pm. They were involved in a highly anti-Shariat and subversive activity: learning English. Every day they sneaked into the teacher’s house – a 27-year-old woman – clad in their burqas. Inside the house, when the Taliban came – which could be almost every week – they would instantly switch their English textbooks to portable versions of the Koran. Samira says, “Our teachers were very intelligent. We were happy. But the Taliban closed the school three months ago. One of our neighbors informed them. They were jealous people.” The English teacher is now gone, probably to Logar province, and there are no more classes. But Samira is hopeful her English lessons will resume, this time in an officially-recognized school. Kamila Yaltali also was an extremely dangerous element – a sort of Brechtian Mother Courage. She is the headmaster of what until a while ago was an underground school for boys and girls, the Urfan Course, in a small three-bedroom rented house in the Kabul neighborhood of Khairkhana, run by herself and three other teachers – Zahira, Saleha and Aziza. Classes 1, 2 and 3 run from 7 am to 9 am, and classes 4, 5, 6 and 7 run from 9 am to 11:30 am. Kamila set up the school herself five years ago, immediately after the Taliban took power in Kabul. She had only four students then, including her son Anil. By the time the Taliban left

Kabul she had 180 students – 120 of them girls, aged five to 17. It’s always been a very risky job. Kamila is from Badakhshan province in the northeast, and for the Taliban that meant an inevitable connection with the Northern Alliance. In the beginning her own house was sealed and everything inside was taken by the Taliban. But she persisted. She says that the children always came to the school “one by one,” very discreetly. “But even then the Taliban kept coming here many times. We told them repeatedly that we were like a madrassa [school] – teaching the Koran but also sowing.” Kamila says that “women working as Taliban intelligence” would also drop in to ask her about the school’s program. “I always sent them away.” Taliban tactics also included surrounding the school and firing in the air to intimidate her. In the beginning she had some books provided by Save the Children – but basically the teachers bought everything themselves, and they handmade a lot of their teaching materials. “It was like a campaign against the Taliban,” says Kamila. The Urfan Course teaches a variety of subjects: Dari, Pashto, English, geography, science, mathematics, religion, history, geometry, art and sewing. There are gym classes too, performed in a very small central garden in the backyard. During a Dari class, a group of 30 students are extraordinarily quiet. Kamila, smiling, attributes it to the fact that “I’m a dictator.” The big change from now on is that the Urfan Course “will not be secret anymore.” They still need pretty much everything: teachers, books, carpets, blankets. Kamila will be very happy if she eventually gets the first computer for the school: her son Anil, 16, is studying computing in a nearby school with eight other teenagers. In another part of town, we cross a group of 10 women in the middle of a street – burqa-less, showing their smiling faces, and “feeling very good.” They prefer to walk in a group because “the situation is not completely safe.” All around them young, wary Panjshiri FOREVER WARS   41

soldiers can be seen in combat fatigues carrying their Kalashnikovs. The women are doctors, lawyers, faculty teachers. They have just visited the offices of the WFP – the UN agency promised them there could have some job openings in an unspecified future. This happened just a day after a group of a thousand women – most of them burqa-less and totally unveiled – staged a kind of demonstration, filmed by newly-reopened Afghan TV, and broadcast in the nightly news by a woman wearing just a pale blue scarf. The aim of the demonstration: we want our rights, most of all the right to work and the right of education. There is a mind-boggling social abyss in Kabul. Families like Sayed Nabi Hashimi’s are hard to find. Hashimi is the chief pilot of Ariana Airlines – the beleaguered Afghan national carrier, now under sanctions from the UN and with practically all of its planes bombed by the US. Hashimi lives in a spacious two-storey house with a fine garden – in front of a former Al-Qaeda guesthouse with tinted windows, not bombed by the US – with his young wife and three children, including a four-month-old boy. The older boy, 7, is studying computing at home with a private teacher. Hashimi drives the only Chevy in Kabul, which he brought during one of his trips in Dubai. Back to what can only be described as a slum, Nouria’s eyes are incredibly sad. Nouria, 35, a Kabuli, was a beautiful woman when she was younger – as we can attest by the photos hanging on a wall of the family rental house Now Nouria is a beggar, supporting five children, including a nine-month-old baby. Every day, Nouria goes out from door to door, asking for a little help. But her neighbors are as poor as she is. On an average day, she gets something like 15,000 Afghanis – less than 50 cents. She has already sold most of her precious belongings and house appliances. She also collects old clothes and sells them in street bazaars. Nouria’s husband, Atta Muhamad, a bus driver from

Mazar-e-Sharif, got a bullet in his left leg 20 years ago. Later, he became very ill, stayed in a hospital for two years and his leg was cut off. He could have a plastic leg for next to nothing – like the ones made by landmine victims in Cambodia.

Crew members of an Ariana Afghan Airlines’ Boeing 727-200 after landing at Kabul International Airport in 2002. Photo: Jimin Lai / AFP

The immediate consequence of the family drama was that Nouria was forced into begging – something she always does carrying two of her children. The husband stays home sewing. If they have any serious health problems, they have to borrow money from her relatives. The Taliban and the Arabs did not help the family at all. Under their system, says Nouria, “if you have a house, they would take your house number, and then you would get daily bread rations.” But “connections” were needed to receive the precious card for access to either a WFP or an Al-Rashid Trust (charity organization) bakery. The Red Crescent didn’t help her either. Now she has to buy the daily bread: there are no working bakeries at the moment supported by either WFP or the Al-Rashid Trust. Nouria and Atta have been married for 12 years. They both come from rural families. She is his second wife: the first one died. The last two years “the situation is very hard.” They need 1,200,000 Afghanis ($30) a month to pay the rent and feed the family (the average Afghan annual income per capita is $24). The owner of their house lives in Peshawar – and soon will raise the rent. The kids get no schooling. Nouria teaches them the Koran. They couldn’t afford to flee anywhere during the American bombing: “It was like an earthquake. The rooms were filled with dust. The children were crying.” Now at least they are “very happy” because the Taliban are gone. Nouria hopes to find a job, but no amount of hope can disguise the brutal sadness reflected in her eyes.

Air Osama An extraordinary conversation with the chief pilot of Ariana – the Afghan national carrier – who may, or may not, have transported Osama bin Laden from Khartoum in Sudan to Jalalabad in Afghanistan in 1996. By PEPE ESCOBAR NOVEMBER 30, 2001

KABUL – Upper middle class families like Sayed Nabi Hashimi’s are extremely rare in Afghanistan. Hashimi, 54, is the chief pilot of Ariana – the Afghan national carrier, founded in 1955, still under United Nations sanctions, and with practically all its planes bombed by the United States. Hashimi lives in a spacious two-storey house with a well-tendered garden, along with his young wife and three kids, including a four-monthold baby. The older boy, aged seven, is studying computing with a private tutor at home. Hashimi drives the only Chevy in Kabul: he imported it



himself from Dubai in one of his flights. Hashimi recalls that on Monday morning of November 12, the day that Kabul was liberated, “there was a lot of looting, by local criminals.” The looters wanted to take his car. He had to call 10 people, among relatives and friends, to protect his house. Barhanuddin Rabbani – the president of the UN-recognized Islamic State of Afghanistan – has a house very close to Hashimi’s. He was not so lucky. “Around 60 people entered his house and took everything away.” Hashimi used to live literally surrounded by Taliban – who confiscated the best houses in his neighborhood. There was an Al-Qaeda guesthouse across the street – “with more or less 40 Arabs, but they fled the first day of the bombing.” For Hashimi, “the worst thing for the people of Afghanistan is no education.” He hates the Taliban with a vengeance. “Everybody had to wear a turban, even to go to school. They were brainwashing all Afghan children. You could bring a kilo of heroin to Kabul, but I had to smuggle English textbooks for my children.” Hashimi also hated the communists who occupied Afghanistan in the 1980s, but the Taliban were in a class of their own. “For one year, I boycotted the Taliban.” He is sure that Pakistan “is playing a double game in Afghanistan.” He does not believe in the UN peace plan. “If you think that Hazaras and Pashtuns will sit on the same table to form a government, you must be dreaming. They are only used to fighting.” And he is convinced that “there will be many more terrorists 10 years from now.” Hashimi, still a handsome man, is nothing less than Ariana’s living legend – the man who saw everything in his three-decade career. We met on a visit to the Ariana main offices in Kabul – when most of the pilots talked to us in a mixed Romanov-Soviet style room with velvet chairs, a faded tribute to a more glorious past when the airline had Pan American as a shareholder, 1,500 employees and seven weekly flights to Europe. Ariana never flew to Pakistan, though. Its last international flight was to Jeddah, during Haj, in April 44   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

2001. Its last scheduled flight was on October 7 – a Kabul-Kunduz round-trip. And its last flight to date was on the next day, when a Boeing 727 was flown to Logar for safety, just before the American bombing. Captain Jamaluddin and flight engineer Abdul Fateh say that “the Taliban needed us. The relations were good. We had to wear beards. They didn’t have any crew: they only liked mullahs. They did not understand aviation, agriculture or politics.” Before the UN sanctions, Ariana operated a domestic schedule of about 18 weekly flights, linking Kabul with Kandahar, Jalalabad, Mazar-e-Sharif, Kunduz and Herat, using five Antonov 24s and three Boeing 727s. According to the pilots, one Boeing 727 and the five Antonovs were destroyed by the American bombing. Ariana “may” have two aircraft left: an old Tupolev Tu-154 M in Mashad, Iran, and a Boeing in Shandan, a military airport near Herat. While we were talking, corporate secretary Feda Mohd Fedawi was writing a telex to the new Herat governor, Ismail Khan, to send somebody for an on-site investigation: it’s impossible to simply pick up the phone and ask, because there are no working phones. Fedawi says that “if the Boeing is OK, we could be back in business within a week.” Although conceding that Al-Qaeda operatives constantly boarded Ariana domestic flights, they say that they “never saw these kinds of Arabs coming from Dubai.” Also, they say that “we didn’t bring any arms from Sharjah [in the United Arab Emirates], weapons usually came overland from Pakistan.” And if an Al-Qaeda operative was to travel disguised as a pilot or an engineer, “we would recognize him, because we’ve been working together for 20 years.” All Ariana pilots and engineers were trained in the late 70s, in Miami. “After the Soviet intervention,” says secretary Fedawi, “we were sending them to Lufthansa in Germany and also to Air France, and for the last six or seven years to Royal Jordanian, in Aman: they did the maintenance of the 727s.” Regarding the Arabs, the pilots insist that they would be easily spotted “because they always look angry.” One

of the pilots tells the eye-opening story of an Arab who castigated a steward because he was serving Pepsi to “kaffirs” (infidels) on a domestic flight. Most of all, the pilots are adamant: “We never carried anything that was property of Osama bin Laden.” Secretary Fedawi’s words are more nuanced. He says, “maybe sometimes the Taliban authorities asked for a plane to carry their armed people from one city to another.” And if there were any Arabs on international flights, “they did not come as fighters. They must have come as normal passengers, with passports. It’s not the airline’s responsibility to verify these documents, it concerns immigration.” Concerning the possibility of Al-Qaeda operatives flying as pilots, he adds, “If these Arabs were trained as pilots, it was in secrecy: we would have known. We have not trained new pilots for six or seven years now. And for the Antonov 24, we train them locally.” The Taliban authorities, says Fedawi, seldom left Kandahar. “The minister of civil aviation came here only once or twice a year. Everything was controlled by telephone.”

Hashimi is absolutely positive that the senior management in Ariana was distributing false Ariana identity cards. These were very easy to forge. In addition, he says that in the Emirates, “they don’t check passports, visas are not required, and the general declaration for each flight can be easily reproduced. And it was very easy to get an Ariana uniform.” The implication of Ariana management in “secret activities” is not far-fetched, considering that the president, the communications director and the controller of Ariana were all Taliban. “On their very first day in power in Kabul, the Taliban installed their people in Ariana.” Hashimi says that “all flights were overnight. When the crew arrived, the planes were already loaded, in a military area of Kandahar’s airport. Sometimes we had 14 to 15 weekly flights to and from Sharjah. And sometimes we had special flights.”

Hashimi was the commander of flight 801 from Kabul to Mazar-e-Sharif, a Boeing 727-200 – the airline’s most modern plane – hijacked in the beginning of 2000 and involved in an odyssey across Tashkent, Aktapunsky (in Russia), Moscow, and Stansted, near London, until its final destination in Kandahar. There was nothing political about it: the hijackers and their gang just wanted to leave Afghanistan.

One of these special flights happened during the mujahideen government, in 1996, a few weeks before the Taliban took over Kabul. Hashimi relishes retelling the story. “Some Sudanese people came and wanted a charter plane. They got it. I was the captain, with a flight engineer, two co-pilots and attendants. The Ariana head office had permission for a few countries, but not for Saudi Arabia. The flight was Kabul-Jalalabad-Sharjah-Khartoum. The Sudanese said that by the time we got to Jalalabad, the permit for Saudi would be OK. They said that they would bring some cargo and take it to Sharjah. In Jalalabad, we went to the governor’s house and waited. They called, and we took off. They said in Dubai that we would get our permission by telephone. When we were flying close to Jeddah, the controller asked. ‘Where are you going, you have no permission!’ Five minutes later, they said ‘You can cross, but on the way back you need permission.’”

But most of all, Hashimi was the commander in many crucial flights from the United Arab Emirates between 1997 and 1999, which brought, according to him, “many Arabs and Chechens, and a lot of weapons.” Hashimi says that the cargo “was always in big boxes. We never knew what was inside. It was always very heavy.”

Hashimi says that the crew waited for five days in Khartoum for their “cargo.” “Our plane had two configurations: with 56 passengers and with 79. They wanted 84 passengers. They asked how many extra seats we wanted. They installed the seats overnight. In the end, we flew women, children, clothes, rickshaws,

Hashimi, relaxing in his own house, told us a completely different story. He said that “when communists ruled, Ariana was their private airline. When the mujahideen ruled, it was the same thing. And when the Taliban ruled, it was the same thing. You see, this is not a democratic country. So they used it as they wanted. The Taliban used it as a military airline.”


old bikes, mattresses, blankets. It took three days to get permission to fly over Saudi. We finally reached Jalalabad early in the morning. And then I knew we had transported the bodyguards and the families of bin Laden’s inner circle. At the airport in Jalalabad, all sorts of important people came to see them, in six or seven big cars. This was before the Taliban took over. Abdul Qadir may have been there. And Sayyaf as well.” Hashimi does not know for sure if Osama bin Laden

was on that flight. “The Sheik” – as Kabulis used to refer to him – may have been a passenger. After all, nobody knew his face, and still today average Kabulis in the bazaar gape when confronted with their fist-ever bin Laden pic. More than five years after this “special flight” – with the Taliban now converted into a guerrilla force – bin Laden is still alive, hiding in a cave somewhere in Afghanistan. One thing is certain though, he won’t be on the next Ariana flight.

“I never left Kabul,” said Mullah Khaksar Akhund. A Kabul horse and cart taxi stops for passengers in the streets of old Kabul in 2001. Photo: AFP

Super defector Talking to a Taliban super-defector may not be as enlightening as meeting the man bound to become the new Afghan Foreign Minister By PEPE ESCOBAR DECEMBER 1, 2001

KABUL – The super defector entered the media-packed ballroom of the splendidly dilapidated Intercontinental hotel like he was Clint Eastwood at the Cannes film festival. He kept his turban – and his cool. The super defector is Mullah Khaksar Akhund, the former deputy minister of the interior for the Taliban. When the Taliban took power in Kabul in 1996 he was minister of security. Akhund is very much an insider with Taliban intelligence – which is not, as cynics might infer, a contradiction in terms: they communicate 46   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES


with radios powerful enough to tune into as far as Moscow, and they definitely know what’s happening on the ground in Afghan – unlike the US intelligence services that have been sending e-mail messages to journalists in Kabul trying to gather fresh information. Akhund also bears the closest resemblance to that elusive specimen – the “moderate Taliban.” Akhund’s highly publicized photo op was a convoluted operation mounted by the foreign ministry of the Islamic States of Afghanistan – that is, the Northern Alliance people actually in power in Kabul. The tone was definitely theater of the absurd, and the mullah even supplied a mantra, “I never left Kabul.” He blamed the Afghan drama on “interference from other countries,” and stressed that Afghans should “unite together to fight those interfering.” He said that “a lot of people were martyred.” He “wants to make one Afghanistan” and of course he “wants to participate in the peace process.” And, most important of all, he announced his support to the United Front – in theory the Northern Alliance plus other Afghan parties minus the Taliban. But he is not in Bonn to participate in the UN-sponsored peace conference of theoretically all Afghan parties. He said a vague “the people” would decide about that. He is in favor of a loya jirga, which would be the second step in Lakhdar Brahimi’s UN plan. But is he or is he not a Taliban? He says that “he never left the Taliban. I have been in Kabul for the last five years. The Taliban left Kabul. I never left Kabul.” For him, “the Taliban left Kabul because the United Front was stronger.” Essentially, Akhund is trying to position himself as part of the significant minority of Pashtuns in Kabul now involved, in his own words, “in work for the betterment of Afghanistan to bring all ethnic groups together.” Akhund’s credentials seem to fit his new-found moderate, politically correct public persona. For many years, he says, he had discussions with the legendary Ahmad Shah Masoud, the assassinated former army chief of the Northern Alliance, which has now visibly embraced him. 48   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

He is not exactly fond of the Al-Qaeda Arabs. “I told the Taliban that under foreign fighters there cannot be peace in Afghanistan.” He says that “Al-Qaeda is all over Afghanistan.” And he agrees that “Osama [bin Laden] is an international terrorist.” But he refuses to tell where bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Omar actually are – much to the disappointment of the global media. With a perverse smile, he said that “probably” the two men are in contact with each other. Akhund condemned the UN for “always considering the Taliban as a warring faction” – and this might explain why he is not part of the Bonn conference. He prefers to stay in Kabul and enjoy the camaraderie with his “mujahideen brothers.” He is definitely living a happy life on their side and free of the Taliban. “I can move freely. I have my own private car. And I have not committed any actions against humanity.” Akhund left the Intercontinental back to his new breezy life in the backseat of a 4X4 bearing a poster of Masoud on the windshield. While “moderate Taliban” reposition themselves for the new realities and the UN follows its ultra-complex, five-step Brahimi peace plan for Afghanistan – which started this week with the Bonn meeting – the still deliriously happy Kabulis are certain that former king Zahir Shah will come back any day soon in a golden chariot and lead them to a bright new peaceful era. Meanwhile, events change at breakneck speed. Who could imagine just a few days ago that 1,000 unveiled Afghan women would be out in the streets demanding more rights, and specially the right to work and to receive an education – and all of this filmed by Afghan TV, and broadcast on the nightly news by a couple of anchors, one wearing a light blue scarf, and not even a burqa. Once again loads of weapons are being dumped in Afghanistan – not only by Russia, but also by Iran and Pakistan. This would figure with the nightmarish scenario of the return of the mujahideen wars of the 1992-1996 period. On man, though, remains unflappably confident about the future. Groomed by Masoud

himself, Abdullah Abdullah is now ready to make his grand entrance on the world stage as the alliance’s foreign minister. He is not in Germany, though: the Northern Alliance’s top representative is Younous Qanooni, the acting minister of the interior, and currently Kabul’s busiest man. But Abdullah, a qualified medical doctor and fluent English speaker, is definitely the voice of an emerging, hopefully modern Afghanistan. He recently shared some thoughts with Asia Times Online. Asia Times: There are widespread fears that a balkanization of Afghanistan is almost inevitable – the country will be divided. Dr. Abdullah: This is not the feeling of the Afghan people. This is not my feeling. There is a cement that kept Afghan people together – despite the efforts from outside to divide Afghanistan. All Afghans consider themselves as Afghans. Then the situation has changed, inside Afghanistan as well as in the region and in the international community – to the positive. We will be helped to keep Afghanistan united. Asia Times: Walking around Kabul and talking to average Afghanis in the bazaars, 10 people in 10 say the same thing: They are expecting King Zahir Shah to come back. This is the popular expectation. How do you react to it? Dr. Abdullah: There is no reaction from my side. I would say I accent that there is some nostalgia and that there are some good feelings as well about it. The people remember that there was peace under the former king, and the former king has not fought against other Afghan groups, he has not been part of the war of the past two decades, this might help, or might give him the chance to play a role in making peace. Then the realistic expectation would be that he has influence over the situation, he has some credibility with the international community as well as in Afghanistan; that credibility, that influence should be used, should be seized in order to achieve peace and to give the people

of Afghanistan the right of self-determination. Asia Times: Do you think it is realistic to expect a strong central government in Kabul capable of influencing the way the provinces are governed – considering that many governors will be extremely powerful and very well armed? Dr. Abdullah: Not only because of that situation, but also because of the new realities of the situation in Afghanistan, there is some polarization. Nevertheless, among the Afghans, I think a strong central government might not be a recipe for a lasting peace in Afghanistan, while local authorities with more power, with affiliation to the central government, might be a solution. We are thinking of something in the middle. Asia Times: Are you going to be pushing for this kind of settlement in the conference in Germany? A sort of decentralized government with lots of autonomy for the provinces? Dr. Abdullah: I would not say that this will be decided on in this conference. This conference will be the framework, the road map, how we decide to go ahead towards the formation of a broad-based government. Asia Times: What about the lack of substantial Pashtun representation in Germany? Dr. Abdullah: Of course there are Pashtuns in Germany, many of them. Asia Times: Are you afraid that the Taliban will be able to survive as a guerrilla movement and disrupt any kind of broad-based government in Kabul? Dr. Abdullah: No. A guerrilla force, the first thing it requires is popular support. They lack popular support. There’s no chance.


Destroyed Russian tanks on the outskirts of Kabul in 2009. Russia’s return in 2001 may have caused a few laughs in Moscow. Photo: AFP

Afghan democracy in action It’s as messy as it gets. The only certainty, says Pakistani intelligence, is that this time the Russians ‘got’ Afghanistan ‘without spending a single rupee’ By PEPE ESCOBAR DECEMBER 4, 2001

KABUL – The New Great Game is taking some really wacky twists and turns. Slowly but surely, the Russian Bear is back in Kabul – 12 years after its ignominious end-of-the-Cold War retreat from Afghanistan after 10 years of occupation. Kabulites couldn’t be more amused – while President Vladimir Putin is laughing his mink coats off in Moscow – as a Pakistani intelligence source summed it up three weeks ago. “This time they [Russia] got Afghanistan without spending a single rupee.” Russian advisers are eating dinner over white tablecloths at the Intercon50   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES


tinental Hotel, while British troops have to settle for tepid cans of baked beans, freezing off their bottoms in distant Bagram airport, 47 kilometers north of the capital. Afghans couldn’t be more pragmatic: Russians are in because they are providing weapons and humanitarian help through a “military medical unit” of the Ministry of Emergency Situations in Moscow. Brits are out because they are basically just helping the American military campaign: they are not providing anything substantial. The Russians, billing themselves as “civilians” – and enjoying a high level of armed protection – are building a rescue hospital, at no cost to the Afghans, with a capacity to care for 300 patients a day. The Russians are not under a United Nations mandate. They did not tell the UN they were coming. And the UN, although a bit startled, doesn’t seem too bothered, at least on the record. Afghans in Kabul certainly need all the help they can get. Inayatullah Nazeri, the new Afghan minister for refugees, says that about 1,000 needy people arrive in Kabul every day. But south of Kabul province, in Logar province, something entirely non-Great Game is happening: a local taste of things to come in the form of a vigorous experiment in participative democracy, Afghan-style. The last Northern Alliance outpost before Taliban and/or warlord territory – guarded by two tanks – is only 20 kilometers south of Kabul. Farther afield, in Logar province, the region is totally controlled by local commanders. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the radical Pashtun hothead and former prime minister of Afghanistan, used the then recently repaved roads as landing strips during the mujahideen wars of 1992-96. The countryside is ravishing, although people are bitterly poor. Seventy percent to 80 percent are Pashtuns. The main crops are wheat and corn. In Muhamad Agha district – the most strategic in Logar – we learn from the locals in the bazaar that after convening a shura (tribal council), the local commanders finally established total control over the province – and told the Northern Alliance not to interfere. At Muhamad Agha, we met Janahamed, the North52   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

ern Alliance representative for Logar province, who showed up in battle fatigues in a packed room to confirm that “the local people control the region”. He is from Parwan, is based in Kabul, and says that he will visit Logar “every day” for consultations. Haidari, the district governor, says that the Taliban left Logar barely 12 hours after the fall of Kabul. There was no gunfight. There were only 60 Taliban in the district, according to him, and roughly only 200 controlling all seven districts of the province. Haidari says that the Taliban used to “annoy and put a lot of pressure on the people”, but that the general passive reaction was a result of their lack of weapons.

In the middle of the current, extremely murky priorities are “negotiations with the people of this province” and then to establish security – something completely absent in provinces such as Nangarhar, Ghazni and Kunduz. He does not name his preference for the next Afghan leader, preferring to state that he is in favor of “self-determination to the people of Afghanistan”. This, in local parlance, means a loya jirga. Logar did not send a representative to the UN Bonn conference of all Afghan parties: Whatever the Islamic State of Afghanistan finally decides, Logar will accept. Dr Faizullah is even in favor of a government headed by Burhanuddin Rabbini, the leader of the Northern

Alliance – something that would never go down well in other Pashtun-dominated areas. And as far as former King Zahir Shah is concerned, “He is an old man, he has had much authority, and he has the right now to participate in the negotiations.” Hopefully, the players in Bonn – intellectuals under the banner of the Cyprus process, a Peshawar delegation (the Pir Syed Ahmad Gailani group), the Rome delegation (Zahir Shah’s people), the United Front (led by Younous Qanooni, the acting minister of the interior), and the UN – will have as much good sense as the good people of Logar.

In Waghjan bazaar, a foreign presence almost causes a riot. Ghulam, a villager, says “in our area there are no Taliban any more. We are waiting for a loya jirga, [grand council] and for the UN peacekeepers”. Another villager, Baba, says, “We didn’t do anything. Let our children have education and live in peace.” Among “the people”, not a lot of bitterness seems to remain regarding the Taliban. “They were Muslim and we are Muslim. We just wish peace and security. We are needy people. We are facing hunger.” As far as the representative democracy process in this region is concerned, it seems to basically involve the rich and the respected. No women are allowed – “forget women forever” – exclaims an exalted villager. But respected engineer Akajan Barakzai – the man in charge of the electricity supply of Logar – is adamant: “This is a kind of democracy. We are building a government of all tribes.” A while later, at the capital Pol-e Alam – little more than a noisy collection of mudhouses – we finally meet the newly-elected governor of the whole of Logar province, Dr Faizullah. According to locals, he was elected after a shura [assembly] was finalized on Tuesday morning. Dr Faizullah was a previous commander of the Jamiat-I-Islami, the largest political party in the Northern Alliance. He says that he is prepared to share power with the Northern Alliance: “Yes, we recognize the Northern Alliance, we are with the United Front, and we recognize the Islamic State of Afghanistan.” FOREVER WARS   53

Residents walk past the devastated Taliban Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, in Kandahar in 2001. The ministry was one of many key installations destroyed by US air strikes in the former Taliban stronghold. Photo: John MacDougall / AFP

Cultural holocaust Surveying the cultural devastation inflicted to Kabul by the Taliban, and what’s left of the spectacular artifacts housed by the National Museum, which the Taliban saw as an ‘embodiment of sin’ By PEPE ESCOBAR DECEMBER 5, 2001

“The dust of Kabul’s blowing soil smarts lightly in my eyes, But I love her, for knowledge and love both come from her dust.” – Kabul, by 17th century Persian poet Sa’ib-I-Tabrizi. KABUL – Was it a vision, or a waking nightmare? The Taliban’s grip on power in Kabul (1996-2001) may have simply melted away. They are ghosts from a recent and tragic past. But their legacy as an “administration” remains – nothing less than a terrifying picture of desolation, devastation and nothingness. 54   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES


“All the people hate the US. They cannot get close to us. Like cowards, you want to strike us from afar.” The graffiti, in black, is written over the white exterior wall of one of the Taliban Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and repression of Vice buildings in central Kabul. Hated or not, the fact is that the US did get as close as it could to the dreaded V&V; – the Taliban religious police, answerable only to “Amir-ul Momineen” Mullah Omar. Everybody scurried out of the building in the first few days of the American bombing. Now, nothing except rubble and junk paper remains of an “Islamic school for prisoners,” run “under the guidance of Muhamad Nasir.” Sifting through the rubble, it is still possible to find some fascinating stuff – printed versions of fatwas (religious orders); plastic car licenses; “Let us go on jihad” stickers (in Pashto and in English); a copy of the diploma of one M Z Sha Mushtaq (with photo), certifying that he was an Islamic ulema (teacher) approved by the Education Minister and Chief of Islamic Madrassas (schools); English books for Taliban children; and most of all all sorts of compromising evidence about the evangelizing work of the seven detainees from the US-based Shelter Now International (SNI): books on the Power of Jesus, and very basic ABCs of Christianity. This once again proves that the Taliban intelligence was not a contradiction in terms. The SNI workers seemed to be doing what the Taliban said that they were doing. They were detained for almost two months in a few rooms in this building. In one of the rooms, the Taliban visibly compiled all the evidence and went through all the SNI workers’ belongings, including holiday photos and postcards. This was one of the main V&V; headquarters in Afghanistan. Prisoners were kept here for all sorts of un-Islamic offenses. Like the poor man who did not perform his Islamically-correct prayers one day and so his shop in the bazaar was closed by the V&V.; The offenses were all recorded and signed on official Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan paper. One of the printed fatwas says, among other things, “Try to be careful about the Islamic Emirate. Try to find the enemies of Islam. Try to promote Islam to all the world. It will be 56   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

very difficult, but bring the people closer to Islam. This will give you merit in paradise.” The fatwa is signed by Mullah Omar himself, and it concerns “all the people of Afghanistan.” Scenes of utter devastation in Badanbagh garrison, in Kabul – bombed out buildings, tanks upside down, like in a conceptual art installation in a European art show – are reproduced in a much grander scale in Rishkhor, a mere half hour drive from Kabul. The delightful “Historical Guide to Kabul,” published in 1972 by the Afghan Tourist Organization, describes “the public gardens of Gulbagh where you may picnic in perfectly delightful surroundings on the banks of the river,” and mentions “a military area where entrance is forbidden.” Entrance remained forbidden as Al-Qaeda turned the military area into a training camp – set up in idyllic scenery, totally surrounded by hills: this proves among other things that the Arabs had a certain aesthetic, apart from military sense. The camp even included a palace built by Sarder Shar Ghazi: the palace gardens, according to the Historical Guide, “are amongst the loveliest in Kabul.” Rishkhor satisfied all Al-Qaeda conditions in terms of perfect location – but it had a fatal flaw: it could not be protected from aerial ballistic might. It was bombed twice in one night, a 2,000-pound bomb left an enormous crater right in front of the main building, bedside another building that looked like an Italian villa. Reportedly 80 Arabs died in the bombing. Pakistanis were also being trained, and an arch in one of the buildings bears the inscription “Bravery” in Urdu. In an interview last year with the then minister of information and culture in Kandahar, Abdul Haiy Mutmain, he imparted to this correspondent the Taliban’s definition of culture, “People here are Muslims. This is a religious culture. We are against the customs that go against Islam. We protect Islamic and Afghan culture.” He refused to elaborate. Last march, the Taliban leadership elaborated by bombing the Bamiyan Buddhas, which had withstood absolutely everything for 1,500 years. For the Taliban, the National Museum was one of Kabul’s prime embodiments of sin.

But now the museum has been opened for the first time since the Taliban took power in Kabul. A banner above the entrance, beside a portrait of Ahmed Shah Masoud, reads in English and in Dari, ” A nation stays alive when its culture stays alive.” The first museum in Afghanistan was set up in 1919. The original collection has been especially enriched since 1922 following the first excavations of a French archeological delegation and the museum has been in the same building since 1931. The collection – before the Taliban cultural holocaust – spanned many millennium: prehistoric, classical, Buddhist, Hindu and Islamic. As we enter, we see two of the few preserved pieces of the collection: a 15th century black marble basin from Kandahar, and a 2nd century limestone inscription in Greek from Surkh Kotal. But nobody has been able to see the legacy of Taliban art destruction until now. In the vault of the museum, one of the curators was showing the remains of a 2nd century Kushan statue of a king, discovered by accident by engineers 10 miles from Mazar-e-Sharif. The limestone statue was smashed to pieces last April. Showing a fragment, the curator said “maybe” the statue could be restored, “because it was reduced on purpose to powder.” He also talked about how he was able to rescue an 8th century fresco of a Buddha from Kakrak, near Bamiyan, from the Taliban’s destructive fury. The museum was systematically looted and vandalized by the Taliban. The archive rooms were reduced to sorrowful piles of rubble. In one of the rooms some restoration materials imported from France can still be found. A few faded black-and-white photos document part of the collection – friezes from Bamiyan, Ghandara Buddhas, Indian sculpture, marble Buddha feet. The collection, according to another guidebook,

published by the Afghan Tourist Organization in 1974, was absolutely splendid: it included 4th century clay Boddhisattvas, a fabulous painted and gilded clay 7th century Boddhisattava, Buddha stucco heads from the 2nd to the 7th centuries, a 1st century relief of Aphrodite, from Bagram, a 1st century bust of Mars from Bagram that would have driven Italian Renaissance master Benvenutto Cellini green with envy, an 11th century marble relief of Turkish dancers from Ghanzi, and carved wooden figures from Nuristan, among other extremely precious items. Mir Ghulam Nabi and Muhamad Tahir Niazi, specialists in sculpture restoration, were at the museum when the Taliban destroyers arrived: they describe a working party of 10, all armed with hammers, under the orders of nothing less than a Mullah Omar delegation, comprising the minister of culture and the minister of finance, all of them solemnly supervising the destruction. Nabi and Niaz were helpless, “They said that if you try to do something we will kill you.” Nabi and Niaz say that the Taliban came for 10 days in a row, “Everything that looked like a person was destroyed, like Buddhas. Our history and culture was destroyed.” They are eager to stress that “our culture was never un-Islamic.” Even under such trauma, they have managed to save “many” statues from destruction, storing them in safe places. But they are unable to say how many of the museum pieces had been stolen and sold for collectors in the West in the past five years. Their only consolation for the moment is that “we will try to restore everything.” According to Said Mutahar, an official of the newly set up ministry of culture, the Northern Alliance is apparently in favor. It is possible that the Taliban in the end won’t have succeeded in reducing Afghanistan to culture’s ground zero.


Multiple explosions rock al-Qaeda positions in the Tora Bora mountains after an attack by US warplanes in December of 2001. Photo: Romeo Gacad / AFP

Taking a spin in Tora Bora On this side of the mountains, the Afghan mujahideen; on the other side, the al-Qaeda Arabs. Overhead, American B-52s ready to unload their heavy metal luggage. Welcome to the theater of war. Osama bin Laden has ‘disappeared’. Endgame? Not yet. By PEPE ESCOBAR DECEMBER 7, 2001

TORA BORA, Spin Mountains, eastern Afghanistan – “War is evil. Who said that war is holy? War is unholy.” The anonymous Pashtun mujahideen couldn’t possibly be in a more spectacular setting: crouching, holding his prized Kalashnikov, contemplating the majestic Spin (White) Mountains on the horizon, while a B-52 circles slowly overhead in the crisp blue sky, about to unload its lethal heavy metal luggage. The setting is Tora Bora, a South Pacific-sounding, mountainous Pashtun area in Nangarhar province. For some this is the end game, for others 58   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES


just the beginning of the real hunt for Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda Arabs by Afghan mujahideen and the United States and its allies. The theatre of war can be contemplated in a 180-degree arc from a natural stage: the desert plateau of Bamo Khel. The mujahideen have positioned three T-55 tanks on the plateau. Downhill, there is a valley around a dry riverbed, close to the village of Melawa. On the road skirting Melawa, and across the surrounding hills, the mujahideen have positioned another 10 tanks. Beyond the valley are three superimposed layers of mountains. Al-Qaeda positions are on top of the second range of mountains. This is the area known as Tora Bora – under which there is a complex network of caves, some natural, some man-made. The rock face is now subjected to massive B-52 bombing. Beyond the highest layer of mountains – which include some 4,000-meter-plus eastern Afghan versions of Mont Blanc in the Alps – are the tribal areas of Pakistan: some locals say that they can be reached only after taking an 80-kilometer circuit around the mountains. We had finally arrived face-to-face with the bombing of Tora Bora, thanks to Hazrat Ali – known in Jalalabad about 35 miles to the northeast as the “chief of law and order.” Commander Ali, a Pachi – a fierce Pashtun subtribe with its own dialect and its own code of fighting – ordered the organization overnight of an armed convoy to take some reporters from Jalalabad to the frontline. The caravan of Toyota pick-ups, driven by Pashtun adrenalin junkies with the mental age of 10-year-olds, rumbled off the next morning through dusty Pashtun villages. Osama bin Laden is said to have last been seen by villagers around Tora Bora last weekend. Bin Laden knows the area extremely well: he fought some of his first 1980s mujahideen battles in this terrain. Tora Bora has also been a center of operations for mujahideen stalwarts Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Younous Khalis. Afghan sources stress that this has been the most well-organized area of jihad operations for the past 60   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

25 years. In characteristically evasive Afghan fashion, though, nobody from Jalalabad to Tora Bora is able to confirm the whereabouts of bin Laden. Nevertheless, the mujahideen keep insisting that they have cut Al-Qaeda’s main supply route from Pakistan – which originates in the tribal city of Parachinar.

ing mortars down on the valley. The mujahideen have deployed around 600 men to the frontline – with another 1,200 in a second line of attack. They don’t know for sure how many Arabs are hidden in the mountains: it could be anything between 600 and 1,500. Hazrat Ali spoke of at least 600 hardcore Chechen fighters.

Hazrat Ali is an extremely optimistic commander. Just like bin Laden, he knows the area very well: he fought against the Soviets based in these caves. He believes that the Tora Bora battle “could take at least two weeks or more.” He is absolutely sure that “the coming snow will create more problems for them, not for us, because they won’t be able to get oil or food.”

The mujahideen insist that at least 10 “important” Al-Qaeda Arabs have died in the past few days. But it’s absolutely impossible to confirm the fate of “The Surgeon,” top Al-Qaeda mastermind Ayman Al Zawahiri, who “might” have been wounded. The mujahideen insist that the Arabs are totally surrounded. But a closer look at the topography reveals that there are many possible escape routes – though extremely laborious, according to locals from Gudara and Melawa.

Ali is part of the crucial post-Taliban triangle of power in Jalalabad. Haji Abdul Qadir, the governor of Nangarhar province, has just returned from Bonn, where he was instrumental in securing the post of new de facto Afghan prime minister for the next six months for Pashtun Hamid Karzai. Haji Zaman is the military chief of the province: he was the acting governor in the absence of Haji Qadir. Hazrat Ali is the “chief of law and order.” There is tremendous competition between Zaman and Ali to deliver the best soundbites on global TV. The Eastern Shura – which comprises the provisional governments of Nangarhar, Laghman, Kunar and Kapisa provinces – did ask the Arabs around Tora Bora to surrender – to no avail. The Shura may have been willing to give safe passage to the Arabs, according to sources in Jalalabad. But Hazrat Ali is adamant, “Our Shura simply cannot keep them.” The Arabs can surrender, escape or die in battle as shaheeds (martyrs), he says. Villagers in Gudara still swear that “the Arabs are heroes of Islam” – and they have vowed to protect them. But now even the Eastern Shura has abandoned the Arabs. On the frontline, two commanders – Aum Shah Hashimi and Sorab Khan – add a little nuance to Hazrat Ali’s spin. They say that “half of the Tora Bora is under our control, the other half under Al-Qaeda. They are on top of the mountains, shelling us.” According to the commanders, Al-Qaeda operatives are basically fir-

Commander Hashimi himself cannot tell how long will it take to extricate or even annihilate the Arabs. According to Hashimi, there is no coordination between B-52 bombing and tanks firing. But the cumulative effect this past few days has been nothing less than impressive, by Afghan standards: the tanks shot 14 shells, while a B-52 unloaded its massive bombs three times. Frightened American reporters – afraid that the convoy might be pinpointed as a target – were frantically asking their bureaus to call the Pentagon. During the night, the B-52 bombing is boosted by F-16 raids. The pace is almost relentless. But Pakistani geologists have said many times that the Spin Mountains are the real thing – as far as hard rock is concerned: practically impenetrable. Between two tank blasts, a mujahideen did not mince his words when approached by a loud and lost-inthe-maze American reporter, “We are not fighting for a reward from America. We are fighting to get rid of invaders,” in reference to the US$25 million tag on bin Laden’s head. Another mujahideen, when asked about his feelings on fighting other Muslims – bin Laden and Al-Qaeda – went straight to the point, “They are mujahideen. But they should go back to their country. We have a lot of mujahideen.”

The Pashtun mujahideen admit no casualties for the moment – except a maximum of “five or six” wounded in the valley. On the base of a recently-captured hill, they have started concentrating what they describe as “heavy weapons” – mostly rocket launchers and heavy machine guns, plus a few tanks, “some captured from Al-Qaeda.” And more Pachi Hazrat Ali reinforcements – about 200 men in pick-ups – have poured in in the past day. The possible end game – or beginning of the end game – in Tora Bora does not hide the fact that Afghanistan under the United Front is technically a lawless state. Our small group of journalists only braved the bandit-infested road from Kabul to Jalalabad – via the extremely tricky stretch in ultra-pro-Taliban Sarobi – because we were able to tag along with the mini-convoy of Jalalabad mayor Abdul Ghaffar. He traveled with 25 heavily-armed men in Toyota pick-ups – rocket launchers and grenade launchers included. Ghaffar has been mayor only since the Taliban abandoned Jalalabad in mid-November. In the two days that he spent in Kabul he met President Burhanuddin Rabbani – who badly needed Pashtun support for his bid for the leadership council. He also met hardcore Saudi Wahabbi-supported Professor Abdul Rasul Sayaf. But the Northern Alliance’s military commander Mohammad Fahim snubbed him. In the end, Rabbani got nothing in Bonn – while Fahim kept his post as defense minister and Dr Abdullah Abdullah kept his post as foreign minister. Pashtuns in Jalalabad were jubilant with the prospect of moderate Pashtun Hamiz Karzai as the de facto prime minister for the next six months. The Taliban were nowhere to be seen – or heard. Meanwhile, in remote Tora Bora, nobody can ascertain the number of dead Arabs. Al-Qaeda is “still firing” – as a mujahideen put it. The bombing is relentless. And bin Laden has disappeared. End game? Not yet.


A meeting between (left to right) Haji Zaman Gamarshareek, Hazret Ali and CIA Juliet Team leader ‘George’, during a Tora Bora battle. Photo: Wikimedia

The last battle? “Kandahar has fallen”. Radio cackle and a fire burning inside a former Taliban prison – a cement box beside a depot filled with grenades and rocket launchers - where deep into the night 14 mujahideen and two journalists learn the news. And then, the next day, amid relentless B-52 bombing, an awkward meeting with the US Special Forces. By PEPE ESCOBAR DECEMBER 12, 2001

TORA BORA, White Mountains, eastern Afghanistan – “Omar Omar.” Silence. “Omar Omar.” Radio cackle barely interferes with the bang of another set of cluster bombs showered from an F-16 over the mountains of Tora Bora – less than four miles away. But the message is merciless: “Kandahar has fallen” – repeats commander Ali Shah, enveloped in his light-gray blanket. This is the way the Taliban ends: not with a bang, but a whimper. This is the way the last frontier in the New Afghan War got hold of it all. 62   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES


The mujahideen don’t even smile under their pakool caps They bob their heads – a way of commenting on this weird pact between new Afghan interim government leader Hamid Karzai, a Pashtun moderate very close to former king Zahir Shah’s family, and Mullah Naqibullah, a pro-Taliban Pashtun mujahideen. They recharge their tanks, anti-aircraft guns and Kalashnikovs, and continue to wait for new orders from commander Ali Shah. One mujahideen, contemplating the mountains, volunteers, “Maybe Osama [bin Laden] is there after all, because Kandahar is being conquered.” Mini-earthquakes shake the cold night in Bamo Khel plateau. Massive B-52s continue to bomb Tora Bora at regular one-hour intervals. In a former Taliban prison – a cement box beside a depot filled with grenades, rocket launchers, ammunition, the works – 14 mujahideen under commander Shah and two journalists pile up amid the blankets. “Omar Omar.” Silence. “Omar Omar.” The silence is pierced only by radio cackle and a fire burning – our only source of heat and light. We sleep in a cell literally filled with smoke. Everybody rises at 4 am. It’s time for Ramadan breakfast: stale pieces of nan and the remains of a chicken stew from the previous night. During the whole day of war, nothing in the stomach until iftar, the breaking of the fast at 5 pm. War starts at 6:30 am: the mujahideen go to work elbowing each other in the trunks of Toyota pickups, smiling like the kids they mentally are. One of them plays with a hand grenade, oblivious to the possibility of sending us all to paradise. The B-52s resume their circular ballet at 6:30 am. Flashes of light emerge from the mountains. The mind boggles when we think that less than four miles away a lethal concentration, according to the mujahideen, of 3,000 Arabs, Chechens, Uzbeks and Pakistanis bent on fighting to the last man is being bombed to oblivion. These mujahideen – harder than Tora Bora rock – are the commandos of Hazrat Ali, currently “chief of law and order” in the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad. They may be members of the loosely configured Eastern Alliance. But above all they are Pachis – a Pashtun subtribe with its own language and fierce code of war. 64   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

Many of them spent years living in Peshawar in Pakistan during the Taliban holocaust. They have arrived at the frontline only a few days ago. They number a maximum of 2,000 – operating strange hardware inherited from the anti-Soviet jihad. They swear that on the other side there are no Afghan Taliban. The last frontline in the New Afghan War is an affair between Arabs and Afghans. The Arab commander is feared Abdul Kuduz – known by the mujahideen because they always intercept Al-Qaeda’s radio communications. But none of them speaks Arabic – just like none of the Arabs understand the Pachi dialect. The mujahideen say that the Arabs have only two tanks – both in shambles. All the time we spent in the frontline – almost three days – the Arabs produced only scattered mortar fire. The war between Arabs and Afghans evolves in slow motion. A few dozen mujahideen are surrounded by the Arabs: only two are captured. A mujahideen arrives at our cell extremely depressed: one of the captured is his friend. He displays some of Arab belongings: passport photos (one of them with a bullet hole), letters, an ammunition belt, a ghostly photo of a black woman in Nigerian dress with a note in Arabic. The feared Arab fighters are revealed to be beardless young men looking like well-behaved graduate students. Zarin Jan, 40, a mujahideen since 1979 (“I have no other career.”) knows the Tora Bora caves by heart: “They are enormous holes. You can go inside with a big car. The caves are at the base of the mountain. When the Arabs want to fight they come to the top.” Drawing on his experience, he says, “the Russians had many heavy weapons and a complete army. War was very difficult. These people only disappear inside the mountains.” Jan says that the Arabs “have everything inside: schools, hospitals, even parking.” It’s hard to believe they don’t have Kalashnikovs: according to the mujahideen, only “heavy weapons,” which for them means rocket launchers.

of the 2,000 mujahideen. The mujahideen took three B-52 attacks just to position a Zu – a double-barreled anti-aircraft gun from Soviet pre-history. But their knowledge of the terrain is matchless: not the commanders, but the soldiers say that the Americans should be bombing the base of the mountain, not the top. The only sat-phone on sight – a Thoraya belonging to commander Hazrat Ali, bought in Dubai – remains absolutely mute.

Gul Agha – former governor of Kandahar – and Mullah Naqibullah are extremely sketchy. Omar may have been offered – and may have already used – protection to go quietly underground. Of the three Durrani subtribes in control of the border city of Spinbaldak – essentially a canyon of containers full of smuggled goods in the middle of the desert – two say they would protect fellow Pashtun Omar, and one says they would prefer to capture him.

Suddenly, we are presented with evidence of the “invisible war” constantly evoked by US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld: two pick-ups with tinted windows with six men inside and their high-tech kits. Two journalists approach them: “We believe you wouldn’t like to speak to us.” Surprised, one of them reacts with an “Er … good morning.” Security tries to push us away.

In Tora Bora, the mujahideen know that this war could last weeks, or even months. Muhamad Issa Mishin, a hardcore Pachi from Dar-i-Noor, also fought here during the jihad in the 1980s. “The Russians came here many times, but they never managed to advance.” This happened 18 years ago. The Russians were attacking the mujahideen exactly from the same position where Hazrat Ali’s Pachis are attacking the Arabs. Mishin remembers, “We had enough to light a fire every night. We spent the whole winter here. The Russians bombed the mountains many times. Nothing happened.” And nobody – not least the Pentagon – really knows what is happening right now.

These gentlemen are nothing less than a mixed commando of American Special Forces and British SAS. They don’t seem very pleased to see the media. They go to the top of a hill and study the war map. The result comes less than an hour later: a tank and an anti-personnel carrier are repositioned. The offensive will restart from zero. The Taliban have been dislodged from every single Afghan province. But are the Taliban dead? Not really. Most of the men who matter have already comfortably parked their turbans in Peshawar – global capital of the Afghan diaspora, including six former Taliban ministers and diplomats who now want … a voice in the new Afghan government. Taliban leader Mullah Omar may have – or may have not – left Kandahar, depending on which Kandahari faction you listen to. Details about the famous pact brokered by Hamid Karzai with

Osama bin Laden was apparently sighted a few days ago on horseback commanding his troops – or maybe that was a mujahideen’s imagination fired up by good hashish. Osama bin Laden may still be hiding in the caves of Tora Bora. Or he may be in the neighboring province of Paktia. He may be in Khost. Or he may be in Khurram agency, already inside Pakistan’s tribal areas. Bin Laden and the Al-Qaeda leaders – including presumed dead Amyan Al-Zawahiri – are moving in the shadows where B-52s and F-16s are not able to penetrate.

The most absurd aspect in this absolutely asymmetrical war is the lack of coordination between the devastating B-52 and F-16 attacks and the slow offensive FOREVER WARS   65

Former Afghan president Hamid Karzai speaks during an interview in Kabul. Photo: AFP/ Anadolu Agency

Afghanistan, year zero The Northern Alliance – a mixed cauldron of warlords, opportunists, gangsters and drug traffickers – could never have imagined itself in such a powerful position, backed by American military might By PEPE ESCOBAR DECEMBER 22, 2001

ISLAMABAD – All roads lead to Rome. In Afghanistan, all roads lead to Kabul. This time, they also led to Rome. Hamid Karzai, the de facto Afghan interim prime minister for the next six months, starting on Saturday, went to Rome to get the blessing of former Afghan king Zahir Shah. The first British Royal Marines – leading a multinational, 16-country, 3,000-plus force – are already in Kabul. Afghanistan is finally, officially, back within the concert of nations after the social holocaust of Taliban theocracy. 66   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES


But this is no Kosovo or East Timor. This is a much more complex operation. The six billion dollar question is inevitable – for Afghans and Pakistanis, for Russians and Chinese, for members of the European Union: what do the Americans really want? Afghanistan is at present totally liberated from the Taliban – thanks to the precision and imprecision of American ballistic wrath. And the US are on the ground in force – inside the strategic Bagrum and Kandahar airports, inside the newly reopened American Embassy. But the facts on the ground are also implacable. Not a single Taliban leader – Mullah Omar included – has been captured. They all have comfortably parked their turbans, for the moment, in Pakistani tribal areas – after buying their security from avid mujahideen commanders through the surrendering of territories. Only a few dozen minor, exhausted Al-Qaeda fighters – and a few dozen families – were captured in the Tora Bora caves. Osama bin Laden and his “thousands” (sic) of ferocious fighters theoretically escaped to the tribal areas, according to Eastern Alliance commanders in Jalalabad. Reality is even more brutal – as Asia Times Online has already revealed. A bunch of Afghan commanders were rewarded with increased local prestige, cash and weapons by reassuring gullible Americans that bin Laden was still in Tora Bora, when in fact he may have escaped weeks ago to deserted Helmand province, and then to the Iranian part of tribal Baluchistan.

which reigned over Kandahar for more than a century, with very close connections to the royal family. He knows all the major and minor players, he speaks Dari and Pashto fluently, not to mention English, and he considers himself to be most of all an Afghan. But he is up against some formidable “invisible” opposition. Uzbek warlord Rashid Dostum – essentially a dangerous gangster – will be working against him. And so will the recently destitute former United Nations-recognized president of the Islamic State of Afghanistan, Tajik theology professor Barhanuddin Rabbani. Pir Syed Gillani, the Pashtun leader of the so-called Peshawar group, is also extremely unhappy with the Bonn arrangements. And Ismail Khan, the charismatic former and current governor of Persianized Herat, will not pay too much attention to a distant government in Kabul, where he has no representation. Dostum and Rabbani, especially, will try to discredit or simply ignore moderate Pashtun and royalist Hamid Karzai’s set up. Sources related to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) insist that Karzai is nothing but an American-imposed figurehead. Anyway, not Karzai but the Northern Alliance will really be in control of this government: they are the hard and soft core of the Panjshir valley: Tajik “children.” Younous Qanooni, a Tajik, will be the minister of the interior. Dr Abdullah Abdullah, a Pashtun by birth, will be the foreign minister. And General Fahim will be minister of defense. In the UN-sponsored Bonn conference, the trio had their say over the Pashtun ethnic majority, over the Hazara and Uzbek ethnic minorities, and also over old-guard Tajiks such as the disgruntled Rabbani – who afterward openly accused Qanooni of betrayal.

Without the capture of “The Sheik” bin Laden, or Al-Qaeda’s No 1, Ayman “The Surgeon” Al-Zawahiri, not to mention Mullah Omar, American “victory” is It won’t be exactly a popular government, but one nothing less than bitter. And the consequences of this has to remember that not a single Afghan government inconclusive “victory” are bound to affect the perforsince the communists in 1978 had popular support. mance of the next Afghan interim government seriousAs far as Kabul is concerned, the only overwhelmingly ly. popular solution is the return of former king Zahir Shah, but this will happen only in the first semester of This is a government as fragile as a premature baby. 2002, when the king will be back to preside over a loya Hamid Karzai has repeatedly broadcasted his No 1 jirga, a grand council of about 1,500 Afghans who will priorities: “peace and security.” He hails from one of choose a transitional 18-month government. the most traditional families of southern Afghanistan, 68   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

The new Afghan interim setup will deal directly with a plethora of concerned foreign governments, and also with hundreds of millions of dollars bound to flow into the country as humanitarian aid. Those opposed to Karzai’s government may not have direct access to the goodies, but some will control large amounts of territory and loads of weapons. Dostum’s case is the most worrying: he controls the vital supply route used by humanitarian convoys from Uzbekistan, and he is idolized by thousands of fanatic soldiers. Rabbani has very close relations with many warlords – including the devious Pashtun leader, Professor Sayyaf. Behind these characters there’s the shade of an even more sinister warlord: radical Pashtun Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, still exiled in Iran, and still bitterly accusing the US of imposing an agreement in Bonn. For many in Pakistan, the accusation is more plausible than it seems. Hekmatyar holds the dubious record of being the only prime minister in history to have bombed his own capital with rockets, during the chaotic mujahideen wars of 1992-96. The fact remains that the Northern Alliance – a mixed cauldron of warlords, opportunists, gangsters and drug traffickers – could never have imagined itself in such a powerful position, and is backed, so far, by American military might. But the eventual success of Hamid Karzai’s government will depend on an array of very crucial factors. Afghan warlords will have to decide whether their priority is revenge or reconciliation. If the atavistic Afghan tribal instinct of solving any problem with a Kalashnikov remains, the country will never leave the black void. The overall national and international focus must be humanitarian: 5 million refugees, about 7 million displaced people in the country, and at least 150,000 children on the verge of dying because of malnutrition. The Afghan warlords – for the first time in history – will have to overcome their personal rivalries and work for a common cause: peace and development. But even

their best intentions will not be enough if neighboring countries continue to play the same destructive game of positioning themselves in Afghanistan for their own geopolitical gains. It’s no secret that a few influential sectors of the Pakistani ISI told the Taliban not only not to fight, but also to retreat in the next few months, reorganize in the tribal areas, and come back in a not too distant future as a Pashtun force. There’s only one major difference in relation to the tragic past. The US is apparently committed to contributing major political, military and financial help. The marines are in the airports. The diplomats are in Kabul. Multilateral financial organizations are apparently ready. A few weeks ago in Kabul, Molloch Brown, Afghan administrator of the UN Development Program (UNDP), said that until the end of January the UNDP would have set the priorities and the total cost of the Afghan rebuilding effort, to be shared by the UN, the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank. Brown said that he was “confident about donor potential,” and that he would do his best to “lock them into a multiyear plan.” International cynics might say this is just business, because Washington would never be interested in a war-stricken and famine-driven wasteland in the first place. The fact is Afghanistan’s natural wealth and status as a conduit for the pipelines transporting the riches of Central Asia are essential parts of the US$5 trillion oil and gas business of the New Great Game. Pakistan also has much to gain from the $2 billion gas pipeline to be built from Turkmenistan to Pakistan via Afghanistan, not to mention the boost to its indigenous industries, such as logistics, construction and food with new opportunities in its neighbor market. Among all these uncertainties, though, only one thing is certain. “Pipelinestan” or not, hidden American agenda or not, hidden Pakistani agenda or not, the historic opportunity for Afghanistan to emerge from the black void is now. Or never.


French President Jacques Chirac (R) greets Afghan interim leader Hamid Karzai on February 28, 2002 before their lunch at the Elysee Palace in Paris. Photo: Patrick Kovarik / AFP

An Afghan in Paris After visiting India, Pakistan and Iran, interim government leader Hamid Karzai enjoys a little joie de vivre, and insists Afghanistan is now ‘stable’ By PEPE ESCOBAR MARCH 5, 2002

PARIS – “Trust me! There is no ethnic war in Afghanistan!” Interim government leader Hamid Karzai – impeccably dressed as usual and displaying his trademark esprit – was not exactly pleased by the question from Asia Times Online. “The war was imposed on us by outsiders. Our best strength is that all Afghans are in favor of unity. Every Afghan considers himself above all an Afghan.” So, according to Karzai, any ethnic consideration is superfluous: “Our national identity is very strong. Any other country would have been de70   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES


stroyed by the civil war. Afghanistan is now probably more stable than the people around us.” So much optimism does not conceal the fact that “Afghanistan needs a national army” – and needs the help of everybody: the US, the International Security Force, the European Union. But this is “not to suggest Afghanistan is insecure”, insists Karzai. He wants, in fact badly needs, “commitment from the international community.” Karzai assures that “the extension of the mandate of the Security Force is demanded by delegations from all the Afghan provinces.” In five or six weeks’ time, the first soldiers of the national army will take their posts. Six-thousand to 7,000 men will be trained in the next 18 months – not exactly enough to secure a country as volatile as Afghanistan. Globetrotting Karzai – with an entourage of around 20 – has been visiting a cluster of crucial latitudes lately – especially India, Pakistan and Iran. India has always supported the Northern Alliance against the Taliban. His visit to Pakistan was meant to pre-empt any possible moves instigated by Islamist sectors inside the Inter-Services Intelligence agency against his government. In Iran, Karzai was royally received – as he is fond of remembering at every opportunity. Hard-line Iranian Shia clerics consider him a puppet of the US, while Washington has been accusing Tehran of turning a blind eye to the escape of Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders (it’s not true: they sneaked in via the southeast supported by anti-Tehran Sunni mujahideen). Karzai is keen to emphasize that there is no “misunderstanding” regarding Iran. He mentions cultural agreements signed with Tehran and a common engagement in the fight against drug trafficking. He thanks both Iran and the US for their help, and stresses that “if we can work as mediators between the US and Iran , this would be a good thing … But they certainly must cooperate inside Afghanistan.” Afghanistan, stresses Karzai, now has “strategic freedom of choice: we are now a free country.” Karzai is fond of singling out many examples of goodwill towards his government. In Herat and Jalalabad, he’s been seeing many young 72   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

people now proud of their “freedom and dignity”, who believe in the new political set-up and especially praise the fact that “national dignity has been restored.” The same kind of response was elicited when he attended a concert of Afghan music in Tehran. And at Georgetown University in Washington, he says, “all the girls wanted to be president of Afghanistan.”

A US military vehicle drives past the Om Al Maariq mosque in Baghdad. Photo: Wikimedia

There are no women in the Hamid Karzai travel party, though. That’s because his women ministers “prefered to stay, working in the countryside; they had more important things to do inside Afghanistan.” Karzai assures that “we will have a good representation of women in the Loya Jirga [grand council]” expected to be called in June. During his Paris visit, he diplomatically exalted France’s “multidimensional role” in aiding Afghanistan and helping set up its national army and national police. France actually is not campaigning for an expansion of the International Security Force (ISAF): Paris considers “this is not necessary at the time.” But France would be in favor of a “longer mandate.” Karzai also said Afghanistan accepts a Turkish command of the ISAF in the near future. Housed in style at the lush quarters of the Raphael Hotel in Paris, Karzai also visited the Guimet Museum – where he inaugurated a fabulous exhibition of Afghan art. He expects that most of the works – drawn from the Guimet Collection, the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg, the Museum fur Indische Kunst in Berlin and private collectors – “will be exhibited permanently in Kabul.” He said his government had already opened “the National Archives, galleries and music schools.” Among the precious relics, visitors to the exhibition are able to follow the period when Indo-Greeks dominated the Indus basin as far as contemporary Lahore. The supreme masterpiece is a splendid 2nd century Apollonian Buddha marble head from Peshawar, bought in New York by a Swiss collector. Its power reminds one how the clumsy Taliban tried so hard to annihilate even memories of this crucial civilization. The Taliban? Never again, says Karzai: “We are Muslims, and we are going to have our democracy, in the framework of our religion.”

Baghdad glued to Beirut In this land at war, which has suffered the ravages of Sumerians, Akkadians, Elamites, Babylonians, Assyrians, Medes, Persians, Greeks, Parthians, Sassanians, Ummayyads, Abbassids, Seljuks, Safavids, Ottomans and British, another war may be inevitable – but nobody seems to be running for cover yet By PEPE ESCOBAR MARCH 28, 2002

BAGHDAD – Saddam Hussein ordered the construction of the Om Al Maariq mosque in 1998, slightly before a US bombing campaign. The magnificent mosque – sort of Islam meets art deco – is capable of holding 1,800 worshipers and is the largest in Baghdad. It was finished last year, but Thamir Ibrahim, the chief of the protocol department at the mosque, refuses to say how much it cost. But despite FOREVER WARS    73

the secrecy surrounding many sensitive buildings in Baghdad, it would be a stretch of the imagination to accuse the mosque’s authorities of hiding weapons of mass destruction. Saddam has visited the complex only once, last September. He did not go to the inauguration but during the three years of construction he was very busy writing – in handsome Arabic calligraphy – a copy of the Holy Koran. This is now solemnly displayed at the mosque behind a circular glass wall. Iraq’s Islamic credentials could be very handy at this crucial juncture in the history of the Middle East. Already in Jordan’s capital city, Amman, before crossing the Jordanian-Iraqi border and cruising the 551 kilometers of impeccable freeway through the desert towards Baghdad, it is possible to sense the Arab world’s refusal to link Washington’s involvement to defuse the tragic spiral of violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with support for a military strike against Iraq. From Amman to Baghdad, and including echoes from Cairo, Damascus and Beirut, Arab diplomats admit in private that a collective Arab position supporting Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah’s proposal is the key to breaking the impasse in Palestine and to preempting a US military strike against Iraq. But this would mean less American dominance of the whole Middle Eastern peace process – while the European Union is busy reconfiguring itself as the big player-in-waiting. The EU is more than eager to assume an extremely high profile. Talks have been going on since 1991. The Arab world is definitely considering a formal “invitation”. Not accidentally, endless German delegations travel to Baghdad. Arab diplomats – echoing Brussels – also comment that the US and Israel definitely don’t want the EU to have a strong role in the Middle East. Musa Kellani, a respected Jordanian columnist, observes, “The European posture is based on the realization that Europe stands to bear the brunt of instability in the Middle East – by sheer proximity and the historical European involvement in the region’s affairs.” 74   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

From the point of view of both Amman and Baghdad, and for a number of not necessarily the same reasons, it is fair to assume that increasingly the Arab world is going to rely on Europe. Arab diplomats, including those present at the Arab League summit that began in Beirut on Wednesday, are convinced that Washington’s interest in the Middle East revolves around one issue only: oil. And they have also seen how Washington has simply ignored the EU collective criticism of the Bush administration’s obsession on attacking Iraq. Baghdad has its eyes set firmly on Beirut. In the past few weeks Iraq has staged a complex diplomatic dance around many Arab capitals – designed to offset US Vice President Dick Cheney’s 11-nation Middle East trip. The vice president of the Iraqi Revolutionary Command Council, Izzat Ibrahim, and Foreign Minister Naji Sabri visited Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman and the United Arab Emirates. Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan visited Sudan and Yemen. Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz went to Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco. Cheney left the Middle East without an Arab mandate to attack Iraq. Unlike the Arab street, the official Arab world wants the US to play a strong, resolute role in resuming the Araraeli peace process – but on one condition: Iraq cannot be sacrificed. This is the “message” likely to emerge from the ongoing Beirut summit. Consequently, an impasse is inevitable: the US wants a solution to Palestine, but also a free hand to attack Iraq. Amir Musa, the Arab League’s secretary general, has repeated again and again, “The Arab-Israeli conflict is one thing. The Iraqi-Kuwait conflict is a different one.” The Arab world’s version of “saving face” in this confrontation would be to extract a maximum of concessions to the benefit of Palestine, since Washington has already made up its mind regarding Iraq.

low economic growth, high unemployment, very high internal and external debt and weak exports. Oil wealth of late has meant practically nothing in terms of achieving a better standard of living. The Arab countries’ combined gross domestic product (GDP) was US$440 billion in 1980. It was about $730 billion in 2001. The annual growth rate was about 2 percent – with an average inflation of about 3 percent. So real GDP growth was actually negative. The average real GDP growth globally was 3 percent in these two decades. The Arab countries’ population in 1980 was 140 million. It was 285 million in 2001. So per capita income has also declined. In Saudi Arabia, for instance, it fell from $25,000 in 1988 to $8,500 in 2001. Trade has not provided a solution. The Arab Free Trade Agreement (AFTA) has existed since 1998, with 14 member countries. Total exports of the Arab world in 2000 – including oil – were $243 billion: this is less than the combined exports of Hong Kong and Singapore ($250 billion in 2000). Inter-Arab trade was only $33.5 billion in 2000, only 8.6 percent of the total. Excluding oil and minerals, inter-Arab trade is only 16 percent of the total.

At a “Scientific Conference on the Impact of Weapons on Humans and the Environment in Iraq”, the best scientists in the land denounced the effects of US bombing with depleted uranium, while the president of the organizing committee stressed that “evil powers want to destroy Iraq in the name of peace.” For educated Iraqis, the martyrs of the second intifada in Palestine are as cherished as the martyrs of the Gulf War – thousands of them victims of bombing by depleted uranium. No wonder: for people of the Book – Jews, Christians, Muslims – Iraq is a holy land, as well as Palestine. The Biblical Eden was situated somewhere between the Tigris and the Euphrates. When God chased Adam and Eve from paradise, paradise was located in Mesopotamia (in Greek: “the earth between the rivers”.) At the traditional souk Al Alabi, in old Baghdad, vendors of shirts and socks from Syria are unanimous, “I am Iraqi. I am strong.” Ministry of Information officials assure that no bunkers are being built to protect the civilian population from possible US bombing.

In the relatively upscale Masba neighborhood, Baghdad boys cruise in luxury cars and eat pizzas at California-style cafes. In this land at war, which has suffered the ravages of Sumerians, Akkadians, Elamites, BabyAs the Arab world struggles in Beirut to find the same lonians, Assyrians, Medes, Persians, Greeks, Parthians, voice politically as well as economically, Iraq – as we Sassanians, Ummayyads, Abbassides, Seljuks, Safavids, hear everywhere in Baghdad prone at the moment to Ottomans and British, another war may be inevitable – extremely metaphoric sandstorms – remains a country but nobody seems to be running for cover yet. at war. But the popular mood is defiant.

While politics is the main axis of the Arab summit in Beirut, economic issues are equally important. Arabs are finally realizing that they must put aside political differences for the sake of economic interests. The Arab world is facing a common challenge: countries as diverse as Saudi Arabia and Iraq are confronted by FOREVER WARS    75

US soldiers patrol a market in the centre of Mosul. Photo: Nicolas Asfouri / AFP

The vanishing middle class Surveying, on the ground, the progressive impoverishment of Iraq By PEPE ESCOBAR MARCH 30, 2002

BAGHDAD – Tahir (not his real name) used to be a teacher in Baghdad. He can be found at the traditional streetwalk book souk (market) in Moutanabi street, perusing dusty copies of biographies and dictionaries. A made-in-Iraq pirated copy of the Complete Idiot’s Guide to Windows 98 sells briskly for the equivalent of about US$3. The vendor, Abil, used to be a civil engineer. He’s been jobless for the past nine years. Now these pirated computer manuals and English dictionaries help him feed his family of five. 76   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES


Tahir, speaking faultless Spanish, reminisces about his days in southern Europe in the 1980s. He once worked for the Ministry of Culture, but the pay was too low, so he quit to support his family of four. Now he is an occasional driver, “My wife is also a teacher,” he says. “Do you know how much she makes? Six dollars a month.” Shown a remarkable war-photography book by Iraqi lensman Rahim Hasan, published in 1987, both Abil and Tahir are reminded of the “forgotten” – at least in the Western press – Iran-Iraq war. “I fought in that war,” says Tahir. “There were one million and a half dead. It was the elite of the population – doctors, engineers.” Abil and Tahir are survivors. They are now part of a vanishing group: the Iraqi middle class. They cannot exercise their chosen profession. They don’t have the “connections” to obtain an exit visa and try a new life, maybe in Jordan, maybe in the Gulf, maybe in Europe. They are bewildered when told that Iraq is going to be attacked – again – by the United States, and they ask, “Has the decision been made? Is it inevitable?” Dr Humam Al Shamaa, professor of economy and finance at Baghdad University, explains the progressive impoverishment of Iraq. “The state made a tremendous effort to rebuild the infrastructure of the country after the war ended [in 1988]. With no financial resources, it was forced to resort to emission of currency, which accelerated the rhythm of inflation four and a half times a year until 1995. Wealth disappeared under the inflationary pressure. The currency deteriorated. People depending on salaries were gradually impoverished. Tens of thousands of Iraqi families now rely only on government rations to survive. Iraq’s riches disappeared under the pressure of inflation on one side and the embargo – which is the cause of this inflation. The value of the Iraqi currency fell 6,000 times compared to the 1980s. Poverty is everywhere.” The rations supplied by the state are at least sufficient to prevent a famine, according to Shamaa. “They’re enough to assure the survival of the Iraqi people. The rations are calculated according to basic necessities: wheat, oil, rice, tea, sugar, soap. It’s impossible to raise 78   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

the amount of ration tickets because we cannot support a people that does not work. That was the aim of the ‘oil for food’ program. We think that if we import everything we need to feed ourselves, we will forget the agriculture sector – and that would instigate a crisis in all other economic activities in Iraq. The agricultural sector employs 50 percent of the population. Iraq cannot be turned into a country that eats without producing anything.” According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, had Iraq not organized a rationing and distribution system, the country would certainly have faced a terrible famine. Apart from any political considerations, this is an Iraqi merit that is never acknowledged in the West. Denis Halliday, former assistant secretary general of the UN, the man who started the oil-for-food program in Iraq – and later resigned from the UN, calling the US-inspired embargo “a genocide” – has never stropped criticizing the United States and Britain for blocking the shipping of humanitarian supplies to Iraq. As much as US and British politicians and the media accuse the Iraqi regime of “punishing” Iraqis, the US and Britain themselves increase the punishment by withholding humanitarian shipments of vaccines and painkillers. Shamaa says that unlike in most developing countries, there is no migration in Iraq from the countryside to the urban centers – rather the reverse. “There are no jobs in the cities. Jobs are in agriculture. Many people left the cities to work in the countryside, raising cattle and poultry.” But in the bazaars of Baghdad, some people who agree to talk stress that there is no work in the provinces: workers have to migrate to Baghdad. And in Baghdad, there are no jobs even for qualified people such as Abil and Tahir.

allowed by the oil-for-food program. We have managed to reactivate 50 percent of the private industrial sector.” Yet Iraq has very few pockets of excellence in the industrial sector: cement and the chemical and petrochemical industries. “But they are handicapped. They work at a maximum 30 percent capacity. The embargo prohibits the import of almost any heavy machines. Only spare parts are allowed.” And even if Iraq managed to bypass the hellish UN bureaucratic machine – controlled and vetoed by the US and Great Britain – it would not have enough means to pay for these parts as it does not have enough foreign currency. Baghdad now displays the same floating population of street kids that can be found in Jakarta or Rio de Janeiro. Signs of impoverishment are everywhere, contrasting with the bland and usually gray intimations of Islamist-Stalinist architecture. Madinat-es-Salam (“The city of peace”), the dream of its founder, the caliph Al-Mansur, in the 8th century, has seen it all in terms of misery and massacre. Yet it remains defiant. It’s historically a city of survivors. Everybody mentions with pride how the destruction caused by the Gulf War has been rebuilt. There’s even a Challenge Museum – painstakingly detailing the reconstruction of telecom centers, bridges or schools bombed during the war. After the Gulf War, only a “minority that practices

commerce,” according to Shamaa, managed to maintain their standard of living. “There are no official statistics, but they are not more than 10 percent of the population.” So would it be fair to say that the middle class simply vanished? “There is no more middle class in Iraq. Before they were rich, then they became semirich, but now the majority is poor.” In Baghdad’s two or three relatively upscale streets are a cluster of “investment banks.” Shamaa dismisses them outright. “They call themselves investment banks but they are in reality commercial banks, of a very mediocre level. Capital does not surpass 1 billion or 2 billion Iraqi dinars [the current exchange rate is $1 to 1,960 dinars; it used to be about $1 to three dinars before the Gulf War]. There is not a lot of investment in Iraq. There is no Arab investment to speak of. Everything is frozen because of the embargo. There is only one authorized investor, a Lebanese. That’s it.” Iraq’s national budget for 2002 is about 1 trillion dinars. Unemployment is officially estimated at 17 percent, but Shamaa says actual unemployment is closer to 30 percent, including disguised unemployment. But among informal opinions in the bazaar, unemployment is placed at almost 50 percent. At a Chinese restaurant in the relatively upscale Masba quarter, a lawyer behind his Yamaha synthesizer singing Que Sera Sera allows himself a smile: He may be living a surreal life staring at empty tables, but at least he’s got a job.

According to Shamaa, “The industrial sector in Iraq also faced enormous difficulties. Access to raw materials and intermediate materials was assured by income from the oil industry. But with the embargo, we could not import these materials anymore. Seventy percent of the industrial sector is practically paralyzed. We try to start things over by providing at least some materials FOREVER WARS   79

Iraqi men exchange local dinar in front of packets of money showing toppled leader Saddam Hussein and counterfeit bills (L) showing Imam Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of Islam’s Prophet Mohammed, in Baghdad in June 2003. Photo: Sabah Arar / AFP

Sorry, your credit is no good In an exclusive interview, Iraq’s Minister of Trade says the ‘axis of evil’ is ‘the United States and Britain. Not Iraq, Iran or other Muslim countries’ By PEPE ESCOBAR APRIL 4, 2002

BAGHDAD – The United States consistently accuses Iraq of being a country incapable of development, and under a “merciless Stalinist dictatorship.” Iraq consistently accuses the US of enforcing an inhuman embargo which has caused hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths. Some voices in the West recognize that the United Nations embargo and sanctions are not only playing against the interests of Iraq, but against the interests of the international community as well. 80   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES


Mohamed Mamdi Salim, Iraq’s Minister of Trade, received Asia Times in his office, dressed in military uniform, to talk about the UN embargo. Excerpts: Asia Times: What kind of trade is Iraq still allowed, considering the country is subjected to an array of UN sanctions? Mohamed Mamdi Salim: As you know, Iraq is allowed the “oil for food” program, in certain limited quantities: food, medicine, and other requirements for education, sanitation, agricultural equipment, etc. But there are severe difficulties in the process of approval of contracts, and consequently opening letters of credit and delivering the commodities. Asia Times: How many contracts are blocked at the moment? Mohamed Mamdi Salim: More than US$8 billion worth of contracts. Asia Times: Most of them are with European, Arab or Asian companies? Mohamed Mamdi Salim: With Arabian countries, Russia, France … Asia Times: Who blocks these contracts? Mohamed Mamdi Salim: The United States, of course, and the British. There’s no objection at all from other members of the Security Council. Only the United States and Britain, since the beginning of “oil for food” in 1996. Sometimes Japan supports the United States, although the support is limited. The United States and Britain have a political attitude, rather than [an attitude] relating to the procedure of “oil for food.” Asia Times: In the Iraqi government’s view, what 82   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

could be done to circumvent this dead-end situation? Is there a way out? Mohamed Mamdi Salim: No, unless they change their position. The situation of approval runs through the veto system. [If] any country rejects any contract, or has any complaints on any contract, then that contract will be on hold. They have the power over the Security Council 661 Committee. So they are doing their job efficiently, rejecting contracts for the Iraqi people. The implementation of “oil for food” has reflected that policy and has become a project for meeting the requirements of United Nations compensation, United Nations expenses, balancing of oil prices, and not for the Iraqi people, due to the fact that Iraq received, from the US$52 billion during this program, only US$17 billion worth of commodities. US$10 billion was deducted by the United Nations for compensation and their expenses, and the remaining contracts are on hold. Asia Times: So who is benefiting from the embargo and the “oil for food” program? Mohamed Mamdi Salim: The United Nations. And those who import oil.

items to buy, we put them on the list, then we submit this list to the Sanctions Committee, and the committee decides whether to allow it or not. Asia Times: Hospital doctors in Baghdad say they cannot import incubators, for instance. And you cannot import computers as well. Mohamed Mamdi Salim: Yes. We are not allowed. Everything is 100 percent politically motivated. Asia Times: Diplomatically and politically, would Iraq be able to change the situation with more support from other parts of the world? Mohamed Mamdi Salim: Europe itself has benefited from the contracts. “Oil for food” reflects the reality of the policy of the United States for the international community – using the blockade policy against their contracts with Iraq. They [the Europeans] know what is the real intention of the United States and Britain against Iraq. They [the Europeans] are trying but they cannot do much. Asia Times: Is this all oil motivated?

Asia Times: What kind of contracts are blocked? Mohamed Mamdi Salim: Even food and medicine, they are blocking it. Basically the humanitarian side, which is related to water supply and purification of water. We are not allowed imports of pipes for supplying water to houses, for example. They have actually a policy of selecting any contract at random. Sometimes they approve a contract to import a commodity from certain countries, and reject one [for importing] from others.

Mohamed Mamdi Salim: Of course it is oil, to stabilize the supply of oil rather than deliver food and medicine to the Iraqi people. This is entirely for the United States and United Nations compensation and expenses. The United Nations has been saved by this program, which has financed it significantly. Who works in this program? The richest people in the United Nations. Asia Times: Wouldn’t Iraq be able to get the medi-

cines it needs by evading the blockade? Mohamed Mamdi Salim: No. The important thing is how to pay. And we can pay only through an escrow account. The money is under United Nations approval. If you have the money controlled by the United Nations no one can sell you anything unless he gets the money. Asia Times: Is Iraq part of an “axis of evil”? Mohamed Mamdi Salim: The “axis of evil” is the United States and Britain. Not Iraq, Iran or other Muslim countries. Asia Times: So there are other motives for demonizing Iraq? Mohamed Mamdi Salim: Now Israel is destroying the Palestinian people, the Palestinian state, and Palestinian entities which are approved by the international community through the Oslo agreement supervised by the United States. The terrorist Sharon and the terrorist state Israel are destroying everything, even hijacking President Arafat. And the United States is supporting this policy. Asia Times: Will the Arab world finally unite, politically and economically? Mohamed Mamdi Salim: Well, they should. And they must. Because the United States will never look to their interests, even those who are under [the greatest] control of the United States. But the Arab people, even in Saudi Arabia or Kuwait, are rejecting United States policy toward Arabs and toward Palestinians.

Asia Times: Is there a fixed list of what you cannot import? Mohamed Mamdi Salim: They don’t say, “We are not allowing you to buy.” So we have to decide what kind of FOREVER WARS   83

Almustansyria University in Baghdad. Photo: Wikimedia

What is terrorism? After a lively lecture on European History at the Almustansyria University – where the students eagerly intervene with lots of questions and comments – the answers to questions posed by the foreign visitor quickly turn into questions themselves, and sharp comments on American and Western foreign policy By PEPE ESCOBAR APRIL 6, 2002

BAGHDAD – The 57-country Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), in a meeting of foreign ministers in the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur this week, could not manage to define what is terrorism. But at least the gathering managed to define what is not terrorism: and that applies in full to the Palestinian struggle against Israeli occupation. The OIC firmly stressed support for last week’s Beirut declaration of Arab leaders to establish peace and normal relations with Israel in exchange for withdrawal from all Arab lands occupied in 1967. 84   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES


This was all happening while Washington was accusing three OIC member nations – Iran, Iraq and Syria – of using terror in a “war against civilization.” Baghdad took no time to react. Foreign Minister Naji Sabri branded the allegations, made by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, as part of a US campaign aimed at deflecting attention from Washington’s support for Israel, “These are lies. It’s an excuse to promote American policies, which are completely biased in favor of the Zionist entity.” Washington’s tirade, though, managed to accomplish a miracle: to unite Iran and Iraq – and not in an axis of evil mode. Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi not only rebuffed Rumsfeld, but also voiced strong support for an Iraqi proposal for Muslim nations to restrict oil supplies to pressure the United States and Israel. This probable replay of the 1973 oil shock might be the only way out for Muslim nations to counteract what their public opinions consider an ongoing, pervasive process of humiliation by the West. The hawkish, isolationist American right, Rumsfeld-style, loves to deride “resentful foreigners” for criticizing the contours of the global American Empire. But now even the New York Times has picked up on an Asia Times Online article published last October on “The New Imperialism.” Solid scholars such as Yale’s Paul Kennedy or would-be scholars like journalist-turned think tank cheerleader Robert Kaplan are now examining or theorizing the benefits of an empire. Part of the American intelligentsia is trying to sell itself the concept of an “attractive empire,” as if imperial domination – military, political, economic, cultural – could be condensed into a one-size-fits-all centerfold bunny. A visit to an Iraqi university classroom is always instructive. Here, the concept of an attractive empire is a non-starter. After a lively lecture on European History at the Almustansyria University – where the students eagerly intervene with lots of questions and comments – the answers to questions posed by the foreign visitor quickly turn into questions themselves, and sharp comments on American and Western foreign policy. 86   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

“Is Europe a slave of America?” “Does Europe have as many prejudices against Muslims as America?” “Why does the West does not react to what the Israelis are doing to the Palestinians?” A dead-serious bespectacled girl has a message for Donald Rumsfeld, “The real axis of evil is the US and Britain.” An overweight girl, with a smile on her face, says, “Look at me. I’m strong. We will defend our country against an attack the best we can.” In three of the four authorized, official Iraqi TV channels – Al-Iraq, The Youth Channel and Iraqi Satellite Chain – the only news is Palestine tragedy news. But these students were not told by the ruling Baath Party what to say. They buy Backstreet Boys pirate cassettes for less than US$1 in stalls in front of the university, and they cruise the Internet searching for English editions of Muslim explorer Ibn Batutta’s travels or the writings of Shakespeare. And they theorize about the Empire – on the receiving end – more sharply than many a self-satisfied scholar.

an American leadership void. The White House Middle East “policy” since the beginning of 2002 has been reduced to announcing an attack on Saddam Hussein, probably between June and October. There has been absolutely no effort to prevent an escalation of violence between Israelis and Palestinians. A Washington-based scholar has told Asia Times Online that as far as the Arab world was concerned, it all boiled down to an image problem. Washington had to polish its extremely tarnished image in the Arab world before attacking a controversial and still crucial Arab nationalist leader. Washington pressed pliable Saudi Arabia for an opening. Saudi Arabia delivered – in the form of Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah’s “land for peace” proposal, unanimously adopted at the Beirut summit last week. It was too little, too late. The void had turned into a deep black hole. George W Bush is under a terror of doing anything that the hard-worker and aspiring Middle East peacemaker Bill Clinton did. And he is also under a terror of doing anything his father George

did that might alienate the hardcore Republican right. Ariel Sharon at the same time knew his government would implode if compelled to a peace negotiation. The Bush administration had been giving him the green light to invade the West Bank for weeks – since George W Bush refused to even shake hands with Yasser Arafat at the United Nations. The Washington-based scholar says that the hawks in control of the Bush administration would never admit to it. But the facts are, for them, as follows. Arafat is over. Israeli colonies in Palestinian land are OK. A Palestine state is not a viable option. But life is slightly more complicated than a Texas holiday. There’s only one interlocutor for a peace process in Palestine: Yasser Arafat. A delegation of the Brazilian Movement of Landless Peasants has just offered one of their flags to Arafat. He is considered by many to be the number one landless person in the world. “Terrorist” Iraqi university students could not agree more.

Trying to understand the point of view expressed by young people in Baghdad, one can also figure out the impossibility for the West to comprehend what it means for the Arab world to watch every day on their TVs the abominable humiliations suffered by the Palestinians. This “voice of the Arab university,” represented by Baghdad students, has understood too well that the Bush administration is not remotely interested in a peace agreement in the Middle East. They have understood that a world leader mentally in perpetual holidays in a cowboy ranch has got a single obsession: to blame all the evils of the world on terrorism – and terrorism only. But “terrorism” – undefinable even by a congregation of Muslim nations essentially on the receiving end of the American accusations – does not explain the war going on in Palestine. The latest Palestinian war has happened because of FOREVER WARS   87

Iraq’s largest oil refinery in the northern town of Baiji in 2003. Photo: Stan Honda / AFP

Oil and troubled waters Crisscrossing Iraq, from holy sites Kufa and Najaf to Basra and the Shatt-al-Arab, in the middle of the rich oil fields of both Iraq and Iran By PEPE ESCOBAR APRIL 11, 2002

FAO, on the Iran-Iraq border – From this particular point of view – right in the middle of the rich oilfields of both Iraq and Iran – Saddam Hussein’s decision to freeze all Iraqi oil exports for one month from Monday as punishment for United States support of Israel’s military onslaught in Palestine feels like a nuclear bomb is about to be exploded. For the moment, the measure affects only 3 percent of the world market. But if followed by other Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) member nations – such as Iran, Libya or Venezuela – it could 88   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES


provide the White House and the Pentagon with the perfect excuse to attack Iraq sooner rather than later. The United States ranks ninth as an importer of Iraqi oil. The all-important paragraph of Saddam Hussein’s speech – endlessly replayed on Iraqi TV – reads as follows in the official Iraqi News Agency translation: “The Revolution Command Council, the Iraqi leadership of the Baath Arab Socialist Party, and the cabinet in their meeting on April 8, 2002, declare, in the name of the faithful, honest, mujahid, noble, Iraqi people: completely stopping oil exports starting from this afternoon April 8, through the pipelines going to the Turkish port on the Mediterranean, and our ports in Basra for a period of 30 days, after which we will further decide, or until the Zionist entity’s armed forces have unconditionally withdrawn from the Palestinian territories they have occupied and have shown respect for the will of the Palestinian people and the Arab nation to sovereignty, security, dignity and life.” For the Revolutionary Command Council – the supreme executive power in Iraq – both Baghdad and Ramallah in Palestine represent the same struggle. This is the core of the Iraqi diplomacy for the crucial next few months – while for the Bush administration the two thorny issues are absolutely delinked. The only foreign news on Iraqi TV is Palestine, most of the images borrowed from al-Jazeera and Abu Dhabi TV. The pan-Arabism of the regime is more than evident in an array of explosive video clips dedicated to the Palestinian cause. Recently, in Kufa and Najaf – the holiest cities in Islam after Mecca, Medina and al-Quds (Jerusalem) – Asia Times Online learned about the existence of training camps where Iraqi volunteers are being prepared to fight a jihad against the “Zionist entity” alongside their Muslim brothers in Palestine.

the president to declare a jihad. If the president makes a sign, everybody will answer his call.” Saheb stresses that “jihad and political struggle, it is the same thing.”

is all the more powerful when juxtaposed with the fact that Iran has already approved an Iraqi proposal to use oil as a weapon.

the questions in the interview have to be submitted in advance. And the governor does not take questions related to oil.

In Najaf, where the “Prince of the Believers” Ali is buried in a magnificent mausoleum, the imam, Dr Haider Muhamad Hasan Alkelydar, confirmed the existence of the jihad training camps, some of them shown on Iraqi TV. Government officials such as Ahmed, who works in the Najaf administration, are able to say, “I want to be a martyr in Palestine. I can’t do it only because I have to take care of my mother and my wife.”

Even before Monday’s decision, oil was the incendiary issue in Iraq. Asia Times Online had definitive assurances from Paris and then Baghdad that it was possible to examine the current state of the Iraqi oil industry in Basra. But then we learned on the spot, on Saturday, that since April 1 there’s been absolutely no way to visit the oilfields. We were still in Baghdad at the time, but we were not informed.

Ten minutes later, even more changes. Murad says that Basra was waiting for permission from the Ministry of Interior for the governor to be interviewed – and the permission was denied. The previous day, the cabinet secretary had the permission from the governor himself for the interview. Murad then says that we can “shake the governor’s hands.” We decline.

Fao is also Shi’ite country. On the road from Basra to Fao, about 10 kilometers away, lies Iran, with Iraq and North Korea a part of Washington’s axis of evil. Behind a bridge over the river Al Karon it is possible to see Abadan – arguably the largest refinery in the world – its steel tubes gleaming against the sky. Most of the terrain is still heavily mined, a memory of the IranIraq war of several decades ago. By the roadside, black billboards exhort the glory of Iraqi martyrs. Fao lies beside the Shatt-el-Arab, where Iran and Iraq are separated by a river stream no wider than 800 meters. About 5,000 fishermen live on the Iraqi side. Iranian police boats patrol the river, enforcing a virtual divide to ensure that the locals don’t practice their fishing in the neighboring country’s waters. The absolute majority of the boats and trawlers carry the Iraqi flag. On the Iranian margin there’s a “monument to the martyrs.” During the Iran-Iraq war, the Iranians repeatedly tried to build a bridge over the river, always bombed by the Iraqis. The Iranians thought the occupation of Fao during the war, in 1986, was definitive. But the Iraqis took the city back in 1988 through the operation “Blessed Ramadan” coordinated by Saddam Hussein. After Fao, Iran lost any hopes of winning the war. Fao was rebuilt through a popular campaign, but again partially destroyed by American bombing during the Gulf War in 1991.

A spokesman from the governor’s office in Basra says that the order came from the Ministry of Communication. He adds that a British Broadcasting Corp team waited in Basra for a week trying to do the same thing, and then left empty-handed. The reason for the ban, “We are in a state of war.” Later, we learn from the Information Ministry in Baghdad that the order actually came from the Oil Ministry: the decision was made by the Revolutionary Command Council. We remind Basra officials that the Ministry of Information in Baghdad stressed that the governorship of Basra would facilitate any authorizations for a visit to the oil fields in southern Iraq, and also to the port of Abu Bakr. A cabinet secretary finally agrees to set up an interview so that we can have some sort of explanation straight from the governor of Basra. The next day, one Karin Murad, the governor’s director of information, again changes the rules. For starters, all

The episode reveals one of two things: either the Shi’ite southern administration does not care to observe any demands from the central government – and it is already busy preparing a secession; or, more probably, the “state of war” paranoia is a diversionist tactic to cover the fact that any minor decision in Iraq has to be fully scrutinized by the central government. Consequently, for the moment the oil industry is off-limits to “foreign spies.” As far as Saddam Hussein’s explosive gesture is concerned, for the Iraqi and Arab world mindset, the US has given a free hand for Israel to destroy the Palestinian Authority. An united Arab world might be able to exert some kind of pressure for the US to rein in Ariel Sharon. But it is getting increasingly harder to figure out how Iraq might be able to convince the Arab world and other OPEC countries to stand up against America – and simultaneously prevent a wrathful, inevitable American attack on itself.

Muhamad Abdel Saheb is in charge of the protocol department of the Kufa mosque – where Ali, the Prophet Muhammad’s brother-in-law, was mortally To learn about Saddam Hussein’s desire to coordinate blessed in 631. Kufa is the birthplace of the Shi’ite faith. an oil shock such as in 1973, uniting all the Arab world Saheb says that “we Iraqis are waiting for a sign from 90   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES


The Great Ziggurat temple, a massive Sumerian stepped mudbrick construction dedicated to the moon god Nanna, which dates back to 2100 BC in the ancient city of Ur that falls now in southern Iraq’s Dhi Qar province, 375 kilometers southeast of Baghdad. Photo: Wikimedia

All guided up with nowhere to go Traveling across Iraq: an inglorious battle against the logic of secrecy and fear By PEPE ESCOBAR APRIL 13, 2002

UR and BASRA – It’s absolutely impossible to get close to the legendary ziggurat of Ur without a letter of authorization. Ur, the Biblical city of the Chaldeans, is the land of the prophet Abraham, father of the three great monotheist religions. What is presented as the ruins of his house from around 4000 BC can also be seen near the ziggurat. According to the Holy Koran, Abraham was not Jewish, but a true believer in Allah. Around 4000 BC, Abraham left Ur for what is now southern Turkey, and then went to Palestine. Later he went to Egypt, and then 92   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES


visited Arabia, where he helped his son Ishmael reconstruct the Kaaba in Mecca, built by Adam. According to theologian Hamidullah, a Koran translator, the personality and events in the life of Abraham even inspired the Ramayana, the great Sanskrit poem. The ziggurat of Ur (Entemen-ni-Gur) is a massive three-staged pyramid built by King Ur-Namu and his son Dungi, “kings of Sumer and Akkad, kings of the four corners of the Earth,” around 2300 BC. The ziggurat was re-engineered by the famous Nebuchadnezzar (Nabochodonosor) II. A monumental staircase – rebuilt by order of Saddam Hussein – allows the visitor to ascend to the second stage. The facade of the ziggurat still bears traces of American bombing during the Gulf War – or “Mother of All Battles” as it’s known in Iraq. Nowadays the ziggurat is protected by a checkpoint, with two sleepy guards battling giant mosquitoes and equipped with a single, rattled Kalashnikov. An isolated house occupies the middle of the plain, in ruins, they say, due to American bombing three months ago. The house is about 1.8 kilometers away from the ziggurat. There’s an electricity plant 3km away. The strike against the house might be another example of American not-so-smart bombing. Or maybe someone in the Pentagon believes the ziggurat is a cover for a weapons of mass destruction site. There’s no need of a letter of authorization from a “director” to visit the pyramids in Egypt, Palmyra in Syria or Petra in Jordan. But in Iraq, even historical monuments are a matter of national security. There’s a lot of visible military activity around Ur. On the highway from Nassiriya to Basra, there’s a military post every 20km, with a single soldier equipped with the same rattled Kalashnikov: not exactly a match for the F-16s. Basra – from where Sinbad sailed to Legend – is in the heart of oil country. Iraq literally floats over oil. One liter of gas costs only 20 Iraqi dinars (500 Iraqi dinars equals 40 US cents). Twenty-five liters of gas is the same price as a 1.5-liter bottle of Furat, a brand of mineral water from Baghdad. But Basra is not Dallas. Desperadoes and their kids roam the streets. The foul smell of rotten meat is per94   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

vasive. Trash is piled up everywhere. The odd foreigner, Ukrainian or Algerian, works in the spare parts business related to the oil industry, and drowns his malaise in “cabarets” straight out of a Fellini movie. At the level of the ordinary citizen, Iraq works through a logic of secrecy and fear. It’s sometimes possible to learn from a bazaar merchant or from a teacher doubling as a taxi driver that the regime fears the possibility of Israel exporting its “repression” to Iraq. It’s very easy to get arrested in Iraq: one just has to go out in the street unaccompanied and film or photograph one of a plethora of Saddam Hussein portraits and murals: Koranic Saddam, Artistic Saddam, Bedouin Saddam, Saladin Saddam, Rifle-toting Saddam. Even trying to photograph a cinema lobby – full of posters of cheap American flicks – could be a one-way ticket to jail: one is immediately thrown out by a “security officer”. The bazaar merchant or the taxi driver will then tell us that every foreigner is under suspicion of being a spy. To show the merits of Iraq – and they do exist – is even harder because of this pervasive paranoia. We try to find the representatives of a French non-governmental organization (NGO), Medecins du Monde (Doctors of the World), in Basra: there are only two nurses, one French, one Dutch. We learn they are “on vacation in Baghdad.” In Baghdad we were told they were working in Basra, helping to rebuild and reequip hospitals.

an official guide from the Ministry of Information in Baghdad. But this official guide is little more than a tourist in Basra. One needs a specialized Basra guide. Depending on the occasion – a visit to a hospital, a visit to a mosque, a visit to the Kuwait border – another guide guides the Basra guide. One is soon in the surreal situation of being a single foreigner surrounded by a horde of minders, like a rapper or a mafia don. Basra guides are particularly effective in guiding one nowhere. Dr Jawad al-Ali is a consultant physician at the Saddam Hospital. He is responsible for statistics concerning patients with leukemia – caused, they say, by American bombing with depleted uranium. Dr Ali manages to give us the address of a family with four cases of leukemia, living in a heavily bombed area near Basra. But the guide says a visit to the family is a no-go: we don’t have an authorization from the Ministry of Health. We go to a primary school, trying to check the state of the educational system in southern Iraq. The guide even knows the director of the school. But we cannot visit: we don’t have authorization from the Ministry of

Education. The justification for all this: “We are surrounded by enemy countries” (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and most of all Iran). Iraq officially ends about 20km south of Basra. There are only two guards on the Iraqi side of the border, a barrier, a small billboard in Arabic, and a “Stop” sign in Arabic and English. On the other side of an absolutely void 1km no man’s land between Iraq and Kuwait is the point where America decided to end the Gulf War. To cross this no man’s land one needs to address a message to the International Committee of the Red Cross, which is then relayed to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The reply might take weeks. On the outskirts of Basra, we find a former soldier who fought the eight-year Iran-Iraq war. He is weary. Most of his friends died in battle. He still carries a bullet in his left shoulder. Looking at the smoke and fire breathing from the oil and gas fields in the distance, he decides not to mince his words: “The Arab world is not good. This government is no good. Before the war, Iraq was good. Iran now is better.”

At 16h30 practically every afternoon in Basra there’s a siren. Then another at 17h30. The first day we are told a “Kuwaiti civilian helicopter” violated Iraqi airspace. It’s a joke, of course: the reality may be an incursion by American F-16s. The next day – after another siren – we learn from an official Basra guide that the last American bombing was actually five months ago: “Military installations,” he remarks. In Baghdad, officials from the Ministry of Information swear the bombardments happen every day. A comprehensive tour of Basra reveals that the visible anti-aircraft artillery is not capable of even shooting pigeons – not to mention F-16s. So much for the myth – built by the Pentagon – of the “fourth strongest army in the world.” One cannot even go to a restaurant in Iraq without FOREVER WARS   95

A bronze statue of Saddam Hussein stands beside the Saddam Tower in Baghdad. Photo: EyePress News / EyePress via AFP

Ghosts Saddam City is a dirty, derelict, depressing sleeping-bag city: during the day everybody is out trying to make ends meet, in the formal or mostly the informal economy. Whenever there are siren calls announcing American bombing raids, special police reinforcements are sent to Saddam City: the “system” takes the possibility of a Shi’ite rebellion of the masses very seriously By PEPE ESCOBAR APRIL 18, 2002

BAGHDAD – “People here are afraid even of their own shadow,” says the Ghost Man. He should know. He’s dead scared. Saddam International Airport boasts its own VVIP (very VIP) terminal – for government ministers, ruling Baath Party notables and high-roller traders profiting from the United Nations trade embargo. Mere mortals use the Babylon terminal, the only one not idle among others with suggestive names (Ninive, Samarra). Saddam International – an impeccably neat and very modern airport by developing-world standards – is basically a green-and-white ghost town for most of the day because of the embargo – it is fully equipped with nowhere to go. International flights depart only to Amman and Damascus, and domestic flights to Basra and Mosul. The solitary midnight Royal Jordanian flight to Amman barely alleviates the boredom of customs and security officials. 96   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

Mrs Shukur, wearing black pants and an elegant blue blazer, is bewildered in front of a bilingual instruction panel telling Iraqis that they are allowed to leave the country carrying only US$50 – roughly the rate for one night at an Amman hotel. Mrs Shukur, Iraqiborn, hadn’t been back since 1989. She stayed for only 10 days, attending the seventh conference under the official motto “Roots remain home wherever we are” – during which, according to official government newspapers, “expatriates express support for their country’s legitimate demands.” As an expatriate, secular, upper middle-class woman living in the United Arab Emirates, Mrs Shukur prefers to declare herself “shocked” – basically with the resurgence of Islam in Iraq. “My cousin forces his nine-year-old daughters to go around wrapped in veils.” She boards her plane to Amman with her family decked out California-casual style, mumbling that her relatives in Baghdad have at least “somehow” FOREVER WARS    97

managed to survive. Saddam International Tower is a ghost tower – absolutely off-limits to any cameras. A Saddam Hussein statue sits at the base of the tower, pointing to the sky and surrounded by scraps of American missiles that fell during the “Mother of All Battles.” On the top of the tower there is a slowly revolving restaurant – absolutely off-limits to 99 percent of the Iraqi population: a tough steak costs 6,500 Iraqi dinars (about $3.50), more than the average person will see in weeks. At lunchtime in the middle of the week, the only busy table was occupied by a delegation from the Russian parliament. From the top of Saddam Tower, Baghdad looks like a Los Angeles suburb, with a lot more sand, and mosques instead of gas stations. Less than a kilometer from the tower lies the huge, gray, grim mass of half-finished domes of the Al Rahman mosque, being built by the government. Mansions ranging from $400,000 to $1 million apiece are visible closer to the tower: this is the embassy quarter, and also home to families lucky enough to bypass completely the hardships caused by the trade embargo and the UN sanctions. The main reason for the strict no-photo policy lies 500 meters away – visible only from above, never from street level: Saddam Hussein’s Islamic-high-tech presidential palace. Entrances are far away from the main building, all of them protected by heavily fortified watchtowers. Any other top-of-the-tower revolving restaurant on the planet is an instant photo opportunity – but not in Iraq: foreign spies might sell their snaps of the palace to enemy security agencies. Instead, one can have one’s photo taken beside a huge Saddam Hussein painting and buy a “Made in China” doll at the tower shop. No Saddam toys are on sale just yet. Saddam City during the day is – what else – a ghost city. Locals say it’s home to at least 4 million people, which unofficially would compose 40 percent of


the population of Baghdad, roughly estimated at 10 million. Saddam City owes its name to a visit by the president himself: the last of these visits was three years ago.

Iraqi Oil Minister Amer Mohammed Rashid speaks at a press conference in Baghdad in June of 2002 about the possibility that Iraq may lower its export of crude oil by the middle of June because of the United Nations pricing mechanism. Photo: Karim Sahib / AFP

Saddam City is a dirty, derelict, depressing sleeping-bag city: during the day everybody is out trying to make ends meet, in the formal or mostly the informal economy. That’s why locals say there is no unemployment. Part of the city is off-limits even to locals: it’s the realm of petty crime. Almost everybody is Shi’ite: most of their parents came to Baghdad from the south in search of a better life. Whenever there are siren calls announcing American bombing raids, special police reinforcements are sent to Saddam City: the “system” takes the possibility of a Shi’ite rebellion of the masses very seriously. Saddam City is where the Ghost Man lives. The Ghost Man lives in fear. He fears the system, he fears the government, he fears fear itself. In another land and under different historical circumstances, he could have been a contender. He is not a hollow man: he is educated, he reads, he’s been to Europe. But the Ghost Man is a victim of every strike of bad luck – or Allah’s wrath – that has fallen over Iraq since the 1980s. The Ghost Man may live in Saddam City. But he’s never been to Saddam Tower. And there’s no point going to Saddam Airport either because he cannot find the money, or the connections, to board that precious flight to Amman. So he keeps slouching around the streets of Baghdad, chain-smoking, eating the odd kebab, lucky to keep an odd job for a few weeks to feed his family of four. He may abhor “the system,” but he is too weary even to try to fight back. He persistently asks whether the Americans will attack again – as if it might be the coup de grace capable of relieving him from his misery. Paraphrasing Bob Dylan, he’s not busy being born, and he’s not busy dying. But the Ghost Man of Saddam City is not totally defeated. Not yet. Until then, he remains a Dead Man Walking.

Using the oil weapon For each barrel sold at around $18 – the price during the first two months of 2002 – Iraq actually only gets $6. Syria, for instance, can pay $10 a barrel in cash. So the UN infernal machine obviously encourages smuggling. An unimpeachable source told Asia Times Online that the reason we did not get our visit to the oil fields and refineries in the south is that Basra is a base for Iranian smuggling boats By PEPE ESCOBAR APRIL 23, 2002

BAGHDAD – Three days after Saddam Hussein’s landmark April 8 speech which spelled out Iraq’s decision to halt exports of oil for one month, Minister of Oil Amir Muhamad Rasheed said this was in agreement with the official motto “Iraq and Palestine is one cause and trench to confront the joint foe represented by the US-Zionist administration.” The measure was supposed to “hurt the US economy and put pressure on the Zionist entity to withdraw from occupied Arab territories.” According to Iraq’s Oil Ministry, the proportion of Iraqi crude importFOREVER WARS    99

ed by the US is between 10 percent and 15 percent, “through a number of companies Iraq is dealing with.” According to Petroleum Intelligence Weekly, Iraq is the sixth largest oil supplier to the US. The ministry swears the oil market has been affected by Iraq’s decision, “because of the withdrawal of more than 2 million oil barrels a day.” Oil sources in Jordan say that Iraq is currently producing around 2.6 million barrels a day, of which 2 million are exported: these account for 4 percent of internationally traded supplies.

authorities in Europe and then in Baghdad that a visit to oil industry installations in Basra or Kirkuk would be approved. The oil minister was in principle in favor of a face-to-face interview – “the next day.” On one of these “next days” we finally learned that everything was cancelled: the visits, of course, and even the preagreed interview. It’s virtually impossible for a regime like the Ba’ath Party’s to understand that this paranoia about all foreign media certainly does not advance the Iraqi cause.

According to the Iraqi oil minister, “The ugly crimes perpetrated by the Zionist entity against Palestinians will prevent OPEC [Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries] states from increasing their production.” He is right on this one. He also hopes OPEC states “will adopt more active measures, decreasing or halting oil exports, to support the Palestinian cause and halt savage massacres.” On this one, he is wrong.

No OPEC member country joined – or will join – an oil embargo. Libya and Iran gave only rhetorical support. They would join the embargo only if it were backed by all Arab oil producers. Since the Gulf War, the largest OPEC member, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait have totally abandoned the use of oil as a political weapon.

The massacres perpetrated by Israel’s army – already being compared around the Arab world and in China to the Holocaust – may have ceased, at least for a while. But no OPEC member dared follow Iraq’s steps to withdraw, even temporarily, from the oil market. In another widely broadcast speech last week, titled “Arabs shouldn’t submit to American-Zionist blackmail” by Iraq Daily, Saddam emphasized that “all means are legal to a people whose land is occupied” and who are suffering from aggression. He says “Iraq has stopped its oil flow for one month after it heard from Iran its suggestion to halt oil flow for one month. It is worthy that those who suggest something should apply it.” Iran though, has not followed Iraq’s move.

Oil prices did indeed rise, but only marginally (a dollar or two), to around US$25 a barrel due to the Iraqi move. Saudi Arabia (10 percent of world production), Kuwait (2.6 percent) and the Emirates (2.7 percent) have an enormous excess capacity of 6 million barrels a day. They could easily step up their production to compensate for the Iraqi loss. But they won’t. The Arab street would never forgive them, after watching the destruction in Jenin, Ramallah and Bethlehem on al-Jazeera or Abu Dhabi TV. After the Iraqi decision, US oil giants which have contracts to import Iraqi oil took no time to request extra supplies from Saudi Aramco: they were all turned down.

Middle East oil analysts like Henry Azzam, from Jordinvest, suggest that to put pressure on the US to press Israel to behave in a civilized manner, “the best Saddam also appreciates Iran’s suggestion that oil strategy to follow is to keep the lid on oil production countries should provide “one month of oil export in order to push oil prices higher.” An oil embargo revenue out of twelve for the Palestinians.” His main – although very unlikely – would be suicidal for the point is that when “America and the Zionist entity realArab oil producers and hurt “the noble cause they are ize that Arabs are supporting Palestinians in solidarity defending.” with the region’s countries, including the neighbors of Arabs, then it is as if we have sent armies to support Fuel prices have already risen 20 percent since the Palestinians.” Israeli army started rampaging through the West Bank. The Arab capitals know that if there ever was an oil Asia Times Online was repeatedly assured by Iraqi embargo, Israeli Prime Minister Sharon would be able 100   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

to say he is the one and only friend of the West in the Middle East. And to top it all, history shows that the 1973 oil embargo did not work: Israel did not leave Arab territories occupied in the 1973 war. Oil prices certainly won’t go down after the Iraqi decision or the failed, cartoonish coup d’etat against Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, which the US, embarrassingly, was quick to endorse. Venezuela is the fourth largest OPEC producer, and the world’s fourth largest exporter (2 million barrels a day). It competes with Saudi Arabia, Mexico and Canada as the leading oil exporter to the US. American hawks certainly haven’t forgotten that Chavez was one of the brains behind the OPEC supply cuts that helped oil prices recover from their very low $10 a barrel in 1998. But the question remains: what is Iraq doing with all these non-exported barrels of oil? A thorough examination of the labyrinth of Iraqi oil sales – documented or not, and subjected or not to the UN “oil for food” program – yields … another labyrinth. But there’s no doubt Iraq will be trying to sell and smuggle to its neighbors at least part of the oil not available on the international market. It is impossible to exactly ascertain how much oil Iraq exported in the first months of 2002. The figure of 2 million barrels a day from Jordan oil sources is contradicted by a figure of 1.7 million barrels a day from industry sources in Southeast Asia. Tragic irony or not, the US is itself Iraq’s main oil client: 74 percent of its Iraqi imports come from Basra, and 36 percent from Kirkuk – a total of no less than 700,000 barrels a day. By comparison, it is fair to assume that at least 400,000 barrels a day are consumed internally in Iraq. In the past few years since the implementation of the United Nations’ “oil for food” program, 59 percent of Iraqi revenues from oil sales went to an escrow account in the Banque Nationale de Paris (BNP) in New York, controlled by the UN. Only 13 percent of the money actually went to Iraq. The Iraqis are trying harder and harder to avoid using the UN-controlled (but in fact US-controlled) BNP account. The Russians, mean-

while, are closing in: a crucial Russian delegation was recently in Baghdad. From Kirkuk, a pipeline carries oil to Turkey – at least 700,000 barrels a day. This pipeline is subject to Iraq’s one-month embargo. But the bulk of Iraqi oil is usually exported from Basra, by ship, to the Persian Gulf and beyond: around 1.2 million barrels a day. So-called “semi-legal” sales go to Jordan – as much as 200,000 barrels a day, transported by a serpent of tanker trucks that use a special road parallel to the Baghdad-Jordan border highway, and then a hairy Jordanian side road. Fifty percent of this oil is practically “donated” to Jordan at a huge discount. The UN Security Council more or less tolerates the practice, because it alleviates Jordanian economic problems. The Iraqis’ biggest coup to date to escape the backbreaking UN sanctions is an arrangement with Syria. Hundreds of import contracts are on hold in New York – blocked by the US and Britain. In the past six years, Iraq had access to only 16 percent of the revenues of its sales. But when the Iraq-Syria pipeline was reopened, the UN allowed it, “as a test.” The “test” still goes on, at a rhythm of 250,000 barrels a day. It’s a swap: Syria exports its own oil. For each barrel sold at around $18 – the price during the first two months of 2002 – Iraq actually only gets $6. Syria, for instance, can pay $10 a barrel in cash. So the UN infernal machine obviously encourages smuggling. There is indeed a lot of smuggling – and not only of oil. Between 40,000 and 100,000 barrels a day float to the Gulf toward Dubai on small cargo ships. An unimpeachable source told Asia Times Online that the reason we did not get our visit to the oil fields and refineries in the south is that Basra is a base for Iranian smuggling boats. They sail at night from Iraq, carrying no flag, and as soon as they are in international waters they start displaying the Iranian flag. The days of the Iran-Iraq war are long gone. Today Iran suggests an oil embargo, Iraq applies it, and a lively smuggling interchange keeps on going between the two. Call it the axis of business.


Iraqis take to the streets with signs calling for an Islamic government alone without a Sunni or Shi’ite focus. Photo: AFP

The Shi’ite factor Iraqi Shi’ites cannot be kept politically marginalized because sooner or later there will be a rebellion. Saddam and the Baath Party know it, and they try to seduce the Shi’ite leadership with a few carrots – but not real political say in the government. Washington perhaps has got part of the picture: what it hasn’t got is the impossibility of sponsoring Shi’ites in a rebellion against the government: these people consider themselves most of all Iraqis, and would never accept American help By PEPE ESCOBAR APRIL 25, 2002

KUFA and NAJAF – The future of Iraq itself depends on the resolution of the Shi’ite problem. Nearly 70% of the Arab population of Iraq is Shi’ite, but they have always been a political minority to the Sunnis. Kufa, founded in AD 638 under caliph Omar, is the birthplace of the Shi’ite faith – and also where Arab calligraphy was perfected into the 102   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES


splendid Kufic style. Ali, Prophet Muhamad’s brotherin-law, the fourth caliph and first imam, was mortally wounded in the Great Mosque in 658: his magnificent mausoleum is in neighboring Najaf – Islam’s fourth sacred city after Mecca, Medina and Al Quds (Jerusalem). It’s not easy for a foreigner – even accompanied by the requisite Ministry of Information guide – to get inside the Kufa mosque. An angry crowd repeats “it’s prohibited to infidels.” What’s the solution, then? “To become a Muslim. Allah prefers Islam.” Muhamad Abdel Saheb, from the ministry’s protocol department, intervenes to solve the problem and allow access. According to Saheb, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein makes “donations” to help the maintenance of the mosque – which are then distributed among hundreds of workers. Pilgrims are everywhere – straight out of a mass of tour buses. Saheb explains that for Shi’ite pilgrims living in the Gulf, no visa is necessary. But Iranians are allowed only on a seven-day Iraqi visa – enough for them to tour the holy places. At any given time, at least 8,000 Iranian pilgrims are doing the religious circuit in Baghdad, Kufa and Najaf. Saheb’s discourse is the standard Shi’ite one to be heard all over Iraq. He says that “most of all, I am Iraqi, and also a Muslim. Here there is no difference between Shi’ite and Sunni. The difference was imposed by the Zionists. Of course, we are members of the Arab Nation. And we are also known for our courage. Our force comes from Allah.” He is not afraid of a new American attack, “The Americans are enemies of humanity.” He laughs at the mention of the axis of evil. “The Americans want to dominate the whole world.” And he has a few words to say about Osama bin Laden, “Even if he did it, the Americans had no right to bomb Afghanistan. He is an Arab. The whole thing is about oil.” The great Moroccan voyager Ibn Battuta wrote in the 14th century that Ali’s tomb in Najaf was on a road right beside the tombs of Adam and Noah. Today, the tombs are housed in a magnificent mausoleum at the 104   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

Al Rawdah Al Haidaria Al Mukadasa mosque – one of the most splendid all over Islam, evoking the intoxicating atmosphere of mosques in Samarkand, Isfahan or the Ummayad mosque in Damascus. Ayatollah Khomeini lived as a refugee in Najaf – the top Shi’ite religious center – between 1965 and 1978. The current imam – Dr Haider Muhamad Hassan Alkelydar – does not remember the ayatollah very well, he was too young. Dr Haider is the ninth imam in a 200-year-old religious family. At his office, looking through a large window at a seemingly endless, hypnotizing procession of women in black contrasting with the shiny white floor, Dr Haider swears that there is no official discrimination against Shi’ites. He points out that the governor of Najaf is Shi’ite. Saddam Hussein himself came to the mosque a few times: in fact, there is a striking ceramic portrait of a praying president, close to the entrance to the tombs. The imam confirms the existence of jihad training camps near Najaf – not to fight the government, but Israelis oppressing Palestinians. As well as Saheb in Kufa, he confirms, “We are waiting for a sign from the president to declare a jihad. Everywhere in Iraq people are ready – they have received military training.” The majority of these jihadi trainees in Najaf are of course Shi’ite. But the camps are absolutely off-limits for foreign visitors. Later in Baghdad, Asia Times Online, after repeated requests, received a definitive “no” from the Ministry of Information. To understand the importance of the Shi’ite factor, it is essential to remember how contemporary Iraq is a “made in Britain” affair. Immediately after Sykes-Picot – representing an Anglo-French colonial entente – divided the Ottoman Empire, London in 1920 grouped three regions – around Baghdad, Basra and Mosul – into a country under British “mandate.” To govern this country, London placed the Hashemite dynasty, which had already been chased out from Saudi Arabia by the Saudis, and from Syria by the French. This 1920s Iraq offered the British Empire very important advantages. It had oil fields, and because

the British wanted to build a transcontinental railroad from Europe, across Turkey, and down through Iraq to Kuwait on the Persian Gulf, this railroad would allow a direct trade route with India without having to skirt Africa. This “made in Britain” Iraq more or less united Shi’ites from Lower Mesopotamia, Sunni regions around Baghdad and Kurd regions around Mosul – which in the beginning were French-controlled: but French premier Georges Clemenceau did not know they were oil-rich, and the British got them. Politically, from the beginning, the Sunnis were the dominant power – and the Shi’ites the dominated: the same status quo that had existed during centuries of the Ottoman Empire. So whatever the dominant power – Ottomans, Hashemites, British, lay, and finally the Baath Party – the Shi’ites, the majority of the population, have always remained politically inferior. The Baath Party, and then Saddam Hussein, have always had a very straightforward policy towards the Shi’ite majority. The aim of this political elite – members of the generation of the 1958 revolution which ended the monarchy – was to create a strong nation: Iraq. Iraq had everything it took to become a regional power: millions of people, lots of oil and – a blessing for an Arab country – lots of water, thanks to the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. So Iraq had to become a modern, Arab and secular nation. The political elite’s imperative was to destroy any alternative manifestation of religious and ethnic power – such as Kurd nationalism in the north and the Shi’ite majority communalism in the south and even the Madan (Marsh Arabs) . The victory of the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979 was a tremendous blow for Iraq. Saddam Hussein’s recurrent nightmare at the beginning of the 1980s was Shi’ite Iran dismembering Iraq into three different countries: Kurd, Sunni and Shi’ite. This nightmare was one of the driving factors of the eight-year IranIraq war that began in 1980, during which the West,

especially the US, relished occupying the best ringside seats. Saddam Hussein thought that Iran would attack first, so he pre-empted by using the pretext of getting back the regions of Iranian Khuzistan – which the Iraqis call Arabistan. Arabistan is basically populated by Arab tribes: the majority are Shi’ite. So Saddam Hussein – under the banner of Arab nationalism and under the pretext of rectifying an unjust borderline – went to war to destroy the Islamic Republic of Iran before the Iranians destroyed Iraq. As far as the Shi’ite factor is concerned, the crucial fact in the war was that Iran did not manage to coax Iraqi Shi’ites into destabilizing the Baath Party regime. As everyone knows, the war was technically a draw. But internally in Iraq, the Baath Party accomplished a tremendous victory: the integration of all its communities into a strong Arab nationalist state. The Shi’ite factor is also crucial to explain why the armies of George Bush Senior did not go all the way to Baghdad in 1991. The US assumed that Iraq might implode. A Kurd country might spring up in the north. And most of all, a second Shi’ite Islamic Republic might spring up in the south, allied in a sense to Iran, and right on the spot of the all-important oil fields. At the end of the Gulf War, the Shi’ite masses in southern Iraq did rebel anyway. Saddam Hussein’s repression was absolutely devastating. Western apologists of “human rights” looked the other way. More than 40,000 people were killed and hundreds of thousands of Arab Shi’ites had to become refugees in neighboring Iran. The aftermath of the Gulf War reveals how the Shi’ite factor is the heart of the matter in Iraq. The miserable masses of the south are overwhelmingly Shi’ite. They have been the main victims of the UN embargo and sanctions. There is absolutely no visible evidence in southern Iraq that they would support an American-induced rebellion against the regime in Baghdad – as some supremely disinformed Washington hawks would have it. But there is also some invisible evidence that they would do anything to get rid of FOREVER WARS   105

Saddam Hussein and the Baath Party.

water, our medicine and the future of our children.”

The imam of the lavish Masjid Al Musaoi al Kabir, in Basra – a private mosque financed by a high-ranking Shi’ite leader of Saudi Arabian origin – is very happy about the resurgence of Islam in Iraq. “Yes, people now are turning to religion. They have suffered so much – after the Iran-Iraq war, the Mother of all Battles [the Gulf War], and the embargo.” He refuses to admit Shi’ites are oppressed.

Iraqi Shi’ites cannot be kept politically marginalized because sooner or later there will be a rebellion: the government is even afraid of Saddam city, the Baghdad neighborhood. Saddam and the Baath Party know it, and they try to seduce the Shi’ite leadership with a few carrots – but not real political say in the government. Washington perhaps has got part of the picture: what it hasn’t got is the impossibility of sponsoring Shi’ites in a rebellion against the government: these people consider themselves most of all Iraqis, and would never accept American help. So the US prefers the status quo: Saddam in power, always menaced by America, and always having to look behind his back in fear of Shi’ite instability.

But some locals – members of the Shi’ite miserable masses – and willing to talk to foreigners after a lot of persuasion, finally admit that they “hate the king” (as Saddam is referred to), although they hate the Americans even more for taking away “our jobs, our clean

Pashtun tribals raise their hands in support of former Afghanistan King Zahir Shah during a gathering in Quetta in 2001. Photo: AFP

Tribal land, Taliban land Reached on a satellite telephone through an elaborate series of go-betweens, the former deputy chief of Taliban intelligence confirmed that he and ‘several thousand Taliban commanders and troops’ were now deeply involved in organizing a guerrilla war through which, ‘Allah willing, we will throw the foreigners out of our country’ By PEPE ESCOBAR AUGUST 27, 2002

PESHAWAR – He used to wear a black turban, khol (eyeliner) and a battered brown shalwar kameez (knee length tunic and loose pants). He sported a very long beard, carried a Kalashnikov and rode a Toyota pick-up. He now wears a small white round cap and a light cream-colored shalwar kameez. His face is clean-shaven, he is unarmed and he moves by rickshaw or public bus. He is the same man. Yesterday he was a Talib. Today he is a nondescript tribal in Peshawar, Kohat or even Miram Shah – a rugged frontier Pakistani town swarming with American special forces. 106   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES


Or he is one of the top men being hunted down by these forces, such as Mullah Taj Mohammed, former deputy chief of intelligence of the Taliban. During the regime’s five years in power in Afghanistan, he was one of the selected few with full access to Taliban leader Mullah Omar in Kandahar, and a self-proclaimed “close friend” of Osama bin Laden. Reached on a satellite telephone through an elaborate series of go-betweens, Taj Mohammed confirmed that he and “several thousand Taliban commanders and troops” were now deeply involved in organizing a guerrilla war through which, “Allah willing, we will throw the foreigners out of our country.” Taj Mohammed may have been one of the most illustrious Taliban who looted and fled Kabul on Sunday, November 10 last year, the day before Northern Alliance troops entered the city in triumph. Taj, with other Taliban commanders and, he says, “thousands” of soldiers, went southeast and crossed the border to Pakistan east of Khost – probably to Miram Shah. He confirms that “a few thousand” Taliban held the ground against US-led forces in the Tora Bora mountains in December, alongside Arabs from al-Qaeda, but most managed to escape. Taj himself came back to Afghanistan in March, where he says he fought against the Americans at Shah-e-Kot, near Khost. To wage a guerrilla war foretold since last December, the Taliban can count on the full support of the Pashtuns in their tribal belt in south and southeastern Afghanistan – where everybody and his neighbor deeply resents the Tajik stranglehold on Hamid Karzai’s government in Kabul, not to mention American military movements and constant incursions into Pashtun areas. Faithful to the Pashtun warrior code, Taj Mohammed and other commanders swear they fear neither American forces nor the Pakistani military. Other Afghan Pashtun sources confirm the undercover Taliban are still following instructions delivered by Mullah Omar himself. At the beginning of the American bombing of Afghanistan last October, Mullah Omar said that the Taliban and Afghans had weapons to fight foreign invaders for another 100 years. The 108   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

Taliban have already devised their guerrilla strategy – with a crucial input from their former top military commander, Jalaluddin Haqqani, and they may have already elected another leader in the event of Mullah Omar being found and “smoked out” by the Americans. Some reliable Pashtun sources in Peshawar swear that Mullah Omar is not holed up in the mountains of Uruzgan, north of Kandahar province, but in Kunar province, not far from the Chitral Valley on the Pakistani side of the border. Only a few hours before General Tommy Franks – head of the US Central Command – arrived last Sunday at Bagram air base in Afghanistan, US soldiers came under Taliban rocket fire near Asadabad, in southern Kunar. As early as last June a fatwa against the American military forces in Afghanistan and Pakistan was circulating in Peshawar, issued by the notorious fugitive Pashtun leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a former ultra-hardcore mujahideen and Afghan premier, calling for a “new jihad against the foreign invaders.” According to privileged Pashtun sources, Hekmatyar is also hidden in Kunar province, where he has access to “an unlimited amount of weapons.” Hekmatyar’s jihad call has been echoed by none other than Osama bin Laden in a handwritten letter posted this past Sunday on the website The letter – which according to the site was written a few weeks ago – was received by a Pakistani correspondent from an Afghan source. It is signed “Abi Abdallah” – “the father of Abdallah,” the name of bin Laden’s elder son. The jihad calls confirm that the Americans in Afghanistan face a guerrilla coalition of remaining al-Qaeda, Taliban and Hekmatyar’s Pashtun followers, which should not be underestimated at any cost. Military sources in Peshawar remain confident that the operations against al-Qaeda and the Taliban, as far as the Pakistani side of the border is concerned, will be successful because of a key strategic switch: now the Pakistani commandos are no longer working alongside FBI or American special forces. The government’s position is that Pakistani commandos and paramilitary

forces acting alone are receiving more tribal cooperation – citing as evidence the situation in North and South Waziristan, ultra-hardcore tribal areas very close to the Taliban. Part of the new intelligence strategy is to recruit children for 200 rupees a day (a little more than US$3) to find people who were or who had harbored al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters. Some tribal leaders, like Malik Mamoor Khan, chief of the Toorikhel tribe, are saying that “siding with al-Qaeda or the Taliban may hurt our own interests.” And others, like Malik Tooti Gul, chief of the Daryakhel tribe, remark that “if we don’t back the government against al-Qaeda, our freedom will be taken away from us.” All this may be only pro-forma, because tribal leaders simply cannot afford to ignore the overwhelming popular perception of the Americans as an invading force which totally controls the Pakistani military. The main worries for the average tribal in Peshawar or elsewhere in the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) are far from being the Taliban regrouping or the whereabouts of bin Laden. An influential local player observes that “even average people now think that America wants to fight and finish with Islam in this part of the world, starting with Pakistan.” There is plenty of resentment against President General Pervez Musharraf, his blind following of US priorities in the war against terrorism, and his latest alleged rigging of the forthcoming October 10 elections. The resentment is not necessarily expressed in political language, but in comments like “Why doesn’t Musharraf ask the US to finish poverty in Pakistan?” A Peshawar analyst says that the population is extremely frustrated: “They are even attacking the police because they have been constantly harassed.” Peshawar’s police department is notoriously corrupt, even by Pakistani standards.

On the political front, many are saying that the only hope is to vote for the Mutahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), a coalition of six religious parties which will contest the October elections. MMA’s secretary-general is the notorious Fazlur Rehman, chief of his own faction of the Jamiat Ulema Islam (JUI), which had and still has extremely close ties with the Taliban. From his headquarters at Dera Ismail Khan, Fazlur Rehman keeps doubting the impartiality of the October elections, but he assures that the MMA is engaged in bringing “a social, mental, economic and political revolution” into Pakistan. And he warns that in the event of the MMA coming to power, it would finish with “foreign interference,” devolve real sovereignty to the country and combat unemployment. Other leaders? Their rhetoric is more incendiary. Maulana Samiul Haq, chief of his own faction of the JUI and also one of the leaders of the MMA, has warned from Haqqania – his sprawling and wealthy madrassa (religious school) that educated most of the Taliban elite – that “the West is in a pact with the enemies of Muslims all over the world.” For Samiul Haq, “One billion Muslims will become a military force because of these policies.” Qazi Hussain Ahmad, chief of the Jamaat-e-Islami, has been more moderate, concentrating his attacks on Musharraf, whom he accuses of “imposing constitutional amendments at gunpoint” – an act that “reminded him of the age of Genghis Khan.” The overall sentiment in Peshawar is that Musharraf will rig the October elections to a point where, according to an influential local player, “he can say that the MMA has no popular support, and then he can move to smash the religious parties for good.” If that is the case, Taliban support will be unbeatable in the Pashtun tribal belt – on both sides of the border.


Osama bin Laden in a television screen grab from June of 1999. Photo: AFP

Osama is in Kunar, but the US can’t get him Al-Qaeda has been getting very cozy with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the ultra hardline Pashtun mujahideen and former prime minister who devastated his own capital, Kabul, with rockets in mid-1992. In early August a key meeting took place in eastern Afghanistan. Every intelligence service on the planet is now scrambling like mad to find out exactly who else was there. Perhaps Osama bin Laden himself By PEPE ESCOBAR AUGUST 29, 2002

PESHAWAR – Al-Qaeda, “the base,” is now extinct. Al-Qaeda has a brand new name: Fath-e-Islam (Victory of Islam). And Fath-e-Islam’s leader, none other than Osama bin Laden, is very much alive. But not anymore in Pakistan. Osama has returned to Afghanistan. More precisely, the Kunar province. 110   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES


Key players in the ultra-complex Pakistan-Afghanistan game had been saying that since the fall of Kabul in November 2001 that “the last battle” in this ongoing war would be in Kunar. The scenario now seems more than likely. The Taliban and the rebranded al-Qaeda have full tribal support in Kunar – where everybody seems to know someone who died from the American bombing of Afghanistan. A Pashtun notable puts the issue succinctly, “If the Americans are serious about grabbing Osama, they will have to put up a fight. On the ground. Man to man. There will be a lot of body bags.” On August 10, the Daily Ummat, the number one Urdu-language paper in the Pakistani port city of Karachi, published a front-page story filed from Asadabad, Afghanistan (the capital of Kunar). The story did not appear in other Pakistani English-language papers, nor in the international media, for that matter. The story was headlined “Osama spotted in Pakistani area – Dir.” Dir, in the northern strip of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) is about 80 kilometers from the Afghan border in Kunar province. The story also said that Ayman al-Zawahiri, aka “The Surgeon,” was reorganizing al-Qaeda something like 50 kilometers west of Chitral. Chitral, north of Dir, is at the base of the Hindu Kush mountains. The story was essentially quoting an Afghan defense ministry source – that is, a source close to the powerful Northern Alliance commander and now Defense Minister Mohammed Fahim in Kabul. Pashtuns and even Tajiks (Fahim is Tajik) comment that in the current scenario, “the Americans in Kabul cannot control Fahim – well, maybe 10 percent of him,” according to a Pakistan-Afghanistan insider. Anyway, American military sources, according to the story, were “fearing al-Qaeda may launch full-scale activity in the coming few weeks or months,” starting with an attack in eastern Afghanistan. According to the Afghan defense ministry, al-Qaeda – or Fath-e-Islam – has reorganized and has established training centers in Pakistan; it is trying to get hold of surface-to-air missiles from China; and will 112   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

launch a series of attacks against the Afghan government. The Afghans add that the Americans believe that these two al-Qaeda training centers enjoy cooperation from China. One of them is identified as being 140 kilometers north of Gilgit – the capital of the Pakistani northern areas – in an area called Markash, close to the Chinese border. The story gets some of the facts right. Al-Qaeda has, indeed, been in touch with Hezb-e-Islami (the Islamic Party founded in 1975) and has been assured of the cooperation of its volatile leader, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the ultra hardline Pashtun mujahideen and former prime minister who devastated his own capital, Kabul, with rockets in mid-1992. And al-Qaeda has also extended its network of informers in Asadabad, the capital of Kunar, capitalizing on the unrest the American presence is causing all over the Pashtun tribal belt. But a key Pashtun source – who required anonymity – fluent in Pashto, Dari, Urdu and English and acquainted with all the major players in the complex Afghanistan-Pakistan new great game, identifies not a few but a whole collection of holes in the story. Let’s call him Haji S. For starters, Haji S dismisses the notion of an al-Qaeda training center in northern Pakistan near China: “This region simply does not accept foreigners. People speak only local languages, like Balti or Brushiski.” He points to Afghan-American disinformation trying somehow to involve China, “The Chinese are being accused of harboring terrorists and selling weapons to al-Qaeda. This is serious. The Chinese know they are being encircled.” As far as the sheik with a US$25 million price tag on his head is concerned, Haji S is adamant: “Osama bin Laden would never have crossed that border. Pakistan has extensive military forces there – in the constabulary, the Bajaur Scouts, paramilitary forces. And now, whatever the Pakistani army knows, is immediately shared with the FBI.” This means, according to Haji S, only one thing: bin Laden and the Fath-e-Islam leadership are themselves based in Kunar. “The Americans know it, of course. But they simply cannot get into Kunar. It is full of

mountains and the area is religiously ultra-conservative, and 100 percent pro-Taliban. Another Pashtun source confirms the analysis of Haji S: “Americans in Kabul are scared. They get bad information all the time. They don’t understand that Afghans take the money today and forget about it tomorrow. The Americans came too early, they didn’t do their homework.” American forces in Afghanistan to date seem to have followed a pattern of highly-publicized operations in the wrong places. The latest example happened this past weekend, when hundreds of Special Forces backed by helicopter gunships and planes, and with the help of Afghan government units, encircled the village of Tani, south of Khost, and also advanced to Zormat, the biggest district of Paktia province – an area where anti-American sentiment is as extreme as anywhere else in the Pashtun belt. Locals hate the Northern Alliance’s grip on Hamid Karzai’s government in Kabul. Zormat is near the area of the huge Operation Anaconda last March – the biggest US offensive in the war so far. Anaconda was basically a failure: most Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters managed to escape to the NWFP.

and Western – public opinion to digest the fact that these soldiers are being sent on futile missions, and some in the process are being killed for it. But a lot of information about the war simply does not travel – or is edited out by the Western media. Veterans of the jihad against the Soviets in the 1980s remember that loads of Russian equipment used to be available in the bazaars of Quetta and Peshawar in Pakistan. Now anybody can buy night-vision devices, brand new M-16s, fireproof jackets and trekking boots. Where? In the bazaar in Miram Shah, in the NWFP, close to the Afghani Paktia province, where the Americans have a base. The goods are all-American, captured from American casualties.

Pashtuns swear that American casualties are mounting, although for the Pentagon they don’t exist. Different sources in Peshawar and Islamabad confirm there are American casualties every week. Even now in the tribal areas there is a lot of talk on what happened in Helmand province last December – when 200 Americans were surrounded in a valley by only 37 Taliban, and many were slaughtered, with some beheaded. A humble porter of Shaheen Cargo confirmed the story at the time: he complained that his shoulders were sore This time in Zormat, the Americans carried house-to- because he had spent the night carrying coffins to a house searches and apprehended a few guns – nothing transport plane. extraordinary as any tribal Pashtun male has been If American forces venture into Kunar they will be carrying a gun for centuries. Basically, the Americans against tremendous odds. Kashmir Khan – the most found no Taliban and no al-Qaeda. The escape pattern powerful Hezb-e-Islami commander – keeps his base is always the same: Taliban and al-Qaeda – in this last in the mountains of Kunar. Haji S says that “even the case Chechens – are tipped off by local tribals, hide in Taliban at the time did not disturb him. He is not the mountains or melt into the local population, cross interested in ideology or politics. He is interested in to the NWFP, and then return. power.” This also means that Kashmir Khan is unbribable by the Americans. The commander of the 3rd Brigade Task Force of the 82nd Airborne Division, James Huggins, was forced to Before the Taliban came to power, adds Haji S, “the admit the failure of this operation in Zormat: “It was provinces of Nangarhar and Kunar were the stronclear to me there was advance warning at each of the gest and most fortified hubs of the Hezb-e-Islami. sites we went to.” The “advance warning” always comes They were captured from the Soviets. And of course from the local population and even from warlords Hekmatyar himself is in Kunar.” Hekmatyar allegedly whose alliances lie with suitcases full of dollars, not still controls 80-odd Stinger missiles – another major with the American agenda. reason preventing an American attack. It may be totally un-Hollywoodish for American – For Haji S, the notion that the Pakistani military FOREVER WARS   113

would know about the presence of al-Qaeda in Dir and Chitral and do nothing about it is nonsense: “Either the military are conniving with al-Qaeda, which of course is impossible: or they are helpless, which is not the case, not with [Pakistan President General Pervez] Musharraf acting as such a good pal of Bush’s.” General Tommy Franks, the head of the US Central Command, said at Bagram air base in Afghanistan last Sunday that the war on terror needed to be expanded to the countries neighboring Afghanistan. Pashtun insiders interpret this as an admission of failure to find the Taliban and al-Qaeda where they really are: in Kunar. The Pakistani Foreign Office spokesman, the extremely able diplomat Aziz Khan, took no time to reply to Franks: there’s no reason for the US to enter Pakistan to look for the Taliban and al-Qaeda. When asked how Pakistan would act if the US made a formal request for American troops to cross to Pakistan to go after terrorists, Aziz Khan was unflappable, “Why should we suppose that the US would make such a request now that we are at the fag end of the exercise.” There’s the rub. This may be the “fag end” from the Pakistani perspective, but American generals from Tommy Franks down are now increasingly talking of staying in Afghanistan “for years.” In Afghanistan, and of course in Pakistan as well, where America is operating its own air bases, in strategic Baluchistan. The key player to watch in the next few moves in the game is “Engineer” Hekmatyar – as he is known in Afghanistan. The man is back with a vengeance. It is important to remember that during the jihad in the 1980s he always placed the long-term goal of an Islamic revolution above resistance to the Soviets. And during the Taliban rule starting in 1996 he was patiently waiting for an opening in self-imposed exile in Iran. Haji S insists that Hekmatyar has access to “an


unlimited amount of weapons.” “And despite the opposition of Hamid Karzai and the Americans, he had 319 members in the loya jirga [grand council] in June [that finalized the current government in Kabul] and he controls four loyal governors. He has installed his own governor even in Kunduz.” Hekmatyar is a Kharruti Pashtun who comes from a family of traders settled in a district of Kunduz, in the predominantly Tajik northern Afghan plains.

A crowd waits in front of the Bagh Tar cinema in Kabul in November of 2001. The city’s most famous theater, reopened after a five-year closure imposed by the Taliban regime. Thousands came out to see the Afghan-produced ‘Afghan Attack,’ a movie telling the fight of the Afghan people with the Soviet army. Photo: AFP

According to Haji S, Hekmatyar’s first move in a showdown against the Karzai government could be to block Sarobi, a religiously hardcore strategic bottleneck on the Jalalabad-Kabul road. And that would be only the beginning. Haji S adds that a few weeks ago Hekmatyar said strictly off the record that “Americans won’t be here [in Afghanistan] in one-and-a-half years. Two years will be the maximum.” Tommy Franks may not be aware of these plans. Another top intelligence source revealed to Asia Times Online that in the beginning of August a key meeting took place in eastern Afghanistan – more exactly in Kunar. The importance of this meeting can be attested by two subsequent visits to Islamabad this week: US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, next Afghanistan’s Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah. They did not visit Islamabad just to talk about the easing of Indian-Pakistan tensions or the situation of Afghan prisoners in Pakistani jails. It is known for sure Hekmatyar was one of the key guests at the Kunar meeting. Every intelligence service on the planet is now scrambling like mad to find out exactly who else was there – and what was decided. If they had the answers, they would indubitably unveil the road map for the next two years in the South Asia-Central Asia new great game.

Kabul: Rocking, rolling and ‘carpet-bombing’ Kabul rocks – and rolls. Now there are parties – apparently – every week. ‘Everything is flown in from Russia by helicopter – caviar, champagne and the women,’ proclaims an insider. George W Bush said that 2002 would be ‘a year of war.’ The new Iraqi war is coming, while the new Afghan war is far from over By PEPE ESCOBAR SEPTEMBER 4, 2002

KABUL – The rooftop at Mustapha’s is arguably the coolest place in post-Taliban, foreign-policed Kabul. Mustapha is basically a safe house for United Nations personnel, NGO staff and the odd Afghan-American returnee. At the end of a hot, dusty, exhausting day dodging mesmerizing traffic jams of taxis, buses, donkey carts and Toyota Land Cruisers belonging to every imaginable humanitarian agency or NGO on earth, to feel the breeze at Mustapha’s rooftop contemplating the stars and the mountains is the closest to peace one can aspire to in troubled Kabul.


There are signs of a new life everywhere. Foreign Office staff proudly display their brand new Transitional Islamic State of Afghanistan stationery – the country’s third appellation in a year. There’s an internet cafe in the basement of that derelict modernist pearl, the Intercontinental Hotel, terribly expensive by Afghan standards (US$5 an hour), when late last year the sole tattered battery of the sole battered satellite phone in the lobby was dead on an everyday basis. Ariana Afghan Airlines is flying again – to the delight of its heroic technical advisor, Feda Fedawi. The Cinema Bakthar is doing a roaring business with Indian flicks. There’s a video shop with the latest Bollywood specials in every corner. There are many more burqa-less women and many more female smiles – as women are finally able to lead normal public lives again without having to hide behind a veil. Spanish peacekeeping soldiers armed to the teeth kill time during the day hunting for souvenirs at impromptu street bazaars. Greedy merchants in Chicken Street salute foreigners disposed to shell out almost $100 for B-52 and Apache helicopter-themed carpets, which add a new meaning to the term “carpet bombing.” Kabul rocks – and rolls. Now there are parties – apparently – every week. “Everything is flown in from Russia by helicopter – caviar, champagne and the women,” proclaims an insider. Who gets to these parties? “The people you see driven around on those huge 4X4s,” he notes evasively. Some things never change, though. Nothing beats the experience of entering a tea shop in the sprawling Naderpashtun bazaar and watching a fabulous river of humanity pass by. And armies of street kids are still begging everywhere. At least 1.5 million refugees have already trickled back home since the beginning of 2002 – mostly from Pakistan and Iran, only to find the same dreadful catalogue of crippling poverty, shaky security as close as 5 kilometers outside of Kabul, the still undisputed reign of the Kalashnikov culture, and – despite a few hundred working schools – a literacy rate of no more than 30 percent. Just like in Cambodia during the UN jamboree 10 years ago, the sight of foreigners with expense accounts ordering lasagna al fresco is not exactly a sign of progress. 116   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

One question is essential: where is the money? There may be signs of crippling poverty everywhere in Kabul, but there’s a lot of money in the two money changing markets. Anyone with a stack of afghanis ($1 = 40,000 afghanis) sits down on the sidewalk and gets to business. Soon there will be a new afghani – equal to 1,000 old ones – with no pictures of Afghan heroes (just like the euro) to avoid controversies among Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras, only with pictures of mosques and historical monuments. Six different versions of the afghani can still be found in the country: a lot of people still have problems identifying the real thing from the fakes. “Dostum” afghanis are everywhere – and are promptly rejected: the Russians used to print special afghanis for Uzbek mega-warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum. It is widely suspected that Dostum’s people are now plundering customs revenue in the north. According to Mohamad Rahim, customs director in the province of Balkh, more than 25 billion Afghans were collected in the past 12 months just at Hayratan, a strategic river port 30 kilometers from the Uzbek border. But the government has not seen the color of money since July. According to customs officials in Hayratan, gunmen are showing up regularly to collect the revenues. One of the officials says that “nothing happens in Hayratan without Dostum’s permission.” There may be trading and commerce money for the moneychangers, and money collected at customs, but there’s certainly no money to pay teachers. According to Mohammad Subooryar, deputy director of education in the province of Ghor, teachers’ salaries have not been paid in more than a year. The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) is supposed to pay each teacher $40 a month, but the money has “disappeared” somewhere in the Byzantine Afghan banking system. At the hyper-congested Ministry of Planning in Kabul, Minister Mohamed Mohaqeq – a Hazara – is desperate. Mohaqeq, a former military commander, was one of the key leaders (along with Dostum) who captured Mazar-I-Sharif from the Taliban last November. Today he denounces the fact that millions of dollars in aid are being diverted out of the government’s

coffers by “well-connected people.” Because inter-governmental dialogue is so fractious, Mohaqeq says that the officials who should be in charge of aid distribution have no voice, and the money disappears before getting to the people in need. Afghanistan’s annual GDP per capita remains $160. If you’re lucky enough to find a job as a government employee, your salary will be $30 on average – or a maximum of $50. Mohaqeq says that he knows people involved in reconstruction aid who are getting their hands on as much as $15,000 a month. He adds that there’s lavish spending in luxury goods – like on those swinging underground “parties.” His solution: all aid money should come through the central government, most of all through his Ministry of Planning. Well-positioned Afghan-Americans argue that this would not do either as it reflects a Soviet-style concept of central planning. They suggest that the money should come directly to each concerned ministry – the whole process supervised by teams of Western experts. Meanwhile, the problems just accumulate. Donor countries and a plethora of international organizations have pledged $1.8 billion to Afghanistan in 2002 alone, and a total of $4.5 billion over five years. The targets this year are far from being met. On his recent visit to Kabul, the UN special envoy for Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi, expressed what any average Afghan is now beginning to understand: Brahimi would like to see a fraction of the billions of dollars funding the American military machine spent on aid and development. Afghan Education Minister Yunus Qanooni touched on the same point, “If the international community allocated only a small part of the budget it’s using to fight terrorism and educated a new generation of Afghans, that would be a great service.” Only 3 million of the estimated 4.5 million Afghan children are now in school. The shortage of teachers, buildings and teaching materials is mind-boggling. At least 2,500 schools need to be built. At least 3,500 schools need urgent repair. According to the Education Ministry, the country needs only $874 million to rebuild its entire school system until the end of 2003. But the money is still not forthcoming.

The country more than ever depends on the goodwill of people such as Muhamad. He’s a Pashtun from Kandahar married to a Hazara. He’s been 25 years out of Afghanistan – first in Australia then in the US. Now he describes himself as “a banker in Washington.” He’s back to help – distributing school packets in the Hazarajat, or at the Lycee Malalai in Kabul. “You should see the look in their eyes when they get their first pen,” he says. Muhamad perfectly understands the menace posed by powerful Afghan warlords as far as the country’s future is concerned, “They are always uneasy when they have to deal with educated people. They only understand military language. They are unfit to rule.” Muhamad tells of very powerful Afghans working in the background, close to King Zahir Shah’s family, who have told him that they would leave Afghanistan again if the situation did not change: namely, a new kind of government strong enough to face the warlords. The fact is the struggle between Afghans with a modern view for the country like Muhamad and the old mujahideen leaders is once again being won decisively by the warlords – and these include, of course, Northern Alliance warlord Mohamed Fahim, now the powerful Defense Minister. It’s an open secret in Kabul that Fahim is the man in charge, dwarfing the always elegant but otherwise ineffective Hamid Karzai. Fahim, a Tajik from the Panjshir Valley, was an operative of the political police during Najibullah’s communist regime, and then directed the secret police of the mujahideen governments from 1992 to 1996. He’s not exactly a diplomat. Afghans recently arrived from America or Europe trying to help in the reconstruction of the country say that they have the feeling of a clock turned back to 10 years ago, to the mujahideen “governments” that evolved into a civil war that practically destroyed Kabul and created the conditions for the emergence of the Taliban. The only argument of the warlords to justify their preeminence is the usual “but we were the ones who stayed here and fought the jihad” (against the Soviets). Average Afghans, though, are tired of the warlords’ grip on the country. Some of these warlords even denounced Sima Samar, the minister for women’s FOREVER WARS   117

affairs, as “Afghanistan’s Salman Rushdie.” Hamid Karzai’s transitional government has so far failed completely to enhance the power emanating from Kabul and extend it to the provinces – for obvious reasons: Afghans everywhere outside of Kabul see Karzai as “the man from America,” a weak president who cannot go anywhere without his American bodyguards. Ismail Khan, the so-called “Emir of southwest Afghanistan” who runs four provinces, and Abdul Dostum, who runs crucial Mazar-i-Sharif in the north, remain the lords of regional fiefdoms, and don’t give a damn about Kabul. Pashtuns in the Pashtun belt are secretly organizing their own counter-power. And there’s absolutely nothing that the US can do about any of this. The US still refuses to allow peacekeeping forces out of Kabul, so they could help Hamid Karzai to disarm the warlords. The Pentagon says that an extension of their role would compromise direct American military operations. The West as a whole still does not tie aid for regional government projects as conditional on human rights progress – which would be a way to reign in the warlords. And – worst of all – the West is not even providing a fraction of the aid that it promised, with or without strings attached. Take the matter of roads. Jalalabad-Kabul, a mere 150 kilometers, is still a back-breaking five-hour journey around a moonscape. The West – for all its claims of not abandoning Afghanistan this time – still is not committed to help the road-building. Without a decent road system, Afghanistan simply cannot even begin to reap some benefits from its crucial location as a Central Asia crossroads. The World Food Program (WFP) estimates that over half of all Afghan families are in need of emergency aid. But the WFP has received only 57 percent of the food that it needs from foreign donors.The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) is also in dire straits. The constant flood of Afghan refugees pouring in from Pakistan has simply overwhelmed the UN. Hundreds of thousands of these refugees lived in Peshawar or Karachi – and not in refugee camps. A 118   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

lot of them complain that Pakistani police harassment forced them to go back to Afghanistan. And when they come back they find that their homes have been destroyed and livestock killed. Even under so much strain, the UNHCR had to cut food rations to the returnees by two-thirds – and it is still warning that it may have to end all food distribution if foreign governments do not come up with the money they promised. It’s crucial to remember today that “regime change” was never the main target of the US bombing of Afghanistan. “Regime change” evolved into a doctrine only when the Pentagon woke up to the reality that it would be nearly impossible to capture Osama bin Laden and eliminate the danger of any further al-Qaeda attack.

“The US is giving only minimal economic and food aid. They are only seeking their own interests.” A third one complains. “[King] Zahir Shah was denied being named head of state by the US envoy, Khalilzad. The Northern Alliance was the chosen government by the US so that they could build their oil pipeline through Afghanistan.” And a fourth one goes straight to the point: “If the Americans want to remain loved by the Afghans they should finish al-Qaeda as soon as possible and then go away.”

On December 21, 2001, George W Bush said that 2002 would be “a year of war.” The new Iraqi war is coming, while the new Afghan war is far from over. But the definitive historical judgement of the American adventure in Afghanistan will depend on whether the bombing-provoked fall of the Taliban is capable of outweighing so many unbearable “collateral” costs.

But now “regime change” in Afghanistan is about the only tangible success of the US after Washington’s decision to answer to the September 11 challenge with overwhelming military force. In the process, the American bombing machine killed what is estimated in Kabul nowadays as as many as 8,000 innocent civilians – a “collateral damage” (copyright Pentagon) two-and-a-half times the number of victims of September 11. And this total does not include the incalculable number of those who died of hunger during the disruption of aid supplies last October – ordered by the US. The US also set the extremely dangerous precedent of one nation’s right to overthrow a foreign government – any foreign government – by bombing, and is now trying to sell world opinion a replay in Iraq. Poor, hard-working Kabulis in the bazaars are still happy: at least they can be entertained by an Indian movie without being tortured by the Taliban. But some educated Afghan returnees are increasingly desperate. A collection of opinions not usually carried by the Western media says it all. One of these returnees says that “the situation is a mess. The Americans came too early, without doing their homework, bombing everything. One more month of pressure and the Taliban would have collapsed, and we could have decided our future by ourselves.” Another says. FOREVER WARS   119

Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar prays before giving a speech to supporters in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, on April 30. Photo: Reuters

Exit Osama, enter Hekmatyar Follow all the mesmerizing plot twists in the badlands of eastern Afghanistan: the big, brash American anti-terrorist show is in town. Their new mission: ‘Get Hekmatyar’ By PEPE ESCOBAR SEPTEMBER 11, 2002

ASADABAD, eastern Afghanistan – It’s 7am in dirt-poor, semi-devastated Martyr’s Square in this town in the heart of Kunar province. The sun is already shining high and the big, brash American anti-terrorist show is in town. And what a show it is. Nine vehicles, ranging from Humvees to Toyota HiLux vehicles customized with machine guns, carrying as many as six soldiers each, all engineered to raise serious hell, take possession of the square. The whole town is watching. A commando group climbs up the 120   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES


rickety stairs to the balcony of the Istiqlal – the only hotel in town and whose unbelievably filthy washrooms are crammed with graffiti of the new jihad against America – and engages in a search-and-destroy operation against two “culprits,” as the local Pashtuns put it: this Asia Times Online correspondent and his companion, Pashto-speaking, Peshawar-based journalist Majeed Baber. The Special Forces are relatively polite – but firm. Identity documents are checked and then digital still photos and video footage is erased – under severe vigilance. Next time, the cameras will be confiscated. Although the whole process is totally illegal, all is justified in the name of the “tense” security situation. Scott, one of the soldiers, is a little more affable than the others, who share a uniform blank, psychopath-style gaze. Scott confirms on the record – and he will be the only one to do so – that the real mission is “to get Hekmatyar,” the former Afghan premier and famed mujahideen warlord, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, leader of the Hezb-i-Islami Afghanistan (Islamic Party). Scott argues the footage and photos might fall into the wrong hands. “They might see how many we are, what we are doing.” As if “they” didn’t know already. Some intelligence information is exchanged and the show departs with a bang to look for the bad guys. Later, the whole town will keep coming back to ask in utter perplexity, “What were the Americans telling you? Have you done anything wrong?” Make no mistake. This is it. One year after September 11, this is the ultimate frontline, the last, crucial battle in the new Afghan war – as the best Pakistan-Afghanistan insiders have been predicting for months. Or maybe the battle is just beginning. The fact is that now between 300 and 400 American Special Forces – according to different estimations of local Pashtun commanders – are now based in Kunar in hot pursuit of the newly-promoted number one “dead or dead” enemy in the war against terrorism in Afghanistan: Hekmatyar, the Pashtun leader and the only premier in history with the dubious distinction of shelling his own capital, Kabul, in mid-1992, causing the death of as 122   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

many as 25,000 people, until his bases were destroyed by the Taliban in early 1995. Even though the war against terrorism costs roughly US$1 billion a day, Osama bin Laden has not been found. Ayman “The Surgeon” Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s number two, has not been found. Taliban supremo Mullah Omar – who escaped from B-52 bombing last November on the back of a Honda 50cc motorcycle – has not been found. So the new bogeyman is Hekmatyar, who is gathering forces for his new jihad to drive foreign troops out of Afghanistan. Scores of international journalists are gathering at the Tora Bora to “commemorate” September 11 – perhaps hoping to shoot a bin Laden video in one of the myriad caves in which he was reputed to have hidden before escaping well before the advancing US troops arrived. Asia Times Online, instead, is trying to confirm privileged information according to which Hekmatyar is hiding somewhere in Kunar; former mujahideen leader “Professor” Abdul Rassoul Sayyaf – renamed by his Arab patrons Abd al-Rabb al-Rasul Sayyaf – has been to Kunar; and bin Laden and al-Zawahiri may or may not have recently been in Kunar. The American Special Forces – housed in a huge compound that used to be the local jail on the outskirts of Asadabad – have been camped since the end of June; in the beginning they were less than a dozen, now they’re hundreds, but still they haven’t found what they are looking for. The search – for Hekmatyar, for al-Qaeda, for supporters, for clues in the middle of ever-shifting alliances, for escape routes – is a complex puzzle. There’s only one way to go – and it is to crisscross information volunteered by all the major players. What we find is a dizzying web of political, military, tribal and religious friction. In Hekmatyar America has a formidable foe, as the Soviets found out to their cost in their Afghanistan adventure in the 1980s. He issued an anti-American fatwa in June, and last week he reconfirmed a jihad against “American invaders” and the “persecution of Pashtuns.” His Hezb-i-Islami Afghanistan now runs the show and Hekmatyar can count on hundreds of

loyal and very experienced commanders – such as Maulana Jalaluddin Haqqani, the former number one military commander of the Taliban. Al-Qaeda is collaborating with Hezb-i-Islami, but only in a supporting role. The Hezb-i-Islami – 75 percent of it made up of Pashtuns – is the most revolutionary and disciplined of all the Afghan Islamist parties. It’s nothing remotely similar to a bunch of turbans roaming around in pick-up trucks, as often the Taliban were. The Hezb is a modern organization. Recruitment and promotion is based on skill and merit – and not on social roles or how well one can recite the Koran. Hezb leaders have all been educated in Afghanistan – not in Pakistani madrassas (religious schools). Hekmatyar is a radical Islamist. During the anti-Soviet jihad his party was the absolute favorite of the Afghan refugees in Pakistan, where Islamabad helped the Hezb control 250 schools – from which 43,500 students graduated. These students are the core of the party’s new generation, and they make up most of the soldiers of Hekmatyar’s conventional military force, the Lashkar-i-Isar (Army of Sacrifice). During the anti-Soviet jihad, Hekmatyar received tens of millions of dollars from Libya and Iraq. And prior to Saddam Hussein invading Kuwait in 1990, the Saudi and Kuwaiti governments and private donors had provided as much as a billion dollars to Hekmatyar. The Hezb was also the darling of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and the Islamic conservative wahhabis from Saudi Arabia. It was also the favorite of moderate Pakistani generals and – the icing on the cake – the operations wing of the US’s Central Intelligence Agency. This went on until late 1989, when Bush senior’s administration realized that the USSR was collapsing – and Afghanistan lost its strategic importance. When the priority was to “kill Russians” – according to the crude lingo of the times – the US gave free reign to the ISI to distribute cash and weapons in Afghanistan, with no American supervision. The lion’s share always went straight to Hekmatyar and Sayyaf. It is fair to say that practically every Pashtun tribe

or clan had or has a branch or faction with a link to Hekmatyar. So it is no wonder that the man is now skillfully playing the ethnic card. In his most recent audiotaped address to people all over the Pashtun belt to the east of the country he asks rhetorically why only Pashtuns are being bombed, arrested or killed by the Americans. Hekmatyar touches the right chord in any tribal Pashtun heart when he says that Pashtuns have been humiliated by Americans searching their houses without any warning, confiscating their weapons and – an unpardonable sin in Pashtunwali, the tribal code of honor – physically searching their women. Pashtuns in Kunar and Nangarhar are convinced the Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance was behind the killing of Haji Abdul Qadir – the only Pashtun vice-president in President Hamid Karzai’s government in Kabul. Portraits of Qadir are ubiquitous in Nangarhar while not a single Karzai portrait is to be seen. Karzai, although a Pashtun, is widely despised as an American puppet and a hostage of the powerful Northern Alliance ministers, such as commander Mohammed Fahim, the Afghan Defense Minister. Karzai’s own security service is totally infiltrated by experienced Hezb-i-Islami operatives, possibly why he now relies on US bodyguards for his personal protection. Haji Matheullah Khan Safi is the core commander of Kunar. In theory, he is working with the Americans. He says that he used to speak English – but adds, emphatically, that “with this war I forgot everything.” According to him, the Americans have been in Kunar for at least two months. “When they got here, we had problems with local commanders in different checkposts. Now this is finished. The province is under a single administration.” Haji Matheullah is the first to tell what will be a recurrent story of how a group of high-ranking Arabs escaped from Jalalabad after the city fell to the Northern Alliance on November 12. “There was a huge compound full of Arabs. The most important escape to Kunar.” The Arabs were helped by Hezb-i-Islami people, by Haji Roohullah (a Kunar wahhabi rising star, recently arrested and now in American custody at FOREVER WARS   123

Bagram air base on the outskirts of Kabul) and Kashmir Khan (a high commander close to Hekmatyar whom some define as a gangster). “There were only nine Arabs at the time. But one of them was severely injured, died, and was buried near Asadabad. The eight that remained arrived in Daish and then the valleys of Shigal. There were at least four important people among them – maybe Abu Zubaida.” Zubaida, an al-Qaeda strategist, was later arrested in Faisalabad, Pakistan, in late March. Haji Matheullah cannot or is not willing to confirm a now famous meeting in the beginning of August between Hekmatyar, Sayyaf and other key people that took place in Kunar. “It is not easy for Sayyaf to get into this area. But everyone knows their thinking is the same.” He comments with a Pashtun proverb. “If you don’t eat the onion, you don’t smell.” And then he adds, “Some activities in this area might confirm that Hekmatyar could be in the remote mountains northeast of Asadabad.” A few minutes later, though, comes a new twist: “If all the people are thinking that Hekmatyar is in Kunar, he may well be in Kunar. And if Hekmatyar is in Kunar, Osama and al-Zawahiri may be as well, because they are all in contact.” We talk about how Hekmatyar – by satellite telephone, on the BBC Pashto service – announced that he supported a new jihad against the Americans, launched in Gardez and Khost, in Paktia province. “Are you sure it was a sat-phone, or tape?” He then switches to attack mode. “We did the jihad 20 years ago against the Russians, for the stability of the country and for the sake of Islam, and then we gave Kabul to these people – Hekmatyar, [Rashid] Dostum, [Burhanuddin] Rabbani, Sayyaf. What did they do to Kabul and the country? They destroyed Kabul, they destroyed the country and now they want it again.” The situation in Kunar is increasingly tense. Two weeks ago, two missiles hit the American compound in Asadabad. Haji Matheullah finally fires on all cylinders and admits fighters, numbering about 500, are probably hiding in the mountains. “It takes 48 hours to get there, by walking. We heard they bought a lot of new 124   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

weapons, RPGs, rocket launchers.” The route they most likely took is from Nawaqui, a village on the Pakistani border. On the Pakistan side lies the region dominated by the fierce black-turbaned Sufi Muhammad, who sent thousands of madrassa students in a jihad against the Americans last October. Most were killed or captured and Sufi Muhammad is now languishing in a Pakistani jail. Haji Matheullah notes that the Americans in Kunar don’t have helicopters. Anyway, that would not help: “These people could stay in the mountains during the whole winter. They collected food. They have a lot of money. They have support from Pakistan, across the border. The only way for the Americans is to go there on foot, through the mountains and jungle.” Kunar still holds a lot of sympathy to Wahhabism. “Twenty years ago, the Arabs got here and started their aid to widows, orphans, kids. There was a lot of money. When people saw what we call ‘load, coat and boot’, they converted to Wahhabism. The sheikhs, they wanted to spread Wahhabism all over Afghanistan, starting from Kunar. For this reason, the region still has a lot of relations with the Arabs.” What Haji Matheullah is actually saying is that in the community there’s still a lot of support for al-Qaeda. That’s why people in Kunar are so incensed by the arrest of Haji Roohullah. But at the same time he is also saying that “the common people support Americans, they think they are helpful.” The characteristically Pashtun twists and turns of the conversation are spiced up: “Afghans never liked foreign invaders.” And then comes the punchline. “Afghanistan has problems with Pakistan and China. The Americans want to finish the influence of neighbors on Afghanistan. They [Americans] created a nightmare for us. When they create light, they can go.” Haji Amanullah is the man responsible for Asadabad’s security. But, significantly, he is still a military Hezb-i-Islami commander. This flagrant contradiction requires extreme diplomacy. His basic judgment of the American presence is “if they want to stay long, for security reasons, and if they do not disturb the peo-

ple, they are welcome. But if they continue to search houses, scare people – the people’s temperament won’t stand them for any more than three months.” The security commander confirms that at the beginning of July Hekmatyar visited Kunar, and then went north into Nuristan. He was in touch with local commanders, “But people in Kunar told him they could not guarantee his safety. He might be in Xinjiang [western China].” But this is extremely unlikely as Beijing – ultra-sensitive towards the Muslim Uighur region in western China – would know it right away. In once again a characteristically indirect Pashtun manner, Haji Amanullah finally implies that Hekmatyar is alive – and in the region. In his view the Kunar Wahhabis “got a lot of aid from the Arabs and Osama. They still have a lot of money. But they are not more than 10,000 followers.” Haji Roohullah, according to him, was and still is receiving money from Pakistan’s ISI.

rale, according to Raiz, is “fresh, there is no tension.” Their commander is one “Captain Ryan, who came from Bagram.” Raiz thinks that the Americans will stay for long. They have “no helicopters or tanks, but there is a helipad in the compound.” In fact, every night the activity is feverish, for as long as three hours – with surveillance by drones. Raiz confirms that the mission is to get Hekmatyar. Not surprisingly, he does not know where bin Laden could be. “Sometimes, as a joke, the Americans ask me if I know something.” Everybody in Asadabad talks about how in a patrolling mission in ultra-sensitive Pech Dara a month and a half ago, four men were shot and killed by the Americans just because they were carrying a Kalashnikov. Another lethal case of cultural misunderstanding. Raiz insists that “the Americans recognized the mistake.”

Raiz Khan Mushwani is only 18. With his boyish good looks and disarming smile he could be a heartthrob in a boy band or a Hollywood television series. But he is the son of Malik Zarin – the number-one core commander of Kunar (so one assumes that Haji Matheullah is in fact number two). Malik Zarin spends most of his time in crucial meetings in Kabul. His son stays in Asadabad . Raiz says that “more than 20 people” are working closely with the Americans. And he, at only 18, is their commander.

Gradually, in the Kunar puzzle, emerges the crucial figure of another commander, Khan Jan. Khan Jan is a distinguished Hezb-i-Islami commander, as well as being the mayor of Asadabad. The Americans tried to arrest him and they raided and, according to some, even fired on his house. They think that he meets regularly with Hekmatyar, Raiz admits. “Khan Jan has popular support in the area.” As we talk to Raiz, we finally learn that none other than Khan Jan himself is in the same compound. He came to meet Malik Zarin – or Raiz – to complain about heavy-handed American tactics. But Raiz does not want to meet him. He belongs to the Mushwani tribe, while Khan Jan is from the Salarzai tribe. Tribal enmity is deadly – especially now that one of the tribes has been selected to work closely with the Americans. Raiz admits, “It is clear there is a movement among people to fight the Americans.” But the “jihad is over,” says the son of the most powerful military commander in Kunar – at least for the moment.

Raiz is happy as “the Americans are bringing peace.” Americans, he says, “choose their own informers,” “have one American Pashto-speaker, an air force soldier named Kay” and are not paying directly for information, “only for expenses.” The American mo-

The plot thickens. Ahmadullah is a cousin of the crucial character, the Wahhabi superstar Haji Roohullah. He recognizes that Haji Matheullah and Malik Zarin are “well-relationed with the Americans.” But he quickly adds, “Zarin is creating problems because

The story of the Arab escape from Jalalabad receives a new, savoury twist in Haji Amanullah’s version. “I saw nine Arabs at the time. Commander Saburlal arrested them – and then he helped them to escape. They left all their own vehicles and money.” Saburlal was also arrested a few days ago, and is now under American custody at Bagram air base.


he targeted Haji Roohullah and his tribe.” He stresses that “people from all over Kunar demand the release of Haji Roohullah because he fought against the Taliban and took over the area. Americans have to tell us what charges they have against him.” Last November, Ahmadullah was fighting against the Taliban alongside Hazrat Ali – the American’s favorite commander in Nangarhar province. After he came to the area, Haji Roohullah called him: he needed people to take over Asadabad. Ahmadullah confirms that commanders Sabarlal and Najinuddin Khan, among others, took over Asadabad “under the supervision of Haji Roohullah” and had been ruling the area ever since. But now both Haji Roohullah and Sabarlal are under arrest by the Americans.

escorted by none other than Roohullah, and his first cousin Haji Wali Ullah, the president of the World Relief Committee, an Arab NGO very much active in the region. Personally, Ahmadullah claims “not to know if Hekmatyar is here.” But he assumes that Hekmatyar and Kashmir Khan are working together. Kashmir Khan “disappeared” a month ago and remains one of Hekmatyar’s top commanders.

Presiding over the Kunar puzzle is the governor of the province, Sayed Muhamad Yusuf. But he is not from Kunar: he is from neighboring Laghman province. He was appointed by Hamid Karzai’s central government and spends most of his time asking villagers to support Kabul – an unenviable task, as Pashtun houses are beAhmadullah was an eyewitness to the massive Taliban ing permanently raided by bullish American soldiers. escape last November. “The Taliban crossed to PakiHe insists that “all the nation is behind the Karzai govstan in Marawara” – the direction of Bajaur agency in ernment.” The recent assassinations in Kabul and the the Pakistani tribal areas. Hazrat Rahman was another attempt against Karzai in Kandahar are dismissed as commander at the time in Marawara who supported “the usual.” “President [John F.] Kennedy was assassithe Taliban. Ahmadullah saw 48 trucks coming, carry- nated, General Zia [ul-Haq of Pakistan] was killed.” ing at least 12 men each, a mix of Arabs and Taliban: A long white beard disguises the steely character of “Hazrat Rahman took all their weapons and helped Yusuf, a former jihad commander in the 1980s. The them escape.” Then came another convoy of Pakistani governor is playing a tremendously skillful diplomatic Taliban, who also profited from the services of Rahgame, trying to accommodate the anger of local popuman. lations against American methods, the demands of the Ahmadullah fiercely criticizes “those people who are Americans themselves, and the conflicting interests of collaborating with the Americans” – meaning Haji powerful and sidelined commanders. He insists that Matheullah and, most of all, Malik Zarin: he is im“all the people here are fed up with war. There is no plying that the arrest of Roohullah is a power game chance of a battle in Kunar.” between commanders of different tribes. Ahmadullah The governor thinks that the Americans came “unalso stresses that “we are ideological enemies of the der the flag of the UN to create peace in the land of Arabs because they killed our leader in ’92, Maulvi the Afghans. Kunar is too sensitive, a border province, Jamil Rahman Salafi.” The portrait of Salafi is displayed the geographic situation is too important.” He does at most of Asadabad’s businesses. One Abdullah, an not think that Hekmatyar, bin Laden or al-Qaeda are Egyptian, went to Bajaur agency and shot Salafi in a in Kunar. He says “there’s only a 5 percent chance” of mosque in 1992 because he was against Arab proselyHekmatyar and some Arabs being in the province. He tizing in the region. hasn’t heard of any eyewitnesses: “The ideal place for Ahmadullah adds an extremely ironic twist to the them would be Nuristan.” This is a huge mountainous American presence in Kunar. He says that five British, enclave between Laghman and Kunar, northwest of not American, special forces were the first to arrive in Asadabad. Kunar a little more than two months ago. They came 126   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

The governor recognizes the mesmerizing cultural shock between America gung-ho culture and Pashtun culture. “I asked, why are you doing like this. They said because we receive information in a hurry, we don’t want to waste time. But they are not checking anything. I was in a jirga [meeting] and I told the people the Americans are coming to your villages because of your informers. And they are giving bad information.” So how do the Americans gather intelligence? “They ask us sometimes. But most of the time they do it on their own. Some teenagers told them they had seen Hekmatyar in Dangan. The Americans went there, stayed the whole night. They got into a house, they only saw women and kids.” He denies that the Americans armed eastern Afghanistan commanders, although “they did arm commanders in Kandahar.”

And then, in a slip, the crucial word “invasion” comes up. “The Taliban, they were Afghans, but they always made mistakes. Due to the Taliban we are now facing invasion of these forces.” If even the ultra-diplomatic governor commits a Freudian slip of this nature, in the dusty streets and tea houses of Asadabad there is widespread talk about “invasion.” Ghulam Ullah, the head of education in the province, warns in a soft voice, “We all think Americans came here with the support of the UN. We don’t look at them as invaders. But we do not accept Americans as rulers of this country.” This sums up half of the popular perception in Kunar. The other half is already involved – surreptitiously for now – in an anti-American jihad.


Members of American Special forces patrol the streets of Kandahar, in January of 2002, as they continue to raid suspected al Qaeda and Taliban hideouts with the help of local Afghan forces. Photo: Banaras Khan / AFP

Special Forces, ordinary people Meet the fabulous cast of characters who will decide the future of Kunar – the last battle of the new Afghan war, and the first frontline of the new anti-American jihad. By PEPE ESCOBAR SEPTEMBER 12, 2002

SHIGAL, ASMAR and DANGAN, Kunar province – “Hekmatyar is not here,” the smiling young men answer in chorus when questioned about the whereabouts of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the famed mujahideen warlord busy gathering forces to kick foreign troops out of Afghanistan, a man desperately wanted by the US. It’s 7am in the tiny village of Aman Koot, in Shigal district, and the convoy of the governor of Kunar, Sayed Muhamad Yusuf – packed with dozens of uniformed Kunaris armed with Kalashnikovs – is parked by the 128   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES


side of the dusty, rocky road. The governor is inside a mud-walled compound, addressing a shura (meeting), trying to calm down the locals, all furious with the heavy-handed tactics used by American soldiers in searching houses for “terrorist suspects.” The landscape is breathtaking – like in most of Kunar: green maize fields, the Kunar river and the backdrop of stunning forested mountains. The mountains are part of the Kashmund Range – but the locals know them by at least five different names. The American Special Forces are also on the spot – this time in four customized Toyota Hi-Lux vehicles equipped with machine guns – patrolling the road and combing the surrounding fields, although they are not with the governor. “We’re not with anybody. We’re Americans,” says one of the soldiers. They don’t confirm or deny that they are protecting the governor this morning – but they certainly prevent us from getting into the compound to follow the shura, although we have been invited by the governor’s people. All in the name of the “tense” security situation. There’s an eerie feeling that a missile could zoom in from behind the mountains at any moment. We are less than three hours trekking from the porous Pakistani border. The young men crowded around us are eager to talk because with the Americans there’s no dialogue. “It’s not possible for us to support Hekmatyar in front of the Americans, now that jihad is finished.” The smiling crowd is “very hopeful” for the future: they list as their only problem the absence of a cricket pitch – with all those maize fields and mountains. And they insist that they don’t have “any concern” about the Americans: “We welcome them.” They are not exactly welcomed back by the Americans, though, even if it is their own country. Kids swarm the dusty road. Some soldiers pick up a stick and start shooing them off. No chance for anybody to get even close to one of the Mad Max Toyotas. Two soldiers combing the fields with their precision rifles held high are surrounded by a mini-mob. Kids ask for pens. A few minutes later a local comes with a tin plate full of mutton slices – a characteristic sign of Pashtun hos130   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

pitality. The soldiers recoil in utter disgust. Some start shouting “Back up!” to no avail. “Zai” – the Pashtun equivalent, would produce a better effect.

spread false information on Hekmatyar’s whereabouts. The Hezb-i-Islami supremo is extremely popular in the region.

We depart following the governor’s convoy and soon stop at another dismal village where the four American vehicles are parked in a semi-circle, practically in combat-ready mode. They see us, they radio messages to each other – “Your Asia Times connection is here again.” It’s all part of a cat-and-mouse game developed over a few days. They know that we are here – and they don’t like it. We know where they are and where they’re going – and they don’t like it. Every night, when they patrol Asadabad, Kunar’s capital, they point their night vision goggles to the roof of the Istiqlal hotel where we are staying to check whether we’re filming them. On a visit to the American compound, in a former prison on the outskirts of Asadabad, we are met at the gate by two soldiers, one of them carrying a pistol in one hand and X-ray goggles in another. The armed soldier is very polite, but absolutely “no quotes,” not even a “How’s the weather?” unless we are cleared by Bagram air base on the outskirts of the capital Kabul.

On a more environmental mode, the governor insists, “You have to protect your forests from Pakistani loggers.” At the capital, Asadabad, the only business is the timber business – all of it controlled by six or seven powerful commanders, all of them with privileged connections with Pakistani companies. In Dangan itself, people diversify, and practically everybody is now back into cultivating poppy. The governor pleads with them not to.

After a quick stop in the village of Asmar, the crucial part of the governor’s day is spent at a jirga (council) meeting in the village of Dangan – reached by an absolutely hair-raising, back-breaking rocky mountain trail. It’s the first time ever that a Kunar governor has visited this village – which is not even on the map: that is a measure of the reigning tense situation. The convoy is greeted by a long circuitous line of very young madrassa (religious school) students immaculately dressed in blue. An armed sentry in a watchtower, next to the black-green-red Afghan flag, commands a spectacular view of the lush valley and the surrounding mountains – a landscape that evokes the most pristine mountain valleys in the Panjshir or in Kashmir. Before the jirga, some of the students engage in a heart-warming rendition of an Afghan national poem, whose lyrics say, “We know how to grow flowers in this land, we don’t need guns, we need pens.” Some elders weep. Then, in a fairytale courtyard naturally protected by trees from the scorching sun, the governor resumes his complex diplomatic ballet, forcefully telling the locals not to

After the governor’s speech, the village elder, the green-turbaned Sayed Mehbwob, takes the stage and delivers a blistering performance. Fiery eyes, booming voice and an expressive face straight out of tribal theater, he details to the governor how the Americans are disturbing the peace of his tribe. Later, he spells out to us some of the grievances. According to Mehbwob, two months ago, when the Americans got to Dangan, someone fired an RPG at them. The Americans didn’t say who they were looking for. Three days later they came back and “struck the house of Zhulam Khan with mortars for four hours. There were people inside, but mercifully no one was injured.” Then, a few days ago, says Mehbwob, the Americans broke into another house at night: “They broke a lot of boxes [Pashtuns keep a lot of their possessions in tin containers]. They checked the clothes of the women. There were only women and children inside the house. Now everybody in the area is afraid. This is against Pashtun tradition.” Mehbwob confirms that the Shinkai home of the very popular Hezb-i-Islami commander and mayor of Asadabad, Khan Jan, was also raided by the Americans “because they thought he had information that would lead to Hekmatyar.” Mehbwob is stinging: “We don’t know who they are looking for. Sometimes they say it’s Osama [bin Laden], sometimes al-Qaeda, sometimes Hekmatyar, and now they say they are looking for terrorists.” Another village elder cuts to the chase. “I think the Americans are foolish. There is tension everywhere

in Afghanistan. What are they doing in this area.” The head of education in Kunar, the affable Ghulam Ullah, offers a more nuanced perspective. “Kunar is part of a body that has 32 parts. We support the central government. Kabul is recognized by all the world.” He sees the war on terrorism being waged “by civilized nations. America is part of a coalition. We see the peacekeepers in Kabul and the American presence in this area in the same way. We do not see them as invaders. The Russians were invaders. We kicked them out. And we are here to help Afghans.” But the Americans may be making serious mistakes, such as arresting the popular Wahhabi leader Haji Roohullah. “Roohullah is a national religious leader.” The motto at the office of Haji Roohullah is “Unity is the best policy.” The educator, on the arrest of Roohullah, says that “all the tribes have long enmities. One of them is creating problems [he means the Mushwani tribe]. Roohullah was the first to start loya jirga negotiations in Kunar.” Ghulam Ullah is absolutely right when he recalls that the Afghan jihad against the Russians in the 1980s “started in Kunar, through the family of Roohullah.” Ghulam Ullah is among the few in the region who reject Hekmatyar’s ruthless methods: “We have a lot of differences with Hezb-i-Islami. In 1990, we had a parliament in Kunar, a democratic election for the chief of this area … Roohullah won. The Hezb-i-Islami started fighting because they lost. They killed 12 of Roohullah’s supporters. So we have no relationship with Hekmatyar, Hezb-i-Islami or al-Qaeda. Hekmatyar got Osama to north Kabul and then they sent an Egyptian to kill our religious leader, Maulvi Jamil Rahman Salafi. Hekmatyar and Osama were our first enemies. So how can we give them help.” The real sensitive relationship, for Ghulam Ullah, is between Americans and local collaborators: “I’m not blaming Americans, because they don’t know our traditions. I’m blaming those working with them. They are kids [a reference to Raiz, the son of pro-American Asadabad commander Malik Zarin, and his army of teenagers]. They want to fill their pockets. And they FOREVER WARS   131

want to obliterate Pashtun tradition.” Last week, Ghulam Ullah met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Defense Minister Mohammed Fahim in Kabul. He is hopeful. “I’m sure Haji Roohullah will come back soon. But these people who created problems for him must get behind bars.” It’s unlikely that the Americans will incarcerate their few local partners in Kunar. Back to Asmar, at what the locals call the Capitol building, the governor is reclined in his cushion, surrounded by what amounts to an informal cabinet meeting, with everyone seated on carpets sipping green tea. Someone asks the governor point blank, “Are you going to search these disinformers and put them in jail?” There’s no clear answer. At 3pm the charismatic Khan Jan shows up – received with all-around reverence. The governor and Khan Jan launch into an elaborate conversation revolving around the relationship between the commander and Hekmatyar. The governor says, “We have two types of mujahideen in Afghanistan. One of them was boiling tea for the mujahideen who were in the front against the Russians. The other was in fact in the frontline. The Taliban were boiling tea, and then they started creating problems. [Former president Burhanuddin] Rabbani is now creating all kinds of problems for the government. He had support in 1996, not anymore.” Khan Jan tells the governor that two days ago he went to talk to the Americans, and they told him that they had intelligence in the area proving that he (Khan Jan) was the problem. The background for the terse exchange, inevitably, is once again tribal enmity. The Americans are working with the Mushwani tribe – to which Malik Zarin, the core commander of Asadabad and his son Raiz, belong. Khan Jan is a member of the Alizai – a subclan of the Salarzai tribe. Mushwanis and Salarzais are “brothers” only in name: the atmosphere is more like fraternal hatred. The Salarzai are accusing the Mushwanis of spreading false information to the Americans. Malik Zarin fought against the Taliban. But the Taliban at one time were supported by Malik Zarin’s cousin. It soon became a battle of cousin against cousin. 132   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

Now Salarzais believe that Malik Zarin is exacting his revenge. The future of Kunar – the last battle of the new Afghan war, and the first frontline of the new anti-American jihad – will be decided by this cast of characters. Haji Matheullah – the number-two core commander – and Malik Zarin – the number-one core commander – plus his 18-year-old son Raiz and his army of teenagers, will keep working with the Americans. The governor will keep his skillful diplomatic balancing act. The local populations remain split between feelings of silent anger or joining Hekmatyar’s appeal for a jihad against the American invaders. Khan Jan, mayor of Asadabad, may be working secretly with Hekmatyar. There are no prospects of Haji Roohullah being released from Bagram air base. Hekmatyar may be hidden and plotting in the mountains, 48 hours on foot to the northeast of Asadabad. And the Americans are bound to keep treating the local populations with a total lack of sensitivity. The crucial fact is that the post-Taliban Pashtun counterrevolution is already in full swing. And it’s once again Pashtuns against Tajiks: the Pashtun belt against a central government in Kabul dominated by the Northern Alliance, where the Pashtun President Hamid Karzai is derided as a mere American puppet.

ing with commanders recommended by the Northern Alliance. They are being fed bad intelligence, no intelligence, and in the process are being drawn into the tangled web of warlord tribal rivalry. Under these circumstances, “peace” is impossible: US National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice’s recent claims that the security situation in Afghanistan had improved in the past year is nothing short of ridiculous. Hamid Karzai’s security services are totally infiltrated by ultra-disciplined Hezb-i-Islami operatives. The 4,800 international peacekeeping soldiers in Kabul are seemingly ineffective. Under their watch, two Afghan ministers have been assassinated in broad daylight and a car bomb exploded last week in Kabul, killing 30 people and wounding 167. An assassination attempt on Karzai was only narrowly averted in Kandahar. The US – as did the former USSR – has underestimated the indomitable Pashtuns, at its peril. Many empires have already paid the price for this carelessness. The American strategy in the Pashtun belt has been the catalyst for re-starting the civil war in Afghanistan. On the night of September 10, eyewitnesses claim to have spotted Gulbuddin Hekmatyar himself not in Kunar, but in the Teraha valley, in Khyber agency (in Pakistan) – on the other side of the Tora Bora. Hekmatyar

was deep in a conference with a group of influential mullahs. What the US is up against now is a formidable coalition involved in a jihad to kick out what it sees as foreign invaders. The coalition groups Hekmatyar and the Hezb-i-Islami’s “Professor” Sayyaf, with his wealth of Arab connections and sponsorship; Ishmail Khan, the “Emir of southwest Afghanistan,” who is very close to Iran; Mullah Omar (still hiding in safety somewhere in Kandahar province) and his formidable former Taliban military commander, Jalaluddin Haqqani; plus vast middle-level support from Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence. At the end of a gruelling day, on the dusty Asmar-Asadabad road, Azad (his name means “free”), a Pashtun villager, definitely not a fundamentalist, stops the car to show us his house perched on a hill. The landscape around is breathtaking, as usual. The American Special Forces are only minutes away – we cross their convoy on our way back. Azad gazes at the classic Afghan panorama and murmurs, almost to himself, “The Americans are here because the world community has made a promise to the Afghan nation. But if they have their own agenda, I’ll have to take care of this. Because I am the owner of this land.”

Bacha Khan Zadran is a powerful warlord with a strong military presence in three key Pashtun belt provinces: Paktia, Paktika and Khost. He is openly confronting Kabul, which nominated what the Pashtuns call “a kid,” Abdul Taniwal, as the governor of Khost. Kabul is after Zadran. But Zadran’s tribe has forcefully asked Karzai to fulfill an earlier pledge and appoint him as head of the three provinces. A few days ago in Gardez, the simple presence of Zadran inside the American compound for four hours started a riot, because the locals thought that he had been arrested. In Kunar, Haji Roohullah’s arrest is not reaping any benefits for the Americans. On the contrary. In Nangarhar the Americans have relied since the Tora Bora campaign on the wily Hazrat Ali, a Pachai: the Pachais are derided by the Pashtuns. Americans are only workFOREVER WARS   133

Afghan men view pictures of Ahmad Shah Massoud at his grave site on the 8th anniversary of his assassination in the Panjshir Valley on September 10, 2009. Photo: Shah Marai / AFP

The Panjshir Lion lives One year later, we revisit all the details of the assassination of Ahmad Shah Masoud, 48, mujahideen hero, the Lion of the Panjshir, resistance leader for the Northern Alliance against the Taliban and the closest to a nationalist leader and hero Afghanistan has had in a long time. He now lies buried in “The Chief of the Martyr’s Hill” - an unpretentious black marble grave, in the middle of a chapel, marked with a green Islamic flag. BY PEPE ESCOBAR

SEPTEMBER 12, 2002

PANJSHIR VALLEY, Northern Afghanistan – It’s a simple round white chapel with a green dome. A sign beside the rocky trail points to “The Chief of the Martyr’s Hill.” The monument, located in one of the definitive Shangri La-like corners of the Panjshir, in a lush green valley bisected by the Panjshir River, is dwarfed by imposing naked mountains. Earlier this week, scores of men worked around the clock in scorching sun and pitch darkness, wind and dust to add the finishing touches to the 134   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES


chapel. Students took a whole day to bicycle from the capital Kabul to pay their respects, dodging bombed bridges and wrecks of tanks, carrying bouquets of flowers and green banners with the inscription, “We follow the way of Masoud.” Afghan President Hamid Karzai paid his visit on Saturday – but not on the highly significant September 9, a date that for a great deal of fractured Afghanistan carries infinitely more meaning than September 11 does for many people in the West. For September 9 was the day a year ago that Ahmad Shah Masoud, 48, mujahideen hero, the Lion of the Panjshir, former vice-president of the Islamic State of Afghanistan, resistance leader for the Northern Alliance against the Taliban and the closest to a nationalist leader and hero Afghanistan has had in a long time, was assassinated, and he now lies buried in “The Chief of the Martyr’s Hill.” It’s an unpretentious black marble grave, in the middle of the chapel, marked with a green Islamic flag. The circumstances surrounding news of Masoud’s death are no longer a mystery. Everybody – not only Panjshiris – knows that his death was kept secret for days: even his faithful field commanders and his own family didn’t know that his body was lying in a morgue in southern Tajikistan when they were being told only that he had had an accident, but was well. According to the official Northern Alliance version, he had “suffered an accident” with only “minor injuries.” Then, a few days later, he was “in a coma” in a Tajik hospital. And when he “officially” died, the world he had lived in had been turned upside down by the events of September 11, and the demise of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan had been sealed. But disturbing questions remain. Al-Qaeda may have hit Masoud to finish off the last and only hurdle for the Taliban to control all of Afghanistan – the Northern Alliance controlled between 5 percent and 10 percent of the country at the time. Masoud was a nemesis for Osama bin Laden, whose regional master plan included the integration of Afghanistan’s northern neighbors in a radical Islamic axis. 136   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

Masoud’s killing, too, may have been bin Laden’s personal gift to Taliban leader Mullah Omar for the shelter that the Taliban provided al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. The assassination, further, may have been the key event that sent the signal for the September 11 operation in the US. Ironically, some people argue that the only power to have profited from Masoud’s killing was America itself: Washington would never have been allowed to maintain its military presence in Afghanistan if Masoud, a nationalist leader par excellence, had been in charge of the Northern Alliance’s military. The plot to kill Masoud was carried out by a Brussels-based Tunisian terrorist cell. Masoud was assassinated by two killers in their 30s posing as journalists and carrying fake Moroccan passports. The “reporter” called himself Karim Touzani – affable and relaxed. The surly, burly “cameraman” – who carried explosives in his battery pack – called himself Kacem Bakkali. Their letters of introduction presented them as television journalists from a certain Islamic Observation Center, based in London and concerned with “human rights issues for Muslims all over the world.” Already in 1999 European intelligence had begun to notice increased al-Qaeda recruiting activity among Tunisians living in Europe. A key recruit was Abdul Sattar Dahmane, a Tunisian resident of Belgium. He had been trained in one of al-Qaeda’s Afghan military camps, where he lived in a house nearby with his Moroccan wife, Malika. In the spring of 2001 Dahmane was selected for a crucial mission. As he had studied journalism in Tunisia and Belgium, he would pose as a television interviewer, alongside another Tunisian posing as a cameraman – Rachid Bourawi, an illegal immigrant to Belgium. According to European intelligence, Dahmane was an operative in Brussels and London for the Tunisian Fighting Group, an organization with ties to al-Qaeda. The established European theory for the Masoud hit is that the Tunisian Fighting Group agreed to kill Masoud in exchange for its fighters training in al-Qaeda’s Afghan military camps. Visiting Masoud in the Panjshir was an inescapable ritual for any journalist covering Afghanistan.

Asia Times Online was there in the first two weeks of August 2001. Everybody had to go through the same motions: kill time in Dushanbe while waiting for a battered Russian MI-17 helicopter of the rickety Northern Alliance air force to be transported to the Panjshir. Like everybody else, the fake journalists stayed in a guesthouse of the Northern Alliance, close to the village of Bazarak. The guesthouse arrangement was another graphic sign of the extreme politeness of Panjshiris: journalists received a free room, three meals a day, access to a translator at modest rates and the requisite tour of the frontlines in the war against the Taliban. Masoud was always ready and willing to meet journalists – especially from all corners of the Muslim world. He was particularly frustrated by the general perception in the Middle East that his beloved mujahideen were a tool of the Russians or other foreign powers, acting against the best interests of Muslims. When he talked to Asia Times Online – his last interview in the Panjshir before he moved to Khwaja Bahauddin, his far-flung base near the Tajik border, Masoud repeatedly accused the Taliban of destroying Afghanistan with the assistance of Arabs and Pakistanis. The Northern Alliance was in deep trouble in the spring and summer of 2001. At least 16,000 Taliban, including a few thousand hardcore al-Qaeda warriors, were ready to take all of Takhar province, north of the Panjshir Valley. The Taliban were planning a final offensive to wipe out any resistance, take control of the whole of Afghanistan and increase their support of hardcore Islamist movements in Central Asia, such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). The key arrangement in the Masoud killing was the way in which the fake Moroccan journalists managed to get into the Panjshir. This happened through an introduction by one Dr Hani, an Egyptian friend dating back from the anti-USSR jihad of the 1980s of the notorious “Professor” Abdul Rasul Sayyaf – renamed by his Arab patrons Abd al-Rabb al-Rasul Sayyaf. Dr Hani apparently called Sayyaf from Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Sayyaf agreed to endorse the “journalists” and

request permission for them to follow the usual tour of the frontlines. Repeated attempts recently by Asia Times Online to reach Sayyaf proved unfruitful. Some people said that he was incognito in Kabul. Some people said that he had been to a secret meeting in eastern Kunar province, along with fierce Pashtun warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, now promoted by the Pentagon to the status of America’s number one “wanted dead or dead” villain in Afghanistan. Some people said that Sayyaf would never agree to talk to foreigners about his controversial role in the Masoud killing. But a source in Kabul confirmed that during the loya jirga (grand council) last June, Sayyaf admitted that the two fake journalists had spent two weeks with him and his people – in Taliban-controlled territory – before crossing to the Northern Alliance areas. Sayyaf, a Kharruti Pashtun from Paghman, in Kabul province, is the leader of the Ittihad-e-Islami (The Islamic Union for the Freedom of Afghanistan), a party that during the 1980s was basically a vehicle for Sayyaf to receive loads of funds and weapons from wealthy Arab donors. Sayyaf is still a big supporter of the strict Wahhabi Islam and thanks to his solid Arab connections remains the most well-known mujahideen leader in Saudi Arabia, heartland of Wahhabism. Unlike Masoud, he is fiercely opposed to nationalism, and supports a pan-Islamic ideal, and he is now definitely plotting with Hekmatyar to undermine the already fragile Hamid Karzai government in Kabul and to see all foreign troops booted out of Afghanistan. Sayyaf ’s relationship with Masoud was always extremely complex. Masoud had tremendous problems dealing with fundamentalists like Sayyaf and Osama bin Laden himself – who enjoyed unlimited Arab support. Bin Laden and other future al-Qaeda notables were among the thousands of Arabs who fought alongside Sayyaf in the 1980s jihad. During the chaotic mujahideen “governments” of 1992-1996, Masoud was defense minister to President Barhanuddin Rabbani, and Sayyaf was a presidential adviser. These “governments” were such in name only: warlords at the time FOREVER WARS   137

wreaked havoc in Afghanistan and created the conditions for the emergence of the Taliban. Bismillah Khan, a stocky, workaholic warlord who had fought alongside Masoud for 22 years and was one of his top generals, was the man who led the fake Moroccan journalists on the required frontline tour after Masoud himself approved their visit. He insisted on demonstrating to the “Moroccans” that only Afghans were members of the Northern Alliance. Bismillah Khan remembers that these posers were different. They didn’t ask for interviews and they filmed practically nothing. Before they finally managed to kill him, there were a few near-misses between them and Masoud. One day, the Lion of the Panjshir himself showed up at the guesthouse, but they were away. Another day they were supposed to travel in his helicopter back to Khwaja Bahauddin. But the helicopter was overloaded – as usual – and they had to stay behind. The fact that they didn’t ask many questions, like other journalists, according to Bismillah Khan, caused widespread suspicion. But they could not be challenged because they were Sayyaf ’s guests. And that’s the key to the mystery. The mysterious phone call from Bosnia-Herzegovina which convinced Sayyaf to invite the two journalists to the Panjshir actually came from Kandahar – in the heart of Taliban land. But nobody among the Panjshiris took pains to investigate it at the time. Helicopter rides were one more inevitable fixture in every visit to the Panjshir. Anybody had to wait sometimes days for the skies to clear: it’s suicidal to fly in the Hindu Kush under a cloudy sky. And that’s why the fake journalists had to wait a few extra days before traveling to Khwaja Bahauddin – where they arrived as “guests of Sayyaf.” Their interview was once again delayed because the summer Taliban-al-Qaeda offensive had begun – and Masoud was extremely busy. The “Moroccans” had to kill their time in a room next door to General Mohammed Arif, Masoud’s chief of internal security. Abdul Malik, commander of the military tank base in Jalalabad, in eastern Afghanistan – now working 138   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

closely with American Special Forces – today tells a substantially different version of Bismillah Khan’s story. Malik says that “Arabs” forced Sayyaf to introduce the fake journalists to Bismillah Khan, who in turn got them to Masoud. Anyway one looks at it, though, Sayyaf ’s role remains murky. In the summer of 2001, Masoud was still trying to recover from a devastating blow in 2000 when the Taliban captured his former headquarters in Taloqan. When he spoke to Asia Times Online he was not only preparing a defense plan against the renewed Taliban attack, but also a Northern Alliance plan to retake Taloqan – and that was as far as his dreams were set. During the first months of 2001 Masoud was involved in a tireless effort to rally commanders, major regional warlords and all kinds of tribal factions to fight against the Taliban. Through skilful diplomacy, he managed to get more money from Iran and more weapons from Russia. By late spring, all major warlords – Uzbek General Abdul Dostum, Hazara Karim Khalili and the now-called “Emir of southwest Afghanistan” Ismail Khan were back in the country from exile in Turkey and Iran, and ready to fight the Taliban. During the 1990s, and especially during the time of the Taliban rule, which began in 1996, Washington never knew exactly how to deal with Masoud. But after the attacks on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) agents sought a meeting with Masoud in Dushanbe. The CIA wanted information on how to get to bin Laden. Masoud carefully considered all the angles, but ultimately he could not but criticize American shortsightedness. For the Bill Clinton administration, the ultimate aim was to get bin Laden and destroy al-Qaeda. For Masoud, the main point was to destroy the Taliban. He repeatedly stressed at the time that “without the Taliban, Osama can’t do anything.” Masoud, indeed, had agents and intelligence in the heart of Taliban country. The best example is how his Panjshiris planted a powerful truck bomb just outside Mullah Omar’s compound in central Kandahar, in 1999. The explosion left a huge crater and killed 10

people, including three of Mullah Omar’s bodyguards. Omar escaped, almost by a miracle, but if the Northern Alliance could get close to the Taliban, they could not penetrate al-Qaeda’s ultra-hardcore security to try to find and menace bin Laden. And as much as the Northern Alliance could penetrate the Taliban, security chief Arif – now head of intelligence of Hamid Karzai’s government – says that “Osama was actively trying to recruit spies inside the Panjshir Valley.” But once again, no one investigated the “Moroccans.” In his interview with Asia Times Online, the secondto-last in his lifetime, Masoud repeatedly portrayed al-Qaeda, the Taliban and Pakistan as a sort of “triangle of evil.” He criticized the US for basically following a Pakistani plan: try to “reform” the Taliban and concentrate on seducing Taliban “moderates” (a contradiction in terms). There were never any moderates within the Taliban. Mullah Omar was totally under the spell of bin Laden. American diplomats with knowledge of Central Asia were warning about the “Arabization” of Afghanistan. But no one in Washington was listening. The US only got the message after September 11 – and after Masoud’s death. In the first months of 2001, Masoud calculated that he had to involve himself in a complex gamble: change his image from warrior to statesman. He addressed the European parliament in Strasbourg, France, in April 2001. This was his first official trip to the West. He tried hard to attract Western support for the resistance against the Taliban. But still no one was listening. In Strasbourg, Masoud delivered a stunning message that nobody took seriously at the time: “If President Bush doesn’t help us, then these terrorists will damage the United States and Europe very soon – and it will be too late.” The Afghan fundamentalist old guard – people such as Rabbani and Sayyaf – obviously hated Masoud’s new international status. The wife of one of Masoud’s killers told European intelligence early this year that Masoud’s comments were interpreted as a direct threat to the Taliban and al-Qaeda. The plot to kill him may have started immediately after his visit to Europe.

According to French intelligence sources, the amassed evidence shows that the fake Moroccan passports were prepared between April and May, as well as one of the letters of introduction. Panjshiris now in Kabul, all in government jobs, still remember vividly the final hours of the Lion. On Saturday evening, September 8, the Taliban finally threw everything they had against the Northern Alliance. General Bismillah Khan was desperate. He called Masoud by satellite telephone for urgent strategic advice. Masoud delivered – in style – and then spent the rest of the night talking Persian poetry with the Northern Alliance’s ambassador to India. At 4 am on September 9, while Masoud and his friend were still talking against the backdrop of the legendary Amu Darya river, his personal secretary came with the news that Bismillah Khan’s mujahideen had stood their ground against the Taliban. Masoud took his morning prayer, slept for a little more than an hour and had his usual breakfast of tea, nan bread, almonds and cream. Masoud then called Bismillah Khan by radio at the frontline in Jabal Saraj, south of the Panjshir. He wanted bodies of dead Arabs transported by helicopter as soon as possible so that he could show them to the fake Moroccan journalists. The long-awaited interview would be next door to his office, in the bungalow of security chief Arif. Masoud was on the phone when the journalists entered the room. They were accompanied by another journalist, Fahim Dashty, a Panjshiri who was shooting a documentary on Masoud. The visitors showed their letters of introduction from the Islamic Observation Center in London and from Arabic News International. Masoud ordered green tea for all. Masoud asked them about their trip in Taliban land. They said that Mullah Omar had refused them an interview because television is haram – forbidden under the Taliban’s interpretation of Sharia (Islamic Law). Ahmad Jamshid, Masoud’s personal secretary, says this was the last time that he saw Masoud smiling. The killer cameraman then adjusted his tripod at a very low level, with the camera lens pointing to Masoud’s chest, about two meters away. Masoud asked to FOREVER WARS   139

see the list of questions, which were then translated from English to Persian. Jamshid, the personal secretary, went out of the room. Dashty, the Panjshiri documentary maker, was still adjusting his camera. Then suddenly, as the Moroccan’s camera was switched on, a “blue, thick fire” engulfed the room, which was totally destroyed. There was a strong smell of gunpowder. A bomb hidden in the battery pack of the camera cut the body of the “cameraman” in two. But the “reporter” was only slightly injured and he tried to escape, saying that he didn’t know what happened. A bunch of Panjshiris threw him into an empty room, and when he tried to escape through a window he was instantly killed. Haji Mohammad Omar, Masoud’s bodyguard for the past 12 years, ran into the devastated room and found Masoud still seated in an armchair, drenched in blood. With other Panjshiris they climbed into a Toyota HiLux, holding Masoud’s body, and rushed on a mad drive to Khwaja Bahauddin airstrip. Masoud was still breathing when they boarded the helicopter. But soon it was over. “Amir Sahib had stopped breathing,” said Haji Omar. Everybody fell silent. When the helicopter arrived 10 minutes later at a clinic in southern Tajikistan, doctors found that Masoud’s heart had been pierced by two pieces of shrapnel.

A few days after September 11, a green MI-17 Russian helicopter showed up in Panjshir Valley. This time it was carrying CIA officials, with an official proposal. Since 1996, Masoud had tried to convince the US to smash the Taliban first, and then get bin Laden. Now, the US government was finally proposing the same thing: we need your help to smash the Taliban, because we think that this is the way to get to bin Laden. Since 1996, Masoud had fought the Taliban, asking – in vain – for weapons, supplies and money from the US and the European Union. Now, the US government was promising weapons, supplies and a lot of money. Masoud said a few days before his death that his dream was to see peace in Afghanistan, and then work to maintain peace until he died an old man. He died relatively young, at 48, and Afghanistan is still not at peace. Afghans still contemplate what they describe as an ominous future. They wonder if the sacrifice of a quintessential Afghan hero was still not enough to placate the gods. Meanwhile, the legend of the Panjshir Lion lives – stronger than ever. French intellectuals are proposing Masoud for a posthumous Nobel Peace Prize. The Lion would have said not yet – not until peace reigns in the land of the proud Afghans.

Afghan commander Jalaluddin Haqqani (C) at his Pakistani base in Miram Shah with Amin Wardak and Abdul Haq, two top guerilla commanders. Photo: Zubair Mir / AFP

Enlightened warlordism Everybody and his dog is on board the new jihad to ‘kick out the foreign invaders’: infamous Pashtun warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar; extra-well-connected Arab protege ‘Professor’ Sayyaf; the ‘Emir of the Southwest’ Ismail Khan; Mullah Omar (hidden in the depths of Kandahar province), the Taliban leadership and their former military commander, the formidable Jalaluddin Haqqani; and vast mid-level sectors of the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) By PEPE ESCOBAR SEPTEMBER 18, 2002

JALALABAD – While al-Qaeda may have fled Afghanistan – and is now maintaining dormant cells in Pakistan and reorganizing itself in northern Africa – the anti-American jihad in the Afghan Pashtun belt is in full swing. As Asia Times Online has reported, this has been the inevitable outcome of a series of American blunders in Afghanistan. Everybody and his dog is on board the new jihad to “kick out the foreign invaders”: infamous Pashtun warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar; extra-well-connected Arab protege “Professor” Sayyaf; the “Emir of the 140   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES


Southwest” Ismail Khan; Mullah Omar (hidden in the depths of Kandahar province), the Taliban leadership and their former military commander, the formidable Jalaluddin Haqqani; and vast mid-level sectors of the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).

to still come up with $70 million.) The road should be finished by the end of 2005. The US Congress approved $255 million for Afghanistan in 2001, but the White House rejected part of that aid, and it has not made any request for Afghan aid in 2003.

Afghanistan everywhere is warlord country. Uzbek warlord General Dostum, currently vice-minister of defense, ignores Kabul, runs the north like a personal fiefdom, and is rumored to be very much interested in the jihad (Dostum and Sayyaf were always very close; Sayyaf was practically Dostum’s mentor). Ismail Khan runs the southwest – and he has joined the jihad. Khalil Khalili runs the center – but for the moment he is mum. Gul Agha Sherzai – who barely escaped the assassination attempt against Hamid Karzai in Kandahar recently – runs the south and remains cozy with the Taliban leadership. And the opportunist but weak Hazrat Ali – handsomely paid by the Americans – sort of runs the east, after the killing of Haji Qadir in Kabul, which the whole Pashtun belt is convinced was ordered by the Northern Alliance. Bacha Khan Zadran was in control of the southeast (Paktia, Paktika and Khost provinces) until Kabul nominated another governor. Zadran collaborated with the Americans, but he won’t quit until he totally defeats Kabul.

Corruption is rampant in Kabul: even Kabulis criticize Karzai’s cabinet as a bunch of greedy American puppets. In the vast countryside, kids still cannot go to school – no schools have been built – and teachers have not been paid in months. Returnee advisers with top American diplomas are getting desperate: they admit that if the inefficient American-sanctioned Karzai government breaks down, it would be like the end of a ceasefire. All bets will be off,and the only ones to gain will be well-armed and extremely resentful Pashtun warlords.

Afghan returnees from the US and Europe complain – in vain – in Kabul that warlords still command thousands of soldiers, and deeply believe everybody needs their leadership. Although at the beginning of 2002 in Tokyo the international community promised US$4.5 billion in reconstruction aid, the Afghan population – especially the almost 1.7 million refugees who came back from Pakistan and Iran – see no tangible benefits, apart from the road Iran is paving from Herat to the Iranian border at Islam Qilla. A crucial joint aid package from the US, Saudi Arabia and Japan for road building was announced last week to President Hamid Karzai in New York. The joint project will rebuild the backbreaking road – or rather moonscape – linking Kabul, Kandahar and Herat. The US will contribute $80 million, and Saudi Arabia and Japan $50 million each. (To meet costs, somebody has 142   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

All over the Pashtun belt there are three key recurrent themes: people feel totally ignored by Kabul, are sick of tired of the ubiquitous insecurity, and deeply resent the American presence. The Taliban are making a killing, distributing pamphlets all over the Pashtun belt, reminding people of the lack of security everywhere, even inside the bazaars, and that TV, music and movies are “forbidden by Islamic law.” UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Karzai both pleaded for a larger international force at a recent high-level meeting of donors and neighboring states in New York. Karzai begged for a few hundred extra troops in the main cities – like Kandahar, Mazar-i-Sharif and Herat – as a means of proving graphically to average Afghans that the international community was committed to Afghanistan’s security. The Pentagon once again vetoed the idea. Amid so much doom and gloom, there is at least a ray of hope in Jalalabad. Nasirullah Baryani is the younger brother of the slain Haji Qadir and the current Nangarhar governor, Din Muhamad. He is also the brother of famous mujahideen commander Abdul Haq, captured and killed by the Taliban last November. They are all members of the grand family of Nangarhar – 100 cousins in only one generation. But now only two brothers remain alive: Baryani and Din Muhamad.

Afterward he “put away the guns” and lived for years in Germany (apart from Pashto and Urdu, he speaks fluent German and English). In these past two years, he lived in Peshawar, always talking about rebuilding Afghanistan. He came back to Afghanistan last November, after the assassination of his brother Abdul Haq and the fall of Jalalabad to the so-called Eastern Alliance – allied to the Northern Alliance. The Eastern Alliance supremo was none other than his older brother Haji Qadir, whose portrait now adorns every shop and 4X4 vehicle in Nangarhar. Baryani was the only notable in eastern Afghanistan who did not want to be associated with the Americans. He now runs the Abdul Haq Foundation in Jalalabad, “Only money from the family, no help or aid from outside.” There are unconfirmed rumors in Kabul that the family wealth was built on heroin trafficking – but it does not matter. The main fact is that Baryani is not a Dostum, or a Fahim, a Sayyaf or a Hekmatyar. Baryani’s motto is “put out the guns, pick up the pens.” This is scribbled on mud walls all over Nangarhar, especially on the road from Jalalabad to Torkham, on the Pakistani border. Baryani believes that the traditional loya jirga (grand council) system is capable of solving all of Afghanistan’s problems. He is obviously not talking about the jirga in Kabul in June which put in power the new Hamid Karzai government: there is a wide consensus in most Afghan provinces that the meeting was hijacked by the American envoy, “oil man” Zalmay Khalilzad. Baryani is extremely critical of the Northern Alliance’s incompetence and of American meddling. Like any educated Pashtun, he views Kabul as controlled

from Washington. He is especially critical of the fact there’s no Pashtun representation at the top. But at the same time he abhors the Kalashnikov culture, so he does not advocate a violent solution. Baryani is extremely suspicious of Hekmatyar’s motives – and does not see the emergence in the near future of a genuine Pashtun leader. Baryani is involved in something absolutely unheard-of in post-Taliban Afghanistan: with the help of a German businessman, he is devising a strategic business plan to develop his province. Three key areas have been identified for investment: transport and commerce; orange culture (during the communist government in the late 1970s and early 1980s, orange culture in Nangarhar was a very successful model of socialist agriculture); and energy (the province has eight dams, and it could sell plenty of solar and hydroelectric energy). And most crucially, Narngahar is also the only province in Afghanistan with a network of functioning schools and qualified teachers. Baryani is not in it for the money – or the power. The motto says it all, “Put out the guns, pick up the pens.” He’s one of the few trying hard. A recent United Nations report in Kabul, quoting figures from the Afghan Ministry of Education, confirms the daunting task. Only 3 million Afghan children – from a total of 4.5 million – are now enrolled in school. Afghanistan immediately needs at least 2,500 more schools and 30,000 more teachers. The average salary of a teacher is now 170,000 afghanis, a mere $36 monthly. The moral high ground of the international community will be mere rhetoric rubble if there’s no urgent help for Afghans to pick up their pens.

Baryani also fought the anti-USSR jihad in the 1980s. FOREVER WARS   143

A US State Department image shows intercepted aluminum tubes that were on their way to Iraq for possible use to enrich uranium for weapons of mass destruction. Photo: AFP / US State Dept.

From Kabul to Baghdad So the war is in fact well under way. As the Bush administration remains obsessed about Iraq, Afghanistan once again has slipped to the status of a mere sideshow. A real victory in Afghanistan is very hard to consolidate – and not at all spectacular in media terms. To smash Saddam Hussein’s crippled forces in prime time with high technology is a lot sexier By PEPE ESCOBAR DECEMBER 7, 2002

The suspense is unbearable. Will it come in just a few paragraphs? Will it come in hundreds, perhaps thousands of pages? In English? Or in Arabic? Delivered where, and by whom? The fate of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq – as well as the future of the Middle East itself – depends on Iraq’s full declaration of weapons of mass destruction, to be handed over this Sunday at the United Nations compound in Baghdad. The declaration then travels in the hands of a UN official to New York by plane, so the UN Security Council will not have the original document before Monday. Unlike previous declarations, all the contents of this one will be made pub144   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES


lic, according to the current president of the Security Council, Colombian ambassador Alfonso Valdivieso. Iraq’s last declaration of biological weapons, in 1997, had 600 pages. And the last declaration of missiles, almost 3,000 pages. The main text was in English, the notes in Arabic. In Saturday’s declaration, everything has to be listed: substances, materials, every relevant office and every relevant corner of any building, along with their official purpose. Diplomatic sources comment that it will take at least a few days to fully examine the document and draw the necessary conclusions. The Bush administration is maintaining maximum pressure on Iraq and will be looking for anything that could be characterized as “material breach.” North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) approval for an attack against Iraq is practically assured, according to Paul Wolfowitz, the Pentagon’s number two. European diplomats are saying off the record that NATO’s role might be justified “as an effort to defend Turkey, a NATO ally.” But, says one diplomat, “this is nonsense, because planes based in Turkey are attacking Iraq, and not the other way round.” Roughly one year ago, Osama bin Laden was escaping from the B-52s pounding the mountains at Tora Bora, in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province, while in Petersberg, near Bonn, a wild bunch emerging from Taliban-free Afghanistan was trying to find themselves a leader. After a lot of hardcore resentment was expressed and a lot of US pressure was applied, the chosen leader turned out to be a minor Pashtun notable, Hamid Karzai, whom the US had rescued from certain death in Kandahar province at the hands of the Taliban only a few weeks before. Hamid Karzai’s new government was supposed to enjoy the fruits of massive international economic aid to try to manage three complex tasks: revive a country totally devastated by 23 years of uninterrupted war; round up the thousands of Taliban and al-Qaeda who managed to escape US bombs; and start the painful reconstruction of what one day would be a unified Afghanistan. This week, representatives of all those countries which promised well-publicized billions 146   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

of dollars to Karzai’s new government came back to Bonn. But there was nothing spectacular to announce. The billions of dollars are not flowing into Afghanistan. Only now, the first big project is being launched – in road construction. It will take a long time to build an Afghan national army. The so-called coalition and stabilization forces represent no more than a cantonment in Kabul, just about the only place in the country where there is a semblance of authority by the central government. Warlords rule the provinces, where the favorite joke is that Karzai is not capable of ruling even his own chair. General Fahim, the powerful Minister of Defense, actually decides everything that matters, to the benefit of his close coterie of Panjshiris from the Northern Alliance. Afghan sources tell Asia Times Online practically every week about attacks against US forces in the Pashtun belt. The attacks are part of the jihad to kick out “foreign invaders,” formally launched in August in southeastern Afghanistan. At the start of this week, Radio Tehran, Pakistani Urdu newspapers and Islamic news agencies widely reported that 50 International Security Assistance Force soldiers, predominantly Americans, travelling on the three-hour journey between Logar province and Gardez, in Paktia, were kidnapped by mujahideen. Their Afghan guides were apparently involved in the kidnapping, all of them associated with the Northern Alliance, which means they acted under the orders of General Fahim, who wants the Americans out of his turf. Meanwhile, in Bonn, the West once again demanded from Karzai all kinds of efforts – political, economic, institutional. But anyone who has been to Afghanistan knows that what the country really needs is all kinds of practical help, and not bags of promises that cannot be kept. There’s no way the Afghan economy will pick up speed without a lot of urgent investment in infrastructure. Opium poppy cultivation will not disappear if peasants are not offered other means of subsistence: Karzai-era heroin sales are booming again in Antwerp and Amsterdam.

The Taliban simply won’t go away: on the contrary, they have blended in everywhere. US journalist Bob Woodward has recently revealed how George W Bush bought Afghan warlords to the tune of US$70 million, so US forces would not need to stage a dangerous, massive land invasion of Afghanistan. This saved many US lives, but the practical results are in fact a disaster. There’s no peace to speak of in Afghanistan. George W Bush wanted to “smoke out” Osama bin Laden and capture him “dead or alive.” Osama is alive and kicking, firing up his war through the global media, and betting more than ever on a clash of civilizations. The most tangible effect of the war against terrorism is the ressurgence of Talibanization in Pakistan. In the latest Pakistani elections, the Islamist front Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) – an alliance of six religious parties – captured most of the seats in parliament and won a majority in the ultra-sensitive provinces neighboring Afghanistan – Baluchistan and the North West Frontier Province (NWFP). The MMA wants to prohibit further operations in the search for al-Qaeda members in the NWFP, any operations in which the CIA participates, and the use of Pakistani air bases for “foreigners” to launch military operations in Afghanistan. In the NWFP, the mullahs are back in full force, enforcing the burqa, prohibiting mixed classes, and vowing to apply a key tenet of the MMA program – “to finish off with vulgarity and obscenity” on TV. The elites in urban Pakistan are terrified that sooner or later the mullahs may also be applying an array of punishments related to moral questions – cutting off hands, piercing eyes, stoning adulteresses. Meanwhile, in Iraq, it’s already raining bombs and pamphlets – just like in Afghanistan a little more than a year ago. US and British planes – many of them based in Turkey – keep bombing Iraqi air defenses, the last time on Wednesday, 25 kilometers northeast of Mosul. In the exclusion zone north of the 36th parallel, the US and Britain operate 45 combat planes, serviced by 1400 men. In the exclusion zone south of the 33th

parallel, they operate 150 combat planes, serviced by 6,000 men. This year, there have been 406 incidents, including 149 since September 16, the day Baghdad accepted the return of inspectors from the UN and the International Atomic Energy Agency. Since the voting of UN Resolution 1441, there have been 7 incidents in the north and 17 in the south, according to General Richard Myers, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff. Last Sunday,13 coalition planes dropped 23 precision-guided bombs over Iraqi air defense installations, including an advanced vehicle-mounted detection radar, according to the US. According to the Iraqi version, the bombed site was the headquarters of an oil company . In a measure of the decrepit state of Saddam’s army, the Iraqis are now using Roland surface-to-air batteries sold by France way back in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq War, as well as Russian SAM-3 missiles. The US, along with its bombs, is also dropping containers, each one with up to 60,000 sheets of paper of 18cm by 7.5cm. The pamphlets, in English and Arabic, target the general population and most of all policemen, militiamen and the army. They “advise” Iraqi soldiers not to repair the installations destroyed by the bombing, and tell Kurds in the north and Shi’ites in the south that these bombings are a means to protect them from the Iraqi army. So the war is in fact well under way. As the Bush administration remains obsessed about Iraq, Afghanistan once again has slipped to the status of a mere sideshow. In the US administration’s global strategy, allies are considered an annoying sideshow anyway, some of them barely redeemed by their deep pockets. There’s no real interest in even trying to help nation-building. A real victory in Afghanistan is very hard to consolidate – and not at all spectacular in media terms. To smash Saddam Hussein’s crippled forces in prime time with high technology is a lot sexier. Bush senior had a “vision thing.” His son’s vision as applied to Afghanistan may be a roadmap for what will be America’s strategy in Iraq. FOREVER WARS   147

US nationals of the Humanitarian Organization Voices in the Wilderness hold a candle vigil at the entrance of the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad on New Years Eve in 2002. The group urged the United Nations not to bow to pressure from the United States and other nations who support a war against Iraq. Photo: AFP

Iraq first, then Southwest Asia The logic of war for the moment seems to be favoring American political, economic and strategic designs. Moscow’s interests seem to be threatened – in terms of loss of influence – and so seem Beijing’s in the longer run – in terms of access to energy sources. The potential for trouble is immense By PEPE ESCOBAR DECEMBER 25, 2002

PARIS – An Islamic scholar born in Egypt tells Asia Times Online that as soon as US Secretary of State Colin Powell, a living portrait of moderation, pronounced the deadly magic words “material breach,” the Arab world had to swallow its bitter impotence and admit that war against Iraq was practically inevitable. The whole world knows Saddam Hussein is indefensible: he tortures and kills opponents, has used chemical weapons against Iran and Iraqi Kurds, has produced biological weapons and tried to obtain nuclear weapons 148   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES


– even before the Gulf War, when the US and the UK generously supplied him with armaments, radioactive material and advanced military technology. But what concerns the Arab world is less the fate of Saddam than the exponential suffering of the Iraqi civilian population in case of war. Destroy Saddam The American strategy has been extremely efficient: it relies on the fact the US cannot be criticized because it is following the UN. This is one more splendid paradox coming from an administration that has boycotted the most consensual UN decisions – those regarding the International Court of Justice, global warming, children’s rights and the banning of nuclear tests. Cato in Imperial Rome used to conclude all his speeches with the catch phrase “Carthago delenda est” (Carthage must be destroyed). Practically harmless in fact, Rome’s old enemy was blocking the construction of the empire and was also an unwanted competitor in the export of oil and grain. Then one day the Carthaginians violated their “exclusion zone” to pursue a bunch of robbers. This was the pretext Rome was waiting for, and it smashed Carthage into oblivion. Carthage had to die for the Roman Empire to live. Just like Cato, George W. Bush doesn’t mince words as far as his new world order is concerned. Critics of the war all agree that Bush may not know much about the world outside Texas, but he knows something about oil: his family has been in this business for two generations. He also knows the war will mobilize more than 100,000 troops, will cost between US$100 billion and $200 billion, depending on the scenario, and afterwards will require maintaining 50,000 troops in Iraq, at a cost of $18 billion a year, perhaps for decades. In exchange, the Bush administration may control the production and pricing system of oil in the world markets. Iraq, which was producing no more than 1.6 million barrels a day until a few months ago, and now 150   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

is barely producing 500,000, could produce 3 million, 5 million or even 10 million barrels a day. George W. Bush has a vision of a world where the highest values in his moral scale – open markets and cheap gas – are explicitly guaranteed by the US Marines. Nobody ever stresses that the Security Council resolutions adopted after the Gulf War are the most punitive collection of measures imposed on a country in peacetime since the Versailles Treaty. The economies of Germany and Japan were rebuilt after World War II, and both countries soon came back to the concert of nations. Iraq, on the other hand, has been devastated. All these years, Security Council members have been approving sanctions against Iraq so inhumane that two highly respected UN officials, Denis Hallyday and Hans von Sponeck, in charge of humanitarian aid to Iraq, resigned because they did not want to be accomplices to a policy described by both of them as “genocidal.” Richard Falk, professor of international law at Princeton University, is one of the few to draw the relevant conclusions: “The West is ready to impose a punitive peace on Third World countries, especially Muslim countries. It is even capable of giving an appearance of legitimacy to these hate measures by their vote at the UN.” Few outside the US are being fooled – as Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America know, Washington hawks have scant respect for the UN. It is widely recognized that the US, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, would never say a single word about the state of Israel’s illegal colonization and slow-burning ethnic cleansing policies in Palestine – practices widely condemned by UN member states. Frustrated UN diplomats have been reaffirming off the record that Resolution 1441, the way it was voted on November 8, is a blank check for war and nothing but a convenient instrument of American policy. No matter what it does, Iraq is condemned in advance. The process has nothing to do with Iraq’s disarmament and everything to do with “regime change” –

which specialists in international law like Falk define as a direct interference in a country’s sovereignty and its people’s right to self-determination. Washington is actively sponsoring post-Saddam Iraq. During the recent, highly-publicized Iraqi opposition meeting in London, says the respected Al Hayat newspaper, the American delegate Zalmay Khalilzad – the man who according to Afghans stole the Loya Jirga from King Zahir Shah – actually threatened the 300 participants. He said “Washington could name a military governor after the fall of Saddam Hussein if the conference finished without an agreement.” For the London-based Palestinian paper Al Quds Al Arabi – one of the only pan-Arab papers to escape Saudi control – the meeting was organized by the US to fulfill its own interests: “They got what they wanted: a political cover for their military objectives.” For Al Quds Al Arabi, the main beneficiaries are “the pro-Iranian Shi’ites and the Kurds. This assures the ‘Shi’iteKurd coalition’ a big influence over the nomination of members of the provisional [Iraqi] government, scheduled for January 15.” Arab diplomats fear that by playing up ethnic and religious components, the US will be forcing post-Saddam Iraq to lose its Arab character. According to a recent Gallup poll, 91 percent of Americans think the Iraqi weapons declaration is a lie, but 66 percent think the administration should not go to war before the lies are proved by the UN inspectors. This is one of the reasons the US administration may take its time until January 27, but another reason is that the Pentagon military machine won’t be ready until late January or early February. The best Arab observers have no doubt that Saddam Hussein will do everything in his power to make the Americans pay a tremendous price for the invasion. American military planners know the urban guerrilla scenario is very much on the cards: a Fortress Baghdad heavily protected by Saddam’s elite Special Republican Guard plus the two regiments of the Republican Guard, in a 21st century remake of the Siege of Stalingrad.

There’s a possibility Saddam may set fire to Iraq’s oil fields – as he did in 1991 in Kuwait. He may also be betting on collateral damage reaching an unbearable level for Western public opinion, way beyond the estimated 3,000-plus civilian victims of American bombing during the New Afghan War. If Saddam Hussein, the ultimate survivor, resorts to employing his crude chemical or biological weapons, the White House’s assurances that it would go nuclear will not be much of a consolation. The bigger picture American foreign policy is now dominated by three vectors: the post-Cold War policy to prevent the resurgence of any rival power comparable to the USSR; the global war against terrorism, encompassing states that support terrorism, and states that have decided to acquire weapons of mass destruction; and the echoes and reverberations of the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan. These three vectors converge at an intersection of the Chinese, Indian, Slavic and Arab worlds – what American strategists (but not yet tourist guidebooks) define as Southwest Asia. As if any confirmation were needed, General Tommy Franks – who managed the war against the Taliban and will manage the war against Iraq – has stressed time and time again that American forces will stay in Afghanistan for a long time. There are roughly 8,000 American troops in Afghanistan at the moment. They remain practically all the time in cantonment mode, because they have no access to valuable information to guide them on the trail of Taliban and al-Qaeda operatives. To make matters worse, in the Pashtun belt, the Americans are faced with a jihad against foreign invaders launched last August, a jihad with a strong rear-guard base in Pakistani territory. As Asia Times Online has reported from the spot, Pashtuns on both sides of the volatile and porous Pakistan-Afghanistan FOREVER WARS   151

border are unanimously enraged by the US. Afghanistan remains totally insecure. Warlords rule the provinces. Hamid Karzai’s government is dominated by Uzbeks, Tajiks and, on a smaller scale, Hazaras. It is so fragile that Karzai, according to local jokes, cannot rule even over his own chair. And once again, predictably, Afghanistan has disappeared from the media radar. The “smoking out” of Taliban and al-Qaeda and the capture of their chiefs and commanders has been a failure. The New Afghan War became a Pakistani war. President General Pervez Musharraf ’s decision to totally align himself with the US was not much help to Washington. The best illustration is what happened in the Pakistani elections on October 10: the President’s party – the Muslim League Quaid-e-Azam – won in some places, but the religious parties united in the Muttahidda Majlis-e-Aman (MMA) won a massive victory in the ultra-sensitive Pashtun-dominated regions, the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and Balochistan. The vice-president of the MMA, Qazi Hussain Ahmed, has said he wants to eliminate US air bases in Pakistan and wants the country out of the coalition to fight terrorism. The regions controlled by the MMA are bound to be subjected to Sharia (Islamic law), with no interference of Western culture. Militants in most of the groups composing the MMA – especially the young – are in fact basically the same people that fought under a Taliban or an al-Qaeda banner last year and are still engaging in anti-US jihad on both sides of the border. As the US war on terror translates into a massively powerful war machine, the US has extended the battlefield way beyond Afghanistan and Pakistan. Now there are more air and ground forces in Diego Garcia – located in the heart of the Indian Ocean. There are at least 200 US “advisors” in Yemen, where, not by an accident, a precise hit from a drone smashed a vehicle transporting six alleged al-Qaeda members. There are US Special Forces in Djibouti, in the ultra-sensitive horn of Africa – where soon there will be a full American headquarters. The agenda is only superficially re152   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

lated to the pursuit of terrorist groups in north Africa. It is directly related to the replacement of American bases in Saudi Arabia, as it is almost certain (though not yet an irreversible decision) that the Saudis will not authorize their use in the upcoming Iraqi invasion. What the US is really interested in is Southwest Asia: Iran and the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. The Bush administration and the Putin government are playing a very complex chess game. Putin is sacrificing positions now to gain a later advantage. The Americans have already attacked Russian interests on four sides. The US torpedoed the 1972 ABM treaty which forbids space missile defense. NATO expanded east to former Soviet satellites – and now incorporates three former Soviet republics: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. A crucial pipeline carrying a substantial part of the Caspian oil wealth runs from Baku in Azerbaijan to Ceyhan in Turkey, south of the Caucasus, thus totally bypassing Russia. And the US signed with Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan – and is negotiating with Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan – agreements to create American air bases in these former Soviet republics’ territories. These developments form the basis of a long-term American military presence in the heart of Southwest Asia. The Bush administration may start its new war against Iraq – but the war in fact is against Iran. Iran is an official member of the Axis of Evil. Washington has conveniently forgotten that only one year ago, during the New Afghan War, Iran was actually an ally of the US as it helped, financed and armed the Hazaras, who were part of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance.

imams who recite the Friday prayers all over the country, and also the media. So in the view of Washington hawks, President Khatami simply cannot reform the regime. Strategically, Iran is important because – as Israeli intelligence has been alerting – Iran could have a nuclear bomb before 2005. Washington hawks figure that if the Shah’s regime wanted to become a nuclear power, it need be no different for the Islamic regime. The ayatollahs indeed fear total encirclement of Iran. They know that Iraq was trying to become nuclear, that Israel and Pakistan are nuclear powers, and that now the US is an unwanted neighbor. European diplomats speculate that Iran could have three options: it could continue trying to acquire fissile material and missile launchers, while waiting for external threats to justify the pursuit of a nuclear arsenal. It could engage in a secret program to build nuclear weapons – just like Israel did. Or it could explode a nuclear device – just like India and Pakistan did. There’s one factor common to these three options: they are all anathema for Washington. For the US, it’s out of the question for Iran to become a very important regional power, andnor does the US want to become engaged in an automatic nuclear guarantee to the Gulf monarchies. So Iran risks sooner or later becoming a victim of the American doctrine of preemptive action.

The parallels with Afghanistan are striking. The US intervention in Afghanistan completely destabilized Pakistan – and a few dangerous after-effects are already noticeable. The US intervention in Iraq could completely destabilize Iran. It’s absolutely certain that Iran will not help mortal enemy Saddam Hussein. But the fact is the US already has a substantial military presence in the Gulf, Pakistan, Central Asia and Turkey. Add Iraq, and Iran will be encircled. The Islamic regime may inevitably react by forcefully aiding the anti-US jihadis in Afghanistan as well as the anti-Musharraf parties in Pakistan. Iran could also try to seduce Iraq’s 60 percent of Shi’ites to prevent the next Iraqi state from being a totally American concoction (as the Arab press is convinced it will be). It’s fair to imagine that under these circumstances the war against terrorism will acquire a totally new dimension. The logic of war for the moment seems to be favoring American political, economic and strategic designs. Moscow’s interests seem to be threatened – in terms of loss of influence – and so seem Beijing’s in the longer run – in terms of access to energy sources. The potential for trouble is immense – but so is the potential for a peaceful Southwest Asia ruled by a new concert of powers: the US, China, Russia and India. This may not be an Axis of Good, as compared to the current Axis of Evil, but it could certainly be an Axis of the World.

European diplomats suggest the heart of the matter is how the regime in Tehran is perceived in Washington. There may exist an understanding of the Iranian regime as a concert of multiple and clashing centers of decision. But Washington hawks have only two preoccupations. They know the regime is under the power of Velayat-e-Faqih – Islamic jurisprudence. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei directs the army, the security services, the Guardians of the Revolution, the paramilitary forces, the institutions of the judiciary, the FOREVER WARS   153

The London-based Saudi daily AlSharq Al-Awsat (C), and other Gulf newspapers, show ‘America on Fire’ on their front pages after the World Trade Center attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. Photo: AFP

Clues from ancient Babylon It’s unlikely Saddam Hussein has been using a phone, mobile or otherwise, these days. Nobody on the planet can tell for sure how will he choose to exit from History. When he delivered his speech for the 12th anniversary of the Gulf War – known as ‘Mother of All Battles’ in Iraq – he compared the next Desert Storm to the 1258 conquest of Baghdad by the Mongols. The Mongols destroyed the city and killed Al-Mustasim, the last Abbasid caliph. The caliph died fighting. By PEPE ESCOBAR JANUARY 31, 2003

CAIRO – All the Arab capitals – as much as Washington – wish he would just go away. He won’t. As an unusually exasperated diplomat remarked in Geneva: “It’s not about Iraq. It’s not about inspections. It’s not about oil. It’s about one man really. Why doesn’t he just … disappear? Osama bin Laden – yesterday’s villain, untraceable, uncatchable – re154   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES


mains in the shadows, like a specter. Saddam Hussein – unlike Osama – is in your face, our face, everybody’s faces, everyday on Iraqi TV, a creepy, stony remake of a Babylonian emperor chairing meetings with army officers and security agencies. Osama bin Laden has not lost his gift for timing. Even before George W. Bush, with religious exaltation and crusader spirit, talked about the State of the Union, Osama, with religious exaltation and crusader spirit, was purportedly talking about the state of the umma. He has sent a 26-page text with his “trademark secret signature” to the Islamic Center for Studies and Research in Pakistan. The text was obtained by the Saudi-owned newspaper Al-Sharq Al Awsat, and the story was published on January 26. In the text, Osama stresses that Muslims should “enter into the blessed obligation of jihad by highlighting the importance of unity and eliminating differences of opinion.” It’s not a coincidence that this call for unity happens just as the war against Iraq seems inevitable. Millions of angry and frustrated Muslims – especially in the Middle East – are bound to echo Osama when he asks: “When will Muslims wake up from their long sleep, and when will they distinguish between their friend and enemy? When will they direct their own arrows that they use to fight each other to their external enemy that steals and loots its fortunes and its resources?” Dictatorial Arab regimes tremble when they hear these words. They know “regime change” is not applicable to Osama, but they also know Osama wants to apply his own version of “regime change” to them. As far as Washington is concerned, in the absence of Osama, Saddam Hussein remains the next best option. Colin Powell himself recognized after a meeting with Pakistan’s Foreign Minister that Saddam’s exile – along with his family and the leadership of the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) – plus immunity, would be the ideal solution. Powell even hinted that if the UN approved it, the US might go for it. A few days before Powell, Donald Rumsfeld had already said that an arrange156   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

ment like this “would be a fair trade to avoid a war.” Washington wants something that Baghdad will never deliver. Egyptian politician Farouq Goweida says why: “The US is probably aware that if Saddam dies under American bombing, he will become a symbol of resistance for the Arab world. So obviously they will refuse him the privilege. That’s why his only way out is to remain in Baghdad.” On January 17, Ali Hasan Al Majid, aka “Chemical Ali” (he is the alleged mastermind of the gassing of Iraqi Kurds in 1988 and one of Saddam ‘s cousins), visited Syria. “Chemical Ali” is as close to the leader as you can get: he manages Saddam’s personal affairs. Obviously he dismissed all the speculation about exile as “absurd.” Mohsen Khalil, Iraq’s ambassador to Egypt, in an analysis that could have been penned by Osama himself, also dismissed the rumors as “another example of US propaganda and lies where they leak information that is not true so that they can create a rift between Arab leaders.” And in another echo of Osama’s call for unity, the ambassador said that “Arab leaders refuse to interfere in the internal political affairs of other nations, because they know if it happens in Iraq, it will happen to them next.” Colin Powell certainly does not believe in the exile option, and is now getting ready for the pitch of his life next Wednesday at the Security Council, the new key date set by Washington. President Bush is very clear: the US will consult with the UN, but if Saddam does not disarm, in the name of security and peace, the US will lead a coalition and go to war. George W. Bush has not declared war, not yet. But he has announced it. He didn’t lay down an ultimatum. But he formulated it. With one stroke, Bush smashed the importance of the meeting this past Wednesday where the inspectors’s report was discussed at the Security Council; smashed the importance of the new report to be presented on February 14 (a German proposal); and imposed on the UN his own calendar – faster, and with a very clear objective. The date that matters now is February 5, when Powell presents the

alleged new evidence capable of convicting Saddam’s regime. Very important: Bush never pronounced the word “resolution.” This means that as far as Washington is concerned the war won’t depend on a UN vote in a new resolution; the war depends on a clear choice by Saddam Hussein, right here, right now. In a secret document titled “What does disarmament look like,” leaked in the beginning of this week, the White House accuses Qusai, Saddam’s youngest son and heir, of organizing the dissimulation of Iraqi means of production and storage of weapons of mass destruction. According to the document, the Iraqi organization put in place to aid the inspectors works as an “anti-inspector corps.” These “anti-inspectors” are supposed to be scientists capable of protecting sensitive installations from the UN operation. The White House document says these scientists are much larger in number than the inspectors, and they also get help from “thousands of others, coming from all Iraqi security agencies,” in a mission to “hide documents and materials from the inspectors.” According to the White House document, Qusai Hussein – the head of the Special Security Organization (SSO) – controls the whole operation. Normally, Qusai heads the Jihaz Al-Amn Al-Khas (Special Security Service), created in 1984 and listing some 5,000 officials charged with protecting sensitive sites. The White House document goes even further, saying that a whole basket of security agencies is engaged in preventing the UN from working properly. These include operatives from the military industry; the special division in charge of the security of Baghdad; military intelligence (with as much as 6,000 agents); the Republican Guard; and the Special Republican Guard (with as many as 100,000 personnel). It’s practically certain that Colin Powell will present this kind of evidence to the UN next week, along with a battery of Ikonos satellite images of movement of sensitive material, and photos of recent mosques or hospitals built inside or around military sites considered to be certified bombing targets.

As far as the al-Qaeda-Baghdad connection goes, things are much more complicated. It’s fair to assume Powell’s presentation will rely on confessions obtained by US intelligence in Guantanamo, Cuba. European intelligence agencies don’t believe in the veracity of the information, but American intelligence says al-Qaeda “enemy combatants” confessed having received chemical products from Iraq for their training. Al-Qaeda operatives may have been to Iraq for training (very unlikely), and Iraqis may have been to Afghan training camps (very likely, as Asia Times Online confirmed in August 2001). Saddam Hussein, as expected, remains defiant. According to a source inside Iraq, Saddam said this week on Iraqi TV that everybody should be inspired by the suicide-bombing of “our Palestinian brothers.” It appears that Qusai – now on TV every day – along with army generals, has been charged by Saddam to organize the key Iraqi defense around Baghdad. Another US option would be to simply exterminate Saddam: CIA and Special Forces operating in Iraqi Kurdistan have authority to use lethal force. According to a presidential order signed by Bush in 2002, it’s now legal for Americans to assassinate foreign leaders or civilians. Many within the Bush administration believe assassinating Saddam is an unrivalled option in terms of cost-benefit. It’s unlikely the legal killer brigade has reached the gates of Baghdad yet: At the moment they are supposed to be training opposition Kurdish and Shia leaders, and also scouting for potential landing strips to be used in case of war. Nonetheless they can rely on a massive armory of satellites monitoring the phone calls and walkie-talkie transmissions of Saddam and his generals. A converted Boeing 707, called a RC-135 Rivet Joint, flies up to 10 hours a day at 35,000 feet over Iraq, intercepting all phone calls and identifying callers’ locations with a minimal margin of error. Two satellites are dedicated to tracking Saddam. The Micron Spy satellite, stationed more than 33,000km above the Middle East, picks up phone calls and sends FOREVER WARS   157

them to a US listening base in Yorkshire, England. The Trumpet satellite picks up cellphone calls and sends them to a base in Colorado.

the last Abbasid caliph. The caliph died fighting. The reference matches Saddam’s recent eulogy of Palestinian suicide bombers.

It’s unlikely Saddam Hussein has been using a phone, mobile or otherwise, these days. Nobody on the planet can tell for sure how will he choose to exit from History. When he delivered his speech for the 12th anniversary of the Gulf War – known as “Mother of All Battles” in Iraq – he compared the next Desert Storm to the 1258 conquest of Baghdad by the Mongols. The Mongols destroyed the city and killed Al-Mustasim,

But only a few days before this speech, Saddam told his army commanders that Gilgamesh – the legendary king of Uruk – decided to abdicate from the throne and wander the earth “in search of the secret of immortality.” One thing is certain: Saddam is no Shah of Iran. So how will he play it? As a martyr, like the last Abbasid caliph? Or as a philosopher-king, like Gilgamesh?

The famous Khan al-Khalili bazaar in Cairo. Photo: Wikimedia

All quiet on the Arab street When Colin Powell started delivering the pitch of his life at the United Nations Security Council this Wednesday, the cry of the muezzin at the Hussein mosque calling for the sunset prayer was echoing throughout the Khan al-Khalili. Walking around the huge market, in ahwas and shops, the odd ‘Hey mister, want papyrus?’ barely interrupted the hypnotic drone of Powell, a secular muezzin in suit and tie reading his indictment almost like a prayer, cueing the carefully edited audio of what, for many in the Arab nation, was nothing but accusations and allegations, and for some in the West was indeed ‘unrefutable’ and ‘undeniable’ evidence. By PEPE ESCOBAR FEBRUARY 7, 2003

CAIRO – Call it romantic or realist, but in the hearts and minds of 280 million Arabs, their world is defined by a western wing in North Africa, an eastern wing in the Levant – with a very strategic border ending in Iraq – and the heart in Egypt. This representation is very much faithful to the powerful geographic, strategic and political ties uniting all Arabs. It’s not a mystery why Pan-Arabia is so worried today, with so many unfore158   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES


seen consequences of an Anglo-American-led war in one of its strategic borders. If Egypt is the heart of the Arab world, Islamic Cairo is the heart of Egypt, and El Fishawy one of its key arteries. El Fishawy itself is at the heart of the Khan al-Khalili – a caravanserai originally built in the late 14th century and today a gargantuan labyrinth of markets and shops, one of the great bazaars of the whole Middle East. El Fishawy has been the quintessential ahwa (coffeehouse), packed day and night since the beginning of the 20th century. Sprawling to both sides of a cramped narrow alley, proud of its mirrors hanging over divans and its old photos hanging on the walls, it impeccably coexists with a bazaar chaos of brass and copper, rows and rows of Nefertiti, Anubis and Horus in clay or stone, plastic transparent pyramids complete with showered golden powder, real and fake amber jewelry, belly dancing outfits, cheap camel design carpets, rubber obelisks and the odd stray cat. If downtown Cairo is a derelict early modern inferno of noise and pollution, in Islamic Cairo – with its twisting alleyways smelling of cumin and petrol and fabulous collection of medieval mosques – it’s not impossible to time travel to the Cairo of the Thousand and One Nights: after all, many a fabled episode took place in the Cairo of the Mamluks. Only five minutes away from El Fishawy is the mosque of Al-Azhar, founded in the year 970. AlAzhar is also the oldest university in the world. For centuries it was the Mecca of knowledge for scholars from all over the Islamic world and Europe. Today they don’t study in the atmospheric central courtyard of the mosque, surrounded by minarets from the 15th and 16th centuries, but in different campuses around the country. And as a sign of the times, political scientist Mustapha El-Feki now worries that Al-Azhar does not send its scholars abroad anymore: this would be “the best way to show the world the true face of Islam, which is based on tolerance.” On jumma prayers on Friday at Al-Azhar, the imam 160   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

has been raging against what is largely perceived as another war imposed on the whole umma – the community of the faithful. A request to watch one of these sermons is politely turned down by attendants at the mosque: “The police won’t let you come inside. And many people may be angry, they may think you are American.” Though aware of the currently extra-sensitive situation, Cairenes remain unfailingly polite and helpful. Numerous tortuous steps to arrange a possible meeting with the Sheikh of Al-Azhar – the ultimate theological master in Egypt – are softened with endless cups of mint tea.

anticipating the arrival at his destination.

Two minutes away from El Fishawy is the mosque of Sayyidna al-Hussein, arguably the most sacred Islamic site in Egypt, with its shrine under which is buried the head of Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Mohammad, brought to the mosque in a green silk bag in 1153 – almost half a millennium after his death in Kerbala (in Iraq) – at a time when the crusaders were desecrating Islamic holy places in Palestine. This interplay of history is just another example of how the concept of an Arab nation is impregnated in the collective unconscious. At the Mashi Ghet, the Al Azhar building holding the mosque’s administrative offices, an official says, “The Arab nation and Islam is one. So the suffering of Iraqis and Palestinians cannot but be shared by any Egyptian.”

When Colin Powell started delivering the pitch of his life at the United Nations Security Council this Wednesday, the cry of the muezzin at the Hussein mosque calling for the sunset prayer was echoing throughout the Khan al-Khalili. Walking around the huge market, in ahwas and shops, the odd “Hey mister, want papyrus?” barely interrupted the hypnotic drone of Powell, a secular muezzin in suit and tie reading his indictment almost like a prayer, cueing the carefully edited audio of what, for many in the Arab nation, was nothing but accusations and allegations, and for some in the West was indeed “unrefutable” and “undeniable” evidence.

Maybe not around the Hussein mosque – which faces the Khan al-Khalili and inescapable package-tour hell – but behind the alleys of Al Azhar it is possible to enter pure Naguib Mahfouz territory. The 91-year-old 1988 Nobel of Literature, the greatest living writer in Arabic, has recently left hospital. He cannot write any more: he dictates to a friend, playwright and journalist Mohamed Salmawy. Every Thursday, the great writer’s vocal haikus are printed as a short column in the newspaper Al Ahram. Egyptians of all walks of life read them as their secular version of a jumma prayer – a helpful guide to the trials and tribulations of life. Mahfouz now compares his life to the penultimate train station on his annual train journey from Cairo to Alexandria: he is getting ready to collect his luggage

Mahfouz was born in Gamaliyya, in the heart of Islamic Cairo: his family moved to another neighborhood before he became a teenager, but in his heart he never left. He kept coming back to El Fishawy to meet his friends – and Islamic Cairo is the privileged universe of his modern Dickensian novels. In fact, in a novel like Children of the Alley, the whole universe is contained in a single alley and the people who live in it: this is Mahfouz himself speaking as a boy growing up in the beginning of the 20th century in an alley in Islamic Cairo called Darb Qirmiz.

At El Fishawy, the inevitable horde of Japanese tourists carrying an audiovideo Babel kept struggling with their sheeshas – water pipes. And at an ahwa in a dark cul-de-sac not far from El Fishawy, a cluster of men were more interested in watching the rerun of a soccer match on a cheap made in China TV set. All the conversation shuffled around the crucial match this Friday when Egyptian favorites Zamalek face the Moroccans from Wydad Casablanca for the African Supercup title. Somebody says that Powell has made a connection between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda. “He says there are more than 20 al-Qaeda living in Baghdad.” Somebody answers: “So what? You don’t go to war for this.” And the conversation instantly shifts to war. Any ahwa – cheap tin-plated-topped tables, rickety wooden chairs, room filled with sawdust – is not just a coffehouse: it is the quintessential Arab street, square

and living room all rolled into one. Some play towla – backgammon – some smoke sheeshas, some drink mint tea or, in winter, sahleb – a warm drink of semolin powder, milk and chopped nuts. Some plunge into deep silence for hours, some do everything at all once and talk non-stop, occasionally glancing at also nonstop Arabic movies on video and, of course, live or rerun soccer matches. The informal message of the Khan al-Khalili is “no to war, yes to peace”. Everybody seems to agree with the Syrian ambassador to the UN when he says on TV that “war would be a failure of the international system, which should depend on the UN charter”. And some even clap when the ambassador says, “How can we go to war against Iraq – which is not occupying any country and is not menacing any of its neighbors – when Israel is still occupying Palestinian, Lebanese and Syrian territories in defiance of many UN resolutions?” Somebody echoes the ambassador, “Nobody must have bombs and missiles. Israel also, no.” The street-square-living room is nothing but echoing silkier corridors. Mohamed Sid-Ahmed, from the Egyptian Council of Foreign Relations, recently back from a meeting with members of the European Union in Brussels, says, “America does not want Israel to dismantle its nuclear arsenal. It is interested only in going after suspected caches of weapons of mass destruction held by countries that are Israel’s enemies. This double standard is the main obstacle in the way of finding a real solution to the problem of weapons of mass destruction.” Mahfouz nowadays barely talks about politics. But in one of his weekly newspaper pieces, in 1997, he wrote, “No matter how powerful a culture may be militarily and politically, it cannot impose itself upon a people unless they are convinced of its superiority to their own culture. If they are convinced, then the new culture is more qualified than the one it replaced.” Today this reads like a message from the Arab world to America. In Baghdad, General Amer Al Sa’adi, scientific adviser to Saddam, is describing the Powell presentation FOREVER WARS   161

as “a typical American show, with stunts and special effects”. Ahmad laughs at the comparison. Ahmad is a character straight from a Mahfouz novel. He is only 22, unemployed, left school to take care of his ailing father. He spends mornings and nights at home, and during the day hits the streets of Cairo trying to make ends meet. In three months he’ll be going to military service for three years, and he is very much afraid of the future. Especially to what might happen to his relationship with his 18-year-old girlfriend. They see each other only once a week, sometimes only twice a month. He says that he is shy, so that’s why she took the initiative to kiss him for the first time. His most pressing obligation is how to find US$15 to buy a brand-new Lifestyle shirt for their next date. “She is very chic. From a rich family. When we go out, she always pays.” He wishes he would not have to serve the obligatory three years so he could pursue his studies, be with his girlfriend, and work on his dream of emigrating to London. Now he is afraid of a possible war. “Bush is crazy. He wants to bomb everybody. What if something happens to Egypt?” At a jewelry shop in the Khan al-Khalili, Fatima gives up on a silver necklace. The Powell theme is inescapable, “I was waiting for something more practical. He showed a lot of photos. Why did they keep this so long for themselves?” She’s not convinced about the al-Qaeda ties, “Nobody knows. They can say these people are in Egypt. Who can say no?” In private, the Arab street talks a lot, but it is more or less prohibited from shouting in public. Amina, a professor of French literature at the University of Cairo, says, “There are many people who share our feelings but are afraid to come out and protest.” Moderate Islamists, fierce nationalists, Nasser nostalgics, human rights activists, politicians, university students in fact have very specific demands. They want Egypt to ban US and British warships from entering the Suez canal. They are asking people to boycott US and British products: McDonald’s and KFCs in Cairo are nearly deserted these days. They demand the end of any form of American military presence in the Arab world. And most of all they want the end of Egypt’s draconian 162   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

emergency law – which prohibits demonstrations. Abu Madi, a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood and a “moderate Islamist” by his own definition, sort of agrees with regime change in Iraq: “We need to change Saddam Hussein, but through democracy. If Iraqis want to get rid of Saddam Hussein, that is their right. But no one has the right to do it in their place.” Gamil Mattar, who directs the Arab Center for Futuristic Studies, says so much speculation about the war in Iraq affects everybody in the Arab world. “The US has many plans for us. But do we know what they are? And does the US, for that matter, know what they are?” For months Mattar has been puzzled by the deafening silence of the Arab street. He is convinced the silence masks a lot of anger, which could explode anytime with very worrying consequences: “The gap between the Arab people and their regimes was widened to such an unprecedented extent that one can’t imagine a worse scenario than reality today. I’m quite pessimistic. I think this gap has swallowed everything.”

to channel the interest of the public to purely cultural debates will calm their anger. If there is war, it will be difficult to imagine the reactions.” Powell’s speech has come and gone. Late at night, El Fishawy still gets a drop of its ceaseless heavy dose of tourists, but the shops are closing and the ahwas are more silent. A raiyis – waiter – says, “Who cares about war? We have to worry about getting money for the

next day.” In The Day the Leader Was Killed, a complex mini-novel which is really about the merciless new materialism creeping into the Egypt of the early 1980s, Mahfouz writes, “Life’s but a walking shadow on a summer’s day, seeking shelter under the shades of a tree for an hour or so and then is heard no more.” At the Khan al-Khalili, the call of the muezzin starts another day – and the Arab street goes back to the business of seeking shelter from the coming storm.

The gap between the Arab street and the governments in the region sometimes narrows, though. There have been a few demonstrations in Cairo – the heart of the Arab world – but with more police than demonstrators. The regimes obviously prefer silence. At the 35th Cairo International Book Fair, which ends this Friday, for the first time since 1983 any debates about the explosive situation in the Middle East were prohibited. Egypt created this fair in 1967 to show the world it still had an important regional role to play in spite of the military defeat by Israel. Book sellers confirm that the fair was always a great forum to debate terrorism, freedom of expression and the political role of religious institutions. For Mustapha Bakri, editor of an independent weekly in Arabic, the fact that nobody is allowed this year to discuss Iraq or Palestine shows how much the powers that be fear those oceans of extremely angry Muslim youth ready to explode: “The state is very much conscious of the gap between the government position and public opinion.” Writer Mahmoud Al-Tohami says that the fair has lost all its impact: “It is naive to think that FOREVER WARS   163

Iraqi Ambassador to the Arab League Moshen Khalil.

Looking askance at a (very) likely war In an exclusive interview, the Iraqi ambassador to the Arab League denies any relationship between Baghdad and al-Qaeda By PEPE ESCOBAR FEBRUARY 14, 2003

CAIRO – In an exclusive interview to Asia Times Online, Moshen Khalil, the Iraqi ambassador to the Arab League, admitted that war is practically inevitable: “The prospects are very high, I would say 99.99 percent. But the remaining 0.01 percent still has a chance.” Khalil will be a key player at the extraordinary Arab League summit of foreign ministers this Sunday in Cairo. He is not only one of Iraq’s top diplomats but also a journalist, writing a weekly column for Babel, the newspaper controlled by Saddam Hussein’s son Uday. The Iraqi embassy in Cairo is in a splendid colonial house bought during the 1930s near the 164   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES


banks of the Nile. Right across, also in a splendid colonial house, is the Saudi Arabian embassy. As far as the summit is concerned, where 21 beleaguered members of the Arab League (Iraq is the 22nd) will try to find some unity and hammer out a common position for a last chance to peace, the Iraqi position, says Khalil, is clear: “We will listen to the opinions of all other Arab countries, but they should stick to what has been decided in the Beirut summit [in March 2002] and the ministerial meeting last November. The most important thing is the obligation of all Arab countries to reject aggression against Iraq, which would be considered an aggression against all Arab countries. The US is clearly bent on aggression.” Concerning the proposed Franco-German initiatives at the UN asking for more inspectors and tougher inspections, with no time limit, Khalil repeats that “Iraq’s position is to prevent an aggression. I’m waiting for my government’s judgment before expressing my opinion on what France and Germany propose. Any effort which leads to prevent aggression is welcome.” Concerning an Egyptian-Saudi proposal which would recommend that Iraq to get rid of any weapons of mass destruction, and offer amnesty to Iraqi military officers who would reveal the whereabouts of such weapons, Khalil’s answer is simple: “These weapons do not exist.” Khalil is sure that “the only thing that would convince the US not to go to war is that the international community makes a stand against aggression. Iraq has dealt freely with the inspectors. The inspectors have said that Iraq is complying and fully cooperating. The inspectors have no information on the existence of prohibited weapons. The inspectors are the ones who should judge. The US insists on war for political reasons which have no relation to the inspections. If the US administration is left to force its will, it will be forcing it over the whole international community. Iraq is cooperating with the UN to demonstrate it is free from these weapons.” Khalil confirms that the leadership in Baghdad seems to be aware that the US is not bluffing. “The Iraqi leadership is behaving as if the war is about to happen any time. They have a very clear picture. They see the pre166   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

texts used by the US and they know the real objective is not based on facts. America’s policy is to control oil, occupy and reframe the region, and find a solution for the Palestinian crisis based on the Israeli point of view.” The widely-rumored possibility of exile for Saddam Hussein is dismissed by a diplomat who knows the Iraqi leader very well: “These are imaginative thoughts, and illegal. Interference in domestic policy of other states is forbidden by Article 2 of the UN charter. The Iraqi people have a history of struggling against foreign occupation and will never accept a foreigner force imposing their will over the country. People will be part of the resistance.” But how? “Ask the American administration. When the Americans come to our country, we will fight back and resist. We are taking everything into consideration in case of war. We have good experience in this field. We have been facing aerial combat for the past 12 years.”

all possible directions. According to bin Laden, under the current circumstances, “There will be no harm if the interests of Muslims converge with the interests of the socialists in the fight against the crusaders, despite our belief in the infidelity of socialists. The jurisdiction of the socialists and those rulers has fallen a long time ago. Socialists are infidels wherever they are, whether they

are in Baghdad or Aden.” Khalil believes there’s only one way to prevent war: “If there is a change in the beliefs of the American administration. If they become convinced they are not sure to achieve their objectives. And if the US public opinion is against them.”

The Anglo-American bombing, reaffirms Khalil, never stopped: “US aircraft are bombing cities and civilians. There are thousands of dead and injured in cities in all governorates, including Baghdad. Since December 1998, there have been 9,400 military strikes, an average of 20 to 40 strikes a day. But the international media keeps quiet about this.” As a comparison, according to UN data, from 1991 to 1999 there were more than 6,000 Anglo-American strikes, dropping 1,800 bombs and hitting more than 450 targets. Khalil also says “1,730,000 people have died due to the sanctions, the embargo, or effects of bombing by depleted uranium.” UN agencies and a plethora of Western humanitarian organizations estimate the number of victims from 500,000 to up to 1 million. Khalil maintains that “every day these [Iraqi] figures are announced on newspapers and TV.” Khalil denies any relationship between Iraq and al-Qaeda. “There is a fundamental difference between our modern and reasonable regime, which has no link with fundamentalism and extremism, and al-Qaeda. They will never prove anything in this respect. Iraq has no relation to al-Qaeda and has never cooperated or encouraged terrorist organizations.” Osama bin Laden himself confirmed it in so many words in his latest audio broadcast by Al Jazeera – which has been spun in FOREVER WARS   167

Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa (R) meets with six Arab foreign ministers, from R to L, Lebanon’s Mahmud Hammud, Iraqi Naji Sabri, Omani Yussef bin Alawi, Libyan African Unity Minister Abdel Salam Triki, and Syrian Faruq al-Shara at Arab League headquarters in Cairo 23 March 2003. Photo: AFP

At the gates of heaven – or hell George W. Bush may have never read Dante Alighieri. But Bush’s three ultimatums – to Iraq, to the United Nations and to the European Union – seem to come straight from one of old Europe’s greatest creative artists. ‘Abandon all hope ye who enter,’ says Dante in The Divine Comedy at the gates of hell By PEPE ESCOBAR FEBRUARY 26, 2003

CAIRO – George W. Bush may have never read Dante Alighieri. But Bush’s three ultimatums – to Iraq, to the United Nations and to the European Union – seem to come straight from one of old Europe’s greatest creative artists. “Abandon all hope ye who enter,” says Dante in The Divine Comedy at the gates of hell. “Abandon all hope ye who engage in irrelevant talk,” says Bush at the gates of heaven as he prepares for the first installment in a long round of engagement in the Middle East. 168   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES


As we approach the final countdown at the Security Council, it’s the United States and the United Kingdom, backed by Spain, against France and Germany, backed by Russia and China: a one-page second resolution stating that Iraq is in material breach against a memorandum setting deadlines for Iraqi disarmament. The Syrian ambassador to the United Nations has dubbed the deceivingly bland semantics of the second resolution “a declaration of war.” The immediate reaction of the Arab League to total war has been total panic. Secretary general Amr Moussa said, “You can never belittle the consequences of war, especially in a Middle East already frustrated with the Israeli occupation and the bias towards Israel. So adding insult to injury is too much for us.” Insult has been added to injury long before the tabled second resolution. As Asia Times Online has reported (The great Arab face-saving theater, February 19), the Arab League has no cohesive, independent, forcefully argued position vis-a-vis the US: it has only managed to attach most – but not all – of its camels to the Franco-German-Russian “more time for the inspectors” position. Half of Kuwait, a league member, has been turned into a US boot camp. Qatar and Bahrain will also help in the invasion of Iraq. The Arab League is a sad exercise in schizophrenia – trying to appease Washington and engage it in dialogue while at the same time performing full-time contortionism to calm its angry and restless populations. While the world grapples with extraordinary events, the Arab League couldn’t do more than settle for an ordinary summit to be held in Cairo early next month. Syria has been lobbying hard for a meaningful summit. Syria knows very well that it is next on the list of the Washington hawks. In fact, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon – who is the top dog running US foreign policy in the Middle East – just last week offered American congressmen his own list of who’s next: Syria, Iran and Libya. Syria has been fighting hard at the UN to remind anyone who will listen that peace in the Middle East will only be achieved with a comprehensive solution of the 170   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

Palestinian tragedy. At the UN, Syria – as a non-permanent member of the Security Council – is staunchly aligned with the Franco-German-Russian front. At the Arab League, Lebanon – according to diplomats instigated by Syria – made sure to remind of the 2002 Beirut declaration, which establishes that an attack on one individual Arab nation would be regarded as an attack on the whole Arab nation. Kuwait was furious – and that’s the main reason there cannot possibly be a consensus in the Arab League. Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah may be sincere in his current efforts to introduce democratic reforms in the kingdom, but Saudi Arabia is living in dreamland hoping that Saddam Hussein will accept free elections under the supervision of the UN. Egyptian political scientist Wahid Abdel-Meguid laments that “the Americans always impose discussions about post-Saddam [Iraq] while Arab countries try to maximize the chances of a peaceful solution.” Walid Kazziha, professor of political science at the American University in Cairo (AUC), tries to be more optimistic: “The Arab and European stances are mutually dependent. The Arabs will make a firmer stand with the encouragement of Europe.” But he also warns that “the Arabs are not in a position to risk everything for someone like Saddam Hussein.” Professor Bahgat Korany from AUC agrees, and adds that with the Saudis not exactly enjoying Washington’s good graces, most other key Arab nations are resigned that “even the Europeans can’t stop the American war machine.” But the whole world keeps trying anyway. That is the message coming from the Kuala Lumpur meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) – 116 countries representing more than 50 percent of the world population, two-thirds of the UN, and including six non-permanent members of the Security Council: Syria, Pakistan, Chile, Angola, Guinea and Cameroon. These last three African nations have already stated their anti-war position at the Franco-African summit in Paris last week. Even under serious carrot-and-stick approaches in New York for these next few days, they won’t be easily swayed to vote for a second resolution

that in fact will be a green light for war. For the absolute majority of the 186 UN member states that are not part of the Security Council P5 (as the five permanent members are known), this second resolution now tabled means nothing else than a UN authorization for preemptive war. At the NAM meeting, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad repeated what Prince Saud al Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, has been saying these past few days in the Arab world: the war will inevitably be perceived as anti-Muslim. Hassan Nafaa, professor of political science at Cairo University, agrees: “Washington’s actions suggest it has targeted Islam and that it plans to reshape the region in a manner that will obviate the emergence of an Arab nationalist or Islamic ideology of unification or resistance. Towards this end, it most likely intends to redraw the map of the region on the basis of ethnic or sectarian rivalries.” Nafaa paints an alarming picture: “If what appears to be American designs see the light of day, Arabs and Muslims realize that the only nation to benefit will be Israel, and Washington will have paved the way for it to become an unrivaled regional power virtually overnight.” A stroll through the campus of the liberal American University in Cairo is always instructive, and one hears fiercely anti-US and anti-Israel comments. There’s absolutely no love lost for Israel in Egypt. Diplomats in Cairo comment that Israel, in partnership with the US, is actively involved in the partition of Sudan, which Egypt considers its back yard. It is all about water. Herodotus rightly pointed out that Egypt was a gift from the Nile, but the possibility of the gift being wrapped by Israeli control of the nascent waters of the Nile makes for endless sleepless nights. It’s a situation parallel to the future of the River Jordan – a key in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. With Israel controlling the flow of the river, a Palestine state could be starved in a few days. The Egyptian economy is bound to suffer badly with a war in Iraq. The figures are gloomy. There will be heavy losses in many crucial fronts: tourism (the main

source of foreign-exchange revenue), exports, revenue from the Suez Canal and the stock market. According to official data, tourism employs 2.2 million people in Egypt, directly and indirectly. Independent sources say that there could be as many as 10 million. According to a study by the Federation of Egyptian Industries, Suez revenues are expected to fall by almost half, to US$1 billion. Assuming a short war ending within three months, tourism revenues will also fall by half, to $1.7 billion. Egyptian expatriates’ remittances will also be halved, to $2 billion. The import bill will rise 30 percent. Exports will decrease by 5 percent, to $5.9 billion. Foreign direct investment will be non-existent. According to economist Hamdi Abdel-Azzem, at least 200,000 Egyptian workers could be forced to return from Iraq: a social as well as an economic crisis. About 4 million to 6 million Egyptians work in the Persian Gulf region – and the absolute majority fear that they could lose their jobs. And to top it all, trade between Egyptian businesses and Iraq under the UN oil-for-food program ($1.5 billion last year) will also suffer: Egypt is one of the top five countries benefiting from the program. The US has given signals that it might be willing to “compensate” Egypt for some of these tremendous troubles, but the mood in Cairo couldn’t be more pessimistic. Thus, appalled by the prospect of imminent war, Egyptians keep searching for alternative solutions. Mahmoud Abaza, vice president of the opposition Wafd Party, advances that “the pressure could have been more efficient and useful for all if it was geared to force the Iraqi regime to organize free elections, after a period of transition, under the surveillance of the international community. This would have been more acceptable for the Iraqi people, the Arab nation, the immediate neighbors and the international community.” Abaza’s dream would be “a coalition to save the Iraqi people instead of exterminating them.” He is devastated by the fact that the Bush administration, “the most reactionary in American history,” is using the September 11 tragedy to “build an empire devoid of all moral values that America has incarnated since its independence.” FOREVER WARS   171

Gamil Mattar, director of the Arab Center for Development and Futuristic Research, makes a point of referring to the secret 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement, when the British and the French carved up the Middle East for themselves after the Ottoman defeat in World War I: “That map has continued largely unchanged, even in the face of attempts by some – in the name of Arab unity or the unity of greater Syria – to change it. The map lasted because the Arabs have refused to change it.” But Mattar has a very clear warning that could only be directed to Washington: “Would-be reformers will face many difficulties. The Middle Eastern state is autocratic, leaving nothing out of its orbit of influence, and at the same time it is underdeveloped. While nation-states have been established in the Middle East and even institutionalized, they have not yet succeeded in the process of nation-building. This will be a heavy burden on anyone seeking to implement far-reaching changes in political and social institutions.” The Bush administration may be aware that Iraq is a supreme prize – the crucial frontier separating Arabs, Persians and Turks, the key bridge between the Mediterranean and Central Asia from a historic, religious, ethnic and geographic perspective. But the invading superpower may be less aware of the extreme complexity of most political, religious and ethnic problems lying ahead. For instance, Iraq – not Iran – is the country harboring the Shi’ite holy places: Kufa, Najaf and Kerbala. Even though they are a majority in Iraq, the Shi’ites have been consistently oppressed by successive Sunni empires. Ethnically they are Arabs, but religiously they are Shi’ites (see The Shi’ite factor, April 25, 2002). They are not only the most important community in the Arab world, but also a very important link with Shi’ite minorities living in the eastern Arabian Peninsula and in Lebanon. Sunni Arabs in central and eastern Iraq since the fall of the Ottoman empire have constituted the political and military elite – but they also have a common tribal origin with people from

southeastern Syria, the Jordan region and northern Saudi Arabia.

President Saddam Hussein delivers a televised speech to mark Armed Forces Day on January 6, 2003. Photo: AFP / INA

The majority of soldiers in the Iraqi regular army are Shi’ite. As war breaks out, they will either flee, surrender or, most likely, engage in widespread rebellion. Washington’s plans of a clean occupation of Iraq will turn to dust. A preview of what might happen was offered early this month. In a meeting in the Turkish capital Ankara, US officials totally dismissed the Iraqi opposition – the bulk of which is Shi’ite and Kurdish. They said that post-Saddam Iraq will be under a military government, and – insult to injury – run by the same Sunni establishment put in place by Saddam Hussein. Shi’ites are silently furious. They will revolt. Insistent rumors coming from Iraq about a massive Shi’ite revolt immediately after war breaks out don’t mention any kind of rallying organization – except for the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, backed by Iran. The council has a small army of a maximum of 10,000 men, based in Iran, although they say that many are based in Iraq as well. There are no Shi’ite leaders inside Iraq because Saddam has killed them all. So it looks as if the United States will be confronted by a replay inside a replay of the Gulf War of 1991. At the end of that “Mother of All Battles,” Saddam lost no fewer than 14 of Iraq’s 18 provinces to Shi’ites and Kurds. Washington under Bush Senior at the time already wanted regime change, but it did not want a popular revolution. That’s why Saddam was de facto authorized by Washington, even in defeat, to smash both the Kurdish and Shi’ite revolts violently. There’s every indication a Shi’ite revolution may happen this time – along with a Kurdish revolution in the event of Turkish troops taking over Kurdistan. But unlike 1991, Washington won’t be able to count on a Saddam to smash them. The liberators will have to do it themselves.

Inside Saddam’s mind A voyage in History: although he evoked Gilgamesh in a long speech last January, it’s unlikely that Saddam Hussein will embark on such a transcendental journey in search of wisdom. Which leaves us with the fate of the last Abbasid caliph – very much alive in the minds of Iraqis, who are drawing many parallels between the Mongols in the 13th century and the Americans, and worrying about what may happen to them in the beginning of the 21st century By PEPE ESCOBAR MARCH 14, 2003

ALEXANDRIA, Egypt – One can’t help but wonder whether Saddam Hussein, with 300,000 armed-to-the-teeth Dirty Harrys pointing their Magnums – and Tomahawks – at his head at this very moment, is feeling lucky. Even more than Clint Eastwood taking the law into his own hands, Saddam’s favorite movie character is Marlon Brando in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather – the archetypal Mafia boss. Saddam watches a



lot of videos. He reads a lot of thrillers. And he watches a lot of TV: not only Iraqi but especially CNN, BBC and al-Jazeera. In his unbridled Babylonian narcissism tinged with totalitarian gangsterism, he feels like Emperor Nebuchadnezzar, but also like James Cagney in White Heat – “Look Ma, top of the world.” Indeed, much of the future direction of the whole world at this moment hinges on the fate of this Godfather on Ground Zero. By formally inducting him into the axis of evil a year ago, George W. Bush has managed to pluck Saddam from relative obscurity and containment limbo and throw the “brutal dictator” once again into the global limelight as the ultimate menace. As Bush moves relentlessly towards war, guided by his definitive foreign policy adviser, God, Saddam has once again invoked the Holy Prophet Mohammed and appealed to the Muslim world for a jihad. He said that Iraqis will rather choose to die as martyrs so that they can reach the “paradise” of “a new life” instead of submitting to American armies. But his and Bush’s religious fervor notwithstanding, Saddam knows very well that this is not a religious war. His envoys to recent summits in Cairo, Sharm el-Sheikh and Doha let it be known that he seems to know what he is up against. Contrary to the usual “Western intelligence reports,” echoes from Iraq keep suggesting that Saddam and the regime’s innermost circle are ready for what he calls a “battle of destiny.” He now appears nonstop on Iraqi TV clad in finely tailored three-piece-suits and smoking US$100 cigars: but the unbounded fear of those he addresses or sermonizes is palpable even when filtered by a satellite signal. One wonders to what extent they comprehend the implications of Shock and Awe – the planned 3,000 bombs and missiles to be dropped on Iraq in the first 48 hours of war. Saddam may in a strange way be prepared for this: Saddam in Arabic means “violent shock.” On occasional nights when Saddam, clad in Arab gear, leaves one of his 45 palaces or safe houses, some times surrounded by bodyguards, some times all by 174   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

himself, and sets out to eliminate a handpicked enemy of the regime. Why? “Because he cannot go to sleep without killing somebody.” This astonishing piece of information – which for obvious reasons could not be independently verified inside Iraq – was volunteered to this correspondent last year in Baghdad by a member of the 1st platoon of the 2nd battalion of the 1st brigade of Saddam’s Special Republican Guards. He was one of the top of the tops of the regime’s Praetorian guard: well dressed, well fed, well paid and crucially, well armed. He didn’t say so, but most certainly he came from Tikrit – Saddam’s birthplace, maybe from the same sub-clan. Theoretically, his loyalty to the regime was rock-solid. But according to the contact who secured the meeting after a Byzantine negotiation, he was tired. He had had enough. He wanted to talk. It’s fair to assume that many Iraqi scientists arms inspectors want to interview would do the same if they had the chance. No cameras, no tape recorders, no hidden microphones, no witnesses – and no minders. The Special Republican Guard stepped into our white-and-orange GMC Suburban for a Baghdad-by-night ride, without our driver, and then he let it rip – by official Iraqi standards anyway. He told us how Saddam chose Qusay (the youngest son) over mama’s favorite Uday, splitting the couple into mutual hate; how the army hates Uday and supports Qusay; how Uday constantly imports foreign girls to party for a week; how on every corner of every street of every neighborhood people are paid to be informants of the regime; how the Jerusalem Liberation Army (officially with 7 million members) is just a publicity stunt; how a combination of the regime plus the UN sanctions have poisoned the whole of Iraqi society from top to bottom; and how there are no weapons of mass destruction, only conventional weapons, in bunkers located in underground mosques. And then he disappeared into his barracks. The image that remained of Saddam was not as he is painted in an array of frescoes and murals scattered across Bagh-

dad: Saddam the Bedouin, Saddam the horseman with scimitar, Saddam with flowers, Saddam comforting old woman, Saddam the peasant, Saddam in a chariot, and the most startling of them all, Saddam holding the scales of justice. The image that remained was of Saddam as a cold-blooded killer. Like his historical icon Yussuf Saladin, who recaptured Jerusalem from the Crusaders in 1187, Saddam was born in Tikrit. He was actually born in al-Awja, a small village near Tikrit, which in 1937 was a miserable place on the Tigris, 160 kilometers north of Baghdad. Saddam still carries his clan tattoo, three dark blue points aligned close to his fist, a symbol of his very humble origins. True to pure Bedouin tradition, Saddam is a real Tikriti: intelligent and cynical, and a clan chief loyal only to his family. The family of course became a mafia and took a whole nation as hostage. Saddam’s dream is to be a modern Saladin. But Saladin was a Kurd. And Saddam despises Kurds with a vengeance. Saladin was a noble soul who united Arab power under a single kingdom and the banner of a true jihad – to liberate Jerusalem from the crusaders. Poets in the Aleppo bazaar in Syria still tell us of a fabulous speech in the 12th century in which Saladin was eulogized by a poet as the “sultan” of Islam. Saladin was a warrior and a gentleman. In his last Crusade battle against Richard the Lionheart in July 1192, Saladin saw that Richard was unhorsed and vulnerable. He ordered his brother to take two Arabian horses as a gift to Richard, “For a king as great as him should not fight on foot.” In Jerusalem’s old city, an inscription in a small room inside the very simple al-Khanagah mosque where Saladin lived reads, “Allah! Mohammed! Saladin!” The Godfather on Ground Zero would like nothing better than to add a “Saddam!” to the inscription. Saddam is a gambler who relishes testing the enemy. He poses as the heir of Babylon, the scion of Arab culture, and claims to be a descendant of Fatima, the daughter of the Holy Prophet Mohammed. But what will he really do when Shock and Awe brings apocalypse to Mesopotamia? Alexandria, a city of learning on the Mediterranean,

with her eyes on Europe, now proudly hosts the new high-tech, Scandinavian-designed, US$200 million version of the legendary Bibliotheca Alexandrina. Saddam, of all people, is one of the original donors for the new library project: he contributed $20 million. The bibliography on Iraq is not yet extensive but it’s improving – especially online. People in Alexandria are keen to point out how the Americans are swaggering their way to war without even considering the dizzying complexity of Iraq – a Tower of Babel of peoples, languages and faiths. Shock and Awe may act as a larger-than-life fragmentation bomb to push fractures to unprecedented dangerous levels. Americans will arrive with their gee-whiz slang at a crucial front line between Indo-European languages – including Kurdish – and Semitic languages – which include Arabic and Aramaic (the language spoken by Jesus). This language border has also been a religious border since antiquity – when Babylonians (Semitic and Polytheist), were opposed to Persians (Indo-Europeans and Zoroastrians). The linguistic-religious border remained when Shi’ite Iran separated itself from the Sunni Arab world. This absolutely crucial schism of Islam happened nowhere else than at the heart of Iraq, culminating at the battle of Kerbala in 680 AD. When this correspondent visited the sacred Shi’ite cities of Kufa and Najaf, religious officials, pilgrims and the imam of Najaf himself reminded that here – between the Tigris and the Euphrates – the partisans of the caliph and the partisans of Ali had shed their blood in the name of the Sunni and Shi’ite branches of Islam. The Shi’ite faith’s most sacred sites – Kerbala and Najaf – are not in Iran, but in Iraq: a war that so much as touches these sacred sites will fuel the anger of Iranian, Afghan, Pakistani and Gulf Shi’ites to incalculable levels. George W. Bush may find comfort in the fact that Christendom is alive and well in northern Iraq. There’s a Christian community in every street of Mosul. There are Nestorian Assyrians – dissidents of the Council of Ephesus: for them, Mary is the mother of Jesus and not the Mother of God. There are Jacobites: for them, Jesus is really God but not totally man. There are Chaldeans FOREVER WARS   175

(Nestorians united to Rome). There are Orthodox Byzantines. There are Armenians. There are Protestants evangelized by American preachers. After the repression of the Ottoman empire, many of these Christians believed European powers would protect them. In 1920, the Treaty of Sevres had promised heaven on earth to Assyrio-Chaldeans in a future autonomous Kurdistan. It never happened. Today these northern Iraqis are trying to balance their Christian identity with their Arab patriotism. Most couldn’t take it any more and went into exile. The women in northern Iraq wear colored dresses and no veils – something startling when one learns that 1,700 years before the Holy Prophet Mohammed the veil was already compulsory in these lands, thanks to a series of laws attributed to Assyrian King Teglat-Phalazar the First. Now, the new American war is offering these people a stark alternative: exile or the graveyard. The Yazidis – the so-called “devil worshippers” – are in a complex predicament. The only way out for these Kurds is to emigrate to Europe, because their faith is simply forbidden: they worship a king who placated the flames of hell with the tears of his repentance. Meanwhile, in southern Iraq, the Mandeans of Basra will try to emigrate to America or Australia. For the Mandeans, St John the Baptist is the real messiah. They must be re-baptized every day in water – but Saddam’s armies have dried their marshlands. Iraq is the land of prophet Abraham, a Chaldean. To the peoples of the Book, Iraq gave its myths – like the deluge – and also its laws: the Torah borrows heavily from Mesopotamian codes. The area also gave the Torah its wars – such as the deportation of Jews to Babylon. History is now coming full circle: American Christian fundamentalism, allied to Zionism, is reopening very old wounds. From psalms to spirituals, from ancient tradition to American black consciousness, prophecies echo a new apocalypse in Babylon. Everyone fears that the Garden of Eden – which tradition places between the Tigris and the Euphrates – will be paradise turned into hell. Five millennia ago the story was slightly different. Uruk – the cradle of Iraq, and 176   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

the superpower of the times – was opposed to Aratta. In the end there was no war, thanks to the advice of Nidaba, the Goddess of Wisdom. It’s unlikely that the UN’s Kofi Annan will replay this role. Not today, when Saddam behaves like he’s Emperor Nebuchadnezzar, and George W. Bush prays his way to war like a Crusader. It won’t be easy for American Special Forces to get close to Saddam. There’s the 1st and 2nd battalions of the 1st brigade, and then the top operatives of the Amn al-Khas – the Special Security Service. These “rings of fire” not only offer close-to-the-bone protection, but meticulously infiltrate every state ministry and spy on every military and intelligence operative who might entertain the idea of staging a coup against Saddam. Saddam is physically protected by these concentric layers, as much as Baghdad is supposed to be defended by concentric layers of special and not-so-special Republican Guards: three armored divisions, one mechanized and one infantry. It’s history’s pull, once again: walls as an instrument of deterrence were invented in Iraq – in ancient Uruk, the superpower of the times. In Iraqi exile communities around the Middle East, all sorts of rumors abound. The bulk of Baghdad’s population will remain hostage to the security forces – with the added trauma of a severely-enforced curfew, and the certainty of power being cut off by bombing: oil lamps, lanterns and emergency cookers are the biggest-selling items in the bazaars. The Ba’ath Party has distributed rifles in most neighborhoods. Most Baghdadis fear a devastating civil war. But some are talking of guerrilla resistance against the Americans. Jordan has closed its borders to Iraqis. Everybody in the ruling bureaucratic elite is trying to come up with an exit strategy – buying $500 exit visas to Turkey on the black market, sending money abroad – while others are hanging on a much more precarious balance. These people are trying to anticipate the exact moment when the regime will start to crumble. They can’t afford to leave now because they would be caught by the still-intact terror apparatus. But they dread to be left behind as Tommy Franks, the new MacArthur (or the new Mongol, Hulagu, according to Ba’ath officials)

slouches towards Baghdad as the new conqueror. According to echoes from Baghdad, there has been a wave of arrests of government bureaucrats, high-ranking military and Republican Guards in these past few days, all pinpointed as likely candidates for desertion. This is business as usual: as the Special Republican Guard told us, Saddam’s paranoia ensures that there is a pogrom of some sort practically on a daily basis. For all practical purposes, it appears now as if Saddam is still playing a game. Every drop of concession further shakes up the Security Council’s bottle. He has just unveiled Iraq’s drone – which looks like an old Revell model kit. He is clearly relishing how the Turks – the former oppressors, via the Ottoman Empire – are now defending the Arabs, through the Turkish parliament vote that blocked the deployment of American forces (but the vote could be taken again as early as next week). Saddam is also relishing how French President Jacques Chirac – a heir to a medieval enemy, the Franks – is now being hailed in so many capitals as the new Arab caliph. But Saddam could be misinterpreting the stance of the current Franco-German-Russian axis of peace. He might think that they are behaving this way because all three have made a lot of business – including arms business – with his regime. But Saddam might not understand that their opposition to war is a matter of principle. They are against the fact that Washington decided on a preemptive war a long time ago, and treats legitimation by the UN as a mere formality. The Franco-German-Russian axis of peace is denouncing that having unilaterally declared itself in a state of permanent self-defense, Washington feels that it can designate any enemy and wage any war at will. The “game” at the UN will soon turn into an endgame – as early as this Friday. If there aren’t nine votes in favor of a second UN resolution, war could start as early as next week. Saddam won’t capitulate in Arabic on Iraqi TV – as the British would like it. As a UN ambassador remarked this week, “I think the British want Saddam to go on television and swallow a liter of anthrax to prove he is getting rid of it.” Saddam may

soon find that he has his aching back totally against the wall. That’s when he may engineer a totally unpredictable reaction. He wants a bloody replay of the siege of Stalingrad. He wants to turn Baghdad into a Grozny, Chechnya’s battered capital. For that, he may have to go underground. He does move around, but not as often as one imagines, hitting his 45 palaces and safehouses all ready to greet him at the drop of a hat – or a bullet. When war breaks out he may likely use nondescript homes of Ba’ath Party officials as a refuge: it has been done before. He is fond of seafood and fresh steaks, and drinks good wine and cognac – everything imported from the Gulf twice a week and duly tasted to prevent poisoning. But life during wartime may not be so sweet. Some Westerners might be tempted to portray him as Macbeth. Wrong. Saddam’s psychology is not of a Western tragic hero. So will he choose to be Gilgamesh? Will he choose to be the last caliph? Will he choose to be Samson – bringing the whole temple down on him and anyone who may be around? Twenty-six centuries before Jesus Christ, and five generations after the deluge, King Gilgamesh ruled over the city of Uruk – the superpower of the times. The “Gilgamesh” is the first epic drama in the history of humanity. Bush might be interested to know that the oldest book in the world, written around 2300 or 2200 BC, was widely imitated and thoroughly pillaged, especially by the copywriters of the Bible, as well as Greek authors. The Gilgamesh epic is the foundation of all Western imagination – it already contains the adventures of Jason, Ulysses and Celtic legends. The wandering king battles giants, falls in love with the goddess Ishtar (thus our word “star”), kills a heavenly bull, invokes the wrath of the gods, goes on a quest to find the essence of immortality, visits the realm of the dead. He meets a Sumerian Noah who tells him how he built an ark, embarks a couple of each animal species and escapes the destruction of the world (this is probably a reference to a catastrophic flood of the Euphrates in the 4th millennium BC.) The Sumerian Noah reveals to the king of Uruk the secret of immortality: a plant that must be found at the bottom of the sea. Gilgamesh finds the plant, but it is later stolen by FOREVER WARS   177

a serpent. Gilgamesh finally grasps the meaning of life and understands that the real hero is the one who accepts the human condition. Although he evoked Gilgamesh in a long speech last January, it’s unlikely that Saddam will embark on such a transcendental journey in search of wisdom. Which leaves us with the fate of the last Abbasid caliph – very much alive in the minds of Iraqis, who are drawing many parallels between the Mongols and the Americans and worrying about what may happen to them in the beginning of the 21st century. In the mid-13th century, the Abbasid empire was being menaced by the devastating Mongol hordes, which had already conquered Central Asia, northern China, Russia, Poland, Silesia and Hungary. Hulagu, Genghis Khan’s grandson, raises hell in Anatolia and Persia. In January 1258, Hulagu’s armies arrived at the gates of Baghdad. The city falls after a furious battle lasting two weeks (contemporary American military planners may consider it too long). Caliph Muztasim is assassinated by the Mongols. The Mongols – either Buddhist or Nestorian – commit a real holocaust in the political capital of Islam. Buildings are destroyed, libraries are burned, corpses of Baghdadis are thrown into the Tigris. Horrified – and hyperbolic – Arab historians wrote that Hulagu ordered the building of a pyramid of 800,000 skulls. This horror show was not only the end of the Abbasid empire – which spread from Andalucia in Spain to the Indus – but the end of Baghdad as the supreme metropolis of the Muslim world. It was the end of a long process not totally dissimilar to the fall of the Roman empire. Gilgamesh or Abbasid caliph, Saddam still may refuse to think about his demise because in his psychopathic vanity he is still too busy immersed in his folly of grandeur- as an heir to the great Babylonian Emperor Nebuchadnezzar or as a heir to the great liberator of Jerusalem, Saladin. In the streets of Moscow one can buy matrioshkas – Russian nesting dolls – of Russian supremos old and new. The larger doll is Vladimir Putin, enclosing Boris Yeltsin, Mikhael Gorbachev, Leonid Brezhnev, Nikita 178   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

Krushchev, Josef Stalin, Tzar Nicholas and finally a mini-Peter the Great. A Saddam matrioshka would consist only of Saddams. Iraqi TV still broadcasts back-to-back poems and chants to his glory: “You are the salt of the earth, the fountain of life, the sword of death.” He is compared to the sun and the moon, and to the water of the two rivers – the Tigris and the Euphrates. One brick in 10 at the restored temple of Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon – ordered by Saddam – is engraved with Saddam’s name. Narcissus drowns in ecstasy in his totalitarian pool. He has told his official Iraqi biographer that he dreams of nothing short of imprinting his image in the coming centuries. He wants to be Saladin reborn. He wants to be enshrined forever in Arab mythology – even in death, surrounded by the bodies of his enemies. So it’s unlikely that he would engineer a humanitarian disaster of apocalyptic proportions, directed against the Iraqis themselves, because he would not be remembered as a hero. No replay of the 1988 gassing of the Kurds in Halabja.

mediately started his fulminating career as an insider in the Ba’ath Party on the road to total power. Saddam’s intellectual master is Syrian Michel Aflak, a Greek Orthodox Christian professor who in 1940 co-founded the Ba’ath Party as a nationalist, socialist and pan-Arab party. Saddam would later betray the egalitarian ideology of the Ba’ath. Aflak thought that “an idea does not exist by itself: it is incarnated in the physical person who must be physically eliminated so the idea will also disappear.” In this context, the American war plan might have been conceived by Aflak: to eliminate Saddam is to eliminate the Ba’ath system. Egyptian historian Abdel Aziz Ramadan laments that Saddam’s wars and totalitarian system “turned a country with a promising future back some 80 years, when Iraqis were trying to

restore their flourishing past. Saddam pushed it into the abyss.” It may not be the end of the abyss. There’s a remote possibility that he might survive the American invasion. Taking a cue from Osama bin Laden – who despises him as an infidel – Saddam might become a ghost, a specter sending periodical tapes to al-Jazeera. In the end, we come back full circle to Saddam’s innermost circle. Last act. Final scene. Baghdad in flames. A bunker in a palace. Enter a Special Republican Guard. In his hand he carries a poisoned dagger, the light dancing off its sharpened edge. Then there’s blood on the floor. The final curtain drops. Saddam Hussein might become a tragic hero after all – in spite of himself.

It’s also out of the question that he will go into exile. He’s done that before, in his younger days. In 1959, as a 22-year-old uneducated radical with a poor peasant background, injured in an attempt by the Ba’ath Party to kill Iraqi revolutionary leader Abdel Karim Kassem, Saddam fled to Syria. Syria at the time was joined to the Egypt of nationalist hero Gamal Abdel Nasser in the short-lived United Arab Republic. From Syria Saddam went to Egypt. He enrolled in the Qasr al-Nil high school in Cairo. He became a law student in Cairo University, but then he dropped out – to breathe and think politics. In The Long Days, his official biography, which can be bought in Baghdad’s book souk for $5, Saddam says that he “emulated Nasser by playing chess and was not distracted by social life.” Said Aburish, a Palestinian writer, says that Saddam basically spent his time with his bawab – the doorman of his building; reading his favorite book, a biography of Stalin; and even meeting with an intelligence man at the American embassy in Cairo. Saddam left Cairo for Baghdad in 1963 and imFOREVER WARS   179

US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld speaks during a press conference on January 15, 2003, at the Pentagon in Washington, DC. Photo: AFP

This war is brought to you by … During the Clinton years, they were an obscure bunch – almost a sect. Then they were all elevated to power – again: most had worked for Ronald Reagan and Bush senior. Now they have pushed America – and the world – to war because they want it. Period. An Asia Times Online investigation reveals this is no conspiracy theory: it’s all about the implementation of a project By PEPE ESCOBAR MARCH 20, 2003

ALEXANDRIA, Egypt – They’ve won. They got their war against Afghanistan (planned before September 11). They’re getting their war against Iraq (planned slightly after September 11). After Iraq, they plan to get their wars against Syria, Lebanon, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Last Sunday, one of them, Vice President Dick Cheney, said that President George W. Bush would have to make “a very difficult decision” on Iraq. Not really. The decision had already been taken for him in the autumn of 2001. 180   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES


As far as their “showdown Iraq” is concerned, it’s not about weapons of mass destruction, nor United Nations inspections, nor non-compliance, nor a virtual connection between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda, nor the liberation of the Iraqi people, nor a Middle East living in “democracy and liberty.” The American corporate media are not inclined to spell it out, and the absolute majority of American public opinion is anesthetized non-stop by a barrage of technical, bureaucratic and totally peripheral aspects of the war against Iraq. For all the president’s (sales) men, the whole game is about global preeminence, if not unilateral world domination – military, economic, political and cultural. This may be an early 21st century replay of the “white man’s burden.” Or this may be just megalomania. Either way, enshrined in a goal of the Bush administration, it cannot but frighten practically the whole world, from Asia to Africa, from “old Europe” to the conservative establishment within the US itself. During the Clinton years, they were an obscure bunch – almost a sect. Then they were all elevated to power – again: most had worked for Ronald Reagan and Bush senior. Now they have pushed America – and the world – to war because they want it. Period. An Asia Times Online investigation reveals this is no conspiracy theory: it’s all about the implementation of a project. The lexicon of the Bush doctrine of unilateral world domination is laid out in detail by the Project for a New American Century (PNAC), founded in Washington in 1997. The ideological, political, economic and military fundamentals of American foreign policy – and uncontested world hegemony – for the 21st century are there for all to see. PNAC’s credo is officially to muster “the resolve to shape a new century favorable to American principles and interests”. PNAC states that the US must be sure of “deterring any potential competitors from even aspiring to a larger regional or global role” – without ever mentioning these competitors, the European Union, Russia or China, by name. The UN is predictably 182   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

dismissed as “a forum for leftists, anti-Zionists and anti-imperialists”. The UN is only as good as it supports American policy. The PNAC mixes a peculiar brand of messianic internationalism with realpolitik founded over a stark analysis of American oil interests. Its key document, dated June 1997, reads like a manifesto. Horrified by the “debased” Bill Clinton, PNAC exponents lavishly praise “the essential elements of the Reagan administration’s success: a military that is strong and ready to meet both present and future challenges; a foreign policy that boldly and purposefully promotes American principles abroad; and national leadership that accepts the United States’ global responsibilities”. These exponents include Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, chairman of the Defense Policy Board, an advisory panel to the Pentagon made up of leading figures in national security and defense, Florida Governor Jeb Bush and Reagan-era White House adviser Elliott Abrahms. Already in 1997, the PNAC wanted to “increase defense spending significantly” to “challenge regimes hostile to our interests and values” and “to accept responsibility for America’s unique role in preserving and extending an international order friendly to our security, our prosperity, and our principles”. The deceptively bland language admitted “such a Reaganite policy of military strength and moral clarity may not be fashionable today. But it is necessary if the United States is to build on the successes of this past century and to ensure our security and our greatness in the next.” The signatories of this 1997 document read like a who’s who of Washington power today: among them, in addition to those mentioned above, Eliot Cohen, Steve Forbes, Francis Fukuyama, Frank Gaffney, William Bennett, Donald Kagan, Zalmay Khalilzad, Lewis Libby, Norman Podhoretz and Dan Quayle. The PNAC, now actively exercising power, is about to fulfill its dream of invading Iraq. In the PNAC’s vision of Iraq, the only vector that matters is US strategic

interest. Nobody really cares about Saddam Hussein’s “brutal dictatorship,” nor his extensive catalogue of human rights violations, nor “the suffering of the Iraqi people,” nor his US-supplied weapons of mass destruction, nor his alleged connection to terrorism. Iraq counts only as the first strike in a high-tech replay of the domino theory: the next dominoes will be Syria, Iran and Saudi Arabia. The idea is to carve up Syria; let Turkey invade northern Iraq; overthrow the Saudi royal family; restore the Hashemites to the Hijaz in Arabia. And dismember Iraq altogether and annex it to Jordan as a vassal kingdom to the US: after all, Jordan’s King Abdullah is a cousin of former Iraqi King Faisal, deposed in 1958. This would be one solution for the nagging question of who would have any legitimacy to be in power in Baghdad after Saddam. Rumsfeld loves NATO, but he abhors the European Union. All PNAC members and most Pentagon civilians – but not the State Department – do: after all, they control NATO, not the EU. These things usually are not admitted in public. But Rumsfeld, the blunt midwesterner, former fighter pilot and former servant of presidents Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan, prefers John Wayne to Bismarck: even Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, a staunch ally of Bush, complained out loud that diplomacy for Rumsfeld is an alien concept. Rumsfeld even has his own wacky axis of evil: Cuba, Libya and … Germany. If Rumsfeld barely manages to disguise his aversion for dovish Secretary of State Colin Powell’s views, one imagines to what circle of hell he dispatches the pacifist couple of Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schroeder. Strange, no journalist has stood up and ask Rumsfeld, in one of those cosy Pentagon spinning sessions, how was his 90-minute session with Saddam in Baghdad in December 20, 1983. The fuzzy photo of Rumsfeld shaking hands with Saddam, observed by Iraqi vice premier Tarik Aziz, is now a collector’s item. Rumsfeld was sent by Reagan to mend relations between the US and Iraq only one month after Reagan had adopted a secret directive – still partly classified – to help Saddam fight Iran’s Islamic Revolution that had begun in

1979. This close cooperation led to nothing else than Washington selling loads of military equipment and also chemical precursors, insecticides, aluminum tubes, missile components and anthrax to Saddam, who in turn used the lot to gas Iranian soldiers and then civilian Kurds in Halabja, northern Iraq, in 1988. The selling of these chemical weapons was organized by Rumsfeld. Washington was perfectly aware at the time that Saddam was using chemical weapons. After the Halabja massacre, the Pentagon engaged in a massive disinformation campaign, spinning that the massacre was caused by Iran. Cheney, as Pentagon chief from March 1989 onwards, continued to cooperate very closely with Saddam. The military aid – secretly organized by Rumsfeld – also enabled Saddam to invade Kuwait on August 2, 1990. Between 1991 and 1998, UN weapons inspectors conclusively established that the US – as well as British, German and French firms – had sold missile parts and chemical and bacteriological material to Iraq. So much for the moral high ground defended by America and Britain in the Iraqi weapons of mass destruction controversy. September 2002’s National Security Strategy (NSS) document simply delighted the members of the PNAC. No wonder: it reproduced almost verbatim a September 2000 report by the PNAC, which in turn was based on the now famous 1992 draft Defense Policy Guidance (DPG), written under the supervision of Wolfowitz for then secretary of defense Cheney. Already in 1992, the three key DPG objectives were to prevent any “hostile power’ from dominating regions whose resources would allow it to become a great power; to dissuade any industrialized country from any attempt to defy US leadership; and to prevent the future emergence of any global competitor. That’s the thrust of the NSS document, which calls for a unipolar world in which Washington’s military power is unrivalled. In this context, the invasion and occupation of Iraq is just the first installment in an extended practical demonstration of what will happen to “rogue” states alleged to have or not have weapons of mass destrucFOREVER WARS   183

tion, alleged to have or not have links to terrorism, and alleged connections to anyone or anything that might challenge US supremacy. The European Union, China and Russia beware: the Shock and Awe demonstration that is about to be unleashed on Iraq is pure theatrical militarism, a concept already analyzed by Asia Times Online. It’s no surprise that Bush, on February 26, chose to unveil his vision of a new Middle Eastern order at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a right-wing Washington think tank. The PNAC’s office is nowhere else than on the 5th floor of the AEI building on 17th St, in downtown Washington. The AEI is the key node of a collection of neoconservative foreign policy experts and scholars, the most influential of whom are members of the PNAC. The AEI is intimately connected to the Likud Party in Israel – which for all practical purposes has a deep impact on American foreign policy in the Middle East, thanks to the AEI’s influence. In this mutually-beneficial environment, AEI stalwarts are known as Likudniks. It’s no surprise, then, how unparalleled is the AEI’s intellectual Islamophobia. Loathing and contempt for Islam as a religion and as a way of life leads to members of the AEI routinely bashing Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. They also oppose any negotiations with North Korea – another policy wholly adopted by the Bush administration. For the AEI, China is the ultimate enemy: not a peer competitor, but a monster strategic threat. The AEI is viscerally anti-State Department (read Colin Powell). Recently, it has also displayed its innate Francophobia. And to try to dispel the idea that it is just another bunch of grumpy dull men, the AEI has been deploying to the BBC and CNN talk shows its own female weapon of mass regurgitation, one Danielle Pletka. Lynn Cheney, vice president Dick’s wife, a historian and essayist, is also an AEI senior fellow. The AEI’s former executive vice president is John Bolton, one of the Bush administration’s key operatives as undersecretary of state for arms control and international security. Largely thanks to Bolton, the US uni184   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

laterally withdrew from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty. Bolton has also opposed the establishment of the new International Criminal Court (ICC), recently inaugurated in The Hague. The AEI only treasures raw power as established under the terms of neoliberal globalization: the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the World Trade Organization. Its nemesis is everything really multilateral: the ABM treaty, the ICC, the Kyoto protocol, the treaty on anti-personal mines, the protocol on biological weapons, the treaty on the total ban of nuclear weapons, and most spectacularly, in these past few days, the UN Security Council. The AEI’s foreign policy agenda is presided over by none other than Richard Perle. As Perle is a longtime friend and advisor to Rumsfeld, he was rewarded with the post of chairman of the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board: its 30-odd very influential members include former national security advisers, secretaries of defense and heads of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Perle is also a very close friend of Pentagon number two Wolfowitz, since they were students at the University of Chicago in the late 1960s. Perle now reports to Wolfowitz. On September 20, 2001, Perle went on overdrive, fully mobilizing the Defense Policy Board to forge a link between Saddam and al-Qaeda. The PNAC sent an open letter to Bush detailing how a war on terrorism should be conducted. The letter says that Saddam has to go “even if evidence does not link him to the attack”. The letter lists other policies that later were implemented – like the gigantic increase of the defense budget and the total isolation of the Palestinian Authority (PA), as well as others that may soon follow, like striking Hezbollah in Lebanon and yet-to-be-formulated attacks against Iran and especially Syria if they do not stop support for Hezbollah. The Bush administration strategy in the past few months of totally isolating the PA’s Yasser Arafat and allowing Israeli premier Ariel Sharon to refuse as much as a handshake, was formulated by the PNAC. Another PNAC letter states that “Israel’s fight is our fight …

for reasons both moral and strategic, we need to stand with Israel in its fight against terrorism”. The PNAC detested the Camp David accords between Israel and the Palestinians. For the PNAC, a simmering, undeclared state of war against Palestine, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Iran is a matter of policy. Perle, a former assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs under Reagan, is also a member of the board of the Jerusalem Post. He wrote a chapter – “Iraq: Saddam Unbound” – in Present Dangers, a PNAC book. He is very close to ultra-hawk Douglas Feith, who was his special counsel under Reagan and is now assistant secretary of defense for policy (one of the Pentagon’s four most senior posts) and also a partner in a small Washington law firm that represents Israeli suppliers of munitions seeking deals with American weapons manufacturers. It was thanks to Perle – who personally defended his candidate to Rumsfeld – that Feith got his current job. He was one of the key people responsible for strategic planning in the war against the Taliban and is also heavily involved in planning the war against Iraq. David Wurmser, former head of Middle Eastern projects at the AEI, is now special assistant to PNAC founder John Bolton, the undersecretary of State for arms control and a fierce enemy of multilateralism. Wurmser wrote Tyranny’s Ally: America’s failure to defeat Saddam Hussein, a book published by the AEI. The foreword is by none other than Perle. Meyrav Wurmser, David’s wife, is a co-founder of the Middle East Media Research Institute. In July 1996, Perle, Feith and the Wurmser couple wrote the notorious paper for an Israeli think tank charting a roadmap for Likud superhawk and then-incoming Israeli prime minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu. The paper is called “A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm”. Perle, Feith and the Wurmsers tell Bibi that Israel must shelve the Oslo Accords, the so-called peace process, the concept of “land for peace,” go for it and permanently annex the entire West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The paper also recommends that Israel must insist on the elimina-

tion of Saddam, and the restoration of the Hashemite monarchy in Baghdad. This would be the first domino to fall, and then regime change would follow in Syria, Lebanon, Iran and Saudi Arabia. This 1996 blueprint is nothing else than Ariel Sharon’s current agenda in action. In November last year, Sharon took the liberty to slightly modify the domino sequence by growling on the record that Iran should be next after Iraq. Bush’s speech on February 26 at the AEI claimed that the real reason for a war against Iraq is “to bring democracy”. Cheney has endlessly repeated that Iraqis – like Germany and Japan in 1945 – will welcome American soldiers with wine and roses. For Bush, Iraq is begging to be educated in the principles of democracy: “It’s presumptuous and insulting to suggest that a whole region of the world, or the one-fifth of humanity that is Muslim, is somehow untouched by the most basic aspirations of life.” But this very presumption is seemingly central to the intellectual Islamophobia of both the AEI and PNAC. The AEI and the PNAC shaped the now official Bush policy of introducing democracy – by bombing Iraq – and then “successfully transforming the lives of millions of people throughout the Middle East,” in the words of AEI scholar Michael Ledeen. At his AEI speech, Bush did nothing else but parrot the idea. Many a voice couldn’t resist to point out the splendid American record of encouraging native democracy around the world by supporting great freedom fighters such as the Shah of Iran, Sese Seko Mobutu in the Congo, Augusto Pinochet in Chile, Suharto in Indonesia, the Somozas in Nicaragua, Zia ul-Haq in Pakistan and an array of 1960s and 1970s Latin American dictators. Among newfound American allies, Turkmenistan is nothing less than totalitarian and Uzbekistan is ultra-authoritarian, and among “old” allies, Egypt and Saudi Arabia have absolutely nothing to do with democracy. Chalmers Johnson is president of the Japan Policy Research Institute, based in California, and author of Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire. A war veteran turned scholar, he could never FOREVER WARS   185

be accused of anti-Americanism. His new book about American militarism, The Sorrows of Empire: How the Americans lost their Country, will be published in late 2003. Some of its insights are informative in confirming the role of the PNAC in setting American foreign policy.

pened that day. As a reporter, the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward (remember Watergate) used to bring down presidents; now he’s a mere presidential public relations officer. In his book Bush at War he writes that Bush told Wolfowitz to shut up and let the number 1 (Rumsfeld) talk. The second version, defended by the New York Times, says that Bush listened attentively to Johnson is just one among many who suspect that “afWolfowitz. But a third version relayed by diplomats ter being out of power with Clinton and back to power holds that in Bush’s executive order on September 17 with Bush … the neocons were waiting for a ‘cataauthorizing war on Afghanistan, there’s already a parastrophic and catalyzing’ event – like a new Pearl Hargraph giving free reign to the Pentagon to draw plans bor” that would mobilize the public and allow them to for a war against Iraq. put their theories and plans into practice. September 11 was, of course, precisely what they needed. National Former CIA director James Woolsey, a certified Security Advi Condoleezza Rice called together mem- five-star hawk, is a great friend of Wolfowitz. Woolsey bers of the National Security Council and asked them is also the author of what could be dubbed “the high “to think about how do you capitalize on these oppornoon” theory that defines nothing less than Bush’s vitunities to fundamentally change American doctrine, sion of the world. According to the theory, Bush is not and the shape of the world, in the wake of September a six-shooter: he is the leader of a posse. 11th”. She said, “I really think this period is analogous That’s how Bush described himself in a conversato 1945 to 1947 when fear and paranoia led the US into tion last year with then Czech president Vaclav Havel. its Cold War with the USSR”. As film fans well remember, Gary Cooper in High Johnson continues: “The Bush administration could Noon plays a village marshal who tries by all means not just go to war with Iraq without tying it in some to convince his friends to assemble a posse to face the way to the September 11 attacks. So it first launched Saddam of the times (a lean and mean Lee Marvin) an easy war against Afghanistan. There was at least a who is supposed to arrive in the noon train. In the end, visible connection between Osama bin Laden and the Cooper has to face “Saddam” Marvin all by himself. Taliban regime, even though the United States contribIt’s fair to argue that the Bush administration today is uted more to Osama’s development as a terrorist than enacting a larger-than-life replay of a high noon. The Afghanistan ever did. Meanwhile, the White House posse is the “coalition of the willing.” The logic of the launched one of the most extraordinary propaganda posse is crystal clear. The US first defines a strategic campaigns of modern times to convince the American objective (for example, regime change in Iraq). They public that an attack on Saddam Hussein should be a propagate their steely determination to achieve this part of America’s ‘war on terrorism’. This attempt to objective (an awesome worldwide propaganda and whip up war fever, in turn, elicited an outpouring of disinformation campaign combined with a major milspeculation around the world on what were the true itary deployment). And finally they assemble a posse motives that lay behind President Bush’s obsession to help them: the coalition of the willing, or “coalition with Iraq.” of the bribed and bludgeoned,” as it was dubbed by The Iraq war is above all Paul Wolfowitz’s war. It’s democrats in Europe and the US itself. A devastating his holy mission. His cue was September 11. Slightly report by the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington after Rumsfeld, on September 15, 2001 at Camp Dahas detailed a “coalition of the coerced”. Whatever its vid, Wolfowitz was already advocating an attack on name, those who do not join the coalition (the absolute Iraq. There are at least three versions of what hapmajority of UN member-states, as well as world public 186   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

opinion) remain, as Bush says, “irrelevant.” With missionary fervor, Wolfowitz has been pursuing his Iraqi dream step by step. In late 2001, James Woolsey roamed all over Europe trying to find a connection between Saddam and al-Qaeda. He couldn’t find anything. But then in January 2002, Iraq was formally inducted in the “axis of evil along with Iran and North Korea. Rumsfeld went on overdrive: he said that Saddam supported “terrorists” (in fact suicide martyrs in Palestine, who have nothing to do with al-Qaeda). He said that Saddam promised US$25,000 to each of their families. The neocons embarked on a media blitzkrieg, and Wolfowitz’s mission finally hit center stage. During the Cold War in the 1970s, Wolfowitz learned the ropes laboring on nuclear treaties, the endless talks with the Soviets on nuclear armament limitations. At the time he also started a career for one of his better students, Lewis Libby – who today is Cheney’s chief of staff. For three decades Wolfowitz has been involved in strategic thinking, military organization and political and diplomatic moves. Even former Jimmy Carter national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, the author of The Grand Chessboard – or the roadmap for US domination over Eurasia – allegedly allows Wolfowitz to figure alongside Henry Kissinger, McGeorge Bundy or Zbig himself: that select elite of academics who managed to cross over to high office and radiate intellectual authority and almost unlimited power by osmosis because of close contact with an American president. Wolfowitz routinely talks about “freedom and democracy” – with no contextualization. His renditions always sound like a romantic ideal. But there’s nothing romantic about him. During the First Gulf War, Wolfowitz was an undersecretary at the Pentagon formulating policy. Cheney was the Pentagon chief. It was Wolfowitz who prepared Desert Storm – and also got the money. The bill was roughly $90 billion, 80 percent of it paid by the allies: a cool deal. It was Wolfowitz who convinced Israel not to enter the war even after the country was hit by Iraqi Scuds, so the key Arab partners of the 33-nation coalition would not run away.

But Saddam always remained his nemesis. When Bush senior lost his re-election, Wolfowitz became dean of the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Later, he was fully convinced that Iraq was behind the first attack against the World Trade Center, in 1993. Wolfowitz and Perle, though close, are not the same thing. Perle is virtually indistinguishable from the hardcore policies of the Likud in Israel. Perle thinks that the only possible way out for the US – not the West, because he despises Europe as a political player – is a multi-faceted, long-term, vicious confrontation against the Arab and Muslim world. Wolfowitz is more sophisticated: he has already served as American ambassador to Indonesia. He definitely does not subscribe to the fallacious Samuel Huntington theory of a clash of civilizations. Wolfowitz even believes in an independent Palestine – something that for Perle is beyond anathema. Wolfowitz, born in 1943 in New York, is the son of a Polish mathematician whose whole family died in Nazi concentration camps. It was Allan Bloom, the brilliant author of The Closing of the American Mind and professor at the University of Chicago, deceased in 1992, who steered Wolfowitz towards political science. Wolfowitz had the honor of being cloned by Saul Bellow in the novel Ravelstein: the Wolfowitz character shows up under a fictional name in the same role he occupied in 1991 at the Pentagon. Messianic, and a big fan of Abraham Lincoln, Wolfowitz is a walking contradiction: his fierce unilateralism is based on his faith in the universality of American values. Wolfowitz and his proteges’s are hardcore “Straussians” – after Leo Strauss, a Jewish intellectual who managed to escape the Nazis, died in 1999 as a 100-year-old and was totally anti-modern: for him, modernity was responsible for Nazism and Stalinism. Strauss was a lover of the classics – most of all Plato and Aristotle. His most notorious disciples were Chicago’s Allan Bloom and also Harvey Mansfield – who translated both Machiavelli and Tocqueville and was the father of all things politically correct in Harvard. FOREVER WARS   187

Strauss believed in natural right and in an immutable measure of what is just and what is unjust. Thus the Wolfowitz credo that a vague “democracy and freedom” is a one-size-fits-all panacea to be served everywhere, even by force. Plenty of neo-hawks followed Bloom’s courses at the University of Chicago: Wolfowitz of course, but also Francis Fukuyama of “end of history” fame, and John Podhoretz, who reigns over the editorial pages of the ultra-reactionary Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloid the New York Post. As to Mansfield, his most notorious student was probably William Kristol, the editor of the also Rupert Murdoch-financed magazine Weekly Standard. In Kristol’s own formulation, all these Straussians are morally conservative, religiously inclined, anti-Utopian, anti-modern and skeptical towards the left but also towards the reactionary right.

and Iran – all “enemies of Israel”. One of his most notorious recent stunts was when he invited an obscure French scholar to the Defense Policy Board to bash the Saudi royal family. He casually noted that if the invasion of Iraq brings down another couple of “friendly” Arab regimes, it’s no big deal. At a recent seminar organized by a New York-based public relations firm and attended by Iraqi exiles and American Middle East and security officials, Perle proclaimed that France was no longer an ally of the US; and that NATO “must develop a strategy to contain our erstwhile ally or we will not be talking about a NATO alliance”. This hawk, though, is no fool, and loves la vie en rose: Richard Perle spends his holidays in his own house in the south of France.

Ronald Reagan, because of his “moral clarity” and his “virtue,” is their supreme icon – not the devious realpolitik couple of Richard Nixon and Kissinger. This conceptual choice is absolutely essential to understand where the neocons are coming from. Take the crucial expression “regime change”: there’s nothing casual about it. Strauss used to say that “classic political philosophy was guided by the question of the best regime”. Here Strauss was talking specifically about Aristotle and his notion of politeia. The “regime” – or politeia – designates not only government, but also institutions, education, morals, and “the spirit of law”. In the mind of these Straussians, to topple Saddam is a mere footnote. “Regime change” in Iraq means to implant a Western Utopia in the heart of the Middle East: a Western-built politeia. Many would argue this is no more than a replay of Rudyard Kipling’s “white man’s burden”.

If you are a Pentagon senior civilian adviser, saying all those things out loud, they pack a tremendous punch in Washington: it’s practically official. As official as Perle musing out loud whether the US should “subordinate vital national interests to a show of hands by nations who do not share our interests” by seeking the endorsement of the UN Security Council on a major issue of policy (that’s exactly what happened on Monday). Perle has been saying all along that “Iraq is going to be liberated, by the United States and whoever wants to join us, whether we get the approbation of the UN or any other institution”. And Bush repeated these words almost verbatim. As for the tremendous unpopularity of the US, “it’s a real problem and it undoubtedly diminishes our ability to do the things that we think are important. I think that’s bad for the world because if the United States, as the leader it has always been, has its authority and standing diminished, that can’t be good for the Swiss or the Italians or the Germans. But I don’t know how you deal with that problem …”

Perle, also a New Yorker, is much, much rougher than Wolfowitz. No Aristotle for him. A dull man with a psychopath gaze, he recently accused New Yorker reporter Seymour Hersh of being “a terrorist” – because Hersh, in a splendid piece, unveiled how Perle set up a company that will profit immensely from war in the Middle East. Perle has repeatedly declared on the record that the US is prepared to attack Syria, Lebanon

Perle and Wolfowitz may shape policy, but that would not enhance their mundane status among the political chattering classes if they didn’t have a bulldog to disseminate their clout in the media. That’s where William Kristol, the chairman of the Project for a New American Century and the director of the magazine Weekly Standard comes in. Kristol’s co-chairman at the PNAC is Robert Kagan, former deputy for policy in


the State Department in the bureau for Inter-American affairs. Kagan is the author of Of Paradise and Power: America vs Europe in the New World Order – where, according to a fallacious formula, Europeans living in a kind of peaceful, Utopian paradise will be forced to stomach unbridled American power. Robert is the son of Donald Kagan, ultra-conservative Yale professor and eminent historian. Kagan junior is a major apostle of nation building, as in “the reconstruction of the Japanese politics and society to America’s image”. He cheerleads the fact that 60 years later there are still American troops in Japan. The same, according to him, should happen in Iraq. Any strategist would remind Kagan that in Japan in 1945 the emperor himself ordered the population to obey the Americans and in Germany the war devastation was so complete that the Germans had no other alternative. William is the son of Irving Kristol and Gertrud Himmelfarb, classic New York Jewish intellectuals and ironically former Trotskyite who then made a sharp turn to the extreme right. Former Trotskyites have a tendency to believe that history will vindicate them in the end. Irving, at 82 a former neo-Marxist, neo-Trotskyite, neo-socialist and neo-liberal, today is officially a neoconservative and one of the AEI’s stalwarts. Kristol junior reportedly likes philosophy, opera, thrillers and is fond of – who else – Aristotle and Machiavelli, who not by accident were eminences behind the prince. Instead of rebelling against his parents, he sulked in his bedroom rebelling against his own generation – the anti-war, peace-and-love, Bob Dylan-addicted 1960s baby boomers. Although admitting that Vietnam was a big mistake, William did not volunteer to go to war, a fact that qualifies him as the archetypal “chicken hawk” – armchair warmongers who know nothing about the horrors of war. William wants to erect conservatism to the level of an ideology of government. His great heroes include Reagan – for, what else, his “candor” and “moral clarity”. A naked imperialist? No, he’s not as crass as Rumsfeld: he prefers to be characterized as a partisan of “liberal imperialism”.

As media hawk-in-chief, William is just following up daddy’s work: Irving Kristol was the ultimate portable think tank of Reaganism. Today, Kristol junior is convinced that the Middle East is an irredeemable source of anti-Americanism, terrorism, weapons of mass destruction and an assorted basket of evils. Kristol of course is a very good friend of Wolfowitz, Kagan and former ex-CIA chief James Woolsey, who not by accident heaps lavish praise on The War over Iraq: Saddam’s tyranny and America’s mission, a book by Lawrence Kaplan and … William Kristol. Woolsey loves how the book goes against the “narrow realists” around Bush senior and the “wishful liberals” around Bill Clinton. Under Bush senior, William Kristol was Dan Quayle’s chief of staff. Under Clinton, he was in the wilderness until he finally managed to launch the Weekly Standard. Who financed it? None other than Rupert Murdoch, whose tabloidish Fox News is widely known as Bush TV. The Weekly Standard loses money in direct proportion to the expansion of its influence. It remains invaluable as the voice of “Hawk Central.” Hawks, or at least some neoconservatives, seem to understand the importance of a lighter touch as a key public relations strategy. That’s where David Brooks comes in. Brooks, former University of Chicago, former Wall Street Journal and now a big fish at the Weekly Standard, was the one who came up with the concept of “bobos” – bourgeois bohemians, or “caviar left” as they are known in Latin countries. “Bobos,” accuse the neocons, do absolutely nothing to change a social order that they seem to fight but from which they profit. Bobo-bashing is one of the neocon’s ideological strategies to dismiss their critics out of hand. In his conference at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in January, Noam Chomsky demistified the mechanism through which these people, “most of them recycled from the Reagan administration,” are implementing their agenda: “They are replaying a familiar script: drive the country into deficit so as to be able to undermine social programs, declare a ‘war on terror’ (as they did in 1981) and conjure up one devil FOREVER WARS   189

after another to frighten the population into obedience. In the 1980s it was Libyan hit men prowling the streets of Washington to assassinate our leader, then the Nicaraguan army only two days march from Texas, a threat to survival so severe that Reagan had to declare a national emergency. Or an airfield in Grenada that the Russians were going to use to bomb us (if they could find it on a map); Arab terrorists seeking to kill Americans everywhere while Gaddafi plans to ‘expel America from the world’, so Reagan wailed. Or Hispanic narco-traffickers seeking to destroy our youth; and on, and on.”

people to Netanyahu in 1996 and to Bush since 2001 has been the same: international law is against our interests; we fix our own objectives; we go for it and the rest will follow – or not. Even Zbig Brzezinski has recognized the American corporate press – unlike the European press – has not uttered a single word about the total similarity of the agendas. But concerned Americans have already realized the superpower has no attention span, no patience, no tact – and many would say no historical credibility – to engage in nation-building in the Middle East.

There’s not much democracy on the cards either. IraqFor both the AEI and the PNAC, the Middle East is a is and the whole Arab nation view as an unredeemable land without people, and oil without land – and this is insult and injury the official American plan to enforce something anyone will confirm in the streets or power a de facto military occupation. Iraq is already carved corridors in Cairo, Amman, Beirut, Ramallah, Damas- up on paper into three sections (just like the British cus or Baghdad. The image fits the AEI and PNAC’s did in the 1920s). Two retired generals – including acute and indiscriminate loathing and contempt Arabic-speaking, Lebanese-origin John Abizaid – and for Arabs. The implementation of the AEI’s and the a former ambassador to Yemen – will control the PNAC’s policies has led to the transformation of Ariel three interim “civil” administrations. Abizaid studied Sharon into a “man of peace” – Bush’s own words at the the history of the Middle East at Harvard – and this White House – and the semi-fascist Likud Party beis as far as his democratic credentials go. Everything coming the undisputed number one ally of American in Iraq will be under overseer supremo Jay Garner, a civilization. The occupied Palestinian territories – see retired general very close to Ariel Sharon and until a never-complied, forever-spurned UN resolution 242 few months ago the CEO of a weapons firm specialplus dozens of others – became “the so-called occupied ized in missile guidance systems. Iraqis, Palestinians territories” (in Rumsfeld’s own words). Jewish moderand Arabs as a whole are stunned: not only has the US ates, inside and outside Israel, are extremely alarmed. flaunted international legitimacy in its push to war, it will also install an Israeli proxy as governor of Iraq and One of the key excuses for the Iraq war sold by Washwill keep pretending to finally be committed to respect ington was the elimination of the roots of terrorism by the never-complied dozens of UN resolutions concernstriking terrorists and the “axis of evil” that supports ing Palestine. them. This is a total flaw. The excuse is undermined by the US themselves. Not even Washington believes As much as Israel is widely regarded by most 1.3 war is the way to fight terrorism, otherwise the Bush billion Muslims as the de facto 51st American state, administration would not have adopted the AEI and many responsible Americans denounce the Iraq war PNAC agenda of promoting “democracy and liberty” as Sharon’s war. Washington’s Likudniks – the AEI and in the Arab world. But neither the Arabs nor anyone PNAC people – allied with evangelical Christians – are else is convinced that the US is committed to real running US foreign policy in the Middle East. Since democracy or to the “territorial integrity of Iraq” when Autumn 2002, they have managed to convince Bush to key members of the administration, like Perle, signed increase the tempo – with no consultation to Congress “Clean Break” in 1996 advising Benjamin Netanyahu or to American public opinion – betting on a point-ofthat Iraq and any other country which tried to defy no-return scenario in Iraq. Meanwhile, Sharon, in a reIsrael should be smashed. The message by the PNAC lentless campaign, managed to convince Bush that war 190   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

on Palestine was equal to war against terrorism. But he went one step beyond: he convinced Bush that the Palestinian Intifada, al-Qaeda and Saddam are all cats in the same bag, plotting a concerted three-pronged offensive to destroy Judeo-Christian civilization. Thus the subsequent, overwhelming Bush administration campaign to try to convince public opinion that Saddam is an ally of bin Laden. Few fell into the trap. But European strategists got the drift: they are already working with the hypothesis that the geopolitical axis in the Middle East is about to switch from Cairo-Riyadh-Tehran to Tel Aviv-Ankara-Baghdad (post-Saddam). In a recent hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, undersecretary of state for political affairs Mark Grossman and undersecretary of defense for policy Douglas Feith talked for four hours and through 86 pages, apparently detailing how the US will rebuild Iraq after liberation through massive bombing. Feith has been on record saying that this war of course “is not about oil,” while stating a few sentences later that “the US will be the new OPEC.” A source confirms that it was clear at the Senate hearing both Feith and Grossman had absolutely no idea what the Arab world is all about. Senators asked how much the war would cost (Yale economist William Nordhaus said the occupation may cost between $17 billion and $45 billion a year): nobody had an answer. Feith and Grossman said it was “unknowable.” Rumsfeld is also a major exponent of the “not knowable” school. The cost of war for American taxpayers – some estimates go as high as $200 billion – is “not knowable.” The size of the occupation force – some estimates range as high as 400,000 troops – is “not knowable.” The duration of the occupation – former NATO supreme commander Wesley Clark has mentioned no less than eight years – is “not knowable.” Arabs, Asians, Europeans – and a few Americans – warn of blowback: the whole Middle East may explode in a violent, vicious anti-imperialist struggle. As this correspondent has been hearing for months from Pakistan to Egypt and from Indonesia to the Gulf, “dozens of bin Ladens” are bound to emerge. The strategy advocated by the evangelic apostles of armed democ-

ratization – overwhelming military force, unilateral preemption, overthrow of governments, seizure of oil fields, recolonization, protectorates – is being roundly condemned by the same educated Arab elites which would be the natural leaders of a push for democratization. Many question not Washington’s objective, but the method: they simply cannot stomach the “imperial liberalism” version marketed by the hawks. The current absolute mess in Afghanistan is further demonstration that “democratization” via an American proconsul is doomed to failure. Moreover, 16 eminent British academic lawyers have certified the Bush doctrine of preemptive self-defense is illegal under international law. Even a tragically surreal, zombie regime like North Korea’s has retained one essential lesson from this whole crisis : if you don’t want regime change, you’d better maximize your silence, speed and cunning to build your own arsenal of WMDs. Muslims for their part have understood that the unlikely Franco-German-Russian axis of peace was and still is trying to prevent what both al-Qaeda and American fundamentalists want: a war of civilizations and a war of religion. And the world public opinion’s insight is that Washington may win the war without the UN – but it will lose peace by shooting the UN down. As a diplomat in Brussels put it, “The world has voted in unison: it does not want to be reordered by a posse in Washington.” The men in the AEI and the PNAC galaxy may be accused of intolerance, arrogance of power, undisguised fascist tendencies, ignorance of history and cultural parochialism – in various degrees. This is all open to debate. They may be “chicken hawks” like Kristol junior or attack dogs like Rumsfeld. But most of all what baffles educated publics across the world – especially the overwhelming majority of public opinion in Germany, France, the UK, Italy and Spain – is the current non-separation of Church and State in the US. George W Bush is not ideologically a neoconservative. But he is certainly a man with a notorious lack of intellectual curiosity. Backed by his core American constituency of 60 to 70 million Bible-believing ChrisFOREVER WARS   191

tians, born-again Bush is setting out to do God’s will on a crusade to Babylon to “fight evil” – personified by Saddam. Martin Amis, Britain’s top contemporary novelist, argues that Bush, being intellectually null, had no other option than to adopt God as his foreign policy mentor. Amis wrote in the Observer that “Bush is more religious than Saddam: of the two presidents, he is, in this respect, the more psychologically primitive. We hear about the successful ‘Texanization’ of the Republican party. And doesn’t Texas seem to resemble a country like Saudi Arabia, with its great heat, its oil wealth, its brimming houses of worship, and its weekly executions.” For former weapons inspector Scott Ritter, Bush is “a fundamentalist who does not respect international law. The United States is becoming a crusader state.” For the absolute majority of 1.3 billion Muslims, a sinister crusader it is. The endgame will reveal itself to be a cheap family farce: the Bush family delivers an ultimatum to the Hussein family. What Gore Vidal describes as “the Bush-Cheney junta” has won: Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Perle, the AEI and PNAC stalwarts. Paul Wolfowitz, above all, has won his own personal crusade. Colin Powell has lost it all. It does not matter that the State Department’s classified report, “Iraq, the Middle East and change: no dominoes” was unveiled by the Los Angeles Times. Wolfowitz and Perle will play with their dominoes. By predictable mechanisms of power as old as mankind itself (and incidentally very com-

mon in the former USSR) it was Powell – the adversary of the new doctrine of preemption – who was charged to defend it in the face of the world. Sources in New York confirm he was told to get in line: his discourse, his body language, his whole demeanor changed. Seasoned American diplomats are appalled by the devastating political and diplomatic failure of the Bush administration. They know that by deciding to go to war unilaterally – and leaving the international system in shambles – the US has squandered its biggest capital: its international legitimacy. And to make matters worse there was absolutely no debate – in the Senate, or in the public opinion arena – about it. Americans still have to wake up to the fact of how startlingly isolated they are in the world. The world, for its part, will keep deploying its weapons of mass democracy. There can be no “international community” as long as the popular perception lingers in so many parts of the world of a clash between the West and Islam. Always ready to recognize and love the best America has to offer, hundreds of millions of people would rather try to save it from the fatal unilateralism distilled by the American fundamentalists of the PNAC and the AEI. Everyone in Baghdad, the former great capital of Islam at its apex, is fond of saying how it has survived the Mongols, the barbarians at the gate. The evangelic apostles of armed democratization cannot even imagine the fury a new breed of barbarians may unleash at the gate of the new American century.

Iraqis drive pass wrecked cars on the al-Jumhouriya bridge on April 15, 2003. Photo: Patrick Baz / AFP

A (mis)guided tour of Baghdad Driving around Baghdad beats any Hollywood version of urban wasteland. Apart from the sequence of charred tanks, anti-aircraft artillery and pickup trucks, there’s a gallery of Soviet 155mm guns under flyovers. Smoke still billows from the odd ministry. The Oil Ministry is still on fire. The main HQ for weapons – whose director, General Amer Saadi, surrendered last Saturday – has been bombed. The sprawling Mukhabarat complex, home of the Iraqi secret police, with dozens of buildings, has been thoroughly bombed – and is still being looted, although some satellite dishes are still available By PEPE ESCOBAR APRIL 18, 2003

BAGHDAD – The Godfather’s black box with the three-part Francis Ford Coppola saga lies under the sun in front of former deputy prime minister Tariq Aziz’s house facing the Tigris River, not far from the discarded cover of Bob Marley and the Wailers’ Uprising. The (Shi’ite) uprising didn’t happen in Baghdad, but the (Iraqi) Godfather is gone. 192   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES


Much of the world media have focused on the anarchy that took place in the days after the first US soldiers entered Baghdad, and with some justification, although people such as US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld would prefer to concentrate on the liberation angle. Should Rumsfeld visit the capital, though, he would not be able to visit Tariq, with whom he met on December 20, 1983, when he was Ronald Reagan’s special envoy for the Middle East. Aziz’s house has been thoroughly looted. Where is Tariq? “He’s here in my pocket,” says one of his neighbors in this affluent part of riverside Baghdad. Sifting through the rubble, under the smell of cauliflowers rotting in the kitchen, stepping over torn group photos of the Ba’ath Party leadership, one learns, among other things, that Aziz was a great fan of former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger and of Italian operas on Russian vinyl and was fond of swimming in his own private pool. But now, in the immortal words of Mohamed al-Douri, Iraq’s ambassador to the United Nations, “the game is over.” No one can possibly argue with a Daisy Cutter, a J-DAM, a MOAB, an Abrams tank or an Apache helicopter. The most vivid evidence of overwhelming US firepower, and probably the highlight of any tour of the shattered city, is the main presidential palace, hit in the early stages of the “shock and awe” campaign. The marines are now camped inside the presidential grounds, in a building identified as “employees’ restroom.” The entrance to the complex is guarded by an Abrams – the marines’ pet dark-brown camel which, according to a connoisseur, is “a very rare breed” and could fetch as much as US$1 million in the weapons markets of the Middle East. The destruction inside – a sequence of mini-September 11s – is a graphic message addressed to any so-called rogue government that falls foul of the US. Saddam indeed lived in the lap of luxury: 18th-century French furniture, crystal chandeliers, gold fittings in the bathrooms, and even a 300-seat cinema – now a roomful of distorted metal. This is where he used to watch his favorite movie over and over again, the first part of The Godfather trilogy, starring Marlon Brando. 194   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

The Americans have been in town for just over a week now. They face an extremely ambiguous popular reaction – totally dissimilar to the nervous excitement displayed in Shi’ite Saddam City when the tanks occupied the National Parade Ground. Baghdad itself may be the only place in the Arab world where people don’t ask themselves in disbelief why Baghdad fell in only two days. And as they contemplate their newfound wasteland, Baghdadis are now asking themselves how they are going to survive. The Palestine Hotel – home to many journalists – poses in Baghdad as a safe area. In a sprawling, scarred city torn by anarchy, strife and much bitterness and desperation, the Palestine is an island protected by Abrams tanks, Bradley vehicles and barbed wire – a Manhattan in the middle of a giant Liberia. Its concentration of high-tech audio video equipment is worth more than the gross national product of whole Iraqi provinces. This not-so-splendid isolation only fuels the resentment of Baghdadis – inevitably subjected to endless searches and checks. For them, the Palestine could as well be in off-limits Israel. Samir is a mechanical engineer who had to walk for five hours to get to the hotel. He would like to find a job repairing damaged plants, but he doesn’t know whom to address. An elderly Shi’ite woman is worried that a weapons cache was left in her garden: she sobs and complains that she doesn’t know whom to talk to. Democracy is taking root in Baghdad: there are daily demonstrations in Ferdows Square, near the Palestine. People scream: “We want Iraqi leaders!” and hold banners decrying the lack of stores, universities and hospitals. For the Americans, security has become something of a nightmare. On Monday, the Ministry of Education building was on fire. A geologist, visibly desperate, told us to warn the Americans that the ministry was very close to a giant gasoline depot, and the consequences of the fire spreading could be devastating. Back at the Palestine, the marines kind of manning the public information office were asking “What city is that?” It was just a 10-minute drive away.

Any visitor will need transportation for a tour of Baghdad. One could of course drive around in a Humvee or a Bradley – but that’s not a good way to make Iraqi friends. Or one could go for the least unsafe option. He could choose between GMC Suburbans and Japanese vans with huge black lettering splashed on all sides, or a plain, simple red-and-orange 1970s made-in-Brazil Volkswagen Passat Baghdad taxi. Nader’s Chevrolet Celebrity would be even better. Nader drives like he’s about to finish the final lap at a Grand Prix, and he knows Baghdad by heart. He used to trade dates in the United Arab Emirates. A big fan of all of Brazil’s world-champion soccer squads, he is also willing to do anything for a visa, especially if it is Danish, so that he can visit his brother, who apparently works for IBM. There are no-go areas aplenty in the capital. Although the first white Iraqi police cars took to the streets on Monday, escorted by Humvees, and are already in hot pursuit of bank looters armed with AK-47s, most of Baghdad still resembles Kabul or Mogadishu. Abu Ragheb, in the western limits of Baghdad, is definitely a no-go area. That’s where we were stopped by a nervous, sweaty Fedayeen clutching a rocket launcher. He asked for our passports. The driver engaged him in conversation and after some hesitation he waved us on. An Abu Dhabi TV crew was not so lucky: when stopped by the Fedayeen they had their tape, camera and press credentials confiscated. Driving around Baghdad beats any Hollywood version of urban wasteland. Apart from the sequence of charred tanks, anti-aircraft artillery and pickup trucks, there’s a gallery of Soviet 155mm guns under flyovers. Smoke still billows from the odd ministry. Legendary Sharia al-Rashid, old Baghdad’s main street with its charming colonnades, seems to have reverted to Sierra Leone status. On the other hand, civilians now step out of their cars and become instant traffic controllers. Only a few buses, red double-deckers that sound like cranking metal, are back into service. Casual visitors wouldn’t find a single taxi driver willing to take them to Saddam City, the huge northeast-

ern slum populated by at least 2 million Shi’ites. Nader says its “full of thieves, very dangerous.” Last week in Saddam City, pent-up anger mixed with deep religious fervor provided the world media with those cherished images of liberation. Today, a Bedouin in Saddam City is emphatic: “The old regime was bad. The new one will be bad. We, the poor, we always lose.” Visitors will soon run out of sightseeing, because there’s not much left to see. The Olympic Hospital – former property of Uday Hussein, Saddam’s son – has been looted. The Aluya Pediatric Hospital is barely functional. The Oil Ministry is still on fire. The main HQ for weapons – whose director, General Amer Saadi, surrendered last Saturday – has been bombed. Saddam Tower miraculously still stands, beside the bombed-out telephone exchange that qualifies as Baghdad’s conceptual contribution for the Venice Biennale exhibition of contemporary art. But a certified highlight of a city tour would be the remains of what everyone refers to as “the CIA of Iraq.” The sprawling Mukhabarat complex, home of the Iraqi secret police, with dozens of buildings, has been thoroughly bombed – and is still being looted, although some satellite dishes are still available. We took a mesmerized Bassan, a chemical engineer, for a drive inside the walls that for all Iraqis meant only one thing, forever and ever: Terror. “I am dreaming,” Bassan kept repeating, glued to his seat. “I am dreaming.” Then there is the “desolation row” tour. There are 85 people, from ages 10-35, at the al-Hanan home for the disabled – but there are no doctors: either they are afraid to leave their homes or they can’t find transportation. Visitors from the nearby Buratha Mosque bring some food and water for these poor souls. Disabled children in wheelchairs perform as de facto human shields at the entrance, discouraging looters. Their stony faces don’t appear to reflect pain or sadness. They want security. But most of all, they say, they just need a water pump. Saeed Muhamad Salman’s sister died at the bombing of the al-Sa’a restaurant in the Mansur district. She was one of the 14 fatalities among two Christian family FOREVER WARS   195

houses destroyed by four misguided 900-kilogram laser-guided bombs – only two houses away from the Libyan ambassador’s residence. The crater behind the al-Sa’a is big enough to engulf Tariq Aziz’s house. Salman says “the Americans missed their target. He [Saddam] was here three hours before, smoking and drinking coffee.” An over-excited Muhamad, 18, who lives around the block, insists: “No one respects us like American soldiers. They kiss us! The Arab socialist Ba’ath Party, they kicked our asses.” He guides the visitor around the rubble to the table inside a relatively intact house nearby, where he says a disheveled Saddam wearing reading glasses recorded his speech in the morning after the “decapitation strike” at the start of the war. At the bottom of the crater behind the al-Sa’a, Muhamad displayed a single red rose: “There are no flowers in Iraq. Saddam Hussein cut them all.” Any visitor is regaled with such stories of a Saddam sighting. In the Zayuna neighborhood, residents swear Saddam was in a house for 30 minutes on Wednesday morning, April 9, fall-of-Baghdad day. The house, protected by a high wall, belongs to Mudar Khairallah, a member of Saddam’s family. This information is certainly more credible than insults now commonly hurled in a typical Baghdad day, such as “Saddam was a Jewish agent,” “Saddam was gay” or “Saddam is in America.” In the al-Qadissiya neighborhood, middle-class families are terrified. Gaida Yousef spent 12 years in France. She lives practically next door to Yarmouk Hospital with two daughters and a cat – and she confirms that a US missile landed on the hospital. “The war, it was over there,” she says, pointing to the farther end of the street. She still cannot sleep: “We need psychologists, for us and for our children.” Her neighbor, an elderly Kurdish woman with a white scarf and beatific smile, still afraid of having to survive alone in her house, says, “Saddam was a dog.” Another neighbor says that Iraqi soldiers have left everything they had – clothes, weapons – in her son’s house: the same worry is reproduced by the dozen in front of the Palestine to marines 196   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

and their blank stares. Gaida Yousef still expresses the feelings of many Baghdadis, that Saddam remained an American Frankenstein to the end: “Saddam and the Americans, it was already designed, for the oil. Every time the Americans attack, he escapes before.” In the Adhamiya neighborhood, Quarter 308, residents say that the Americans came through the main road, the Corniche al-Adhamiya, guns blazing. On the other side of the avenue lies another one of the presidential palaces, bombed on the 10th day of the war. Adel Hussein, head of a family of 10, and Dr Salman, a PhD in economics, tell the visitor that on April 9, the day of the fall of Baghdad, four Abrams tanks, from 4:30am to 11am, struck more than 20 houses. They point to a carpet of spent cartridges in the main road and then take the visitor around, showing any possible configuration of bullet holes in an array of houses in all sorts of angles, and a white Volga splattered in blood: “The whole family died inside,” says Dr Salman. “You see the houses. This is real evidence.” A neighborhood crowd congregates to deliver a “message” for the Americans, who are less than half an hour away: “Please, we need water and electricity.” Chardagh Street in Adhamiya was the scene of a fierce battle that started in the square facing the Abu Hanifa Mosque. The whole Abu Hanifa square has been converted into a ghastly wasteland: civilian homes, banks, pharmacies, bakeries have been hit, shelled, burned. A woman in front of the only functioning bakery in Chardagh says, “George Bush is the enemy of God. He killed the Iraqi people. What I say? You see around for yourself.” For Muhamad, 19, a college student, “The [Saddam] government is not good and it’s not bad. We have a lot of oil. Some people in Iraq have a lot of money. But you see people wearing no shoes. Why?” He knows that American troops will stay “for one year only, and to protect the Iraqi people.” He’s sure that Iraqis will be better off because of it. But an American government? “Absolutely not.” Ayad Tarik Helal was driving back home at 11am on Thursday of last week in Mansur when his car was hit by a tank shell. He survived, pulled out of the car

through one of the windows, but his wife and two sisters were killed. “All the cars on the road were hit and burned,” he barely whispers. A relative quietly slips a piece of paper with a London number: “Please tell them that the family is OK. But don’t tell them he is in the hospital.” An elderly Shi’ite woman all in black wants to tell the story of what happened to her son. At midnight on April 9, fall-of-Baghdad day, Munib Abid Hassawi was at home near the Balkis school in the Ashab neighborhood, asleep with his wife and son, when a stray missile hit his house. He looks the visitor in the eye, his face contorted with pain, his torso sprayed with shrapnel, his legs two reddish lumps of flesh: “Every day I die a little,” his mother whispers. “The house is destroyed, we have no place to go.” Munib needs six injections a day: he’s getting only two. The hospital badly needs medicine, needles, oxygen, and is running out of anesthetics and painkillers. Munib’s mother stoically murmurs, “The doctors are lying. There is no medicine left in this hospital.” There will come a time in their tour when the visitors will be hungry. Apart from the Palestine, the only other realistic option for a daily fix of kebab is at the al-Lathicia restaurant – if one is prepared to wait two hours for a mixed grill. One can always steal from the kitchen – a favorite pastime of certain Italian freelance lensmen. American soldiers occasionally patrol the street – which is one the safest in Baghdad. They wouldn’t be exactly welcomed inside the Syrian-owned al-Lathicia, though. Inevitably visitors will be approached by dozens of families clutching small pieces of paper with written Arabic numbers. These numbers – most in London and the United Arab Emirates – are the only, elusive lifeline to their relatives abroad, if the foreigners take the trouble to make the calls in their satphones. A visitor may want to check out a mall. But there are no options left. The Mustansariya shopping center has been thoroughly looted – and some sections were burned. For simpler pleasures, what used to be another one of Uday Hussein’s monopolies – cigarette smug-

gling – is now flourishing at the Palestine entrance. A carton of Miamis sells for about US$20. Marines kill for it. For booze, it is imperative to be acquainted with one of the security middlemen, who will be most obliged to find a bottle of Black and White for $50. Visitors will have problems if they want some culture – and this in the land that invented writing. There are no functioning cinemas. No theaters – such as the official theater in the TV building in front of the former five-star al-Mansur hotel (still being looted), where it was possible to attend classical-music concerts. Al-Mustansariya University – the oldest in the world, founded before the Sorbonne in 1234 – has been looted. Students soon might have to resort to “benzin” selling: looters do their business near the university grounds, at 2,000 dinars a liter (less than $1). Looting of extreme seriousness took place on April 10 at the Iraqi Museum, built by a German architect and inaugurated in 1966. Dr Doni George, director of general research and studies at the State Board of Antiquities, asked the Americans to protect the museum: he says a marine lieutenant-colonel named Zarcone even gave him a pass. And then nothing. Dr. George says, “The whole administrative compound was completely destroyed and looted. The first point is that there were people who knew what they wanted. They’ve taken the precious vase of Uruk, an Akkadian bronze statue from 3200 BC, Abbasid wooden doors. Before they started looting, there were American armored cars outside, and people inside. They asked for the American troops to intervene, but they did not. On Sunday, the chairman of the State Board of Antiquities went to the American HQ and explained the situation. But they sent no help.” The book souk (market) at Moutanabi Street is totally deserted these days – after all, the whole area is now a charred wasteland. According to Arab legend, every 100 years a man – not a hero, not a martyr, but a sort of secular prophet, a wise man full of lucidity and justice – arises to wake up a people in a dreamlike state, anesthetized by a cruel fatality breeding fear and passivity. For educated Baghdadis, there’s nothing irraFOREVER WARS   197

tional about this – either from a religious or nationalistic point of view. They wonder who that man will be, but they know it will not be the new proconsul, retired General Jay Garner. Baghdadis know that Iraq – since Assyria and Mesopotamia – needs a charismatic and authoritarian father figure. Former Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser was such a figure for the Arab world, as well as Muammar Gaddafi of Libya and Saddam Hussein – who was more dangerous, clever and cynical than Gaddafi. Ali, a civil engineer who may or may not have not been a member of the ruling elite, coldly analyzes Saddam as the product of the political brutality that took over Iraq after the monarchy was deposed in 1958. He also points out that Saddam’s model was really his worst enemy: Hafez Assad, the clever Syrian strategist. At the Abu Hanifa Mosque a tank shell has blown an enormous hole in the clock tower, built in 1937. Actually, says a man named Khudaier, this was due to two missiles shot from an A-10 tankbuster. In the grounds of the mosque, 12 Iraqi Fedayeen and 20 mujahideen from Syria and Algeria are buried, for “defending Islam,” as a resident put it, on Wednesday morning, April 9. Khudaier says that he saw them destroy four US

Abrams tanks with twin rocket-propelled grenades stuck together with nylon. Other locals take the visitor inside the mosque and point to a pock-marked wall very close to the tomb of Abu Hanifa himself, an important Sunni imam. “This missile hit could have destroyed a tank. But Allah has blessed this place.” Shrapnel hit the silver embroidery around the tomb, and the shelling destroyed the delicate 100-year-old wood-framed windows. But the real surprise is in the mosque’s back yard. That’s where 11 fighters from Syria and Algeria are discreetly buried, with a single palm leaf over their graves. A small Iraqi flag identifies another tomb. It’s perhaps the only peaceful place in Baghdad at the moment, away from the mayhem, birds singing in the background. Most of Baghdad’s mosques remain closed – as the majority of the population is still very much afraid to leave their houses. After so many betrayals and humiliations, such everlasting despair, millions of Iraqis cannot but take refuge in religious faith – even in a cosmopolitan Baghdad reduced to appalling economic underdevelopment and intellectual regression. The true test of US greatness is now. The American soldiers have come, and they will be gone. Baghdad, with its broken heart, will stay.

The leader of the Iraqi National Congress, Ahmad Chalabi, meets with Iraqi tribal leaders in Baghdad on April 18, 2003. Photo: Odd Andersen / AFP

Direct democracy in action How a former officer in the Iraqi Air Force is now the de facto mayor of Hilla, a poor sprawling city of 2 million, 80 kilometers south of Baghdad, chosen through consensus by the local population. This is Iraqi democracy in action, the post-Saddam Hussein version By PEPE ESCOBAR APRIL 19, 2003

HILLA – Mr. Iskander, a lawyer and former officer in the Iraqi air force, married with four sons and five daughters, sits behind his desk in a nondescript building formerly used for religious meetings for Sunni and Shi’ite alike, now guarded by five Marines. He receives a non-stop string of visitors, juggling between as many as four conversations simultaneously. Iskander is now the de facto mayor of Hilla, a poor sprawling city of 2 million, 80 kilometers south of Baghdad, chosen through consensus by the local population. This is Iraqi democracy in action, the post-Saddam Hussein version. 198   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES


Hilla is now largely peaceful. People are still intrigued by the meaning of the letters “TV” spelled out in black tape all over our car. Kids play soccer oblivious to a passing sandstorm and next to a miraculously non-defaced mural of Saddam, where he is pictured between al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem and Ishtar Gate in Babylon. Splendid, elegant (in a dusty way) Shi’ite couples carry green flags with the inscriptions “Ali” and “Hussein.” Police officers now patrol the streets and locals swear that there has been no looting in Hilla. Food distribution has started – from a local food warehouse, and organized by the same managers who once worked for the Saddam government (“But now they are free,” said a grinning official at the new mayor’s office). Iskander is in the middle of the process of forming a new government. He lists his priorities as oxygen for hospitals, equipment for water purification and the reconstruction of the gas pipeline between Basra and Hilla. Security, according to him, is “very good” as proven by police officers coming back to their old jobs. He expects the Americans to provide “new uniforms and the new weapons to be used.” He is “very glad” with the American presence: “It was very good to remove Saddam Hussein. No force could do it except the US and the British.” More than 100 American soldiers are now stationed in Hilla, according to Iskander. The people’s priority, and the main subject of talks with his visitors is, of course, security: “35 years of Saddam was too bad,” he said, his cue to show the visitor some gruesome pictures from 1998 of his brother Jaffar, a victim of torture, under no specific accusation, by Saddam’s regime. He also shows Jaffar’s death certificate: “Dead under inquiry.” Sheikh Salim Saed, an imposing figure in robe and keffiah (head scarf) contrasting with his sparkling blue eyes, is also in the room. He is the supreme sheikh of the tribes of Shurfa (which means “honesty” in Arabic). The sheikh’s father was hanged by Saddam’s henchmen in 1991, after the failed Shi’ite uprising following the Gulf War. The son of an accompanying sheikh was also hanged in 1991, as well as the brother of a lawyer also in the room. A few minutes later 200   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

comes Abbas, who had many family members killed by Saddam’s regime from 1981 to 1991. He is now searching for five still “disappeared” family members. Iskander said that “we’ll give him any chance available to find work.”

We are firmly discouraged by the new mayor’s top officials to travel further south to the holy Shi’ite sites of Najaf and Karbala: “Every foreigner is being shot on the road and inside the cities. There are Americans there, but they don’t care about the situation.”

The sheikh is clutching a stack of black and white copies of a photo of Ahmed Chalabi, the Iraqi National Congress (INC) leader and self-styled new regime strongman who stormed into Baghdad on Wednesday. For Iskander, Chalabi “is known for his history of working with people against Saddam Hussein. And he has a very strong character.” The sheikh’s opinion is tinged with slightly more subtlety: “As far as I’m concerned, I don’t know anything about Chalabi, but I consider a suitable person who will govern Iraq must provide freedom in order to deserve this position.” The sheikh’s ideal ruler would be “anyone that is not Saddam Hussein.”

On the way back to Baghdad we stop at the dirt-poor village of Mahmudiya, 30 kilometers south of the

capital, and the site of a ferocious battle only a few days ago. Amid rows of destroyed and burned businesses, and charred tanks in alleyways laden with unexploded bombs, locals remain extremely angry. There’s no water, no electricity – and no police in the streets. They want answers – and fast. One is almost tempted to suggest a quick trip to the brave new world of Hilla.

Iskander has his views on what took place in a faraway neighborhood of Hilla called Nader in the beginning of April. According to him, “Syrian Fedayeen came to this place, people tried to kick them out, and then the Americans bombed it.” He said that there were a maximum of three civilian dead and 20 wounded. This contrasts with figures from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), according to which at least 61 people were killed and more than 460 seriously injured – mostly by cluster bombing – in what has become known as the Hilla massacre. The new Iskander government is practically in place: it lists 14 members, including Sunni, Shi’ites and Kurds. But where will the money come from? Their only source of finance is “managers of Iraqi banks,” who have already had a meeting with the Americans. The new government will start collecting taxes, but not now: “Our intention is to lower taxes,” Iskander swore. “Our banks were not looted. There are some thieves who are returning money to mosques.” He said that “for the last 35 years there was no money here, Saddam took it all. But there are 4 million Iraqis living outside the country. We are very rich. They should absolutely come back to rebuild their country.” FOREVER WARS   201

Iraqi Shiites carry the coffin of Mohammed al-Garaawi, a prominent aide of radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, during his funeral in Najaf, 160 km south of Baghdad on September 8, 2007. Photo: AFP

Shi’ites on the march to Karbala The Shi’ite armies are on the move. They have no tanks, no stealth bombers, no night vision devices. Their sole weapon of mass persuasion is the power of the word. But the political weight that they are about to display this Tuesday in Karbala is something unheard and unseen in centuries of history of ‘the land between the rivers’ By PEPE ESCOBAR APRIL 22, 2003

NAJAF and KARBALA – The Shi’ite armies are on the move. They have no tanks, no stealth bombers, no night vision devices. Their sole weapon of mass persuasion is the power of the word – deep religious fervor inscribed in green, black and red flags waved under the sandy winds of Mesopotamia. But the political weight that they are about to display this Tuesday in Karbala is something unheard and unseen in centuries of 202   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES


history of “the land between the rivers.” Every year, a pilgrimage celebrates the 40th day of the death by decapitation of Imam Hussein, the son of the first Imam Ali (the Prophet Mohammed’s brotherin-law), at the battle of Karbala, in the year 680 AD, which is the founding event of Shi’ism. But the pilgrimage this year is unlike any other. At the office of the late Great Ayatollah Muhammad Baqr al-Sadr in central Najaf, top cleric Abbas Elroubaei, who is also a painter, confides with a smile, “It took only three words.” These – pronounced by the all-powerful al-Hawza council of 15 to 20 supreme Shi’ite religious authorities in Iraq – were simple: “Go to Karbala.” As early as Saturday morning, hundreds of thousands were already on the road, literally walking to their destination in central Iraq and converging on Imam Hussein’s shrine, with its cupola and minarets covered with gold. Elroubaei expects no less than 7 million people in Karbala: “And this with just one phrase. Can you imagine the power of 7 million?” Karbala (an Aramaic name) is the second Shi’ite holy place after Najaf (Najaf is Islam’s fourth holiest city, after Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem). Karbala is so holy that many pilgrims carry soil from it to pray in their cities, be they in Iran or Pakistan. Many others sleep with little round tablets under their pillows (sold for less than 50 US cents) made from the earth of Karbala. A pilgrimage to Karbala can be more important to many Shi’ites than the hajj to Mecca and Medina. This is the ultimate Holy Land, sanctified by the blood of martyrs. The color combination of flags waved by the pilgrims also carries deep religious meaning. The red flag symbolizes Abbas, Hussein’s half-brother (venerated because he fought alongside Hussein in Karbala), and also the blood of Hussein. The black flag symbolizes Hussein, and also sadness. The green flag symbolizes Imam Ali, and is also the color of Islam. “Prince” (as he is affectionately referred to) Hussein’s mosque in Karbala is encircled by a vast courtyard and an ornate wall with exquisite blue mosaics with 204   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

verses of the Holy Koran. Hussein’s tomb is inside a silver-embroidered rectangle. Three hundred meters away from Hussein’s shrine, on the other side of a huge square, is also the golden-domed shrine of Abbas. Since Saturday, the square has been turned into an immense religious bazaar – a congregation of silent widows, street orphans, raucous families, opportunists selling battered cassettes of Koranic texts, impromptu preachers, and the odd coffin paraded over heads and shoulders. The pilgrims on the move – on the Baghdad-Najaf expressway or on the dusty two-lane road between Najaf and Karbala – are an extraordinary sight, mingling with the rumbling serpent of American convoys, past charred T-72 tanks and “desecrated” Saddam Hussein murals that would have pleased Andy Warhol. Elderly Shi’ite women all in black carry plastic vases on their heads. Most men just carry a flag, chanting all the time, a keffiah (scarf) around the waist. Some, at the sight of a foreigner, immediately shout “No Saddam, no Amrika.” Huge photos of Hussein, looking like a dashing medieval warrior-prince, decorate the entrances of tents set up in the desert offering tea, a few cushions and the latest tribal gossip. Anybody thinking that a giant political rally – in a Western sense – will take place in Karbala is bound to be disappointed. The political statement is the gathering itself of Shi’ites in such staggering numbers. The pilgrims tell us how it is through their banners – like “I’m the one that Allah loves” – or through their words: “Everyone in Karbala would wish to be a martyr in Paradise with Ali and Hussein.” What will happen, according to top clerics, is a giant concert of wailing, some flagellation and even some voluntary amputations – prohibited during the whole Saddam era: these are instruments for the Shi’ites to repent for not helping Hussein in his battle against the Ummayad Caliphate almost 14 centuries ago. There’s nothing specifically programmed regarding the war, said a top cleric: “People, rather, are interested in how to work with God: have a good life, help people, have children, money and follow the right way.” For Shi’ites, Islam should have been led by the Holy Prophet Mohammed’s descendants through Ali’s lin-

eage, and not by the Caliphs. The battle of Karbala was a larger-than-life event that not only defined the Sunni-Shi’ite split inside Islam, but also defined the Shi’ite view of the world as a blend of protest and martyrdom: a radical activism. That’s why the battle of Karbala is as vivid in the Shi’ite imagination today as if it had just taken place. It’s startling to compare Sunni and Shi’ite attitudes in the highly-charged atmosphere of post-Saddam Iraq. Sunnis – apart from the giant street protest after jumma (Friday) prayers at the Abu Hanifah mosque in Baghdad on Friday – have faded into the background, while Shi’ite clerics have demonstrated an extraordinary capacity for unity. They seem to be united on at least one rallying cry, heard at the Abu Hanifah demonstration and also on the road to Karbala: >I>La Suniya, La Shieya, Wahda Wahda Islamiya (No Sunni or Shi’ite, only one Islam). But another battle cry – also vocally imprinted by Sunni and Shi’ite alike, is infinitely more problematic: La ilaha ila Allah, America Aduallah (There is no God but Allah, and America is His enemy). Right now, Najaf is all but deserted: everybody went or is on the road to Karbala. An April 13 proclamation by the powerful al-Hawza – which could be defined as the high office of Shi’ite religious authorities – affixed on the meticulously decorated tiles of the Imam Ali shrine – gives detailed instructions to Najaf ’s citizens. Some crucial points: there is no difference between Sunni and Shi’ite; everyone should go to the mosque; al-Hawza will take care of managing health problems. Al-Hawza has made numerous recommendations: “Don’t listen to anyone outside Iraqi or from the occupying force.” “Keep your eyes open,” “Save your possessions from looting,” “Help people with food and medicine,” “Don’t do anything against anybody like during the Saddam Hussein government,” “Everyone must respect any religion” and “Everybody should go back to work.” In the streets, a huge crowd immediately congregates around any foreign visitor: “Tell the world we have no water, no electricity, no gas, very little food, no mon-

ey, no medicine.” Very few shops are open in the souk (market) corridor that leads to the Imam Ali shrine. And there’s the matter of the assassination of a very prominent figure to be solved. Last year, the imam of Najaf, Dr. Haider Alkelydar, granted a long interview to this correspondent, talking about Sunni-Shi’ite unity and revealing among other things that the city was a training camp for the Palestine Liberation Army. On April 12, with the Americans already in town, Haider was killed. According to Zaki Elnouthfar, a prominent Najafi, “The imam was killed by the Mukhabarat” [the Iraq secret service], by people “who were not from Najaf, who knifed his body 100 times.” Elnouthfar, whose story is corroborated by many Najafis, swears “everybody here loved Dr. Haider.” According to the Najaf street version, the killing fit the Mukhabarat style. Residents say that Haider left the Imam Ali shrine and was walking in Thausat al-Ashrin street with two bodyguards when he was attacked. Residents say that Haider had enough time to “try to call the Americans on his satphone,” apparently with no success. This version of events is totally contradicted by Abbas Elroubaei of the Ayatollah al-Sadr’s office: “There was a relationship between Haider and Saddam Hussein and his sons.” He thinks that the assassins were from Najaf. If they are, this would confirm Elroubaei’s assertion that “there are a lot of people in the streets who have no responsibilities.” Who is the top Shi’ite authority in Iraq at the moment? In Najaf, the al-Hawza says that 68-year-old Grand Ayatollah Sistani is a crucial reference in these troubled times. Others point to Kazem al-Haari, who left for Iran 25 years ago. As far as Elroubaei is concerned, the Shi’ite political parties based in Iran “have no popular base in Iraq. Most Iraqi people want to hear the opinions of al-Hawza.” He insists though that “al-Hawza will not play a political role. But it will support any government who will serve the Iraqi people.” He also says, significantly, “there’s no political role for Ayatollah Sistani.” There are indeed subtle distinctions FOREVER WARS   205

between the top Shi’ite names. For the office of Ayatollah al-Sadr, al-Haari is the most popular. For Najafis, Sistani is the most popular. There are photos of the Great Ayatollah al-Sadr – who along with his sister was slaughtered on Saddam’s orders in April 1980 – on sale all over Najaf; but it takes a real pilgrimage to find a photo of Sistani. This may have to do with the fact that al-Sadr was killed by Saddam, and Sistani is still alive: for Shi’ites, martyrs hold the ultimate power. In the 1991 Shi’ite uprising following the Gulf War, the anti-Saddam rebels briefly took control of Najaf and Karbala, before Saddam’s forces wiped them out with brute force. This political disaster taught them many lessons. It’s wrong to think along Elroubaei’s lines that the political parties based in Iran have no base inside Iraq. The Da’wa Party claims to be very well connected inside Iraq. Their spiritual leader is none other than Ayatollah al-Sadr. His martyrdom is one of the foundation stones of the party. According to a privileged Iranian source, in the beginning of the war the Da’wa Party did not exactly disagree with the Anglo-American invasion. Anybody was welcomed to remove Saddam. But Da’wa is vigorously against a military protectorate. It insists a maximum of two months are enough to organize an election. It’s not thinking in terms of a general election for a parliament in the initial stage, but local elections for municipal officials. These officials would organize a constitutional assembly and then general elections. Da’wa is absolutely against the two-year or more transition period preferred by the Pentagon. If it happens, it will be colonization, and Da’wa will engage in armed struggle against the foreign invaders. Da’wa are more “moderate,” in a sense, than the Supreme Assemble for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SAIRI). They know that America will remain in Iraq – for some period of time. But they are adamant: Iraq’s future should be determined by Iraqis themselves. Da’wa officials spent a long time in exile, and some imbibed a lot of Western culture; they are certainly not hardcore Islamists. For instance, their take on the application 206   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

of one form or another of Sharia (Islamic law) is that it should be a parliamentarian decision. And crucially, they reject the concept of velayat-al-faqih – or government by specialists of Islamic jurisprudence. The SAIRI, and its leader Ayatollah Hakim, is totally aligned on this matter with Iranian supremo Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Ayatollah Sistani’s position is much more complex than the position of political parties based in Iran – although not dissimilar. The ayatollah never left Najaf. Saddam tried to assassinate him at least four times. And he is not pro-Iranian. He was in the eye of the storm only a while ago, concerning his alleged fatwa in favor of neutrality during the war – something that was welcomed at the American Central Command in Qatar. His official website had to post a window in Arabic denying “anything said by the Western press agencies” attributing a fatwa to him. And in London, the al-Khoei Foundation of Abdul Majid al-Khoei (who is the son of the late Abul Qasem al-Khoei from the first Gulf War, who tried in vain to meet General Norman Schwartzkopf in the desert to prevent a repression of the Shi’ites by Saddam) denied the existence of the fatwa. Abdul Majid al-Khoei went to Najaf courtesy of the American army. He arranged for the safety of Sistani and three others who were captives in Najaf of Saddam’s Fedayeen when Ba’ath militia were occupying Imam Ali’s shrine. Sistani was finally liberated. He is in good health, but he is not talking to anyone for the moment. According to the al-Khoei foundation, neither the supposed Sistani pronouncement on neutrality nor another so-called fatwa from September 2002 nailed on the doors of Baghdad’s mosques could be qualified as fatwas. A fatwa is a religious edict that results from a learned analysis of a point of Islamic jurisprudence. Sistani, some say, just made a statement. Ayatollahs in his position are usually asked questions regarding all sorts of current issues. The answers are usually circumstantial, and don’t carry the same doctrinal weight as

a fatwa. This means that in September 2002, and again in March 2003, Sistani reinforced the notion that in all the history of Islam, the protection of the umma (the community of the faithful) means that no infidel troops should occupy Muslim territory. So if Iraq is caught in the crossfire between a Western army and Saddam’s troops, what is the solution? Sistani (who still is not talking to the media) might have answered, or not answered: “do nothing.” This certainly wasn’t a fatwa. It’s enlightening to note that Sistani’s position perfectly matches Ayatollah Hakim’s, the leader of SAIRI in Tehran. A few weeks ago, Hakim said, “I urge all Iraqis not to get involved in the fighting. They should not side, either with Saddam’s forces, or with the US-led forces.” Hakim belongs to one of the most notable Shi’ite families in Iraq. His father is Muhsin Hakim al-Tabatabai, a senior ayatollah from Najaf who sharply criticized the Ba’ath repression against the Shi’ites in the 1950s and 1960s. Hakim wants the SAIRI to be fully representative of all Iraqi Muslims – Sunni and Shi’ite alike. The SAIRI’s power base is basically in Basra, Najaf and Karbala. It has refused American funding, has tried to distance itself from any connection with America and is of course opposed to an American government in Iraq. The SAIRI’s paramilitary wing, the 40,000-strong Badr Brigades – mostly based in Iraqi Kurdistan – were prevented by Hakim from engaging in any military operations inside Iraq: this could be interpreted as support for the Anglo-American invasion. But Hakim said many times that the brigades were positioned inside Iraq and ready to speed up the fall of Saddam’s regime. Hakim said two weeks ago in Tehran that “if Americans are planning to stay in Iraq

as an occupation force after Saddam, we have repeatedly stated that they will be faced by fierce armed resistance.” On his vision of a future Iraqi government, he said, “We don’t believe in a system that is based on sectarian or racial division. I think what the majority of Iraqi factions have come to recognize as the best political course for Iraq is the parliamentarian system on the basis of one-man one-vote, without applying any sectarian agenda. I also strongly believe that any future government should uphold the religious values of the Iraqi people, which are rooted in Islam. It has to be emphasized that Islam is the official religion of the state and that Sharia is the main source of legislation. That said, all the rights of the religious minorities will be respected. The cultural sensitivities and religious values of the Iraqi people have to be taken into account in any future Iraqi government,” What is being said in Tehran is in effect reinforcing what is taking place in Najaf and Karbala. Elroubaei scoffs at the fact that there is “an unknown Iraqi” leading the Najaf provincial government. In his own personal opinion, “Iraqis reject any kind of foreign occupation. They will resist. When we believe they will not leave and are behaving as an occupation force, we will move.” He insists, “Our rallying cry is that there are no differences between Kurds, Sunnis and Shi’ites. The Americans said that after the collapse of Saddam’s government and the search for weapons of mass destruction they will go. If they don’t go, we will take our measures.” Shi’ites seem to know exactly what they want. And most of all what they don’t want. After so much oppression, the march to Karbala may be, on the surface, apolitical. But it may turn out to be the most profound political affirmation of direct democracy in the history of Mesopotamia.


Mohymeed Aswad, manager of Baghdad’s al-Qarah cemetery, stands near a plot with almost 1,000 unmarked graves, most of them corpses brought in from the nearby Abu Ghraib prison during the regime of Saddam Hussein. Photo: Cris Bouroncle / AFP

The Mukhabarat’s shopping list A document found by Asia Times Online, among other files, in a nondescript, abandoned Mukhabarat safe house in the Qadissiya district of the capital reveals how Saddam Hussein’s deeply feared secret service lived in its own Thousand and One Nights bubble By PEPE ESCOBAR APRIL 24, 2003

BAGHDAD – While the buildup to the war on Iraq was convulsing world capitals, world opinion and the United Nations, the Mukhabarat – the feared Saddam Hussein secret service machine – was still living in its own Thousand and One Nights bubble. This is what revealed by a document found by Asia Times Online, among other files, in a nondescript, abandoned Mukhabarat safe house in the Qadissiya district of the capital. Iraqis who read it and translated it 208   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES


had no reason to doubt its authenticity. The handwritten document details a series of meetings between June 2002 and March 2003 (even when war was already raging in Iraq), probably in the same safe house, involving Mukhabarat agents and representatives of firms from many Arab countries but also from France, Russia and the Netherlands. The document should constitute additional proof that the secret services indeed operated as a parallel state in Iraq – way beyond the reach of United Nations sanctions and trade embargo. All negotiations were secret. And everything was paid in US dollars, cash. All manner of other secrets and not-such-secrets are to be found in what remains of Baghdad. Detailed personal files by Internal Security in Mukhabarat abandoned safe houses in Karada. Compromising files at the torched and looted Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Secret graves in the al-Qarah cemetery of nearly 1,000 political prisoners tortured and mostly hanged at Abu Ghraib prison. And in the basement of another Mukhabarat safe house in Wahda, after a poor torch job, an astonishing room brimming with the latest high-tech surveillance equipment is still practically intact. Possibly much of the equipment was purchased following the meetings detailed at the document found in Qadissiya. From the Alwaeth firm in Syria, the Mukhabarat negotiated to buy machines to conceal fax numbers. They could be delivered in three days. From an unnamed Egyptian firm, it wanted wireless communication systems for buildings, at US$55,000, and a more sophisticated system for $100,000. It also wanted wireless systems from the Iraqi firm, al-Azhal. From an unnamed corporation in Abu Dhabi, the Mukhabarat wanted an array of goods: wireless systems; wireless pinhole cameras with a maximum range of 100 meters (delivery in one month); four-channel AV receivers; pen cameras with a maximum range of 100 meters, connected to video, recording audio and operating on 12V batteries; cameras with a range of 1 kilometers, and upgraded with an outer antenna for 3 kilometers; and night vision goggles with a 1 kilometer range. The goggles could be the most explosive item in the shop210   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

ping list as Washington had all but accused Syria of selling them to Iraq. According to the document, the negotiations were actually conducted with this unnamed Abu Dhabi corporation. From the Dutch firm Haiman, and also from an unnamed Lebanese firm, the Mukhabarat wanted spray to detect fingerprints on paper and wood, and to detect separate fingerprints from different people. Mukhabarat agents questioned Haiman for any new technology and also wanted to know the prices for card-operated security systems. From the French firm APX, the Mukhabarat wanted to buy listening devices, portable satellites and private security systems. The document states that the Mukhabarat had “direct contacts with a minister in France” who could help the negotiations. The document also states the Mukhabarat desire of trying to improve the security systems of Iraqi embassies around the world. Thus the quest for sophisticated listening devices; small microphones; telephone bugs; transmitter pens; laser systems to check camera performance; listening devices to monitor what happens inside a building from the outside; hidden espionage cameras; night cameras to identify people from a distance of 150 meters; and the smallest color cameras available on the market. From the Alsalam company – country of origin non-identified – the Mukhabarat was trying to buy video cameras inside pens and made-in-Russia long-distance cameras, with a range of 2 to 3 kilometers.

foreign – the Mukhabarat wanted to buy three different computer systems for $199,000 each (with a discount, it could come to $130,000 each). The systems are called Spread Spectrum (operating between 1,5 and 5 gigahertz). There was an explicit condition for the purchase: the manager of the firm had to send Mukhabarat agents for training out of Iraq – with specialists from Lebanon. And all spare parts should be free. On this particular negotiation, the Mukhabarat was dealing with Muhamad Halewi, a doctor and manager of the Fica firm in Baghdad. And it was also comparing prices with the Abu Dhabi office of a firm called Teltec. The Mukhabarat complains that the prices quoted by the Reeger company – country of origin non-specified – are very high. The document states that if they buy anything from Reeger, training will have to be conducted in Malaysia.

The Mukhabarat was actively comparing prices between Iraqi and Syrian firms. It was negotiating to buy Toyota Camrys at $20,500 apiece and Mercedes sedans for $55,000 apiece from the Aldahi dealership in Baghdad, imported from a firm in the United Arab Emirates. From the al-Azar firm, also in Baghdad, it wanted Mercedes vans. From the Jawrah and Hensi corporation in Syria, it received an assurance that the cars could be delivered in two months. And it could also buy on request air-conditioners, Hyundai elevators, copy machines, Panasonic videos and TVs and paper shredders. One thing is certain: not all Mukhabarat papers were shredded as the Americans arrived at the gates of Baghdad.

In another meeting with an unidentified French firm, the Mukhabarat wanted to purchase equipment to recognize fingertips on glass and wood; machine guns disguised as suitcases; and voice identifying systems that can be matched with databases. It also wanted a spray to identify fingerprints; laser tools to identify fingerprints; a system to identify food poisoning (a key Saddam Hussein obsession); tools to identify explosive materials and give the exact distance between the target and the explosives; and a robot to remove explosives. From the al-Asriya firm – not identified as Iraqi or FOREVER WARS   211

Mohammed A. al-Douri, permanent representative of Iraq to the United Nations, addresses the media on March 21, 2003 at UN Headquarters in New York. Photo: AFP

The Baghdad deal An Asia Times Online investigation in Baghdad, Tikrit and Najaf has yielded a clear certainty among Iraqis, both Sunni and Shi’ite: the Pentagon and the Ba’ath Party leadership made a safqua (‘secret deal’ in Arabic) for the (almost) bloodless fall of Baghdad. By PEPE ESCOBAR APRIL 25, 2003

BAGHDAD – Much of the world was surprised. After the spirited resistance in the south of Iraq, how could Baghdad possibly have fallen in only two days? An Asia Times Online investigation in Baghdad, Tikrit and Najaf has yielded a clear certainty among Iraqis, both Sunni and Shi’ite, as to the answer: The Pentagon and the Ba’ath Party leadership made a safqua (“secret deal” in Arabic) for the (almost) bloodless fall of Baghdad. Crucially, this safqua may have included a package of American green cards for top 212   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES


Republican and Special Republican Guard commanders and their families. “Shaku maku”? (“What’s new”?). “Makushi”? (No news). In the answer to this popular exchange in Baghdad slang, makushi has been replaced by safqua. Mohammed al-Douri, the Iraqi ambassador to the United Nations, was the one who pronounced the famous last words “the game is over” – referring to the end of Saddam Hussein’s regime. And a game it might well have been. (Al-Douri, according to al-Jazeera television, has enjoyed safe passage to Syria, and might even end up the UN ambassador of the new Iraqi government). At the beginning of last week, a congregation of sheiks clad in dazzling black linen robes was camped in the lobby of the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad. They were once again seeking an appointment with Mohammed Mohsen al-Zubaidi, the self-anointed governor of Baghdad (now demoted by the Americans). The sheiks wanted to talk about their main priority: security. They wanted cooperation with the US Marines, but most of all they needed medicine for their hospitals and all the help they could get to “rebuild our country.” Sheik Altai was among the participants. An affable and subtle man, he was a political prisoner of Saddam’s regime from 1995 to 2002 in a Baghdad jail. He commands the allegiance of about 70,000 people. And as an important tribal leader, he ultimately ended up being courted by Saddam himself. From a long conversation with the sheik, observations from a Ba’ath Party official who calls himself Ali and now lives in discreet civilian garb in a nondescript house in the Karada district, former Ba’ath Party officials laying low in Tikrit and top Shi’ite clerics in Najaf, it’s possible to reconstitute how the “fall” of Baghdad was staged. No one will know what really happened in this war until a number of crucial questions are answered. And Iraqis are not expecting these answers to be spelled out by the Americans. 214   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

• How did American forces manage to storm into and take over Baghdad with practically no resistance? In Basra, which is much smaller and which was relatively lightly defended, there was no pro-Anglo-American uprising, and the city took three weeks to be subdued. • What happened to the 20,000-strong, wellequipped Special Republican Guards, charged with the defense of Baghdad? Where did they melt away to? • How come there was no coordination between the Ba’ath Party-Republican Guard defense of Baghdad and the jihadis who poured in from Syria, Algeria, Yemen and Egypt to help? • How come the Republican and Special Republican Guards did not destroy a single bridge in Baghdad – an effective tactic to delay the American invasion? • How did the entire Iraqi cabinet manage to escape? This includes Saddam and his sons, Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan, Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, Dr. A K Hashimi (Saddam’s personal adviser), the ministers of defense, economy, trade and health and the unforgettable, insult-laden Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf of the information ministry. • Similarly, how did the vast majority of the Ba’ath Party leadership and the Republican Guard evade capture or surrender? • What happened to the infrastructure of the regime – the bulk of the estimated 500,000 elite? • What has happened to Saddam? Is he still in Iraq, in Taramiya, not far from Tikrit, or in Mecca, as per wild speculation in the Arab world? • Why were the oil fields in northern and southern Iraq not set on fire – a tactic already used by Saddam in Kuwait in 1991? • Where are Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction – the official reason for the war?

Iraqi sheiks confirm that Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah – who enjoys excellent relations with the Bush family – had been working tirelessly for months for a political solution to the Iraqi crisis. If Saddam is in Mecca, the architect would surely have been Prince Abdullah. His rationale always was to prevent by any means a long, bloody guerrilla war in Iraq which would turn the whole Middle East into a volcano. The Bush administration rationale was to grab a chance to engineer an allegedly quick post-Saddam stabilization process and so create a shortcut to the much-talkedabout but yet-unpublicized roadmap supposed to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At the beginning of the war, US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in his Pentagon briefings highlighted the constant flow of “communications” between the Americans and Republican Guard commanders. But Iraqis are now saying that the most important set of secret channels was between Republican Guard commanders and commanders of the Fedayeen of Saddam. This channel completely bypassed Saddam and his son Qusay – the de facto commander of the defense of Baghdad. The whole issue was about survival, considering that the regime’s demise, confronted by overwhelming American power, was inevitable. At least two Republican Guard divisions plus the well-trained, well-fed, well-armed Special Republican Guard could have raised hell against the Americans in the defense of Baghdad. The Palestinization of Iraq, coupled with a jihad fought like a guerrilla war, could have lasted months, if not years. So as the Americans approached Baghdad they came up with an offer selected Iraqis could not refuse. So the story goes that a reward package for the “peaceful” handover of Baghdad was offered to Republican Guard commanders and, later on, the Fedayeen of Saddam. Republican Guard commanders received a lot of cash, a “secure” relocation outside of Iraq, and crucially for those not considered war criminals, the promise of a new job in post-Saddam Iraq. After all, the new American government will need cadres to

run the remains of the devastated state apparatus. Top commanders were offered the option of residency in the US, for themselves and their families, and most of all the chance to play a relatively prominent role linked to some factions of the Iraqi opposition – basically the Iraqi National Congress (INC) led by the Pentagon’s pet Iraqi, Ahmad Chalabi. The story also goes that although there were less than 50 human shields in Baghdad when the war started, many had been coming and going since February. The role played by some was not that of a completely innocent bystander: they were Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) agents. These agents, equipped with sophisticated micro-communication devices, were in fact the only American “human intelligence” on the ground in Baghdad. They worked as a kind of carrier pigeon in meetings with key Republican Guard commanders. Saddam and his son Qusay seem to have been totally out of this loop. It’s certainly difficult to conceive that Ba’ath Party officials could not or did not do enough to detect the spies among the human shields placed in factories and water and power plants. In most of these installations, there were underground bunkers with a dizzying array of weapons – enough to fuel a guerrilla war for years. It’s an open secret in Baghdad that these weapons were later duly discovered by the Marines as they took control of the capital. The CIA human shields updated and guided the American forces to the bombing of key regime installations, and to selected places where Saddam and the Ba’ath Party leadership would meet: thus the origin of the information that led to the “decapitation strike” with four 900 kilogram bombs in the Mansur district on April 8, the first night of the war. Saddam survived. But 14 civilians were killed – members of two Christian families, mostly women and children. Asia Times Online has been to the site twice: for Baghdadis, it’s an unofficial shrine to the horrors of this war. As the Americans bribed the resistance, the order not to resist started streaming from the top commanders down. Republican Guard commanders told the rankand-file that the resistance would be secret and longFOREVER WARS   215

term, according to Saddam and Qusay’s long-elaborated scenario of a guerrilla war. The “fall” of Saddam International Airport was the first part of the deal. Another open secret in Baghdad were the famous tunnels linking the main Republican palace of Saddam to the airport. Republican Guard commanders tipped off the Marines, and the tunnels were immediately seized. Proof that Saddam and top Ba’ath Party officials were out of the handover loop was the promise by Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf, in one of his briefings, that the media should expect an “unusual” Iraqi counter-attack to retake the airport. Many thought about chemical and biological warfare, when in fact the plan was to send Special Republican Guards through the tunnels to take the Americans by surprise. The surprise went the other way. When the American Abrams tanks arrived close to the Palestine Hotel – Baghdad’s international media headquarters – the “game” was practically over. The Republican Guard commanders were about to be airlifted out of Iraq, and their soldiers had orders to demobilize and melt into the civilian population. Independent media had to be intimidated, silenced or corralled – and that’s why the al-Jazeera office and the Abu Dhabi TV office were hit, as well as the Palestine Hotel itself. The deliberate communications and power black out of Baghdad fit into the pattern: the Pentagon and the Republican Guard had to be dancing together in the dark. The commander of the Fedayeen of Saddam had heard about the American offer to the Republican Guard elite officers. He realized that his own best interests were to get his own piece of the action. He got it. The Fedayeen were instantly beheaded, and were left to roam helplessly around Baghdad and finally dissolve into the civilian population. Game over. Baghdad now can watch satellite TV in the streets. The communication blackout is slowly being lifted. Away from the American media spin, the same theme is being replayed over and over again in Iraq, from Sunni neo-entrepreneurs to Shi’ite clerics, from last week’s unprecedented street demonstration after jumma (Friday) prayers at the Abu Hanifa mosque to 216   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

the emotional convulsion of the Shi’ite celebrations in Karbala: the Americans want Iraq’s oil, and the guerrilla war will start sooner or later. George W Bush solemnly promised that war criminals would be brought to trial in Iraq. There are around 60 secret police headquarters in Baghdad. They are all empty. The giant Mukhabarat complex – the secret services’ pleasure dome, thoroughly bombed by the Americans – is empty. When one goes to these places, still loaded with shredded, burned or partially readable documents, only reporters are to be found: not a single American forensic specialist. War criminals of lower rank – Saddam’s invisible professional torturers, the so-called “B” list of the Ba’ath Party – are not being pursued. Iraqis openly say that most of these people are now seeking to work for the new occupying power: all smiles in their newfound, nondescript, civilian clothes, they were to be found starting from 9am every day outside the Palestine Hotel, trying to get a job with the Marines’ Civil Affairs Unit. In an effort to disclose names and responsibilities in a giant, totalitarian police state, every bit of information is helpful. The Americans are not even trying to make an effort. So all these unanswered questions keep resurfacing in Baghdad. Like the mysterious “fires” in dozens of ministries, in fact all of them except the Ministry of Oil and the Ministry of Interior. The top floor of the Ministry of Information – a mine of information, in fact – was on fire in the middle of last week. Marines on site were patrolling the streets. The Ministry of Education was on fire by the end of last week: Marines in the Palestine Hotel asked this correspondent, “What city is that?” Few in Baghdad believe these recurrent fires were provoked by the “remnants of Saddam’s regime” – as goes the official Washington line. They don’t know for sure for whom the arsonists are working. But they are asking themselves three questions. Who profits from the destruction of the whole infrastructure of the Iraqi state? Who profits from the destruction of Iraq’s invaluable cultural wealth? And why are Americans soldiers just blank-stared, gum-chewing spectators of all this pyromania?

US soldiers keep watch on one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces in Babylon April 19, 2003. Photo: Karim Sahib / AFP

The lions of Babylon Nothing could be more enlightening than to roam around Babylon guided by one of its caretakers. Babylon’s museum was pillaged and torched. What happened in Babylon is only a fraction of what happened in Baghdad – where a siege turned into pillage. Iraqis and concerned foreigners consider it as a crime against humanity, a crime against civilization and a crime against Islam By PEPE ESCOBAR APRIL 26, 2003

BABYLON – Hussein Sahab, a frail, gentle man in his late 50s, married, two sons and two daughters, has had the same job for the past 27 years. His salary: 24,000 Iraqi dinars a month (less than US$8). Sahab is one of the caretakers of Babylon, the mythical Bab Ilou (God’s gate), founded in the 24th century BC by the Amorite king Sumu-Abum. Nothing could be more enlightening than to roam around Babylon guided by this quintessential Mesopotamian. He talks about how Babylon started to make history after the fall of Ur in 2003 BC. He talks about the FOREVER WARS    217

great king Hammurabi, a skilled diplomat who turned Babylon into the center of an empire settled in a territory comparable to contemporary Iraq. He shows the visitor around the Babylon of king Nebuchadnezzar in the 6th century BC – as reconstructed by Saddam Hussein. At the time of Nebuchadnezzar, the prophet Jeremiah described Babylon as “a cup of gold in the hands of the Lord which inebriates the whole of the earth.” Hussein Sahab takes the visitor to some of the visible ruins of Hammurabi’s Babylon (most are 40 meters underground). He shows the exact corner where Alexander the Great died of malaria in June 323 BC. He talks about sexy Semiramis – the legendary founding queen of Babylon – who chose her lovers among her most handsome soldiers and executed them once she was satiated. According to legend, Babylon was built in 365 days by 2 million workers. At the outset of the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war, Saddam set out to rebuild Babylon. The summer palace, the temples of Ishtar, Nabu and Ninmah, the ramparts, the Greek amphitheater, were all restored. If one uses one’s imagination, one can hear the chanting of pilgrims echoing around the “House of the Foundation of Heaven and Earth” – the ziggurat (temple tower) the whole world knows under the biblical name of the Tower of Babel. “It’s over there,” says Hussein Sahab, pointing to the top of a hill less than 800 meters away from Nebuchadnezzar’s palace walls. In a commemorative plaque placed at the square of the throne, Saddam Hussein says that he rebuilt Babylon “to restore to the Iraqi people the pride of its glorious past.” Saddam is now gone: Hussein Sahab figured it out when he noticed the surrealist Minister of Information Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf did not show up on Iraqi TV on April 9. Hussein Sahab says, “We are not satisfied with the Americans, but we are satisfied because they destroyed Saddam’s family.” What Hussein Sahab did not expect was the destruction that take place afterwards – and from which Babylon was not spared. Babylon’s museum was pillaged and torched. Al218   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

though most of what has been discovered on site since the end of the 19th century is in European museums, it held some priceless objects recently excavated by Iraqi archeologists. Hussein Sahab says that most were saved by the site’s staff of 60. The vandals, he says, were “not people living in the area.” The tribune in the Greek amphitheater where Saddam’s family used to watch concerts was also vandalized. The restored, sprawling Nebuchadnezzar’s palace at least was not bulldozed: originally it had more than 200 rooms and courtyards linked by corridors, with royal apartments, administrative buildings, courtesan quarters and shops whose ruins were long mistaken for vestiges of the famous Hanging Gardens. What happened in Babylon is only a fraction of what happened in Baghdad. The transformation of the siege of Baghdad into the pillage of Baghdad is considered by many Iraqis and concerned foreigners as a crime against humanity, a crime against civilization and a crime against Islam. In Mesopotamia, the “Land between the Rivers,” the home of the Garden of Eden (which is located 74 kilometers north of Basra in the direction of Baghdad, where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers meet), the human race invented agriculture, alphabets, codes of law, mathematics, astronomy, poetry, epic literature and organized religion. Without Mesopotamia, the human race might have lived a lot longer in darkness and ignorance.

ies at the State Board of Antiquities, said at the time, “The whole administrative compound was completely destroyed and looted. The first point is that there were people who knew what they wanted. They’ve taken the precious vase of Uruk, an Akkadian bronze statue from 3,200 BC, Abbassid wooden doors. Before they started looting, there were American armored cars outside, and people inside. They asked for the American troops to intervene, but they did not. On Sunday, the chairman of the State Board of Antiquities went to the American HQ and explained the situation. But they sent no help. This shows they wanted the Iraqi Museum to be destroyed.” At the time, the curators were too traumatized to discuss what was lost, and how. In the following days, they started collecting extremely disturbing evidence that this was a very well organized operation. Archaeological files and computer disks simply disappeared. Glass-cutting tools were found on the museum’s floor. Replicas that the curators had switched with the genuine article were still there, but the genuine artworks were stolen. The museum’s vaults had been opened with special keys: an armed guard at the museum told Asia Times Online that American soldiers had not taken anything, but that they had opened the doors for “people from other nationalities” to loot. “The way

they opened the locks, no Iraqi could do it.” Specialists at the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in their headquarters in Paris are convinced that this was a concerted operation organized outside of Iraq. Not all the oil in the world – which as a matter of fact will not benefit Iraqis anyway, but will serve to pay foreigners for the Iraqi war – would be enough to compensate the Iraqi population, the whole Arab nation, and the whole civilized world for what has been lost in the looting. Meanwhile, in a deserted Babylon tormented by sandy winds, Hussein Sahab wants to keep his job. He shows the visitor that the Lion of Babylon is still standing: it has not been stolen or vandalized. The Lion of Babylon – supposedly a trophy from Hitite times, middle of the 2nd millennium BC – is an enigmatic basalt statue representing a man who is about to be killed by a lion. But in fact the man is resisting: with one hand he tries to shove the lion’s mouth away, and with the other he fights one of the lion’s menacing paws. Legend rules that as long as the statue is there, Babylon will never be conquered. As to Hussein Sahab, he could have stolen anything from Babylon, and sold the loot for millions. He did not. Long live the lions of Babylon.

The Iraqi Museum in Baghdad, housing more than 170,000 priceless sculptures, bass reliefs, ceramics and ancient texts, chronicling Stone Age settlements of half a million years ago, the rise and fall of the great civilizations of Uruk, Sumeria, Babylon, Assyria and Persia, and the spread of Islam, has been thoroughly looted. Among the irreparable losses are the tablets containing Hammurabi’s Code – the first code of law in history – and the 4,600-year-old Ram in the Thicket statue from Ur. The 4,300-year-old bust of an Akkadian king was smashed. Asia Times Online went to the Iraqi Museum one day after the looting, which took place on April 10. Dr Doni George, director of general research and studFOREVER WARS   219

The twin towers of the World Trade Center billow smoke after hijacked airliners crashed into them early September 11, 2001. Photo: Henny Ray Abrams / AFP

The Twin Towers and the Tower of Babel After consistently blaming “remnants of Saddam’s regime” for all of the troubles in Iraq, Washington has been forced to recruit hundreds of the worst of these remnants - the feared Mukhabarat - to try to at least identify the more than 40 different groups that compose the resistance. Roving Eye Pepe Escobar reports in the first article of a two-part series By PEPE ESCOBAR SEPTEMBER 10, 2003

PARIS - Two years after September 11, 2001, the Washington neo-conservative dream of a rainbow of democracy shining from Israel to Afghanistan and traversing Iraq has vanished into thin air. From Kabul to Baghdad, the vision is being wiped out by the truth of hard facts. 1) The American army does not have the resources to play by itself the role of 220   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES


global sheriff. 2) America is not prepared for or interested in nation-building. 3) Military “victories”, like Afghanistan and Iraq, mean nothing when they are not complemented by moral and political legitimacy. The lack of legitimacy creates a political void, immediately exploited by radical Islam. Tribal Afghanistan is a Taliban-infested ungovernable chaos trespassed by an anti-American jihad. Iraq is an ungovernable chaos bordering on civil war and trespassed by an anti-American jihad. The Israeli-Palestinian roadmap has been ripped apart. Al-Qaeda, a mutant virus, continues to strike from east Africa to the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri remain on the loose in the Pakistan-Afghan tribal areas. Taliban leader Mullah Omar leads the Afghan jihad from his hideout in the mountains north of Kandahar. And Saddam Hussein, after losing yet another war, has exploded a time bomb in the face of the Pentagon by financing a great deal of the Iraqi resistance - a magnet now attracting people from all over the Arab world. Al-Qaeda is “celebrating” September 11 in its own sinister way, via a new audiotape broadcast on al-Arabiyya satellite television on September 3. A spokesman who identified himself as Abu Abd al-Rahman al-Najdi announced, “There will be new attacks inside and outside [the US] which would make America forget the attacks of September 11.” But the spokesman denied that al-Qaeda was involved in the car bombing that killed Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim and another 125 people in front of Imam Ali’s Shrine in Najaf in Iraq last month. According to the al-Qaeda version, the US and Israel orchestrated the bombing because they feared the ayatollah’s connections with Iran, and also to provoke trouble between Sunnis and Shi’ites and turn the Shi’ites against Wahhabi-dominated al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda’s objective, according to the spokesman, remains “to fight the Americans and kill them everywhere on earth and drive them out of Palestine, the Arabian peninsula and Iraq”. Of course, the tape has not failed to remind everyone that bin Laden and Mullah Omar are alive 222   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

and in jihad mode in Afghanistan. The latest developments have proved once again that American conservatives’ pocket futurology is dead and buried. There has been no “end of history”. There has been no “death of ideology”. Instead of these pre-Galilean platitudes to which all would have been forced to submit, now it’s Medievalism all over again - with clashing sectarian apocalyptic visions (born-again Christian fundamentalists against radical Islamists), Inquisition tribunals (Guantanamo) and the horrors of war (Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine). It’s Medievalism - but mixed with the epitome of modernity. As John Gray, a professor of European Thought at the London School of Economics argues in his latest book (Al-Qaeda and what it means to be modern, London, Faber & Faber), al-Qaeda is a by-product of globalization: “Its most distinctive feature - projecting a privatized form of organized violence worldwide - was impossible in the past.” Gray goes to great lengths to stress that on September 11, al-Qaeda “destroyed the West’s ruling myth”. And he sharply demonstrates how “like communism and Nazism, radical Islam is modern. Though it claims to be anti-Western, it is shaped as much by Western ideology as by Islamic traditions. Like Marxists and neo-liberals, radical Islamists see history as a prelude to a new world. All are convinced they can remake the human condition. If there is a uniquely modern myth, this is it.” Just as the US re-invented and financed jihad in the early 1980s to combat the “evil” Soviet empire in Afghanistan - and so contributed to the emergence of this modern myth - by invading Iraq the US has opened up a new Pandora’s box, facilitating the alliance of Wahhabi, Afghan-Arab jihadis with secular, Ba’athist operatives: “the deadliest of combinations” according to European intelligence experts. The White House and the Pentagon won’t admit that Iraq is not tribal Afghanistan - and that the rule of anarchy everywhere around Kabul cannot prevail in a country that George W Bush wants to portray as the window of his democracy export program to the Middle East. If the Iraqi

adventure fails, it’s the end of the American pretense of fashioning the new world order, and it’s the death knell for the unilateralist neo-conservatives who have held the world hostage since September 11. As Asia Times Online has argued (Why the lessons of Vietnam do matter - Aug 20), Iraq is already a Vietnam in the sense that the most powerful army in the world is again facing a popular war of national liberation - with no exit strategy. It’s a popular war in the sense that the resistance is multi-faceted, composed by dozens of groups - left, center, religious, non-religious, Shi’ite, Sunni, Kurd. It’s a simultaneously nationalist, Ba’athist and Islamist resistance. And like in Palestine, the resistance exists as a direct consequence of the occupation - and not, as Israeli and American spin would have it, because of “Islamic terrorists”. To top it all, the absolute key question in Iraq is not the fact that the Sunni triangle (Baghdad-Ramadi-Tikrit) is engaged in a guerrilla war. If the Shi’ites also go for it in the next few weeks, then one will be witnessing the end of the neo-conservatives’ fantasy. Outside Iraq - not only in the Arab world but also in Europe, Asia and Latin America - there’s a pervasive cynical perception according to which the Islamist scarecrow is an enemy made by US intelligence: invisible and virtual, thus eternal. And very convenient as well, compared to the old Soviet “evil empire”. Franco-Palestinian writer and former peace negotiator Ilan Halevi, in his book Face a la Guerre - Lettre from Ramallah (Paris, Actes Sud) argues that one must distinguish Islamism in general from “the international network created by the American secret services more than two decades ago, essentially with anti-Soviet purposes, and which we are now told it has staged a mutiny”. The real tragedy is that hidden by the Islamist scarecrow, one finds as hostages no less than the hundreds of millions of people living in the Arab and Muslim world. Two years after September 11 - and after the neo-conservatives have squandered all the capital of sympathy that poured towards America from all corners of the globe - cynicism towards the American “official” ver-

sion of events is also pervasive. From Rio to Rome and from Sydney to Saigon, many started viewing “Islamic terror” as too convenient a scarecrow, so pliable to the image Washington neo-conservatives want to project. This led to the widespread suspicion that the boys at spy headquarters in Langley have let it live and prosper during the 1990s to better illustrate the necessity of a new never-ending war. It’s important to remember that in the beginning of the Bush administration the top candidate for enemy number 1 in a new Cold War was China - until the Islamic terrorism scarecrow came, literally, out of the sky. Another impregnable perception is widely shared all over the world: the American adventure in Iraq was not about weapons of mass destruction (which simply have refused to show up); but, as British analyst Tariq Ali, author of The Clash of Fundamentalisms puts it, “capturing an oil-producing country with a regime that was very hostile to Israel, which was giving money to the Palestinians”. It was also a display of “theatrical militarism”, a concept coined by French historian Emmanuel Todd and already analyzed by Asia Times Online (Theatrical militarism - Dec 4, 2002). In the eyes of most of the Iraqi population, as well as most of the Arab and Muslim world, the Bush adventure has not “liberated” Iraq, but replaced a cruel dictatorship - which successive US governments encouraged and supported until it went out of line with a neocolonial regime headed by a proconsul with absolute powers. European intelligence experts have noted how Bush’s recent messages have been in fact designed to address the “liberated” Iraqi people, with the same tone “you are either with us or against us”. This means “accept our occupation on our terms, or else”. But as the Iraqi resistance stiffens - and the secular “remnants of Saddam’s regime” and radical Islam have finally found a common goal - Washington has been forced to concede that it must change its tactics. The alliance of what Iraqis are calling “the Saddam network” with radical Islam is betting on a “Lebanonization” of Iraq. The Bush administration for its part is now saying FOREVER WARS   223

that it will leave the country - or considerably reduce its military deployment - after the first democratic elections, promised by proconsul L Paul Bremer for Spring 2004. The deadly message seems to have hit home: the latest attacks have smashed any channel of communication that might benefit American plans and simultaneously demonstrated the powerlessness of the occupying force. But as far as the American-appointed governing council is concerned, for the moment the verdict is still open. It may be the first step towards really representative government - although all major decisions are ultimately taken by Bremer. Or it may represent the beginning of communal fragmentation opening the doors for a civil war. Whatever the spin, George W Bush’s decision of asking the United Nations to issue a mandate for a multinational stabilizing force in Iraq is viewed in the corridors of the European Union as concrete proof that the arrogance and incompetence of the neo-conservatives led them to a quagmire. Diplomats warn that Bush, as he appeals for help, will try simultaneously to dictate his conditions to the UN. So “old Europe” - France and Germany, plus Russia - is caught in a dilemma: how to help this American adventure that has been condemned from the beginning? An EU diplomat sums it all up, “We cannot allow Iraq to sink into horror and abjection just because we want to punish George W Bush. But at the same time we cannot just bow our heads and march into this mess the Americans themselves created, and now want to get rid of.” The EU, meeting in Riva del Garda, Italy, this past weekend, remains deeply divided. Great Britain and Spain support Washington’s proposal to the UN, France, Germany and the Scandinavians are against it. As Anna Lindh, the Swedish foreign minister puts it, “You cannot have a situation where the US remains in control over what happens in Iraq and at the same time others have to move in and take care of security and reconstruction.” UN blue helmets - which in fact are little else than mercenaries - may eventually be offered the honor of trying to clean up the mess. So in the corridors of the 224   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

European Union inevitably there’s great sadness about what is ultimately the UN’s irrelevancy and lack of independence: “The fact is the UN simply cannot do anything against the will of the US. The maximum the UN can aspire to is to clean up the empire’s mess,” says another diplomat. Most Iraqis - who, let’s not forget, are among the most well-educated people in the Arab world after the Palestinians - share exactly the same view.

ment. The decision was of course made in Washington, possibly by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld himself. The official spin was that it should signal the end of the former government. Instead, it bolstered the resistance. European intelligence analysts comment that this may have been perversely what the Pentagon had in mind: to force the elusive nexus between the “remnants of Saddam’s regime” and Islamists related to al-Qaeda.

As Tariq Ali stresses, “For the US, the main thing in Iraq is to push through the privatization of Iraq’s oil, to achieve the liberalization of the Iraqi economy and to get the big US corporations in there. They are not too concerned as to how the country will be run. We are witnessing imperialism in the epoch of neo-liberal economics and the ‘Washington consensus’. Why rebuild hospitals and recreate the state health service in Iraq when you are dismantling it in your own countries?”

As Asia Times Online has described (The plot thickens - Aug 23) , the Iraqi resistance works as myriad cells operated by former soldiers of Saddam’s army, each of them responding to a higher official with good military training. All obey to a Central Command, a sort of clandestine joint chiefs of staff. Crossing Iraqi information with European intelligence information, it’s possible to determine that the bulk of this “invisible” army is composed by at least three different groups - all of them autonomous in military as well in financial terms:

It’s all there in Executive Order 13315, signed by Bush on August 28 and conceived to “expand the scope of the national emergency declared in Executive Order 13303 of May 22”. By “blocking property of the former Iraqi regime, its senior officials and their family members, and taking certain other actions”, the Executive Order in fact places Iraq’s state assets under total control of the US Treasury. It is by all means the institutionalization of the looting of Iraq, under the banner of “Iraqi reconstruction”. Without any Iraqi being consulted, the Executive Order implies that what benefits the Iraqi people benefits the US. With this Executive Order duly signed, the Bush administration shouldn’t have any problems if it is forced to hand over a little control of Iraq to the UN. If somebody should take the fall for most of the current, ghastly chaos in Iraq, one has to look no further than American proconsul L Paul Bremer. On May 23, as Bush issued his first Executive Order seizing control of Iraq’s assets, Bremer for his part signed a decree which simply dismantled the huge Iraqi army - with more than 400,000 officers and soldiers. Furious with this decision, a great deal of them subsequently fell or are falling right in the lap of the Iraqi resistance move-

The Iraqi mujahideen. Composed of non-members of the Ba’ath Party, plus jihadis who have combat experience in Afghanistan and Chechnya and who come from different Muslim countries. Practically everybody has guerrilla training. This group may have up to 7,000 fighters. Al-Ansar (the Partisans). These are the famous “remnants of the Ba’ath Party” the Pentagon is so fond of talking about . All the leaders have been personally chosen by Saddam. They are spread out all over Iraq. No manuscript messages, no radio, no satphone: the cells communicate only through oral messages. Al-Muhajirun (the Emigrants) . These are a few members of the Iraqi elite, plus Ba’ath Party officials, especially military strategists. They are the hard core of the new Iraqi regime Saddam dreams of - if and when the Americans leave. Ali Hasan al-Majid, the notorious Chemical Ali, recently arrested, was in theory the general director of the Saddam resistance, or what the Iraqis themselves are calling the “Saddam network”. Former vice pres-

ident Taha Yassin Ramadan, captured in Mosul on August 19, was the head of al-Ansar. But Izzat Ibrahim, the former commander-in-chief of the Iraqi armed forcers, and leader of the mujahideen, is still on the loose. Ibrahim was the main enforcer of the Islamization of Iraqi society for these past 10 years. He is the absolute key connection between the regime and prominent Islamists in the wider Arab world. If he is arrested, this would be the closest that the Pentagon will get to finding a link between Saddam’s regime and al-Qaeda. At least 100,000 former members of the Iraqi security services, especially the Mukhabarat, all of them unemployed, are roaming the Sunni triangle. Mohammed Khtair al-Dulami, head of the branch specialized on explosives, poisoning and other special operations, has not been arrested yet. Former Mukhabarat agents are acting as go-betweens for resistance fighters interested in buying loads of weapons from all sorts of dealers operating in the black market. In a startling development, Washington was forced to swallow its own propaganda and start recruiting hundreds of real “remnants of Saddam’s regime” - the feared Mukhabarat - to try to at least to identify the more than 40 different groups that compose the resistance. Members of the American-appointed interim governing council could not be but furious. This is not only a sensational case of sleeping with the enemy, but it also painfully highlights how the Americans simply have no access to ground intelligence. The Mukhabarat was one of the four branches - the best organized and the most feared - of Saddam’s security services. It was specialized in foreign relations. The Pentagon is particularly interested in working with agents familiar with Syria and Iran - also as an additional way to continue to demonize both countries. The Mukhabarat was officially dissolved by Bremer in early summer, as well as the ministries of information and defense. They are back - paid in dollars, and chasing Iraqis again. When Iraqis knew about it, is was one more nail in the coffin of the discredited American democratic “vision”. FOREVER WARS   225

US Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz (R) watches trainees from the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps at a US base in the northeastern Iraqi town of Tikrit in October of 2003. Photo: AFP

The Twin Towers and the Tower of Babel The past two years of the “war on terror horribly “ have offered up myriad lessons for mankind, with Afghanistan and Iraq sad examples of how things can go wrong, and will continue to do so if the lessons remain unheeded, writes Roving EyePepe Escobar in the concluding article of a two-part series By PEPE ESCOBAR SEPTEMBER 11, 2003

PARIS - “I wonder whether there can be a future for the UN in Iraq,” asks a European diplomat. Some Iraqis recognize that the United Nations’ humanitarian aid, in the shape of the oil for food program, may have saved lives during the embargo. But many hate the UN exactly because of the embargo: for them, the UN just enforces what Washington decides. 226   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES


The undisputable fact is that the UN supervised the harsh sanctions that, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund, were directly responsible for the deaths of half a million Iraqi children and an explosion in the mortality rate. Denis Halliday and Hans von Sponeck, two senior, respected UN officials, resigned in disgust against the way in which the oil for food worked (or not) - for them, the UN had betrayed the people of Iraq. Meanwhile, the US and Britain - with the UN’s tacit approval - have bombed Iraq since 1992, as well as launching thousands of missiles, to the point that in 1999 American officials were saying that they had run out of targets. Educated Iraqis keep these painful memories very much alive. And to add more insult to injury, the UN Security Council has recently ratified in retrospect - the American invasion and occupation, in a clear, direct breach of the UN Charter. It is now impossible to overstate the anger in many parts of Iraq towards the UN. After years of Byzantine UN weapons inspections, Washington’s dirty little secret was finally revealed: intelligence and scientific inspectors proved almost beyond reasonable doubt that Iraq did not possess any weapons of mass destruction. This raised the question of which of the Bush neo-conservatives came up with the false evidence to support the war, which Paul Wolfowitz, the Pentagon number 2, cynically claimed on the record was to “secure a consensus for the war policy”. European intelligence confirms that a group of “unofficial” political advisers appointed and controlled by Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith and Donald Rumsfeld in the Office of Special Planning (OSP) were the source of the false claims. Wolfowitz and Feith, the Pentagon number 3, were responsible for setting up the OSP. Its director was Abraham Shulsky. The OSP included other neo-cons with no professional qualification whatsoever in intelligence and military affairs. It came as no surprise that Shulsky is a protege of the “Prince of Darkness” Richard Perle - who resigned as chairman of the Defense Policy Board before the war (a job he got via 228   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

Wolfowitz). The OSP also included Elliot Abrams (who supported the Guatemalan genocide of the 1980s), a senior director for Middle East affairs for the National Security Council. These neo-cons intimately connected with the Zionist lobby, even issued reports on Iraq totally contradicting those from the Israeli Mossad, which did not believe that Iraq represented any threat, either to the US or to Israel. The OSP is just one more arm of the neo-cons - especially Wolfowitz and Feith - in a central strategy of supporting Ariel Sharon’s hardcore policy against the Palestinians. Sharon was never interested in the success of the Middle East roadmap to peace - which would imply painful concessions from Israel towards the Palestinians. It’s no surprise that Perle, Feith and Wolfowitz are now targeting Iran, Syria, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia with a vengeance - with the same barrage of fake “intelligence reports” accusing Arab countries of funding, protecting and promoting terrorism, and now sending terrorists to Iraq. All the fake intelligence is provided by OSP operatives and their elaborate networks. European intelligence reads the death of the roadmap in the Middle East as a coup deliberately orchestrated by the Israeli military, with Ariel Sharon and his Defense Minister Shaoul Mofaz as commanders (and following Wolfowitz’s advice). That’s the same view of Israeli writer and peace activist Uri Avnery, “The military was upset when it saw the new hope that took hold of the Israeli public, the bullish mood of the stock exchange, the rise in value of the shekel, the return of the masses to the entertainment centers, the signs of optimism on both sides. In effect, it was a spontaneous popular vote against the military policy.” Sharon’s strategy was first to isolate and discredit Palestinian prime minister Abu Mazen; then not even trying to fulfill roadmap commitments (remove settlements, stop the construction of the “Wall of Shame” separating Israel and Palestine, withdraw the army from the whole West Bank). Finally, with the end of the hudna (truce), Sharon has given Israeli army tanks and helicopters the chance to wreak havoc in Palestine all over again.

As Sharon is very close with George W Bush - and also managed to convince him that virtually all Palestinians are terrorists - his plan, says Avnery, just explored “the simplistic world of Bush with its good guys and bad guys. The bad guys are the terrorists. Therefore, it was advisable to kill Hamas and Islamic jihad militants. That would not upset Bush. In the eyes of the president, to kill terrorists is a good thing. And as a result, the Palestinians would be compelled to break the hudna.” That’s exactly what happened. Avnery’s summary is totally shared by European intelligence analysts: Sharon killed the roadmap because he was against it from the beginning. Bush saw it only as a photo opportunity and former premier Abu Mazen did not get from Israel and the US anything he could show to the Palestinians, who treated him as a “traitor” and a “puppet” of the US and Israel. So it’s back to all-out bloody confrontation.

Mohammed Baqr al-Hakim, the moderate spiritual chief of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) warned that “some groups wanted to create conflict among Shi’ites, and others want to create conflict among Arabs”. The majority of Shi’ites (62 percent of Iraq’s population) want a democratic transition: by the logic of the ballot box, they should get most of the power. But they are already in conflict. Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani - the top Shi’ite religious authority - refuses to get bogged down in politics, and still adopts a “wait and see” attitude towards the Americans. The downtrodden and dispossessed prefer to listen to the young firebrand Muqtada al-Sadr, who is calling for a jihad against the invaders.

The turning point, as far as the Shi’ites are concerned, may have been expressed by the funeral oration of Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, brother of slain Grand Ayatollah al-Hakim, in front of a crowd of half a million grieving European diplomats are keen to point out that if there Shi’ites in Najaf. He said that “the occupation force is is a choice in the Middle East, it is not a choice beprimarily responsible for the pure blood that was spilt tween secular dictatorship and secular democracy - but in holy Najaf ... this force is primarily responsible for between secular dictatorship and Islamic democracy. all this blood and the blood that is shed all over Iraq The difference between what people living in the Mid- every day. Iraq must not remain occupied and the dle East want and what the Bush administration says occupation must leave so that we can build Iraq as God they want is abysmal. A solution will come only when wants us to do.” This means that unlike the situation America - and regional autocratic regimes - allow from April to August, the Shi’ites’ “window of opportuthose people to decide by themselves. Obviously, this nity” for the Americans to do any good, has expired. will only happen when Middle Eastern oil runs out. What makes it even more complicated is that everyWashington neo-cons fear that if left to their own where in Iraq, religion, tribe and ethnicity are interdevices, Iraqis would probably choose a Shi’ite-led, twined. Inside the same tribe one may find Shi’ite and perhaps moderate, Islamic republic.This would be Sunnis, “remnants” and victims of Saddam’s regime. intolerable for the neo-cons and the oil lobby’s “masThis goes a long way to explain why acts of revenge ters of the universe”. Washington is already finding out against those same “remnants” have been so scarce. why Saddam Hussein was such a ghastly dictator. Iraq Washington may now be confronted with a nation is a mirage in the desert, a colonial, artificial creation of warring factions. It faces the same problem Saddput together by the British from three former Ottoman am faced. And it may even apply Saddam’s methods. provinces. As Sunnis, Shi’ites and Kurds have very little It’s important to remember that the neo-cons’ initial in common, this surrealist construction could only be plan was just to replace the two most senior officials in sustained by brute force. That’s exactly how Saddam each of Saddam’s ministries, and leave the rest of the behaved. infrastructure of government intact. The alternative is Slightly before his assassination in front of the Imam what we are seeing right now: Iraq falling apart. So it Ali Shrine in Najaf on August 29, Grand Ayatollah comes as no surprise that the Pentagon is now recruitFOREVER WARS   229

ing Mukhabarat agents. Iraqis have repeatedly told this correspondent that without the Ba’ath Party, the country is ungovernable. Saddam, whose psychological warfare tactics are much more sophisticated than those of the Americans, knew it all along. UN special representative Sergio Vieira de Mello, who died in the bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad last month, correctly assessed that the issue in Iraq is sovereignty, not security. For him, the attack on Uday and Qusay Hussein (Saddam’s sons) was “overkill” - it would have been better to put them on trial. He initially described US proconsul in Iraq L Paul Bremer as a “true neo-con who does not care about getting international legitimacy” - but later he thought Bremer was starting to see the big picture. He knew that whether Saddam was captured or not, that would make no difference in the number of attacks against Americans - be they by former security agents, Islamists or even people seeking revenge for the killing of innocents by trigger-happy GIs. The problem was the occupation itself: Vieira de Mello tirelessly warned that “security can only get worse. Iraqis’ impatience and exasperation with such a massive foreign force is likely to increase and is psychologically understandable.” Vieira de Mello wrote a plan - which UN Secretary general Kofi Annan took to the Security Council on June 17 - according to which the UN could develop a total strategy to support the political transition, the humanitarian assistance and the economic development of Iraq. Iraqis in the interim government welcomed the plan. But this is exactly what Wahhabi Islamists and the “Saddam network” did not want: a surefire way to legitimize the American occupation. That may be the main reason why Vieira de Mello was the target of the UN bombing operation on August 19. Plans like these were floating since early February, when a panel of experts produced a preliminary report on postwar reconstruction, according to Stephane Dujarric, a spokesman in the office of Kofi Annan. The report was edited by a Pakistani UN official, Rafeeuddin Ahmed, and the postwar project was being overseen by Louise Frechette, the number 2 at the UN.


It’s also important to remember that at the time - February to March - the Bush administration didn’t want to be perceived as a colonial power, and was ready to give power back to Iraqis as soon as the country recovered an acceptable degree of stability. But already at the time the model was Afghanistan - where the UN has just a support role, focused on nation-building and humanitarian operations, with no administration involved. It was also at the time that Great Britain was telling France and Germany that they would “reap a whirlwind” if they refused to sign up to a new Anglo-American UN resolution authorizing a war. History may still dictate that Tony Blair and George W Bush will “reap a whirlwind” for engaging in such a war. The Afghan model is a total failure. Warlords keep helping the Americans to go after the Taliban - to the tune of suitcases full of dollars. Obviously the warlords have no interest to finish off this extraordinary source of income. By using the warlords - and getting a lot of disinformation for its dollars - the Pentagon further sabotages the already flimsy authority of Hamid Karzai’s government in Kabul. The Taliban, for their part, pose as the only credible alternative to warlords and gangs which terrorize residents, extort money, deal heavily in opium and heroin and run ultra-profitable smuggling routes. With strong tribal support in the Pashtun belt, and protected by some of the higher ranks of the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence, the Taliban are back with a vengeance. Allied with infamous Afghan Pashtun stalwart Gulbuddin Hekmatyar in the anti-American jihad, they are determined to keep the country mired in perpetual chaos. Trying to fight its paralysis - both over Afghanistan and Iraq - the UN keeps doing what it does best: talking. Before the next General Assembly, on September 22, around 20 heads of state and government - including Jacques Chirac (France), Jose Maria Aznar (Spain), Pervez Musharraf (Pakistan) and Hamid Karzai (Afghanistan) will discuss in a conference how to “fight terrorism for humanity’s sake”. To help the leaders determine “the various roots of terrorism”, the organizers of the conference had assembled, last June, in Oslo, a panel of 30 international experts. Among

their most important findings: there’s a direct link between poverty and terrorism, but terrorists do not necessarily come from disinherited classes. Their education is usually above average, and they usually come from countries with no freedom of expression. For some experts, the correlation between poverty and terrorism is even weaker than between terrorism and absence of a rule of law. Terrorism finds a favorable terrain in societies under rapid mutation, like the Arab world, where thanks to oil the tribal structure has given place to high-tech in less than a generation. Contrary to American spin, experts sustain that rogue state support is not a precondition of terrorism. Terrorist groups prefer to maintain relations with many states at the same time. Terrorists are not mad or mentally afflicted: they follow their own rationality, but they are not irrational. On suicide bombers, the experts have found no evidence of the psychopathology of suicidal individuals. Religion generally is not a determinant factor. And there’s no correlation with a particular desire for vengeance. Experts also recommend not to think of terrorism in terms of “they bomb us because they are Muslim fundamentalists”. And they stress that war crimes - of which terrorism is a manifestation - cannot be studied without taking into account the causes of each particular war. Professor Gilles Kepel, a leading European expert on radical Islam, has been stressing for some time that the long march of Islamism in Egypt and Algeria, which sought to conquer political power by mass mobilization, has failed, as well as the short march of extreme violence privileging the historic confrontation between an aggressed, humiliated Islam and Jews and Christians. Kepel, at the time of his classic Jihad (Gallimard, 2000), thought that radical Islam was “a fatal trap” for the Islamist movement. Today, he thinks that “the Islamist movement has never been so divided. On one side, there are the advocates of better relations with nationalist and democratic forces, and on the other side the proponents of jihad. But between American evangelical fundamentalism, which progresses in the

Christian sphere, and Islamic fundamentalism, two visions also clash, founded on schematic discourse, savage exegesis and perverted sacred scriptures. And if the religious dimension of this war of course is not yet so visible, or the most decisive, tomorrow it could bring unpredictable consequences.” Palestine is inextricably linked with Iraq - as Palestinians and Iraqis know so well. The US - like Israel - is finally beginning to discover that occupation is a bloody and, ultimately, unsustainable business, not least because the heavy American armed response to bombing and snipers has totally alienated the people, especially Shi’ites, who were initially grateful for being liberated from Saddam. From conversations with many diplomats and high officials, it’s possible to determine a perception in Brussels that neo-con arrogance is leading indeed to an alternative Middle East, with the change starting in Iraq: “But the alternative project went mad: it is leading to fiery hatred between Arabs and Muslims on one side, and the US and the West on another,” says a diplomat. Radical Islamists conceive Iraq as a gigantic volcano whose lava will bury any American presence in the region - and destabilize many other Arab regimes close to Washington in its path. As far as the Arab world is concerned, the US is running the risk of transforming Saddam from cruel, hated tyrant into the romantic, mythological hero of Arab and Muslim resistance, the Salah al-Din of Saddam’s youthful dreams. Saddam counts on being seen as the man who did to the US what the Afghan mujahideen did to the former Soviet Union: lure the superpower so deep into an absolutely unwinnable war that both the American economy and popular support collapse. Saddam - a consummate survivor - should not be underestimated: he dreams that he may still have the key to seduce not only Iraqis, but the whole Muslim umma. The US, by a series of blunders, has already managed to engineer the fantastic chimera it has repeatedly claimed to be chasing: the alliance of Saddam’s wellarmed secular brutality and al-Qaeda’s global insurFOREVER WARS   231

rection. Some well-traveled European diplomats agree that more than Saddam, it is the fighting spirit of the Iraqi people which is progressively inspiring a revolt throughout the Muslim world, against the Americans, the British and, of course, Israel. The stage is now set for a merciless confrontation between the American occupation force - with its unrivalled firepower - and the myriad forms of resistance, with the Iraqi population as hostage. European intelligence is paying serious attention to conspiracy theories roaming the Arab and Islamic world - according to which the neo-cons have deliberately provoked this escalation of violence, especially after the Najaf bombing that killed al-Hakim. From Egyptian newspapers to Iranian clerics, a chorus of voices is accusing US intelligence and Mossad of applying the well-worn imperial tactic of “divide and rule”, creating conflict among Shi’ites and between Sunnis and Shi’ites. This development is so serious that it even led to Saddam releasing another audiotape denying any involvement in the bombing. Saddam would have nothing to gain from pitting Sunnis against Shi’ites: he is betting on a unified movement of national resistance, with the Sunni triangle (Baghdad-Tikrit-Ramadi) linked to the Shi’ite south. Two years after September 11, the neo-cons’ mix

of geopolitical calculation and messianic fervor has dragged the world into a bloody mess from which we might not emerge for years to come. John Gray of the London School of Economics points out that “Americans see their country as embodying universal values. Other countries see the American way of life as one among many; they do not believe it ever will - or should - be universal ... They resist the division of the world into ‘good’ and ‘evil’ regimes ... in any realistic scenario, the US will have to learn to live with states that have no wish to share its values. After all, they include nearly all the states in the world. Strategically allied in the Cold War and - already less convincingly during the post-Cold War period, Europe and America are reverting to being the alien civilizations they were before the First World War. In Asia, the claim that the US embodies the only sustainable model of human development is viewed with incredulity, if not contempt.” The current “war on terror” may last longer than the Cold War. This implies a bleak future for all of us. Gray’s prediction is as good as any, “Once al-Qaeda has disappeared, other types of terror - very likely not animated by radical Islam, possibly not overtly religious - will surely follow. The advance of knowledge does not portend any age of reason. It merely adds another twist to human folly.”

President Saddam Hussein meets with his army commanders in Baghdad. Photo: AFP

(Just) alive and kicking in Baghdad The word in some intelligence quarters, and also on the streets in Baghdad, where Pepe Escobar does some footwork, is that Saddam “Elvis” Hussein is secreted in the capital, albeit a devastated city that he would not recognize from the days when he ruled with an iron fist By PEPE ESCOBAR SEPTEMBER 19, 2003

BAGHDAD – “Saddam is in Baghdad.” The former University of Baghdad student, recently graduated, is adamant. “Here he is very well connected, and as he has so much money, he can bribe anybody,” adds another. This exchange takes place as the satellite network al-Arabiya receives the latest (purported) Saddam Hussein audio tape at its office in Baghdad. Saddam tells the Americans, “Your withdrawal from our country is inevitable, whether it happens today or tomorrow, and tomorrow will come 232   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES


soon.” He urges more attacks, and “jihad by all means possible, financial and otherwise.” He even addresses the United Nations: “Iraq and its leaders will refuse any solution that is made while the country is under the shadow of occupation.” Baghdadis once again listen to that ghostly voice from the past with cool detachment. But what the former students are saying basically mirrors what a Jordanian intelligence source with extensive contacts in Iraq told Asia Times Online in Amman. Colonel Joe Anderson, commander of the 101st Airborne’s 2nd Brigade in Mosul, is searching the wrong place, in the Kurdish north of the country. “Elvis” – as the GIs call him – has not left the building. Elvis-Saddam continues to operate in the bowels of the Iraqi capital itself. The future elite of Iraq is all dressed up with diplomas – with nowhere to go. With the exception of one graduate who, helped by family connections, received a US$1,500-a-month job in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates – a dream salary in Iraq – the vast majority are unemployed. And all would jump at the opportunity to leave. But those without a passport are even barred from entering neighboring Jordan, which now only admits Iraqis if they have Jordanian resident cards. A passport on the Baghdad black market costs a fortune: 400,000 dinars ($200 at today’s rate). The students are all Sunnis, the minority that dominated Iraq at the expense of Shi’ites for many decades. They are not part – yet – of the armed resistance, although they know people who are. They definitely don’t, and never did, support Saddam. One says that “one Sunni equals 10 Shi’ites” in terms of fighting spirit, “and that’s why the Americans will be defeated.” Another says, “An armed group kidnapped three American women soldiers, two of them black. They kept the black ones for their own fun, but sold the white one for another group for 3 million dinars.” This is not the kind of story that one would find in US-approved newspapers such as Iraq Today. Especially because the euphemistically named Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) never admits that its soldiers are being kidnapped. 234   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

A student suggests a visit to the city morgue. “The Americans are killing people like flies. In Ramadi they have footage of American helicopters throwing dead bodies in the desert.” The CPA has in fact censored journalists’ visits to Iraqi hospitals. Special permission is now required – and the wait can be eternal. As such, these outlandish claims (including the kidnapping one) can in no way be substantiated, although they do reflect a certain mood on the street. In its de-Ba’athification drive, the CPA fired 436 professors who were members of the former ruling Ba’ath Party, and terminated an academic system skewed to benefit student party members. But then it discovered that many of the 436 fired professors were in fact coerced to join the Ba’ath, otherwise their careers would be over. At al-Mustansariyah University they all got their jobs back – of course after filling out forms denouncing the Ba’ath Party. Among the students, the popularity of Ahmad Chalabi – founder of the Iraqi National Congress, a Pentagon protege and now chairman of the US-hand-picked 25-member Governing Council – is virtually zero. “Who is he? Nobody knows him here,” comments one student in reference to the long-exiled Chalabi. It was Chalabi who told the neo-conservatives in Washington, who told the CPA, to arrest brothers, sons, nephews and cousins of Ba’ath Party members indiscriminately, as well as any males between the ages of 15 and 50 if weapons were found in their homes. “He’s never been in Iraq. He doesn’t know how the country works, how people had to deal with the Ba’ath Party, how we must have weapons to defend ourselves from anarchy,” says another student. Indeed, some students envisage a future very different from Chalabi’s and Washington’s dreams: “Iraq is the pole of convergence, political and military, of the Arab world. If the US mission fails here, then the way will be finally open for a Great Arab nation, united and free from all these corrupted governments.” The convergence of views between Baghdad students and the Jordanian intelligence official is remarkable

– and is widely shared by the popular voice of the bazaars. The perception is that “the Americans” engineered both the UN bombing that killed special envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello, and the Najaf bombing that killed Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Baqr al-Hakim (the Jordanian insists the Israeli Mossad was responsible for the Hakim bombing, which benefits the Americans by splitting the Shi’ites and pitting Sunnis against Shi’ites). All agree on what the US agenda is: to maintain a perpetual state of chaos, enforce the control of the fabulous Iraqi sources of energy, and use this new, sprawling military base in the heart of the Middle East to harass Syria, Lebanon, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Moreover, few in Baghdad appear able to understand how US high-tech marvel is not capable of finding Elvis-Saddam. All kinds of theories float on why the Americans killed his sons Uday and Qusay in a firefight instead of arresting them and bringing them to justice. All are convinced that Nawaf Alzaidan, the owner of the house in Mosul in which the brothers were killed, was the one who tipped the Americans and bagged the $30 million reward (not yet: the State Department has not paid him in full, citing “security problems”). The family of Salah Alzaidan, Nawaf ’s brother, was killed by Iraqis in revenge. But Nawaf and his family escaped and are now in the United States. The resistance will get much stronger – and this has nothing to do with Saddam’s flurry of cassettes. There seems to be an overall consensus in Baghdad that most Sunnis are on “wait and see” mode for two more months before they switch overwhelmingly to guerrilla struggle. And the Shi’ites will also be waiting for another two months. This seems to be the final window of opportunity for the CPA and the Governing Council to alleviate the daily hell faced by the Iraqi population. Young American officers paying for their spaghetti at the brasserie of the Palestine Hotel with crispy $20 bills at least get a glimpse of paradise, post-Saddam style. In a city reduced to Fourth World status, the Palestine-Sheraton complex remains a fortress, protected by tanks, barbed wire, checkpoints and body searches – totally remote from real life, which barely tends to

intrude via a procession of protesters. Like a ragged group from the village of al-Kafel, near Babylon. They have come a long way to ask for US help in getting rid of their local government – which they say comprises Saddam’s people, terrorizing and stealing from their families. But most of all they want jobs. Dejected, they are directed to the major fortress in town, Saddam’s former presidential palace, which is the headquarters of proconsul L Paul Bremer’s CPA. The Iraqi border with Jordan – once a nest of baksheesh-demanding spies – is now a World Trade Organization wet dream. Customs officers just say “Go Baghdad OK.” The CPA extinguished all tariffs and duties on imports until the end of the year. A deluge of merchandise – except, of course, weapons of the nonmass destruction kind – flow through at practically zero cost. Second-hand German Opel Vectras landed in the Jordanian port of Aqaba join the army of rusty 1970s Volkswagen Passats in the intractable Baghdad traffic, where gas – not in the black market – remains cheap: a full tank costs less than a dollar. A great deal of the loot ends up in shops or spilling on the pavements of Karrada In and Karrada Out, the notorious Baghdad twin sister roads. As with any new order following the collapse of a totalitarian regime, the usual suspects have surfaced: satellite dishes, the Internet, exchange counters and pornography. The clerk at a cinema in Saadoun Street extols the merits of “Film sex Itali! Business very good!” More than five months after the fall of Baghdad, still there’s no banking system, no checks, no credit cards. The dollar is king – or rather a bundle of “Saddams” or “papers” (250-dinar banknotes) held in black plastic bags that can be stolen at any moment by the roaming hordes of Ali Babas, themselves immune to the roaming of Humvees filled with GIs. Policemen in brand-new Toyota patrol cars can be seen in selected neighborhoods – but “dozens are being killed every day”, according to a resident of Mansur district: “They get a salary of $100 a month, but the family gets no benefits from the Americans if they die.” The Bab Alsharjee souk is popularly regarded as a FOREVER WARS   235

looters’ paradise. Under the roar of military helicopters and close to passing Humvees with GIs pointing their machine-guns to the sidewalk, the audiovisual choice is immense: from Britney Spears to the incendiary speeches of firebrand Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, from the Women of Wrestling to torture sessions supervised by Chemical Ali. Last April, some of these Ali Babas now converted into souk merchants ransacked everything in half of Baghdad, and left a great deal of the population literally in the middle of the street, with no possessions, or even with no homes to go back to. There’s not a single working industrial plant left in the city, according to a businessman now selling satellite dishes. To wander around some parts of the city on foot – a practice that can be quite a gamble – is to be surrounded by rubble uncollected in five months, a collection of instant ruins, piles of rubbish and vermin, and the occasional clouds of fire with which Baghdadis try to protect themselves against this filthy avalanche. Baghdad mirrors Kabul in its squalor and its lust for life, in its lacerated, bombed urban landscape and its barely contained rage that so much, yet so little, has changed for the better. Practically none of the public services work. There are very few operating police stations. All the ministries remain closed – or totally destroyed. There is no postal service – although an extreme minority can now use DHL of Fedex. Telephones in some neighborhoods do work – and once again the extreme minority can buy a Thuraya satphone on the spot, plus refill cards. Any brand-new BMW is assumed to be driven by a looter. The Americans stay on another planet – in bunkers. Humvees venturing out on patrol are subject to all number of attacks in broad daylight. Like this Wednesday, when a still sweating resident of Zayouna tells how he saw, through his rear-view mirror, a Humvee being hit by a roadside bomb and another backing up to collect two dead American soldiers and speed away. He can hardly believe that his car was not hit. Locals inevitably tell a foreigner: “Don’t be near any Humvees or jeeps, even walking in the street. The American soldiers are so frightened they start shooting at random 236   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

every time they hear an explosion.” Even if in theory there’s total freedom of the press in Iraq for the first time since the 1960s, and there are now more than 50 newspapers in the Baghdad market alone, a lot of people don’t bother to read them. “They are censored by the Americans – they can’t say what’s really happening, and they just print rumors about Saddam and the Ba’ath Party,” says a former army officer, now unemployed. Bremer officially said that “incitement to violence” is in fact an excuse to close down any newspaper or TV station the CPA doesn’t like. Any newspaper critical of the occupation is inevitably “visited” by American soldiers. A whole neighborhood of army officers, Baladeiat, is unemployed since the United States decided in late May to dissolve the Iraqi army. They stay at home because there are no jobs, except turning your car into a taxi, and there are too many taxis already. They live close to the dreaded building of General Security, which the Americans, with no sense of irony, turned into a prison, “attacked every night with bombs and mortars,” according to a resident.

reopen. It may take very long, as it holds a huge US military base, plus a sprawling prison with at least 3,000 inmates. It is attacked practically every night by the resistance with grenades and mortars – and there are plenty of surface-to-air missiles expecting to greet incoming aircraft. “What kind of liberation is this?” asks an 83-year-old retired army officer trained “in Tunbridge Wells, in England.” He used to hate Saddam and the Ba’ath Party silently; now he vocally hates the US occupation. Al-Sharif Ali, leader of the Constitutional Monarchy Movement, has stressed in a conference attended by no fewer than 80 political parties, 43 religious leaders, 43 military commanders, 33 ministers and diplomats and 109 tribal sheikhs that the Iraqi population simply does not trust the Governing Council. The conference decided that restoration of national sovereignty and independence must be the common objective for all. In other words, real democracy. This is not exactly what the CPA has in mind. Whatever the spin during Secretary of State Colin Powell’s visit to Baghdad, the CPA

– the Iraqi arm of the Washington neo-cons – wants in fact what neo-con Daniel Pipes described as “a democratically minded strongman who has real authority”, who would be “politically moderate” but “operationally tough.” In plain English: another Saddam, but pliable to US interests. As much as the occupiers remain in their Baghdad bunkers, impervious to the ghastly real life around them and with no idea whatsoever as to how they are perceived by average Iraqis, the irreversible US failure still has to be fully understood by the West. Another graduate of Baghdad University goes straight to the point: “The Americans now want help from the UN. And they want an Iraqi army working for them. Even if they managed to have both, this is just talk. They want our oil and they want to stay here forever.” Meanwhile, “Saddam is in Baghdad.” “Elvis” has not left the building, and in each passing day the distress of the unemployed, the doomed and the damned grows, and for many of them it’s much worse than under Saddam.

The now-unemployed army officers tell endless tales of “disappeared” in Saddam’s presidential palace – with the Americans re-enacting the antics of the US-trained Latin American dictatorships of the late 1960s and 1970s. Some of the “disappeared” are released only months later. They are never told why they were arrested in the first place: inevitably they are assumed to have been Ba’ath Party members, but the Americans don’t seem to make the distinction that everybody who wanted to do something in Saddam’s Iraq had to be a party member. Most “disappeared” are interrogated only once or twice, and then transferred to the makeshift prison at Saddam International Airport, or to the infamous Abu Graeb prison in the outskirts of Baghdad. They are prevented from any contact with the outside world. And since there is no judicial system, nobody can check what the Americans are up to. The CPA says there is no timetable for putting the judiciary system in place. The CPA also doesn’t know when the former Saddam International Airport will FOREVER WARS   237

US soldiers strap arrested Iraqi men into the back of a military vehicle after they were arrested in Baghdad in July of 2003 for allegedly looting or possessing illegal weapons. Photo: Ahmad Al-Rubaye / AFP

The mean streets of Baghdad With the risk of assassinations, car bombings, muggings and incurring the deadly wrath of extremely nervous US soldiers, Baghdad’s streets are not the place for the faint-hearted, or the innocent, as Pepe Escobar finds out By PEPE ESCOBAR SEPTEMBER 23, 2003

BAGHDAD – Ahmad, a 23-year-old Jordanian student, stepped out of his apartment in Haifa Street this past Saturday morning to hail a taxi, but he was confronted by a US checkpoint. “Move your ass from here,” a GI ordered him. “Don’t talk to me like that. I’m not your slave,” answered Ahmad. “Aren’t you? taunted the GI. Ahmad rose to the bait and answered back, so the outcome was inevitable. He was arrested. Ahmad was kept in a Hummer for two hours, and then taken to the main building at Baghdad (former Saddam) International Airport. A 238   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES


translator said to him, “Are you crazy? Never talk to these people, whatever they say to you.” Ahmad finally managed to show the translator his Jordanian identity card. The Americans were not convinced. “What are you doing in Iraq? Are you a fedayeen [paramilitary]?” Ahmad replied that he was a student, and showed his university papers. The Americans said these might be fake. Ahmad was then taken to a big hall inside the airport crammed with about 400 people. “They look like killers, or probably looters,” Ahmad thought to himself. The “killers” then began talking behind his back: “He looks like a fedayeen. There’s no future for him.” Ahmad remembered that many foreign fedayeen – especially in Basra and Najaf – had been killed by Iraqis. Then a soldier arrived in the hall and read a list of 10 names: these people were taken away. After a few hours, an Iraqi soldier came to talk to Ahmad. “You’re lucky they [other detainees] didn’t hurt you. Because they don’t care. You’re Jordanian, you have no family here. If they kill you, who cares about you?” Ahmad argued that he was not carrying his passport because there’s no security in the city, and muggings are rife. The Iraqi soldier went out to plead Ahmad’s case to the US commander. He came back half an hour later: “You can go. But don’t do this again. And if you see an American tank or vehicle driving in the street, don’t go near them.” Ahmad’s experience is positively mild compared with what happens daily to others in Baghdad – and he managed to get away just because he is a foreigner. A curfew in the capital starts every night at 11. But in many places everything has stopped by as early as 2 in the afternoon because there’s no security in the city. Last month, Nudir, a young engineer, was arrested with two friends in a BMW because GIs found a revolver in the glove compartment: practically every Iraqi carries a gun for self-defense. Nudir says he was beaten up by the soldiers and then spent 16 days in Camp Cropper, the prison inside the airport grounds that Ahmad was lucky not to see.


US repression is relentless. Red Cross officials confirm that more than 20,000 people have been arrested in Baghdad in the past few months. Most come and go – but there’s no way to keep tabs on all the cases: there are no functioning courts and judges. Amnesty International has already denounced cases of “torture,” and an unknown number of Iraqi civilians have been gunned down by US search patrols. The bunkered-down Coalition Provisional Authority simply refuses to mention how many Iraqi civilians are being shot or killed every day – either victims of crime or victims of US repression. Like the Iraqi interpreter killed by an American soldier in the front seat of a car occupied by Pietro Cordone, the Italian diplomat who is the official adviser to the new Iraqi Ministry of Culture. Baghdadis take for granted that American soldiers are now free to shoot civilians in any Iraqi civilian vehicle if they look even remotely suspicious. Iraqi police now man several checkpoints in Baghdad – but they don’t seem to have been trained well enough. On Saturday, two “Ali Babas” – thieves – stole a battered Toyota and managed to cross a checkpoint close to the Palestine-Sheraton hotel complex, slaloming through a hail of bullets from the agitated guards. They were only stopped near the hotel entrance. Cynics speculate that this was a trial run for a car bombing, as the Palestine remains a key target for the Iraqi resistance. But while ordinary Iraqis may be treated like cattle, VIP Iraqis – for propaganda purposes – receive red-carpet treatment, even if they are included in the US 55-most-wanted pack of cards. That’s the case of General Sultan Hashim Ahmed, the former minister of defense, who surrendered to Major-General David Petraeus. This US general in charge of northern Iraq has written a letter to Hashim describing him as “a man of honor and integrity.”

Hashim was the northern coordinator of the so-called “Saddam network” – the Saddam-sponsored faction of the resistance that includes “remnants of the regime” and disgruntled, unemployed former army officers. The Iraqi perception is that by treating Hashim with velvet gloves, the Americans may expect to defuse at least this faction of the resistance. “They are desperate. Now they are doing deals with anybody,” says a retired army officer. The more exalted factions of the resistance are far from being appeased. And they proved it by their assassination attempt on Akila al-Hashemi, a woman, a Shi’ite, a diplomat and one of the only members of the 25-member Iraqi Governing Council actually enjoying the respect of the general population. The council is called “the imported government” by practically everybody in the bazaars and kebab shops of Baghdad. Hashemi, shot in the abdomen, is in critical condition in a US Army hospital. She would have been one of the members of the Iraqi delegation attending the United Nations General Assembly that opened in New York on Monday. The only possible way out for the Iraqi quagmire lies at the United Nations. The US draft resolution to be presented to the UN in essence means that President George W Bush needs money and blue helmets – but is unwilling to surrender any US control of Iraq. France, on the other hand – followed by Germany, and in a certain measure by China and Russia, and arguably by most of the UN – wants a swift transfer of sovereignty to an Iraqi provisional government: not in the next few

years, but in the next few months. That’s exactly what the Iraqi Governing Council itself demanded last week in Baghdad. France wants a key role for the UN Security Council (the United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom and France). And it wants a constitutional convention for Iraq, as soon as possible, followed by general elections in the spring of 2004. If the plan is approved by the UN, the European Union, as well as Muslim countries such as Turkey, Pakistan and Indonesia, would certainly participate in a UN-mandated, perhaps US-led peacekeeping force. Baghdadis tend to consider this a rational, sensible plan – although they would prefer the UN totally in charge. But the hardcore faction of the Iraqi resistance has once again made clear that it will not compromise. That’s the message of the car-bombing on Monday against the already badly damaged UN headquarters in Baghdad, which killed two and injured eight. Practically everybody in Baghdad heard the blast – which is nothing but a metaphorical warning to both Bush and UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, who insists on security guarantees for UN staff in the event of a more substantial role in Iraq. The car-bombing proves once again that the Americans cannot guarantee anyone’s security. A solution for the Iraqi situation might be around the corner, this week in New York. But many in Baghdad see the future as nothing but bleak, even in the unlikely event of Bush and the Pentagon seeing the light.

That’s not the word in Baghdad. It’s an open secret that Hashim was instrumental in Saddam Hussein’s bloody repression of Shi’ites and Kurds immediately after the 1991 Gulf War – a repression that the Americans did nothing to prevent. And many know that FOREVER WARS   241

Iraqis chant anti-US slogans as they stand on a destroyed US military vehicle in Fallujah, a Sunni Muslim bastion 50 km west of Baghdad. Photo: Karim Sahib / AFP

Fallujah: A multilayered picture emerges At the heart of the Sunni triangle, where most anti-American resistance takes place in Iraq, lies the city of Fallujah. Its people have stories to tell, from the mayor to a powerful sheikh to the ordinary citizens, and they all paint a different picture from the one that the US prefers to present By PEPE ESCOBAR SEPTEMBER 26, 2003

FALLUJAH – This is the heart of the Iraqi resistance. Fallujah, with a population of almost 500,000 people, traditionally “the city of mosques,” is now called “the city of heroes” as it is at the core of the Sunni triangle (Baghdad-Ramadi-Tikrit) where most of the resistance to the US occupation is taking place. President George W. Bush told the United Nations on Tuesday that he 242   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES


is not willing to give back full sovereignty to Iraq any time soon. US Proconsul L Paul Bremer said last week that Iraqis are not yet capable of ruling themselves. The citizens of Fallujah have other ideas. The highway from the capital to Fallujah – 43 miles (69 kilometers) west of Baghdad and the scene of one of the fiercest tank battles of the war in April – passes past Abu Ghraeb prison, one of the symbols of Saddam Hussein’s repression which is now the American occupation’s largest prison. Practically every day in Fallujah there are attacks against the Americans. And the repression is also fierce – all around Fallujah. This Tuesday, for example, the 82nd Airborne intervened with full force in al-Sajr, a village 15 kilometers north of Fallujah, leaving two big craters in the courtyards of two houses. At the Fallujah hospital, Abed Rashid, a 50-year-old retired civil servant, said that he was sleeping with his family on the roof of his house when he heard Kalashnikov fire. As he ran downstairs, American helicopters started firing what he believed were rockets. Rashid, wounded in the chest and left foot, says, “This is genocide. This is not about overthrowing a government or regime change.” Two boys, Hussein, 11, and his brother Tahseen, nine, were also severely wounded. Their father, Ali Khalaf Mohammed, 45, was killed. The mayor The mayor of Fallujah, Taha Bdaiwi, officiates in the Qaem Maqameiah – a building that not without irony was the former general security headquarters of the Ba’ath Party. The ante-chamber of his office is a true court of miracles, where an endless stream of citizens wait patiently to express all sorts of grievances. Says a local sheikh, “When the Americans are attacked on the highway, they always come to the nearest villages. And they take many prisoners, without any evidence. There was an attack near a factory: they took all the families living around it, including the women. They are using families as human shields. Some of the arrested are older than 50.” 244   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

Many people in Fallujah repeat the same story: when American soldiers search houses for guns and find nothing, they take all the cash and gold. Fallujah’s erratic supply of “national electricity”, as the locals put it – two hours on, two hours off – is due to resistance attacks: “Last week there was no electricity because of resistance attacks. Electricity depends on loyalty to Americans.” A pipeline was bombed twice in one week “because people believe this oil is not benefiting Iraq.” But a local branch of Rafidain Bank was never attacked – even if there are always two American soldiers inside: “People know they are protecting their money.” Taha Bdaiwi’s office walls are conspicuously adorened by two military maps of Fallujah, from Fort Stewart, Georgia, one of them a satellite photo, as well as two diplomas offered by the American military for his collaboration. The new chief of police keeps coming in and out. The mayor cannot give any orders without first negotiating with an American military official sitting in the same building. Bdaiwi, already involved in civil administration beforehand, says, “This area is bigger than Tikrit. People complain services are very poor.” He spends most of his time in meetings with teams in charge of rebuilding and reconstruction. The money will come from the city’s budget, but mostly from the Americans, who from April to September spent US$1.9 million. The city gets a paltry monthly 360 million dinars (US$1 = roughly 2,200 dinars) from the Ministry of Finance to pay for salaries and services. Anything else has to come from the Americans. “There are many projects in the pipeline – a water project, a bridge, a hospital, civilian complexes – but no new projects,” says the mayor. He is trying to bring energy from Baghdad and Ramadi. “I demanded two big generators, but they have not arrived yet.” He bought two generators for water plants, but at present the Americans deliver water for some areas every day. He lists the key popular demands: water, electricity, security and health. The mayor admits indirectly that the real story about the pipelines is that the Americans want Iraqi police to protect them because they don’t want more American casualties. But the mayor is a realist, “We need the Americans to pay. We do every-

thing we can. We can’t do anything without money. We need them.” The sheikh Sheikh Khaled Saleh, a Sunni cleric in his early 50s, says that “although unorganized and without leadership, the Iraqi resistance is a ball of fire in America’s face that will bring its end in Iraq.” His sermons at Friday prayers draw thousands every week to Badawi, one of the main mosques in the “city of mosques.” Sheikh Saleh is sure that thousands of young men in Fallujah were and still are influenced by Osama bin Laden and his positioning as an heroic Arab mujahideen. The sheikh is also sure “we have made the Americans dizzy.” Fallujah is littered with graffiti. Some is pro-Saddam. None is pro-bin Laden. All encourage local citizens to harass and kill American soldiers. Posters plastered across the city warn everyone to stay very far from US convoys to avoid being hit. In the kebab shops, people say, “The Americans are cowards. They are now afraid of any gunshot coming from anywhere.” A group of prominent citizens of Fallujah got together and agreed to talk to Asia Times Online to explain “the real situation”, as they put it. Considering the fact that for the Governing Council in Baghdad and for Bremer, anybody telling the truth about the occupation can be accused of “incitement to violence”, their identities should be protected. This week, the Governing Council’s spokesman, Intefadh Qanbar – a protege of Pentagon protege Ahmad Chalabi – told the media that the offices of television networks al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya in Iraq would be closed. Within two hours, this decision by the council turned into “no cooperation from the council” for two weeks – which for all practical purposes means nothing considering that the council sits in a bunker in Baghdad and is extremely uncooperative anyway. Bremer’s legal advisers have in fact established press censorship in Iraq. And al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya are

prime targets as they remain fierce critics of the occupation. Under the current press censorship laws, even to report about the killing of Iraqi civilians near Fallujah by missiles from American helicopters could fall into “incitement to violence.” For starters, the citizens of Fallujah don’t agree with the usual statistics according to which the Shi’ites make 62 percent of the Iraqi population. After a careful tabulation of the population in the main Iraqi cities, they insist more realistic figures would be 6 million Kurds, 8 million Shi’ites and 8.7 million Sunnis: this would prove their point that Sunnis are woefully under-represented in the Governing Council. For Fallujah citizens, “The mayor is an honest man. He was one of the most wanted by Saddam’s regime. His family is one of the top five families in the city. Most of the population trust him and chose him.” They insist that “people here are as religious as the Shi’ites in Najaf. So the population did not agree with the way the Americans came to Iraq.” Unlike Baghdad, no shops in Fallujah sell alcohol or CDs. At least half of the population was satisfied with the fall of Saddam: “We didn’t want Saddam. But after the invasion, with the bad behavior of the Americans, people are saying it was better under Saddam.” The citizens are keen to stress that in the first two months after the fall of Baghdad, there was absolutely no resistance. The resistance officially began on June 28. “A peaceful gathering went to the mayor’s building. There were troops inside. Then it went to a school: there was a military base inside. People were shouting: ‘We want democracy, electricity, water’. The Americans opened fire, at first into the air. Then against people. An old woman in her house beside the base was hit, along with her three sons: one was dead, one lost his leg, another lost his kidney. Many people went to the hospital to donate blood. There were 73 wounded. They had to wait for more than two hours to be sent to hospital. No car could carry more than one wounded – and one car only every 30 minutes. The next day people went to the cemetery. As is our custom, they opened fire in the air to celebrate the dead. Many American helicopters FOREVER WARS   245

and convoys then came and opened fire. That’s how it started. There were 21 dead in two days.” The citizens of Fallujah add, “The Americans have no right to invade houses, search our women and also steal gold and money. The Americans played a double game with the Iraqis. They said they would give us democracy. People only understood what they meant when they came. Outside Iraq, they treat dogs better than Iraqis.” The United Nations “is controlled by America. It will never help Iraq. It’s not independent. If the UN comes, it will be attacked. Any foreign forces – Turkish or Pakistani, even Arabs. These forces will do what the Americans want, in an indirect way. No Arab countries will send soldiers, because they support the resistance.” The citizens of Fallujah say that there are no American patrols in the city any more: only convoys coming from and going to Baghdad: “If there are three convoys, at least two will be attacked. Every convoy crossing Fallujah is covered by air support. If there is a patrol, the American soldiers attract children living in the area and use them as human shields. Is that freedom?” The 25-member, American-appointed Governing Council is considered by everybody in Fallujah “an imported government.” With two glaring exceptions: Dr. Hashimi, a Shi’ite and a diplomat, who barely escaped an assassination attempt last Saturday (widely condemned in Fallujah); and Mohsen Abdul Hameed, from the Iraqi Islamic Party, actually the Muslim Brotherhood. During the Saddam era, Hameed lived underground building the clandestine Brotherhood base. Ahmad Chalabi, who is the rotating chairman of the council until the end of this month, is regarded as an “Ali Baba” – thief – and the butt of many jokes. It is widely assumed that at least 85 percent of the Iraqi population does not trust the Governing Council. For the citizens of Fallujah, the Najaf bombing in which Ayatollah Baqr al-Hakim was killed was the work of the Americans, “to split Shi’ites and Sunnis.” They are totally convinced that the Americans engi246   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

neered the bombings of the Jordanian embassy, the UN headquarters and in Najaf so that they could “go ask help for from the UN to get rid of their problems.” The resistance The citizens of Fallujah are adamant: the resistance is composed of members of families angry with or victims of violent American behavior, as well as former army soldiers and officers. They swear that they have not seen any Arab fedayeen (fighters) – and definitely no al-Qaeda. And there are no Ba’ath Party members in this indigenous resistance: “They are bad people. They have money. If you had money, would you risk your life resisting?” They insist that “the main reason for resisting is loyalty to your own country.” Dr. Kamal Aldien Alkisim, born in the ancient city of Heet on the Euphrates, tortured by Saddam’s regime and general secretary of a new political party – the Iraqi National Fraction, which “emphasizes Iraq’s unity and independence on all its land” – supports the struggle in Fallujah. “The resistance here does not have any relation with any groups. It is led by families. The main reason is the bad behavior of the Americans. There is no relationship with Saddam or Islamic groups. These groups are using the name of Fallujah.” The locals are adamant that they have never seen anybody from self-described resistance organizations like Owda (Return), led by one Mohammed al-Samidai from Mosul, or Afaa (“Snake”), which sprang up from the Ba’ath Party in Kirkuk, or even an alliance of the Ba’ath with tribal elders coordinated by one Abu Hasan from Hajiwa. The citizens of Fallujah don’t care about Saddam’s cassettes routinely broadcast by Arab satellite networks: “Saddam is a spy. He sold Iraq. When CDs of Saddam calling for a jihad were distributed, people in Fallujah stopped the resistance for a few days.” They insist on a big mistake made by the West is “to think that Saddam is the resistance just because he is a Sunni.”

cer in the Iraqi army, wounded in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. The sheikh does not mince his accusations against Jalal Talabani, the leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and member of the Governing Council: he says that he witnessed many episodes of cruelty against villagers in the mid-1980s and accuses Talabani of complicity in the Halabja massacre of Kurds in 1988. The Sheikh concurs that “the biggest problem for the Americans is when they dissolved the army. “They were trying to damage Iraqi society. So everybody immediately joined the resistance.” The sheikh says, “The Americans now demand UN forces because they are in a circle of resistance and they cannot get out. When they started the war, they had no rights from the UN. So they have to leave this country, even by force. This is not just my opinion, our God ordered us to resist them as invasion forces.” These citizens of Fallujah are not part of the armed struggle. They only admit that the stream of attacks

against Americans are conducted by very small groups armed with roadside bombs, rocket launchers and Strella anti-aircraft guns. Most are former army officers, with the operations financed by local businessmen ready to donate thousands of dollars. The regimental force is always the tribal chief. Convincing tools for the young and the restless are multiple: defense of tribal values, defense of the motherland, and most of all defense against the “bad behavior” of the Americans. The mujahideen can count on total popular complicity. When al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya – the nemesis of the Governing Council – show images of American casualties, not only in Fallujah but also in Baghdad, people stop talking and their faces lighten up. The running commentary is inevitable: “We thanked them for our freedom, but they should have left long ago.” At least in Fallujah, as far as the American occupation is concerned, the battle for hearts and minds is irretrievably lost.

After a lavish lunch, enter Sheikh Abu Bashir, one of the most prominent sheikhs in the region, a high offiFOREVER WARS   247

US tanks roll down a road in the town of Ramadi in July of 2003. Photo: AFP

Fear and anger in the Sunni triangle Across the Sunni triangle, businessmen sheikhs are angry, religious sheikhs are angry, and the people are angry as well as afraid, not only of local thieves who stalk the highways, but also of what is happening to their country By PEPE ESCOBAR SEPTEMBER 30, 2003

RAMADI – Sheikh Khaled from the al-Halabsa family, established in the outskirts of Fallujah on the road to Ramadi, is one of the most powerful men in the Sunni triangle (Baghdad-Ramadi-Tikrit). Relaxed in his dishdash robe, drinking tea on the porch of his house, facing an immaculate garden and his own black Mercedes in the garage, he is nonetheless a very pessimistic man: “We don’t believe in American promises. They have lied before the war ‘promising democracy.’ If Americans believe in freedom and independence, why don’t they let the people vote for the Gov248   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES


erning Council?” The sheikh adds that “even if I had a family member in the Governing Council I would not trust them because they were elected by tanks.” The sheikh echoes a popular sentiment all over the Sunni triangle that the Americans themselves encouraged the widespread looting that so traumatized Iraqis after the end of the war in April, “So they must have an extra reason not to leave.” The Americans negotiated with regional sheikhs before entering Ambar – the province that includes Ramadi and Fallujah and which is considered one of the richest in per capita terms in Iraq. Most of the well-off in Ambar are contractors or are in the transportation business. All mosques are private. According to the sheikh “when the Americans occupied the land, they encouraged looters to come here. I caught some of them myself.” The Americans were victims of a serious case of cultural misunderstanding – according to the sheikh: “The Americans confiscated all weapons. They encouraged looters to attack industrial complexes, steal generators … I told the American commander that we as sheikhs cannot face our families because we have no weapons. If you can’t protect us, why did you take our weapons? The American commander then said there would be military patrols. But there are no patrols – the Americans are afraid. In al-Haswa there is one of the biggest storages in the Middle East, it is central for the whole of Iraq. It has food, cars, electrical appliances, spare parts … looters attacked it armed with RPGs. We were unarmed. The Americans didn’t do anything.” As a result, now there is no dialogue between the sheikhs and the occupation forces. While the businessmen sheikhs in the Fallujah-Ramadi axis have lost their patience, but stop short of admitting that they are financing the resistance, the religious sheikhs are facing another kind of problem. In Ramadi itself we are told that sheikhs who criticized the American occupation in their Friday prayers were arrested. Sheikh Salah and his brother, from Ramadi, say in fact that there was only one high-profile case: a cleric who rhetorically bombed the occupation forces was arrested for two months. So now clerics are much more 250   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

subtle. In last Friday’s prayers, in a mosque contiguous to the Ramadi bazaar, the basic resistance message was “we hope the Governing Council is not who we think they are, so they have to listen to our demands to be trusted.” But at the end of his sermon, the sheikh could not help but “ask God to destroy America and release Iraqis from the occupation as soon as possible.” The Americans definitely need some public relations. Sheikh Salah and his brother – prominent businessmen in Ramadi – are adamant that “in the beginning most people in the city were against Saddam [Hussein]. With the occupation, now most want him back.” The sheikh’s brother owns the best hotel in the city, closed four days before the war and not yet reopened. The reason: no security. The Americans have no military base in Ramadi: they are lodged in one of Saddam’s former palaces. Every day there are American patrols. According to Sheikh Salah, “Inside the city there are few attacks. But they are always attacked in the highway [to the Jordanian border] and in the outskirts.” People in Ramadi say that the Americans are attacked at least six times every day: the Americans never admit more than one or two attacks a day. Unlike the road from Baghdad to Samarra and Tikrit, the road to Ramadi has no American checkpoints. Thieves holed up in the desert, equipped with BMWs and Kalashnikovs, continue to attack travelers on the Amman-Baghdad highway near Ramadi; but according to locals “the Americans have not done anything to catch them.” The American checkpoint on the highway is in the wrong place – at least 100 kilometers away from Ramadi. Ramadi has an American-installed mayor, Abdul Karim Barjes. Sheikh Salah says “he never left his building” and unlike the mayor of Fallujah, is not respected by the local population. People in Ramadi – as well as in Fallujah – say that they saw Arab fedayeen (para-military) only in the beginning of the war.

diers in their raids are taking gold, money and pistols from people’s houses. People are also very much aware of Ali Babas (common thieves) turned Mukhabarat agents paid by the Americans. The Governing Council is as unpopular and untrusted as anywhere in the Sunni belt. Ahmad Chalabi, the current chairman, is perceived “as an American agent. And he has American nationality. We would never vote for him if there was an independent election.” As far as a larger United Nations role is concerned, Sheikh Salah expresses the local consensus: “Whatever the UN does it is better than the occupation, as a halfway solution. But we don’t agree with any foreigners occupying Iraq.” A striking refrain is heard across the Sunni triangle, from Baghdad to Samarra, from Fallujah to Baqouba. As Sheikh Salah puts it, “If Saddam came back again, he would rebuild Iraq in one month. After the [1991] Gulf War, he rebuilt Iraq in 45 days.” The people who are saying this never in their lives were Ba’ath Party members. The mood in the heart of the Sunni triangle all the way to Ramadi is replicated in the very poor, working-class neighborhood called Fourth Police, almost in the outskirts of Baghdad. Most people in this area did support Saddam’s regime and were Ba’ath Party members – and many abandoned their weapons and did not fight during the last war. They swear the resistance is composed of ordinary Iraqis. Practically everybody is armed. “Islam tells us we have to resist occupation. We will get rid of the Americans,” says a local carpenter. Nobody has detected any suspicious behavior by potential Arab fedayeen.

The anger in the Sunni triangle is pervasive. Workers are angry because 400,000 civil servants were sacked, and because there are only unknown exiles – 1,500 of them, mostly from the US and the UK – working in the Iraqi Reconstruction Development Council. Sunnis are angry because for the Americans the Kurdish region is the priority. Businessmen are angry because there will be no role for companies from Arab countries in the reconstruction process. Poor people are angry because the UN scaled down its foreign staff to only 42 in Baghdad, while relying on roughly 4,000 Iraqis for humanitarian work. Law-abiding citizens are angry because former defense minister Sultan Hashim Ahmad was granted immunity and was duly removed from the American “pack of cards” listing 55 wanted people (he was number 27). Everybody is angry because the US military cleared its troops in the recent “friendly fire” incident in Fallujah which killed eight Iraqi policemen. The only people with nothing to complain about are those in the booming roadblock business – as the Americans bunker themselves out of sight. After the surreal slalom by two Ali Babas in a stolen battered Toyota on September 20, which cynics widely considered a trial run for a car bombing, there’s a new roadblock arrangement in front of the Palestine-Sheraton hotel complex in Baghdad – which houses large numbers of foreign journalists and American businessmen – the Aike hotel – where some American media are staying – was attacked last week. A trip through the Sunni triangle yields signs that no roadblock will prevent the same from happening to the Palestine.

Most of all, people in Ramadi are angry because “the Americans have done nothing for the city in five months,” says Sheikh Salah. The streets of Ramadi echo the same accusations heard in Fallujah: American solFOREVER WARS   251

Baghdad’s Abu Hanifa mosque in September of 2003. Photo: Thomas Coex / AFP

The American Saddam It was easy enough for the United States to break Iraq, now the problem is to fix it, and fix it in such a way that it does not become just a US version of Saddam Hussein’s regime By PEPE ESCOBAR OCTOBER 4, 2003

BAGHDAD – The Iraqi resistance against the US occupation – in the form of the first, free popular demonstration in the country since the 1960s – was born on April 18 in front of the Abu Hanifa mosque in the middle-class district of Aadhamiya, the site of a fierce battle on April 7, two days before the fall of Baghdad. Mahmoud Wasfi is now the president of the nine-member municipal council in Aadhamiya, which includes two women, a suggestion from this former wrestler who started his new job more than three months ago – with no salary. After he was spontaneously chosen by the locals – 252   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES


“everybody in the neighborhood voted, we had free elections” – the Americans asked him if he had been a Ba’ath Party member. He said “of course, like everybody else. I had to feed my family.” He signed a form in English repudiating the party, and he was in business. Wasfi says that according to the only reliable statistics – provided by Iraqi food agencies – there are roughly 42,000 families in Aadhamiya, divided in four areas. The council meets every Monday. Wasfi has to deal with one “Captain Mike” – responsible for Aadhamiya’s security and purse strings. Any financial decision comes from “Captain Mike.” Basically, people now have just about enough to eat, but services are slowly being restored, electricity supply is still patchy – three hours on, three hours off – and thieves roam the area. Wasfi is adamant: “Our demands are not being satisfied.” Wasfi says his post is equivalent to a manager in the Ministry of Finance. But he has to help people with cash from his own pocket. Everybody asks him the ubiquitous question: “Why can’t we find jobs?” He answers that there’s nothing he can do about it. “The Americans put us in a very difficult position towards the local people. But the people understand it.” He believes a stronger United Nations presence would be better. But if the situation doesn’t improve soon, he will quit the council this month in protest. Wasfi notes that municipal councils in Shi’ite parts of the country, related to the powerful al-Hawza – the Shi’ite “Vatican” housed in the city of Najaf – are more forceful. “At the time of Saddam, everybody had a salary. Now everybody says the situation under Saddam was better.” Families in Aadhamiya want a soccer field for their youngsters. Iraqi contractors came to examine a proposed site, “but the Americans have not given their okay.” Wasfi says Aadhamiya is getting help from IRD, a Jordanian non-government organization (NGO) that works closely with the Americans, as well as from the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). But he warns that “if you are an NGO Bechtel does not help you. You have to know an American, otherwise you don’t have a chance.” 254   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

Bechtel of course is making a killing in Iraq, courtesy of the US Agency for International Development (USAID) – the supervising body in charge of commissioning and awarding contracts. The San Francisco-based giant has already won projects worth more than US$ 1 billion. Bechtel is under contract with USAID to repair and upgrade Iraq’s power grid, and its potable-water and sewage-treating systems; the main roads, bridges, railways and public buildings; and building and reconstruction of schools and clinics. The sectors considered a priority are ports, buildings, surface transportation and waste water. What Iraqis simply can’t understand – because the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) didn’t bother to explain – is why the Americans control everything, why so many Iraqi contractors remain empty-handed, and why everything takes so long. Bechtel program directors say the company has hired 69 Iraqi subcontractors and employs more than 27,000 people. But subcontracts to Iraqi firms were only worth $47 million by late September – out of a total of more than $1 billion. US companies divide practically the whole cake. Creative Associates International will revitalize Iraqi primary and secondary schools. The Research Triangle Institute will be in charge of local governance development (Wasfi had no idea about it). The public health system will be restored by Abt Associates. Airport administration in Baghdad, Mosul and Basra will go to Skylink Air and Logistics Support. Bechtel is responsible for rebuilding 1,200 primary and secondary schools in Iraq (600 in Baghdad alone). Most should have been ready this week – the beginning of the school year. In the case of Baghdad, only 43 out of 600 were ready. Ma’monia, a secondary school in Aadhamiya originally built in 1922, was one of the lucky ones. Ra’ad al-Juburi, the Iraqi subcontractor, said he was able to rebuild the school with materials still found in Iraqi markets.

people could find themselves a role after 35 years of humiliation. Instead we are treated like cattle.” Life for the municipal councils spread across the 50 Baghdad neighborhoods is not exactly the same. It’s fair to argue that wealthier neighborhoods, with English-speaking council members, get better treatment. For example, in upper-middle-class Sumer the council president, Addel Rahim Khalaf, is a former officer who proudly exhibits the signs of a close collaboration with the Americans: a cellular phone, a badge and a license to carry a gun. Sumer has a monthly budget of $40,000. Sumer already obtained, among other things, the renovation of three schools, two roads, and two new soccer fields. In al-Saadoun Street, one of Baghdad’s main roads, the president of another municipal council, a businessman involved in import-export, scoffs when he mentions that the CPA has even edited a guide to teach the presidents of municipal councils how to behave in a meeting: “This shows us the image that the Americans have of ourselves – of a backward people. They don’t know that the first municipal councils here started in 1868.” A Baghdad trader now in the dumps says that “for the Americans, their soldiers are more important than us. I heard this from them myself. Under Saddam, we knew we had to be a high official in the Ba’ath Party to do something with our lives. What about now? Even if we wanted to, we can do nothing. Every Iraqi is considered guilty.” This tragic cultural misunderstanding is not enough

to make Wasfi support an armed resistance: “There are many more important things to do – we have to try to rebuild the country. We will wait. We trust Allah.” He is in favor of jihad in principle, but not now. “If the Americans gave us a chance, we could have done better. But they didn’t give us a chance.” Wasfi has stark advice for the Americans – echoed by a huge majority in the Sunni triangle: “Get your military base and give our cities back to us, and our chance to rebuild our country.” Whatever the benefits of the US program for rebuilding Iraq, they are being lost on the absolute majority of the Sunni population. In middle-class Aadhamiya, all former employees of Iraqi ministries are now unemployed. Another refrain heard all over the Sunni triangle is inevitable: Saddam rebuilt Iraq in 45 days after the end of the 1991 Gulf War. “The Americans have not kept their promises. We thought we would become the guiding light of the Arab world, but we find ourselves in a toilet in the back yard,” says a former public employee. The fatal, irredeemable mistake of proconsul L Paul Bremer and his CPA was to fire hundreds of thousands of possibly innocent public employees. What these residents of Baghdad are saying is that there is simply no Iraqi face to hold and secure the country. It’s impossible to rehabilitate Iraq’s institutions and restore basic services for the population without the managers and employees of Iraq’s public sector. So no wonder the talk in the streets of Baghdad is, “We had an Arabic Saddam. Now we have an American Saddam.”

Bradley vehicles and Humvees patrol Aadhamiya every day. A teacher comments that in six months no soldier ever talked to him “except to give me an order.” Another teacher says everybody expected to be treated as partners in the municipal councils, “and cultivated FOREVER WARS   255

Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s son-in-law General Hussein Kamel Hassan (L) speaks with Nayef Mawal, the secretary general of the Jordanian information ministry during his press conference at the royal palace in Amman on August 12, 2003. General Hussein, who fled Iraq with his family, said that he initiated contacts to topple the Iraqi regime. Photo: AFP

Selective reading and choice friends Elements in the Bush administration refuse to believe that Iraq destroyed its weapons of mass destruction after the Gulf War of 1991, despite the evidence, which Asia Times Online has also seen. It should not be a surprise, then, that these same elements continue to put their trust in Ahmad Chalabi, founder of the Iraqi National Congress By PEPE ESCOBAR OCTOBER 7, 2003

BAGHDAD and AMMAN – Chief United Nations weapons inspector Hans Blix knew it. Former weapons inspector Scott Ritter knew it. French, German and Russian intelligence knew it. Sultan Hashim Ahmad – Iraq’s former minister of defense, now safe after a cosy deal with the Americans – knew it. In 1995, Hussein Kamel, married to one of Saddam Hussein’s daughters and the man in charge of it all, knew it. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in Langley and the MI6 in London knew it. 256   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES


Saddam’s regime was not lying when it claimed that it had destroyed all its WMD after the 1991 Gulf War. Whatever the spin, the fact of the matter is that now there’s conclusive proof that both US President George W. Bush and UK Prime Minister Tony Blair lied about the reason for invading Iraq. As it was widely reported at the time, on the night of August 7, 1995, General Hussein Kamel, former director of Iraq’s Military Industrialization Corp – the organism in charge of Iraq’s weapons program – defected to Jordan, along with his brother, Colonel Saddam Kamel. Hussein Kamel managed to smuggle tons of documents with him with priceless information about different Iraqi weapons programs. A few days later, Saddam’s regime went on the offensive, presenting another set of documents showing that Iraq had conducted an aborted crash program to develop a nuclear bomb. A few months later, Hussein and Saddam Kamel made the biggest mistake of their lives. Following family pleas and giving credence to assurances from Baghdad, they returned to Iraq in early 1996, and were inevitably killed by Saddam’s secret services. On August 22, 1995, Hussein Kamel was interviewed in Amman by three top Western officials: Rolf Ekeus, executive chairman of UNSCOM from 1991 to 1997; Professor Maurizio Zifferero, deputy director of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and head of the inspections team in Iraq; and Nikita Smidovich, a Russian diplomat who led UNSCOM’s ballistic missile team, and Deputy Director for Operations of UNSCOM. Major Izz al-Din al-Majid, a cousin of Saddam Hussein’s who defected with the Kamel brothers, was also present. Unlike the brothers, he remained in Jordan and exiled himself in Europe in an undisclosed location. The key document – shown to Asia Times Online by a Jordanian intelligence source – is in the form of an internal UNSCOM/IAEA report classified as “sensitive.” On page 13 of what is the transcript of the UNSCOM/IAEA interview with Hussein Kamel, he categorically says, “I ordered the destruction of all chemical weapons. All weapons – biological, chemical, 258   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

missile, nuclear were destroyed.” He also says that “not a single missile was left, but they had blueprints and molds for production. All missiles were destroyed.” Kamel discloses that anthrax was “the main focus” of the Iraqi biological program (pages 7-8). He confirms all weapons and agents were destroyed: “Nothing remained after visits of inspection teams.” Kamel also says, “They put VX [nerve gas] in bombs during the last days of the Iran-Iraq war [of the 1980s]. They were not used and the program was terminated.” On page 13, Rolf Ekeus asks Kamel if Iraq had restarted VX production after the Iran-Iraq war. Kamel says, “We changed the factory into pesticide production. Part of the establishment started to produce medicine […] we gave instructions not to produce chemical weapons.” On page 8, Kamel insists that “I made the decision to disclose everything so that Iraq could return to normal.” In August 1995, both the Bill Clinton administration in the US and the John Major government in the UK took Kamel’s assertion that Iraq had destroyed its entire stockpile of chemical and biological weapons and banned missiles – as Saddam’s regime claimed – very seriously. But this “sensitive” interview was kept secret for more than seven years. It was only leaked in early 2003. Kamel’s interview was then endlessly spun by Bush and Blair. But the key point remains undisputable: Saddam’s regime destroyed all its WMD after the 1991 Gulf War. This was not the soundbite that the Pentagon neo-conservatives wanted. So they listened instead to their lone “humint” (human intelligence) on Iraq – which entirely consists in the person of Ahmad Chalabi, founder of the Iraqi National Congress (INC) – an organization basically created by the US – a convicted fraudster in Jordan, and rotating chairman during the month of September of the 25-member, American-appointed Iraqi Governing Council.

cades. He never had any political support inside Iraq. After his conviction – 22 years – in Jordan in the early 1980s for bank fraud, nobody knows what he made of lavish funds dispensed to the INC by the CIA in the mid-1990s. And in late 2002, nobody also knew what happened to half of the US$4.3 million once again dispensed to the INC. Chalabi is an extremely persuasive character. It was himself who proposed to Washington a mutual collaboration against Saddam. Ultra-conservative American senators Trent Lott and Jesse Helms loved it, as well as the “Prince of Darkness” Richard Perle, the CIA and the Jewish lobby. In their 1999 book Out of the Ashes, Andrew and Patrick Cockburn paint a devastating portrait of CIA agent Chalabi’s wheelings and dealings since 1991. But the fact is Washington would never trust the INC to depose Saddam: the emphasis – or wishful thinking – relied on a coup orchestrated by the army. Chalabi was progressively relegated to oblivion. In desperation, he launched a plan in 1996 for Kurds to attack Iraqi army units stationed in Mosul and Kirkuk. The operation failed miserably. Chalabi was totally discredited in the CIA’s eyes, and they turned to another potential and more trustworthy agent: Ayad Allaoui, chief of the Iraqi National Accord (INA). With the neo-cons in power, the tireless Chalabi managed to get back into the limelight via the Pentagon – even though the CIA and the State Department now openly despised him. The go-between was none other than Richard Perle. Once again, this correspondent in the past few weeks has been able to reconfirm that Chalabi’s street credibility in Iraq is less than zero. The most flattering compliment he gets is that he may be the new “American Saddam.”

In his new self-attributed role of respected statesman, Chalabi was part of the Iraqi delegation to the recent UN General Assembly. In the first address by an Iraqi to the 191-member body since the fall of Saddam’s regime, Chalabi could do no better than scold France, Germany, Russia, Syria and in fact most of the planet for opposing the American invasion. He said absolutely nothing about a UN role in Iraq – now desperately wanted by the Bush administration. He said absolutely nothing about how and when Iraqis will get back their sovereignty – a key UN demand. But true to form, Chalabi promoted his own personal political causes: he called for the “eradication” of Ba’ath Party members “once and for all.” The Pentagon still buys his take that the Iraqi resistance is conducted by “remnants of Saddam’s regime.” In fact, the Pentagon still parrots everything Chalabi says. But on a more serious note, Chalabi can be accused of promoting a sectarian war in Iraq. Weeks before coming to the UN, he recommended the arrest of brothers, sons, nephews and cousins of Ba’ath Party members and former Iraqi army officials, as well as male Iraqis between the ages of 15 and 50 if illegal weapons were found in their homes. If this “recommendation” was to be taken seriously, it would mean no less than an horrendous civil war. Chief US weapons inspector David Kay’s interim report on WMD has already proved that the Bush administration was chasing a ghost. In fact, Kay should save the extra 600 million demanded by Bush for the investigation to continue and ask the Pentagon’s “humint” Chalabi where the weapons are. With friends like Chalabi, “liberated” Iraqi certainly doesn’t need enemies.

Chalabi, a 54-year-old banker, heir of a rich Shi’ite family, was living in early 2003 in a lavish mansion in Tehran paid by the State Department, plotting his triumphant return to Iraq after more than two deFOREVER WARS   259

The marja and the proconsul Senior American administrator L Paul Bremer has his views on how elections in Iraq should be conducted, as does Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, religious leader of the country’s 15 million Shi’ites. For Washington, this means one of two outcomes: jihad or civil war By PEPE ESCOBAR JANUARY 30, 2004

An extremely discreet and reclusive man, rarely seen in public, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, born in Iran’s holy city of Mashhad, is the primus inter pares of four great marjas who lead the roughly 150 million Shi’ites spread around the world - including Iraq, Iran, India, Pakistan, the Saudi peninsula and Europe - through the Hawza, the so-called “Shi’ite Vatican” in Najaf, Iraq. A great marja - deemed to be infallible - is the equivalent to a pope: a “source of imitation” - not only as an interpreter of sacred words, but because of his intelligence and his knowledge, ranging from philosophy to the exact sciences. Sistani rarely travels and spends most of his time reading, studying and receiving endless religious delegations in his small, Spartan study in central Najaf. His organization controls millions of dollars in donations, but the marja himself lives like an ascetic. He controls no army. He leads no political party and he harbors no political ambitions. Unlike other spiritual leaders, he never gives major speeches. He never holds press conferences and he never meets journalists - as Asia Times Online has found out in Najaf on many occasions. But any serious observer knows that all it takes is one word from Sistani for the Shi’ites to embark on a jihad against the Americans and forever bury the United States Deputy Secretary of Defense 260   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Photo: AFP


Paul Wolfowitz-concocted scenario of a new era of American supremacy in the Middle East. Like Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini - the now-deceased leader of the Iranian Islamic Revolution of 1979 - Sistani spent many years studying in Qom, as crucial in Iran as a holy city as Najaf is in Iraq. The Sistani seminary in Qom is still one of the most important in the Shi’ite world. According to insiders in Najaf, when Sistani speaks in Arabic, he still retains “a vague Persian accent”. Khomeini spent 13 years exiled in Najaf and held a status similar to that of Sistani. But Khomeini never became a marja - because no living marja at the time appointed him as such. Another striking difference is that Khomeini was heavily supportive of Velayat-e-Faqih - or the primacy of religion over everything, including politics. Sistani flavors total separation between mosque and state - because he fears politics may pollute spiritual matters. This leads to the crucial point: Sistani is not in favor of an Islamic republic in Iraq, a development that although an anathema in Washington, at the same time would immensely please the ayatollahs in Tehran. What Sistani wants is an Iraqi constitution written with no foreign interference, with no articles contrary to Islam. And he wants a secular government, but composed of good Muslims who respect Islamic principles. French expert on Shi’ism, Pierre-Jean Luizard, explains that Sistani essentially wants religion to be protected from politics. But in an occupied Iraq subjected to such extreme volatility, he cannot but express a political position - because his is the supreme word. It may be pure malice to juxtapose a sayyed (descendant of Prophet Mohammed) like Sistani with a blunt, unsophisticated, alleged former counter-terrorism expert like L Paul Bremer, the US administrator in Iraq. But whatever the marja says in his small Najaf studio invariably drives the proconsul - working in a luxurious Baghdad palace formerly occupied by Saddam Hussein - crazy. Sistani’s fatwas (religious edicts) are implacable: short and straight to the point. The marja has qualified the American “democratization” plans that Bremer seeks to impose as “not democratic enough”, or worse 262   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

still, “fundamentally unacceptable”. Sistani had no reason to support Saddam - who for three decades systematically persecuted and killed Iraqi Shi’ites. During the war in 2003, Washington interpreted Sistani’s call for the Shi’ites not to oppose the American army as an endorsement. But since April 9, 2003 another story has emerged: what most of Iraq’s 15 million Shi’ites see is the military occupation of holy Islamic lands by an army of infidels. Sistani’s fatwas are the succinct expression of their outrage. Sistani may have been crucial in forcing the Americans to get United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan back in the game. However, Annan did not react as the marja expected. Annan started by basically repeating the usual American excuses: there had been no census in Iraq in the past 45 years and all electoral lists disappeared during the war. Sistani stood his way, and Annan was forced to send in an UN exploratory mission to Baghdad. But Annan’s priority remains the end of the occupation - and organizing “free, just and credible” elections only when security allows.

in southern Iraq, clarified that “we don’t want any violence. But if there is obstruction, the people will take its responsibilities”. Asia Times Online has had credible information since late 2003 that Shi’ites of all factions are building a “secret army” to engage the Americans in case their democratic aspirations are not met. Even with all its military might, the US has never looked so fragile and discredited in Iraq. An occupying power which refuses democratic elections using all manners of excuses is being judged by the Islamic world - and the international community - for what it is: a neo-colonial power. It has now been proved there were never any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq much less the means to deliver them. It is now being proved the invasion of Iraq had nothing to do with

introducing democracy to the Middle East. The UN mission - “driving under the [Washington] influence” - may estimate that direct elections are impossible before the American-imposed deadline of July 1. US President George W Bush will then be left with two extremely unsavory options. The caucuses will proceed in Iraq’s 18 provinces, and 15 million Shi’ites will smash - by any means necessary - the legitimacy of any government that might emerge. Or the Americans may hold direct elections - and in this case Sunnis, not only in the Sunni triangle - will upgrade their already ferocious guerrilla war to code red, because they will never accept losing power to Shi’ites. Jihad or civil war: these are the options ahead.

Last week at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Iranian President Mohammed Khatami expressed what hundreds of millions of Muslims are feeling all over the world: “The American administration invaded Afghanistan to find [Osama] bin Laden, where is bin Laden? The Americans occupied Iraq under the pretext of installing democracy and finding weapons of mass destruction. Where are these weapons and where is democracy?” Khatami also revealed how Iran is closely monitoring the confrontation between the proconsul and the marja: “Ayatollah Sistani demanded direct democracy, and the Americans refuse it. That’s what we have always proposed, one man, one vote.” Also in Davos, John Ruggie, professor of international affairs at Harvard and an adviser to Annan, has been far from enthusiastic: “The Bush administration has not changed. The Americans’ attitude does not incite anybody to cooperate with them.” One of Sistani’s sons has already recognized that “the marja cannot resist the anti-American popular pressure forever”. Ali Hakim al-Safi, one of Sistani’s spokesmen FOREVER WARS   263

Iraqis watch a statue of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein topple in Baghdad’s al-Fardous square on April 9, 2003. Photo: Patrick Baz / AFP

One year on: From liberation to jihad Shi’ite leader Muqtada al-Sadr finds echo in Iraq when he compares US proconsul L Paul Bremer to Saddam Hussein. He also finds resonance in the Arab world when he aligns himself with Hamas - predominantly Sunni - and Hezbollah - predominantly Shi’ite. And in the mosques, the calls are for jihad By PEPE ESCOBAR APRIL 9, 2004

On April 9, 2002, Saddam Hussein’s statue in Firdaus Square in Baghdad was still enveloped, like a Christo installation, waiting to be unveiled in an official ceremony. On April 9, 2003, the statue was toppled by the US Army, and later replaced by a faceless figure symbolizing “liberation”. On April 9, 2004, the faceless statue is plastered with photographs of “outlaw” Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. 264   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES


One year after the “fall” of Baghdad, the old colonial maxim “divide and rule” does not apply anymore. For the occupiers, this is the ultimate nightmare: Sunni and Shi’ite, united (almost) as one. From Kirkuk in the north to Karbala in the south, from Fallujah to Nasiriyah, from Ramadi to Baghdad, Iraq is in turmoil - and this is not the work of “Saddam Fedayeen”, “remnants of the Ba’ath Party” or “foreign terrorists”. This is the beginning of the end: the serious possibility that the Shi’ites - 60 percent or so of the invaded and “liberated” Iraqi population - will be tempted actively to lead the multifaceted Iraqi resistance. It’s ironic that it took one year after its supposed US-sponsored liberation for the resistance to qualify Fallujah as liberated - before the city of almost 500,000 came under siege by the marines this past Monday. There’s no food or water coming in. By blocking the highway connecting Baghdad, Amman and Damascus, the Americans have strangulated practically all trade between Iraq and its neighbors Jordan and Syria. The city is totally sealed off from the rest of the world. AlJazeera has the only media crew in town. Reporter Ahmad Mansur says: “Everybody walking in the streets is now becoming an [American] target.” Mosques are broadcasting calls to jihad. An Apache helicopter fired three missiles into a compound housing the Abdul Aziz al-Samarrai mosque in Fallujah during afternoon prayers. The mosque itself was not hit - but dozens of people were. Homes are being turned into makeshift hospitals. Whatever the spin from the Pentagon, this is the word of mouth in the Iraqi street, soon to spread like wildfire all over the Muslim world: the Americans now are bombing mosques. Fallujah is the new Gaza. Fallujah residents are to be subjected to ferocious Israeli-style searchand-destroy raids for the men with rocket-propelled grenades who first attacked the four American mercenaries from Blackwater Security Consulting, whose corpses were later mutilated and hanged by an angry mob. Iraqis in the Sunni triangle believe that the Americans received their “rules of engagement” from Ariel Sharon’s army in Israel.


Meanwhile, in the Shi’ite belt, the holy city of Kufa, the power base of the clerical al-Sadr family, in whose mosque “outlaw” Muqtada al-Sadr took refuge, became the first Iraqi city to spin completely out of US control. Asia Times Online has confirmed that Muqtada is now in the holy city of Najaf, in his office in an alley near the Imam Ali shrine, protected by hundreds of armed members of his Mahdi Army. The Iraqi police have totally vanished. The Spanish garrison outside of town describes the situation as “high tension”. The Mahdi Army now in effect controls the shrine, as well as central Najaf. A constant stream of Muqtada’s followers comes from Baghdad. In his most recent statement, he says: “I’m prepared to have my own blood shed for what is holy to me,” and calls on Sunnis and Shi’ites alike to fight the Americans. Proconsul L Paul Bremer’s Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) has already amplified Muqtada’s cult-hero status, and may soon create a martyr by having a warrant for his arrest issued. Muqtada’s black-clad Mahdi Army may have only several thousand members, but he commands support of at least 30 percent of an estimated 15 million Iraqi Shi’ites: some serious Arab analysts even talk of 50 percent. And just as his father, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed al-Sadr, became a martyr to Saddam in 1999, Muqtada well appreciates the benefits of becoming a martyr to the US occupation. Cross-confessional intifada For all purposes, an intifada is now going on. Local sources tell Asia Times Online there are pro-Muqtada posters all over Anbar - the richest, predominantly Sunni, Iraqi province. Ramadi - where marines have been under fierce attack - is in Anbar. Only a war of national liberation is the motive capable of explaining these posters. The concept - penned by the Pentagon of a Shi’ite Mahdi Army fighting the marines in Sunni Anbar is positively ludicrous. This regional resistance is conducted by former officers of the Iraqi army, as tribal sheikhs in the Sunni triangle told this correspondent last year.

Sunnis and Shi’ites are united in Baghdad, under the same nationalist impulse. Sheikh Raed al-Kazami, Muqtada’s man in the Shi’ite-majority Kazimiya neighborhood, is not very far from the truth when he says: “All of Iraq is behind Muqtada al-Sadr; we are but one body, one people.” On the other side of the Tigris, Sunni-majority Adhamiya is now aligned with Kazimiya, as well as Fallujah, Ramadi and even Mosul, against the “American invaders”. The popular justification is always the same: this is now a jihad, regardless of whether one is Sunni or Shi’ite. People will fight in their neighborhoods, even if they don’t join the Mahdi Army.

Washington has nothing to do with the arrest warrant against Muqtada: this is “Iraqi justice” in action. Wrong. The Iraqi Jurists Association published a statement on Wednesday saying that the arrest warrant is “illegal and based on a lie ... The arrest warrant is illegal and incorrect, as the occupation forces issued it in disregard for sovereignty of Iraq’s justice system.” The Iraqi minister of justice, Abdel-Rahim Al-Shibly, also says he had not been aware of the arrest warrant.

Asia Times Online has learned that in an unprecedented move, 150 powerful Sunni tribal leaders and emissaries personally delivered a support message to Muqtada’s key aides in the 2-million-plus slum of Sadr City, the former Saddam City: “We are all behind Muqtada al-Sadr, we are by his side because he awakened the Iraqi people to liberate the country from the infidel invaders.” The message also said: “We are but one Muslim nation - no one can separate us, be it in Iraq or Palestine.”

The CPA will never persuade Iraqis - Sunni or Shi’ite - that the violent repression against Muqtada and the Mahdi Army is capable of safeguarding the “handover of sovereignty” on June 30. Apart from Humvees, tanks and Apaches, Bremer sent the new Iraqi army - using ski masks, so they would not be recognized later by the neighbors - to fire on the urban poor of Sadr City, the same Saddam City “liberated” by the marines a year ago. After this performance, the CPA’s credibility, already low, is now less than zero: the average Iraqi portrays it as a dictatorship exactly like Saddam’s - intolerant of a critical press and fully repressing peaceful protests.

Washington was busy predicting a civil war among Sunnis, Shi’ites and Kurds. The White House, the Pentagon and the CPA even had the perfectly manufactured culprit: Jordanian Mussab al-Zarqawi, the new Osama bin Laden. What they bought themselves instead is the ultimate occupier nightmare: Sunni and Shi’ite united. Muqtada may be a cross between two-thirds Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran and one-third Che Guevara (without the romantic charisma). But he finds enormous echo in Iraq when he compares Bremer to Saddam (in Sadr City, US-trained Iraqi soldiers first fired on peaceful demonstrators, followed by the US Army with tanks, Apaches and jets firing at random on homes, shops and even ambulances; according to local hospitals, dozens of civilians were killed and many more were injured). Muqtada also finds enormous echo in the Arab world when he aligns himself with Hamas - predominantly Sunni - and Hezbollah - predominantly Shi’ite. US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld swears

The Bremer-Muqtada-Sistani triangle

Former counter-terrorism expert Bremer may have been foolish to use such tactics. Or he may have been very clever - employing a typical Sharon move: a provocation leading to anger and protests, which cries for a crackdown to restore “order”. He may have wanted to trigger a move to cripple the growing influence of the army of Sadrists. Muqtada and his followers would have every chance of getting a great number of seats if elections for a Iraqi parliament are really held next January. Muqtada is indeed a radical upstart compared with the religious Shi’ite first among equals, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. But Sistani prefers to carefully mold the United Nations to his wishes, rather than confronting the CPA - which he loathes in silence and seclusion. But as many Shi’ite religious leaders have told this correspondent, Sistani just has to say the word FOREVER WARS   267

(or issue a fatwa). If he says the word, the occupation is finished. One thing is absolutely certain: there is no possible US military solution to smash the resistance. Harith al-Dari, secretary general of the Iraqi Islamic Scholars Association - one of the country’s highest religious authorities - goes straight to the point: “They insist on enforcing a military solution as if they are facing an enemy in a battleground, not isolated civilians.” If Bremer behaved like a fool, he only has one card left to play. He badly needs Sistani’s help to reign in Muqtada. But Sistani does not even admit receiving a deferential visit from Bremer in person. Supposing this would happen, there would be a heavy political price to pay: plenty of US concessions and a total review of the US-imposed Iraqi constitution. For the moment, Sistani has voiced “solidarity” with Muqtada, and is still preaching “negotiations”, while Dawa - the oldest Shi’ite political party - has distanced itself from the Muqtada uprising. Hell and Blackwater The four Americans killed in Fallujah were not simply “civilians”. Three were Navy Seals (sea, air, land special forces) and one was Delta Force, working on contract for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and employees of Blackwater Security Consulting - one among dozens of so-called “private” companies performing shady operations in Iraq and other parts of the world Washington prefers be attributed to “civilians”: a US$100-billion-a-year market. There may be as many as 10,000 “civilian” security contractors in Iraq at the moment. Blackwater is a paramilitary operation: it trains soldiers in counter-terrorism and urban combat, and profits from rent-a-soldier schemes (using former Green Berets, Army Rangers and Navy Seals). Blackwater’s corporate leaders are proud to manage the largest and most professional private army in the world, with around 400 armed commandos in Iraq alone. Some of them compose the Praetorian Guard of Bremer himself. 268   THE PEPE ESCOBAR ARCHIVES

Additionally, there may be up to 3,000 CIA agents in Iraq at the moment. As far as the Iraqi resistance is concerned, “security” contractors, Seals, Delta Force or CIA are not civilians but legitimate military-related targets. Anybody who has traveled in the Sunni triangle knows how the US occupation is universally loathed. Fallujah residents told this correspondent last year that the Americans themselves triggered the birth of the resistance only two weeks after the fall of Baghdad, when their troops entrenched in a Fallujah school opened indiscriminate fire against an angry crowd, killing at least 17 people, including women and children. The Pentagon and the White House could not possibly admit there’s a war of national resistance going on - but that’s what it is: the spirit of the resistance is a mix of Iraqi nationalism and Arab pride, and has absolutely nothing to do with Saddam. Even before the crackdown on Fallujah and against Muqtada’s followers, different groups had united under an official denomination: the Patriotic Front for the Liberation of Iraq. The US response in Fallujah - “deliberate, precise and overwhelming”, according to General Mark Kimmitt won’t deter the resistance. In Fallujah, they call themselves the Resistance Brigades of Fallujah, and have even issued a communique taking credit for the killing of the American contractors. The Brigades include the Brigades of the Martyr Ahmad Yasin, the Brigades of Ali ibn Abi Talib the Lion of God and Conqueror, and the Brigades of the 1920 Revolution.

but to a never-ending war. The administration of President George W Bush is busy selling the concept of a June 30 handover of “sovereignty” to an Iraqi administration. Even before the current Operation Bloodshed, Iraqis - avid consumers of political intrigue - knew full well what’s behind it. They know the CPA has confirmed that after June 30, the $18.4 billion of reconstruction funds will be administered by the US Embassy in Iraq - the largest in the world, capable of housing 3,000 people. These funds - supposed to last for five years - will be spent on Iraq’s crucial infrastructure: oil, water, electricity, communications, police and the judiciary. What Bremer’s CPA is in fact saying is that any Iraqi government simply won’t be able to decide how the country will be rebuilt. Iraqis also know that 14 US military bases are already under construction, enough to accommodate the (for the moment) 110,000 American soldiers who will stay in Iraq until at least 2007. No sovereign Iraqi government has approved the construction of these bases. Kimmitt - the No 2 Pentagon man in Iraq, and the one who launched total war on Fallujah - said the bases are “a blueprint for how we could operate in the Middle East”. A ring of US military bases throughout what the Pentagon calls the Greater Middle East is a key element of the neo-conservative-driven strategy to control world energy resources as the way to control the destiny of America’s economic rivals - the European Union and Northeast Asia.

Iraqis also know about another Bremer executive order - according to which even with an interim Iraqi government the Iraqi army will be controlled by top US commander Lieutenant-General Ricardo Sanchez. And they know they will also have to live with an Iraqi version of Condoleezza Rice - a Bremer-appointed national security adviser with a five-year mandate. Muqtada may be an Islamic fundamentalist. But his intifada is popular because the base consists of legions of Iraq’s urban poor and unemployed - roughly 70 percent of the total working-age population. And the motive is plain and simple: this is part of a national resistance against a colonial enterprise. No institution created by the US invasion - especially the CPA - has any political legitimacy, any moral legitimacy, or any kind of popular support. Juan Cole, professor of history at the University of Michigan and one of the leading American experts on Iraq, is adamant: “The United States has managed to create a failed state, similar to Somalia and Haiti, in Iraq.” So this is the Bush administration-sponsored “free Iraq” people identify not only in the Sunni triangle but in the Shi’ite south: an occupying power maybe not formally occupying the country any more, but installed in 14 military bases and able to exercise full control on security, the economy and the whole infrastructure. In plain English: a US colony. This is the reason the mob in Fallujah rejoiced in the burning of those American bodies. This is the reason Sunnis and Shi’ites have for now united in anger. And this is the reason the “liberation” has finally turned into a jihad.

‘Free Iraq’ Bremer has declared war on local populations: this is an enormous mistake. The Bush administration’s “war on terror” has led to thousands more civilian victims in Afghanistan and Iraq than in the United States on September 11, 2001. This is never debated in the US mainstream media - where as a rule an American life is deemed to be superior to any other. On every front, the “war on terror” is not leading to an end of terrorism, FOREVER WARS   269

Two of the United States’ top “strategic threats” are getting more and more real within the scope of the New Silk Roads, the leading 21st-century project of economic integration across Eurasia. America’s Deep State will not be amused. A sensationalist report, which did not add anything that was not already known about the strategic partnership, nevertheless gained attention when it predictably dog-whistled a major red alert about the military alliance. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi to a great extent was referring to that report when he blasted as “lies” a series of rumors about the “transparent roadmap” that’s built into the evolving Iran-China strategic partnership. President Rouhani’s chief of staff, Mahmoud Vezi, added that “a destructive line of propaganda has been initiated and directed from outside Iran against the expansion of Iran’s relations with neighbors and especially [with] China and Russia.” Vezi said, “This roadmap in which a path is defined for expansion of relations between governments and the private sectors is signed and will continue to be signed between many countries.” The Iran-China strategic partnership was officially established in 2016, when President Xi visited Tehran. These are the guidelines. Two articles among the 20 listed in the agreement are particularly relevant. Item 7 defines the scope of the partnership within the New Silk Roads vision of Eurasia integration: “The Iranian side welcomes ‘the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road’ initiative introduced by China. “Relying on their respective strengths and advantages as well as the opportunities provided through the signing of documents such as the ‘MOU on Jointly Promoting the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road’ and ‘MOU on Reinforcement of Industrial and Mineral Capacities and Investment,’ both sides shall expand cooperation and mutual

investments in various areas including transportation, railway, ports, energy, industry, commerce and services.” Item 10 praises Iran’s membership in the AIIB: “The Chinese side appreciates Iran’s participation as a founding member of the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank. Both sides are willing to strengthen their cooperation in the relevant areas and join their efforts towards the progress and prosperity of Asia.” The core of the Iran-China strategic partnership – no secret whatsoever since at least last year – revolves around a $400 billion Chinese investment in Iran’s energy and infrastructure for the next 25 years. It’s all about securing a matter of supreme Chinese national interest: a steady supply of oil and gas that bypasses the dangerous bottleneck of the Straits of Malacca, secured with a median 18% discount and paid in yuan or in a basket of currencies other than the US dollar. Beijing will also invest roughly $228 billion in Iranian infrastructure – that’s where the AIIB comes in – over 25 years, but especially up to 2025. That ranges from building factories to badly needed energy industry renovation, all the way to the already-in-progress construction of the 900-km-long electric rail from Tehran to Mashhad. Tehran, Qom and Isfahan will also be linked by highspeed rail – and there will be an extension to Tabriz, an important oil, gas and petrochemical node and the starting point of the Tabriz-Ankara gas pipeline. All of the above makes total sense in New Silk Road terms, as Iran is a key Eurasian crossroads. High-speed rail traversing Iran will connect Urumqi in Xinjiang to Tehran, via four of the Central Asian “stans” (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan), all the way to West Asia, across Iraq and Turkey and farther on to Europe. This will be a techno revival of the Ancient Silk Roads, where the main language of trade between East