Saturday, June 25, 2011

Why Are We In Afghanistan?


President Obama's announcement last week that we would be drawing down perhaps 10,000 of our regular military in Afghanistan by the end of the year started me thinking back about how we got involved there in the first place.  Predictably, the Republican warhawks who see after the interests of the military-industrial complex were outraged that we would break and run like this and attacked the president who, after all, himself mandated the "surge." They had already forgotten that it was Obama who ramped up this war after taking office, adding most of the roughly 150,000 U.S. military currently in-country.  To these ought to be added the perhaps 100,000 "advisers," mostly highly paid ex-military who constitute a very heavy drain on our deficit-plagued budget.

The problems anybody was going to face in Afghanistan were never a mystery around Washington.  An ex-State Department professional reminisced to me once about his time in Kabul during the years of the Russian occupation. Languishing in his hotel one rainy Sunday, he was invited by his Afghan counterpart to join a party and watch the afternoon's entertainment.  A woman supposedly taken in adultery was being held in a compound in one of the suburbs.  At the appointed hour, this diplomat and his colleagues were scheduled to stone the woman to death.

There remains a cultural disjunction between Afghan society and ours. There was a great deal of celebrating around Langley at the outcome of "Charlie Wilson's War," the CIA-managed effort to drive the Soviets and their brutal policies and their Hind armored helicopters out of Afghanistan with Stinger missiles and Agency- trained insurgents.  It has been largely forgotten since that the cadre we trained up included Osama bin Laden and Gulbudin Hekmatar, no doubt the two most ingenious and damaging gadflies we have had to contend with ever since.

Once the Soviets had cleared out of Afghanistan a contingent of CIA professionals moved in and installed a government in Kabul controlled by the Northern tribes.  This meant the Pashtun majority were largely denied much of a voice in their own governance.  A power vacuum opened up, with the potential for a civil war.

I recently chatted for a while with a general from Tajikistan.  He attributed the rise of the Taliban to the repeated efforts during the nineteen-nineties by an oil consortium led by Unocal to negotiate the construction of a north-south pipeline through the mountains of Afghanistan to transport the petroleum being discovered in the oil-rich territories of the newly independent Muslim nations along Afghanistan's northern borders -- the "Stans" -- directly south without having to contend with the harrassing policies of Russian bureaucrats.  This initiative never worked out, but, while preparing to exploit this valuable concession, the oil companies enlisted the poppy-growing Taliban Mullahs and warlords and instructed them in the rudiments of modern guerilla warfare in hopes that they would work out as mercenaries willing to protect the envisaged pipeline. The Taliban leaders moved on to occupy the power vacuum and made common cause with the Pakistani Secret Service, the ISI, which intended to exploit them as a buffer against the Indian forces to the east.

How we are to be expected to forward our national purposes inside this snake pit of ancient animosities has never been explained to the American people.  Al Qaeda is long gone. Afghanistan's corrupt President Karzai, openly negotiating with the Taliban,  has recently accused the U.S. forces of functioning as "occupiers," and invited us to leave.  We ought to take his good advice, and quickly.

Best to you all,

Burton Hersh

Sunday, June 12, 2011



I had intended to let this blogger format settle in a little bit before tiptoeing into the minefield of the JFK assassination. But last night, watching a two-hour History Channel rendition of the purported facts surrounding the shooting of John Kennedy, I found myself yelling back again and again at the television screen, not behavior I generally indulge.  Plainly, my time had come.

What I objected to was a simplified rendition of the Warren Commission conclusions, abetted by a confident-sounding voice-over stream of commentary intended to pick off any critics who might have threatened to unsettle the conventional presentation over the years. It may be that the History Channel producers were attempting to make amends for treatments of the events their own producers let slip into the programming during years past -- public funding is harder and harder to get.

I remember one very controversial episode built around a sort of Walpurgisnacht party at Clint Murchison's estate outside Dallas the night before the assassination at which Lyndon Johnson, J. Edgar Hoover, and Richard Nixon all supposedly celebrated the imminent demise of the Kennedy administration.  Within weeks the History Channel was compelled to repudiate that one.  Then there was the recent soap-operatic series on the Kennedys that was aborted recently when Caroline Kennedy and Maria Shriver weighed in in time.  Too much reality there, starting with the presentation of an indecisive JFK incapacitated by drugs and illness much of the time, controlled by his father, and struggling to reestablish his manhood by running amok among the ladies.

Certainly the current Warren Commission apologia ought to propitiate the keepers of the whitewash.  Even within its own body of statements the documentary is full of contradictions. For example, the narrator states early that Oswald had time to get off three shots, the first of which missed and chipped a curb.  The next two purportedly passed through the president's neck and back from behind.  Later on, when it has become plain that even these apologists will have to deal with the fact that Kennedy's brains were blown away, a fourth shot, a supposed entry wound, is identified at the crown of the president's head. There is no mention of the testimony of Kennedy's surgeons at Parkland Hospital and later during his autopsy in Bethesda that he sustained an entry wound in the right front temple that blew out much of his brain and the top of his skull, which Jacqueline Kennedy is seen scrambling after in the Zapruder footage.

There really isn't much point in developing too thoroughly the contradictory evidence here, all of which I laid out in the text -- and backed up in the notes -- of my 2007 book Bobby and J. Edgar.  Minor points, like the fact that the Dallas police found no evidence of powder burns on Oswald's hands and cheek, evidence that he might possibly have fired a weapon. Or the FBI's inability to get the loose old mail-order Mannlicher-Carcano rifle Oswald supposedly used to fire straight.

What bothered me particularly was this documentary's repeated efforts to discredit expert witnesses, like Notre Dame Professor Robert Blakey, who conducted the U.S. House of Representatives investigation into the assassination and concluded that there had been several shooters -- a conspiracy -- and that the Mafia played a major role.  One of Blakey's top investigators, Edwin Lopez, is presented in seeming agreement with the Warren Commission, when in fact Lopez subsequently published a book in which he asserted that there was indeed a conspiracy in which CIA operators were involved and that Blakey was conned by the CIA into omitting Agency records from his investigation.  In his own subsequent book, Blakey suggests that this might have been the case.  Perhaps most insulting of all to the responsible historian is the attempt here to present the experienced mid-level mob operative Jack Ruby as a "police character," in Hoover's words, who murdered Oswald on impulse.

A lot of time has passed. If we own anything, it is our history. When can we reclaim it?

Burton Hersh


Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Updating The New Reality


First, sorry that almost two weeks has elapsed since I provided fresh clues as to what has been happening to our country beneath the establishment-directed media blitz throughout the recent decades. We managed our semiannual relocation -- to New Hampshire for the summer -- and had to bring the entire operation, including the internet hookup -- up to speed.  Wearing, especially the afternoon of sparring with folks in New Delhi.

One bounty even these early postings has provolked is messages from friends old and new in response to what I wrote.  For example, my old pal Judge Peter Kilborn, who was in the military during the fifties, has contributed his immediate reminiscences as to how close we did come to jumping into the Hungarian revolution during the Eisenhower era.  Another friend, the writer and legal scholar Richard Cummings who produced the outstanding biography of Allard Lowenstein, points out that after a nod from Ike the fledgling CIA bumped the aged premier Muhammad Mossagedh out of power in Iran to protect the interests of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, predecessor to BP, and set in train the events which have produced the reign of the Ahatollahs.  A year later the Dulles brothers engineered a revolution in Guatamala to protect the properties of United Fruit, a client of John Foster Dulles' law firm.  Hundreds of thousands ultimately died and only in recent years has that battered country begun to recover.

In fact, I dealt with both of these geopolitical travesties in great detail in The Old Boys. The point worth making here is that, ugly as these incidents were, neither sucked us into a major conflict. As with Ronald Reagan, who backed us out of Lebanon after the marine barracks in Beirut was bombed, at the presidential level a sense of proportion was maintained.  While researching The Old Boys I spent several afternoons with Kermit Roosevelt, the grandson of Teddy and himself a historian -- he taught at Harvard as a young man.  Kermit was full of regret at the results the Agency had often produced in the Middle East; he himself had squeezed Nasser into power in Egypt as well as destroying a functioning democracy in Iraq.  The CIA's traditional role as a collection agency for Western special interests has regularly induced our intelligence services to boost proteges we would ultimately regret and have to deal with, from Fidel Castro to Noriega to Osama bin Laden.  When you start climbing under the covers internationally you had better make sure you are not embracing a Gorgon.

Musings on a Wednesday morning.  Best to you all,