TCS Daily


To Win Terror War, Know Thy Enemy - Abroad And Within

By James Pinkerton - October 1, 2001 12:00 AM

First of Two Parts

If knowledge is power, as Francis Bacon said, no wonder Americans feel weak right now. To be sure, our military can deliver victory on any battlefield, but if the whole of the United States is a potential war zone, then all of us are part of the war -- like it or not. And that struggle will require more than blood, treasure and technology; it will also require political and cultural savvy about the world around us.

It's a tragic irony that the era of globalization coincided with an era of info-inwardness. As Los Angeles Times' media critic David Shaw reported last week, international coverage, on both pages and on screens, has fallen by some 80% over the past two decades.

But as the Sept. 11 attack on America demonstrated, ignorance is not bliss. So any effort to think about a grand strategy for the United States in the 21st century -- and this piece is the first of many installments -- must begin with the humbling realization that we need to know more about a world full of enigmatic enemies that can come here and leave us bleeding.

In his 1935 book, Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact, the Polish scientist Ludwik Fleck observed: "Whatever is known has always seemed systematic, proven, applicable and evident to the knower. Every alien system of knowledge has likewise seemed contradictory, unproven, inapplicable, fanciful or mystical." For three weeks now, Americans have been inundated in "news" from a mostly a distant region -- much of it contradictory, unproven, inapplicable, fanciful, mystical. But it's likely that for the remainder of this young century, Americans will have to generate and develop processes for sorting information into fact, not-fact and not-sure.

That will be costly, in terms of time and money. But what's the alternative? Twice before in our history, during World War II and again during the Cold War, the United States launched crash programs to understand the challenge posed by fascism and communism. Today, for the Terror War, we will need similar mechanisms for analyzing and understanding the threats around us. And while it must be stipulated that the Muslim faith is not the enemy, it should be noted that our most mortal enemies are Muslims. And so the most urgent project for American info-strategists in the 21st Century is the study of Islamic politics and culture -- past, present, and future.

But as so often happens in wartime, long-term concerns must contend with short-term urgencies. For example, we might ask the basic question of Osama Bin Laden and his relationship with the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. In the days after Sept. 11, the Afghan government - if that term can be applied to the Taliban men who control Afganistan's capital Kabul -- insisted that it did not know the whereabouts of Osama, hinting that perhaps he had already fled the country. But on Sept. 30, the Taliban's ambassador to Pakistan, Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, told Reuters: "Osama is in Afghanistan but he is at an unknown place for his safety and security. Only security people know about his whereabouts. Osama bin Laden is under our control."

On the other hand, here's what ex-Talibanite Hafiz Sadiqulla Hassani said to the British newspaper The Telegraph on the same day: "We laughed when we heard the Americans asking Mullah Omar to hand over Osama bin Laden. The Americans are crazy. It is Osama bin Laden who can hand over Mullah Omar -- not the other way round." As CNN's Christiane Amanpour -- surely one of the better-informed journalists in the area --said over the weekend: "We get information from all parts of the Taliban. It's impossible to decipher."

Yet it's possible, of course, that it doesn't much matter whether or not the Taliban controls Osama, or vice versa, because the decipherers will soon be superseded by be the warriors -- as the United States takes decisive military action.

But once Osama's fate is determined, someone will have to take the lead in creating a new Afghan order. One obvious source of human capital for such new ordering might be the Afghan-American community in the United States -- speakers of Pushtu, the dominant Afghan tongue, are needed -- and yet that might be tricky; an honest fulfillment of duty is needed, too. Consider this allegation from the Women's Alliance for Peace and Human Rights in Afghanistan, sent to the director of the Voice of America on Sept. 23, 1999:

"Since the Taliban took over the city of Kabul in 1996, we have watched, heard, and witnessed the VOA Pushtu Service pseudo-reporters represent the Taliban and become the mouthpiece for the Taliban militia in every press conference, Congressional hearings, State Department meetings, and other public settings. In these gatherings the pseudo-reporters of the VOA Pushtu Service have neither followed the journalistic ethics, or the standards that are required to be a journalist. They have been biased, abusive, and outright brutal to anyone who has criticized the Taliban's rule."


What's the truth? Tish King, spokesperson for the VOA, dismissed the accusations. She told me that an "independent study," which completed its work, by odd coincidence, on September 11, found "no pattern of pro-Taliban bias" in VOA reporting. But interestingly, she would not make the report available, nor would she even tell me the name of anyone involved in the writing of that report. So in other words, maybe there really is some fire beneath the smoke, but the VOA doesn't want outsiders getting a look at the fuel. If anyone in the executive branch shares my concern about this matter -- a concern deepened by VOA's non-responsive response--then there's some scrutinizing to be done.

And if nobody in the executive branch is curious as to why VOA would commission an inquiry and then stonewall its findings -- refusing to reveal even the names of the inquirers -- then perhaps this is a case that calls for Congressional oversight, or maybe a Freedom of Information Act filing from some outsider.

What's the truth? A VOA spokesperson did not return inquiring calls as of deadline.

But in the meantime, there's other news about the VOA. On Sept. 25, the VOA aired a news report that included an interview with Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban chief -- despite a request from the State Department not to run it. "The VOA works according to its charter," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher told reporters. "Its charter says that they should explain U.S. government policy and present responsible discussion about it. We don't consider Mullah Omar to be responsible discussion." Sounds reasonable, and in fact, State thought it had a no-Omar-interview deal. But then the VOA ran it anyway.

On Monday, The Washington Post reported that Andre DeNesnera, news director of VOA, had written a memo complaining of "a systematic attack on the Voice of America" -- launched the State Department. That's right: in the view of this VOA bureaucrat, the big threat isn't foreign terror, but rather the U.S. government, which demands that its own tax-funded agencies toe the official line in wartime.

The minimum prudent response to questions about VOA, of course, is threefold: first, expand the pool of reliable Pushtu speakers in and around the government; at the same time, expand Pushtu-language programming above its current 105 minutes a day, and, finally, insist that self-righteous" journalists" on Uncle Sam's payroll should be on the same side as the government.

These two examples -- a lack of understanding of who runs Afghanistan, and doubt about the judgment of people running a U.S. agency with a critical role in that troubled country -- shine a light on one of many challenges that the United States faces in the years to come. But it's a challenge that's been solved before; the contradictory, the unproven, the inapplicable, even the fanciful and mystical, can be explained and resolved. And, oh, yes: wars can be won.

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