The Perilous Triangle: #7: A Turning Point Called Kandahar

The last lecture in the series was given jointly by two journalists, Jim Miklaszewski, Chief Pentagon Correspondent for NBC News and Charlie Sennott, former Boston Globe Foreign Correspondent who now runs GlobalPost.

Miklaszewski (or Mik, as he’s called) was at CNN until 1985, and since has been with NBC News; he was at the Pentagon when the plane struck it on 9/11/2001.  Sennott has been a correspondent in Afghanistan, Iraq, Belfast, Medellin, Sudan, Egypt, and the West Bank. He was also a street reporter in New York City in 1993, when the first terrorist attack took place in the garage of the World Trade Centers.

The two men carried on one narrative in two voices; I’ve tried to note who said what.


Sennott began by saying that “the light went on” in 1993 — he and other reporters knew there was something there. In the Sudan, he sensed a nascent network of terrorists (Al Qaeda). Osama bin Laden attended the Islamic Conference in 1993. But only Walter Pincus at the Washington Post wrote anything about it, in articles about bin Laden as the possible financier of the World Trade Center bombing in 1993.

The Intifada blew up in 2000-2001; Jerusalem was so violent in the summer of 2001 that Sennott and his family decided to leave. They got to London on 9/5/2001 and the movers came on 9/11. He had no TV when the 9/11 terror attacks took place.

Meanwhile, Mik was at the Pentagon.


Mik said that the FBI, CIA and others have spent 17 years trying to put together the puzzle. In 1998, Al Qaeda coordinated bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa (Kenya and Tanzania); in 2000, the U.S.S. Cole was attacked in the Gulf of Aiden; on 9/10/2001, ABC News saw warning signs when at the Northern Alliance meeting, a camera blew up and killed everyone in the room.

When the plane struck the Pentagon on 9/11/2001, Mik was 3 miles away inside the Pentagon, as the crow flies (the Pentagon has 17.5 miles of corridors), on camera with Katie Couric, talking about the WTC plane attacks.

No one believed then that a war would still be going on 10 years later.


(Sennott) Back in London, Sennott had planned to be a Europe correspondent but knew that after 9/11, he would be in Afghanistan. He went to get “Visa’d up”: “Give me every ‘stan you have.”

On 9/17, he was in Tajikistan, then on to Afghanistan on an old Northern Alliance plane, which landed in Faizabad on a corrugated tin tarmac. He was among the first American journalists in. He says it was “like walking on the moon.”

New York had shrugged off the first attack on the WTC; it took Al Qaeda just 8 more years to topple the buildings.


(Mik) A misconception about the war in Afghanistan, comparing it with problems the British and Soviets had there: the U.S. is not trying to instill its own democracy in Afghanistan. The U.S. is only trying to provide security to allow some governance to take over. He thinks it will take 5-10 years more.

Back to the Pentagon on 9/11: At 11:18 a.m.,  Sec. of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and others were talking about possible perpetrators. Rumsfeld said, “We shouldn’t just look at Al Qaeda — we have to be broader, we have to look at Iraq.”

When the Bush administration directed resources to Iraq, Afghanistan was doomed to prolonged conflict; the Taliban was given a chance to reassert itself.

On the 8th anniversary of the war, the Taliban’s influence is exerted over more of Afghanistan than it did on 9/11.

The Taliban knew America would be distracted. A common saying among them is, “You have the watches; we have the time.” I.e., they can wait out the  empire.


(Sennott) Sennott was in Iraq in 2003. Journalists were also diverted, although Afghanistan is where Al Qaeda worked from in 2001. Journalists should have been tougher, should have asked hard questions. Good organisations failed in the journalistic responsibilities.

Sennott took a year off in 2005 (on a fellowship at Harvard). In 2006, the Boston Globe began to have economic problems; in 2007, the Globe‘s foreign operations were all closed, no foreign editor. Also true at the Phila. Inquirer, the Miami Herald, the Chicago Tribune, and Newsday. In 2009, Sennott and partners launched GlobalPost, an international online news organisation with 70 correspondents in 50 countries.


(Mik) The two biggest problems facing the U.S. in Afghanistan:

1. inability of Afghanistan to rally any kind of viable military security force

2. corruption, which starts with Karzai, who is very clever and doesn’t leave his fingerprints on the crimes. Billions of dollars have been stolen by Karzai and his family.

The Taliban is basically organised crime, and the Afghanistan government is like a rival gang.

Four of Karzai’s brothers are involved in funneling money out of Afghanistan, including Wali Karzai, the governor of Kandahar, provides protection for drug traffickers. [Ahmed Wali Karzai was assassinated on 12 July 2011]

Everyone (military, news orgs, etc.) has to pay off bribes at multiple checkpoints to bring in equipment, etc.  This practice is common in this part of the world, but it’s a fine art here.


(Sennott) Our aid is making things worse. We’re pitting one against the other, paying bribes that strengthen the Taliban. Money injected into the system generally goes to our adversaries.

Karzai’s decree (in the news that morning) about eliminating private security firms has major loophole: except if they have majority ownership by Afghans.


(Mik) News organisations use private security firms. If the decree becomes law, NBC will put an Afghan on the payroll of the British security firm they use. NBC pays rent to the Afghan mafia where they stay — so they feel a heightened sense of security there!

General Petraeus

(Mik) Petraeus is pivotal in the “long war.” He’s the author of the counter-insurgency manual. Selfless of Petraeus to return to the field after Gen. Stanley McChrystal ousted.  He knows the battlefields and also the political minefields of DC. A political animal.

The U.S. strategy is one of military and civilian agencies, but the U.S. military has more people in its military bands than that State Dept. has foreign officers (not far from the truth). This is why very young Pfcs end up as head honchos in Afghan villages.

Petraeus believes we have finally stopped the Taliban momentum, but not reversed it. Recently, Taliban has increased brutal attacks against Afghans after going on a “charm offensive” for a while. Civilians killed by the Taliban has steadily risen; in the past year, 12% of civilian casualties were caused by U.S. and international attacks, and 76% by the Taliban.

We cannot militarily defeat the Taliban. It has to be done politically. All those in power agree with this.

The Taliban can offer some sense of security and rule of law in out-lying areas. Justice is swift (and brutal).

The Afghan people can govern themselves and have an inherent sense of fairness.

The U.S. military is working with what they’ve got locally, not trying to change the culture. The central government still has to change. Afghan security forces will be up to speed in 3-5 years, maybe 10.

(Bosnia:  was supposed to be a 1-year gig, but we were over there for 9 years — no one noticed because Americans weren’t dying there. Korea: we’ve been there for 60 years!)

Petraeus’s strategy is to bring down the number of American casualties and buy time to allow some kind of legitimate governance.


(Sennott) The counter-insurgency manual is great but it’s not necessarily what’s happening on the ground. Troops on the ground don’t understand who the enemy is.  When asked who they’re shooting at, solders say “The ACM” (anti-coalition militia). They don’t know if they’re Taliban or grafted-on Al Qaeda or a drug lord protecting a supply route or the local anti-colonial militia. Petraeus needs to educate the troops on who the Taliban is, who the players are.


(Mik) The manual says the force ratio should be 1:20 — 1 armed soldier to 20 members of the population. The military would need at least 500,000 soldiers for that to hold, which is not possible.

Afghanistan is exponentially more complex than Iraq ever was. No one single military strategy in Afghanistan can apply to all areas.

For example, Marjah is mostly under control now. But Kandahar (with a pop. and size of Phila.) is run by the Taliban and mafia criminals. Needs civilian organisations, local police embedded with the military.

Members of the Taliban commute to work every day, into town from the suburbs, where they return at night.


(Sennott) Petraeus is excellent at defining what success meant in Iraq; it’s much harder in Afghanistan, where there are 30,000 rural villages.



Why Are We There?

Because of 9/11.

Afghanistan would be a no-man’s land if we leave.

Al Qaeda is in Pakistan now. There is a large task force in the Pentagon that spends a year in Afghanistan, then a year in the Pentagon, then back. It’s not called the Afghanistan cell; it’s called the “Pakistan-Afghanistan cell.”

The (current) huge flood in Pakistan “scares the hell out of me.” Desperate people will welcome help from Al Qaeda.

The 7/2011 draw-down — it’s the beginning of the withdrawal. Now the U.S. administration is saying it’s the beginning of the transition to  Afghan security forces. There’s no waiver on the Obama administration’s part to seeing the strategy through. Petraeus will present an assessment of the war in December.



Q: Israel wants us to bomb Iran – can we stop this?

(Mik) There is some work among covert forces concerning this. The nuclear centrifuges in Iran aren’t working well — the word is that they are sabotaged before they ever get to Iran.

Israel will strike if Iran gets enriched uranium and is anywhere close to having weapons capability.

(Sennott) In hindsight, Israel’s strike on Iraq in the early 1980s seems successful, because it partly crippled Hussein and prevented nuclear capability there.

(Mik) Israel would have to cross our airspace and we would seem complicit. Arabs don’t want Iran to get the bomb either — Sunnis fear a Shia bomb.

Q: Are there any Afghans who could become inspiring leaders if corruption conquered?

(Mik and Sennott) No. The system of failed states is the problem — dysfunctional — can’t allow good leaders to come forward.

Q: Al Qaeda and Taliban – same, different?

<Sennott) Hugh difference between them.

The Taliban grew from the civil war in Afghanistan, emerged as an alternative to brutality and corruption, but after they gained power in 1996, they quickly became brutal and broke – we didn’t support them.

Bin Laden came into this with cash from Saudi money and organised the group (into what is now Al Qaeda). Said to all in each country, don’t go after your local insurgency, instead go after what unites them all: the U.S.

Al Qaeda was formed in the midst of the Taliban, but the Taliban is local, Al Qaeda is not and it’s growing and spreading.

(Mik) The Taliban came to be because of the mujaheddin war — Pakistan support the Taliban because it feared a strong Afghan government on its border.


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