19 December 2014

Who is responsible for the Pakistan school massacre?



Depends who you ask.

The Pakistan Taliban (TTP), the breakaway group that is spearheading an insurgency against the Pakistani state, has proudly admitted to having executed the horrifying atrocity that took the lives of 148 innocents, including over 130 children.

US officials have been quick to point the finger at Pakistan, noting the role of the notorious ‘S Wing’ of state military intelligence, the ISI, in covertly sponsoring various Taliban factions inside Afghanistan.

And Prime Minister Nawar Sharif, clearly feeling the pressure, has for the first time ever conceded the ISI’s duplicitous strategy and now vows that he will no longer distinguish between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Taliban, but will bravely fight them all “until the last terrorist is killed.”

Some in Pakistani diaspora communities in the west, however, have a different view. “Mossad did it,” I’ve heard from a surprising number of people. “To make Muslims look bad.” Others blame the CIA, or MI6, or both – indeed, all three.

This sort of pathetic, ignorant denialism is almost as bad as the pathetic official finger pointing.

The sad truth is that none of these actors are free of responsibility for the murky origins of the TTP.

The double game

It is, of course, a matter of record that the Pakistani ISI has secretly supported the Afghan Taliban for more than a decade, a matter I have tracked and documented since even before 9/11. Yet from the very inception of this policy, it has been pursued with tacit and selective US support.

In the run-up to 9/11, the idea was to use the Taliban as a proxy on behalf of two US energy companies, Unocal and Enron, to achieve sufficient stability to permit the construction of the Trans-Afghan pipeline project – the Pakistani ISI, was the chief conduit of US logistical, financial and military aid to the Taliban during this period.

Yet even after 9/11, despite US intelligence agencies being intimately familiar with ongoing Pakistani ISI support for the Afghan Taliban fighting NATO troops in the country, Pakistan has continued to receive billions of dollars of military aid in the name of counterterrorism.

Yet throughout all this US counter-terrorism assistance, the ISI’s support of the very factions NATO forces are fighting in Afghanistan has gone on, unimpeded. Two declassified US Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) reports dated two weeks after 9/11, found that al-Qaeda had been “able to expand under the safe sanctuary extended by Taliban following Pakistan directives” and ISI funding.

In 2006, a leaked US Ministry of Defence report showed that the British government was fully aware of how: “Indirectly Pakistan (through the ISI) has been supporting terrorism and extremism” – including being involved in the 2005 London bombings, and insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Confidential NATO reports and US intelligence assessments circulated to White House officials in 2008 further confirmed ongoing ISI support for Taliban insurgents, tracing the complicity to senior ISI officials including Pakistan’s head of military intelligence, in providing extensive military support to Taliban camps in Balochistan and the ‘Haqqani’ network leading the insurgency around Kabul. Despite these reports being circulated around the highest levels of the White House, senior Obama administration officials went to pains to persuade US Congress to extend military assistance to Pakistan for five years, with no need for assurances that ISI assistance to the Taliban had ended.

So it continued, with US support. In 2010, the massive batch of classified US military cables released via Wikileaks documented how from 2004 to 2010, US military intelligence knew full well that the ISI was supporting a wide range of militant factions in Afghanistan and northwest Pakistan affiliated to al-Qaeda and the Taliban, even while receiving billions of dollars of US counterterrorism assistance. And a NATO intelligence report leaked in 2012 similarly showed that the ISI was directly sponsoring the Taliban, providing them safe havens, and even manipulating fighters and arresting only those believed to be uncooperative with ISI orders.

So if it is, indeed, accurate to accuse Pakistan of playing a 'double game' in the ‘War on Terror’, what about the United States? The US Congressional Research Service last year pointed out that after 9/11, “the United States has viewed Pakistan as a key ally, especially in the context of counterterrorism and Afghan and regional stability. Pakistan has been among the leading recipients of US foreign assistance both historically and in recent years.”

This year, Pakistan received $1.2 billion in US economic and security aid. Next year, while the civilian portion of aid is being slashed over concerns about misuse of funds, the US will still provide a total of around $1 billion. The military portion of this will help the Pakistan military “to conduct counterinsurgency (COIN) and counterterrorism (CT) operations against militants and also encourage continued US-Pakistan military-to-military engagement.”

Calibrating violence

US military aid in the name of counterterrorism assistance has in other words directly supported the ISI even while it has covertly sponsored the insurgency in Afghanistan. Why?

In 2009, I obtained a confidential report commissioned by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which provided a shocking explanation for this seemingly contradictory policy. The report, authored by respected defence consultant Prof Ola Tunander who had previously contributed to a high-level Danish government inquiry into US covert operations during the Cold War, concluded that US strategy in AfPak is to “support both sides in the conflict” so as to “calibrate the level of violence,” ironically to prolong, not end, regional conflicts. This counterintuitive strategy, the report argued, appears to be motivated by a wider geopolitical objective of maintaining global support for US interventionism to maintain regional security. By fanning the flames of war in AfPak, US forces are able to “increase and decrease the military temperature and calibrate the level of violence” with a view to permanently “mobilize other governments in support of US global policy.”

While pundits are now claiming that the TTP, which broke away from the Afghan Taliban to begin targeting the Pakistani state, is the avowed enemy of the ISI, the situation remains complicated. The TTP still maintains relations with its Afghan counterpart for some operations, members of which often flock to the TTP. And in 2009, an Independent on Sunday investigation reported that despite having burned down 200 girls’ schools and conducted 165 bomb attacks against Pakistani security forces, local politicians fleeing the attacks claimed that “elements of the military and the militants appear to be acting together… The suspicion of collusion, said a local government official in the largest town, Mingora, is based on the proximity of army and Taliban checkposts, each ‘a mile away from the other.’”

Pakistani investigative journalist Amir Mir noted that far from being staffed by mullahs, the TTP’s shura councils are filled with former Pakistani military and intelligence officials. The “large number of ex-servicemen, including retired commissioned officers, as its members,” raised disturbing questions about the extent to which disgruntled extremists inside the ISI have been using the movement to impose their brutal Islamist ideology not just in northwest Pakistan, but within the Pakistani state itself.

Silent killings

Yet as TTP violence has escalated, the Pakistani army has accelerated local military operations in response, just as Obama has accelerated indiscriminate drone strikes across the region. Both these approaches have tended to target not terrorists, but civilians. According to Brown University’s Costs of War Project, Pakistani security forces have conducted major offensives in the northwest Swat Valley and neighbouring areas, killing “civilians with mortars, direct fire, and with bombs... In some years, it appears that Pakistani security forces were responsible for the majority of civilian killings,” as opposed to the TTP, which is clearly brutal enough.

Indeed, while the TTP’s latest wanton massacre of school children has captured public attention, the media has remained essentially silent on the Pakistani military’s slaughter of up to a hundred plus civilians through the first half of this year. No one knows the true scale of the casualties, but the Bureau for Investigative Journalism, analyzing public record news reports (which themselves are conservative due to being based on official government claims), found that the Pakistani airstrikes killed up to 540 people, and that as many as 112 of these could have been civilians. Not a peep of condemnation from either the mainstream media, or Pakistani diasporas in the west.

The CIA’s drone strikes are equally counterproductive. A secret CIA Directorate of Intelligence report just released via Wikileaks, reviewing the record of drone strikes and counterinsurgency operations over the last decades, admits that these “may increase support for the insurgents, particularly if these strikes enhance insurgent leaders’ lore, if non-combatants are killed in the attacks, if legitimate or semi-legitimate politicians aligned with the insurgents are targeted, or if the government is already seen as overly repressive or violent.”

Militarisation is no solution

The rise of the TTP, which appears in some ways even more extreme than its Afghan counterpart, is a direct result of the massive, indiscriminate violence deployed by both the US and Pakistan in the region – which feeds the grievances driving locals into the TTP’s ranks. Denying that this violence radicalizes people on the ground is futile. The fact is that the TTP was spawned as an ultra-extreme reaction to the ongoing militarised approach to the region, which itself has slaughtered thousands of civilians.

Yet the frankly disgusting double-game of the US and Pakistani governments in the violence does not absolve the Taliban and its offshoots from their own responsibility for mass murder. The twisted ideology they use to justify their terrorist attacks against civilians, and children no less, must be countered and de-legitimised.

But equally, the rampant expansion of this ideology in areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan has been enabled by the comprehensive breakdown of local institutions and basic economic infrastructure, where alienation and resentment find their outlets through a violent extremism fed by a fatal cocktail of covert foreign finance and selective ISI sponsorship. The short-sighted obsession with military solutions coming from both the US and Pakistani establishments, in this context, merely throws fuel on the fire. Who will counter the entrenched ideologies behind these failed military policies?

In theory, there is a way out. The US must wind-down its self-serving obsession with military aid to Pakistan, much of which is being used to finance the very enemies we are supposedly fighting. Instead of providing billions of dollars of ‘counterterrorism’ focused aid to a hopelessly corrupt government, such billions could be used in coordination with the state to empower genuine grassroots networks like the Rural Support Programmes and others with a proven track-record in enfranchising communities in self-development and poverty alleviation. Only be empowering the Pakistani people, can the country hope to begin moving towards a genuine democracy based on a vibrant and engaged civil society.

From here, we may begin to see Pakistanis themselves further developing their own indigenous conceptions of Islam, drawing on the well-established Pakistani spiritual-cultural traditions of peace and inclusiveness represented in the musical movements of eastern classical, folk, qawwali, bhangra, Sufi and contemporary hip hop, rock and pop, and represented by nationally-acclaimed cultural icons like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Junoon, among countless others. Such Pakistani cultural icons demonstrate that truly populist approaches to Islam and spirituality are not regressive, but progressive. The militant madrassas preaching exclusionary violence and totalitarian politics in the name of Islam, are being propped up not by local traditions, but by vast inputs of foreign finance exporting an alien ideology over decades from the Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia.

And there is a role in this for diaspora communities to mobilize their wealth, expertise and resources to help build the long-term capacity of Pakistani communities to resist and counter the alien ideologies represented by movements like the Taliban – but the focus here must be on crafting positive visions for the future, through meaningful institution-building. More than that, diaspora communities, indeed western citizens in general, need to recognize their fundamental responsibility to engage critically and relentlessly to pressure western government institutions and hold them to account for failed foreign policies pursued in our name that are aggravating the AfPak quagmire.

Extremists are gleefully filling a vacuum of despair cultivated by ruthless domestic corruption and callous international geopolitics. It is never too late to begin cultivating the seeds of hope.


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11 December 2014

Senate report being used to whitewash Obama’s rehabilitation of torture


The grizzly details of CIA torture have, finally, been at least partly aired through the release this Tuesday of the executive summary to a landmark Senate intelligence committee report. The extent of the torture has been covered extensively across the media, and is horrifying - unless you’re a FOX News pundit. But much of the media coverage of this issue is missing the crucial bigger picture: the deliberate rehabilitation of torture under the Obama administration, and its systematic use to manufacture false intelligence to justify endless war.

Torture victims, who had been detained by the US national security apparatus entirely outside any sort of recognizable functioning system of due process, endured a litany of extreme abuses normally associated with foreign dictatorships: 180 hour sleep deprivation, forced ‘rectal feeding’, rectal ‘examinations’ using ‘excessive force’, standing for dozens of hours on broken limbs, water-boarding, being submerged in iced baths, and on and on and on.

Yet for the most part, it has been assumed that the CIA’s ‘enhanced interrogation program’, originated under the Bush administration after 9/11, was a major “aberration” from normal CIA practice – as one US former military prosecutor put it in The Guardian.

On BBC Newsnight, yesterday, presenter Emily Maitlis asked former National Security Adviser under Carter, Zbigniew Brzezinski, about the problem of “rogue elements in the CIA,” and whether this was inevitable due to the need for secrecy in intelligence.

High-level sanction

Media coverage of the Senate report has largely whitewashed the extent to which torture has always been an integral and systematic intelligence practice since the Second World War, continuing even today under the careful recalibration of Obama and his senior military intelligence officials. The key function of torture, largely overlooked by the pundits, is its role in manufacturing nebulous threats that legitimize the existence and expansion of the national security apparatus.

The CIA’s post-9/11 torture program was formally approved at the highest levels of the civilian administration. We have known for years that torture was officially sanctioned by at least President Bush, Vice President Cheney, former National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell, CIA directors George Tenet and Michael Hayden, and Attorney General John Ashcroft.

Yet the focus on the Bush administration serves a useful purpose. While the UN has called for prosecutions of Bush officials, Obama himself is excused on the pretext that he banned domestic torture in 2009, and reiterated the ban abroad this November.

Even Dan Froomklin of The Intercept congratulated the November move as a “win” for the “good guys.” Indeed, with the release of the Senate report, Obama’s declaration that he has ended “the CIA’s detention and interrogation program” has been largely uncritically reported by both mainstream and progressive media, reinforcing this narrative.

Rehabilitating the torture regime

Yet Obama did not ban torture in 2009, and has not rescinded it now. He instead rehabilitated torture with a carefully crafted Executive Order that has received little scrutiny. He demanded, for instance, that interrogation techniques be made to fit the US Army Field Manual, which complies with the Geneva Convention and has prohibited torture since 1956.

But in 2006, revisions were made to the Army Field Manual, in particular through ‘Appendix M’, which contained interrogation techniques that went far beyond the original Geneva-inspired restrictions of the original version of the manual. This includes 19 methods of interrogation and the practice of extraordinary rendition. As pointed out by US psychologist Jeff Kaye who has worked extensively with torture victims, a new UN Committee Against Torture (UNCAT) review of the manual shows that a wide-range of torture techniques continue to be deployed by the US government, including isolation, sensory deprivation, stress positions, chemically-induced psychosis, adjustments of environmental and dietary rules, among others.

Indeed, the revelations contained in the Senate report are a mere fraction of the totality of torture techniques deployed by the CIA and other agencies. Murat Kurnaz, a Turkish citizen born and raised in Germany who was detained in Guantanomo for five years, has for instance charged that he had been subjected to prolonged solitary confinement, repeated beatings, water-dunking, electric shock treatment, and suspension by his arms, by US forces.

On January 22nd, 2009, retired Admiral Dennis Blair, then Obama’s director of national intelligence, told the Senate intelligence committee that the Army Field Manual would be amended to allow new forms of harsh interrogation, but that these changes would remain classified:

“We have large amounts of unclassified  doctrine for our troops to use, but we don’t put anything in  there that our enemies can use against us. And we’ll figure it out for this manual… there will be some sort of  document that’s widely available in an unclassified form, but  the specific techniques that can provide training value to  adversaries, we will handle much more carefully.”

Obama’s supposed banning of the CIA’s secret rendition programs was also a misnomer. While White House officials insisted that from now on, detainees would not be rendered to “any country that engages in torture,” rendered detainees were already being sent to countries in the EU that purportedly do not sanction torture – where they were then tortured by the CIA.

Obama did not really ban the CIA’s use of secret prisons either, permitting indefinite detention of people without due process “on a short-term transitory basis.

Half a century of torture as a system

What we are seeing now is not the Obama administration putting an end to torture, but rather putting an end to the open acknowledgement of the use of torture as a routine intelligence practice.

But the ways of old illustrate that we should not be shocked by the latest revelations. Declassified CIA training manuals from the 1960s, 70s, 80s, and 90s, prove that the CIA has consistently practiced torture long before the Bush administration attempted to legitimize the practice publicly.

In his seminal study of the subject, A Question of Torture, US historian Prof Alfred W. McCoy of the University of Wisconsin-Madison proves using official documents and interviews with intelligence sources that the use of torture has been a systematic practice of US and British intelligence agencies, sanctioned at the highest levels, over “the past half century.” Since the Second World War, he writes, a “distinctive US covert-warfare doctrine… in which psychological torture has emerged as a central if clandestine facet of American foreign policy.”

The psychological paradigm deployed the CIA fused two methods in particular, “sensory disorientation” and so-called “self-inflicted pain.” These methods were based on intensive “behavioural research that made psychological torture NATO’s secret weapon against communism and cognitive science the handmaiden of state security.”

“From 1950 to 1962,” found McCoy, “the CIA became involved in torture through a massive mind-control effort, with psychological warfare and secret research into human consciousness that reached a cost of a billion dollars annually.”

The pinnacle of this effort was the CIA’s Kubark Counterintelligence Interrogation handbook finalized in 1963, which determined the agency’s interrogation methods around the world. In the ensuing decade, the agency trained over a million police officers across 47 countries in torture. A later incarnation of the CIA torture training doctrine emerged under Freedom of Information in the form of the 1983 Human Resources Training Exploitation Manual.

Power… and propaganda

One of the critical findings of the Senate report is that torture simply doesn’t work, and consistently fails to produce meaningful intelligence. So why insist on its use? For McCoy, the addiction to torture itself is a symptom of a deep-seated psychological disorder, rather than a rational imperative: “In sum, the powerful often turn to torture in times of crisis, not because it works but because it salves their fears and insecurities with the psychic balm of empowerment.”

He is right, but in the post-9/11 era, there is more to the national security apparatus’ chronic torture addiction than this.

It is not a mere accident that torture generates vacuous intelligence, but nevertheless continues to be used and justified for intelligence purposes. For instance, the CIA claimed that its torture of alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM) led to the discovery and thwarting of a plot to hijack civilian planes at Heathrow and crash them into the airport and buildings in Canary Wharf. The entire plot, however, was an invention provoked by torture that included waterboarding, “facial and abdominal slaps, the facial grab, stress positions, standing sleep deprivation” and “rectal rehydration.”

As one former senior CIA official who had read all KSM’s interrogation reports told Vanity Fair, “90 percent of it was total fucking bullshit.” Another ex-Pentagon analyst said that torturing KSM had produced “no actionable intelligence.”

Torture also played a key role in the much-hyped London ricin plot. Algerian security services alerted British intelligence in January 2003 to the so-called plot after interrogating and torturing a ‘terrorist suspect’, former British resident Mohammed Meguerba. We now know there was no plot. Four of the defendants were acquitted of terrorism and four others had the cases against them abandoned. Only Kamal Bourgass was convicted after he murdered Special Branch Detective Constable Stephen Oake during a raid. Former British ambassador to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray, has also blown the whistle on how the CIA would render ‘terror suspects’ to the country to be tortured by Uzbek secret police, including being boiled alive. The confessions generated would be sent to the CIA and MI6 to be fed into ‘intelligence’ reports. Murray described the reports as “bollocks,” replete with false information not worth the “bloodstained paper” they are written on.

Many are unaware that the 9/11 Commission report is exactly such a document. Nearly a third of the report’s footnotes reference information obtained from detainees subject to ‘enhanced’ interrogation by the CIA. In 2004, the commission demanded that the CIA conduct “new rounds of interrogations” to get answers to its questions. As investigative reporter Philip Shennon pointed out in Newsweek, this has “troubling implications for the credibility of the commission’s final report” and “its account of the 9/11 plot and al-Qaeda’s history.” Which is why lawyers for the chief 9/11 mastermind suspects now say after the release of the Senate report that the case for prosecution may well unravel. Not surprising if a third of the report is merely ‘bollocks.’

That torture generates false information has long been known to the intelligence community. Much of the CIA’s techniques are derived from reverse engineering Survival Evasion Resistance and Escape (SERE) training, where US troops are briefly exposed in controlled settings to abusive interrogation techniques used by enemy forces, so that they can better resist treatment they might face if they are captured. SERE training, however, adopted tactics used by Chinese Communists against American soldiers during the Korean War for the purpose of eliciting false confessions for propaganda purposes, according to a Senate Armed Services Committee report in 2009.

Torture: core mechanism to legitimize threat projection

By deploying the same techniques against ‘terror suspects,’ the intelligence community was not seeking to identify real threats: it was seeking to manufacture threats for the purpose of justifying war. As David Rose found after interviewing “numerous counterterrorist officials from agencies on both sides of the Atlantic,” their unanimous verdict was that “coercive methods” had squandered massive resources to manufacture “false leads, chimerical plots, and unnecessary safety alerts.” Far from exposing any deadly plots, torture led only to “more torture” of supposed accomplices of ‘terror suspects’ “while also providing some misleading ‘information’ that boosted the administration’s argument for invading Iraq.” But the Iraq War was not about responding to terrorism. According to declassified British Foreign Office files, it was about securing control over Persian Gulf oil and gas resources, and opening them up to global markets to avert a portended energy crisis.

In other words, torture plays a pivotal role in the Pentagon’s posture of permanent global war: generating spurious overblown ‘intelligence’ that can be fed-in to official security narratives of imminent terrorist threats everywhere, in turn requiring evermore empowerment of the security agencies, and legitimizing military expansionism in strategic regions.

The Obama administration is now exploiting the new Senate report to convince the world that the intelligence community’s systematic embroilment in torture was merely a Bush-era aberration that is now safely in the past.

Do not be fooled. Obama has rehabilitated and recalibrated the covert torture apparatus, and is attempting to leverage the torture report’s damning findings to claim moral high ground his administration doesn’t have. The torture regime is alive and well – but it has been put back in the box of classified secrecy to continue without public scrutiny.


Dr. Nafeez Ahmed is an investigative journalist, bestselling author and international security scholar. Formerly of The Guardian, he writes the ‘System Shift’ column for VICE’s Motherboard, and is the winner of a 2015 Project Censored Award for Outstanding Investigative Journalism for his Guardian work. He is the author of A User’s Guide to the Crisis of Civilization: And How to Save It (2010), and the scifi thriller novel  ZERO POINT, among other books. His work on the root causes and covert operations linked to international terrorism officially contributed to the 9/11 Commission and the 7/7 Coroner’s Inquest. If you found this article useful, you can support Nafeez’s journalism via his upcoming project, Insurge.

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