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Asia Times, May 1, 2009

BOOK REVIEW: Behind the Afghan propaganda

Invisible History: Afghanistan's Untold Story by Paul Fitzgerald and Elizabeth Gould

Reviewed by Anthony Fenton

Nearly 30 years after their first foray into the land-locked buffer state, married couple and journalist-historians Paul Fitzgerald and Elizabeth Gould could not have chosen a more appropriate time to publish their comprehensive Invisible History: Afghanistan's Untold Story.

Cover of Invisible History: Afghanistan's Untold Story by Paul Fitzgerald and Elizabeth Gould
Invisible History: Afghanistan's Untold Story by Paul Fitzgerald and Elizabeth Gould. (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2009). ISBN-10: 0872864944. Price US$18.95, 300 pages.

Having taken a back seat to Iraq since the drumbeat for war began in the autumn of 2002, the ongoing escalation of the United States-North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) counter-insurgency war and occupation have made "AfPak" the center of sustained US media attention for the first time since "shock and awe" temporarily drove the Taliban underground in October 2001.

A chronically disinformed US public should leap at the chance to familiarize themselves with an honest overview of their country's historically scandalous involvement in the region.

Despite Afghanistan's recent return to the spotlight, few among the public realize the full extent of the US's historical meddling in Afghanistan. Sadly, many Americans will believe the version of events that were popularized by George Crile's book-turned-Hollywood film, Charlie Wilson's War: The Extraordinary Story of how the Wildest man in Congress and a Rogue CIA Agent Changed the History of Our Times (New York: Grove Press, 2003).

Crile's account presents an ahistorical blend of fact and fantasy as it romanticizes the largest covert operation in US history during the US-Pakistan-Saudi Arabian-financed and armed proxy war against the Soviet Union from 1979-1989. It is this collective propaganda-imbued blindspot that Fitzgerald and Gould attempt to reveal and counter. As Gould stated in an interview with Asia Times Online, Charlie Wilson's War "is a complete flip flop of the reality".

As such, one of the concerns that Gould and Fitzgerald are seeking to address is the problem that "there are still people in administration positions, in journalistic positions, in academic positions who still believe the fundamentals of Charlie Wilson's War". As Fitzgerald added, "every line cook and bottle washer in and around Washington is now an expert on Afghanistan", reflecting a popular discourse that is "far detached from reality".

As the first Western journalists to gain entry into post-Soviet invasion Afghanistan with CBS News in 1981, Fitzgerald and Gould learned that the reality on the ground was "far from the simplistic portrait of black and white, good against evil, portrayed by the American media". (p 13) When their story aired on anchorman Dan Rather's show on their return, key parts of it that ran counter to the official Washington narrative were left on the cutting room floor. Rather himself would later be accused of airing fake footage of US-backed "freedom fighters" for anti-Soviet propaganda purposes. (p 247-48)

Fitzgerald and Gould returned to Afghanistan in 1983, along with Roger Fisher, the founder of the Harvard Negotiation Project, which was created through his involvement in negotiations surrounding the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979. Fisher's key finding on meeting with Afghan and Soviet leaders was that, far from wishing to expand beyond Afghanistan's borders as purported by the Ronald Reagan administration, the Soviets "wanted out ... in no uncertain terms". (p 188)

The problem was that the US would have none of it. As Gould explained to AToI:

There was absolutely no interest on the part of Congress or the mainstream media to really get that out into the public space. As Roger stated on Nightline, "clearly I don't know for sure whether they are going to actually get out but we have to try." This is certainly what anyone with common sense would have thought. And what did we discover but no, there was absolutely no interest in getting them out. The reason being that the actual insurgency that was coming from Pakistan, that was being financed by the United States and by the Saudis; this was exactly the reason that the Soviets were staying in Afghanistan.

Having gone to great lengths to draw them into Afghanistan in the first place (beginning as early as 1973, see below), the US wanted the Soviets to stay so that their mujahideen proxies could deliver a mortal blow to the "Evil Empire". As an example of the typical approach of the US media toward the secret war, when Fisher returned to the US to report his findings on ABC's Nightline with Ted Koppel, he was sand-bagged by another guest, "Soviet dissident" Vladimir Bukovsky, who parroted the Reagan administration's fabled line that the Soviets were "moving toward the Persian Gulf". (p 189) Koppel made it clear that any reality-based account such as Fisher's, then, had to be "concealed for the benefits of propaganda".

It would take more than 15 years for Fitzgerald and Gould's analysis to be corroborated by the slow trickle of document declassification and the publication of the memoirs of key political and intelligence actors. With a heavy dose of footnotes (over 1,100), Fitzgerald and Gould rely on a mixture of interviews (some conducted during a subsequent trip to the country in 2002), primary source documents, prior historical accounts, and (Chomskyan) "impeccable sources" to flesh out their narrative, which spans three periods: antiquity to the 1960s, the height of the Cold War period up to September 11, 2001, and the period since, up to mid-July of 2008.

The important propaganda role of CIA-linked, Orwellian-named organizations such as Freedom House, the International Rescue Committee and the Committee for a Free Afghanistan are contextualized, the latter being "an odd assortment of extreme anti-communist right Republican and liberal Democrat". (p 175-79) Together, they "represented the cream of the right-wing, neo-conservative ... defense-intellectual class, controlling public opinion of the Afghan war". (p 190).
Asia Times, May 1, 2009

The first section lays the groundwork for understanding the 21st century context by tracking the development of Afghanistan as a strategic buffer state, locked between imperial powers. The most fateful development for modern Afghanistan was Britain's creation of the Durand Line in November 1893. This line continues to separate the Pashtun people, who are in the center of the insurgency and counter-insurgency that is being waged today. (p 281)

Fitzgerald and Gould argue that "no border division in the history of colonial conquest could match the ongoing consequences posed" (p 51) by this unilateral demarcation of Britain's western boundaries. As such, any external power that has dealt with Afghanistan since the demarcation can be measured by their countenance toward Pashtun demands for self-determination. Although through a loya jirga (tribal grand council) Afghans themselves "authorized the Afghan government to abrogate all of Afghanistan's treaties with Great Britain regarding the trans-Durand-Pashtuns" in 1948, by 1953 the US under president Dwight D Eisenhower and vice president Richard Nixon had "informed the Afghans that they had no justifiable claim to Pashtunistan". (p 92)

With Pakistan, the British and the rising US empire disposed against Pashtun self-determination, it was only natural that the Afghans would lean toward the Soviets, who expressed sympathy with the Pashtun cause. As the Cold War deepened and the Afghans drew closer to the Soviets, US interest in the country increased proportionately. Afghanistan would soon become a battleground on which the fantasies of Washington's Cold War policy planners would be played out.

Fitzgerald and Gould trace the origins of the post-World War II national security state to National Security Directive 68 (NSC 68) of 1950, which was premised on the "containment" of the Soviets who were said to be bent on "world domination". Accordingly, the policies that flowed from NSC 68 were designed "to foster the seeds of destruction within the Soviet system", and, conveniently, in order to pursue such policies, the US military needed to be able to project force globally, requiring the entrenchment of a vast military-industrial complex. In turn, justification for NSC 68 was provided by a core of "defense intellectuals" who became "the new seneschals of America's emerging national security and foreign policy intelligentsia". (p 88-90)

Fitzgerald and Gould emphasize the historical role of the "imperial brain trust" and covert war methods of the US during the Cold War, including, most prominently, that of propaganda and mysticism. Chapter 5, "A Background to Cold War Policy", is the longest, most heavily foot-noted, and, arguably, the most important. They also give important space to the role of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and CIA-front organizations such as the Asia Foundation (which today still works extensively in and around Afghanistan).

"Large numbers of American intellectuals participated in [Asia] Foundation programs, and they - usually unwittingly - contributed to popularizing of CIA ideas about the Far East. Designed ... as an overseas propaganda operation, the Asia Foundation also was regularly guilty of propagandizing the American people with agency views on Asia." (p 97)

The important propaganda role of CIA-linked, Orwellian-named organizations such as Freedom House, the International Rescue Committee and the Committee for a Free Afghanistan are contextualized, the latter being "an odd assortment of extreme anti-communist right Republican and liberal Democrat". (p 175-79) Together, they "represented the cream of the right-wing, neo-conservative ... defense-intellectual class, controlling public opinion of the Afghan war". (p 190).

Invisible History also shows how covert US meddling began as early as 1973 under president Nixon, following the ouster of King Zahir Shah by Mohammad Daoud. The US had not even extricated itself from its own Vietnam War when such plans were afoot as part of the "Chinese-Iranian-Pakistani-Arabian peninsula Axis" to give the Soviets theirs. (p 123-4)

By fostering the rise of fundamentalist Islam in Afghanistan beginning in the period leading to the Soviet intervention, the US helped "set in motion a series of events that would eventually demolish the country's embryonic infrastructure and political aspirations ... " (p 126) According to a former US political officer in Afghanistan, the conscious intent was "to set back the clock socially on a wide front". All told, this served the interests of both the US's cynical Cold War policies, paralleling US support for fascist regimes and insurgencies in Latin America, as well as the "forward policy" of Pakistan, which included plans "to conquer South Central Asia". (p 308)

"Large numbers of American intellectuals participated in [Asia] Foundation programs, and they - usually unwittingly - contributed to popularizing of CIA ideas about the Far East. Designed ... as an overseas propaganda operation, the Asia Foundation also was regularly guilty of propagandizing the American people with agency views on Asia."
Invisible History: Afghanistan's Untold Story, P.97

Under pressure from the covert hand of external intelligence agencies and their proxies in the mid-1970's, Afghanistan shifted rightward under Daoud, who was overthrown in April 1978, after which the country again drew closer to the Soviets. Although the 1978 coup "was a product of Afghanistan's complex internal dynamics, not the sinister product of the Kremlin's geostrategic planning", nevertheless, "by Cold War definition, the coup automatically became a self-fulfilling prophecy, easily fitting the mantle 'Soviet inspired'." (p 123-4) This was "consistent" with the narrative provided by NSC 68 and the group of Cold War intellectuals and policy planners who would become known as "Team B".

The origins of Team B, traced in another important chapter (p 139-157), are rooted in Nixon's "secretive brain trust", and in former CIA director George H W Bush's opening "an outside door to a small, right-wing corps of like-minded defense intellectuals". Setting about to destroy detente and restore the US's post-Vietnam War "military mythology", Team B was "drawn together by their anti-communism and mutual affiliations" with the military-industrial complex, as they began fostering a false narrative that said "the Soviets were preparing for a 'third world war' and were nakedly expansionist".

The January 16, 1979, overthrow of the US allied Shah of Iran and the February 14 kidnapping and murder of the US ambassador to Afghanistan, Adolf Dubs, were keystone events that "would permanently turn the tide of detente and arms control, and shift the balance of authority toward [Jimmy Carter's national security advisor Zbigniew] Brzezinski and Team B, while making Afghanistan a permanent base for holy war”. (p 160) By the time the Soviets entered Afghanistan - at the request of the Afghan government at the time - the pieces were in place to lock them into a protracted counter-insurgency war that they had no desire to wage.

As alluded to above, one of the strengths of Invisible History is its overview of the role of propaganda during this period: "Media coverage of the events leading up to the Soviet invasion had been carefully managed to avoid any hint of the plan at work. Vital to maintaining the illusion that the Soviet action was purely the result of Soviet aggression and not in reaction to American subversion, a ring of silence had been prophylactically applied." (p 177)

To this end, Fitzgerald and Gould discuss a revealing if self-congratulatory book about US propaganda methods of the period by former US Information Agency operative Alvin A Snyder, Warriors of Disinformation: American Propaganda, Soviet Lies, and the Winning of the Cold War (New York: Arcade Publishing, 1995). Snyder's book is "a cynical account of why the US people never gained an accurate picture of the deluded mind-set driving the decade-long Afghan conflict". (p 206)

As reported by US News and World Report in 1984, during the covert war against the Soviets, the USIA was "transformed from a government backwater into the key weapon in the battle of information and ideas that the Reagan administration [was] waging with Russia". During the period, an unprecedented amount of money was spent on propaganda with the intention of bringing down the Soviets. A significant amount of this propaganda was, in spite of laws prohibiting it, directed at the US public. As Gould told AToI, "The truth was the disinformation actually did end up on American television."

Providing criticism of propaganda's role where Snyder omits it, Fitzgerald and Gould describe how, following the departure of the Soviets, "left unsaid was the overall effect of the Afghan propaganda campaign on the American media, which had allowed themselves to miss the real war and been snowed under by the make-believe struggle of good versus evil ... and an unholy alliance of liberal democrats, neo-conservatives and right-wing Washington insiders". (p 207)

Among other effects of the propaganda of the period following the withdrawal of the Soviets, most people were rendered incapable of understanding the ensuing civil war and the rise of the Taliban, a period which resulted in tens of thousands of civilian deaths. A chapter covering the fundamental role of Pakistan in the creation and rise of the Taliban, "part of a grand plan" carried out by the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and CIA, closes out the second section of Invisible History. Fitzgerald and Gould write:

In addition to securing trade routes to and from Central Asia, Pakistan's generals ... saw the Taliban as a means of re-establishing Pashtun dominance in the region, hoping the force would act to permanently neutralize the Durand line issue. (p 223)

On this basis, the authors argue that it is futile to negotiate with the Taliban as though they are an independent, Afghan entity. "Never the indigenous force that they claimed to be, by 2001, they had metamorphasized into a well-financed, agenda-driven vanguard of the Pakistani military. Never just 'recruits' from the madrassas ... from the beginning the Taliban were on the payroll of the ISI." (p 308)

Placing Pakistan at the heart of the problem, Fitzgerald and Gould contend that the only way for Afghanistan to obtain its real independence is for it to be freed from their domination. As such, they advocate strongly against negotiating with the Taliban:

Well-meaning peace activists have recommended reviving the practice of parsing between al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Some recommend engaging the Taliban as the [US] engaged the Soviet Union, Communist China ... Aside from not delineating between Pakistani Taliban and Afghan Taliban and that both use terrorist methods, such recommendations ignore the reality that the Taliban were expressly created "as a kind of experimental Frankenstein monster", by the CIA and Pakistani ISI to invade Afghanistan. That mission has not changed. More importantly, such recommendations wrongly paint the Taliban as an indigenous tribal force bent on bringing peace to a troubled land. (p 323)Far from negotiating with the Taliban, "If any negotiations are to be conducted, they must begin with the state within the state sponsors of this Taliban terror, Pakistan's army and its [ISI] branch. It is this institution, which from 1973 on has played the key role in funding and directing first the mujahideen battle plan and then the Taliban ... Nothing can be accomplished without neutralizing them as a subversive influence and turning them toward the task of nation building." (p 324)

The problem, as Fitzgerald and Gould note elsewhere, is that the US and its NATO allies have, since the invasion of 2001, played a dual game where they carry out "a policy whereby [Pakistan] pretends to hunt for extremists while the US pretends to believe [them] ", (p 298) while at the same time providing the Pakistani military with billions of dollars in aid. Meanwhile, everyone knows that the ISI continues to provide support to the anti-occupation insurgency.

Some of Invisible History's less than stellar moments appear in the final section, which deals with the post-September 11, 2001, period. By providing the reader with a strong analysis of the role of covert, psychological warfare during the Cold War period, one might be disappointed to find little in-depth analysis of the continuing trajectory of these methods following 9/11 and the subsequent invasion and occupation of Afghanistan.

Anyone who is interested in how organizations such as Freedom House and the Asia Foundation (not to mention the many “sister” organizations affiliated with the National Endowment for Democracy) continue to operate, for example, as (overt or covert) functionaries of US foreign policy in today's counterinsurgency wars, may come away disappointed in that this type of analysis was beyond the scope of Invisible History.

Anti-imperialist readers may also take issue with Fitzgerald and Gould's tacit support for the US-led invasion of October 2001, which, with the culmination of the December 2001 international donor's meeting in Bonn, Germany, they say led to "a promising and rational beginning to the formulation of a new Afghanistan". (p 251) Where Fitzgerald and Gould could have challenged the combined "liberal imperialist" and neo-conservative backing of the initial invasion, considered illegal by serious international law experts, instead they appear to justify it.

By omitting a general analysis of the very organizations that the US has used to meddle in the internal affairs of countries all over the globe under the guise of nation-building, civil society building and democracy promotion, Fitzgerald and Gould come off somewhat naively when, in their "recommendations to the next president", (p 315-328) they advocate "counter[ing] the legacy of foreign-supported extremism with an extended commitment to civil society and nation-building". (p 324) While the US should pay reparations as a way to begin compensating for past crimes, sadly no precedent exists for this and the US record of “nation-building” has historically been a problem of imperialism, rather than a solution to it.

Likewise, by supporting the expansion of NATO's footprint in Afghanistan (p 289-90, 305-06, 308) the authors fail to question NATO's otherwise-contested transformation into a global imperial guard. Additionally, Fitzgerald and Gould missed an opportunity to contextualize what can be seen as an emerging "Team B redux" - a continuous flow of reports from prominent US think tanks and "counter-insurgency experts" - arguing for an escalation of the war of the very sort that would be delivered by George W Bush and Barack Obama in mid-2008 and early 2009. (p 304-5) The authors should have known even by July 2008 (the date of their most current footnote) that the Bush administration had already announced an escalation of the war; and likewise, that Bush began implementing Obama's (and John McCain's) campaign promises before the election was even held.

One editorial oversight in the book may contribute to a mild feeling of unfulfilled expectations for the reader. The title of Chapter 18, "What Can President Barack Obama Do?" suggests that the authors will feature an analysis of Obama's position on Afghanistan during the presidential campaign. However, indicating a last-minute change on the part of the publishers, in the footnotes Chapter 18 is more generically named, "What Can the Next US President Do?" Clearly, the manuscript should have been left as it was.

In their interview with AToI, it was clear, however that Fitzgerald and Gould are already disillusioned by the seeming trajectory of Obama's "surge". Said Fitzgerald:

I think in many ways we are seeing the second term of the Carter administration; we seem to do this kind of snake-like left-turn, right turn towards the objective, but the objective remains the same. Carter himself was very Obama-esque, promising to alter the whole trajectory of the United States ... And I see a similar kind of thing right now, because these very idealistic democrats get into office, and I sincerely believe that Obama believes what he said he wants to do and the people who voted for him believe that, but there is a machine at work here that was created, that perpetuates itself. Andrew Bacevich calls it a self-licking ice cream cone. There's a machine at work here that fuels itself, that creates incidents; it's this crisis machine.

Returning to the strength of their analysis, Fitzgerald and Gould do urge Obama to "re-open the national debate on US identity and its future", arguing that "the roots of this [current] dilemma stem from the reality-creation machine dreamed up by Dean Acheson, George Kennan, Paul Nitze and James Foretal at the beginning of the Cold War." (p 326) And as Fitzgerald warned in the interview, "It's going to dawn on Americans that when we ask our government what exactly are they doing and the solution, once again, is more troops, or a surge, it's not going to be enough of an answer."

Although providing little analysis of the 21st century "brain trust", they also presciently warn in conclusion, "If our government has no other purpose than to serve the fantasies of its own defense intellectuals in their desire to create new ways of making endless war, then we are in serious trouble and like the Soviet Union, Afghanistan will be our final test." (p 328)

All told, Fitzgerald and Gould provide an important addition to the corpus of accounts of Afghanistan and the Cold War period, which is at the heart of their analysis. They also raise many useful questions for anti-imperialists, progressives, "liberal imperialists" and neo-cons alike to consider as independence and self-determination continue to elude the Afghan and Pashtun people.

As such, it belongs on the bookshelf of anyone seriously interested in the topic. This includes a Canadian audience, where the book is being reviewed. For nearly eight years, the Canadian forces have helped occupy Afghanistan, closely adhering to US strategy. Unlike in the US, Canadian media coverage of the war saw a drastic uptick in mid-2006 when the Canadians took over a Provincial Reconstruction Team in Kandahar province in the midst of the growing insurgency. Similar to the US, however, Canadian coverage tends to be propagandistic and ahistorical, and is in dire need of being grounded in the sort of corrective offered by Invisible History.

Anthony Fenton is a researcher and journalist in BC, Canada. For the past three years, he's been researching and writing a book about the transformation and integration of Canadian-US foreign policy. Fenton can be reached at

(Copyright 2009 Asia Times Online.

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