John Pilger versus “the great game”

John Pilger (biography on Wikipedia) has a new piece out in the New Statesman, “The ‘good war’ is a bad war.” This is the central part of his essay:

The truth about the “good war” is to be found in compelling evidence that the 2001 invasion, widely supported in the west as a justifiable response to the 11 September attacks, was actually planned two months prior to 9/11 and that the most pressing problem for Washington was not the Taliban’s links with Osama Bin Laden, but the prospect of the Taliban mullahs losing control of Afghanistan to less reliable mujahedin factions, led by warlords who had been funded and armed by the CIA to fight America’s proxy war against the Soviet occupiers in the 1980s. Known as the Northern Alliance, these mujahedin had been largely a creation of Washington, which believed the “jihadi card” could be used to bring down the Soviet Union. The Taliban were a product of this and, during the Clinton years, they were admired for their “discipline”. Or, as the Wall Street Journal put it, “[the Taliban] are the players most capable of achieving peace in Afghanistan at this moment in history”.

The “moment in history” was a secret memorandum of understanding the mullahs had signed with the Clinton administration on the pipeline deal. However, by the late 1990s, the Northern Alliance had encroached further and further on territory controlled by the Taliban, whom, as a result, were deemed in Washington to lack the “stability” required of such an important client. It was the consistency of this client relationship that had been a prerequisite of US support, regardless of the Taliban’s aversion to human rights. (Asked about this, a state department briefer had predicted that “the Taliban will develop like the Saudis did”, with a pro-American economy, no democracy and “lots of sharia law”, which meant the legalised persecution of women. “We can live with that,” he said.)

By early 2001, convinced it was the presence of Osama Bin Laden that was souring their relationship with Washington, the Taliban tried to get rid of him. Under a deal negotiated by the leaders of Pakistan’s two Islamic parties, Bin Laden was to be held under house arrest in Peshawar. A tribunal of clerics would then hear evidence against him and decide whether to try him or hand him over to the Americans. Whether or not this would have happened, Pakistan’s Pervez Musharraf vetoed the plan. According to the then Pakistani foreign minister, Niaz Naik, a senior US diplomat told him on 21 July 2001 that it had been decided to dispense with the Taliban “under a carpet of bombs”.

That is fascinating stuff. I am glad that people like Pilger exist as journalists because he really does push to uncover the truth. Any lie by any government is shameful. Nevertheless, while I am happy to accept the facts that Pilger presents as true, it’s difficult to read this article and to know what he actually wants other than to continue his vociferous criticism of Western foreign policy and that of the United States in particular.

On the one hand, he highlights above some of the awful aspects of an Afghanistan ruled (let’s not say governed) by the Taliban: no democracy, no freedom of religion, little (if any) freedom of speech, the utter subjugation of women, an economy based on the extraction and capture of wealth. On the other hand, he later speaks of the …

… historic ban on opium production that the Taliban regime had achieved. A UN official in Kabul described the ban to me as “a modern miracle”. The miracle was quickly rescinded. As a reward for supporting the Karzai “democracy”, the Americans allowed Northern Alliance warlords to replant the country’s entire opium crop in 2002. Twenty-eight out of the 32 provinces instantly went under cultivation.

But he doesn’t bother noting that the Taliban were only able to enforce their ban by killing anyone who violated it. I’m pretty sure that Pilger opposes the death penalty. I’m absolutely certain that he opposes it when it’s instigated without any recourse to defence in a fair trial.

I agree entirely with Pilger that the main priorities of the U.S. in looking at other countries have been political stability and economic liberalism, with the rule of law being a distant third and anything else almost entirely off the radar. I likewise agree that this is principally because these represent minimum conditions for the inevitably large U.S. companies to do business in those countries. I say “inevitably” because small U.S. companies are not in a position to invest internationally. Pilger views this as a modern form of imperialism. It’s a tempting position, but I tend to think of it more as the U.S. looking out for it’s own and leaving other countries to sort out their own particular rights and values. It is not non-interventionism, but a sort of ideally-minimal-but-occasionally-dramatic-interventionism.

I would understand if Pilger thought that the West ought to promote the good things it has aspired to itself: women’s rights, religious freedom, the welfare state and so forth. But Pilger is apparantly against humanitarian intervention, which he describes as the work of the ascendant, “narcissistic, war-loving wing” of liberalism, so I am again left confused as to what he wants the West to actually do. Does he want complete isolation?

Let me put it this way: Zimbabwe is in a terrible state. From once being described as the “bread-basket of Africa,” it is now the basket-case of the continent. It’s inflation is so high as to become unmeasurable. A third of it’s population has fled the country. It has no democracy. The opposition, when they attempt to rally, is beaten. For it’s part, the West has imposed sanctions, but China has happily handed truckloads of cash to Mugabe’s regime in exchange for Zimbabwe’s natural resources. What does John Pilger think the foreign policy of the U.S.A., the U.K. and the rest of the West ought to be towards Zimbabwe?

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