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NYC And The TTP: Spinning The War On Terror

Posted by on May 10th, 2010

From our partners at

By Steve Hynd

Yesterday, Attorney General Holder "flatly asserted that the defendant in the Times Square bombing attempt was trained by the Taliban in Pakistan," and immediately went on to call for neutering Miranda as if the suspect, Faisal Shahzad, hadn't talked both before and after being read his rights.

Max Fisher from the Atlantic, who wrote a post the day before examining the compelling reasons to believe there was no substantial connection between the NYC failed bomber and the TTP, was moved to tweet:

Very curious why Obama admin still pushing specious Shahzad-TTP connection. Hope this new poll has nothing to do with it.

The poll he linked being the new WaPo/ABC one that shows only Republicans can muster a majority in support of the Afghan occupation. That poll suggests there are good reasons, both in domestic
politics and in foreign policy aims, for the administration to want to pin the blame on the TTP. Josh Mull, the Afghanistan Blogging Fellow for The Seminal and Brave New Foundation, explained the dynamic to me in an email, quoted with his kind permission.

The obvious aim I think is what we're talking about, pressuring the Pakistani military, but the underlying objective is to support the war in Afghanistan. There's a weird notion out there that this is some new stage of "transnational terrorism" for the TTP and/or Tehrik-i-Taliban. These are the same guys fighting in Afghanistan, Kashmir, Bangladesh, the fedayeen attacks in India, etc as part of Pakistan's "strategic depth." But we pretend this is a new thing for them so we can feel like "they hit us first" and then (continue to) attack them back with war in Afghanistan and assassinations/kidnappings in Pakistan. Boiled down it's fighting them over there so we don't have to fight them over here.

That lends itself well to the administration's rationale for staying in Afghanistan. But it just doesn't seem to pass the smell test. Today, Stephan Salibury of the Philadelphia Inquirer adds to the doubt over Holder's claim in a guest post at Juan Cole's blog.

Actually the response to the Times Square car bomb incident is only the latest iteration of one of the most disconcerting and persistent features of the American landscape since Sept. 11. “I am concerned,” Robert Mueller, head of the FBI, told a Senate intelligence panel a few years ago, “about what we are not seeing.” In former times – before 9/11 changed everything – there was a notion that what we cannot see is not there. Now, what we cannot see is trumped by what we can imagine, and what can be imagined becomes what is.

What do we know about the drama of the SUV? It was spotted burning, the fire was put out, propane tanks, fireworks and fertilizer were ominously packed inside, and the owner was arrested as he was about to fly off to Dubai. Certainly these are suggestive and even alarming facts. But little more is known about the suspect, an American citizen born in Pakistan, or his actions.

Within hours, however, purported details attached to this incident spewed out like ash from a hyperactive crater. Faisal Shahzad, the 30-year-old suspect, received terrorist training in Waziristan; he was in league with Taliban groups in Pakistan; he had met with radical Taliban leaders; his father was friendly with Pakistani radicals; he was angered by deaths of militants killed by U.S. drones operating over Pakistani territory; he was coached by Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born imam targeted for assassination by the Obama administration; he was captured in the nick of time by secret military spy planes scooping up cell phone calls over New York City; his wife’s relatives lived in the same Colorado town where Najibullah Zazi, the would-be subway bomber, lived. All of this supposed information, dripping with conspiracy and 21st century terror, was leaked by anonymous investigators or federal officials to newspaper and broadcast reporters here and abroad.

How do these alleged links and facts hold up to what is actually known? If nothing else, questions should abound about the quality of terrorist training going on in Waziristan. If Shahzad created a “car bomb” he was profoundly inept. He packed away fertilizer that does not explode and he sought to ignite it with firecrackers designed not to detonate each other. The tanks of propane gas did not have their caps removed, rendering them useless as explosives.

What about Shahzad’s connections with a Pakistani militant group? The group in question, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, first said the smoky SUV was their operation. But within hours, three separate leaders of the group said, no, there was no connection. “We don’t even know him.” Azam Tariq told Agence France Press. On May 6, in an important story, McClatchy newspapers cited “six U.S. officials” who asserted that “no credible evidence has been found” that Shahzad “received any serious terrorist training from the Pakistani Taliban or another radical Islamic group.”

…Such soft and tenuous facts, taken together, strongly suggest international plot and provide a foundation for political leaders, columnists, internet commentators and television personalities to build all manner of teetering dream houses. The administration, perhaps anxious to have attention diverted from the deadly mess in Afghanistan, is now putting the screws on Pakistan to deal with its radical fundamentalist groups decisively.

What I find most remakable is that what Holder said yesterday isn't all that different from the many "all the people we bombed were militants" statements we've heard, to be followed at a later date by admission of civilian deaths they knew about all the time. Given those cover-ups and the lack of heads rolling after they've been exposed, the US government as a whole should have *zero* credibility when it makes these kinds of pronouncements without evidence. Even less so when evidence suggests the opposite. There's a clear connection to be made here between political needs and administrative spin and the administration's credibility is obviously questionable, yet almost every pundit gives them a pass. The Right because they want there to be a TTP connection and the Left because it's "their" administration.

In the same interview in which Holder originally said Shazhad was TTP trained, he said he didn't think the new Arizona profiling law was racist. He's also refused to back accountability for torture, continued Bush- era threats to the UK government over evidence of torture, continues to claim Unitary Presidential Powers for surveilance and backed watering down Miranda. Progressives should not regard him as a credible, honest witness.

(I know from discussions with others that there's a strain of thinking in the progressive anti-war movement that says it would be counter-productive to upset the progressive base by challenging the administration too directly, that we need to be circumspect. But then again, there's the clear and easy virtue of telling the truth as we see it. People can detect hypocrisy at a mile off and sincerity is the most valuable political currency of all.)

The truth, most likley, is that Shazad was at best a distant internet affiliate of the TTP who managed to convince one bomb-maker to make him a short video of support, without the actual TTP leadership ever knowing about it. That fits with what's known about the dispersed network of wannabe franchises that Al qaeda has become, so there's no great leap to be made for the TTP to follow suit.

Unfortunately, that dispersed network model doesn't fit the administration's narrative for Af/Pak, nor does it really create enough fear among the American populace such that they continue to support that narrative. For it all to work, as Bush showed, the Bad Guys have to wear great big black hats.

Back to Josh for an alternative paradigm that doesn't subjugate fighting terrorism to politically expedient, vote-winning, rearmongering, tall tales:

[But] we're not going to be safe from Faisal Shahzad by making war against the TTP. Shahzad is an incompetent wack job, but the Taliban are not. Just the same as we call Hizbollah a state-within-a-state, when the Taliban is administering law, distributing public resources, running the economy, and monopolizing violence, that's not a terrorist group, that's a government. That's not a problem we can shoot, bomb, or kill away, whether we're in Afghanistan or Pakistan or Iraq or wherever.

Groups like the TTP and Tehrik-i-Taliban are dangerous, for Americans, Pakistanis, Indians, etc, but we solve that not by killing them but by undermining the conditions that give them legitimacy, that allow them to exist. Once again, completely disregarding them using our policy for propaganda, we can focus on economic development, education, and free media in Afghanistan and Pakistan, all of which lead to huge gains in human rights, accountable and legitimate governance, integrated social fabric, etc. And of course, like the President is doing, the US should be pressuring the Pakistani military. Not to unleash more violence, but to relinquish control to their democratically elected civilian government. As much as the west complains about corruption in Pakistan (two words to remember: Tim Geithner), they are still absolutely committed to peace, development, and have no utility or love for any ideas about "strategic depth."

What's going on right now isn't really working, either in Afghanistan or in Pakistan. Yet it seems that, with an administration heavily invested in the domestic political narrative of "Af/Pak is the real front and we'll fight them over there so we don't have to fight them here", there will be a constant stream of spin bolstering that narrative until its falsity can no longer be denied. At best, we're going to paper over the most obvious cracks while we look for an exit. At worst, we'll stay for years to keep the hawks onside and to further the careers of a few COIN-pushing generals. I've a feeling I've seen this movie before.

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to “NYC And The TTP: Spinning The War On Terror”

  1. Khadija says:

    Pakistan’s military has been historically reluctant to act against militant groups like Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (“TTP”), which originally claimed responsibility for the attempt, until a civilian government came to power. Since President Asif Ali Zardari took power, the public and the government have been able to press the military into successful operations against these groups. That is why it is so critical for the United States to focus not just on aiding Pakistan’s military but on strengthening Pakistan’s democratic institutions by encouraging responsible participation of all constituents, including the media, opposition and judiciary. That is what the elected government of President Asif Ali Zardari has been trying to achieve, despite severe and irresponsible pressure against such moves by its opponents in those same groups pressure which arguably supports extremism. Some in the established opposition parties, judiciary and media would rather cling to power and prestige through the promotion of anti-American rhetoric at the expense of Pakistan’s own security. To the contrary, President Zardari is willing to sacrifice power to bolster democracy and fight against extremism. This was the very commitment that law and order situation is much better than Mush’s regime.

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