Innocently Informing State Terrorism: Journalism, Knowledge, and Counterinsurgency

Posted on March 17, 2010 by

With President Barack Obama sending at least 30,000 additional American troops to knock the Taliban off-balance and a U.S.-led offensive in Helmand province, a better understanding of today’s Taliban is central to the effort to defeat them and to begin withdrawing some American troops from Afghanistan in summer 2011. (McClatchy, 14 March 2010)

A very curious story in the New York Times appeared on 14 March, 2010, titled “Contractors Tied to Effort to Track and Kill Militants,” by Dexter Filkins and Mark Mazetti, and featuring in part Robert Young Pelton (the author of more than 50 comment posts on this site, and one of several journalists whose comments have been published on this site). The story itself overlaps to some degree with the debates concerning the Human Terrain System that we have published, hence the reason why it is being included in that list of contents. While all the players in this story seem to be playing coy and actively ambuscading, one of the themes, the one closest to the debates about HTS, concerns this naive yet lethal notion that improving the U.S. military and intelligence agencies’ “cultural understanding” will somehow diminish violence, rather than the more common reality: more targeted killing as a definitive policy of U.S. state terrorism.

It is very odd that Pelton, among others, is being cast as a relatively innocent player who provided knowledge for entirely noble purposes, only to see it misappropriated, an instructive story for HTS no doubt, but very troubling that someone like Pelton should play along with this story line. Some facts would have been well known to him, as he revealed in his many comments here. In addition, other facts are known to the rest of us, or those who care to ask questions:

During January 2010, a record number of twelve deadly missile strikes were carried out on Pakistan’s tribal areas. Three Al-Qaeda leaders were killed and 123 innocent civilians. During 2009, 44 U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan killed 708 people but only five Al Qaeda or Taliban; that is for each enemy fighter 140 civilian Pakistanis had to die. (source)

As we know following the successful and long overdue counterattack that wiped out a CIA terrorist cell in Afghanistan, a cell responsible for the deaths of scores of civilians from its use of missiles fired from unmanned drones, the CIA had been joined in its efforts by mercenaries, such as those of Xe (formerly Blackwater):

[The Nation, “Blackwater and the Khost Bombing: Is the CIA Deceiving Congress?” 06 January 2010] A leading member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence has told The Nation that she will launch an investigation into why two Blackwater contractors were among the dead in the December 30 suicide bombing at the CIA station at Forward Operating Base Chapman in Khost, Afghanistan. “The Intelligence Committees and the public were led to believe that the CIA was phasing out its contracts with Blackwater and now we find out that there is this ongoing presence,” said Illinois Democrat Jan Schakowsky, chair of the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, in an interview. “Is the CIA once again deceiving us about the relationship with Blackwater?”

Earlier we had learned the following:

[New York Times, “Blackwater Guards Tied to Secret C.I.A. Raids,” 10 December 2009] Private security guards from Blackwater Worldwide participated in some of the C.I.A.’s most sensitive activities — clandestine raids with agency officers against people suspected of being insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan and the transporting of detainees, according to former company employees and intelligence officials….Several former Blackwater guards said that their involvement in the operations became so routine that the lines supposedly dividing the Central Intelligence Agency, the military and Blackwater became blurred….The secret missions illuminate a far deeper relationship between the spy agency and the private security company than government officials had acknowledged. Blackwater’s partnership with the C.I.A. has been enormously profitable for the North Carolina-based company, and became even closer after several top agency officials joined Blackwater….“It became a very brotherly relationship,” said one former top C.I.A. officer. “There was a feeling that Blackwater eventually became an extension of the agency.”

In that world of intelligence, mercenaries, and night raids by special forces that execute unarmed, handcuffed teenagers dragged from their beds (photo above), and Hellfire missiles fired from drones into villages (photo below), how is it that someone as savvy as Pelton could think that cultural knowledge, innocently provided, would not be used for killing? How would he justify his special relationship, as a journalist, so close and indeed so attached to the machinery of U.S. state terror?

The NYT article by Filkins and Mazetti seems to go the extra mile in providing their colleague with some cover. They start by writing, “Under the cover of a benign government information-gathering program, a Defense Department official [Mike Furlong, strategic planner for the Joint Information Operations Warfare Command in Texas] set up a network of private contractors [the preferred jargon of the national security state] in Afghanistan and Pakistan to help track and kill suspected militants…”. That is to say, the same killing that has sown terror among civilians in the Afghan-Pakistan border areas, and results in the deaths and wounding of many hundreds of them. They also provide some additional cover for the state that funded and equipped the program, the most implausible of denials: “it is still murky whether Mr. Furlong had approval from top commanders or whether he might have been running a rogue operation.” Just how many top American officials “go rogue” without their colleagues and superiors knowing about it?

It seems that Furlong “has extensive experience in ‘psychological operations’.” He is accused in the article of channeling money “away from a program intended to provide American commanders with information about Afghanistan’s social and tribal landscape, and toward secret efforts to hunt militants on both sides of the country’s porous border with Pakistan,” and this is where Pelton’s complaint seems to kick in.

It was Pelton’s program that was defrauded, and what the article leaves unclear is whether Pelton was motivated to bring details to light because he was losing money, or because he was concerned that his information was used for targeting. From the article:

The contractor, Robert Young Pelton, an author who writes extensively about war zones, said that the government hired him to gather information about Afghanistan and that Mr. Furlong improperly used his work. “We were providing information so they could better understand the situation in Afghanistan, and it was being used to kill people,” Mr. Pelton said.

He said that he and Eason Jordan, a former television news executive, had been hired by the military to run a public Web site to help the government gain a better understanding of a region that bedeviled them. Recently, the top military intelligence official in Afghanistan publicly said that intelligence collection was skewed too heavily toward hunting terrorists, at the expense of gaining a deeper understanding of the country.

Instead, Mr. Pelton said, millions of dollars that were supposed to go to the Web site were redirected by Mr. Furlong toward intelligence gathering for the purpose of attacking militants.

In one example, Mr. Pelton said he had been told by Afghan colleagues that video images that he posted on the Web site had been used for an American strike in the South Waziristan region of Pakistan.

Appropriately ambiguous, and not very credible. We are also told that the “idea for the government information program was thought up sometime in 2008 by Mr. Jordan, a former CNN news chief, and his partner Mr. Pelton.” They were the ones who approached General David D. McKiernan:

Their proposal was to set up a reporting and research network in Afghanistan and Pakistan for the American military and private clients who were trying to understand a complex region that had become vital to Western interests. They already had a similar operation in Iraq — called “Iraq Slogger,” which employed local Iraqis to report and write news stories for their Web site. Mr. Jordan proposed setting up a similar Web site in Afghanistan and Pakistan — except that the operation would be largely financed by the American military. The name of the Web site was Afpax [to be correct, Afpax Insider].

Interestingly, the report also reveals that,

[Rear] Admiral [Gregory J.] Smith, the military’s director for strategic communications in Afghanistan, said that when he arrived in Kabul a year later, in June 2009, he opposed financing Afpax. He said that he did not need what Mr. Pelton and Mr. Jordan were offering and that the service seemed uncomfortably close to crossing into intelligence gathering — which could have meant making targets of individuals.”

This was understood by Rear Admiral Smith, but not by Robert Young Pelton, someone who has closely followed the exact same debates around the Human Terrain System? It is a story that is raising lots of questions right now, across numerous websites and newspapers.

It was clear from early on that, though on one level he appeared to be an apparent critic of the U.S. Army’s Human Terrain System (see: “Afghanistan: The New War for Hearts and Minds” 21 January 2009), that Robert Young Pelton’s own business interests came into play in the public debate about his motivations (see on this blog, “Questions and Allegations about Robert Young Pelton’s Reporting on a Human Terrain Team in Afghanistan“). The allegations from certain milbloggers was that Pelton somehow unfairly slammed the disreputable sham that is HTS, primarily because he had a competing duplicate he was selling to the military. On this blog, posting as RYP, he wrote: “Max, rest assured I am not trying to replace the Human Terrain System.” In a comment he posted in a reply to critics, under his article in the Men’s Journal, Pelton wrote: “My ‘business’ in Afghanistan is ‘AfPax’ like in Iraq and is unrelated to the Human Terrain program. We run an open source news service from Iraq and have a network in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The fact that we are wired into a number of networks and have massive ground level connections might be a boon to the HTT program, but could and would never compete.”

Pelton may have a skill that I had not recognized earlier: the ability to be honest and accurate, but not necessarily truthful. No, AfPax is not meant to “compete” with HTS — just like one mafioso can tell another, “there’s room for all of us at the table,” not competing, but not that all that distinct either. AfPax is not a duplicate: they are not hiring social scientists, that we know of. But AfPax is selling “socio-cultural knowledge” of “tribal groups” to the U.S. military, and like HTS, also stands accused of facilitating lethal targeting. On the AfPax Insider site, a vigorous statement has been posted, that is almost identical in its resemblance to HTS denials:

“4. None of AfPax’s work or product was secret or classified.
5. AfPax was never involved in clandestine activities or targeting of any kind.”

American college humour dictates that at this point someone in the room should cough the word bullshit. This is playing with the truth, being accurate but also being entirely formalistic and legalistic. You are working in a war zone, in a project funded by the U.S. military, and you provide people involved in intelligence and special operations your particular product. Pelton, as readers of this blog would know, is no critic of counterinsurgency–he simply has his own ideas of how to make it better. Pelton has not actually rejected HTS, indeed he has defended the “idea”, but wants to see a better implementation of the idea. All of these can be read as critical from one angle, and supportive from another. It is yet another instance of what this blog has seen too much of lately from the pitiful double-talking salesmen of empire, since Americans have apparently traded in gravitas for what we might call ambiguitas, previously also known as mendacity.

What remains unclouded is the relationship between the privatization of war, the enhancement of U.S. state terrorism, and the recruitment of social science knowledge in the service of neo-colonial domination. The good news is that it is being actively resisted on all fronts.

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