Monday, August 11, 2008

Tales from the Covert Crypt

The US government has persistently claimed that its decision to bankroll the overthrow of Afghanistan's government in the final days of the 1970s was a response to the invasion of Soviet troops. But Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was President Carter's National Security Advisor at the time and now advises Barack Obama, finally admitted the truth in 1998: covert US intervention began months before the USSR sent in troops. "That secret operation was an excellent idea," he crowed. "The effect was to draw the Russians into the Afghan trap."

During an interview with the French publication Le Nouvel Observateur, Brzezinski was grilled about the role he played in aiding the Mujahadeen. Former CIA Director Robert Gates had recently claimed in his memoir, From the Shadows, that US intelligence operations began six months before the Soviet intervention. "According to the official version of history, CIA aid to the Mujahadeen began during 1980," Brzezinski noted, "that is to say, after the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan, 24 Dec 1979. But the reality, secretly guarded until now, is completely otherwise: Indeed, it was July 3, 1979 that President Carter signed the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul. And that very day, I wrote a note to the president in which I explained to him that in my opinion this aid was going to induce a Soviet military intervention."

Seizing that opening, the interviewer suggested that perhaps Brzezinski intended to provoke the Soviets into war. "It isn't quite that," the former National Security Advisor replied cagily. "We didn't push the Russians to intervene, but we knowingly increased the probability that they would." Nevertheless, when the Soviets tried to justify their invasion with the claim that they were responding to a secret war bankrolled by the US, few people believed them.

Did he regret anything? "Regret what?" Brzezinski shot back. "That secret operation was an excellent idea. It had the effect of drawing the Russians into the Afghan trap and you want me to regret it? The day that the Soviets officially crossed the border, I wrote to President Carter: We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam War. Indeed, for almost 10 years, Moscow had to carry on a war unsupportable by the government, a conflict that brought about the demoralization and finally the breakup of the Soviet Empire."

But what about backing (and arming) Islamic fundamentalists who might become future terrorists? A prescient question, as it turned out. Brzezinski's reply was brazen. "What is most important to the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Moslems or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the cold war?" The jury is still out on those questions.

Brzezinski's callous strategy did net some obvious results. The 1980s conflict in Afghanistan, provoked by US leaders in order to use it as a geopolitical pawn, led to almost two million deaths and the rise of the Taliban. Afghanistan also became open territory for drug traffickers and energy companies eager to build oil and gas pipelines. Meanwhile, millions of Afghanis, including many who had worked with the CIA, paid a very high price. Eventually, the country served as a base for Osama bin Laden's crusade against the US, Israel, and Arab regimes in the Middle East.

Another instructive example of covert manipulation gone drastically wrong is the Democratic Republic of the Congo, known as Zaire during the 37-year reign of Mobutu Sese Seko, and before that the Belgian Congo. In 1960, despite Belgian predictions that European rule would continue for another century, the Congo declared its independence, and out of a largely peaceful revolution emerged a charismatic leader, Patrice Lumumba, who became the nation's first Prime Minister. But US policy-makers considered Lumumba, actually a militant nationalist, a communist sympathizer, and therefore a threat to vital interests.

Located in Africa's heartland, the Congo was vital mainly for its vast mineral resources; one of the world's largest copper and industrial diamond producers, it also had gold, manganese, zinc, cobalt, and silver. To be blunt, it was an important source of raw materials for the emerging military-industrial complex. Its uranium, one of the only known sources during World War II, was used in the first atomic bombs.

Even today, it still isn't completely clear what sealed Lumumba's fate; some say it was his attempt to have UN troops step in to deal with the violence breaking out between tribes and political parties. In the richest province, Katanga, Moise Tshombe had declared himself ruler, attempted to secede, and recruited Belgian, French and South African mercenaries to fight the new government. However it was decided, Lumumba became a target for removal in the CIA's "golden age" of destabilization campaigns. After less than a year in office, he was deposed in a coup led by Mobuto, an Israeli-trained paratrooper who had Belgian and US backing. Mobuto, then called Colonel, turned Lumumba over the Tshombe, his archenemy.

The details of Lumumba's assassination remain a mystery to this day. But in 2000, evidence surfaced that President Dwight Eisenhower may have directly ordered the CIA to "eliminate" him. The evidence came from Robert Johnson, who took notes at an August 18, 1960, White House meeting between Eisenhower and his national security advisers on the Congo crisis. Johnson recalled the president turning to CIA Director Allen Dulles, "in the full hearing of all those in attendance, and saying something to the effect that Lumumba should be eliminated." Eisenhower had strict rules for reports on National Security Council meetings: no direct quotations. With Johnson's revelation, the reason became only too clear.

We also don't have the precise chain of events. But according to Lugo de Witte, a Flemish expert on Africa, Belgian officers probably implemented the plan. A document signed in 1960 by Harold Aspremont Lynden, Belgium's minister for Africa, announced that "the main objective to pursue, in the interests of the Congo, Katanga and Belgium, is clearly the final elimination of Lumumba." After his arrest by Mobutu's forces on January 17, 1961, on orders from Belgium's foreign minister, Lumumba was transferred to Katanga, tortured in the presence of Belgian officials, and executed under the supervision of a Belgian captain. The new nation, whose artificial boundaries had been set in negotiations between Belgium, Britain, France and Portugal, continued to hover at the edge of civil war for several more years.

The US stuck with Mobutu until the bitter end, propping him up as part of its Cold War strategy. As "president for life," he stashed a huge fortune in Swiss banks. No matter, since he was considered an anti-communist bulwark. His rapaciousness ultimately spread throughout the country's bureaucracy, especially the army. Still, no discouraging words from his overseers. Much of his loot came from the US; he even pocketed CIA cash provided to support "contras" at work in Angola. None of this made any difference. Mobutu was a "friend," part of an elite club that included Noriega in Panama, Marcos in the Philippines, Diem and Thieu in Vietnam, Pinochet in Chile, Somoza in Nicaragua, Suharto in Indonesia, and the Shah in Iran.

And what did this "friend" do to his own country? According to the World Bank, by the late 1990s the economy had shrunk to its 1958 level, despite a tripling of the population. Public finances were a mess, the national currency was worthless, and the State was insolvent. Upon its independence, the Congo had the highest literacy rate in Africa; by the time Mobutu was forced out in 1997, little more than half of all children were even attending schools. When open at all, they didn't have textbooks and the students often had to sit on the floor. Even the desks had been looted.

In the early 90s, Mobutu announced that he would end his one party state. But the transition never began, promised elections were canceled, and repression continued. Both the Bush I and Clinton administrations looked the other way, while mainstream media continued its policy of self-imposed ignorance. Only after his departure did the news that Mobutu was a brutal tyrant begin to reach the general public. By this time, one of the continent's most promising nations was hobbled and deeply divided. A dictator had finally fallen, but the culprits who put him there, some even mouthing belated outrage, escaped with impunity.

Next: Mastering Misdirection

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