Pulitzer prize

Sy Hersh: “I applaud Joe Biden for getting out of the war in Afghanistan. It’s very hard to tell the American people we’ve lost”

Il Fatto Quotidiano sat down for an in-depth interview with a giant of journalism to discuss the 9/11 anniversary, the Taliban, Afghanistan and the icon of the war on terror: Guantanamo

11 Settembre 2021

He is an icon of American investigative journalism. Over the last 50 years, Seymour Hersh has dug into the darkest corners of US government, with investigations that have become legendary. From his revelations on the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam war, which earned him a Pulitzer prize when he was a young freelancer, to his investigation on torture at Abu Ghraib during the Iraq war, one of the symbols of the barbarity of the War on Terror conducted by the United States after the September 11 attacks. Il Fatto Quotidiano has interviewed Seymour Hersh.

Twenty years after 9/11, Afghanistan is lost, Iraq is a nightmare, Guantanamo is still there…

It’s what happened after 9/11 that’s unsettling. We can talk forever about the American inability to understand foreign cultures or interest in understanding foreign countries which led to 9/11, but it’s what we didn’t do after 9/11 that right now is really important. In Pashtun society there is a notion that your guest is respected and honoured. In those weeks – before the President responded militarily to 9/11 – it was made clear to us that the Taliban are not your enemy in this. I can assure you there were very secret contacts made – again, before we began the war in Afghanistan – by the Taliban and others telling the White House that Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaeda are not guests; you can do what you want with them. In fact, as we know, the Taliban are very mercantile. Right now, they’re still saying they want to invest, they want to do stuff, they were talking for many months before 9/11 to an American and an Argentinian oil company about building pipelines. So there you are, but we ended up making war against the Taliban, which turned out to be not such a good idea.

The US has spent 8 trillion dollars and there are almost a million direct deaths due to the war on terror. If you look at the results, it has been an absolute failure. Is there anything at all you look at positively?

A week after the disaster where we couldn’t even rescue those Americans and those who had worked for Americans from Afghanistan, and I’m supposed to say something positive to you about what happened after 9/11? The only issue is: is there a learning curve? Can we learn from the disaster we’ve had, and the military incompetence? I’m not sure. The amount of lying, the amount of money we wasted, the numbers of non-combatants killed inadvertently, and deliberately, are just staggering. What comes out of this? I don’t know… Pakistan certainly is going to be fine. I think India doesn’t like what is going on right now, because Pakistan is going to have a lot of influence with the Taliban, and that’s going to be a political problem for India. We are all in a panic about China in America, and China is certainly going to have more regional influence now. The Chinese are not great lovers of the Taliban, and they will be very cautious about those who support the winners. But there we are. It’s a new world. I will say one thing: I think that Joe Biden did the right thing. He’s one American president who actually told the truth to the American people, which is that we lost the war. I think the best thing we could have done after we announced we were going to leave, rather than let the US military handle the whole “exfiltration” – it’s a military term for extracting people out of a country – we should have hired the guys who ran all those rock concerts for the Rolling Stones and the Beatles. They know how to organise crowd control and we would have been much better off if we had had those guys, rather than the military, handle the evacuation, because they know how to handle the most rowdy of crowds. Believe me: it wasn’t hard to predict that a lot of people – in Kabul particularly, which in two decades has become a city of the future in Afghanistan – would panic. One also could go on forever talking about the American inability to act on the intelligences information I did know that was around. I can tell you there was a lot of intelligence we collected for many weeks before: the impact of the Taliban advances was clearly known. We had a lot of signal intelligence making clear that it was a very well-organised military advance. How the White House missed that story should be the subject of a Congressional investigation. But who knows if that will take place.

Why didn’t they see the collapse coming? Was it a tragic intelligence failure?

Why did we think the South Vietnamese could hold on for so long in the Vietnam war? Why did we not understand what happened to the French? You know the French had a war with the North Vietnamese from ‘46 to ‘54, when they were driven out. At least 500,000 French soldiers participated in that war and they couldn’t beat the Vietcong. So how are we going to do better? I mean, how did you not see that? It’s the ability to not see what you don’t want to see. Our great victory that we still celebrate is the win over the island of Grenada in 1983! (he laughs), when the 82nd Airborne attacked Grenada. I worked on a documentary about it for the public television here in America in the mid ‘80s. The troops on the ground landed from the 82nd Airborne, which is a most serious and well-trained unit headquartered in North Carolina. They flew in and when they landed in Grenada, they were supposed to have the ability to fire their mortars. But they had no maps of the island. And so the troops had to go to the local gas station and buy the locally available maps so they could try and target where they should aim. They came to war with no maps… (he laughs). That doesn’t mean that there aren’t a lot of wonderful Americans in uniform, bright, interesting people who I’ve gotten to know, and in the intelligence community. It just means somewhere between the brightness of various people in the military and the intelligence community and the leadership, there is a big gap. A big cut off.

What do you think is going to happen to Afghanistan, now?

In a perfect world, we would come to our senses. The first thing we did was to cut off the Taliban access to any funding, there was something like 9 billion dollars, some incredible amount of money in the national bank. I think that’s a terrible mistake, because one-third of that country, perhaps more, is living in poverty now, so the government is going to come to power with no money. If there has been a change in the last two decades of the Taliban leadership, it’s that they’ve gotten slightly more modern. I do fear for women, once they get past puberty I think they are going to end up not being able to do the things that they are doing now, and that’s also a big issue. But to cut off the funding of a country with that many people starving is a terrible mistake. They’re taking over a government and they have no real bureaucracy, and no real sophistication in how to run a bureaucracy. The Taliban have publicly asked the Americans to keep an embassy there, and we’ve all just run away! Led by the Prime Minister who reportedly flew off in a helicopter, dropping hundreds of thousands of dollars along the way! I would think the thing to do is to start talking to them more than we are. It would make things a lot easier for everybody, if we would urge our allies to also contribute some funds, and keep them going. They’re taking over a government that has water treatment plants and such. Kabul has become a very modern city, high-rises, restaurants, and these guys have no idea how to run a country, though they certainly know to raise poppies and produce heroin. I just think the biggest thing we should do now is think of some way – without crawling, with our dignity, you know our dignity is very important to us – to support the Taliban, in some way, to make sure that they can [run the country]. Do they know how to run a purification plant, or a sewage system? I don’t think they know anything about such technology. The one thing we have in common with the Taliban – this is very obvious thing to say – is that their contempt for al-Qaeda and ISIS is just as great as ours, and so that seems to be something to work with. As I said, I think Biden did the right thing to say enough is enough, and he’s getting massacred by the incredible screw-up of the exfiltration.

The US has spent 1 trillion on intelligence since 9/11, why has it failed so massively in Iraq, in Afghanistan, everywhere?

If I knew the answer to that question, the real answer, besides what people think – I would put it in a bottle and sell it for a dollar a bottle. There is no answer. There’s obviously a huge disconnect. My experience of the military, although there are always wonderful exceptions, is that the guys who get to the top often aren’t the best – they are the best politically, but not the best in terms of intelligence and knowledge. The ones who can “suck up” to the boss better seem to get ahead, get to be the leaders of the various armed services. It’s not a good situation.

Twenty years on, do you expect new wars, and what’s the next war? Somalia, for example?

Somalia is a mess, but how are we doing in Libya? That was Hillary’s war. Hillary [Clinton] with the British and the French, decided they had to get rid of Qaddafi, that they knew the solution to our problems with Libya, with its 102 tribes. I don’t think those who made that decision understood the extent of the tribal world that Qaddafi was dealing with – with its 102 tribes. He bribed them, I guess, but I don’t have any idea what he did it to keep it together. So we overthrew him and now we have complete insanity there. Those involved in that mess don’t even think twice about it. Somalia is a mess, I don’t know what is going on in Tunisia, but it is scary, there’s something going on. And then yes, we are at virtual war with China, which doesn’t make any sense at all.

That’s a Cold War, do you expect a hot one?

No, China doesn’t want a war with us, and we shouldn’t want a war with China. Why would China want a war? The economy in China in the last ten years has gone totally up, the American economy is really stagnant. Apparently it’s getting a little better now, but the virus killed off a lot. America is suffering right now: so many businesses, so many people are not working. I wish Biden was 20 years younger, and had more energy. Because it’s going to take an enormous amount of energy to turn this ship around. I think he’s done some good things. Again, I applaud him for getting out of a war. It’s very hard to tell the American people we’ve lost. The generals won’t. They always tell us we’ve done great. It’s going to turn around. They told us that about Vietnam. They told us we’re going to stand up the Iraqi army, the Afghan army.

Why is the American press unable to tell the American people and government: we shouldn’t spend 8 trillion on these nonsense wars, we should focus on our internal troubles, like poverty?

I’m laughing because have you not read the American press in the last 40 years? We now hate China and we’ve always hated Russia. I worked at the New York Times for nine years, and I had a wonderful time for most of it… it was really fun and I could report on the serious stuff I wanted to, with terrific editing. But the problem was, as I kept saying to a few of the senior editors, that we’re not just an American paper, we are an international newspaper. I would argue that we can’t always accept what our CIA tells us about Russia, in part because the CIA was generated in 1947 in the days of hatred of Russia and it has remained an agency that thrives on official fear. Of course the Times, as a newspaper of record, must report any official statement or intelligence analysis of the CIA, but it also must assess the integrity and value of the analysis. That rarely happens. There is a lot of bad history here. What did we do in your country, after World War II? Who did we support? Not the socialists and the liberals. Instead our CIA financed and worked with the Christian Democrats and the mafia because they were anti-communist. The same in Greece and throughout the Western world. That’s been the way it is, and nothing has changed. Why pick fights with China when there is so much together we could do? The real issue in the world today, I think, is climate change. California is burning up. Parts of the West have had no water, the reservoirs are drying out, other places like New York and Washington, where I live, are flooded with rain. We have these crazy events, we have half of Africa in terrible shape with drought, and you wonder why there is going to be a lot more migration, which is a huge issue. We have desperate things happening, because of climate change, so why pick a fight about an island where the Chinese may or may not want to build a base? Instead make the issue climate change, and really do something about it, before we are all lost. Make a deal with the Taliban, release some money, make sure that they’re not going to have starvation, and maybe modify their reality, deal with their reality.

Do you think the US will close the icon of the war on terror: Guantanamo?

I thought we were going to do it in 2009, when Obama got in, and I don’t understand how America, which is the land and the home of the free, can keep prisoners without any judicial process at all. I don’t understand how we can do it, I essentially don’t understand why we opened up that prison, I don’t understand why that wasn’t a great issue for the media and the public. It’s just beyond understanding why we don’t have any legal procedure for those people. They still have, so I understand, close to forty prisoners there. I will tell you that within a few months after that prison was set up, in early 2002, a very senior CIA official went there, very secretly, as a prisoner seemingly like all the others. His government role was not known to the American guards and the other prisoners. He was an American citizen who was born in the Mideast, with native Arabic. He spent a week or ten days there…something like that…and he came back and filed a most secret report to the White House. The report depicted the prison as an outrage that was the contrary of American values. Many, perhaps most of the prisoners there had nothing to do with the 9/11 terror attacks and terrorism. It is also said that the U.S. paid a bounty for reported terrorists, with no questions asked… even to the Taliban. People would turn over someone to the Americans to whom they may have owed a goat, or money for whatever reason, and say, in essence, “this man is a terrorist”, and we would put him in prison clothing and send him to Guantanamo. After his ten days in Hell, the CIA officer produced a report in which he said: there are old men, in their eighties and nineties, living in their own excrement. It’s an unbelievable disaster, he reported, and it’s going to be impossible for the United States to recover from the horror, in the Arab world, if we keep this prison going. There was a big meeting in the White House to which the late Donald Rumsfeld refused to come. And they kept the prison running, when from inside, this CIA officer had said more than half of the people there had nothing to do with anything, and probably a lot more than half. His report was very troubling, but nobody dealt with it. I blame the failure to act on the cowardice of Condoleezza Rice, the national security advisor at the time and all the senior people who knew about it. To her credit, I have to note, Ms Rice did organize a very secret meeting in the White House about the CIA report, but nothing came of it. To me that’s the most telling thing: we close our eyes to the horror of Guantanamo when the noble aspect of America is its reliance on due process for all. I hope Biden gets rid of it tomorrow.

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