Bring me the ears of Mullah Noorulla
13 August 2009
Our boys in Afghanistan killed Mullah Noorulla a few weeks back. A ‘Special Operations Task Group’ bumped him somewhere in southern Oruzgan province in what The Australian described as a “targeted assassination”. That’s as opposed to an untargeted one – whatever that is.
“The SOTG tag is commonly used by defence as a synonym to describe elite Special Air Service operatives authorised to hunt and kill Taliban leaders in an Afghan variation on the Vietnam-era Phoenix Program …
“The statement was vague about Noorullah's position within the Taliban hierarchy, but it claimed he had been involved in an April 12 attack on Australian reconstruction and mentoring soldiers, in which four insurgents were killed”, wrote Murdoch scribbler Mark Dodd.
Yeah, some of us, who were around at the time of the Vietnam War, still remember the CIA’s Phoenix Program. It was also a program of ‘targeted assassinations” that ran (officially) from 1967 to 1972 and was supposed to root out the Viet Cong’s “civilian infrastructure” – which is to say, tens of thousands of their supporters. In July 1971, the program’s director, William E. Colby, testified before a Senate Subcommittee that Phoenix had killed 21,587 Vietnamese citizens between January 1968 and May 1971.
Colby’s bland stats don’t really give you the flavour of the thing so let’s hear from Lieutenant Vincent Okamoto, an intelligence-liaison officer for the Phoenix Program in 1968 and a recipient of the US Distinguished Service Cross. Vince was no limp-wristed pinko hippy. He was wounded three times, was the highest-decorated Japanese-American veteran of the Vietnam War and latterly a Los Angeles Superior Court judge.
“The problem was, how do you find the people on the blacklist? It’s not like you had their address and telephone number. The normal procedure would be to go into a village and just grab someone and say, ‘Where’s Nguyen so-and-so?’ Half the time the people were so afraid they would say anything. Then a Phoenix team would take the informant, put a sandbag over his head, poke out two holes so he could see, put [communications] wire around his neck like a long leash, and walk him through the village and say, ‘When we go by Nguyen's house scratch your head.’ Then that night Phoenix would come back, knock on the door, and say, ‘April Fool, motherfucker.’ Whoever answered the door would get wasted. As far as they were concerned whoever answered was a Communist, including family members. Sometimes they’d come back to camp with ears to prove that they killed people.”
Charming. And that wasn’t the only problem. How do you make up the blacklist in the first place? It often turned out informants simply listed people who were personal enemies and Phoenix did their dirty work for them.
Now, a new generation of military hopefuls think they really can make this thuggish scenario work this time around.
Look, you can’t change the ingrained social nature of a country overnight and you can’t do it by repeatedly trashing the place. Only genuine social forces within the country can bring about real change, but they need peace and stability to do it.
Decades of military intervention aimed at turning Afghanistan into a buffer state for the Russians or a business opportunity for the West have simply reinforced lowest-common-denominator social conservatism in a highly decentralised tribal society with almost no tradition of the type of state apparatus we take for granted.
In the UK, France, Germany and Italy, it took hundreds of years of relentless political manoeuvring and civil strife to establish the centralised secular state against the forces of tribalism, feudalism, regionalism and the Roman Catholic Church. And that was in well-endowed European countries. Afghanistan is dirt-poor. Under pressure it simply defaults to devout Islam – the ideological lingua franca and the underpinning of social discourse. The Taliban – when they ruled the place after the warlords the West backed against the Russians won and then ran amuck – invoked the only widely-agreed set of rules and ran things “by The Book”.
Were they nice people by our standards? No. Do we like their attitude to women? Oh no. Their legal system? No. But they produced an order of sorts, brought most of the warlords to heel, de-weaponised the country and ended the heroin trade. They repressed music and art and kite-flying but on the other hand, they promoted cricket. Given an extended period of peace, the old mullahs would have died off and doubtless the next generation would have moved in a more liberal direction. Over 8 long years the west’s achievement has been to replace the lopsided progress made under the Taliban with a corrupt narco-state run by warlords and drug lords and the generals tell us decades of this lie ahead.
Our ardent young SAS troopers – the adventure tourists who kick the doors down and throw the grenades in – would do well to think about Vietnam. Our enemies from the Holy War to Defend Capitalist Civilization that we lost are now a big trading partner and one of the more liberal of the Stalinist regimes. Our killers should ask themselves how they’re going to feel about themselves, in the fullness of time, when Australia is rubbing along amiably enough with an Afghan administration inevitably containing the people they’re now fighting.