Feb 22, 2020

What the New York Times didn’t tell readers about its Taliban op-ed is shocking, CNN.com

What the New York Times didn't tell readers about its Taliban op-ed is shocking By Peter Bergen, CNN National Security Analyst "Peter Bergen is CNN's national security analyst, a vice president at New America, a professor of practice at Arizona State University and he has reported for CNN from Afghanistan for the past two and half decades. His new book is "Trump and His Generals: The Cost of Chaos." The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion articles at CNN." (CNN)On Thursday, the New York Times published an op-ed by Sirajuddin Haqqani under the headline, "What We, the Taliban, Want." In his op-ed, Haqqani wrote, "I am convinced that the killing and the maiming must stop." The Times described Haqqani as "the deputy leader of the Taliban." But this bland descriptor doesn't capture who Haqqani really is. According to the FBI, Haqqani is a "specially designated global terrorist." The FBI is offering $5 million for information leading directly to his arrest. The US State Department is also offering a reward of up to $10 million for information that brings Haqqani to justice. The only terrorist who has a higher reward is the current leader of al Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri. Will the Times be offering Zawahiri an op-ed spot next? The FBI also notes that Haqqani "is wanted for questioning in connection with the January 2008 attack on a hotel in Kabul, Afghanistan, that killed six people, including an American citizen. He is believed to have coordinated and participated in cross-border attacks against United States and coalition forces in Afghanistan. Haqqani also allegedly was involved in the planning of the assassination attempt on Afghan President Hamid Karzai in 2008." Over the past decade or so, Haqqani's men have also kidnapped multiple Americans, including -- get this -- a New York Times reporter. Surely this information about Haqqani would have been useful information for the readers of the Times to know as they evaluated the veracity and claims of Haqqani's op-ed. A New York Times spokesperson told me in a statement via email: "We know firsthand how dangerous and destructive the Taliban is. The Times is one of the only American news organizations to have maintained a full time team of reporters in Afghanistan since the start of the war nearly 20 years ago. We've also had multiple journalists kidnapped by the organization. "But, our mission at Times Opinion is to tackle big ideas from a range of newsworthy viewpoints. We've actively solicited voices from all sides of the Afghanistan conflict, the government, the Taliban and from citizens. Sirajuddin Haqqani is the second in command of the Taliban at a time when its negotiators are hammering out an agreement with American officials in Doha that could result in American troops leaving Afghanistan. That makes his perspective relevant at this particular moment." Many Afghans were outraged that the Times had given Haqqani such a platform. An Afghan government spokesman, Sediq Sediqqi, told Reuters, "It is sad that the [New York Times] has given their platform to an individual who is on a designated terrorist list. He and his network are behind ruthless attacks against Afghans and foreigners." Saad Mohseni, who oversees the most-watched Afghan television network, Tolo TV, tweeted, "The NYT has decided to amplify and effectively promote the messages of the world's most notorious terrorist (and Al Qaeda affiliate) -- a man who has the blood of hundreds of thousands [on his hands]. An interview is one thing but to allow such a man to express himself unchallenged is a disgrace." Tolo TV is constantly threatened by the Taliban, and it suffered an attack in 2016 that killed seven Tolo employees. Some US military personnel who have served in Afghanistan were also angered by the Times's decision to give Haqqani a platform, as he leads the Haqqani Network, which is the most lethal of the groups under the Taliban umbrella. Republican Rep. Michael Waltz of Florida, a former US Special Forces officer with multiple tours in Afghanistan and the Middle East, emailed me to say, "The Haqqanis are serial human rights abusers, responsible for some of Afghanistan's worst atrocities -- including machine gunning and burning a girls' school and hanging a young child for working with Americans during one of my tours there. For the NYT to willingly enable Haqqani propaganda is beyond the pale. Talk is cheap and much needs to be done to prove that the Haqqanis are serious about peace, much less honoring the rights of women and minorities." Dr. Melissa Skorka, who served as a strategic adviser to the US commander in Afghanistan and is writing a book about the Haqqanis at Oxford University's Changing Character of War Centre emailed me to point out: "Sirajuddin might claim he wants peace, but he leads the vanguard of the Afghan Taliban, works hand-in-glove with al Qaeda, and uses systematic acts of terror to kill and maim innocent people." In his Times op-ed, Haqqani promised that the Taliban would respect women's rights, including "the right to education" and "the right to work." It's hard to evaluate these promises since, when the Taliban were in power, they expunged both education for girls and jobs for women. According to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the United States will sign a peace deal with the Taliban on February 29 provided there is a week-long reduction in violence in Afghanistan that is slated to begin Saturday. Such a reduction in violence, however, is not that significant, given the fact that traditionally Afghans don't do much fighting at all during the middle of the bitterly cold Afghan winter. The Trump administration seems to be hastening forward with "peace" negotiations with the Taliban that are really better described as "withdrawal" negotiations that seem suspiciously well timed to coincide with the American presidential election season. In his piece for the Times, Haqqani says that an agreement with the Americans is coming "soon," which will be followed by "the departure of all foreign troops." President Trump sees himself as elected to get out of America's "endless wars." But there is a big difference between fighting an endless war and instituting a persistent presence in Afghanistan to safeguard both American interests and those of the Afghan people. Such a persistent presence should include a relatively small number of US Special Operation Forces to conduct counterterrorism missions; US Special Forces to advise and assist the Afghan military; American trainers for the Afghan Air Force, and intelligence operatives and analysts who would continue to ensure that Afghanistan doesn't revert to being the "Harvard University of terrorism" as Trump referred to the country as recently as August. Get our free weekly newsletter Haqqani's tepid assurances in the Times that the Taliban, going forward, will be just a normal bunch of Afghan politicians don't mesh well with the FBI's continued assessment that he is one of the world's most wanted terrorists.