President Barack Obama has made it clear he is willing to talk with “moderate” members of the Taliban in an attempt to gain control — and perhaps bring to an end — the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan. Afghan President Karzai has been reportedly negotiating with members of the Taliban for a year and according to one recent report, is opening dialogue with key al-Qaeda linked insurgents there. If the U.S joins Karzai in communicating with Taliban who might have harbored and trained with al Qaeda prior to the 9/11 attacks, does that mean we can now spare John “American Taliban” Walker Lindh another 15 years of prison?
Has enough time gone by that I won’t be considered “un-American” for even suggesting it?
There have been mixed reviews, but the enormous buzz around the possibility of negotiating with Taliban elements hints that it will happen on some level, and in fact today there is a report quoting senior administration officials saying that is exactly what we plan to do.
Aside from acknowledging the failure of previous approaches, the new spirit of negotiation underscores the real bootprint that Gen. David Petraeus has left on military thinking in Washington today, as evidenced by President Obama when he recently justified his willingness to talk to the enemy:
“If you talk to Gen. [David H.] Petraeus, I think he would argue that part of the success in Iraq involved reaching out to people that we would consider to be Islamic fundamentalists, but who were willing to work with us because they had been completely alienated by the tactics of al-Qaida in Iraq.”
Petraeus accomplished the stabilization of the horrific security situation in Iraq in part by putting the Sunni insurgency on the U.S payroll, arming some 90,000 fighters to drive al Qaeda from Anbar. It took three years and more than 2,200 U.S soldier deaths to settle on this path. His “victory” in Iraq has allowed for what we are now seeing as the fashionable approach: “peeling off” enemy elements through co-optation and concession.
So it’s no surprise then that Petraeus devotees on the Right are much less bombastic now over the possibility of Obama talking to the Taliban. It’s not like they’re Iranian. Here’s what Ed Morrissey, a favorite on HotAir.com, had to say about it last week:
It’s worth exploring, however, and if we can peel off significant numbers from the Taliban and reconcile them to the Karzai government (and whatever follows in the upcoming elections), it will go a long way towards isolating the dead-enders, making it easier to defeat them. In the end, as in Iraq, this is a political problem, and eventually will require a political solution.
So what about John Walker Lindh?
Now a 28-year-old serving out a 20-year sentence in the Federal Correction Facility in Indiana for fighting alongside the Taliban, Lindh’s case looks less crystal clear on this side of the protracted Afghanistan war, so far removed from the emotional intensity of the country in early 2002 when the suburban white kid was first picked up on the Afghan battlefield and became the ultimate repository for all the post-9/11 American rage, fear, revenge and yes, extreme intolerance and hate that had been generated since the attacks. Nothing less than his dead, skinny alabaster body waving from one of the cranes at Ground Zero would satisfy the virtual mob in the blogosphere, fueled by comments by our own elected officials, who had him convicted, and in some cases, frying on a chair, before he even stepped inside a courtroom.
What remains of the whole strangely unnerving affair is a much less convincing indictment in retrospect. Strip away all of the emotion and conjecture and gasbaggery on the political Right, add in all we’ve learned about the Bush Administration over the last seven years — the accusations of torture, the legal mishandling of detainee prosecutions, secret renditions, Abu Ghraib, the double-talk and grandstanding — and what you have is a case that might have been the ultimate canary in the coalmine.
After all, federal prosecutors — so sure that Lindh had been al Qaeda and plotting to kill Americans — were nonetheless forced to plea bargain down from 10 charges to two, sending Lindh away only for his Taliban connections. Nothing in his conviction includes treason or terrorism or the al Qaeda treachery he had been tarred with by the court of public opinion.
But this was 2002 — pre-Pat Tillman, pre-Jessica Lynch — Americans never questioned whether it was appropriate for the head of the Justice Department and trusted elected officials — including President George W. Bush – to declare Walker al Qaeda, even accuse him of treason and allude to possible execution, all while the man was allegedly still drugged and bound in a metal shipping container overseas and hadn’t even seen his lawyer yet.
Surely Michael Chertfoff, then head of the Justice Department’s criminal division, knew the situation was potentially volatile, and that is is why he encouraged the plea deal for Lindh, effectively knocking off the most serious of charges against him. The deal effectively gagged Lindh from talking about what happened in that shipping container on the Arabian Sea, where he was held incommunicado, without a lawyer, and where he allegedly gave the FBI the information it needed to prosecute his case. Lindh’s lawyers say he was treated like an animal and Lindh was ready to tell it on the stand — the government, which denied Lindh had been mistreated and had given up self-incriminating evidence under duress — apparently didn’t want to take the chance.
(Of course the mainstream media at the time were incurious as ever, willing to soft-pedal this startling plea agreement as a positive outcome for the prosecution.)
What is known publicly, from his own admission (see the infamous CNN interview here) and from subsequent family testimony, is that American-born Lindh — a Muslim convert at the age of 16 while living in white bread Orange County — traveled to Pakistan in 2000 to indulge his faith, got swept up in the fundamentalist cause to purify Afghan Muslims by joining the jihad and took up arms with the Taliban against the “infidel” Northern Alliance. He trained in camps that were allegedly funded and run by Osama bin Laden, who was leading the fight in Afghanistan, and fought for a Taliban arm called “Ansar” with other foreign fighters, mostly Arabs, from July 2001 to when he was picked up in a Mazar-e-Sharif prison in December 2002 in the early phase of the US-led Operation Enduring Freedom.
The Northern Alliance was serving as our proxy after the initial US bombing of Afghanistan in October 2001. Lindh’s defense was he had taken up arms in a Holy War against the Northern Alliance months before 9/11 and it had nothing to do with America. It fell on deaf ears. Folklore of Lindh’s anti-Americanism, his gay father, his tortured childhood, began to form with lightening speed (to this day it is difficult to parse fact from conflation among all the Internet reports). The CNN interview, conducted while Lindh was on a stretcher, under the influence of morphine, coupled with the surreal circumstances of his capture, fueled U.S public outcry against him and pretty much sealed his fate within days.
“I started to read some of the literature of the scholars and the history of the movement, and … my heart became attached to the movement. I wanted to help them one way or another,” Lindh told CNN in a strange accent unfamiliar to his fellow Californians. He never wavered in this explanation, though, giving a similar statement upon his conviction and sentencing almost a year later.
Furthermore, despite fierce lobbying from the Right, it was never been proven that Walker had anything to do with the death of CIA agent Johnny Spann, one of two CIA agents on the scene in Mazar-e-Sharif. Spann had just interrogated Walker, who was uncooperative and wouldn’t reveal that he was American, when two Taliban prisoners lobbed grenades and launched a melee between prisoners and captors. Spann was shot and killed almost immediately. Walker, who told the CNN reporter afterward that he had nothing to do with the uprising, was shot in the thigh as he was running away, according to reports. He was picked up days later by the Americans, huddled in the basement with other Taliban survivors.
Spann’s grieving family had pushed hard for the death penalty in Walker’s case and are still involved in making sure his sentence is never reduced. They and others are convinced that Walker could have warned Spann about the planned riot when he was being interrogated and deliberately chose not to.
These and other elements of the federal case against Walker we may never know. We have his family’s story, which has been circulating in recent years as they fight for his early release. Just this week, restrictions on Lindh in prison have been eased and might lead to Lindh telling his story for the first time.
We may never know whether the government had a truly solid case against Lindh, but had blown its chances to prosecute it because of the use of potentially illegal interrogation techniques.
In the end, Obama’s negotiations with the Taliban may have no dramatic effect on Lindh whatsoever. He may just serve out the rest of his time in a cell, where I’m sure many if not most Americans believe is where he belongs anyway. But if it’s perfectly reasonable to negotiate with the Taliban today, does not a jailed foot soldier — that’s what Lindh was convicted as — deserve similar consideration? The Taliban elements in Afghanistan we enjoin will certainly enjoy the fruits of concession — perhaps land and sovereignty, even the release of prisoners. That is much, much more than anything the state would do for John Walker Lindh, our “American Taliban.”
UPDATE: Another view. This was written in 2006 by Robert Young Pelton, the writer who interviewed Lindh for CNN at Mazar-e-Sharif. I interviewed Pelton for “Hired Guns” in 2007 for TAC. He wrote License to Kill: Hired Guns in the War on Terror, an intense insider view of the private contracting industry in Iraq and Afghanistan and he has traveled extensively throughout the region with the CIA, the military and private contractors, so he knows his stuff when it comes to the insurgent gangs in Afghanistan at the time Lindh was there. He said it was time to “reveal the truth about Lindh,” and claimed earlier, kinder observations of Lindh, whom he once described as “polite, apologetic — and utterly out of his element,” were designed so as not to “influence his pending case.”