Collateral Damage

The "war on terror" still casts a long shadow in some unlikely places.

I had been away from Kenya for too long. So when I returned last August, I sought out two long-lost friends.

The first was Abdirizak Noor Iftin, an energetic and friendly teacher. He is 26, and he does not belong in Kenya. Iftin is Somali; we had met three years before in his ruined hometown of Mogadishu, where Iftin tutored his young students in English. The job sometimes required darting from house to house under mortar fire. In Somalia one is always in the middle of a war.

Iftin was brave and committed to his work, but even so the violence became intolerable. Last year he escaped to Nairobi, occupying a closet-sized room in a slum. When I arrived, the door guard at his tenement -- a bearded giant with a zabiba, or Muslim prayer callus, on his forehead -- attempted to block my entry. He relented only after I submitted to a pat-down. Iftin was apologetic and offered a tense smile. He had no power here, he said in a whisper. He told me anxiously that he must keep off the streets to avoid extortion by the Kenyan police, and he steered clear of the sympathizers of al-Shabab, the ruthless Somali militia linked with al Qaeda: They spied on the slum's large population of exiles. Iftin's dim cubicle had a curtain, but no door. I was drawing too much attention with my presence. After a few minutes, I pressed a bank note into my friend's hand, wished him luck, and fled his rent-a-cell.

The following day I went looking for Al-Amin Kimathi. Kimathi is a middle-aged Kenyan human rights worker with the droopy eyelids of Yoda. When we had met four years earlier, he was an invaluable source for journalists working in the region. This time I dialed his phone number, but got no answer. I tried for days, but he never picked up. Then one morning more than a week later, I opened a newspaper and there he was -- locked up in a jail cell in neighboring Uganda, a short article dryly announced, where he had been arrested on charges of terrorism. He had been incarcerated 11 months, awaiting trial.

I was stunned. In 2007, Kimathi had almost single-handedly exposed the largest extraordinary-rendition episode in Africa, in which Kenyan authorities had secretly flown more than 100 terrorism suspects, including their own citizens, to "black site" interrogation centers in Ethiopia. Kimathi's investigation embarrassed the governments involved. It shamed the United States, which collaborated closely in the covert program. He potentially faced a death sentence. It felt like a setup.

When I finally reached Kimathi by phone weeks later, he told me Uganda had released him from Luzira Prison without charges and without apology. "I could use help," he told me. "I am starting over, from zero." He did not sound well. His voice was feeble, shaky. For almost a year he had lived in solitary confinement. It was hard to readjust to freedom, he complained.

Then it hit me: This was a conversation I would probably be having for the rest of my life.

Kimathi and Iftin do not know each other, but they have one thing in common: Their lives have been upended, directly or indirectly, by the fateful U.S.-backed 2006 Ethiopian invasion of Somalia, an operation that was intended to crush Islamic extremists, stabilize Somalia, and install more tractable leadership -- but accomplished the exact opposite. Although the assault did topple a burgeoning Islamist movement in Mogadishu and some brutal al Qaeda operatives have since been killed in clandestine U.S. helicopter and drone strikes, the intervention led to the death of at least 16,000 civilians and the internationalization of a self-contained civil war that had begun 15 years earlier. The Ethiopians declared victory and began withdrawing in 2007. Intense fighting, piracy, and war-enabled famines grind on, meanwhile, in a more radicalized Somalia.

What makes this tragedy unique among the many that have ravaged the Horn of Africa is what it says about the United States' 10-year-old global war on terror, or however else we choose to rebrand it. A decade on, that shadowy conflict has crossed an underappreciated Rubicon of sorts. In fragile places like Africa, it has taken root and assumed a robust, independent life of its own. It continues to claim innocent victims. As we go forward, most of those victims will no longer be the "collateral damage" of combat, the bystanders killed by fanatical suicide bombers or U.S. troops in places like Afghanistan. No: They will be the Abdirizak Noor Iftins and Al-Amin Kimathis of the world, faceless refugees and political prisoners, anonymous casualties of a murky sea change in the rule of law, in tolerance, and in accountability.

Even as the 9/11 attacks recede from the day-to-day consciousness of Americans, the enormous bow wave of U.S. anti-terrorism policy still rolls heavily across the globe, diffracting off friend and foe alike, giving rise to secondary conflicts and unforeseen struggles, and empowering hotheads and autocrats. Millions living far from American-contested battlefields are swept up by it, tossed around by it, capsized by it. All the while, this new order becomes more "normal" -- more invisible -- to both locals and the distant policymakers in Washington who set it in motion long ago.

I asked Kimathi over the phone: What kind of help did he want?

"Anything," he replied. "Anything."

ALLOW ME TO TELL YOU about my two friends. It is unlikely you will read about them anywhere else.

One night in 2008 I lay on the roof of my safe house in Mogadishu watching the fireworks of red tracer bullets arcing across the sky. In the morning, my security detail brought in a skinny young man in a powder-blue tracksuit, and draped in fake bling. He was Abdirizak Noor Iftin. He wanted to practice his English. He had learned it from BBC radio and bootleg Arnold Schwarzenegger DVDs. He couldn't contain his glee at meeting someone from outside the warfare that had been his weather for 17 years. "Hey, man," he said, grinning.

In Mogadishu, Iftin often sported American hip-hop fashions: a hoodie, a backward-turned ball cap, baggy jeans. It was a political statement, an act of rebellion -- and of terrible yearning. Al-Shabab's illiterate gunmen yank men without Islamic beards off buses and beat them. In the south, they flog women who wear bras. They stone people. They cut off heads.

Iftin defied them, and he did it by learning. He took business administration courses. (Somehow, two universities still function in Mogadishu.) He drilled his private students in English grammar. He was also a prodigious e-mailer, possessing the soul of a great diarist. After I wrote an article about Iftin for a U.S. magazine in 2009, he began recording dispatches for a public radio station in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, about his surreal days in what is one of the world's most dangerous cities. In his slangy reports, he documented how a self-contained civil war had metastasized into an international jihadi bull run after the 2006 Ethiopian invasion. He described losing his girlfriend to emigration. He reported that his mud-walled house got stomped by a grenade; the shrapnel holes in his tin roof, he said, shone like stars.

By the summer of 2010, Iftin's mother had had enough. She plodded to a vast refugee camp outside Mogadishu. Iftin gave up, too -- only he went farther. Like at least 1 million others, he joined Somalia's swelling international diaspora.

Eastleigh slum in Nairobi, where I found Iftin again, is nicknamed "Little Mogadishu." Hotels sheathed in smoked glass -- built, the residents whisper, with loot from the epidemic of Somali piracy -- squat amid mounds of filth. There are wire-transfer offices and the "Heltz" driving academy. Sewage pools like tar. Women wear hijabs. Open-mouthed young men throng trucks bringing in khat, the chewable narcotic. Iftin marveled at all the unarmed people. But Eastleigh has its own dangers. "There is no freedom of speech here," he told me in his tenement cubbyhole. "The Shabab I saw in Mogadishu are here too."

Iftin wore a clean shirt for our reunion. A poster was tacked to his wall, a still life of fruit on a table. Out in the roofed courtyard of the honeycombed building, laundry hung in tiers, five stories high, as in an African prison. Refugees, crouching over charcoal braziers in the halls, stared warily up at me.

"They must go," huffed my taxi driver, an old Nairobi hand named Joseph, referring to the Somalis. "They are taking over. They push up the prices of property and control too much!" Joseph refused to park while I visited Iftin. Instead, he circled the block, fuming, with his windows rolled up.

AL-AMIN KIMATHI DIDN'T SHARE Joseph's contempt for the new arrivals. He liked Somalis. Many had been his clients. Kimathi is a tall, bookish man of 50 who dresses in a white djellaba. I had met him in early 2007, when he challenged Kenya's illegal deportations of more than 100 people, mainly Somalis, who had stampeded across the border after the Ethiopian army rolled into Mogadishu. Teams of agents from the FBI flew to Kenya to sort the tide of refugees for wanted terrorists, such as the men who planned the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. U.S. special operations soldiers rode with the Ethiopians as "observers."

Certainly there were bad guys among the deportees -- apprentice and veteran jihadists, including at least two Americans, fighting for al-Shabab. But the dragnet scooped up mostly noncombatants, including 11 women and 11 children. Most were freed after enduring detentions that lasted as long as a year, without legal representation or trials, in secret compounds in Ethiopia. It was the second-largest case of extraordinary rendition in the George W. Bush era, after the inaugural post-9/11 shipment of prisoners to the Guantánamo Bay detention center.

To me, Kimathi is one of the net positives in the aging war on terror, like the schools that Green Berets built in the Philippines or the old Cormac McCarthy novels appearing in Baghdad book stalls. Kimathi proves that even in a tough neighborhood like the Horn of Africa, civil society can stand up to the culture of fear and surveillance that permeates an open-ended war that Barack Obama's administration has so blandly renamed the National Strategy for Counterterrorism.

Kimathi was working for the Muslim Human Rights Forum in September 2010 when he was arrested in Uganda. He had traveled there to advise a group of renditioned Kenyans accused of planting bombs for al-Shabab in that country. The bombs had slaughtered 76 people gathered in pubs to watch soccer. The attack was seen as evidence of the spreading "Somalization" of the Horn of Africa.

Security agents posing as human rights activists lured Kimathi from Uganda's Entebbe International Airport to a hotel, shoved him into a car, and then hooded him. He says Ugandans, Kenyans, and Americans participated in his interrogations. "It was payback time," he told the BBC, "for my previous human rights defense of victims of extraordinary rendition." Kimathi's wife, Farida Saad, lost her postal service job while toiling for Kimathi's release. The couple is now broke.

Uganda is a major U.S. military partner in the Horn of Africa. It provides troops to an increasingly robust African Union peacekeeping force in Mogadishu. It has also passed some of the world's most draconian anti-terrorism laws. If you are a suspected terrorist in Uganda, prepare to grow old on a prison floor mat: Kimathi was held for 362 days without trial -- a fraction of the wait of some Guantánamo detainees but an eternity by any normal democratic standard.

Nearby Ethiopia, meanwhile, has enacted anti-terrorism laws that have resulted in the arrests of more than 100 citizens, among them opposition journalists. Kenya's record is better, but watchdog groups say its Anti-Terrorism Police Unit, which has received U.S. funding, ethnically profiles Somalis and deports its own citizens without due process. "What we have seen is a huge erosion of civil rights in the region under the guise of fighting terrorism," Ben Rawlence, an East Africa expert with Human Rights Watch, told me. "It has been a long-term trend."

ACCORDING TO A LARGELY OVERLOOKED investigation published in September by the Associated Press, almost 120,000 people have been arrested on terrorism charges worldwide since 9/11, a steep increase from the years before, representing a "surge in prosecutions under new or toughened anti-terror laws, often passed at the urging and with the funding of the West." Some of the suspects did, in fact, slaughter innocents, assault hotels, and blow up buses. But there must be numberless thousands of Kimathis caught up unjustly in the nets of the terror war by now -- a population collaterally damaged by obscure, knock-on crackdowns, unfamous people uprooted to dingy apartments in Jordan or the deserts of Somalia, travelers pulled from U.S.-bound planes because of misspellings in their names, civil rights activists confined on dubious terrorism charges to cells in Xinjiang or Anatolia. That a relatively small cabal of madmen hallucinating a new Islamic caliphate caused all this seems unreal. That Americans are weary of it all seems moot. The distraction of 13 million jobless at home helps.

So the U.S. national security bow wave ripples on. Abdirizak Noor Iftin applied recently for a student visa to the United States. He was rebuffed. The U.S. Embassy in Nairobi cited his lack of a home -- or even a country -- to return to. In November, the Kenyan government tore down his slum tenement, citing security concerns due to its proximity to an air base, temporarily rendering Iftin homeless yet again.

Al-Amin Kimathi, meanwhile, is planning to start a new human rights organization, this time for all Kenyans, Muslim and Christian alike. But the last time I spoke with him, in January, he sounded dispirited. Piled with debts, he was struggling to find funding, and his wife was still scrambling for work.

One afternoon four years ago, I had tea with Kimathi at the New Stanley, a hotel in downtown Nairobi frequented by political types. One of these pinstriped bureaucrats walked up. "Eh, eh, you must tell this boy to behave," he told me, wagging a finger in mock sternness at Kimathi. "He is too hot. He must calm down."

Had I been listening more closely that day, I would have understood even then that it wasn't really about U.S. interests anymore. The war had slipped away from us.



'The Juice Ain’t Worth the Squeeze'

Lies, damn lies, and the war in Afghanistan.

If observers had any doubts about the failure of the U.S. counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan, the past several days should have put them to rest. Since Feb. 21, anti-U.S. protests have erupted in virtually every major Afghan city over the revelation that American personnel had burned Qurans at Bagram Airfield, the largest U.S. installation in the country. The demonstrations have at times turned violent, claiming the lives of at least seven Afghans. This wave of protest is just the latest example of how the United States has botched its attempt to win "hearts and minds" in Afghanistan, and another indicator that its war effort is heading toward failure.

But that's not the message you would hear from U.S. officials. To hear them tell it, the United States has already taken action to prevent such shocking displays of cultural insensitivity from happening again. "When we learned of these actions, we immediately intervened and stopped them," U.S. General John R. Allen, the commander of the international force in Afghanistan, said in his apology.  "We are thoroughly investigating the incident and we are taking steps to ensure this does not ever happen again."

If this episode sounds familiar, it should.

Lt. Col. Daniel L. Davis has traveled over 9,000 miles across Afghanistan to learn a simple lesson: public statements made from podiums in Washington and Kabul bear little resemblance to the reality of the Afghan war. The 17-year U.S. Army veteran spent most of his time in the insurgency-enflamed provinces in the east and south, and was shaken to discover the U.S. military leadership's glowing descriptions of progress against the Taliban insurgency did not jibe with the accounts of American soldiers on the front lines of the war.

Davis then did a remarkable thing for a U.S. Army officer: He went public. In January 2012, he began a singular campaign to bring his findings to the attention of the American people. Davis wrote two reports, classified and unclassified, that aimed to expose the failures of the Afghan war while not endangering lives in the process. "I am no WikiLeaks guy Part II," he wrote.

Davis's reports have become one of the most damning insider accounts of the U.S. military's handling of Afghanistan. In his unclassified report, he wrote that U.S. officials have so thoroughly misinformed the American public "that the truth has become unrecognizable" and that, during his recent year-long deployment, he saw "deception reach an intolerable low." In his view, the divergence between the upbeat accounts offered by the top military leadership and the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan has undermined U.S. credibility with both allies and enemies, cost American taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars, and inflicted death, disfigurement, and suffering on tens of thousands of soldiers with "little or no gain to our country."

Davis briefed members of Congress and journalists on his conclusions, and also took his case to the media. In his article, "Truth, Lies and Afghanistan: How Military Leaders Have Let Us Down," published in the venerable Armed Forces Journal, Davis candidly summarized his charge that military leaders are misleading Congress and the public. He asked: "How many more men must die in support of a mission that is not succeeding?"

As an embedded reporter in eastern Afghanistan, I have spoken with hundreds of U.S. soldiers and civilians in forward operating bases, combat outposts, MRAPs, dining halls, hooches, tents, helipad terminals, and the U.S. embassy. And after years of interviewing both military and civilian personnel who had been, or were currently, deployed in Afghanistan, I have come to share his conclusion that top U.S. officials aren't leveling with the American people.

In Kabul, U.S. officials work to spin a failing war as a success story. The military called their Kabul press briefings "feeding the chickens," gatherings where press officers handed out releases and briefers fed upbeat reports to hungry journalists.

The situation sometimes isn't much better out of the Kabul bubble: In Khost Province's Forward Operating Base Salerno, a determined press officer briefed me -- in the bunker-like brigade headquarters -- on what he contended were declining numbers of attacks and improvised explosive devices (IEDs). The headquarters was designed to withstand a direct hit by a Taliban rocket -- the insurgents attacked the base so many times that its nickname was Rocket City. You could buy baseball caps on the base embroidered with that name, and a descending rocket.

Unfortunately, the reports were often at variance with what was happening out in the provinces. As I made my way around eastern Afghanistan, soldiers and officials told me a story at odds with the official narrative -- one of rising levels of support for the Taliban, rapidly deteriorating security, a corrupt and incompetent Afghan government, scandalously wasteful U.S. programs, and a failed "whole-of-government" campaign to coordinate U.S. military and civilian efforts.

American soldiers and the civilians did manage to work successfully together in one area, however -- to scrub the news sent back to Washington. Phyllis Cox, who served as the Kabul embassy's chief of party working on governance and rule-of-law issues from 2004 to 2006, blasted the Kabul embassy's dysfunction and duplicity. "[T]he conclusions are spun for domestic consumption," she told me. Meanwhile, staffers were required to toe the party line. "They are punished for getting out of line -- made persona non grata, whatever. It's easier for them to just put in their time."

Jim Moseley, who worked on Afghan agricultural development as the deputy secretary of agriculture from 2001 to 2005, agreed. "The point is they knew what headquarters wanted to hear. Things got sanitized," he told me. "They knew what Washington wanted to hear."

But Davis contends America's top soldiers, not its diplomats, bear much of the blame for painting an unrealistic portrait of the Afghan war. As Davis wrote, Gen. David Petraeus's testimony to the Senate Armed Forces Committee on March 15, 2011, is a textbook example of how the military misled the U.S. public. In his upbeat briefing, General Petraeus indicated that the U.S.-led coalition had arrested the Taliban's "momentum" -- a vague descriptor that, Davis noted, "you can neither prove nor disprove."

Petraeus also artfully provided himself with a handy escape clause for a future collapse in stability. "[W]hile the security progress achieved over the last year is significant, it is also fragile and reversible," he told the senators. But as Davis rightly points out, the data that indicates the insurgency had grown dramatically in recent years. According to the Afghan NGO Safety Office security report that was published in late 2010, the total volume of insurgent attacks increased by 64 percent over the year -- "the highest annual growth rate we have recorded."

On the front lines, American soldiers were similarly convinced that the insurgency was growing. At one point, a U.S. officer quoted me the Special Forces dictum: If an insurgency isn't shrinking, it's winning.

Scarcely a half-mile from the giant U.S. base at Bagram Air Field, I stood in the dry, brown landscape with Maj. Eddie Simpson. Soldiers under the command of the lanky officer were guarding development specialists as they conferred with village leaders from the town of Usbashi beside a small river. One of the Afghans said Usbashi was pro-government, a peaceful place. "You can take off body armor here," he said.

Simpson snorted. "Those rockets came from this village a few nights ago," he said, referring to a recent attack on Bagram.

A white Toyota Corolla and two motorcycles suddenly charged down the dirt track toward us, then abruptly plunged into the shallow stream and roared up to an overlooking bluff. The soldiers watched as the cyclists dismounted and a pack of men erupted from the car. The Afghans stood on the bluff like imperious Sioux warriors scouting the cavalry. "Taliban, checking us out," Simpson snarled. He had earlier spoken about the Soviet Union's ill-fated experience in Afghanistan: "It didn't work out so good for the Russians here," he told me. "It ain't working out so good for us. These people don't like anyone."

Touted as an essential element of counterinsurgency, the ballyhooed Afghanistan aid and development projects have had no measurable impact on the insurgents. For example, lobbyists in Washington promoted a wildly expensive project, costing hundreds of millions of dollars, to finance roads through Afghanistan with the perky slogan: "The insurgency begins where the road ends."

However, these corridors were soon strewn with Taliban IEDs. One major paved route in the eastern province of Khost became so heavily mined with roadside bombs that the U.S. commanders closed it to military traffic.

American troops are also increasingly cynical about the mission to prop up the profoundly corrupt Afghan government. Working day in and day out with Afghan officials whom they knew often funneled American taxpayer dollars to the Taliban, U.S. soldiers and civilian officials were guaranteed to experience cognitive dissonance. "We are funding our own enemy," soldiers in eastern Afghanistan sardonically told me.

Multiple government reports buttressed the stories that soldiers told me: the insurgents were benefiting from payoffs from U.S. development and logistics contracts. "It's like we're financing the Taliban," an angry soldier told me as we rode through Taliban-controlled Ghazni City in a mine-resistant vehicle with a detachment of Texan troops "We had a veterinarian truck hijacked. Had to pay $6,000 to ransom the workers. We think the contractor was working with the Taliban."

Captain Arie Kinra, an Indian-American with a big dip of snuff contorting his lower lip, chimed in that the Afghan power elite "just want to keep things the way they are." He took a dip and said, "They're just like mafioso, getting their cut."

Military leaders have long emphasized the importance of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) to the U.S. exit strategy. Since 2002, the United States has spent $20 billion training, equipping and sustaining the Afghan army. An April 2011 Pentagon report claimed that the ANSF "continued to increase in quantity, quality, and capability." Given the army's abysmal baseline, Petraeus's statement was not exactly untrue -- but it did wildly overstate the ANSF's ability to ensure Afghan security.

The overwhelmingly illiterate Afghan army simply doesn't fight very well. In Khost Province, it was common knowledge that Afghan army forces seldom ventured from its base at Camp Clark. In the eastern province of Laghman, I watched disheveled Afghan recruits reluctantly shamble toward the base's gate as their frustrated U.S. Army trainer barked orders. Later that day, at a pre-mission meeting with American soldiers, the team leader played a popular YouTube video of uncoordinated ANA soldiers unable to do jumping jacks. The tough U.S. soldiers cracked up: "These guys are going to beat the Taliban?" one hooted.

In Afghanistan, I learned to distinguish between outright lies and officers spinning a bad situation by cherry-picking positive data. Counterinsurgency stalwart Col. Mike Howard, a brigade commander with responsibility for eastern Afghanistan, was a scrupulously honest guy -- but he sure didn't say everything he knew. Colonel Howard accordingly echoed the military's "victory narrative," in his case, by focusing on the incremental improvements in Afghanistan over his four deployments.

Many officers out in the field also repeated the party line: Security was improving, the Afghans were embracing their government, the Afghan National Army was getting better, whatever. But the on-the-ground reality prevented them from staying with the story very long. In Laghman Province, officer after officer would tell me, "Oh, it is secure here," before diverting into vivid descriptions of ubiquitous IEDs, blown-up MRAPs, ambushes, attacks.

Many American soldiers in Afghanistan are coming around to Davis's views. As happy news about successful counterinsurgency efforts continued to pour out of the Washington and Kabul press offices, frustration and anger are rife on the ground in Afghanistan.

"On an operational level, the soldiers are saying, ‘I'm going to go over there and try to not get my legs blown off. My nation will shut this bullshit down,'" a Marine officer in southern Afghanistan told me last year. It wasn't just that his soldiers had lost confidence in their Afghan partners, they had long since lost faith in counterinsurgency's focus on hearts-and-minds development work.

"Marines say, ‘fuck this,'" the officer remarked. "The juice ain't worth the squeeze."