Saudi Prince Bandar: Don't worry, I'll handle the details
A reader commented, in response to my Obama's Iran Deal that she didn't think Iran was the same as the Pakistan situation. Of course the situations aren't the same. But as pointed out in the post, the U.S., under two very different presidential administrations, had deployed the exact same tactic to deal with the most troublesome militant Muslim groups operating in Iraq and Afghanistan: use the militaries in Iran and Pakistan, respectively, to keep a lid on the groups.
The basic idea informing the tactic has been to identify a faction that's even more ruthless and underhanded than the troublesome groups or regime and use that faction to dispatch or police the trouble. It's a variation on the old tactic known as 'To catch a thief, set a thief.'
But this means U.S. policymakers aren't actually focused on resolving conflicts connected with Iraq and Afghanistan -- or Iran or Pakistan -- which is why their analyses of the countries are on the moon. Their focus is on weaponizing Muslim groups at the state or non-state levels to achieve something approximating a balance of power in a particular region.
By the way the tactic isn't limited to dealing with Muslim-majority countries; it was used against Russia twice -- in supporting Afghan 'Mujahideen' and Chechen insurgents.
Reliance on the tactic also means U.S. defense policymakers don't care that the situations in Iraq and Afghanistan -- and Syria, for that matter -- are very different. No matter how different, they deploy the one-trick pony. The reasoning is, 'It worked against the Russians in Afghanistan so it should work everywhere else.'
The catch is that the tactic used against the Russians in Afghanistan eventually blew up in American faces. Yet by the time the blowback manifested American policymakers had conveniently overlooked how the current mess got started in the first place. Thus, they were open to the idea of trotting out the one-trick pony again in Libya, and Syria, which produced yet more blowback, and still with no sign of the American government having learned a thing from monkeying around with Muslims. So it's time to turn back the clock.
The following passages are from Nafeez Ahmed's forensic analysis of thousands of published documents pertaining to the killing of Osama bin Laden and events leading up to it (The bin Laden death mythology; Insurge Intelligence, July 3, 2015). While Ahmed doesn't get into this part of the story, note that the American attempt to use Sunni forces in a proxy war in Syria against Iran backfired when it produced Islamic State, which caused the Obama administration to hurriedly deputize those same Iranians to act as cops in Iraq against IS. But now let us return to the time Prince Bandar bin Sultan came up with a bright idea:
The Saudi-Pakistani arrangement at Abbottabad provided bin Laden with significant freedom of movement, and an ability to continue maintaining direct contact with al-Qaeda militants. Yet it also coincided with the acceleration of a covert US strategy launched to empower Sunni jihadists.
Around the middle of the last decade, the Bush administration decided to use Saudi Arabia to funnel millions of dollars to al-Qaeda affiliated jihadists, Salafi militants, and Muslim Brotherhood Islamists. The idea was to empower these groups across the Middle East and Central Asia, with a view to counter and roll back the geopolitical influence of Shi’ite Iran and Syria.
Seymour Hersh himself reported in detail on the unfolding of this strategy in the New Yorker in 2007, citing a range of US and Saudi government, intelligence and defence sources. The US-backed Saudi funding operation for Islamist militants, including groups affiliated with or sympathetic to al-Qaeda, was active as far back as 2005 according to Hersh — the same year that bin Laden’s move to Abbottabad under Saudi financial largess was approved.
The thrust of Hersh’s 2007 report has been widely confirmed elsewhere, including by several former senior government officials speaking on the record.
The existence of a US covert programme of this nature was corroborated by ABC News that very year.
Then in 2008, a US Presidential Finding disclosed that Bush had authorised an “unprecedented” covert offensive against Iran and Syria, across a huge geographical area from Lebanon to Afghanistan, permitting funding to anti-Shi’a groups including Sunni militant terrorists like the pro-al-Qaeda Jundullah, Iranian Kurdish nationalists, Baluchi Sunni fundamentalists, and the Ahwazi Arabs of southwest Iran. The CIA operation would receive an initial influx of $3–400 million.
Although spearheaded under Bush, the strategy escalated under the Obama administration.
Alastair Crooke, a retired 30-year MI6 officer and Middle East advisor to EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, explained that the US-Saudi alliance would generate a resurgence of al-Qaeda jihadists:
“US officials speculated as to what might be done to block this vital corridor [from Iran to Syria], but it was Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia who surprised them by saying that the solution was to harness Islamic forces. The Americans were intrigued, but could not deal with such people. Leave that to me, Bandar retorted.”
This regional strategy, Crooke said, involved the sponsorship of extremist Salafis in Syria, Libya, Egypt, Lebanon, Yemen, and Iraq “to disrupt and emasculate the [Arab Spring] awakenings that threaten absolute monarchism.”
The continuation of the strategy under Obama was also confirmed by John Hannah, former national security advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney, who remarked that:
“Bandar working as a partner with Washington against a common Iranian enemy is a major strategic asset.”
Mobilising extremist Sunnis “across the region” under “Saudi resources and prestige,” wrote Hannah, can “reinforce US policy and interests… weaken the Iranian mullahs; undermine the Assad regime; support a successful transition in Egypt; facilitate Qaddafi’s departure; reintegrate Iraq into the Arab fold; and encourage a negotiated solution in Yemen.”
The activation of the strategy was perhaps most clearly confirmed in a 2008 US Army-sponsored RAND Corp report, which recommended eight strategies for prosecuting the ‘war on terror’ in the region.
Among them was a recommendation to exploit “fault lines between the various SJ [Salafi-jihadist] groups to turn them against each other and dissipate their energy on internal conflicts,” for instance between “local SJ groups” focused on “overthrowing their national government” and transnational jihadists like al-Qaeda. The US “could use the nationalist jihadists to launch proxy IO [information operation] campaigns to discredit the transnational jihadists.”
The US could also “choose to capitalise on the Shia-Sunni conflict by taking the side of the conservative Sunni regimes in a decisive fashion and working with them against all Shiite empowerment movements in the Muslim world… to split the jihadist movement between Shiites and Sunnis.” The US would need to contain “Iranian power and influence” in the Gulf by “shoring up the traditional Sunni regimes in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Pakistan.”
Although this would mean empowering al-Qaeda’s chief financial backers among Sunni states, the widening Sunni-Shia sectarian conflict would “reduce the al-Qaeda threat to US interests in the short term,” by diverting Salafi-jihadist resources toward “targeting Iranian interests throughout the Middle East,” especially in Iraq and Lebanon, hence “cutting back… anti-Western operations.”
The same US Army-backed RAND report confirmed that this “divide and rule” strategy had already been activated in the region, specifically in Iraq:
“Today in Iraq such a strategy is being used at the tactical level, as the United States now forms temporary alliances with nationalist insurgent groups that it has been fighting for four years… In the past, these nationalists have cooperated with al-Qaeda against US forces.”
Bringing all this together implies that in the same year that the Pakistani ISI received funding from Saudi Arabia to harbour bin Laden in his custom-built mansion in Abbottabad, the US had covertly partnered with Saudi Arabia to support al-Qaeda affiliated groups as part of a highly clandestine divide-and-rule strategy to counter Iranian influence.
Quoting Hersh from his 2007 report, a US government consultant told him that Prince Bandar bin Sultan and other Saudis had assured the White House that:
“… they will keep a very close eye on the religious fundamentalists. Their message to us was ‘We’ve created this movement, and we can control it.’ It’s not that we don’t want the Salafis to throw bombs; it’s who they throw them at — Hezbollah, Moqtada al-Sadr, Iran, and at the Syrians, if they continue to work with Hezbollah and Iran.”
Thus, the key US contact in Saudi Arabia responsible for the covert ‘redirection’ strategy at its origination was Prince Bandar bin Sultan, then Secretary-General of Saudi’s National Security Council.
As reported by Saleem Shahzad, Prince Bandar — who knew bin Laden personally from their Cold War days — had also met with US and Pakistani officials in the months leading up to the bin Laden raid.
In other words, Prince Bandar was the same senior Saudi official who helped negotiate the agreement under which the Abbottabad operation would be executed in 2011, and who had been tapped under both Obama and Bush to accelerate Saudi funding of Islamist militants to counter Iran.
Yet US officials knew that Bandar was linked directly to the events of 9/11. In tapping the Prince to assist with the anti-Iran strategy and the Pakistan-bin Laden strategy, US officials knowingly collaborated with a Saudi royal who had financed the 9/11 hijackers.