Fort Dix
CIA vet eyeballs military threats
Steve Snyder
Public Affairs Staff

Over 500 soldiers and civilians sat in the Timmermann Center auditorium Monday evening, listening with rapt attention to the exploits of former CIA operative Gary Berntsen.

The author of the best-selling book, Jawbreaker: The Attack on Bin Laden and Al Qaeda, recounted his experiences in counterterrorist operations throughout central Asia and reviewed combat operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan and what they may portend for the future. During and after his lecture/slide presentation, Bernsten was peppered with questions from an audience which appeared to be not only attentive but enthralled.

Lt. Col. Maureen Fry from the Directorate of Plans, Training, Mobilization and Security joined Fort Dix Commander, Col. Ronald Thaxton, in welcoming the spy-turned-author into Team Dix’s coveted status as a guest speaker.

Berntsen began by reviewing his background, including 23 years with the CIA’s Clandestine Service, 10 years as a senior field commander and leader of several major counterterrorist strikes including the one culminating in the battle of Tora Bora. He noted that his daughter is a former naval intelligence officer and his son has just completed Ranger training on his way to Afghanistan.

Afghanistan’s history, politics, foreign relations and very existence have been largely determined by its location at the crossroads of central, west, and south Asia where would-be conquerors from Alexander the Great to the Soviet Union have run into trouble attempting to subjugate the natives. Berntsen foresees a very long American commitment in Afghanistan, for least 10 years, but didn’t immediately elaborate until the end of his briefing.

Instead, he began by reviewing a very interesting history of terrorism.

Terrorism has long been a major method used by the weak to attain geo-political goals at the expense of the strong. Berntsen discussed the Jewish Sicari, who used knives to assassinate Roman occupiers; the mass suicide of Jewish zealots at Masada who chose death over slavery, Thuggee stranglers in India finally brought to heel by long-term imprisonments meted out by William Henry Sleeman, and Menachim Begin’s transformation from leader of a Jewish terrorist sect called Irgun to prime minister of Israel.

Then, the intelligence expert turned his attention to current events in south, central Asia.

India is the great power there, he noted, adding that the Hindu democracy offers a fat target for Islamic jihadists. Poverty reigns, too, with about half the people in the region living at levels barely capable of subsistence.

Hence, the advent of political unrest arises.

There have been three wars between India with its huge Hindu population and Islamic-dominated Pakistan – in 1949, 1965 and 1971 – and all have erupted over the mountainous pass in Kashmir, Berntsen said. Since both nations have nuclear weapons, danger in the area assumes catastrophic proportions.

United States forces increasingly focus on the border area between Afghanistan and Pakistan because Osama Bin Laden and remnants of his remaining Al Qaeda force are known to be concentrated there along with members of the Taliban. But that is an area dominated by Pashtuns whom we don’t know much about but seem destined to become entwined with, militarily.

Pashtuns are also known as Pushtoons, Pathans and have several other linguistic variations.

The first part of the name "Afghan" is, in fact, an alternative name for the Pashtuns who are founders of their country and its largest ethnic group. Estimates calculate that upwards of 85 percent of the 6.2 million Afghans who fled their country prior to the Soviet invasion of 1979 were Pashtuns. Many simply moved over to Pakistan where they are the largest minority group (an estimated 28 million) that’s not especially friendly with the ruling Punjab majority (in power since independence in 1947). Currently, the Pashtuns dominate life in eastern and southern Afghanistan and in most of the tribal regions of Pakistan adjacent to the Afghan border. And they appear to be at cross purposes with stated United States policy goals in the region.

The vast majority of Pashtuns support and participate in the Taliban movement. During the seven-year Taliban rule in Afghanistan, restrictions ruled. Women were banned from jobs and girls were forbidden to attend schools or universities. Communists were systematically killed and thieves were punished by amputating either a hand or foot.

Life was grim but the Taliban did succeed in nearly wiping out opium production by 2001.

The Pashtuns of Pakistan go one step further, providing safe havens for Al Qaeda, too. Any American incursions into Pakistan may very well see United States forces tangling with the Pashtuns.

The Pashtuns are fiercely independent and like most other groups in the area, oriented toward the Sunni religion. According to the Pakistan handbook of 1998, "They are fearless guerrillas who know the hills and valley intimately, are crack shots and wear clothes that blend with their surroundings… No one has ever managed to subdue or unite them."

Pashtuns live by a code emphasizing honor, courage and hospitality. Many leaders in Al Qaeda were part of the mujahedin that helped throw the Soviets out of Afghanistan. The Pashtuns consider them guests to be protected, hence they have not been cooperative in helping American forces hunt down Bin Laden. Although Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai is a former Pashtun warlord, his background has not won him support, for various reasons, among his own tribe and in his native land.

The Afghan problem has become largely a Pashtun problem in most estimates.

Berntsen urged military members of his audience to do everything they can to help the Afghans, who are severely handicapped because of their dire poverty. Still, they fight and die for their country, he says, and deserve our support.

Copies of Jawbreaker were raffled off at the end of Berntsen’s presentation, a new and unique way of rewarding serious students of the military arts. But the knowledge that you’re going to serve a tour of duty in Afghanistan sooner or later concentrates the mind, too. It helps to know who’s shooting at you – and why.

Read the Post Online for June 26, 2009.