WASHINGTON - The Central Intelligence Agency's (CIA) recently retired top expert on radical Islamists has strongly denounced the conduct of U.S. President George W. Bush's "global war on terrorism" and the continued U.S. military presence in Iraq, which he said is "contributing to the violence".
In an interview published this week by the online edition of Harper's Magazine, Emile Nakhleh, who retired at the end of June as director of the agency's Political Islam Strategic Analysis Programme, said that the Bush administration's tactics had "lost a generation of goodwill in the Muslim world" and its Middle East democratisation programme "has all but disappeared, except for official rhetoric".
Nakhleh, who, before working for the CIA, taught Middle East politics for some 25 years, also called for Washington to "begin to explore creative ways to engage Iran and bring Iran and Shiite politics to the forefront of our policy in the region."
"The growing influence of Hezbollah, and its leader, Hasan Nasrallah, across the region and within the Sunni street, and the growing regional influence and reach of Iran, are two new realities that we should recognise and engage," he told Harper's editor, Ken Silverstein.
The interview, Nakhleh's first since his retirement, echoes the views of a number of former intelligence officials and career diplomats who have criticised the administration for ignoring their analyses of the dynamics of Middle East politics, particularly their warnings of the challenges Washington would face if it invaded Iraq.
Last February, for example, Paul Pillar, the intelligence community's top Middle East analyst from 2000 until his retirement in late 2005, disclosed in Foreign Affairs magazine that the community had warned policymakers before the Iraq invasion that the war and occupation would "boost political Islam and increase sympathy for terrorists' objectives" and that a "deeply divided Iraqi society" would likely erupt into "violent conflict" unless the occupation authority "established security and put Iraq on the road to prosperity in the first few weeks or months after the fall of Saddam (Hussein)."
Pillar, as well as the Defence Intelligence Agency's former top Middle East analyst, Pat Lang, also accused the administration of distorting and politicising intelligence in order to build its case for going to war. In Pillar's words, "the administration used intelligence not to inform decision-making, but to justify a decision already made."
The most flagrant example of such manipulation was the administration's efforts, eagerly promoted by right-wing media, such as the Wall Street Journal's editorial page and Rupert Murdoch-owned Fox News and the Weekly Standard, to establish a link between Hussein and al Qaeda -- a link that, according to the conclusions of a report released earlier this month by the Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee, never existed.
In his Harper's interview, Nakhleh, the author of more than half a dozen books on Middle East politics and strategy, also denounced these efforts, stressing that that the intelligence community found "no evidence that there was a Saddam-(Osama) bin Laden axis."
"The source for much of the information of that sort was (Iraqi expatriate Ahmad) Chalabi and (his) Iraqi National Congress, and their positions jibed with the positions of those in the administration who wanted to wage war in Iraq -- (then Deputy Defence Secretary Paul) Wolfowitz, (then Undersecretary of Defence for Policy Douglas) Feith, people in the vice president's office. So (the administration) relied heavily on that reporting, but there was never any evidence to support that link," Nakhleh said.
Like Pillar, Nakhleh also stressed that the intelligence community had warned before the invasion that "just because the Iraqis hated Saddam, that didn't mean they would like our occupation."
"Iraq was more complex than just Saddam. We should have learned from the experience of the British in the 1920s, when modern Iraq was created -- namely, that bringing in outside leaders would not work," he said. "People expressed views about the need to plan for a post-Saddam Iraq, about the potential for sectarian violence and the rise of militias, about the fact that the Shiites would want to rise politically."
"These were not minority views in the intelligence community, but the administration ended up listening to other voices. The focus was on invading Iraq and getting rid of Saddam, and after that everything would be fine and dandy," he told Harper's.
As for what Washington should do now in Iraq, Nakhleh echoed some of the administration's strongest critics, such as former National Security Agency director Gen. William Odom and Democratic Rep. John Murtha, although he did not explicitly endorse their idea of an immediate withdrawal or redeployment.
"I have come to believe that our presence is part of the problem and that we should begin to seriously devise an exit strategy," he said. "There's a civil war in Iraq, and our presence is contributing to the violence. We've become a lightning rod -- we're not restricting the violence, we're contributing to it. Iraq has galvanised jihadists; our presence is what is attracting them. We need to get out of there."
As to Iraq's future, "the only question is whether (it) will become a haven for sectarianism, or follow either the Iranian model or the standard Arab authoritarian model," he went on. "(T)he once-touted model of a secular, democratic Iraq is all but forgotten. This casts a dark shadow on American efforts to spread democracy in the region."
Citing the treatment of detainees in Iraq and the global anti-terrorist effort and the administration's continuing efforts to get legislation that would permit holding suspects indefinitely, Nakhleh argued that Bush's pro-democracy rhetoric -- most recently offered at the U.N. General Assembly Tuesday -- was hypocritical.
"The Islamic world says, 'You talk about human rights, but you're holding people without charging them.' The Islamic world has always viewed the war on terror as a war on Islam, and we have not been able to disabuse them of that notion. Because of Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and other abuses, we have lost on the concepts of justice, fairness, and the rule of law... That's very serious, and that's where I see the danger in the years ahead."
Unlike some of his former colleagues, Nakhleh expressed support for democratisation in the Islamic world, stressing that there was nothing in Islam that was inconsistent with the democratic process and that even avowedly Islamist parties, such as Hamas, are not "necessarily interested in creating Sharia societies."
"Political Islam is not a threat -- the threat is if people become disenchanted with the political process and democracy, and opt for violence. There is real danger from a few terrorists, and we should go after them, but the longer-term threat is that people out of the system. We need to not only speak out in favour of democracy and political reform, but also act on that as well," he said.
In that connection, it should be prepared to engage Iran and the Shiite emergence across the region, according to Nakhleh. "For decades, the U.S. has based its policy and interests in the greater Middle (East) region on close relations with Sunni Arab, authoritarian regimes in the name of fighting Communism during the cold war and terrorism since 9/11... We should go beyond the Sunni concerns about the 'arc of Shiite revival' and devise ways to engage Shiite political, religious and social leaders, including state and non-state actors," he said.
Copyright © 2006 IPS-Inter Press Service