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  August 1, 2009

Afghanistan: US up to its ears in trouble

Margolis: The US is not just fighting the Taliban, they are fighting the Pashtun people
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Eric S. Margolis is an award-winning, internationally syndicated foreign affairs columnist. His articles have appeared in the New York Times, the International Herald Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Times, Times of London, the Gulf Times, the Khaleej Times, Dawn, Daily News Pakistan, Sun Malaysia, Mainichi Tokyo, U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, Globe and Mail and the American Conservative. His internet column reaches global readers on a daily basis. He is the author of two best selling books, War at the Top of the World: The Struggle for Afghanistan And Asia, and nominated for the Governor General's prestigious award for American Raj: Resolving The Conflict Between The West And The Muslim World. As a war correspondent Margolis has covered conflicts in Angola, Namibia, South Africa, Mozambique, Lebanon, Turkist Kurdistan, Peru, Afghanistan, Kashmir, India, Pakistan, El Salvador and Nicaragua. He was among the first journalist to ever interview Libya’s Muammar Khadaffi and was the first to be allowed access to KGB headquarters in Lubyanka.


PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. We're talking to Eric Margolis. He's a contributing foreign editor for the Sun media chain, and he's the author of the book American Raj. Thanks for joining us again, Eric.


JAY: So in the first episode we talked about President Obama's foreign policy. We particularly were talking about Ukraine and Georgia and Vice President Biden's visit there, where they reasserted American support for Georgia and Ukraine's NATO bid. Let's turn our attention now to Afghanistan and Pakistan. What do you make of US policy, the increase in troops, the new surge in Helmand province? And how's that going to affect the situation in Pakistan?

MARGOLIS: Well, it seems it's a desperate attempt to salvage a war that was being lost. Nobody wanted to admit it, but that's where it was headed. And if the war were lost, then NATO might very well collapse as a result of that, too, because there's great dissatisfaction among its European members for having been press-ganged and dragooned into sending troops into this war that is rejected by the European public. It's a sign that some troops have been sent but not enough. I call it McNamara-ism, after what we saw in Vietnam, where you see incremental increases of power, not decisive ones. There's no doubt that the US is up to its ears in trouble in Afghanistan, and while the war, the US is barely holding its own in Afghanistan, the spread of the war into Pakistan is jeopardizing the whole region and is creating a regional crisis that also will include India and Iran.

JAY: The argument I guess you would get from Obama policymakers in Afghanistan is I think they would point to Iraq and say, even though in terms of strategic objectives Iraq may be a complete failure for US policy, certainly from what Bush wanted—they're ending up with a government that has as many ties to Iran as it does to the United States, and Iraq is not so much in US control as they probably hoped it might be—but still, the surge of troops in Iraq to some extent succeeded, I think, one would have to say, even after a lot of internal forces that were perhaps even more in play in suppressing violence. But this basic idea of going into an area with enough troops, to leave the troops living amongst the people, and then supposedly doing some kind of reconstruction—they'll say there's some success in Iraq, so why can't that work in Afghanistan?

MARGOLIS: Well, there are more dissimilarities than similarities between Iraq and Afghanistan. Afghanistan is a much bigger war. Iraq was a very divided country, where the Americans really succeeded well there because of the collapse of the Sunni resistance. It was split. It sold out to the Americans for money. This will not happen as easily as the Americans think in Afghanistan. Secondly, the situation in Iraq is hotting up again. The Americans will not be able to withdraw as many troops as they would like, even though now it seems that American troops may stay on indefinitely in Iraq. And third, the longer American troops stay in Afghanistan, the more they're turning people against them. We can see that attacks by Taliban and its allies in the national resistance, as I call it, are up 60 percent this year, as the Americans funnel more troops in there. In any event, the Americans, even if they send 100,000 troops, are still not going to have enough troops to subdue the Pashtun tribal people. They're not fighting Taliban, they're not fighting terrorists, and they're not fighting al-Qaeda. The US has gotten itself into a war against the Pashtun people, who number between 50 and 60 million people.

JAY: Now, you know, I was there in the spring of 2002. I know a lot has changed since then. But in reports that are coming back now, and my experience when I was there, many of the Pashtuns are not in love with the Taliban. There's a lot of conflicted feelings about this, where they feel their national and ethnic dignity's been offended by the American—what they now see as occupation. But a lot of them also don't like the Taliban. A lot of the tribal elders have been killed by the Taliban. A lot of villagers are terrorized by the Taliban. Is it not a fairly complicated situation?

MARGOLIS: Well, it is, it's very complicated, with all the tribal and ethnic complexities in Afghanistan. And a lot of people don't like Taliban. It showed itself to be a backwards, narrow-minded bunch of hillbillies. But, nevertheless, it represents the most popular and legitimate political movement in Afghanistan. If there were an election today, I'd be willing to bet you the Taliban would win the election.

JAY: In the Pashtun areas; certainly not in Kabul and the north.

MARGOLIS: Well, don't forget, Pashtuns are over half the population of Afghanistan. And most of them are going to vote for Taliban, simply not because they like Taliban, but because Taliban is the national resistance, Taliban and its allies. It has many nationalist allies who are not Taliban, which is a religious party. And they have become the primary resistance to Western occupation. And we know from history that Afghans don't like being occupied, and they don't like seeing their villages being bombed, and they don't like being told what to do by foreigners.

JAY: There's still a lot of contradiction in this. Like, if you look at the polling in Afghanistan, the majority polling seems very ambiguous. There's still a fair amount of support for—if you believe the polling, at any rate, even in Pashtun areas, certainly amongst the women in the cities, like women in Kandahar, you see actual demonstrations against the Taliban in—Taliban are assassinating women leaders in Kandahar. It's a conflicted situation there, no?

MARGOLIS: Well, you have to explain how the Afghan people are fighting the greatest military power on Earth, the United States, with the most advanced and terrible military weapons that include B-1 heavy bombers, and cruise missiles, and predators, and all of this, and they have nothing but small arms, and yet they are fighting and their resistance is increasing. Something has to explain this. It's not threats by so-called Taliban. Who the Americans are fighting now in the big offensives in the south and Helmand are not a foreign army of Taliban; they're the local villagers in the region. And this is happening more and more. And this process is spreading into Pakistan, as well, amongst the Pashtun. So I don't think you can look for trying to explain this away and say, "Well, they don't like the Taliban." They don't, but why are they fighting? How do you account for this incredible resistance?

JAY: Afghanistan's at least like two countries. From Kabul and to the north of Afghanistan, there's certainly little to no support for the Taliban, no?

MARGOLIS: Well, there are pockets of Taliban support in the north, but by and large, 'cause it's ethnic Tajik and Uzbek area—they're the blood enemies of the Pashtuns, and they were allied the Afghan Communist Party, and then with the Soviets when they invaded. Today they're allied with the Americans. They are regarded by the Pashtuns as traders and heretics. And, unfortunately, until these three groups learn to start cooperating somehow, there's going to be no stability in Afghanistan.

JAY: But there's another force in Afghanistan. It's weak militarily, but in Kabul and Mazari Sharif there's a large number of Afghans who are fighting neither for northern warlords nor Taliban. There is an attempt to create a kind of more modernized Afghanistan for Afghans. And I think these people in Kabul, there's—quite a large number in Kabul, at the very least, they're very conflicted. I talk to people who are there, and they feel caught between a rock and a hard place, 'cause neither do they want the Taliban back in control, nor do they want foreign occupation, nor do they want rule by warlords. And there's very little support for this force.

MARGOLIS: Well, Paul, we have to be careful about what we derive from being in Kabul. Kabul is a bubble in Afghanistan. It's the same thing we saw in Saigon, for example. You have a pro-Western, educated elite who want the Westerners to stay on, but you go 10 miles out of town and you're there with very basic people who don't support this view at all and who represent 95 percent of the population of Afghanistan. So this is a very splintered country, and I don't think there will be a middle force. It would be good if there were one, but with the US and its allies and foreign nations and neighbors stirring the pot in Afghanistan, I don't see any moderate resolution at this point.

JAY: Well, in the next segment of our interview, let's talk about what's happening in Pakistan. Please join us on The Real News Network.


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