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Eric Margolis: US will need Pakistan to make deal with the Taliban

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay. And joining us now from our studio in Washington is Eric Margolis. Eric is a journalist. He’s covered Afghanistan, Kashmir, Pakistan, South Africa, all around the world. He’s the author of the book American Raj: Resolving the Conflict between the West and the Muslim World. And you can read more of his work at Thanks for joining us, Eric.

ERIC MARGOLIS, JOURNALIST: Good to be back, Paul.

JAY: So you’re in Washington. You’ve been around right during the days of the Wikileaks leak, a recent vote to continue funding of the Afghan War, which saw, I think, 140 Democrats actually vote against the increase in funding. What’s the mood there about the war in Afghanistan?

MARGOLIS: Well, what I call Wikigate has caused great consternation in official circles here. Everybody’s grumbling and blaming the Pakistanis for the whole thing. But what’s happened is that a rock has been turned over to expose the ugly underside of the Afghan War; but as much, it exposes the growing demoralization in the US military over this war and whether they’re going to win it, and it brings out a lot of facts that the American government and its allies, like Canada, have been trying to conceal.

JAY: One of the big leaks—I don’t know how much a leak it really was, in the sense that there’s been so much about the role of the ISI [Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence] and the Taliban for anyone that wanted to follow this over the years. But how much effect is this really going to have? I mean, there’s nothing that new about the Pakistan-Taliban or ISI-Taliban relationship.

MARGOLIS: Quite right, Paul. I’m very close to ISI, in the sense that every time I go to Pakistan I interview their director generals and stay in the loop there. And ISI, the intelligence agency, has been defending Pakistan’s national interests, even though in this case they conflict with American interests. The Americans are furious at Pakistan because Pakistan has been disobedient, and they’re accusing it of playing a double game. But why shouldn’t it? Because according to [what] General Musharraf (and former ISI director) told me, he said after 2001 America put a gun to Pakistan’s head, threatened to bomb it back to the Stone Age—those were the words that were used—unless Pakistan turned against Taliban, which it created, and gave the Americans access to Pakistan [inaudible]

JAY: But I remember that period, just after 9/11. There was actually overt threats that India might use nuclear weapons against Pakistan if Pakistan didn’t cooperate in the war on Afghanistan after 9/11.

MARGOLIS: Pakistan was—and it literally had a gun to its head, and it had to give in to American demands. But at the same time, it wasn’t going to give up its own interests and its proxy army in Afghanistan, which was Taliban. And meanwhile, the Indians are expanding their influence very rapidly in Afghanistan, and the old Afghan Communist Party has come back to life (with American backing, ironically), so that Pakistan had to do something to defend its interests. And so it maintained discreet links with Taliban while paying lip service to Washington and saying, “Yes, Sayyid, whatever you want.”

JAY: But there’s nothing communist about that communist party. Like, the Communist Party in Afghanistan used to promote the education of women, women joining the workforce. People were—in fact, it was a modernization going on under the communist regime in Afghanistan, even though a rather brutal imposition of such modernization in the countryside. But what you have now is just a narco state, don’t you?

MARGOLIS: Quite right. It’s not the Leninist-Marx communists anymore. This is the rump of the old or the core of the old Afghan Communist Party, which is interested only in power and drugs. And it includes the Afghan secret police, to whom Canada’s been handing prisoners for torture, it includes the regular police, and it includes a lot of the major Afghan army units and the Northern Alliance, this Tajik group that is the power behind the throne and the Karzai regime.

JAY: Now, from an American point of view, even though, I mean, the American official position is that Pakistan is cooperating very well, there’s really no critique of Pakistan at the official level. And is there not a lot of truth to that? Meaning this: if there is going to be some kind of deal with the Taliban, the Americans are going to need Pakistan to broker that.

MARGOLIS: Well, you’re right again. You know, there is a creeping feeling here in Washington. Finally, people are coming out and talking about the unmentionable, which is a political settlement in Afghanistan. I can tell you that I meet more and more people in the American military who are really down on this war and think they’re never going to—it’s going to end up wrecking the US military and may end up wrecking NATO as well, and they’re trying to find some way out. I’ve talked to congressmen here, Republicans, even, who want out of this miserable war. But the problem is that they’re scared to do it because they’ll be accused of being unpatriotic, which is the kiss of death in America.

JAY: And with the other part of it, you talk to a lot of Afghans, you know, especially urban Afghans, but, I understand, many rural Afghans too, especially non-Pashtuns, I mean, the last thing on earth they want, in fact, is the Taliban brought back into power. The people in Afghanistan certainly seem to be caught between a lot of bad choices.

MARGOLIS: Well, some do. Certainly the westernized minority in Afghanistan doesn’t want to see Taliban come back.

JAY: Well, certainly the whole north doesn’t want [inaudible]

MARGOLIS: And in the north with the Tajiks, yeah, and the Uzbek ethnic groups. But, you know, Taliban has to come back, ’cause it very much represents the Pashtun majority, about 55 percent of the population, 50 percent. But this isn’t the Taliban that I saw, of 1991. This is an older, wiser, more gentle Taliban. And there have been talks in Saudi Arabia going on for years about some kind of reconciliation. And President Karzai has called for reconciliation. The countries that are blocking reconciliation in Afghanistan are the United States and Canada and Britain.

JAY: So what’s the mood in Washington, then? Where do you think this all leads? The military policy appears to be at more or less an impasse. On one side they’ve got an alliance with narco warlords. On the other side they’ve got an enemy that can just easily retreat and come back again over and over again. So what’s the mood there? What do you think’s going to happen?

MARGOLIS: The mood is dismay and grim and growing concern that America’s got its—it’s stuck its head in a hornet’s nest and doesn’t know how to get it out and still save face at the same time. So now we’re seeing more talk by the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, a very sensible man, Richard Haass, [who] has come out and called for what Vice President Biden wanted, which was a sort of a Predator kill-them-from-the-air, and a few CIA teams, and withdraw nearly all American troops out of the war. In other words, start backing out of the war. There’s not going to be any kind of Saigon type withdrawal, we don’t think. But the Americans are looking for some face-saving way to get out, as I said. They haven’t found it yet, but at least they’re talking about it openly.

JAY: Some people have suggested that even though this doesn’t look all that good, a low-level war that goes on a long time may not be so bad for some interests in the United States, both from the point of view of having a rationale for continued military bases in Afghanistan. It’s also certainly good business for all the people that feed the Pentagon. Maybe they don’t mind. You know, hold the big cities and just keep fighting for a few decades.

MARGOLIS: Well, there is a whole establishment in favor of that. In fact, The Washington Post last week ran an astounding series of articles on how the so-called national security intelligence community had doubled here in Washington under the Bush administration and was completely out of control and was spending untold tens of billions with all these private-enterprise torturers and assassination teams and God knows what running around. It’s like a bad movie. And there are many Republicans who hung their hat on this issue. And the Republicans have become the party of war here in Washington. They were all in favor.

JAY: Yeah, whenever they talk about war, all of a sudden Obama is their president.

MARGOLIS: Well, they’ve been supporting Obama. Obama is waging this war, ironically. He’s relying on the Republicans to keep the war going, and that’s become his solid core. Democrats here, some of the more thoughtful Democrats, are deeply dismayed that Obama may have—you know, this may be Obama’s albatross or nemesis, that—his support of the war. And he could have avoided it. He didn’t. He adopted this war. It’s going to end up doing in his presidency.

JAY: Well, he talked about change we can believe in, but he bought into the basic—the chessboard, the Brzezinski and Pentagon chessboard, that they need to be in Afghanistan, essentially, I suppose, to block Russia and China, which—and given where we’re at in world history, it’s probably a doomed idea. Russia and China are going to have their role to play in this region.

MARGOLIS: Well, definitely. The problem is that the more the US pushes into Afghanistan and arm-twists Pakistan into obeying American commands, which—. By the way, 98 percent of Pakistanis hate the United States and they hate American policy. They’re against the war in Afghanistan. The more we force Pakistan, the more they’re generating intense anti-American feelings and threatening the collapse of Pakistan, which would be a huge calamity. So it’s very dangerous. They’re playing with fire. But here in Washington there is not a clear understanding of these issues. There’s a lot of “I can do it, get the job done,” this kind of stuff. But really understanding the complex subtleties of the region, very few people do.

JAY: Thanks for joining us, Eric.

MARGOLIS: Thanks, Paul.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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Eric Margolis is an internationally syndicated columnist and renowned book author. He’s a veteran Korea-watcher who specializes in north Asian military/strategic affairs. He’s been all over the DMZ and produced his documentary there last year featuring a segment from Panmunjom on the DMZ. Two special areas of focus:  1. What would a war actually look like if one erupted?  2. The geopolitics of the region – the Koreas, Japan, China, Russia, the US.  Eric was a regular columnist for Japan's Mainichi Shimbun and is a long-time member of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.