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Barack Obama was elected as the next president of the United States with a foreign policy platform based on the refocusing of US military might from Iraq to Afghanistan. In the second part of our interview with Eric Margolis, Eric tells the new president-elect that he needs to abandon his support for a strategy of military intervention in Afghanistan, make a deal with the Taliban and move his attention to areas of greater significance to US interests. The war, says Margolis, is now with the Pashtun people of Afghanistan, who make up half of the country’s population, not a small group of largely disbanded terrorists known as al-Qaeda. Margolis ends by pointing out the potential for the conflict to destabilize Pakistan and potentially even draw India into a larger regional conflict.

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Obama’s Foreign Policy Challenge Pt. 2

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to the second part of our interview with Eric Margolis, author of American Raj. This is a book about Afghanistan, it’s a book about the Middle East, and it’s about the whole issue of resolving the conflict between the West and the Muslim world. This is something Barack Obama is going to have to face, probably even before inauguration. Thanks for joining us. So Obama has talked a lot about increasing troops in Afghanistan. I interviewed Susan Rice, who’s one of the senior foreign policy advisors to Obama, and I pushed her on this Afghan policy, and I said, you know, anyone that knows the situation in Afghanistan knows, you know, unless you want to put hundreds of thousands of troops into Afghanistan, you’re not going to fundamentally change the ground game. So unless you’re ready to do what Obama has suggested in one or two speeches, something that approximates a Marshall Plan—which is something Bush talked about after ’01, and then nothing like it was seen—if you’re not going to do something to transform the economy of Afghanistan, you’re not going to fundamentally change the situation there just with a few more troops. And she kind of sidestepped, and in fact she got angry and walked out of the interview. So what do you make—.


JAY: What do you make of Obama’s policy and plans—so far, at least—to do with Afghanistan?

MARGOLIS: Her reaction is typical-Washington’s reaction: don’t bother me with details and facts; I know what has to be done. As I say in my book, I think American policy is totally wrong in Afghanistan. Very few people understand Afghanistan, its complex historical and tribal politics. And this is a war where we don’t have a objective in the war. We are fighting the entire Pashtun tribal people now. We’re fighting half the population of Afghanistan. We’re not fighting what they claim terrorists, whatever that mean. Al-Qaeda has almost vanished. If you want to wipe out al-Qaeda, pay Taliban to go and hunt them, or make peace with Taliban and bring it into an alliance, into some kind of settlement with the other Afghan ethnic groups, the Tajiks and the Uzbeks. Otherwise there will never be any peace in Afghanistan, because the Pashtuns are half of the population. If this war is about a pipeline, which I also think could be the main reason, well, then, Americans, you’d better start studying Pashtun, Dari, and other Afghan languages, ’cause your kids are going to be there.

JAY: That may be the objective, and it may be a long-term stalemate is the objective, ’cause they don’t see any other way. But when you talk about the Pashtuns—. I made a film, as you know, in Afghanistan called Return to Kandahar, and I found quite a difference between Kandahar urban Pashtuns and rural Pashtuns. By and large, the people I met in Kandahar were very happy the Taliban were gone, and on the other hand, people in the villages still had a lot of sympathy for them, although my own view is if there’d been real reconstruction at that time, anything was possible. But what now kind of deal can you make with the Taliban? I mean, certainly the urban centers in Afghanistan do not want the Taliban back.

MARGOLIS: Well, there are different types of Talibans, and the Talibans today are not necessarily the hillbillies who came out of the mountains in the early 1990s. They’ve grown up. They’ve learned a lot. There are peace talks going on, and they should be. As I said, this is an unnecessary war. A political settlement, as even the secretary general of NATO has said and British commanders have said, is the only solution. So who do you talk to if you don’t talk to your enemies? You know, we so demonize Taliban that now none of our politicians dare talk to them. Well, let me tell you from my own experience of decades in Afghanistan that the Uzbeks and the Tajiks, who are the old Afghan Communist Party, who were amongst the biggest drug dealers in that country, are just as bad as the Taliban in many ways, sometimes even more brutal.

JAY: Now, when we were making the film, everybody we interviewed was, one, we don’t want the Taliban back, and we want you to disarm the warlords, ’cause they’re just as bad as the Taliban. And it was very much they saw them as similar forces. Of course, these warlords ended up becoming the Afghan government.

MARGOLIS: And supporting Karzai. And they’re bribed every month with bags of US dollars to do this.

JAY: Now, Karzai was interviewed after Obama’s election just a couple of days ago and asked what’s his advice to Obama, and Karzai said, “Stop bombing Afghan villages. The fight against the Taliban has to be waged in Pakistan.”

MARGOLIS: Every Afghan village that’s bombed—and we just had a case where scores, maybe 50, maybe 90 Afghan civilians were killed by US Air Force bombing. Every time that happens, more people for Taliban. Look, what’s happened now is that it’s the inverse of what happened during the Soviets. The Soviets controlled the cities, and the mujahideen controlled the countryside. Now the Taliban controls the countryside and the Americans control the cities. That’s not a viable proposition. The Taliban are slowly but surely cutting US and NATO supply lines. Before long, NATO is—.

JAY: In Pakistan.

MARGOLIS: In Pakistan, even starting at the Port of Karachi and going all the way up through the tribal territory, through Afghanistan. Soon NATO’s going to find itself in a real fix, and it’s going to be in even military jeopardy.

JAY: So if you get this famous 3 a.m. phone call from President Obama and, “Eric, what should I be doing here?” I asked this question to Sunil Ram the other day, and he said, number one, start buying all the poppy crop from the farmers directly. Even if you want to burn it, cut off the drug money as a source of funding for the Taliban and other kinds of corrupt forces. I don’t know if you agree with that. And what else would you say?

MARGOLIS: Well, the drug money is fueling the Afghan government. The Karzai regime and all the warlords that support him are up to their turbans in the drug trade. Cut off the drug trade, you cut off the support for the US-installed government. If I was called at 3 a.m. in the morning, I’d say, “Mr. President, is Afghanistan a vital US interest? The answer is no. If you pulled your troops out of Afghanistan, will anybody remember Afghanistan six months later? No. Does anybody remember Vietnam now, after we pulled out of there? No. Worry about the economy. Worry about relations with Russia. Worry about the Middle East and oil, things like that. Afghanistan is a sideshow in which you’ve painted yourself into a corner. Got to find a way out.”

JAY: Well, the counterargument to that you’ll get from Obama’s people and from many on the Republican side and in the whole national security apparatus is that al-Qaeda is a real threat, and that if you pull out of Afghanistan, then you get two things: you get a massive civil war; and if the Taliban are the ones that win that civil war, you get back to a situation where you have a state that can be a collaborator with al-Qaeda-type forces as a base for terrorism. That’s the argument.

MARGOLIS: That to me is not a valid argument, because, first of all, al-Qaeda was never more than 300 men, and most of them, at least half of them, have been killed; the rest have scattered around Pakistan. If you’re saying, well, they’re going to move back into Afghanistan, well, Taliban controls half of Afghanistan already by all estimates. So what’s the worry about there? If they want to be there, they can be there. That is not the thing. The attacks, the 9/11 attacks, were launched from Germany and Spain, not from the mountains of Afghanistan. They could do it from a school gymnasium in New Jersey too. This is not a valid reason for keeping so many troops there. And the longer we stay there, the more we’re going to turn the Afghans against us. And behind this, every day this war goes on, the risk of the war spreading through Pakistan grows. It’s extremely dangerous, because Pakistan could blow wide open and also even bring in a war with India.

JAY: In the next segment of our interview, let’s just pursue this just a little bit further in Afghanistan, because my question’s going to be: Are you talking all foreign troops out? Are you talking the US mission out? And is there still some role for reconstruction and foreign support for reconstruction? And we’re talking with Eric Margolis. He’s the author of American Raj. And if you would like a copy of American Raj, you could go buy one at the bookstore, but I don’t want you to. I would rather you donate money to The Real News, and we will give you a copy of American Raj, even though Eric might prefer you to go buy it at a bookstore. So if you click on the donate button, you will find all the instructions on how to get a copy of Eric’s book, American Raj. And please join us for the next segment of our interview with Eric Margolis.


Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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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.