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Bennis Pt3: India and Pakistan and other regional players must be part of the solution to Afgan war

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network. Paul Jay, in Washington, DC. And joining me again to discuss Barack Obama’s speech on Afghanistan is Phyllis Bennis. She’s a fellow at the Institute for policy studies. She has a new book coming out called Ending the US War in Afghanistan: A Primer. So we left off the last segment of the interview talking about India and Pakistan and the region. The question is this: if it’s regional problem, it has to be a regional solution. But talk a bit about the real—it’s funny to say “elephant in the room”, but it’s India.

PHYLLIS BENNIS, INSTITUTE FOR POLICY STUDIES: Well, this was astonishing last night that the word “India” never appears in President Obama’s speech. In his entire explanation of the strategy for Afghanistan, India does not appear. You have to look at the role that India plays in the region, the contradictions, the conflict between India and Pakistan that go back to partition in 1947, has played out very, very badly over the years. There’s been four major wars and lots and lots of skirmishes in the Kashmir Valley and elsewhere. We also didn’t hear—when President Obama gave the example of terrorist activities around the world, terrorist attacks, where our allies had the same interest, he was claiming, in going after al-Qaeda, he interestingly didn’t mention Mumbai, which was of course one of the most recent and one of the most serious of all of these terrible attacks that have happened was in Mumbai in India just a year ago, and he didn’t even mention it. There was no reference to the fact that India’s long-standing support for the Northern Alliance, the US-backed coalition of largely Tajik and Uzbek militias and fighters during the war of the warlords in Afghanistan, the group that now forms the bulk of both the government and the military in Afghanistan, still backed by the US, was historically backed by India. That was the biggest part of the reason that big sectors of Pakistan’s military and political leadership began to support the Taliban in Afghanistan, because they saw that as a bulwark against the US-backed and Indian-backed—that was the most important—the India-backed Northern Alliance. So that relationship between India and Pakistan has shaped everything about what Pakistan is doing.

JAY: Well, part of perhaps his problem is he can’t talk about it publicly. I mean, al-Qaeda becomes now the code for why we’re there, where the reality is a general geopolitical issue of the region in disarray, this growing, consolidating [India]-US alliance, which is now the linchpin of US strategy in Asia. But if you talk about it publicly, you’re going to so inflame Pakistani public opinion that you’d better just keep talking about al-Qaeda.

BENNIS: And you have a big problem, because in Pakistan already public opinion is highly opposed to the United States and its presence anywhere near the country, not only opposed to the drone strikes and the killing of Pakistani civilians, which has been happening a lot, but also the Pakistani public opinion polls are indicating that close to 60 percent—59 percent of Pakistanis say that the US poses the greatest threat to their country—more than India, their historic rival, and certainly more than al-Qaeda, which was only something like 13 percent. So the US is far from popular in Pakistan. And that goes beyond the question of what is the US doing in Afghanistan, which is also inflaming public opinion. Now, part of the problem is the way we hear it talked about from President Obama, from other officials in the US mainstream media. We hear talk about the Taliban—the Taliban’s in Afghanistan, the Taliban’s in Pakistan—as if the two organizations were all one. Now, what’s true is the Afghan Taliban, which is sometimes called the Quetta Shura (the Quetta is the city in Pakistan where many of these Afghan Taliban have holed up and are based) they are part of the Afghanistan movement known as the Taliban. There’s also a movement in Pakistan known as the Taliban, but it’s a very different movement. The Pakistani government has been willing to go against the Pakistani Taliban in their own country.

JAY: Who see the Pakistani government as their primary enemy.

BENNIS: Exactly. And the Pakistani government, appropriately, sees them as threatening their stability. But despite US demands, the Pakistani government has not been willing to go after the Afghan Taliban, who may at various points be on the Pakistani side of the border, ’cause they don’t see them as a threat. And, in fact, big components of their military actually support those guys. So it’s a very complicated set of diplomatic relations, which is why it comes back—when we talk about the need for a regional solution, we’re talking about the need for regional diplomacy, not regional expansion of the war (that would be the worst possible outcome), but regional diplomacy that would put aside the armed part of this, bring together all the local actors—that means Iran, it means China, it means Russia, it means certainly Pakistan, of course Afghanistan.

JAY: Well, with Pakistan is an interesting interview. Prime Minister Singh from India was on the Fareed Zakaria show a couple of weeks ago, and Zakaria asks him about diplomacy with Pakistan, and Singh says, “But with who?” He says, “We don’t know who to negotiate with there.” It used to be, at least, with Musharraf, whatever you thought of Musharraf, he represented the military and the government, and everyone knows the real power is the military. But you don’t know who to negotiate with now, ’cause you’re not clear Zardari represents anybody.

BENNIS: Well, that’s true in a lot of places. It’s certainly true in Afghanistan. I mean, I think it’s very doubtful that you can even accurately call President Karzai the “mayor of Kabul” anymore, ’cause I don’t think he even controls most of Kabul. So that’s true in so many countries where the government doesn’t represent people.

JAY: So in the conversations you can imagine between India and the United States, they talk about what are we going to do about the potential dissolution, collapse of Pakistan, and how do you deal with that chaos.

BENNIS: And one of the reasons that the US is fighting so much inside Afghanistan is because they can’t fight in Pakistan, because Pakistan does have a real military, it does have a functioning government, despite the fact that it’s pretty weak and doesn’t control a lot. And it is very problematic. There’s no easy solutions to this.

JAY: And the Pakistani army is increasingly concerned about this US-India alliance.

BENNIS: Absolutely.

JAY: They’re even concerned about how close President Zardari is to the US.

BENNIS: Exactly.

JAY: So when they look at this jigsaw puzzle, they say Pakistan is either falling apart and/or the Army may—.

BENNIS: Or we’re going to have to take more initiative. That certainly is a danger. The way around that is not to have the US providing more arms to the Pakistani military or more so-called security assistance to the Pakistani government. This is not going to stabilize it.

JAY: So is the short of this the problem that the Pentagon’s running the foreign policy?

BENNIS: That’s a big part of the problem. The years of the Bush administration, and somewhat even before that, but certainly over those eight years, the dissolution of funding, of support of a role for the State Department, a role for diplomacy—. Diplomacy was so dismissed, so disdained during the Bush years—funding went only to the military—that now trying to rebuild a diplomatic corps is very, very difficult. And I’m afraid from what we’re hearing, it appears that the information that President Obama is getting is basically all coming from various parts of the military.

JAY: But isn’t it part of the problem that President Obama believes fundamentally in the same set of assumptions as the Pentagon? And let me play this from his speech.

BARACK OBAMA, US PRESIDENT: For unlike the great powers of old, we have not sought world domination. Our union was founded in resistance to oppression. We do not seek to occupy other nations. We will not claim another nation’s resources or target other peoples because their faith or ethnicity is different from ours.

JAY: President Obama believes in America as the enlightened policemen of the world. And even if you disagree to some extent strategically with the Pentagon, if you buy that as your underlying assumption, how do you say no to the Pentagon?

BENNIS: Well, I think you say no to the Pentagon by saying that the US, as the great exception, American exceptionalism writ large, which I agree President Obama has—you know, that’s a big part of his understanding of the world is American exceptionalism, but I think he also believes in diplomacy. And I think what you do is channel the later days—not the early days, god forbid, but the later days of President Truman—not the days when he dropped the atomic bomb, but later, when he was willing to stand up to another general, when he stood up to General MacArthur and said, “You know what? I’m the commander-in-chief. I give the orders”—General MacArthur, who had enormous public support. The Republican Party was backing him for president. It’s not unlike the situation with both General Petraeus and General McChrystal now. But at that time, President Truman was prepared to stand up to him and say, “You know what? I call the shots here. You’re fired.”

JAY: Okay. Just before we finish this segment, let’s talk a bit about the Republicans. Earlier, you talked about Obama had to have his war. Well, McCain’s war was supposed to be Georgia and Russia. You know, Bush had Iraq, Obama had already taken Afghanistan, so McCain had Russia. But now, of course, the Republicans are as militant as can be. For eight years, Afghanistan wasn’t a strategic interest for them. Now, all of a sudden, it’s the most important thing there is. Well, talk about McCain and the Republicans a bit.

BENNIS: Well, I think that the threat right now is not so much about McCain, but it’s about how the support for President Obama is shifting. What we’re looking at is a period in which the support that keeps President Obama not only in power but able to function as president is coming not from his own party, but is coming from the opposition party and from the Pentagon. That’s a very dangerous scenario. Not only is his own political base being locked out of the decision-making and their interests are being ignored, but the fact that he is getting so much support—. I was listening this morning—Saxby Chambliss, Senator Saxby Chambliss, a right-wing Republican from Georgia, was saying President Obama has the right analysis and the right decision. He had some quibbles, but he made clear they were quibbles.

JAY: Bill O’Reilly was essentially defending Obama. In fact, O’Reilly even got into an argument with Karl Rove. Rove wanted to have this very partisan attack on Obama, focusing on this 18-month window and how everything else is okay but not the 18 months. O’Reilly even sympathized a bit with Obama on the 18 months.

BENNIS: Well, why not? Because for Republicans or for O’Reilly or for anybody who else who’s interested in this war and sees this war as a good thing, the 18 months should be a piece of cake, because remember this is 18 months to begin withdrawing troops. There is no end date. And they were very clear that while the deployment should happen as soon as possible, by this next summer, within six months, we want to get them there right away, the withdrawal will be conditions-based. It will be based on how conditions work out on the ground, what is the capacity of the Afghan military, just like we heard from President Bush in Iraq, exactly the same language.

JAY: Okay. Really quick. One minute. If they had listened to you, what should they have done?

BENNIS: They should have said, “We realize that this war is not either supporting Afghans are making Americans safe, and we are going to announce tonight our intention to begin immediately to stop all offensive action and begin withdrawing all of our troops, so that we can begin to make good on our huge obligations to the people of Afghanistan to provide reparations, compensation, real reconstruction assistance, all of the assistance that we can’t do, that we cannot do while we are militarily occupying their country.

JAY: End?


JAY: Civil War?

BENNIS: I don’t think so.

JAY: How do you do reparations? And what about regional diplomacy?

BENNIS: Regional diplomacy has to be part of the—that’s step two. All of what I just said is step one. Step two is regional diplomacy. The United Nations is going to be required. We’re going to need real peacekeeping, but not replacing one occupation with another just because they wear blue helmets. We need an end to occupation. Then we talk about a region-wide diplomatic action that involves United Nations, that involves the Organization of the Islamic Conference, that involves all of the various political organizations, not the military organizations, not NATO, not any of the other military alliances. The political-diplomatic alliances get together on a regional basis, based on the question [of] how do we help Afghanistan, not how do we determine our own interests and impose them on the government.

JAY: Thanks for joining us.

BENNIS: Thank you.

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

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Phyllis Bennis is a Fellow and the Director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington DC.  Her books include Understanding ISIS & the New Global War on Terror, and the latest updated edition of Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer.