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Prabir Purkayastha tells Paul Jay that the fulcrum of U.S. military policies in the region is at one end Saudi Arabia and Israel, and the other is Pakistan – ISIS is a product of the failed policies of this alliance

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay. About 70 years ago, on Great Bitter Lake in the Suez Canal, President Roosevelt met with King Ibn Saud, where they made a deal: oil for political and military support by the United States that gave rise to the Saud long-term dynasty. Part of that deal was to make sure that the Sauds help manage the entire region on behalf of the United States. That policy was further articulated by President Eisenhower that came right out and said that the Saud family, given their role as the defenders of Mecca, could now be also the defenders of American interests in Egypt and take on Nasser, nationalism, and socialism and the whole rising nationalist forces that were rising across the Middle East. Move forward a few decades, and another American ally, Pakistan, helps also to manage the region, this time in Afghanistan. But when we talk about the roots of what happened in Charlie Hebdo in Paris or IS in Iraq or any of the examples of extreme Islamic militancy, one has to talk about the role of U.S. foreign policy, and who exactly have been their friends, and the role of the United States in nurturing this kind of militancy as a part of their strategic foreign-policy plans. Now joining us to talk about all of this in our studio is Prabir Purkayastha. He’s an engineer, a science activist. He’s also one of the founding members of the Delhi Science Forum. And he’s the chief editor of NewsClick, which is a news editorial service, video service based in Delhi. And we’re going to be collaborating with NewsClick in the coming months. You’ll be seeing more stories which we do together. And this is sort of the first. Thanks very much for joining us, Prabir. PRABIR PURKAYASTHA, FOUNDER, NEWSCLICK: Thank you, Paul, and also for the collaboration. JAY: So the early history of the Americans and Sauds–I guess if you have something you can add, you can speak to a bit of that, but it’s really when the Sauds also help move to Pakistan and the whole Brzezinskian plan to suck the Russians into Afghanistan–this is, I would guess, one of the big moves in the development of this alliance with Islamic terrorism or militancy or whatever you want to call it. PURKAYASTHA: You know, it’s interesting what you raise about Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and U.S. relations, because all three really develop almost at the same period. Pakistan becomes an U.S. ally post-1947. It becomes a member of what is called the Baghdad Pact, which later becomes CENTO. And it also becomes, in 1953, if I’m not mistaken, or ’54, a founding member of SEATO. These are the two military alliances that U.S. forms, one part for the West Asia, what you call Middle East, and the other for Southeast Asia, including South Asia. So you have this already–Pakistan is a fulcrum of U.S. military policies in the region, one end being Saudi Arabia, also Israel, and the other part is very squarely Pakistan. So this is a much older alliance. It’s not surprising, therefore, that U.S. turns to Pakistan in order to start the Afghan War. So the whole part of the Pakistan-Saudi Arabia axis that develops is really a part of a much older military axis that the U.S. had already formed in the region. JAY: And the Saud-Pakistan relationship is also very intertwined. If I understand it correctly, the Sauds are financing lots of the madrasas, the schools. They make use of a lot of Pakistani expertise in the Saudi Armed Forces. There’s a lot of integration there. PURKAYASTHA: Saudi Arabia had a weak military presence. It really did not have proper modern armed forces, if you will. Pakistan has had modern armed forces, part of the British army, part of which goes to Pakistan. And they were the ones who trained the Saudi army to become, quote-unquote, the modern armed forces of Saudi Arabia today. They flew their first planes, they taught them how to fly the aircraft they were buying. They also provided at different points of time armed support to quell whatever the disturbances, which at one was in Yemen or coming across Yemen. So they have also been in that sense not only supplying the armed forces to them, training them, but I understand that they’re also a part of the basic protection for the Saudi monarchy within Saudi Arabia itself. JAY: And with all the noise Saudi Arabia makes about the possible or potential Iranian nuclear program, it’s kind of unsaid that the Saudis have rather easy access to the Pakistani bomb if they ever needed something fast. PURKAYASTHA: Well, that’s the other part of it, that there has been an investment in the Pakistan nuclear program by Saudi Arabia at different points of time. And when they exploded the bomb in response to India’s test explosions, at that point of time Saudi Arabia actually helped them to beat the sanctions which temporarily had been imposed on Pakistan and India by supplying, though, I think, 50,000 barrels per day of oil. So that has been underwritten in the belief that if they need it, as you said, they need it fast, they have an access to the nuclear developments in Pakistan. JAY: So let’s go a little bit back again historically. Talk a bit about the role of Pakistan and the U.S. alliance in the creation of what now becomes ISIS. Like, give us a bit of that trail. PURKAYASTHA: You know, I think it’s fundamentally important to understand what is this ideological force which has arisen. It’s very clear that this starts as a contestation with Arab nationalists. In South Asia, it’s Indian nationalism. Pakistan is not a part of the Indian nationalist struggle, because it really broke from that point in 1947, broke from India. And it doesn’t see itself as something that fought against British colonialism. So it’s never part of a national liberation struggle or a freedom struggle. It’s not a part of the postcolonial movement that took place in different parts of the world, with a certain–that we have control over our natural resources. And this is a part of the nationalist /sʌbsəz/ that took place. So Iran, you had Mossadegh, who’s deposed. Of course, you get Shah of Iran in his place. In other parts that were there, you get essentially Arab nationalism, which has to be contested. And the only force that they found, the U.S. found that could contest Arab nationalism was really Islamic brotherhood, which came from Egypt alliance with Islamic Brotherhood against Hafez al-Assad and Nasser. Both of these were the axis that was built. And, of course, Saudi Arabia was always sheltered. They were funded at the time. They were main funders of the Muslim Brotherhood. They are split now, but it doesn’t obviate the past, which is that they were really the founders, supporters, and benefactors of Muslim Brotherhood this entire period, because Saudis felt threatened by Arab nationalism, because Nasser, Hafez al-Assad, Gaddafi, all of these were Arab nationalist figures. And Saudi Arabia was also one of the countries that felt threatened by it, as did other monarchies. JAY: Now, we know back in the Cold War India would play this role of sort of playing the Soviets off against the Americans. A significant part of the Indian economy had Soviet penetration and alliances, and a very significant part was American. Where was Pakistan in this, in this game? PURKAYASTHA: You know, I think nonalignment is not playing both sides of the street, as it is commonly portrayed, particularly in the West. It was really–one part of it was decolonization. And it was India’s foreign policy. Whatever its role between servitude and U.S. might be, on the issue of all national liberation struggles in that period, including South Africa, including Vietnam, India was on the other side, which is that it supported all the national liberation struggles. That’s true for almost all the nonaligned powers in that period, who saw decolonization as an active process and a battle that needed still to be fought. Don’t forget, ’60s, ’50s we had colonial wars still going on. You had Portugal and Spain, who relinquishes those colonies even later. So this is a very real terrain on which nonalignment really flourished. So it’s wrong to think it’s just Soviet Union and United States competition and these people were playing two sides of the street. I have nothing against playing two sides of the street if it helps them, but that doesn’t–that takes away from the fact that there was a nationalist content in what they were doing. So Pakistan did not see itself in this part, that it has to support the national liberation struggle, mainly because Pakistan did not itself come out of that kind of struggle. As I said, against the British India, when you had this whole upsurge that takes place, Pakistan’s basic thing was, we want an Islamic State because we don’t want the Hindu majority state to rule us. So it was not anti-British as much at that point as to separate from India. So it didn’t share in the national liberation part of it, but it also did not have an Islamic past. Let’s be very clear. While it was an Islamic identity based state, it was not an Islamist state in the way we see it today. This transformation takes place in the ’80s, and you have a transformation of Pakistan which takes it from an Islamic identity based politics to an Islamist state. You get the sharia being put into the constitution in different ways. You get the kind of laws which we call today as very anti-women laws and so on. So all this is a consequence of that. So Pakistan has been, in that sense, traveling from a modern nation to a medieval one. Because of its need to ally with Saudi Arabia, it needs to align with the United States, and particularly, of course, the Afghan War. JAY: Well, that’s the big–the Afghan War–I have friend who says Pakistan went from a civilized society to a Kalashnikov culture mostly given the Afghan war. So a lot of people don’t know this history. Give us some of the basic tracings of it. PURKAYASTHA: Well, it’s interesting that you have at that time the military which comes into power in Pakistan. The military in Pakistan used to be considered secular. But the Afghan War and the leadership of the Pakistan military at the time [helped through this] period of about five to ten years to also get Islam or Islamist forces deeply embedded in different parts of the Pakistan army, particularly what’s called their secret security apparatus, which was the one who supports Taliban. JAY: This is the ISI. PURKAYASTHA: The ISI is, of course, now confused–a little confusing. It would be considered ISIS. JAY: But ISI meaning the Pakistani intelligence services. PURKAYASTHA: Inter-Services Intelligence agency, which is the key agency over there. So ISI starts looking at Islamic militancy is a strategic counterweight to India, that they can use it to attack Kashmir and support the Kashmiri movements which wanted independence in Kashmir. So part of it was also a response to the fact Pakistan had lost East Pakistan, which became Bangladesh. They wanted to pay India back by fomenting an insurgence in Kashmir. But they see for the first time that the Islamic militancy can be used as a strategic force, and it will give them a kind of depth which they did not have against India, and they could keep India occupied in Kashmir with this insurgency. So while they’re supporting the Afghan War–and with the same ideology that use Islam against the more modern forces at the time, which had taken power with the support of Soviet Union, and later against the Soviet army itself, to not only have Islamic militancy in Afghanistan, but also use Islamic militancy in Kashmir. And, honestly, this is the time that Pakistan transformed itself into what could be called jihad international. They become, in fact, a source of jihad. But they also tracked jihadists from all of the world. See you get the bin Ladens and others who come under the CIA umbrella, under the ISI umbrella–. JAY: I think most people that follow this story know this, but just in case you’re younger or haven’t followed this, it’s quite well documented now that the CIA, I think, essentially asked the Sauds to send some people that would become, embody the leadership of this new jihadist movement. And bin Laden, from this very wealthy bin Laden family, one of the sons, is sent there. And the rest is history, as we say. PURKAYASTHA: He brings also the bin Laden resources, as well as Saudi resources, into the war. JAY: So, learning from Kashmir–and the Americans learn from the Pakistani experience the usefulness of the jihadists. And I interviewed Brzezinski, although he said it in many other places too, Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was Carter’s national security chief, and he’s still proud and brags about the ability of having to suck the Russians into Afghanistan, and the war, it helps facilitate the fall of the Soviet Union. But after that, what happens in terms of Pakistan’s role in shaping? ‘Cause there seems to be a contradictory thing happening with Pakistan’s fighting the Pakistan Taliban, but they seem to be continuing their alliance with the Afghan Taliban. PURKAYASTHA: See, this is the whole issue, that Afghanistan today, for Pakistan, provides what they consider strategic depth. Afghanistan in land terms is a big country. It’s not a small country. It’s almost as big as Pakistan–maybe much more sparsely populated. So they regard that as strategic depth, and they feel that therefore the Afghan Taliban, after the U.S. leaves–at some point of time, the United States has to leave Afghanistan–that that’s their long-term ally. At the same time, now that Islamic militancy is coming to hit home, there is also the problem, the strategic depth that Taliban provides is also a strategic threat to Pakistan itself. So you had this unresolved problem in Pakistan that you want them as allies in Kashmir and you want them as allies in Afghanistan, you also want them as allies in different parts of the world, but you don’t want them at home. Now, that’s something that cannot continue. And this is the same contradiction that, for instance, France suffers from or the United States suffers from, because you’d like to have these forces attack Bashar al-Assad, Libya’s Gaddafi, you want them to attack in Caucasus, you want them to attack Russia. At the same time, you feel that when they come home, they’ll be tame and they will not do anything to destabilize–. JAY: Yeah. They’re not puppets. The jihadists have their own agenda. Like, as much as the Americans thought they were playing bin Laden, bin Laden was playing them. PURKAYASTHA: So I think this is the unresolved issue for the Western powers as well. And it’s not only the United States; it’s also France, and the same problem, in a more existential form, that confronts Pakistan, that you play with these forces, then you are bound to get singed by them as well. And I think one of the issues that we have to also recognize: that if we look upon this as only something as who has what interest in what country, then you’re never going to be able to solve the Afghanistan problem, because unless China, Russia, India, Pakistan, four countries which have a stake because they’re near that region and Iran, these countries collectively try to stabilize Afghanistan if it’s trying to–and who has more influence. If that’s the battle they fight, I don’t think they’re going to get any resolution or any stability in Afghanistan. And that’s something that–and the United States needs to recognize their issue is: can we leave it in a form that becomes still our sphere of influence? And I think that those whole argument about sphere of influence is really something they have to give up now. JAY: Well, you can say they have to, but then they’d have to give up who they are. PURKAYASTHA: But it’s good to going to destroy them at home as well, as well as destroy all this region, because Afghanistan is not a small place. It can destroy Pakistan. And if it destroys Pakistan, let’s not forget Pakistan is a nuclear-armed power. Its destruction is not something which will be restricted only to South Asia. JAY: It wouldn’t be Afghanistan destroys Pakistan. It’s these jihadist forces. Do they really have that kind of strength? PURKAYASTHA: Let’s put it this way. The Pakistan state is certainly stronger than what we think it is from the outside. But nevertheless, no state can’t really run a battle of this kind forever. So unless they stabilize Afghanistan or Afghanistan stabilizes, the threat to Pakistan will be always real. All it needs is some misguided or some sore souls in the top echelons of Pakistan army to seize power. That’s all that it needs. And then you’re in trouble. JAY: And that’s not so far. I mean, we know there’s tremendous support within the Pakistani army, but particularly the intelligence services, for the Taliban. There’s great back-and-forth. PURKAYASTHA: There is a penetration. I’m told that it is less now at the top levels, but definitely [crosstalk] JAY: And there was a purge, was there not, after 9/11? PURKAYASTHA: There were different sets of purges that took place. They claim they weeded them out. But this weeding out, this is something which is very minor. What it means is it needs one guy at the right place and the right time to have a coup. And then you are in trouble. JAY: The underlying problem here is the policy you’re suggesting for the United States in Afghanistan kind of has an assumption that they want a reasonable policy. What they want is dominance. And who would they want dominance from? They don’t want the Chinese there, they don’t want the Iranians there. Especially they don’t want the Chinese there. But without a regional thing, as you were saying, you can’t have stabilized area there. But their objective is dominance. PURKAYASTHA: I think historically to talk about dominance of Afghanistan makes no sense. Nobody’s ever dominated Afghanistan. You have to just fly over it and look at its rugged terrain and see that there’s no chance and hope in hell of doing it. So what you really have to see is: what nobody succeeds in doing, you’re not going to succeed in doing either. The Soviets failed, the Americans have failed, the Pakistanis have failed. So a failed policy you can try again and again. It would be stupid. You can go on trying it. But that’s really not the issue. I think this is the first place in the world we should start looking at a new kind of foreign-policy understanding. Collaboratively can you bring peace to the region? Because nobody benefits in trying to dominate and having the whole thing fall apart. JAY: Well, it’s not just the issue of U.S. domination. It’s also the issue of can India and Pakistan sit down at the same table and actually come to some resolution here. PURKAYASTHA: Absolutely. I think that is true for Kashmir. But in Afghanistan, if Russia, China, and the United States make this move, I think India and Pakistan would have to follow. And they will not follow if the people are stirring the pot. And that’s what is happening at the moment. And I think Iran will also need to come into it, because don’t forget Iran also has a border with Afghanistan. So I think this is one particular case. The threat to the world is much too great for people to start thinking in broader terms. As I said, Pakistan as an armed nuclear power, so if that fails, we don’t have just a failed state; we have a failed nuclear state. And that’s a risk the world really cannot have. So I think it’s time for the U.S. to rethink its foreign policy, at least start from Afghanistan. That’s too dangerous a place, that if they don’t control and stabilize this, then I think we’re in for really bad times. JAY: Okay. In part two of this interview, we’re going to talk more about ISIS, Saudi Arabia, and Syria. So please join us for the continuation of this discussion with Prabir from NewsClick, which is part of our new collaboration with them. Thanks for joining us on The Real News.


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