Offensive in Marja directed at US public opinion
Porter: The attack on Marja is meant to prepare Americans to accept negotiations with Taliban
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay, coming to you from Washington. Now joining us in our Washington studio is Gareth Porter. He’s an investigative journalist, a historian, and often contributor to The Real News, and he just got back from Afghanistan a couple of weeks ago. Thanks for joining us, Gareth.
GARETH PORTER, INVESTIGATIVE HISTORIAN AND JOURNALIST: Thank you, Paul.
JAY: So the offensive, American-NATO offensive in Marja continues. But while you were there, there was all kinds of talks about negotiating with the Taliban. So what is happening? An offensive, and all this background about negotiations.
PORTER: Well, in my view, this offensive has to be viewed as more of an effort to shape public opinion in the United States than to shape the politics of the future of Afghanistan, the reason being that no matter how you slice it, this is too small a slice of Afghanistan, even too small a slice of that part of Afghanistan that is controlled by the Taliban, to really make a difference in the long run, to shape, to make a difference in terms of the kind of negotiations that are going to take place, inevitably, to settle this war.
JAY: Well, I guess the counterargument that would come from the American government would be, one, it gives us leverage in negotiating with the Taliban, ’cause everything looked like we were losing and we had no leverage. And, two, if you can create a model where you actually—what are they calling it?—you know, "hold and develop", if they actually do develop the place and introduce roads and schools and whatever and it’s somewhat of a success story, it gives them, again, a little more leverage in terms of the Afghan population. Is there any [inaudible]
PORTER: Well, this is really sort of a if-wishes-were-horses kind of an affair. Yeah, if the United States had its way and created the perfect, you know, situation in this area of Afghanistan, then the problem would be on its way to being settled. But that, of course, assumes all kinds of things that are contrary to the history of this conflict, which is that you have governments, government officials, and institutions that are effective, that you have security organs, Afghan security organs, that are effective, legitimate, and so forth. None of this actually exists, as has been repeatedly pointed out, both by media coverage and by even the commander himself, that is, General McChrystal, in his report last year. So if you really look at the reality, it’s going to be much more of a gray situation than they’re portraying, this sort of ideal outcome. And beyond that, I mean, what we’re talking about here is expending 15,000 troops for a community of about 80,000 people. Now, of course, it’s well situated in terms of its geography, no doubt about that, but they cannot afford to be expending 15,000 troops for a city of 80,000 people. It just does not make sense. If you look at the population of Afghanistan controlled by the Taliban, it’s so much larger and so vast that they cannot afford to expend troops in this manner.
JAY: And there’s also a problem in terms of handing over control to the Afghan army. The majority are Tajiks and Uzbeks. And how is that going to play out? So I guess there’s still a lot of question marks.
PORTER: But even if they are not Uzbeks and Tajiks, even if they are primarily, let’s say, Pashtuns, they’re going to be from another part of the country or they’re going to be urban Pashtuns. They’re not going to be rural Pashtuns, because they’ve stopped, really, being able to recruit the Pashtuns from that area for the last two or three years. That means they’re going to be Pashtuns that really can’t communicate effectively with the local people.
JAY: So break down, then, the politics of negotiations. Karzai has said, you know, quite publicly, he wants to negotiate. I’m not exactly sure right now where the US is on the negotiations. Depending who’s talking, you seem to get different points of view. So break down the negotiation issue.
PORTER: Well, Karzai’s interests are very clear. He is a Pashtun politician, his constituency is Pashtun, primarily, and he has to listen to what the Pashtuns are saying, and he’s very clearly hearing from the Pashtuns, "We want peace." He’s been calling for this for at least three years, three or four years now. He’s saying that we have to negotiate with the Taliban, and he means by that the Taliban leadership. He’s not playing games and saying, "We’re going to try to get the mid-level people or individual commanders and pull them out and negotiate with them. He’s really serious about negotiating with Mullah Omar, because he understands that you can’t really negotiate with the Taliban without negotiating with Mullah Omar. The Americans are saying at this point he’s unacceptable, Mullah Omar is an unacceptable partner to negotiate with. They’re still saying that Mullah Omar has the blood of thousands of Americans on his hands, and therefore we’re not going to negotiate with him. So you really have a very sharp contradiction here between the positions of the two allies, supposedly, in this Afghan war.
JAY: So Karzai doesn’t seem to have the same kind of question about the possibility of Omar distancing himself from al-Qaeda, that he sees Omar as a separate entity, and where on the American side there seems to be a debate about that.
PORTER: I think he does, and I think there is debate on the American side. I think you’re right. When I was in Kabul, I was told by an aide of General McChrystal without any hesitation, very clearly, that we recognize that the Taliban has sharp contradictions with al-Qaeda. They’re not merging; they don’t have the same issues all. He also said that the Taliban leadership is positioning itself for negotiated settlement. In other words, he was acknowledging that the Taliban have signaled that they’re ready to throw al-Qaeda under the bus. That’s really the key thing that’s happened in the last few months.
JAY: And has the Taliban said they’re willing to to negotiate without this precondition that foreign forces are getting out?
PORTER: They have not been explicit on it, but if you sort of look at the body language of their statements, that is, the implicit reading between the lines, what they’ve said, what they haven’t said, clearly they have not ruled out negotiations under the present circumstances.
JAY: So let me read between the lines of what you’re saying, then. The offensive in Marja gives the US a propaganda victory at home, which justifies negotiations with the Taliban so it doesn’t look like the US is negotiating from weakness but now from a supposed strength of a victory in Marja.
PORTER: Well, if you project on the basis of Marja to future operations that are going to be similarly portrayed as victories, then I think that is correct, that what they’re up to now is doing a kind of [David] Petraeus operation of portraying what’s happening on the ground as a verification of the success of US strategy.
JAY: Which helps sell negotiations to the American public.
PORTER: I think that’s what’s going to happen 18 months from now, exactly, or 17 or 16 months from now, that the administration will say, okay, we’ve now positioned ourselves—a position of strength has been achieved, and therefore [inaudible]
JAY: But you think it takes that long to get to negotiations, it’s not on the heels of Marja.
PORTER: I don’t think they’re going to negotiate on the heels of Marja, no. I think they’re going to try to do this over a period of time to build up some sense in the US public that, well, this administration’s been doing something positive on the ground, and therefore they should be able to negotiate from strength.
JAY: Now, you were mostly in Kabul in Afghanistan.
PORTER: Yes, I was in Kabul.
JAY: In Kabul. What do people want? I know this is the big urban center and it doesn’t represent the rural population, but what’s your sense? Do they want foreign forces out? Or what do they want?
PORTER: Well, I’m not going to suggest that I talked to people on the street and did a public opinion survey. I didn’t do that at all. I would rely more on the accumulated evidence over the last several years of growing anger at foreign occupation, particularly, of course, in the Pashtun zone—and I would say specifically to Pashtun zone—and growing anger within Kabul itself about the way in which US troops have conducted themselves. I think there’s lower and lower tolerance of incidents where US troops have, for example, run down individuals, shot at individuals, whatever. I think that there’s a great deal of impatience about that. And that feeds in, of course, to the desire to have this war end and the occupation end.
JAY: Do you get a sense that people are concerned that a civil war follows? Or do they think that the kind of jirga system, negotiations amongst the Afghans, can kind of sort this out one way or the other? ‘Cause last time it was a terrible civil war that followed.
PORTER: I think that there’s an awareness on the part of strategists, the intelligent Afghans who are thinking about a settlement, that even if United States troops and NATO troops leave the country, that does not mean that there’s an end to conflict. You are going to have Iran, India, Russia continuing to support anti-Taliban forces. There certainly is a potential there for continued conflict. I would hope that it would not be at the same level that we have today or we’ve had in the past, for the simple reason that you don’t have a lot of air power in the country, you don’t have the degree of lethal power that the United States and NATO bring to the country. But certainly we’re not going to see an easy end to the conflict, simply because you have negotiations.
JAY: Okay, just very quickly, do you think negotiations happen before this beginning of what Obama called a withdrawal? There has to be if there’s going to be some kind of withdrawal,—
PORTER: Well, I think—.
JAY: —which is supposed to happen in 2011.
PORTER: The withdrawal, I would imagine, is going to happen as a result of negotiations, not negotiations as result of withdrawal.
JAY: Thanks for joining us.
PORTER: Thank you.
JAY: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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