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Drones and international law

Paul Jay speaks with Reese Erlich about US military involvement in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

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Story Transcript

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay, and joining us today from Oakland, California, is Reese Erlich. Reese is writing a book at the moment, will be out not too long, called Conversations with Terrorists. And he just got back from Afghanistan. He was there last September. Thanks for joining us again, Reese.

REESE ERLICH, AUTHOR AND JOURNALIST: Thank you.

JAY: So in the first segment of the interview we talked about an attack of American helicopters on a town in Syria, which was supposed to be to get al-Qaeda in Iraq, who were supposedly in Syria, and wound up killing some construction workers. And in that first segment, you began talking about this tells us something about what’s happening with the American drone attacks in Pakistan. So can you elaborate on that? And what did you find out when you were in Afghanistan?

ERLICH: The US war has expanded from the borders of Afghanistan into Pakistan. There’s an undeclared war being fought inside Pakistan today, and has been for many months, stretching back to the Bush administration. And it’s a sign of how badly the war is going in Afghanistan that we now have to open up a whole ‘nother second front. The link between what we found out about Syria and Pakistan is that the US now asserts the right to invade and attack other countries without declaring war, without any recourse to international law or UN sanction. And that’s essentially what it’s doing now in Pakistan. For a while, US troops have crossed back and forth across the borders, presumably in hot pursuit of Afghan guerrillas, and the clones are being operated in part by US soldiers stationed inside Pakistan, which is illegal, has not been agreed to by any treaty or agreement with the Pakistani government. And, of course, we see these drone attacks, where the ones we hear about are usually the ones where supposedly a terrorist has been killed and disrupted the terrorist network in Pakistan.

JAY: Well, just one second. We’re not sure there’s not an agreement with the Pakistani government. They just don’t want to talk about it.

ERLICH: [inaudible] public agreement. Yeah, part of the problem is, you know, what we get from the media, which is in turn fed to us by the government, is that while the Pakistanis secretly agree with what we’re doing, they just can’t say it publicly. Well, I learned a long time ago if some government can’t say it publicly, it don’t count. And the US always wants to put a spin on what it’s doing, to claim legitimacy. If the Pakistani government requested drone attacks on its territory, it would have said so. And the opinion polls in Pakistan indicate some 76 percent of the Pakistani people oppose the drone attacks, because from their perspective a whole lot of civilians are getting killed in these things.

JAY: But that may be why they don’t want to say it publicly. The Pakistan government is not necessarily the most transparent of governments with its own people.

ERLICH: Unlike the United States, which has a thoroughly transparent government, right?

JAY: I certainly wouldn’t suggest that. I would say they’re in the same bucket, they’re in the same bucket here.

ERLICH: But, you know, if you don’t have a public agreement, if you don’t have a transparent agreement, you get into all of these kinds of situations, which is that the US sends its troops or sends its drones in and is blamed as fact politically speaking, making the situation far worse in Pakistan, because now these right-wing fundamentalist forces are much stronger, have much more support among Pakistanis than they ever did, because they’re seen as part of fighting a foreign enemy, which is one of the reasons the US is doing so poorly in Afghanistan as well. If the US troops and its drones weren’t inside Pakistan, it would deprive these right-wing fundamentalist forces of the claim of being nationalist and of defending their country.

JAY: Now, just before we move into discussing Afghanistan, we’re right in the midst of a big Pakistan army assault on Waziristan after, they claim, a relatively successful incursion into the Swat Valley. What’s your take on what’s happening in Waziristan now?

ERLICH: I have visited all of those parts of Pakistan in the past. I have not been there recently. And my take on it is that the Pakistani army will always make great claims of success, and we have to wait and see for what actually happens weeks and months from now to be able to evaluate it. I did talk to people in Afghanistan who had been in the Swat Valley, and they said, while the Army holds the major cities, in fact the Pakistani Taliban is still very active throughout the countryside and is undoubtedly going to be rebuilding its networks in the cities as well. So the fact that the Pakistani army attacks, they don’t meet any resistance, doesn’t mean they’re winning.

JAY: So you just got back from Afghanistan. Talk a bit about what you found out there. I mean, I was there myself a few years ago, in the spring of 2002, and I found that there was enormous hatred for the Taliban. There was even some, I would say, gratitude for the overthrow of the Taliban. But there was equal hatred for the warlords that became the surrounding and became the Karzai government. And people found themselves very much between a rock and a hard place. What’s your sense of what people want there?

ERLICH: I think that everything you saw back then has multiplied 10 times, which is, yes, the people hate the Taliban. It was a horrific government on all kinds of levels. It was repressive of everybody’s human rights, women’s rights in particular. They banned music; they banned movies; they stopped all television. It was the worst kind of excuse, using Islam as an excuse to govern that the world has seen in recent times. But the immediate people oppressing people in Afghanistan are not the Taliban; it’s the US allies. You know, the drugrunners, the major drugrunners in Afghanistan are the US allies, including members of Karzai’s cabinet and members of his own family. The corruption, the arbitrary arrests and detentions are all done by the US side. And so people in Afghanistan, like people anywhere else in the world, are very practical, which is if the government in power is doing a lousy job, you’re going to hope that maybe these insurgents are going to do something better. At least they actually have shadow courts in the rural areas that mete out a rough justice, because the local courts are so corrupt, if you don’t have money, you can’t get anything done. So it’s a very bad situation in Afghanistan for the US allies, and politically the US is losing, big time.

JAY: Now, right now we see Rahm Emanuel on the Sunday TV shows just a few days ago talk about until there’s some kind of, quote-unquote, “legitimate government” in Afghanistan, there shouldn’t be a troop expansion. I guess they’re pushing for some kind of unity government. What do you make of where Obama seems to be headed?

ERLICH: Well, I would have a lot more confidence in Obama if he was seriously considering withdrawing all US troops from Afghanistan. But the debate in Washington right now is between sending somewhere between 40,000 and 80,000 more US troops—remember, that’s on top of the 20,000 we just sent a matter of months ago—and keeping the troop levels where they are now. Those are the two choices, neither of which is going to work. If you send lots more troops, all that’s going to happen is a lot more civilians and a lot more Americans are going to get killed. And if you don’t send any more troops, you’re going to have a situation where, you know, militarily the situation continues to deteriorate. There is no way the US can win militarily in Afghanistan any more than there was possible to win in Iraq or possible to win in Vietnam, if you go back then. It’s a war of occupation. The local people hate the US presence. They may not like the Taliban but they hate the US presence. And ultimately you’re going to have to see a political solution where the US and foreign troops get out and the Afghans resolve their differences among themselves and have some kind of a negotiated unity government.

JAY: Do you think that’s possible? Or does what happened in Afghanistan is another Civil War, which apparently killed as many as 2 million people in the last Civil War?

ERLICH: Well, yeah, if you’re talking back at the end of the Soviet invasion/occupation, there was a horrific war. Remember, that was the direct sponsorship of the United States. It’s ironic today. I was a strong opponent of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan at the time, but you go back today and people kind of fondly remember some of the things under the Soviet times: if you’re a farmer, you had co-ops; girls went to school; there was minimum income, you know, minimum wage. You know, on a lot of levels, day-to-day life was better.

JAY: Yeah, I heard that, too. In the north, most of the roads people are using to send their tanks up and down were all built by the Russians.

ERLICH: Yeah, exactly. So that doesn’t mean—again, that doesn’t justify the Soviet occupation, because ultimately it doesn’t matter how good your lifestyle might be: if you’re being occupied by a foreign country, you want to get rid of those foreign occupiers. But it was the US who backed the most reactionary, the most fundamentalist of the guerrilla groups to come in and carry out terrorist attacks on Afghan civilians and Soviet troops. Eventually the Soviet Union was forced to withdraw. And when those people tried to come to power, they couldn’t agree among themselves, and there was a horrific civil war. Some of those people are now—those mujahedin are now in power in Afghanistan as US allies, and others of them, including a couple of the groups that the US backed strongly, are now in the opposition, and they’re allied with the Taliban. So back to your original question, it is a very difficult situation.

JAY: I mean, what sense do you get of what Afghans want? Because if you look at polling, and even when I interview Afghans, most of whom are extremely critical of the US position, it’s not really clear whether they want these foreign troops out or not, or they’re rather concerned about what comes next.

ERLICH: Yeah, I think it depends on who you talk to. In Kabul, when we spoke to some university students, they wanted the US troops out over a period of a couple of years because they said that if the US pulled out right away, the Taliban would come back to power. But they did want the troops out, and they did not want them there indefinitely. I spoke to some refugees from Helmand, some peasants who had fled to Kabul because of the fighting. They wanted the troops out right away, because for them they can’t even go back home as long as the coalition forces are bombing their villages, which is what was going on. So I think it depends on who you talk to, and I think it’s in flux. To the extent that the Taliban tries to come off sounding reasonable and that, you know, makes all propaganda statements, that convinces some people. To the extent that the pro-US forces help rebuild roads or villages or whatever, that helps a little bit as well. So it’s something in flux.

JAY: Now, some analysts suggest that the real objective here for US policy is not really about al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, it’s more about that in fact the Americans do have a status of forces agreement with the Karzai government, there is a basis for having long-term bases in Afghanistan, and strategically the US simply wants a pro-American government with major US bases, and they’re not going to leave without—they’re simply not planning to leave, period. Do you get any sense of this?

ERLICH: Oh, yeah. No, I think that’s absolutely accurate, which is Afghanistan, unlike Iraq, doesn’t have a lot of natural resources, although I did end up speaking to some geologists who say there are some valuable mineral resources in Afghanistan that haven’t been exploited yet—but I don’t think that’s the reason the US is there. Afghanistan is a crossroads. It’s a way into Central Asia. And as part of the excuse of fighting the Afghan War, the US has now established military bases in nearby countries of the former Soviet Union. As the US troops pull out of Iraq and, at least in theory, we’re not supposed to have any military bases there, Afghanistan could become the new site for those bases. Yeah, I don’t think the US has any intention of pulling its troops out or pulling its bases out. The Afghans themselves are not anxious to see that happen, but that’s not part of the public debate.

JAY: Before you were in Afghanistan, you were in Iran during the elections. And in the next segment of our interview, let’s catch up on what’s been taking place in Iran and your take on it. Please join us for the next segment of our interview with Reese Erlich on The Real News.