Zbigniew Brzezinski on the Afghan War and the ‘Grand Chessboard’ (1/3)
In a 2010 interview, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Paul Jay discuss the war in Afghanistan and the American strategy for dominating Eurasia and the world to prevent "global anarchy". Brzezinski died on May 26, 2017
Zbigniew Brzezinski Interview, Part 1
JAY (intro): For more than fifty years, Zbigniew Brzezinski has been one of the most influential thinkers and actors in setting US global policy. He advised Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Reagan. He recruited the then little known Governor of Georgia to the shadowy Trilateral Commission and went on to become President Carter’s National Security Advisor from 1976 to 1980.
Brzezinski was at the center of US power during the fall of the Shah of Iran, the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, the normalization of relations with the People’s Republic of China, the building of the MX missile, and the Camp David accords.
In his 1997 book ‘The Grand Chessboard’, Brzezinski laid out in surprisingly unambiguous language his vision for America and the world:
"For America, the chief geopolitical prize is Eurasia… America’s global primacy is directly dependent on how long and how effectively its preponderance on the Eurasian continent is sustained…About 75 per cent of the world’s people live in Eurasia, and most of the world’s physical wealth is there as well, both in its enterprises and underneath its soil. Eurasia accounts for about three-fourths of the world’s known energy resources."
"America’s withdrawal from the world or because of the sudden emergence of a successful rival – would produce massive international instability. It would prompt global anarchy…The most immediate task is to make certain that no state or combination of states gains the capacity to expel the United States from Eurasia or even to diminish significantly its decisive arbitration role."
I interviewed Professor Brzezinski at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington where he is a resident scholar. The question: why is the United States fighting a war in Afghanistan?
PAUL JAY: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay, in Washington, DC. And joining us now is Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski. Thanks for joining us.
ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: Thank you very much.
JAY: The argument in the book, if I try to paraphrase it a little bit, is that the United States, in order to oppose forces of what you call global anarchy, for the sake of world stability, needs to maintain its dominance in the world for a generation or even longer. And the key to this dominance is Eurasia. The Eurasian strategy for the United States is—essentially, you say, will determine whether or not it remains preeminent. What is America’s Eurasia strategy right now? And what does the Afghan war—what’s its role in this?
BRZEZINSKI: Let me just add that in the book I also say that American preeminence may not endure indefinitely, and that in fact, if we conduct policies that are unwise, that are historically, so to speak, out of tune with the times, we could fumble the ball, so to speak. And I’m afraid that to some extent that concern is now being validated, namely, that in the wake of 9/11, we responded in a fashion that aggravated the challenge and that engaged us in an undertaking, the end of which is difficult to define, but the consequences of which, if we do not end it somehow before too long, could be devastating. Namely, we are engaged in what I think I call for the first time in this book, but I’ve called it many times since then the same way – we’re engaged in what I call the Global Balkans. The Balkans in Europe were that part of Europe which was internally weak, torn by a variety of conflicts, ethnic, religious, and territorial, into which great powers tended to be sucked in. And now the Global Balkans extend from east of Suez to west of Xinjiang, to south of Russia’s new border, which is north of Kazakhstan, all the way down to the Indian Ocean. It encompasses an area of about 550-600 million people. And now, sad to say, in that turbulent area we are the principal protagonist.
JAY: And why is it necessary? Why is US dominance in that region important?
BRZEZINSKI: Dominance means ability to manage. Being embroiled is not the same thing. I, for example, feel that we have overdone the military involvement, but I do think that our ability to manage the various conflicting interests and powers in this huge continent of Eurasia is central to our stability and security. But it doesn’t mean that we have to be engaged militarily.
JAY: And you talk about the enormous wealth of the region, the importance of pipelines. Why is that important for America to be the arbiter of all of this?
BRZEZINSKI: Well, again, I don’t say America ought to be the arbiter of this, but I do think that it’s important for us to recognize that the management of resources is very important in the distribution of global power, and that other parts of the world in which we have either an interest or a close relationship with – such as the Far East, Japan, and China, or, in the West, Europe, if they become dependent on a single power – that this could be destructive, damaging, and even precipitate conflicts. And therefore, for example, diversity of sources of energy is a source of security.
JAY: What is the Obama Eurasia policy?
BRZEZINSKI: Well, that’s a very good question. You ought to ask him.
JAY: Well, he was talking to you. Is he still? I don’t know. Did he – let me ask you frankly: did he ask your advice on whether to send more troops?
BRZEZINSKI: I couldn’t—if I said "yes," that would be distortion. But I was involved in some fashion in discussions, including within the White House, regarding the decisions he made. But I don’t think that my input was all that significant, because I know from personal experience that the really significant input comes from those people who are on the spot, who interact on a daily basis, who debate the options, engage in them. An advisor was called in from outside, maybe even just out of politeness. It’s not the decision maker. And so I have no illusions. Now, what do I think of the policy? I think he had no choice. He inherited the situation. The question is: can he now manage it in such a way that it ceases to be an endless morass, something that we get bogged down in? And I think that is the real challenge.
JAY: The idea of Eurasia as the key to US global power, is that the driving reason to be in Afghanistan?
BRZEZINSKI: No. I think the driving reason to be in Afghanistan, and the specific reason, is that a major attack on the United States originated from a safe haven that existed in Afghanistan. We gave the then Afghan regime, which happens to have been the Taliban regime, the option of either terminating the safe haven and handing over to us those who attacked us, or becoming the object of an unavoidable military action designed to eliminate that safe haven, in particular al-Qaeda. They chose the latter option. That’s why we are in there.
JAY: In the book, you talk about the importance of Pakistan and Afghanistan and Turkmenistan and the whole issue of the energy. The argument is made—I mean, you must—obviously, you’ve heard it—that whether al-Qaeda has a safe haven in Afghanistan or whether it’s North Waziristan or whether it’s somewhere else, whether it’s Hamburg—this can’t be just about whether al-Qaeda has a place to launch attacks from, ’cause it can launch attacks from many places. There has to be something more in terms of the strategic vision.
BRZEZINSKI: Well, wait. I don’t know whose vision you’re talking about, because Obama didn’t go into Afghanistan. Someone else did, right?
BRZEZINSKI: Eight years ago.
JAY: Yeah, although, although for some reason they didn’t give it the same strategic weight that this administration does.
BRZEZINSKI: Well, they didn’t, but they went in, and they stayed in. Now, they didn’t finish the job, because then they decided to go into something else, namely Iraq, in addition to it, which was a rather dubious enterprise. But I think given the circumstances after 9/11, we really didn’t have much choice in—the perpetrator was there. He killed 3,000 Americans. He had an organization. We had to eliminate it. The question is what happened after that. I was very marginally involved in that decision, very marginally, again, a little bit, like what I was talking about earlier, namely, I took part in some of the sessions in the Defense Department, the Secretary of Defense, regarding Afghanistan right after 9/11, when a number of us were consulted. But, again, I emphasize consultation is not decision-making. It’s, it’s a process of discussion, sometimes maybe of some use, maybe also to gain support publicly for the stated policy. But I remember conveying my view that, one, we have to go in to eliminate al-Qaeda, but do not stay in, because I know what happened to the Soviets in Afghanistan. And I said, "Do not stay in. No nation-building, democracy promotion in addition to eliminating al-Qaeda. Go in, knock ’em off, and get out." And that is my view. But, Obama—.
JAY: Do you think that’s the view of the Pentagon?
BRZEZINSKI: I don’t know what is the view of the Pentagon now.
JAY: Because the Pentagon’s—the idea of the need for some kind of long-term bases somewhere in the region—
BRZEZINSKI: Oh, no, I don’t think that motivated us going to Afghanistan, believe me. That I do know. It was not the case. Now, there was a whole superstructure created by the Bush administration, which was maybe rhetoric or maybe they believed it. You know, it’s a little hard to say what they believed in, because they believed in a lot of things which turned out to have been totally untrue. But let’s give them credit. They believed in building democracy by force of arms. That’s a rather long-term undertaking if you’re dealing with a society which in part is medieval. But, anyway, coming to the present, that Obama inherited. We did not go in there because of oil. Afghanistan doesn’t have that much oil. We went in there because we were attacked. But that does not negate the proposition that the region is important. What is important in addition to that, however, is how we handle the region. And I think establishing a presence, engaging in trade, creating more options, building more pipelines, east-west routes, new Silk Route, is a way of stabilizing the region and of exercising influence in it.
JAY: At least from the point of view of the Pentagon – and I don’t know how you feel about this -, you often hear when it comes to Iraq we simply had to show we have the ability to do this—we could not be seen to be weak on the global stage. To what extent is that the issue in Afghanistan now, that if one— if America is going to maintain its dominant power in the region, in Eurasia, it can’t be seen to be chased out of Afghanistan by some—?
BRZEZINSKI: Well, I don’t buy that comparison. First of all, I don’t think we had to go into Iraq at all, and I don’t think we went into Iraq to show that we’re strong. We went into Iraq because we were sold a line of argumentation which was false and which was propagated, you know, intensely to the country: we are threatened because he has weapons of mass destruction. He didn’t.
JAY: But we know that they knew there were no weapons – meaning Bush-Cheney—
BRZEZINSKI: Well, I don’t know whether—they claim they believed it. They claimed it was information. But let’s leave that aside. That’s an old battle. No need to re-fight it. Look, we are in Afghanistan because we’ve been there for eight years. Now, getting out is easy to say, but by now, if we get out – quickly – , the question arises: what follows? Is there going to be again a very sort of militant regime in Afghanistan which might tolerate al-Qaeda’s presence? And beyond that, there is now a new issue, namely, the conflict in Afghanistan has come to be connected with the conflict in Pakistan. Pakistan is an important country of 170 million people, which has nuclear weapons, nuclear weapons and delivery systems, delivery systems to the entire region around. So we have to think much more responsibly on how to deal with this problem. And I sympathize with the president’s dilemma. And then, last but not least, add to it the following: The president now has a very polarized country here. We are very divided as a country. We don’t have a bipartisan foreign policy anymore, for a variety of domestic reasons. If he precipitously disengages from Afghanistan, he’ll be labeled as a defeatist president, as a president who’s cut-and-run. And if things deteriorate dramatically in Pakistan, that would be added to the set of charges, and we could then end up, in reaction, doing even more irrational things. So I think he was over a barrel. My own personal view is—and, after all, that’s all I can express—is that we have to strive as effectively as we can, one, to Afghanize the effort against the Taliban. It shouldn’t be waged by Americans, because then we’ll repeat what happened to the Soviets. Secondly, we have to, in some fashion, cut a deal with some elements of the Taliban that are not really hooked into the al-Qaeda line. They have a concept of what they want in Afghanistan, but they’re not necessarily committed to a global sort of jihad against the West like al-Qaeda is. And third, just as important as the previous two, we have to find a way of helping Pakistan cope with its problem in Pakistan but also help us cope with our problem in Afghanistan. And that raises an extraordinarily complicated question, namely, how do we give the Pakistanis the reassurance they want, that if we leave Afghanistan, there’s not a regime in Afghanistan, other than the Taliban, which is more friendly to India than to Pakistan?
JAY: Right now, if we talk about what is the Eurasia strategy, it seems to be based on an American-Indian alliance that’s not talked about all that much, because, I guess, it might inflame opinion in Pakistan.
BRZEZINSKI: Well, that’s for sure.
JAY: But the American-Indian alliance seems to be the linchpin of the Eurasia strategy.
BRZEZINSKI: Well, if it is, then I don’t understand what the Eurasia strategy is, because [if] that is the alliance, then we’re not going to solve the Afghan question, and if we don’t solve the Afghan question but the conflict continues, how will the relationship between China and Pakistan, which is quite close, be affected by an American-Indian alliance? And what will that do to the prospect for stability on a larger global scale between China and India?
JAY: Is there really any solution other, without—and this is kind of an argument against the thesis of the book, meaning, does the US not have to start to withdraw as the dominant player in Eurasia and allow the Eurasians to figure this out?
BRZEZINSKI: Well, who are the Eurasians? We’re talking about Afghans—
JAY: Start with India and Pakistan.
BRZEZINSKI: Well, we’re starting with the Afghans, the Pakistanis, the Indians, and then the Chinese. You throw in the Iranians and the Russians. I mean, the fact is—.
JAY: Well, with the Shanghai agreement, they’re already starting to co-operating with each other.
BRZEZINSKI: Yeah. The fact is that to some extent our participation in the Eurasian game is also a source of stability and prevents eruptions that could affect us very directly or our immediately friends very directly. I mean, who are our friends in that region? You have the Europeans at one end. You have the Japanese at another end. We have some friends in the Persian Gulf and the Emirates. We have Israel, Egypt, and so forth. We have to take that into account. We just can’t say, "Oh, this is for the Eurasians to solve. Goodbye."
JAY (outro): Wars begin for many complex reasons, but one of the roots of the current war in Afghanistan can be found in a 1979 decision by the United States to fund the Afghan Mujahedeen in their civil war against the Afghan communist government. It was thought this could suck in the Russians into an invasion that would lead to the ‘Soviet’s Vietnam’. One of the people who advised President Carter to sign a secret finding directing the CIA to take such action, was his National Security Adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski. In Part 2 of our interview I ask Mr. Brzezinski if he regretted that fateful decision.
END OF TRANSCRIPT