On US policy in the Middle East

A conversation with Kourosh Ziabari, Veterans Today, June 6, 2011

Kourosh Ziabari: Do you consider the chained, continuous revolutions in the Arab world a result of pan-Arabist, nationalistic sentiments of the peoples of region who rose up? Well, the dictatorial regimes of the region have been ruling for so many decades, but the people in these countries revolted against them quite suddenly and unexpectedly. Has the economic factor been the main contributor to the emergence of Middle East revolutions? Was it all about paying a tribute to Mohamed Bouazizi that turned violent and became a set of revolutions?

Deepak Tripathi: You have raised an important question. The answer is somewhat complex. Of course, from Libya to Bahrain there are similarities on the surface: repressive regimes, closed societies, ruling cliques imposing their will on the masses. Then there is the Orientalist syndrome in the West that Edward Said depicted so brilliantly in his book “Orientalism.” It is the tendency to lump all Muslims and other people in the East into one basket, and seeing them as exotic, but inferior, people who must be educated in western ways, and exploited. This is where lies the basic mistake, and it has proved disastrous.

The recent uprisings across the Arab world display two different currents. The bigger picture is that of people rising against pro-United States dictators, in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain. On the other hand, we see Libya and Syria, which are not pro-US. Many in the populations of these countries are fed up and can take no more. They want to breath fresh air. Now, in an ideal world the people of each country should be allowed to choose their own destiny without outside interference, but that is not the case in the real world. Western interference is a major cause of resentment in many countries in the region.

Having said this, I believe each popular uprising has its roots in local conditions and causes. In Egypt, it was a people’s revolution, of men and women, young and old, Muslim and Christian. They succeeded in overthrowing Hosni Mubarak and his party, but the future is by no means certain; the United States, with allies, continues its interference. America has considerable power because of the huge aid it gives to the Egyptian military every year. So we will have to see what transpires in Egypt. Tunisia, which started all this, is the same – how do long-oppressed people ensure that the system changes to their liking, not just a few faces? In other places, too, things are far from certain. In Bahrain, where the pro-US Sunni ruling family, representing one-third of the population at most, is engaged in the brutal suppression of Shi‘a majority – nearly two-thirds of the population. In Bahrain, it is oil that drives Western policy of support for the ruling family; in Libya, too, oil drives policy, but there Britain, France and Italy, and to lesser extent the Obama administration in the United States, are supporting the anti-Gaddafi forces, because Gaddafi is too independent, too unpredictable. InSyria, oil is not a factor – perhaps one of the reasons why the Western response has so far been limited to condemnations and warnings. And the Yemeni president is America’s surrogate; Yemen is vital for the security of Saudi Arabia, America’s strongest ally after Israel and the most reliable oil supplier.

The last part of your question concerns the Tunisian, Mohamed Bouazizi, street vendor who set himself on fire after being harassed by corrupt police. Bouazizi certainly touched million and millions of people right across the region, because they could easily identify with his harassment and humiliation.

KZ: As you may admit, Bahrain has one of the blackest human rights records in the Persian Gulf region. Its longstanding tradition of suppressing the Shiites, persecuting the bloggers and journalists, incarcerating and torturing the political activists attest to the fact that despite being a close ally of the United States, Bahrain is not a democratic country based on American-championed values. Why does the United States support such a repressive regime? Does the United States consider Bahrain a proxy to confront the hegemony of Iran in the region?

DT: Countering Iran is certainly the major factor behind US support for Bahrain, and explains the muted references from Washington to the brutality of Bahraini security forces – and let’s not forget many are foreign soldiers – and more recently Saudi forces who have entered the Emirate. The tactics used against peaceful demonstrators in Bahrainin recent weeks and months are some of the worst kind. How many countries are there in which hospitals are raided by security police and doctors treating wounded people are threatened?

As you know, Bahrain is a member of the Gulf cooperation Council, dominated by Saudi Arabia, and is there to prevent Iranian and Shiite influence spreading in the region. Bahrainis also the base of the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, which is so important for America’s strategy in the Gulf and the Middle East at large.

KZ: Do you agree with a military intervention in Libya? We already know that the Gaddafi regime, before the authorization of no-fly zone over Libya by the Security Council, had massacred scores of unarmed and innocent civilians in air-strikes on different cities of the country. Is a NATO-led military expedition necessary to preclude the killing of civilians? What’s your prediction for the future of the civil war which is taking place in Libya?

DT: The Gaddafi regime, no doubt, has been repressive over the last forty years, and I am very critical of its human rights record. It is Britain, France, Italy and the United States that have been swinging like a large pendulum: vehemently opposed to Gaddafi for decades, then friends with Gaddafi, and now enemies again.

I have several misgivings about the NATO military operation inLibya. My first and most serious objection is that NATO has gone far beyond the remit approved in the UN Security Council 1973, which authorized “all necessary measures” to protect civilians and civilian-populated areas, excluding foreign occupation forces on any part of the territory of Libya. Legal scholars have pointed out that “all necessary measures” means starting with peaceful means to resolve what seems to be a tribal civil war between pro- and anti-Gaddafi forces. In this respect, Libya is quite different from Egypt, where tens of millions of people from all sections of society rebelled against the Mubarak regime. Second, NATO military planes are now hitting government targets far from opposition-controlled areas. Tripoli and Gaddafi’s own compound have been bombed. This was not envisaged in the Security Council Resolution 1973. Regime change was not part of it. I think these are serious violations of the UN authorization. Third, NATO aircraft are now operating as if they were the air force of the anti-Gaddafi forces; British, French and Italian ‘military advisers’ have been deployed in Libya; and there is talk of sending troops. This is taking sides, and goes beyond protecting civilians. Worst of all, we now have confirmed reports that NATO planes are bombing and killing people on their own side, the anti-Gaddafi side; collateral damage in Western euphemism. Fourth, and this is very serious, the West is being highly selective in picking on an oil-rich country for military action, while its friends, Bahrain and Yemen, willfully repress their populations. I fear we will see a long war in Libya.

KZ: Many political commentators believe that whoever assumes power in Egypt following the establishment of new constitution and formation of new government will be less friendly to Israel than the regime of Hosni Mubarak was. The same analysts believe that the new government in Egypt will be necessarily less hostile to Iran compared with the Hosni Mubarak’s regime. Do you agree with them? What’s your take on that?

DT: The climate in the Middle East has undergone a dramatic change following the Egyptian Revolution. Its effects go far beyond Egypt’s borders, and these effects will be long term. The people of Egypt and beyond yearn for democracy, human rights and dignity, but they are not going to be blind supporters of American policy. There will be all kinds of pressures, warnings, threats against the Egyptian military from the West that would like to indirectly control the peoples of the region. I hope that the military does not give in to these American-Israeli tactics. I believe that the ‘new Egypt’ – if it is allowed to choose its future path – will lead to a new climate that will mean better relations with Iran, Palestinians, and will be a force for good overall.

KZ: Answering to a question regarding the recent air-strikes on Libya, the White House spokesman Jay Carney said that it is not a U.S. policy to bring about regime change in Libya. It’s already clear to the international community that Gaddafi is a merciless terrorist. He massacred more than 6,500 citizens during the first three weeks of civil war in Libya. Why don’t the United States and its allies want to take action to change the regime of Gaddafi while they did the same with regards to Iraq and Afghanistan in a situation that they didn’t have any compelling excuse to do so? Is it all about American and European interests in Libya’s oil sector which is guaranteed by the Gaddafi regime?

DT: I have elaborated on the lack of consistency in Western policy, and the real factors behind Western and allied actions showing blatant disregard for universal human rights. Their actions amount to double standards wherever it suits them. They are not about democracy and human rights at all. Look at the reign of terror and torture under the ‘war on terror’ that President George W Bush waged, and that President Obama continues in Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere.

KZ:Saudi Arabia was among the Arab countries which was somewhat encompassed by the wave of 2010-2011 protests of the Middle East and North Africa; however, it seems that strangulation and oppression, implicitly endorsed by the United States, is so intense that the people don’t have enough backbone and courage to rise up against the government and demand fundamental changes and reformations in the political structure of their country. Will the United States, as the most strategic partner of Saudi Arabia, allow the implementation of sociopolitical reforms in the structure the Saudi government? Will the sporadic movements of the Saudi people bear fruit?

DT: Saudi Arabia is a closed society, in many ways that theSoviet Union was before 1985, when Mikhail Gorbachev became the General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party. It took just six years for the Soviet state to collapse after the USSR began to open up. Communication and free movement are very difficult, if not impossible for the ordinary citizen, in such societies; and news of unrest does not readily reach the world. We know that Saudi citizens nevertheless do find ways to express their opposition, but they are crushed with brute force. Remember, Saudi Arabia’s security forces are among the best equipped in the Middle East, supplied by the Americans. They use these means to coerce their population. Despite all this, social discontent simmers under the surface. Failure to open up Saudi society and give the people their basic rights could have serious consequences.

KZ: Do you agree with the idea that the Middle East revolutions, specially the popular uprisings in Bahrain, Yemen, Jordan and Egypt, will be of Iran’s interests? Does the destabilization of U.S.-backed Arab regimes in the region empower Iran politically, strategically?

DT: According to the Oxford English Dictionary, to which I subscribe, a revolution in the political context is “forcible overthrow of a government or social order in favor of a new system.” Uprising is an “act of resistance or rebellion” to achieve that end. It is important not to confuse the meaning of the two terms. In the late twentieth century, what happened in 1979 in Iran was a revolution; and between 1989 and 1991 there were revolutions in what was then the Soviet bloc. In the new century in recent months, Egypth as had a revolution, in the sense that a dictator and his ruling party that had a monopoly over power, have fallen. What replaces it is not certain yet. We will have to see until after the elections at least.

Bahrain,Yemen, Jordan, Syria, perhaps Libya, are all experiencing rebellions of one kind or another. How it all ends in each case – we will have to wait and see. As of now, the ruling structures in these countries are shaking; they may be collapsing; but they are still there. Equally important, what impact does it all have on the Palestinian struggle will have to be seen.

In the wider geopolitical context, these events do indicate that the United States is losing its grip over the region. In fact, America had been losing its grip for some years. It is just that the military occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan and America’s militaristic foreign policy may have given the opposite appearance to those who fail to look beyond the immediate.

If the people of each country can decide how their country should be run, it would be a good thing. I find the idea that a big power far and away can dictate to others anywhere most objectionable. And I don’t see the events in West Asia as a victory for one country or another. The tide of history is going in its own inevitable direction, popular movements are making huge waves and contributing to that tide of history. The final outcome is not yet certain, so the struggle will need to go on.

KZ: What will be the implications of the Middle East revolutions for the Israeli regime? Will Israel suffer from the change of government in Egypt and the fundamental political reforms which are going to happen in Jordan?

DT: I have alluded to these matters in my previous replies. I will summarize my answer here.  What is happening in the Middle East at present is going to limit Israel’s scope for arbitrary conduct. The overthrow of the Mubarak regime in Egypth as been a huge setback to Israel, because frankly Mubarak was acting like an American and Israeli surrogate to continue the occupation of Palestinian territories, and in the broader interests of Western policy in the Middle East. In Jordan, as elsewhere, change looks inevitable, though I hesitate to predict what form it will take. I think it is never a good idea to underestimate the big players’ capacity for manipulation and deceit. In a sense, the West learned the lesson very quickly in Egypt, where it was slow to act during the anti-Mubarak protests. Eventually it dumped Mubarak when it realized he was a too big a liability to carry, and then picked Libya and Syria to reestablish its pro-democracy credentials. The West, in the guise of NATO, has switched to a pro-democracy posture by siding with the anti-Gaddafi forces in Libya and with the opposition to Bashar al-Assad in Syria. But that makes Western policy in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Yemeneven more inconsistent, if not hypocritical.


Q&A: History News Network

HNN (January 13, 2011)

You’ve worked in Afghanistan and Pakistan as a BBC correspondent. How does the Afghanistan of today compare to the pre-civil war Afghanistan of 1978?

Before the 1978 communist coup which triggered the war, Afghanistan was fairly quiet and, especially for foreign visitors, very safe. People were hospitable. It was a desperately poor country, but people went about their day-to-day living. The king had been overthrown by his cousin, but Afghanistan was in practice ruled by the royals.

So what happened? Did the Soviet invasion cause the subsequent thirty-odd years of unrest, or did it uncork simmering problems in Afghan society?

In broad terms, internal disturbance began with the overthrow of the king by his cousin, who was a modernizer and didn’t like the king’s non-interventionist approach. His coup began internal feuds among factions.

Young, relatively educated, communists were among them. But the 1978 coup by pro-Soviet army officers triggered internal strife and greater Soviet intervention. It was to save the communist regime that was deeply unpopular and collapsing that the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in December 1979.

Where does Islamist ideology enter the picture?

I said earlier that there were factions during the king’s cousin, Mohammad Daud’s rule from 1973 to 1978. His vigorous drive for modernization brought Islamist groups to the fore to oppose him.

But we must always remember, Afghanistan is a deeply religious country, although historically Afghan society was heavily influenced by the most liberal of the Muslim sects, the Hanafi sect. However, with conflict escalating moderation declined.

Tell us a bit about the Hanafi sect—I’ve never heard of them before.

The Hanafi sect is based on local practical considerations to find resolutions to local problems. Hanafis have tended to favor social harmony. It was because of this moderation that followers of other religions—Hindus, Buddhists in particular, lived in peace. Hindu merchants in Kabul, a tiny minority, were quite powerful. When I was in Afghanistan in the early 1990s, I went to Afghan Hindu money changers. However, with the Soviet invasion and American help to mujahideen groups, which incidentally began under the Carter administration in mid-1979, and then under the Regan administration from January 1981, Arab fighters began to arrive to confront the Soviet occupation forces, the nature of Afghan society began to change dramatically and violently.

Why did the Soviets make the decision to invade? More specifically, who within the Soviet government was an advocate of invasion and who was opposed?

I explain in my book Breeding Ground the long sequence of events. In brief, there is evidence that the Soviets were deeply unhappy with factionalism in Afghanistan’s communist regime, which is to say the government after the 1978 coup. And the Afghan communist regime’s brutal suppression of opposition made it increasingly unpopular. The communists tried to impose Stalinist land reforms. This was at a time in the late 1970s when Stalinism was completely out of fashion within the Kremlin. In short, the Soviets in the end invaded after some reluctance and long reflection to protect communism at the helm in Kabul but without the Stalinist ruler Hafizullah Amin, who was assassinated in the December 1979 coup by the Soviets. They installed a puppet, Babrak Karmal, but he had his own problems, including the perception of being a Soviet puppet.

Did religiously-motivated resistance to the invasion begin immediately?

Almost immediately, because the Soviets were seen not only as foreign invaders but infidels, non-believers. This is very offensive to most Afghans. However, as I discuss in Breeding Ground, the involvement of Pakistani and Saudi Islamist extremists, as well as Afghan extremist groups like Gulbuddin Hikmatyar’s Hizb-i-Islami, the picture began to change. Islamic fighters, among them there was one Osama bin Laden, began to arrive to fight alongside Afghan mujahideen. The American administration and the Saudis, Egyptians and the Chinese, all formed an anti-Soviet alliance. While these external players gave money and weapons, even copies of the Quran among mujahideen fighters, the actual job of training and distributing weapons was outsourced to the Pakistani military ruler General Zia-ul Haq and Pakistan’s military intelligence service, the ISI.

How important was this Pakistani support in the 1980s, and how important is Pakistani support to the Taliban (and other insurgent groups) today?

In the 1980s it was vital. Otherwise, the United States could never have fought the proxy war against the Soviet Union in the 1980s. America’s recruitment of General Zia as the foremost ally, in return for military and economic aid—and respectability, no less important for Zia, played a big role, too. As for now, the Taliban represent two distinct phenomena—one in Pakistan itself; the other, the Afghan Taliban have their top leadership in Pakistan’s tribal belt. Pakistan’s tacit approval of their stay in the tribal belt, and possible support by some sections of the Pakistani military intelligent service, the ISI, play a very important role. I should say in conclusion here that from the Pakistani ruling military/political elite’s geopolitical point of view, support for the Afghan Taliban seems rational. It is a tragedy that this strategy has brought disastrous results in the long term.