Engaging the Muslim World - Juan Cole

“Engaging the Muslim World”– Middle East Analyst Juan Cole on US Policy in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Israel and Beyond
Democracy Now, March 17, 2009

AMY GOODMAN: It’s nice to have you here in the studio, as opposed to talking to you out in Michigan. But let’s start off with—well, this is the week of the sixth anniversary of Iraq. What’s your assessment of where we stand, where Iraq stands?

JUAN COLE: Well, Iraq is starting to see, finally, some fairly good news. I think it’s important that the government seems to be starting to be more responsive, that the prime minister has established more security in cities like Basra or Amara. And you can see this in the results of the provincial elections, where the prime minister’s party did exceptionally well, I think, in those places where he had sent in troops and established more order. And so, this is a change from—a year ago, I wouldn’t be talking like this. It really is a better situation in some ways.

But, of course, there are so many problems. There are four million people who have been left essentially homeless, displaced—2.7 million inside the country, another very large number in Jordan and Syria. There are still very severe tensions between the Arab community and the Kurdish community over the northern oil city of Kirkuk and other territory in the north. That issue has not been resolved, by any means. And so, the country faces many problems of infrastructure. There’s not enough potable water available to people. There’s very high rates of unemployment. There’s not much foreign investment in most of the country, outside the Kurdistan region. So it is a basket case; I mean, it is a mess. But there are some slight signs of some improvement recently.


AMY GOODMAN: Let’s talk about Afghanistan, the US pushing a surge there—at this moment, 17,000 more soldiers in Afghanistan. Vice President Joe Biden goes to Brussels to meet with NATO, NATO forces—NATO countries, I should say, increasingly opposed to the Afghan war. But the US is pushing harder and trying to get support in countries that don’t want to support it, like Canada, like Britain.

JUAN COLE: Well, Canada has announced that it’s leaving in 2012. And a lot of the European publics are very much opposed to a continued military mission in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan is an almost insoluble problem. And the question is, what’s the mission? You know, if you’re sending US troops there to fight, to die, we have to know what is exactly their mission. And it’s not to fight al-Qaeda. Have you seen anything for the last five years in the newspapers about US troops capturing major al-Qaeda figures in Afghanistan, even fighting al-Qaeda units? I don’t see any evidence that they’re there. So what we’re fighting is Pushtuns, the neo-Taliban, which is probably—

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean, “the neo-Taliban”?

JUAN COLE: Well, you know, the Taliban were the old Mullah Omar group that now is based in Quetta. They’re still active. But there are new groups that have emerged, some of them old warlords. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who is—I talk about this in the book. This is a former US ally, a very hard-line fundamentalist who got a lion’s share of the CIA money that was given to fight the Soviets in the 1980s. He has now hooked up with Mullah Omar. He used to be an enemy of his. And his group, the Hezb-e-Islami, is actively fighting US troops in the Pushtun regions. Or you have someone like Jalaluddin Haqqani, who’s likewise an old warlord who’s now—his group is considered part of the Taliban. And then, I think you have a lot of disgruntled villagers whose, you know, poppy crops were burned or who don’t want US or NATO troops in their region, who are attacking checkpoints and soldiers and who are also getting called Taliban.

So you’ve got a complex group of insurgents, several thousand of them, who are challenging the Karzai government. And it seems to me that mainly what the US, Britain and Australia are doing in the south of the country is to shore up the government of Hamid Karzai. And if that’s the goal, that’s a tough mission. Karzai only controls 30 percent of the country. The gross domestic product of Afghanistan is only $9 billion a year. There simply aren’t the resources there to have a strong state, strong army. And if that is the goal, it’s going to take a long time.

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