Anatol Lieven Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

American Nationalism: Conversation with Anatol Lieven, Senior Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for Peace, May 6, 2004 by Harry Kreisler

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Islamic Societies

Your tour of duty as a journalist took you to all the places that now have become central in the war on terrorism. What lessons do you bring from that experience about the nature of these Muslim societies? I have in mind Afghanistan, Pakistan. What are we not understanding about those worlds as we try to define a war against terrorism?

The first thing is that all these societies are all very different. This attempt to draw up universal doctrines -- I was briefly and tangentially involved in discussions on creating a universal doctrine of urban warfare for the American army a few years ago, and I'm afraid my view was that this was absolutely absurd. Urban warfare, guerilla warfare in general, is inherently political. That means it's related to the specific structures, political culture, makeup, traditions of the given society. Iraq is very different from Afghanistan; Afghanistan is very different from Pakistan. That means that we need cadres of officials and solders who are well trained in the specific societies of countries which we think could pose a terrorist threat, or which we think, God forbid, we might have to invade at some stage. So that would be one thing.

Coming out from that is the fact that we have to study in detail and we have to deal with structures in these countries as they actually exist. There is an almost insane view, which I hope will go away as a result of Iraq, but you can never be sure ...

It didn't go away as a result of Vietnam.

No, it didn't -- that countries are blank slates, and the United States or the West can go in and it can draw on them whatever it likes, that you just begin from scratch. Now, as we found out, even in what seemed to be a totalitarian society like Iraq, there were immensely powerful autonomous structures under the surface, above all, of course, the Shia religious structures, but also tribal structures. Many of the problems that the U.S. has faced is that it went in blind, completely unaware of the structures with which it would have to deal. Often linked to that is this moralization, the belief that the Ba'ath is simply wicked, that you can sweep it away, and then having done that, once again you have a blank slate. One needs to understand that these are not modern structures. They're not positive structures, they may be extremely negative, but they are there. They have to be dealt with. If you do try either simply to bypass them or to flatten them, you will face immense resistance, which is what we're now facing.

Before we talk about this question of American empire, it seems also to be the case that sometimes in these places we're dealing with the blowback of our previous policies. When we had to go into Afghanistan after 9/11, in some way we were dealing with the aftermath of the mess that both we and the Soviets had created there. Talk a little about that, that somehow when we try to make policy, we seem to forget our previous policy toward that particular place.

I went to Pakistan, I covered Afghanistan from Pakistan, from the side of the Mujahadeen, who were then our allies.

This was at the time of the first Afghan War.

Yes, the first Afghan War. And I must say, like many journalists there, by 1989 some of us were almost screaming at American officials that the policy was insane of giving American guns and money to the Pakistanis, the Pakistani intelligence service, who were then passing them on to Mujahadeen groups who were simply serving Pakistan's interests, extremist groups which were going to be horribly bad for Afghanistan, as it turned out, but who were also pathologically anti-Western.

I think that this does reflect something deeper in American political culture, which has come out again in the case of Iraq, which is a tendency to demonize, but also to become obsessed by the enemy of the moment, to such an extent that it becomes impossible to think of longer-term interests, wider issues, [or] to think about the dubious quality of one's own allies. It becomes impossible to differentiate between different categories of enemy. In Afghanistan, America became obsessed with defeating the Soviet Union and driving it out completely, and then driving out its communist clients. Of course, the communist clients of the Soviet Union are the people who we are now trying to put back into power in Afghanistan, because they were opposed to the radical Islamists who turned into the Taliban, and also because they embodied within themselves most of what was left of the Afghan intelligentsia, the technocracy, the officials, and so forth.

One loses this longer-term capacity, but also one loses the capacity to tell the difference between an Afghan communist, a Soviet communist, and so forth; just as before Vietnam, America failed to see the difference between a Vietnamese communist, a Chinese communist, and a Soviet communist. There was no need for Vietnam, as Kissinger and Nixon eventually realized in the early 1970s. You could create barriers against the spread of communism simply by playing off one communist state and movement against another along nationalist lines. There was no need, therefore, for a single American solder to die in Vietnam. Now, we're seeing the same thing in the Muslim world. This treatment of the Ba'ath in Iraq, the Iranian Shias, and al Qaeda and the Taliban as if they were all part of one bloc is both factually wrong, but it also deprives America of an absolutely critical weapon in the war against terrorism, which is the ability to use one kind of Muslin state/movement/party against our real enemies, who are al Qaeda and its allies.

And further along the same point, Osama bin Laden originally was our creature in the Afghan war. He is a Saudi trying to oppose the regime there, but he's taken on this global role. Focusing on him furthers our inability to understand the national differences that you've just described.

Yes. I wouldn't say that he was exactly our creature; he was always his own man. I met people who I'm sure later went into al Qaeda, Arab guerillas in Afghanistan in 1989. They were armed and to a considerable extent funded by the U.S., but they already made absolutely no secret of their hatred for America and Israel and the West. But we certainly greatly facilitated and helped the creation of al Qaeda, without, of course, intending to do so.

You're quite right about the other feature of Afghanistan. We had a U.S. policy towards Afghanistan which we now look as if we're going to do twice. Precisely having contributed to this disaster, in the early 1990s America just walked away from it, became obsessed with what was happening in the Soviet Union, with Eastern Europe.

That was a deeply immoral thing to do. That led, because of the anarchy and civil war that followed -- an anarchy fueled by the weapons that we had put in -- that led directly to the rise of the Taliban, which was accepted by many Pashtun Afghans as at least a force bringing basic peace and order and ending this ghastly period of ethic massacre and anarchy. And that, of course, then led to Afghanistan becoming a haven for al Qaeda, and led directly to 9/11.

Now, once again, we have to a considerable extent -- we haven't walked away completely from Afghanistan, but we've grossly neglected Afghanistan ever since the overthrow of the Taliban in order to concentrate on Iraq, with the result, of course, that the Taliban is coming back. The Taliban rules enormous parts of the Afghan countryside.

It's a bit much, frankly, to have made that kind of a mistake twice.

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