Robert Fisk is Britain’s most celebrated foreign correspondent and has borne witness to countless tragedies in the Middle East for over three decades. With the publication of a new collection of essays, Fisk joins us to talk about the US elections and their bearing on Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Israel-Palestine. [includes rush transcript]
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
JUAN GONZALEZ: The US strategy in Afghanistan is back in the news, just ahead of the vice-presidential debate tonight. The British ambassador to Afghanistan has been quoted in a French newspaper as saying that the American military strategy in that country is “destined to fail.” Ambassador Sherard Cowper-Coles’s critical comments about the NATO operation in Afghanistan were part of a leaked memo from a French diplomat. He also said, “The coalition presence — particularly the military presence — is part of the problem, not the solution.”
The British ambassador’s leaked statements were published just as the top US commander in Afghanistan called for three additional combat brigades — that is, over 10,000 soldiers — to be immediately deployed to Kabul. General David McKiernan told reporters in Washington, D.C. Wednesday that Americans were facing a “tough fight” in Afghanistan that “might get worse before it gets better.”
AMY GOODMAN: As the US-led wars in the Middle East show no sign of abating, we turn now to a man who has chronicled eleven major wars in this part of the world and shows no sign of abating, himself. Robert Fisk is Britain’s most celebrated foreign correspondent, has borne witness to countless tragedies in the Middle East for over three decades.
Robert Fisk has been named British Press Awards’ International Journalist of the Year seven times. He is currently the Middle East correspondent for The Independent of London. His previous books include Pity the Nation: The Abduction of Lebanon and The Great War for Civilization: The Conquest of the Middle East. His latest is a collection of his essays and articles from The Independent; it’s called The Age of the Warrior. Robert Fisk joins us here in New York in our firehouse studio.
Welcome to Democracy Now!
ROBERT FISK: Thank you, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, you’re traveling through this country in the midst of a major crisis and a war abroad. Talk about your observations.
ROBERT FISK: Well, I suppose the first thing is how similar the two things are. I mean, first of all, the Europeans were constantly advising more banking regulation, in case they got infected by any economic crisis. The United States, this had to be a free market, deregulation totally. In other words, once more, the United States did not listen to its foreign partners and allies, on economic issues this time.
Number two is, rushed into a quick fix for a rescue bailout without any really serious planning, like crossing the Tigris River without a plan for post-war Iraq.
And three, it’s the little people who get hit: the little Iraqis, in the hundreds of thousands, who’ve died; and, of course, poor Americans, for the most part, who join the Marines or the Reservists because they want to have a university education, they end up in Iraq, and they get killed. The little people, once more, are the people who are getting hit. They’re very parallel things, in my view. I can see it all the time.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And, of course, here, in this country, as the number of US casualties has declined, so has the attention in the media or in the public to the situation in Iraq, and everyone has now bought into the thought that things are getting better.
ROBERT FISK: Ha ha ha, yes. Look, the degree of ethnic cleansing that actually took place — genocidal, in some ways — and the fact that the Americans have now built walls through every community in every major city in Iraq, which has divided between the communities, means that there isn’t, in fact, any free flow of movement. There isn’t a country operating anymore.
But now, I mean, if you stand back a little bit and look at it like this, first of all, we went to Afghanistan, we won the war. Then we rushed off to Iraq and won the war. Then we lost the war in Iraq, or maybe we won it again. And then we’re going back to Afghanistan, where we seem to have lost the war, to win it all over again. And in due course, perhaps we’ll have to go back to Iraq. I mean, in my reports, I’m calling this Iraqistan. And now, we’ve actually got soldiers on foot turning up in Pakistan. I mean, has nobody actually stood back and said, “What on earth are we doing out there?” I mean, I calculated for our Sunday magazine that we now have twenty-two times as many military personnel per head of population as the Crusaders had in the twelfth century. You know, what are we doing?
It was a baker in Baghdad who asked me this very obvious question. He said, “Why are you” — “you” meaning Western military — “Why are you in Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, French air base at Dushanbe running close as support for the British in Helmand province in Afghanistan? Why are your people going into Pakistan? Why are you in Afghanistan and Iraq? Why are you in Turkey? Why are you in Jordan and Egypt and Algeria? US Special Forces have a base outside Tamanrasset in the southern Sahara. Why are you in Bahrain? Why are you in Oman? Why are you in Yemen? Why are you in Qatar? Biggest US air base.” I didn’t have a reply.
But I was struck when I was having lunch on the West Coast a few days ago, by a very educated lady sitting next to me, saying, “But the Muslims wanted to take over the world, and they had already taken over France.” I mean, how does this happen? I mean, she might have told me that Martians had landed in New Mexico, only thing you could do to counter that kind of argument. It looks like somehow we’re on a brainwashing trip. And we’ve all bought the narrative. You know, we even have Mrs. Palin talking about victory in Iraq. It doesn’t feel it if you go to Iraq. It doesn’t feel it if you live there.
AMY GOODMAN: She also has talked about Iraq as being God’s war.
ROBERT FISK: Yeah, well, we’ve had some generals who’ve talked about that, too — haven’t we? — and kept their uniform on in church when they said it. You know, more and more, I look back on the early statements by bin Laden, statements we never actually read. The narrative is always “Is this bin Laden?” when he appears. “Is he ill? When did he make the statement? And have the CIA confirmed it’s his voice?” What his voice actually says is never of any interest to us.
But if you remember, he went on and on about crusaders, and he actually made a very important statement before we invaded Iraq, in which he called upon Muslims in Iraq to collaborate with Baath Party officials against the crusaders, on the grounds that Salahadin had collaborated with the non-Muslim Persians against the crusaders in the twelfth century. We missed all this. And this was the detonation that set off the insurgency.
JUAN GONZALEZ: I’d like to ask you, at the debate, the presidential debate last Friday, we had the situation where the so-called candidate of peace —-
ROBERT FISK: Yeah, yeah.
JUAN GONZALEZ: —- Barack Obama, is talking about, well, we took our eye off the ball in Afghanistan, as if this is a game here that’s being played and we made a mistake in the game. And so, now we must go back to Afghanistan and possibly even into Pakistan.
ROBERT FISK: Look, I think you have to realize — and the Arabs do not, and I’ve been trying on Al Jazeera Arabic service to say this — it’s not going to make any difference who is the next president of the United States, as far as Southwest Asia and the Muslim world is concerned. I was in Qatar, actually, in the Al Jazeera Arabic studios when Obama made his famous Middle East trip. You know, he gave forty-five minutes to the Palestinians, twenty-four hours to the Israelis. And the Arabic anchorman turned to me. He said, “So, Robert, do you think Obama will win the election?” I said, “He’ll win the election for the Israeli Knesset. I don’t know if he’s going to get the presidency of the United States.” You know, we’ve got here a one-track policy into the Middle East by the United States, and it’s not going to change.
AMY GOODMAN: But, Robert, is that true? On the one hand, you have, yes, they don’t sound that different when it comes to, for example, Afghanistan. They agree that’s the main site of the war, the main candidates. But I guess it’s the question of what could happen next and what approach McCain or Obama would take.
ROBERT FISK: Look, the Taliban now control half of Afghanistan, not just at night, but in the day — during the day, too. There’s no doubt that Petraeus has got it right when he talks about things are going to get worse.
AMY GOODMAN: Petraeus.
ROBERT FISK: Petraeus. And there’s no doubt, too, that the famous British ambassador, Mr. Cowper-Coles — by the way, he’s in my book, and he’s the guy who persuaded the British, when he was ambassador to Saudi Arabia, not to continue with the bribes inquiry by the British fraud squad into arms sold to Saudi Arabia. He’s the guy who actually advised the fraud squad people to drop it.
AMY GOODMAN: And this involved Bandar Bush. This involved the former Saudi ambassador to the United States.
ROBERT FISK: Absolutely, it’s the same guy. I should add — I should just add that more than twenty years ago, a young diplomat in the Egyptian embassy — in the British embassy in Cairo advised me to drop one of our stringers in the region and take on another stringer who was rather favorable to the foreign office. I didn’t do as I was told. But that man was also Cowper-Coles. What a strange career he has!
However, let’s go back to your Obama thing. Look, at the end of the day, we cannot win in Afghanistan. The Taliban are not crossing porous borders. They don’t even acknowledge the border, because, for them, it’s Pashtunistan. The border was drawn by a British civil servant called Sir Mortimer Durand in the Victorian age, and no one there, apart from us, accepts that it’s there — and, I suppose, the Pakistani army.
And the fact of the matter is that we have no policy there. The Karzai government is totally discredited. Karzai himself only rules his palace, with the help of American mercenaries to protect him. His government is full of drug barons, warlords and criminals. And that includes the people down in Kandahar, which is virtually a lost city. The troops cannot enter Kandahar anymore. It’s gone, effectively, especially at night. You can’t go there. No Westerner can walk through the streets of Kandahar. And you don’t see any women, except in Kabul, who are not wearing burqas. You remember the famous liberation of women, equality, gender equality was coming? It’s all turned out to be totally false. And we’re going to win there? We’re going to win there?
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, and, of course, the issue of Pakistan, to me, is the most frightening one of all, because —-
ROBERT FISK: Absolutely.
JUAN GONZALEZ: —- you’re talking about a country that is really almost a failed state at this point.
ROBERT FISK: We’ve been told that — the narrative is that the mad mullahs with black turbans and the crackpot Ahmadinejad of Iran — and he is a crackpot — are going to destroy Israel, and then, of course, they’re going to destroy the Palestinians, and they’ll get destroyed with all these nuclear weapons.
I’ve been saying for more than two years there is one nation in Southwest Asia, which is packed with Taliban supporters and al-Qaeda supporters, and it’s got a bomb, and it’s totally corrupted, from the shoeshine boy to the president, via its intelligence services and army, and it’s called Pakistan. And only now are we beginning to see Pakistan pop up. I bet you if you run a computer check in the next few months, Iran will go right down to the bottom of the page, unless Israel chooses to bomb it, and up will go Pakistan.
And suddenly, how do we deal with this country? It will be a whole crazed mixture, which is already symbolized by the fact that, first of all, we put troops in on the ground in Pakistan and infringed its sovereignty. Then, when the Marriott Hotel blows up, the FBI offers its help in finding out the criminals. I mean, are we friends, or are we enemies of Pakistan? We don’t even know that.
And we start talking, using phrases like “victory.” We should be talking about phrases like "justice for the people of the Middle East.” If you have justice, you can build democracy on it, and then we can withdraw all these soldiers. We’re always going — promising people in the Middle East democracy and packages of human rights off our supermarket shelves, and we’re always arriving with our horses and our Humvees and our swords and our Apache helicopters and our M1A1 tanks. The only future in the Middle East is to withdraw all our military forces and have serious political, social, religious, cultural relations with these people. It’s not our land.
AMY GOODMAN: Robert Fisk, just before we went on air, this came over AP: suicide bombers targeted Shia worshippers as they left morning prayers at two Baghdad mosques, killing nineteen people, injuring fifty others. In a separate attack, gunmen fatally shot six people as they traveled in a minibus at Wajihiyah, a town sixty miles north of Baghdad.
ROBERT FISK: Yeah, well, and we won, and the surge was successful, and everything’s going back to ordinary life, and people — I mean, that map which we saw, the two maps coming up — it’s preposterous. I mean, I get phone calls from Iraqis in Damascus, when I’m in Beirut, saying, you know, “Can you help us stay in Syria? Can we come to Lebanon? We cannot go back to Baghdad.” And they’re still getting calls saying, you know, “If you come back to your house, you’ll be murdered.” This is not a success; it’s a hell disaster for all the peoples of the Middle East. I mean, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, southern Lebanon, Gaza, the West Bank — I mean, is no one waking up to say that there is no hope there at the moment? You know, there’s no light at the end of the tunnel out in the Middle East.
JUAN GONZALEZ: I’d like to ask you, you mentioned the West Bank, obviously, the original center of this entire conflict. The —-
ROBERT FISK: I’m not sure it is the center anymore, by the way, but, yeah.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Right. But the comments recently by Ehud Olmert, saying that -—
ROBERT FISK: Look, Ehud Olmert is a has-been. He’s gone.
AMY GOODMAN: But he is prime minister.
ROBERT FISK: Just.
AMY GOODMAN: And he said you should give back the West Bank.
ROBERT FISK: Yes, but he’s going, Amy. He’s going. This is the same as all your generals who go out to fight in Iraq and in Afghanistan, and when they’re asked to comment to the press, they say, “Everything is going fine; it may be a tough battle,” and they salute and click their heels to Rumsfeld, or they did. And the moment they retire, they demand Rumsfeld’s resignation and say it’s all gone wrong. I mean, if only just one of them, just one, would say it in a press conference when they still had their uniform on, we might see a few changes coming about, but they don’t. They keep their — they go heel.
AMY GOODMAN: Robert Fisk, we’ll end it there, but we’re going to do part two. Robert Fisk, bestselling author, journalist, writes for The Independent, currently the Middle East correspondent for The Independent of London. His latest collection of essays and articles is called The Age of the Warrior.