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Tariq Ali: Obama’s Expansion of Af-Pak War “Has Blown Up in His Face”

StoryJanuary 20, 2012
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Amid ongoing U.S.-Pakistani tensions and fears of a military coup in Pakistan, we are joined by British-Pakistani political commentator, historian, activist, filmmaker and novelist, Tariq Ali. Ali discusses Pakistan’s internal turmoil, as well as Pakistani attitudes toward U.S. foreign policy, the GOP presidential contest, and the prospect of a military strike against Iran. “[Pakistanis] are basically suffering because Obama, arrogantly, escalated the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan and thought he could get away with it. That has now blown up in his face,” Ali says. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: We turn now to Pakistan, where some say a military coup is imminent. The country’s government is facing uncertainty over its future, four years after a return to democratic rule. During that time, there has also been a near collapse in relations between Pakistan and the United States. The last year witnessed an increase in drone attacks, the killing of two Pakistanis by CIA contractor Raymond Davis, and the U.S. raid that led to the capture and killing of Osama bin Laden. Now Pakistan has forced the U.S. to close a key drone base and threatened to shoot down any U.S. drones. This follows an attack on a senior al-Qaeda member last week, the first drone strike after an eight-week pause. Meanwhile, the Associated Press reports the United States is paying six times as much to send war supplies to troops in Afghanistan after Pakistan closed two key border crossings to NATO convoys. The closings came after a U.S. air strike killed 24 Pakistani soldiers last November.

Yesterday, Pakistan’s foreign minister, Hina Rabbani Khar, said the relations with the United States were on hold.

HINA RABBANI KHAR: I would say they are conveniently on hold, until we start re-engaging. If an incident happened in a reaction to that, the government clearly said that we will be looking at, you know, re-evaluation of our terms of engagement with the United States. Now, that re-evaluation process is underway as we speak. So, ’til the time that that re-evaluation process is not complete, we cannot start the re-engagement.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, the State Department announced the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Marc Grossman, will visit New Delhi on his way to Kabul for talks with President Karzai and other top officials.

For more, we’re joined now by Tariq Ali, British-Pakistani political commentator, historian, activist, filmmaker, novelist. He’s the author of over 20 books, including The Duel: Pakistan on the Flight Path of American Power, as well as The Obama Syndrome: Surrender at Home, War Abroad.

We welcome you to Democracy Now!

TARIQ ALI: Great to be with you.

AMY GOODMAN: First, is a coup imminent in Pakistan?

TARIQ ALI: I don’t think so. I think the military is not interested in pushing for a coup at the moment. They are relying on the Supreme Court to get rid of a corrupt president. And what has happened is that the Supreme Court has instructed the Prime Minister to charge the President with corruption and related crimes, and the Prime Minister has refused. So the Supreme Court is now charging the Prime Minister with contempt of court. That was the last news I got from Pakistan. And the military is going to let all this play out.

JUAN GONZALEZ: But now, the Prime Minister was at first saying that he believed the President had immunity. What is the legal situation in Pakistan of sitting presidents and leaders of the country, in terms of their immunity from prosecution?

TARIQ ALI: Well, there is no immunity, but a national reconciliation ordinance was passed by the assembly on the say-so of the military when the United States sent Benazir Bhutto back. And they said all the politicians’ crimes, financial crimes, the slate would be wiped clean. This was accepted. Now there’s an appeal in the Supreme Court saying that the NRO was illegal, and the Supreme Court has accepted that. So no one—no corrupt politician, in power or out of power, has immunity, if that decision is upheld.

AMY GOODMAN: Earlier this month, the Obama administration unveiled a new military strategy billed as a move toward a leaner, streamlined global U.S. force. The U.S. vows a stepped-up focus on the Asia-Pacific region, as well as the increased use of drone strikes that have targeted militants in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and the Horn of Africa. The plan also touts a reduction in military spending, but only when compared to previous increases. Unveiling the plan at the Pentagon, President Obama said military spending will exceed its levels at the end of the George W. Bush administration’s second term.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We will be strengthening our presence in the Asia Pacific, and budget reductions will not come at the expense of that critical region. We’re going to continue investing in our critical partnerships and alliances, including NATO, which has demonstrated time and again, most recently in Libya, that it’s a force multiplier. We will stay vigilant, especially in the Middle East. I think it’s important for all Americans to remember, over the past 10 years, since 9/11, our defense budget grew at an extraordinary pace. Over the next 10 years, the growth in the defense budget will slow, but the fact of the matter is this: it will still grow, because we have global responsibilities that demand our leadership. In fact, the defense budget will still be larger than it was toward the end of the Bush administration.

AMY GOODMAN: Tariq Ali, you wrote The Obama Syndrome: Surrender at Home, War Abroad. And included in answering this, talk about what happened with the 24 Pakistani soldiers, the significance of this, and how the U.S. is perceived in Pakistan.

TARIQ ALI: Well, Amy, the killing of 24 Pakistani soldiers and the bombing of their checkpoint makes no rational sense at all. The United States did it. They knew it was a military checkpoint. They knew that it was Pakistani soldiers. They haven’t yet been able to come up with any reasonable explanation as to how that happened. So one has to assume that it was deliberate. And this happened roughly at the same period as Pakistan’s former ambassador to the United States, Husain Haqqani, sent a message to the Pentagon saying, “Come and help us against our own army. We’ll do whatever you want,” which has become a huge scandal in Pakistan. It’s like a Clancy novel. And the ambassador actually going and pleading. This ambassador has now been removed. Another one has been appointed. So all sorts of things are going on behind the scenes, of which we haven’t yet heard the whole—the whole story is yet to come out.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Tariq, I’d like to ask you about this whole trend of the relations with allies in the region, not just in terms of the huge tension between the U.S. and the Pakistani military, but the front page of the New York Times today, a lead article about the growing tension between the Afghan army and the U.S. military, to the point that Afghan soldiers trained by the U.S. are repeatedly attacking and killing U.S. soldiers.

TARIQ ALI: Well, the reason for this, Juan, I mean, I’ve pointed this out several times, that the insurgents in Afghanistan, like all guerrillas, have said to their supporters, “When you’re offered free training, if they want to try and recruit you into their army, do it. Go and learn how to do it.” And they’ve infiltrated the Afghan army and the police force. And the United States is very well aware of this, which is why now serious negotiations are taking place with the insurgents to try and find some solution in Afghanistan. But this has been going on for ages. And it will carry on, because it’s a traditional way of resistance when your country is occupied. You take the weapons of your enemy. You use them against them. You infiltrate the enemy’s security services. And the Afghans have done all that.

AMY GOODMAN: This relation between the U.S. and Afghanistan—if the Afghanistan war comes to an end, does that mean Pakistan will not be getting the billions of dollars that it’s been getting as it plays both sides?

TARIQ ALI: Once the United States decides to withdraw from Afghanistan—

AMY GOODMAN: Which it hasn’t.

TARIQ ALI: —and the likelihood is that this will be sooner rather than later—the money will stop, of course. I mean, given the economic crisis here, it’s impossible to justify spending so much on military armaments and supplying the Pakistan army. The question is, will they do to the Egyptian army, as well? Both these armies are heavily dependent on U.S. funding.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And we here are so consumed, increasingly, by the presidential elections and the various Republican debates. The reaction in Pakistan to what’s going on among the candidates for president here in the U.S., if any?

TARIQ ALI: Bemusement. I mean, they are basically suffering because Obama, arrogantly, escalated the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan and thought he could get away with it. That has now blown up in his face. The candidate who is—people take quite seriously is Ron Paul, but simply because he says he’s in favor of withdrawing U.S. troops from all over the world and ending the imperial role. And that, of course, is very popular all over the world. And people are not aware of some of his other positions, but this one they concentrate on, because they say no other candidate is even talking about America as an empire.

AMY GOODMAN: Nuclear-armed Pakistan—nuclear-armed Pakistan, India, talk about that dynamic and the United States, and the amount of money that the U.S. is putting into Pakistan.

TARIQ ALI: Well, both—the United States has now accepted the Indian nuclear weapons, which is why the Indians have come on board, participating in maneuvers, etc. And Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are a fait accompli. There’s nothing that can be done about it. The danger is that if the Afghan War continues and the U.S. carries on the drone attacks, that within the army there will be so much anger that there will be a split. And if the Pakistan army splits, then there is no guarantee what is likely to happen, which is why American policy should not encourage such a split, but actually stabilize the situation and calm it down. 'Til now, they've been doing the opposite.


TARIQ ALI: Iran, in my opinion, the Pentagon generals are not in favor of a war on Iran, because that would overstretch the United States, and the Iranians will—are quite a strong country, economically and militarily. They will probably respond within Iraq, within Afghanistan, on the Lebanese border, and in Iran itself. So, is the United States going to be prepared to fight four wars to do something that the Israelis want more than anyone else? I mean, ideally, the United States should have been mending its fences with Iran. I mean, Nixon did it with China. Obama should have flown to Tehran and done a deal with them. They refused to do that, because of the pressure of the Israelis, and the result is now tension. And if the Iranians close down the Straits of Hormuz in any conflict, which they are threatening to do, this will affect oil supplies to the West. And given the economy is already in a mess, the situation will become catastrophic. So I think it would be a crazy president who ordered bombing raids on Iran at the moment.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And we only have a few seconds, but your sense of the post-Occupy Wall Street period, the impact on the progressive and popular movement here in the U.S. and its ability to affect policy in the country?

TARIQ ALI: Well, I think the Occupy movements in the United States are themselves a reflection of what happened earlier in the Arab world and the changes taking place there. So it’s an important beginning. My fear is that the movement might die out unless it moves forward. And the way to move forward is to have a set of demands, a charter for changing America. I mean, there should be a charter from progressives for changing America. No one is coming up with it from the mainstream.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you very much for being with us. The latest book of Tariq Ali is The Obama Syndrome: Surrender at Home, War Abroad.

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