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Candid Discussions: Eric Margolis on the End of NATO Mission in Afghanistan

eric Eric Margolis is an American-born award-winning and internationally syndicated columnist. With three decades of reporting from the world’s hotspots in the Middle East, Southwest and Central Asia, Mr. Margolis is considered a veteran of many conflicts. His articles have appeared in major Western and Asian newspapers. Mr. Margolis is also a regular contributor to major TV networks in the U.S and Canada. His Internet column commands a large following on the web. Mr. Margolis sat down with Reza Akhlaghi of the Foreign Policy Association to discuss Afghanistan and the withdrawal of NATO forces from the country.


You’ve been a longtime outspoken critic of the NATO mission in Afghanistan. Are there any developments in the country that you would consider to be NATO achievements in Afghanistan since its mission began in October 2001?

There are limited accomplishments; probably the most important is that there are some education promoted by NATO for young Afghan girls at least in and around Kabul. There are medical clinics, and establishment of a national bank, the accoutrements of Western civilization. However, these are accomplishments that do not extend much beyond capital Kabul. In fact, they have reached avery small pro-Western elite in Afghanistan that has received cascades of money, but has left the rest of the country untouched.

So why has this been so severely limited?

The answer is typical colonial war. I’ve covered these wars at least a dozen times in my time as a journalist. Western powers go in; they find the disaffected minorities, in this case the Tajiks, Uzbeks, who were aligned with the Soviets during the war in the 1980s. NATO, actually I should say the United States, came in and armed and used them as its fifth column in Afghanistan and based all its efforts around the capital and a couple of key bases in the country. The rest of the country was left to the Taliban. All NATO could do was move around and hope they did not get shot at or blown up.

What has been Canada’s role? Is there anything to be regarded as Canada’s legacy in Afghanistan?

Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan started off as a mistake due to ignorance and foolish machismo on the part of Canadian generals and politicians. It then developed into a huge blunder; large numbers of Canadian lives were wasted; 18 billion dollars of Canadian money poured down the hole; money that should have been used for badly needed medical equipment in Canada. In the end, the only thing Canada gained in this war, besides killing a lot of Afghans, is the fact that the Canadians thought they would please Washington, that Washington would give pats on the head for being a loyal ally. But in fact, as I saw it myself in Washington, no one even noticed Canada was there.

Why do you say no one even noticed Canada was there?

What I mean is that, apart from those in Pentagon, high-ranking politicians in Washington, senior members of Congress, and the media paid absolutely no attention to Canada. Canadians were just another colonial levy like the rest of NATO, who were sent over there as a token representation.

Now going forward, do you think there is a role or there will be a role for Canada in post-NATO Afghanistan?

Yes, there is. A very beneficial and traditional Canadian role is in health and education, good governance, and finance. These are things that Canada has done in many countries, but not as part of a U.S. invasion force, not as part of a garrison force to keep Afghanistan under Western control, which is now considered. The role is now called “training” and “anti-terrorism,” but it really is an attempt to keep a pro-Western, compliant government in power.

Canada played, in my view, the wrong role in Afghanistan and violated all its past foreign policy rules since World War II. Canada should go back and be seen as an honest broker and bringer of development, rather than as part of a Western invasion and occupation force.

Abdullah Abdullah seems to be the next Afghan president. Where will the Taliban fit into the country’s political structure post-Karzai?

Well, I hope in the existing power structure, the American-selected President, Mr. Abdullah…

You just said, “the American-selected President”, so are you suggesting that he is not going to be president through popular vote?

Oh, absolutely not; every election they’ve run in Afghanistan since 2001 has been grossly rigged. And the most egregious part is that Taliban, Hizbi Islami, and other resistance parties in Afghanistan have been excluded from the political process completely. They’ve boycotted it, but they’ve boycotted it because it’s rigged and set up against them. You know when the Soviets ruled Afghanistan, they had much fairer elections; they actually allowed real opposition parties and criticism.

Today what we’re seeing in Afghanistan is pure charade; it’s the kind of democracy that we used to have in Egypt under Mubarak. The government is selected by Washington and it will continue to do Washington’s bidding. I hope they will have the wisdom to have real talks one day with Taliban and bring them into power sharing. I don’t think it’ll happen soon.

Regional Security: Could there be a regional security solution to the post-NATO Afghanistan involving regional countries like Iran, Pakistan, India, and Central Asian states?

I think there will be something opposite of that. Instead of regional security, there will be more regional insecurity. Because the minute the Western occupation forces are pulled out of Afghanistan, civil war will break out as it did at the end of the Soviet occupation. And there are some very interested parties; I’ll start out with India. India has been long interested in Afghanistan and it has many intelligence agents operating there. India has been arming, funding, and cooperating with the Northern Alliance, which is also very close to Russian intelligence and used to be close to Soviet intelligence. The Russians will no doubt get involved. Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have local interests among their people; and Iran, of course, will exercise its influence in Western Afghanistan as it did during the anti-Soviet jihad of the 1980s. So, you’re going to have a lot of conflicting interests there and of course we have to include Pakistan in it, which sees Afghanistan as its backyard.

So it’s not a matter of competency and attempts to bring about a secure environment, it’s about the coming clash of conflicting interests.

Yes, it’s about greedy regional neighbors trying to stir up this fragmented and broken country, which has so many different ethnic groups who are linked to outside forces like Uzbeks in the north answering to Uzbekistan; the Pashtuns in the south are very close to the Pashtuns in Pakistan and so on and so forth. Bringing regional security is going to be very difficult.

Do you think China could play a significant role in Afghanistan’s future? Is Beijing’s role evolving in Afghanistan?

China has a very interesting role in Afghanistan. In 1981 I was invited to Beijing by the Chinese military intelligence to discuss the situation in Afghanistan. They asked me if China should start supplying the Mujahedeen with weapons. So, there is a very long Chinese interest, but it’s subtle and the Chinese are very patient. They’re interested in mineral rights in Afghanistan; they’re interested in the strategic geography of Afghanistan. But I can tell you the minute Indians start being far more active in Afghanistan, the Chinese will react and start opposing the Indians. China will eventually play a major role and probably a beneficial one in Afghanistan by providing such services as finance, and training the Afghan armed forces. They will become a big player there.

Lastly, I want to move to the cultural aspects of things on the ground in Afghanistan. What do you make of the Afghan government’s cultural policies over the past decade– including policies regarding women’s issues–and the extent to which those policies have been reflective of the realities of Afghan society?

Well, let me put it this way: there’s life in Kabul and there’s life in the rest of Afghanistan. Under the Soviets, Kabul was very westernized, modernized, and Sovietized. Girls went to school, and one of the reasons the Taliban closed a lot of girls schools was that the Afghan Communist Party infiltrated Afghanistan through the education system, and some of the more simple Talibs see education as bringing in the communists. The government in Kabul today will continue to make all the right noises about women’s rights and women’s education not because they care about it particularly, but because it pleases Washington. It’s a way of justifying the Western intervention there, and it pleases female voters in the West. This policy also helps the government in Kabul keep the cash coming. When you see films from Afghanistan you see the Western-backed groups like the Uzbeks and the Tajiks in the north with their women in Burkas beaten by men, the typical Afghan mountain style. Therefore, it is an illusion, something of a fraud to think that women’s rights are broadly brought to Afghanistan. Meanwhile, women are far more abused in neighboring India, where there were reports, for example, last year that 26,000 Indian brides burned to death by their in-laws. But in the West we choose to be very selective in our concern and moral outrage.

Looks like going forward, we’re going to face a more destabilized Afghanistan.

I’m afraid so. But the West, mainly the U.S., will try to keep its influence in Afghanistan expressed in money. The key to America’s hold on Afghanistan is that it wants to exclude the Chinese and keep a watch on the Caspian oil basin. The essence of American control is the control of airbases in Afghanistan; three major bases: Heart, Kandahar and Bagram, where the American air force will dominate the skies and keep the Taliban and other resistance groups at bay as they’ve done since 2001. The minute their influence is removed or lessened, you will see that the remaining Western forces will be isolated and cut off just the way the British forces were in the 19th century.