Juan Cole interviewed about Afghanistan, Iran and other hot spotsHistorians in the News
Rooz: In your new book, Engaging the Muslim World, what is your general recommendation for the way the US should engage with the Middle East?
The US under Bush assumed aggressive intent toward the US mainland on the part of Middle Eastern actors such as Iraq, Hezbollah in Lebanon, the northwest of Pakistan, and Afghanistan (the latter with some justification, but still this was not an exact understanding). As a result, it launched two major wars itself and supported several proxy wars (Israel-Lebanon 2006 and Pakistan-Bajaur 2008). I would argue that the Bush administration misunderstood the difference between asymmetrical groups such as al-Qaeda, which were trying to hit the US, and regionally-oriented governments and parties that might be hostile to the US but were not actual dangers to it. So the first change I urge is to stop being so aggressive militarily and be more pragmatic toward the state and party challengers, while keeping presjysure on the asymmetrical terrorist groups. And, as for the non-hostile states and publics, stop alienating them by equating Islam with fascism or terrorism.
Rooz: Do you believe Obama’s policy will make a difference? Will he be an honest broker?
Obama’s policies are already making a difference. US soft power, which had greatly diminished, is returning in the Middle East. I think Obama wants to be an honest broker on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, though of course he faces substantial domestic constraints and he may not in the end succeed. But I think he does want to be even-handed, in a way that Bush was not and even Clinton was not.
Rooz: Obama has decided to send some additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan; do you think this is a good idea and will it make any difference in the direction the country is taking?
The US military is convinced that it can implement a ‘take, hold and clear’ counter-insurgency strategy in the Pashtun regions if only it has enough troops. U.S. and NATO forces combined are now up to 90,000 and growing. This reasoning assumes that the reason the Taliban have 10% of Afghanistan is that they are able to coerce people for lack of enough security. But if the Taliban are genuinely popular with 5% of Afghans and 10% of Pashtuns, and if the sources of discontent are the corruption and oppressiveness of the Karzai officials, resentment of forcible poppy eradication, and dislike of foreign troop presence, then the Obama strategy could backfire on a large scale.
Rooz: Do you believe Karzai, facing corruption and mismanagement charges, has a chance of being reelected? And if not, do you believe the other candidate; Abdullah Abdullah will be able to solve the many problems facing Afghanistan?
The polling suggests that Karzai will easily be reelected. Abdullah Abdullah has the disadvantage of being a Tajik who is known to be close to New Delhi, and he is unlikely to poll well in the Pashtun areas, which are something like 44% of the population. Substantial numbers of Pashtuns may dislike Karzai, but for them he really is the only game in town. And his choice of Mohammad Faheem, the Tajik warlord, as vice president, also undercuts Abdullah Abdullah with the Tajiks.
Rooz: Let’s talk about Iran. Since the elections, massive protests and consequent arrest and murder of opponents have taken place. Do you think Ahmadi Nejad has lost all legitimacy and that his government will fall?
Typically governments fall when the army and security forces turn on them, and so either become neutral or split. Until that happens, even unpopular regimes can survive for a long time. Look at Saddam Hussein in Iraq. The Baath Army, the officer corps of which was disproportionately Sunni and the armored corps of which was even more so, kept Saddam in power even after his 1991 defeat. So far in Iran we have not seen the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, the Basij popular militia, or the regular army display any ambivalence toward the regime....
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