A post-9/11 world at 20
More forecasting of tensions with Afghanistan, Israel, Iran, Korea, and beyond
Here’s part two of the June 21 interview with Geopolitical Futures chairman George Friedman. The interview happened two months before the U.S. pulled its troops out of Afghanistan. Part one, concerning China and Russia, ran in our July 31 issue. We talked about Israel, Iran, Korea, and other parts of a perilous world, but since the Sept. 11, 2001, attack led to the war now concluding tragically in Afghanistan, this edited and tightened Q&A starts there. I don’t agree with American abandonment of Afghans.
Long ago you said the whole idea of establishing democracy in Afghanistan was “demented” and impossible. You said the Taliban will rule it again. Will that happen when U.S. troops pull out? It’s already happened and will continue. Afghanistan is an ancient civilization. It has different values, not even Islamic ones. Afghans, believing the basic unit is the family, created structures like the jirga, in which the heads of the families and clans meet to make decisions. They don’t want to be like us. They don’t respect us. They don’t think we properly accept the authority of the elders. They regard the youth culture as blasphemy.
Our “nation building” hasn’t worked? Americans have a habit of hanging onto the battlefield far beyond any rational possibility of achieving anything. Defeating the Taliban and creating a democratic Afghanistan was never going to happen. We invented in Vietnam the idea that we would create a democratic Vietnam, and we had the same fantasy in Afghanistan. We couldn’t withdraw having made that pledge until we succeeded, but there was no way we were going to succeed.
What happens to the Afghans who have been either brave or foolish enough to side with us? These people stand a very poor chance of doing well. If the U.S. was occupied by a foreign power, it would be unpleasant for those who collaborated with that foreign power. That’s what’s going to happen in Afghanistan because we’re not prepared to admit them here and they don’t necessarily want to come here.
If they want to come here, because the alternative is death, how many are we talking about? With the army they have, it’s something around 150,000-200,000 families. They were in the Afghan army, which is regarded as treasonous. They were in the Afghan government, which is now regarded as treasonous. This is the tragedy of nation-building. We went in with a perfectly reasonable goal: destroy al-Qaeda. We managed to disrupt it. Then, instead of, “Mission accomplished. Time to go home,” we invented a new mission.
We took in lots of Vietnamese refugees, probably not as many as died in the attempt to get here, so why don’t we take in lots of Afghans? There is no sea they can easily reach. Moreover, the Vietnamese were happy to have some people leave, and private families would pay ransoms for them. Afghan families in the United States are few, and not nearly wealthy enough to pay hostage fees.
Thinking of our own self-interest: What’s the likelihood of Afghanistan becoming once again a haven for terrorists? Afghanistan knows the price of messing with the United States. Afghans will not want to have another Islamic terrorist group home there. But that doesn’t really matter. There are a lot of places terrorists can be.
On to Israel. Last time I covered an election there was 2006. What’s changed in 15 years? We have a new Middle East. The United States is no longer needed to be the housekeeper, the great power. That’s Israel, which is now in a position of near-hegemony.
Does it make any difference that Netanyahu no longer runs the show? You’ve got a circus running the show now. Every other party in Israel, including the Arab parties, is in this government. The only thing in common is they’re really sick of Netanyahu, which is understandable. But it’s not a government. It can’t govern. One party wants to withdraw from the West Bank. Another party wants to take all the land. This proves that Israel’s completely secure, because otherwise they wouldn’t put this gang in power with this combination. The prime minister has only three votes in parliament. He’s from the weakest party. So they must feel pretty good about themselves.
What about the nuclear sword hanging over their heads? The Israelis are prepared to carpet-bomb Iran with nuclear weapons if the Iranians are closing in on their own nuclear weapons. Iran knows how far it can go, and being on that path is worthwhile, because then you can extract concessions. Iran’s rhetoric is about Israel. Its concern is about the Arab world, in particular Iraq.
What’s the basic fault line in the region? Persia and Babylon, Iranians versus Arabs. Iran and Iraq fought a terrible war in the 1980s. A million people died on each side. Iran’s real interest is not Israel. It says it is because that gets a lot of applause among Arabs. Iran’s leaders fear a united Arab nation. They want nuclear weapons to deter an attack on them. This is really about the relationship between two factions of the Islamic world.
Does it matter that Iran now has “hard-liner Raisi” as president? The press says he’s a hard-liner, but Ayatollah Khamenei is in charge. He can be as hard-line as you want on foreign policy, but if he steps out of line he’ll get slapped around. The West now has another fear, Raisi—so Iran can say, “we can’t give you this, we’ve got a hard-liner now.” This is good bargaining.
Does it make any difference whether we have a nuclear deal or not? The Iranians use their nuclear program as a bargaining chip, but not to get an effective nuclear program, because Israel will react to that. Same strategy North Korea uses. It’s a good bargaining chip, but you lose it when you really scare your enemy, and he has nuclear weapons. You lose a lot more.
Let’s turn briefly to North Korea. It’s a little country that has nuclear weapons and can be annihilated with three decent-sized hydrogen bombs. They know it. So they always threaten to do things they can’t do. They’re highly vulnerable.
What could they do? They could open fire on Seoul, an enormous city right on the border. They have artillery massively concentrated near the border. That’s their nuclear weapon. North Korea says to South Korea, “We will annihilate your city.” South Korea says to Americans, “We don’t want our city to be annihilated. Don’t do an airstrike.” That’s the game.
George, you’re optimistic about forces balancing out each other, but don’t individuals often miscalculate? That’s always possible, but we are here in this republic at this moment freely speaking to each other. Our enemies have suffered greatly at our hands. The United States has 330 million people who are resilient but also operatic. You will hear the operatic songs of hysteria from both sides. At every stage we’ve had dissent and hatred. We are not a pleasant people, but we get things done.
At WORLD we say the sky is not falling because God holds up the sky. But in the absence of that faith, what would you say to people in Paris early in 1940? Wouldn’t they say, “Look at our army. Look at our fortresses.” And yet, the government was incompetent. It was also incompetent in the First World War, which it won because the United States intervened. France has a long history of incompetence. It is a country that knows how to surrender and survive. The United States is not simply luckier. We have a vast economy, an enormous military establishment, and an incredible industrial plant. Russia tried to beat us and collapsed. Sometimes honesty means realizing you’re much better than you want to think. I was born in Hungary. I’ve been back there many times. I know what a small miserable country looks like. This isn’t it. I like it here.
Here’s what you were saying in 2010: Brazil and Argentina—counterweights to each other. China and Japan—ditto. Germany and Russia—ditto. India and Pakistan—ditto. Africa and Latin America—ignore. Use Baltic countries as bargaining chips. I doubt if you were broken up about Hong Kong. Isn’t this all coldblooded? Where’s the heart? The heart comes in when you see your children and grandchildren safe. For the rest of the world, you have to discipline your heart not to feel. If you think about foreign policy as war, you learn to harden your heart.
You’ve said Germany worries you. Germans can’t decide whether they’re the enemy of Russia, the friend of Russia, or just a quick date. Of all the balances we’ve seen, the only one I’m concerned about but not yet certain of is Germany and Russia.
A decade ago, when I asked about the Russian threat to Gruzia—the little country in the Caucasus we call Georgia—you said to throw it under the train. Let me ask about the Uyghurs in China. Do we care, should we care? Care all you want. Do I want to go to war in Xinjiang province? No. Should I care? Of course I care. Would I pay the price needed? I don’t even know what that price is. So we have to be cold and ruthless. Otherwise you wind up sending a lot of people to bad places.
Talking about cold and ruthless, any last thoughts on Putin and Russia? Russia is a Third World power in the sense that it still has not created a modern industrial economy. It lives by exporting oil at prices it can’t set. In the long run, the collapse of the Soviet Union was not the end of anything but the first phase of the next drama. This regime can’t survive either.
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