The U.S. is at war not with a political movement, but with Muslim extremism on a global scale, says influential journalist and Newsmax columnist Arnaud de Borchgrave.
In an exclusive Newsmax interview, de Borchgrave warns that the situation in Pakistan, a nuclear power, is growing graver as al-Qaida and the Taliban maintain influence in key border areas and President Pervez Musharraf loses control. And while the U.S. troop surge in Iraq is showing some success, any preemptive strike against Iran would solidify Islamic fundamentalist hatred of the U.S. worldwide to disastrous effect, he says.
De Borchgrave, a former editor of the Washington Times and now director and senior adviser for the transnational threats project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, also discusses Iran’s influence in Iraq, the U.S. presidential race, and the likelihood of al-Qaida obtaining nuclear weapons.
Newsmax: How serious is the current situation in Pakistan?
De Borchgrave: I don’t think it could be more serious. The comments of Benazir Bhutto, twice Pakistan’s prime minister in the 1980s and '90s, speak for themselves at the end of an e-mail she sent to me. She wrote: “It may sound dramatic but the picture here is frightening. Pakistan is slowly disintegrating and it seems everyone is paralyzed into ignoring the calamity that is coming.”
Newsmax: How much control do the Taliban and al-Qaida have over Pakistan at the moment?
De Borchgrave: They control the key tribal areas, known as North and South Waziristan, and to a lesser degree, some of the other tribal [regions] that border Afghanistan. But it’s total control in North and South Waziristan, which are the key areas for us in terms of Afghanistan.
Newsmax: Are they making any progress elsewhere in Pakistan?
De Borchgrave: Yes, in the Swat Valley, which is a highly prized tourist attraction in Pakistan inside the northwest frontier province. The [Pakistani] army has gone in there and taken casualties and then backed away as Taliban reinforcements arrived. The army backed down. The army is fed up at this point because they feel that they’ve been carrying out America’s orders transmitted by General Musharraf.
Newsmax: Is Musharraf in danger of losing control of the army?
De Borchgrave: Yes. In the next few days following [U.S. Deputy Secretary of State] John Negroponte’s visit this weekend, I can see General Pervez Kyani, who was going to become number one when Musharraf was confirmed as president, [taking] off his uniform. General Kyani was head of ISI, the Interservices Intelligence agency, and was private military secretary to Benazir Bhutto when she was prime minister in the late ‘80s.
Newsmax: What do you see as Bhutto's role if Musharraf falls?
De Borchgrave: Her role obviously is to enter the electoral contest, which is going to take place as soon as the Musharraf situation is resolved. A soon as martial law is lifted you can expect an election campaign to begin in earnest. Since she is the head of the PPP, the Pakistan Peoples Party, she would become prime minister for the third time.
Newsmax: What about the presidency?
De Borchgrave: The presidency would presumably be held by either Musharraf or the man who replaces him.
Newsmax: So he could still remain a power in the government?
De Borchgrave: I suppose he could, but it’s not going to work because it’s quite clear from what [Bhutto] said – “the fact that militants hold open meetings without fear of retaliation proves the Musharraf regime is totally inept, unwilling or colluding in their expansion” – that she doesn’t feel she could work with Musharraf,
Newsmax: Is there any way that under Bhutto or anybody else that control of these areas now under the control of the Taliban and al-Qaida can be reclaimed?
De Borchgrave: Very, very difficult – very difficult terrain. The U.S. certainly could not get involved directly because that would touch off a major showdown between Pakistan and the U.S. Everybody would turn against the United States at that point.
Newsmax: What are the odds that al-Qaida gets its hands on nuclear weapons in Pakistan?
De Borchgrave: I would say zero at this point. There’s another possibility – if elements of the army split over Musharraf or his successor, who will be controlling the nuclear weapons? Would it be Islamists in the army or some neutral people who are still pro-Western?
Go back to what General [Muhammad] Zia did when he was the last military dictator. [He encouraged Islamism in the army] and encouraged the formation of madrassas on the border to block the penetration of communist ideology during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
We worked very closely with the Pakistanis and the Saudis then in encouraging Islam as a means of undermining the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and as a means of preventing the penetration of communist ideology into Pakistan.
But they've become a Frankenstein monster, these madrassas. They spread all over the country. You’ve got about 12,000 of them and nothing has been reformed despite U.S. aid to produce reforms. They produced a lot of plans for reform but nothing has really happened because the extremists among the clerics are against it and it’s extremist clerics who control the madrassas.
So you have hundreds of thousands of kids taught to hate America and to hate Israel. And Zia encouraged Islam in the army ranks. He was the one who got Muslim chaplains appointed throughout the military. These young officers who were heavily influenced by Islam at the time of Zia today are colonels and generals.
So the army clearly is divided between those who are Western oriented, who have been to staff schools in the United States, and others who are hard-line in terms of Islam. They are the ones who don't want to take on al-Qaida, don't want to fight Taliban. After all Taliban was invented by the ISI right after the Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan in February 1989.
ISI at one point was run by General Hamid Gul, who hates America with a passion. Hamid Gul is an Islamic extremist and he’s also the strategic adviser to the six political religious parties in the coalition that governs two of Pakistan's four provinces.
When you look at public opinion polls in Pakistan, Musharraf scores in the single digits, Bush in the teens and Osama bin Laden at 46 percent.
I don't think there's any danger of al-Qaida getting hold of nuclear weapons, though that danger is always there. What I see is perhaps a split in the army and Islamist extremists within the army taking control of these nuclear storage sites.
There are about six of them. They have separated warheads from delivery systems as well as separated nuclear cores from the detonators, so it is well dispersed. To get one weapon, they would have to put four parts together and they're stored in different parts of the country. That would not be accessible to al-Qaida unless somebody in the army were to get hold of all the different codes to access all these different places. I think it's highly unlikely but it's always a danger.
Newsmax: You have written that we are fighting a religion here. You wrote that radical Islam, or Islamofascism as conservatives are prone to call it, conveys the impression of a political movement, but is really no such animal. Can you expand on that?
De Borchgrave: Most Americans think that we're just fighting a few thousand bad guys called al-Qaida. Al-Qaida has a huge support group around the world and we forget that. Ask any moderate Muslim head of state or head of government to estimate how many extremists are in that country and they say about 1 percent. Then ask them how many fundamentalists, and they say about 10 percent.
Musharraf himself gave me those figures three months before 9/11. I said, “Well general, that's 1.6 million extremists you have in your country.” He said he hadn't thought about it that way but he guessed I was right.
Extrapolating that across the Muslim population of the world, you come up with 12 million to 14 million extremists and their roughly 130 million supporters who are fundamentalists. That's the world we live in today.
There are people who dress the way you and I do, go to the best restaurants in Paris and London, who are fundamentalists and who covertly support what al-Qaida is doing against the U.S.
Newsmax: Where are we in the war against Islamofascism?
De Borchgrave: I don't think we're anywhere because we don't understand the dimensions of the problem. We’ve been saying for a long time that the central front in the war on terror was Iraq. But it never was. Iran is obviously a greater danger and is part of the central front of the war on Muslim extremism.
We saw that in 1979 when the mullahs took over Iran, but we also saw what happened in Saudi Arabia at that time when Muslim extremists seized control of the Grand Mosque in Mecca. They had a hell of a time getting them out of there and the Saudis turned to the French for technical assistance.
The French sent some special forces attached to their intelligence services. They were quickly converted to Islam so that they could penetrate Mecca and they flooded the catacombs where the bad guys had taken refuge. They flooded those with water and then put electric cables in the water and fried them.
That was a major turning point in Saudi Arabia because that was the time when the deal was made between the Wahabi clergy and the royal family. The royal family said in effect, you Wahabi clergy refrain from criticizing our deplorable excesses and in exchange here is all the money you need to spread Wahabism round the world.
Newsmax: Is the U.S. military surge working in Iraq?
De Borchgrave: The surge seems to be working. What is not working is the lack of political reconciliation. The Shiites are charging ahead, obviously with Iranian backing, and they're leaving the Sunnis out of the picture. There are no negotiations between the two to try to bring the Sunnis into some form of coalition government.
Nouri Kamel Mohammed Hassan al Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister, has been to Iran twice in one year with a government delegation each time, getting along extremely well with the Iranian government, getting financial aid from the Iranians for schools and hospitals. What's hardly ever reported is the special connection between Maliki, who spent seven years in exile in Teheran while Saddam Hussein was in power, and his very close contacts with Tehran. It tracks back to this Iraq study group report by Lee Hamilton and Jim Baker in which they stated that Iran has more influence in Iraq than the U.S.
When we first invaded Iraq almost automatically thousands of Iranians poured into southern Iraq. In Basra, the police chief even said a few months after we liberated Iraq that he could only rely on one out of four of his policemen. The other three were working for Tehran.
Newsmax: What would happen if we were to bomb Iran?
De Borchgrave: The last four CENTCOM commanders, including Anthony Zinni and Arabic-speaking John Abizaid, said any bombing of Iran would push 320 million Arabs into the camp of radical Islam and produce an unmitigated geopolitical disaster for the United States. This, they believe, would also push a moderate Iraqi government into the arms of a “martyred” Iran coupled with a demand that U.S. forces hightail it home.
Thus, those who advocate bombing would unwittingly play into the hands of religious extremists. Israelis say they are faced with an existential crisis that Americans cannot comprehend.
Newsmax: What is your opinion of Secretary of State Condi Rice?
De Borchgrave: Condi Rice is a highly intelligent woman who is not a geopolitician. We haven't really found a successor generation to the geopolitical thinkers like Zbigniew Brzezinski and Henry Kissinger and Jim Schlesinger. Everybody talks about that in Washington. Where is the successor generation? It's interesting that the two best geopoliticians, Kissinger and Brzezinski — one a Republican, one a Democrat — were both European born. For those born in Europe, geopolitics is in their DNA. After all, Europe has had hundreds of wars over the centuries and we haven’t. We think in fairly simple terms. Good guys and bad guys.
Newsmax: Of all the candidates for president, who do you think would be the best qualified in terms of foreign policy?
De Borchgrave: If it’s practical experience, dealing with bad guys, obviously Bill Richardson has had a lot of experience. Does that mean he’d be the best qualified to be president? No. Does that mean he’d be the best qualified to be Secretary of State in a Democratic administration? Probably.
Obviously Hillary, with her experience around the world and her husband's experience around the world, would not come into the job unprepared, but how good a geopolitician she would be I have no idea.
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