The Dust of Empire:The Race for Mastery in the Asian Heartland

June 24, 2003

The Dust of Empire:The Race for Mastery in the Asian Heartland by Karl Meyer


JOANNE MYERS: Good afternoon. On behalf of the Carnegie Council I would like to welcome members and guests to our Author in the Afternoon.

We are very pleased to have with us Karl Meyer, who will be discussing The Dust of Empire: The Race for Mastery in the Asian Heartland.

Today is our last Merrill House event until September, and as I look back at the programs we have hosted this year and think about the subjects covered, it seems that if one had to identify a theme that has dominated most of this year, it would be that of American imperialism and questions about American foreign policy. Given this, I realized that we were missing a presentation on the historical significance of Central Asia, a discussion which is vital for providing a context for contemporary events that so dominate our foreign policy initiatives.

In Dust of the Empire Mr. Meyer tells us that history is not a blueprint but a cautionary tale, which we should heed now when relatively powerless nations are having such a profound impact on international affairs.

He leads us on a journey to acquaint us with the history, aspirations, and grievances of the countries of the Asian heartland, which are currently of such critical importance to the U.S. Drawing on his extensive knowledge of Central Asia, he describes how the great game of the late-nineteenth century taught both the British and the Russians painful lessons about power politics and influence in this region. Using the experiences of these two countries as a backdrop, he advises the U.S. against committing the same kinds of mistakes that have plagued previous players in this part of the world -- mistakes that we are still paying for today and may haunt us for years to come.

Journalism flows deep in Karl Meyer’s blood. His grandfather was Editor of the German-language daily Milwaukee Germania; his father, Ernest, was a columnist for the Capital Times and The Progressive; and he himself began his journalism career at the University of Wisconsin’s Daily.

After graduating from Wisconsin, he went on to Princeton, where he earned his Master’s and Ph.D., before joining The Washington Post in 1956. Thus began a distinguished career, which has included numerous awards in recognition of his editorial writings and reporting, among them the George Peabody Broadcasting Award, the Overseas Press Club, and a Sigma Delta Chi Bronze Medal for Editorial Writing.

He has been an editorial writer and a foreign correspondent for The Washington Post and chief of their London and New York bureaus. He is also the author of nine books, including the critically acclaimed Tournament of Shadows: The Great Game and the Race for Empire in Central Asia. Since 1979, Karl has been a member of The New York Times Editorial Board, writing chiefly on foreign affairs. Today he is the Editor of the World Policy Journal.

Please join me in welcoming our very accomplished guest as he transports us to the world of ancient silk routes, modern pipelines, feudal warlords, and imperial debris.


KARL MEYER: Thank you.

I am particularly pleased to be here because I see two of my valued colleagues, Paul Lewis of The New York Times, and Mary Ann Weaver, whose works I pillaged for three excellent quotations which I, if I can use the word, embedded in my prose.

What I’d like to do is, first, tell you how and why I wrote Dust of Empire, what its main themes are, and what its pertinence may be to today’s events.

First, the title. I came upon it in reading a biography of Charles de Gaulle, in which he, in a fit of exasperation after most of the nations in the French African community voted for independence, shrugged his shoulders and say, “Pah, they’re only the dust of empire.” It occurred to me that a particle of dust can jam up the finest machine.

For a number of years on the Editorial Board of The New York Times I wrote extensively about the subcontinent of Central Asia, the Caucasus, the Middle East. In 1990 I made an extended trip to the area and to visit the Khyber Pass. Out of the trip flowed a book that took eight years to write, a history of the nineteenth-century great game, coming up to the beginning of World War II.

I had at the same time made a deal with Dick Leone, the President of the Century Foundation. I said, “Look, we’re writing this book as history, but maybe I can do a modest policy monograph for the Fund as well.”

Then the monograph kept growing and growing, until it give birth to this book, which Peter Osnos, a former colleague at The Washington Post, now the head of Public Affairs Press, has done an extremely elegant job of publishing.

In the course of doing the trips, I regret that there were some places, notably Iran, that we were not able to get visas to visit, but we did get to many of the others in both Central Asia and adjacent countries, Russia, and in the Caucasus.

At one point, we were in Turkey and we decided to take a bus from Trabzon, which is on the Black Sea. Trabzon has historically great importance because, after the collapse of the Byzantine Empire, it had a reputation and a notoriety for being a fleshpot city. It is no longer so. There is now an austere Islamic mayor and the strongest drink you can get in Trabzon is beer.

But, on the other hand, it is a place where you can meet Natashas, people from the former Soviet Union, most of them housewives, school teachers, civil servants, who to make a little extra money go to entertain men in Trabzon.

We decided to take a bus from Trabzon to Georgia. We learned three lessons.

The first lesson is never trust the schedule. We went to the travel agent and bought the tickets. He said, “If I were you, I would turn up an hour early before the scheduled departure.” We did. The bus left when it was full, a half-hour before the scheduled departure, and we found ourselves on a twenty-six-hour bus ride through Turkey into Georgia.

Most of our fellow passengers were Natashas. It was a poignant commentary on the desperation of the people in the former Soviet Union and the republics.

Second lesson learned. We stopped at the frontier and everyone else got their visas stamped. When they came to us, they said in emphatic English, “There is a computer fee.”

“A computer fee? How much?”

“Three dollars each.”

So we paid our six dollars in computer fees. It was an introduction to the kind of petty corruption which is the curse of so much of modern life in Georgia today.

But out of all of this my aim was to write a book that could be titled “Central Eurasia 1.01,” in which I wanted to explain in accessible language something of the past and present of the countries, not only the five republics of Central Asia but also the three republics in the south Caucasus -- Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran -- and Russia and its relations with this area. I wanted to tell something of the people and the figures who helped shape its history, many of them forgotten.

There are four themes: 1) the unintended legacies of the imperial era, in which many of these countries had their borders, their political identities, shaped; 2) the contrast between direct and indirect imperial dominion and what it implies for the peoples in the countries that have experienced either direct and formal colonialism; 3) the besetting problem of asymmetry -- and by asymmetry I’m not referring only to military asymmetry between the United States and most of the rest of the world, but also cultural, economic, and its many implications; and 4) a recurring American problem that I have dubbed “the Buchanan syndrome,” referring to Tom and Daisy Buchanan, the main figures in The Great Gatsby. They were the careless people who made messes and left other people to clean them up when they moved on, back to their money, as Fitzgerald writes, that held them together.

All four of the themes come together uncannily when we look at Iraq today.

Here you have an inventive nation, born out of the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, in which three disparate provincial beehives were stapled together by the British, with the acquiescence of the French and the Americans, and on these three beehives they installed a throne and put an alien king, a Hashemite. And then, for forty years thereafter, Iraq was an indirect colony of Great Britain -- its key and most important decisions were made in London and carried out through surrogates in Iraq -- resulting finally, in the 1960s, in the wake of the Nasserite revolution in Egypt, with the Baathist revolution in Iraq, leading the way, ultimately, to the seizure of power by Saddam Hussein.

So you had the inventive nation, indirect rule, and we now have the problem of asymmetry and our being an occupying power beset by the “Buchanan syndrome.” As the occupying power, with the military victory so humiliatingly one-sided, the Iraqis ask -- “if the Americans could overthrow Saddam Hussein so quickly and so effectively, why can’t they start the electric power going in Baghdad? Why do they stand by when the museums and the archeological sites and the libraries are sacked? What kind of hyperpower/superpower are you anyway?” So we are coping with the perception of ourselves as the superpower, yet unable to deliver basic services.

We have a recurrence of “Buchananism” in Afghanistan twice: first, after the Soviet pullout, after ten years of Soviet occupation, when we abruptly dropped the ball in 1989, opening the way for the Taliban takeover in Kabul; and then finally, after the ouster of the Taliban regime a year ago. There is a pervasive sense of disappointment among the Afghans, who perhaps expected too much, but, given those excessive expectations, the disappointment and the difficulties have been all the greater.

In writing The Dust of Empire the great reward for me personally was to discover and to retrieve from limbo some absolutely compelling figures from the past, people who are very little known in the present, and yet who played an important and symbolic role in the region.

Let me start with Ghaffar Kahn, the “Frontier Gandhi,” who for a generation dominated the Northwest Frontier province. This is a province that was and is overwhelmingly Islamic. Yet, the Pashtun people, reputedly the most belligerent and warlike of all the peoples of the Northwest Frontier, were the followers for two decades of a discipline of Gandhi who formed a non-violent army called The Red Shirts.

The Red Shirts used all the techniques of civil disobedience with such effect that in 1932 his Red Shirt army paralyzed the Raj in the province, leading to 5,557 convictions for civil disobedience. These are all people who had taken a vow as Red Shirts not to resist violence but to turn the other cheek, be arrested and show mastery of their own impulses by the highest form of jihadism -- that is, surrendering themselves to their enemy.

By comparison -- the Northwest Frontier then had three million people -- in Punjab, which is five times as populous, in that same year of 1932, there were 1,620 arrests for civil disobedience. You get some sense of the magnitude and the impact that this extraordinary figure had.

I describe how it came unstuck, how he became so totally forgotten that there was hardly a notice of his death in 1988, when he passed away at the age of ninety-eight, and a cortege of 20,000 people streamed through the Khyber Pass to the city of Jalalabad, where he asked to be buried.

In looking at the coverage in the newspapers of Pakistan after 9/11, I saw in The New Yorker the only discussion of Ghaffar Kahn in any of the papers.

The importance of Ghaffar Kahn, like the other figures, is that in disputes and conflicts, with the stereotypes that we have of Islam as an inherently belligerent, warlike, violent religion, there is a whole stream of Islamic thought, which found expression in the Sufis, which is quite different. This pluralism of Islam is wonderfully illustrated by the story of Ghaffar Kahn.

The second figure is a Russian, Mikhail Vorontsov, born 1782, died 1856. He was born and grew up in Britain, where his father was Catherine the Great’s Ambassador to the Court of St. James. He grew up very much in the Anglophile tradition, fought in the Russian Army, in the Napoleonic Wars, and for his bravery become the Governor General of New Russia in Odessa and Yalta, with palaces in Odessa and Yalta, with such success that the Czar gave him the title of Viceroy to Tbilisi.

With a dazzling group of officers, which included Lermontov and Tolstoy, he was engaged in the bitterest single fight in the czarist empire against an indigenous rebellion. These were the Murad Wars. The Murad Wars started in the 1820s and were led by another extraordinary Islamic figure, the Imam Shamil. The Imam Shamil was so effective for twenty years that it took 350,000 Czar’s troops to quell this rebellion, and it took the deforestation of much of the area so that they could deprive the cover for the guerrillas in this fight.

The significance today is that this is the beginning of the Chechen tradition. The Chechens were an essential element in the Murad Wars among the followers of Shamil, and the Chechens have proved to be the single most rebellious group, not only under the czars but under the Soviet Union and up until today.

It is impossible to have any understanding of what drives and animates the people in the Caucasus without some sense of this past.

The third person I write of is the most obscure. He is an American named W. Morgan Shuster. After graduating from an Ivy League college, he went into a career where he became a customs collector, first in newly liberated, newly independent Cuba after the Spanish-American War, and then in the Philippines, at that time an American colony.

This coincided with a remarkable event in Iran in 1906, when there was what the Iranians still call the Constitutional Revolution, in which the Europeanized Iranians, eager to establish a civil society in their own country, confronted and forced the then-Shah to agree to the election of a Parliament, the Majles, the opening up of a relatively free press, and any number of reforms.

They wanted to find an honest tax collector. So they came to the United States. President Taft said, “Well, here’s this fellow Morgan Shuster.” The year is 1910. Morgan Shuster and three American associates sail to Iran and stay for eight months.

But in the interim, in one of the most extraordinary acts of imperial hubris, the British and the Russians agreed to the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907, in which they divided Iran into three sectors: a Russian sector of influence; a British sector -- the British got the areas with the oil; and a neutral sector. The Iranians were neither informed nor consulted about this.

The Russians were very concerned with the evolution of the Majles and of the Constitutional Revolution. It was setting a very bad example for their own country and for their own subjects. For a whole variety of reasons, the Russians, with the connivance and support of the British, brought about the military confrontation and shelling of the Parliament, and forced the sacking of Shuster.

Shuster came back to the United States and wrote a powerful book, The Strangling of Persia, in which he says: it was obvious that the people of Persia deserve much better than what they are getting, that they wanted us to succeed, but it was the British and the Russians who were determined not to let us succeed.

The background to this is very important. At the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, Wilson wanted the Persians to come and present their case, but the others did not agree to it. In the 1950s, when the constitutional Prime Minister of Iran, Mosaddeq, carried out the nationalization of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, with the assent of the Shah and to general applause, the U.S. then took a sympathetic view to what seemed to them a nationalist rising in Iran.

When the British tried to get the Americans to support sanctions against that, the Truman Administration, and notably Secretary of State Acheson, declined to do so. They vehemently tried to mediate an agreement between the Iranians and the British on the compensation for nationalization.

In 1953 the Eisenhower Administration came in with Foster Dulles as Secretary of State and Allen Dulles, his brother, as the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

The British revise their plan and come to the Americans and say, “If you don’t come in and do something, the Soviets are going to take over.” This struck a resonant chord.

In August 1953, in a remarkable series of events, which for three reasons are among the pivotal events of the last half-century, the following happened.

The Shah tried to fire Mosaddeq. There were riots in the street. The Shah, in a panic, fled the country to Rome. The CIA and the British together orchestrated street demonstrations. The army sided with the Shah. The Shah said in Rome, “I knew that my people loved me,” flew back, was reinstated.

Mosaddeq, the constitutional Prime Minister, was tried and sentence to jail and then house arrest until his death years later. It shattered the faith and confidence that many Iranians had that the U.S. was different from the traditional colonial oppressors in Russia and in the United Kingdom.

All of this tells us something about what is happening today. I am struck by the fact that most people forty or younger hardly remember the hostage crisis of 1979, much less what happened in 1953.

My colleague, Steve Kinzer, has a book which will be coming out this summer, called All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror, the first work on the subject in fifty years. It has taken that long to do a serious book drawing on classified documents about the 1953 events.

Now, I say it was pivotal for three reasons.

1) The Shah who came back was a transformed man. He in his latter twenty-five years became not so much the timid, diffident Shah; he became the overbearing, megalomaniac Shah, with visions of extending the Persian empire to the former greatness that it had known 3,000 years before.

2) He became the biggest customer for U.S. arms with the encouragement of two administrations, starting with Johnson, continuing under Nixon. In order to pay for it, he became an OPEC hawk. He was one of the leaders of the movement in the 1970s to quadruple the oil prices in the wake of the Yom Kippur War.

3) Finally, in the United States, to the delight of Eisenhower and the Dulles brothers, they found that for a very small amount of money, they were able to bring about a “regime change,” which, in the short term at least, brought a great relief from what had been a political problem.

The following year, you had a repetition in Guatemala: again a sponsored coup bringing about a regime change, with President Arbenz, an elected president who was perceived as a leftist. This led ultimately to the Bay of Pigs and to the downfall of Allen Dulles.

But it set in motion a pattern where the United States turned covertly to bring about changes of governments in other places. We had had a long history of regime change, but if you look back, from the 1890s up through the 1930s, the regime changes that we brought about were overt, direct -- we sent in the Marines. We did it in Central America, in the Caribbean, in Mexico, helped bring about the independence of Panama.

But this was quite different. We did not have a CIA in those days. The fact that we did have it has been at the heart of a lot of the suspicious ill will which you find around much of the world, where we are, rightly or wrongly, considered guilty of anything that happens anywhere because of the history of our successful bringing about of regime change.

This brings us to what is going on in Iran and Iraq today. I was reading an article in The Wall Street Journal by Niall Ferguson, a wonderful maverick British historian who likes a take a different view on everything. Ferguson said we all would have been better off if Kaiser Bill had won World War I.

In the aricle he wrote: “What the British Empire began the American empire is about to finish in the Middle East.” He calls for our going in and changing the political culture of the area in a serious way.

But Niall Ferguson also in that article is alive to what I call the “Buchanan syndrome,” and he expressed apprehension about the stay-puttedness of an Administration which shows so much more zeal in “shock and awe” than it does in nation building. Niall Ferguson says that it will take perhaps fifty years of U.S. rule in the Middle East to bring about the desirable result. Americans are now talking about five years.

So I end on this thought. We’re on top now. Nothing more beguiles me than the fate of other societies which were also on top, whether it was Napoleonic France, whether it was Germany when it felt that “tomorrow was the German tomorrow,” or whether it was the British at the height of the empire.

There is a wonderful quotation from Arnold Toynbee, the historian. He was twelve years old in 1897 when Queen Victoria had her Diamond Jubilee. His uncle was also called Arnold Toynbee, and he coined the phrase “industrial revolution.” His Uncle Arnold put him on his shoulders and Toynbee watched this dazzling procession from all over the empire who had come to pay homage to Queen Victoria on the sixtieth anniversary of her enthronement.

He said: “I remember watching the Diamond Jubilee myself as a small boy. I remember the atmosphere. It was: ‘Well, here we are on top of the world, and we have arrived at this peak to stay there forever. There is, of course, a thing called history, but history is something unpleasant that happens to other people. We are comfortably outside all of that I am sure.’”

Within a few decades, first we had the Boer War, then Sarajevo, then the 1920s, then the rise of the totalitarian systems. What seems so certain and sure to the people in Britain in 1897 should warn us against the same certainty and sureness that we have all the answers for all the problems of the world, that, in the words of Francis Fukuyama, “we are at the end of history.”

JOANNE MYERS: I’d like to open the floor to questions.

Question & Answer

QUESTION: I’d like to bring you back into Central Asia and the question of oil. For a long time, until about six or seven years ago, the United States was noticeably absent from Central Asia. Their missions and embassies were understaffed. There was no policy that one could see vis-à-vis Central Asia. It was when Madeleine Albright first went to the region that a panic policy began to emerge.

The impression was that that policy was emerging because of Caspian Sea oil and that oil was substantial in size, but that it had no meaning unless it could move out or be taken out. There were four possibilities: you could move it down into Iran -- heaven forbid; you could move it up into Russia -- heaven forbid; you could move it through Pakistan, but the Afghanistan problem prevented it; and so ultimately you were left with Georgia and Turkey.

Now that the question of Persian Gulf oil is relatively secure as a result of the Iraq operation, how do you see the future of Central Asian oil and the emergence of American policy vis-à-vis Central Asian oil?

KARL MEYER: That is a fascinating question. First, let me talk about the oil part. There was something of an oil “bubble” about the Caspian. Some of the preliminary estimates -- that it was second only to the Persian Gulf, etc. -- proved to be exaggerated. There were many technical and other difficulties that came up. But there was a sense that this was the next possibility, that as much as six percent of the world’s oil could come from the Caspian.

Through the State Department -- and it was embraced by President Clinton, and then endorsed at a meeting in Ankara -- the U.S. promised to support, though not fully financially, the building of a pipeline from the Caspian to Turkey, so that there would be a Mediterranean outlet for the oil.

Several things happened that chastened those expectations. One is that they found in Azerbaijan, one of the great potential suppliers, that a lot of the prospective drilling did not turn out to be as optimistic as the forecast suggested.

Second, there was the problem of doing business in the area. Right now there is a major corruption case going through the courts, involving Kazakhstan and a major oil company and the whole question of kickbacks.

The oil companies discovered that one of the problems of doing business in the Caspian region was that if, for example, you got a concession to discover oil and you did discover some oil, that didn’t mean that you had a prior claim on that find; it meant that it was opened up to other bidders and that you were just one bidder, that all your work was just for a competitive bidding operation. There were problems in dealing with countries that had not developed a secure banking system, where contract law was still, in the post-Soviet phase, a novel idea.

Some of this has changed, but what has happened now is that, as a result not only of Iraq but I would say Canada -- our number two or three supplier of oil these days is Alberta – that the Canadians have become a major supplier of oil and that the prospects there are quite considerable for still more.

So there is less excitement about the oil in the Caspian. But there is concern of political security, that these areas, and the instability in these areas, could be a seedbed for al-Qaeda or other Islamic fundamentalist groups with an agenda that could sweep into Russia on the one hand, into China on the other. So there is a shared concern about this.

We are in a very awkward position of repeating some of the mistakes that we have made in the Middle East, the mistake being that if you have what looks like a secure and stable regime, albeit a corrupt and repressive one, that it’s easier to do business with them and to shut your eyes and to bite your tongue about the things that are wrong.

We now have bases in Uzbekistan, which is one of the two most repressive states of the five states there. We have a base also in Kyrgyzstan. Already you sense that the governments in those areas are tending to think that because there is a long-term commitment of the U.S. for a military presence in this area, this to some degree immunizes them from being classified as states that support terrorism, abuse human rights, etc. And, to some extent, that is what has happened.

I talked to human rights people in Tashkent. They are in constant engagement with the government there, which has a very unhappy record of detaining people on the charges of being terrorists without any due process, without any habeas corpus, for long interrogations, and some of them just disappear. The State Department in its Human Rights Report is quite specific about the scale of these abuses.

But now what the governments there are saying to our diplomats is, “Look at Guantanamo. We’re facing a similar problem. We are not yet secure enough to have all the niceties of human rights laws that you want. And you have the same problem too.”

I try to find out what it is abroad that people like/dislike, suspect/don’t suspect about the United States. Everywhere you get very much the same thing, that there is profound admiration for the freedoms of the United States -- for free press, democratic elections.

It is not a coincidence that the al-Qaeda terrorists singled out the Pentagon, the White House, and the World Trade Center as the three targets for the September 11th attacks. All three are symbols of American power. What they did not target was the Statue of Liberty, because that resonates around the world as the most positive aspect of a nation of immigrants, where people can come and live free.

I find myself deeply concerned -- along with the Inspector General of the Justice Department -- about some of the treatment of immigrants in this country or people -- not even immigrants, but if you were born in Iran or born in Iraq, even if you are a U.S. citizen, there is pressure to register at the Justice Department, depots where some people have been taken and held incommunicado.

I am concerned that in Central Asia we will compromise that quality of our society which is most attractive to many people abroad.

QUESTION: Right after the collapse of the Soviet Union when the Soviet influence began to wane from Central Asia, there was a brief flurry of interest in a Central Asian republic that would be a replay of the old Turkistan. Particularly, Turkey was pushing this, for a unity or unification of all the republics.

I’m wondering whether you see that as a lost possibility now. Turkey has gone considerably backwards in its influence in the region. Russia is obviously still interested for reasons that you mentioned, oil. Is that viable anymore? And, if not, does that mean that Russia’s influence, if we don’t get in there, will become even more, a revival of what it was in the 1970s and 1980s?

KARL MEYER: First, on the point about Turkey, when the Central Asian republics -- and Azerbaijan, which also speaks a Turkic language -- became sovereign states, the Turks had euphoric visions of becoming tutors to these new countries. It didn’t work out that way.

One reason was that in each of these societies you had an indigenous political elite, that grew up under the communists, that tenaciously kept its grip on power. With the one exception of Kyrgyzstan, all the rulers of Central Asia, and of the Caucasus as well, are graduates of the communist school of government. So the Turks found that their hopes in that respect were exaggerated, even though four of the five Central Asian republics speak a Turkic language.

The second reason was that in each of these nations there was a resurgence of historic patterns of kinship, tribe, and pre-communist identity that surprised many people. There is an excellent book on Kazakhstan by Martha Olcott, in which she shows the continuity between the pre-communist tribal groups in Kazakhstan and the present power structure of the country. This resurgence of an older form of Central Asian authority is another thing that diminished it.

One result of that is the balkanization of these countries. It’s quite extraordinary that here Armenia is next to Azerbaijan and it’s next to Georgia, but it’s quicker to fly to Los Angeles and then back. You cannot go directly by flight from Tbilisi to Yerevan. You have to go out of the country and then fly back. The frontiers are closed at every point.

If we really do have any authentic message to the world, one that we have preached with great success in Europe, it is federalism, and the idea of lowering tariff barriers, creating common markets, opening frontiers to the freer movement of people, ideas, and goods.

There has been a tentative start on that in Central Asia. There have been several regional meetings, etc., but it is pretty much lip service.

One of the directions of an enlightened U.S. policy is to do in a modest way what we successfully did with the Marshall Plan in Europe, and that is to condition our economic and other assistance on the creation of regional entities and of integrating and reducing the barriers to trade, and that federalism is indeed much more than self-determination, a doctrine that may be fitting for many of these areas.

QUESTION:: You just mentioned Afghanistan in passing. Given that the U.S. has basically pulled out -- or at least not had an aggressive program of reconstruction, given Iraq -- and the lack of moving troops or security outside of Kabul, what is your prediction as to the possibility of a resurgence? The Russians didn’t succeed. What will happen in Afghanistan, given your historic count of what is going on?

KARL MEYER: I have to confess to a real disappointment. The Bush Administration had a chance to make a demonstration case out of Afghanistan. They had in President Karzai a very attractive partner, with some degree of legitimacy.

We tend to forget that many of the things that have happened in Afghanistan were at the impetus and initiation of the United Nations. For example, the Bonn meeting, which brought about the present interim regime in Afghanistan, was a UN initiative. Many other promising things have happened there.

We are repeating precisely the follies of the British and the Russians. The British in the first Afghan war, faced with the warlords, said, “Open up the gold bags and give them some money and that will keep them quiet.” That worked for a couple of years until the taxpayers got fed up with paying subsidies, and the then Pro Consul in Kabul had to cut off the funds to the warlords. That led to the biggest single disaster in the nineteenth century, the British retreat from Kabul, in which all but one European officer was killed in the retreat from Kabul to Jalalabad.

I was astonished to see on “Sixty Minutes” and on other programs interviews with Imam Khan, the warlord in Herat, who is getting money from us to hunt down al-Qaeda remnants. We are training his troops. We are giving more money to these warlords than we are to train a national army. Though that was originally the intention, to strengthen the center at the expense of the warlords, we are doing just the opposite.

The doctrine of the mercenaries in the Renaissance was that the last thing you’d want to do was to have a final battle, and the victory of one side over the other is bad for business. From Imam Khan’s point of view, finding Osama bin Laden would be a disaster. They have every incentive to keep on these forays ad infinitum and play us for suckers. They are pretty smart. They show that in dealing with all kinds of outsiders.

I wish that we had a more serious doctrine to develop on this because we had a glorious chance in Afghanistan, many positive things going for us. The people were fed up with all the years of war. They were fed up with the intolerance of Taliban. Right now, I am pessimistic.

When Karzai was in Washington a few months ago, two things happened that I found very upsetting.

There is a ritual where you have a distinguished foreign guest in the Oval Office and afterwards a press conference. The guy is sitting there like a prop. All the questions are about health care and the Congress, so it is as if he doesn’t exist, he’s just there nodding his head, while Bush talks about everything else. That’s exactly what happened to Karzai. There wasn’t a single question on Afghanistan.

Karzai then was supposed to meet with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He thought he would be sitting at a round table. He found instead that he was at a lower seat and they were all up on a dais, as if he were a witness. He felt that this was humiliating.

The people in the Pentagon, hearing that Karzai was out of sorts on this, did what the Pentagon does in such circumstances. They promised him three helicopters. They said, “Give him two more, five helicopters.”

QUESTION: One item was not factored in and not explored. You spoke of the necessity of a Marshall Plan for this region that we’re addressing. But one must not forget that the Marshall Plan was constructed on countries that were industrialized, had an industrial base, had an educated technical population, and from that you had something that you could build on. You do not have that in the Trans-Caucasus.

What do you build on?

KARL MEYER: I agree with everything you’re saying. I used the Marshall Plan to say that in the European context we preached the doctrines of federalism to great effect. I’m not saying that you have a comparable situation in Central Asia or in the Caucasus.

Nevertheless, let’s take Georgia and the south Caucasus, for example. You have the riches of water power, you have some of the best technical institutes of the Soviet Union in Tbilisi, you have enormous human resources, you had the best wine. You had many things going for that area. It has been a shattering disappointment that they have not been able to develop this.

Strobe Talbott gave a very optimistic speech, just before the Clinton Administration went out, in which he talked about a “new Silk Road” that would go through the Caucasus. There was a germ of a vision, of trying to think of something bigger than just bilateral relations with individual countries, to look at it in a regional way.

It’s a facile comparison to talk about a Marshall Plan in Central Asia.

QUESTION: There is a huge heroin trade in Central Asia, in Kyrgyzstan, and from west to east, and in Afghanistan. Also, the impact of the Uighurs in Central Asia and Western China. Would you comment?

KARL MEYER: What you say is absolutely true. According to the United Nations’ figures, Central Asia is now the number one source for opium poppy used in heroin in the world. This has been part of the breakdown of that whole country over a twenty-year period, in which poppies have been the one cash crop. One of the things we tried to do in Afghanistan was to pay the farmers to transfer to other crops. Karzai himself has talked about this. He said that because there wasn’t an adequate follow-up on it, the farmers are going back to opium. It was a typical example of the “Buchanan syndrome,” where someone had a good idea and then they dropped the ball.

Yes, it’s the opium that is the fuel for much of this. It flows over into China. The Chinese have a problem in their western provinces.

The Chinese tend to exaggerate the militancy, for their own reasons, of the Uighurs there. I would be a little suspicious when the Chinese say that “we’re partners in the same fight against terror and Osama bin Laden’s guys are over there too.” They’re using that to justify repression of what in many cases are legitimate demands for cultural autonomy, very similar to to those in Tibet.

I am not up to date on what is happening in western China, but that is surely part of the reason why you need a systematic and concerted policy for the whole region, because they all flow into each other and there are these unenforceable borders. The Uighurs in China go back and forth across, as do the Kazaks, the Kyrgyzis. You are dealing with a very large problem that takes a concerted effort, a focused effort.

QUESTION: Would you comment on the fact that the term “imperialism” might actually be undergoing a transformation or a change. From time immemorial, ancient history onwards, right until the nineteenth century/early part of the twentieth century, the pattern used to be to go and conquer a country or countries; occupy them, influence almost every aspect of their structure, of their culture, of the changes in their laws; stay there as long as you can; and then, when circumstances make it absolutely necessary, you may have to leave, but you maintain a longer-term relationship.

Today, on the other hand, the way the pattern is emerging is to go to a country, hit it hard, damage it, but then get out of it as quickly as possible, leaving it in despair.

KARL MEYER: Thank you for a very nice final question. I try to contrast the old colonial empires that took responsibility for the use of surrogates in embedding in different societies.

The New York Times had a piece, which I recommend to all of you, “Nation Builders for Hire.” It’s about Kellogg Brown & Root, a subsidiary of Halliburton, which has moved in in a big way in the Iraqi reconstruction. Not only do Halliburton and the other companies do oil, but also KP -- it’s all outsourced and it’s all concessionaires, under contracts that are frequently secret so that you can’t find out what anyone is getting paid. It is done on a cost-plus basis, with little incentive to save money, without competitive bidding, on the grounds that the Pentagon says that “only Halliburton has the resources to do these jobs anyway, so what’s the point of having competitive bidding?” These guys have become our emissaries.

These are veterans of the Middle East and they know the oil business. But we’re franchising nation-building to a company of which the Vice President of the United States is the former CEO and, according to this article, he is now drawing $160,000 a year as a permanent salary from Halliburton. To me that has an aroma of conflict of interest.

Thank you very much.

JOANNE MYERS: I was delighted that Karl mentioned Niall Ferguson, because that is our first program, on September 15th, when we resume again. Thank you very much.

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