PODCAST INTERVIEW: With Pepe Escobar in Af/Pak 2001

In this exclusive podcast interview with German financial journalist Lars Schall, Asia Times Online correspondent Pepe Escobar talks about his personal observations and experiences in Afghanistan and Pakistan in the Summer of 2001. Inter alia, they discuss: the pipeline project TAP(I); the death of Afghan nationalist leader Ahmad Shah Massoud shortly before 9/11; Osama bin Laden as a sidelined figure in Kandahar; and 9/11 as an attack on the collective psyche of the West.

By Lars Schall

Pepe Escobar, who was born 1954 in Brazil, is one of the most outstanding journalists of our time with three decades of experience in covering politics and conflicts around the globe. He works for Hong Kong/Thailand-based Asia Times Online as “The Roving Eye.“ Moreover, he is the author of four books: “Globalistan: How the Globalized World is Dissolving into Liquid War,“ “Red Zone Blues: a snapshot of Baghdad during the surge,“ and “Obama does Globalistan.“

His latest book is “Empire of Chaos: The Roving Eye Collection” – see here and here.

Mr. Escobar has been a foreign correspondent since 1985, based in London, Milan, Los Angeles, Paris, Singapore, and Bangkok. Since the late 1990s, he has specialized in covering geopolitical stories from the Middle East to Central Asia and has reported during this decade from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Iran, the Central Asian Republics, China and the U.S.A.

He was in Afghanistan in Summer of 2001 and interviewed the military leader of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, Ahmad Shah Masoud, just a few weeks before his assassination, and he has been one of the first journalists to reach Kabul after the Taliban’s retreat. He is a renowned expert on the network of pipelines hardwiring the countries of the Middle East, Central Asia, Russia, and Europe that he has dubbed “Pipelinestan.” Mr. Escobar lives in Sao Paulo, Bangkok, and Hong-Kong.

With Pepe Escobar in Af/Pak 2001

Lars Schall: Why and when did you become interested in what you’ve dubbed Pipelineistan?

Pepe Escobar: Well, that started already in the late ‘90s, because I was following a very important story at the time which was in Afghanistan. The main interest for the Americans to have a relationship with the Taliban was to build a pipeline, and at the time that was the Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan (TAP) pipeline. India was not part of it, only later. And obviously back and forth the Taliban were wined and dined, they were taken to Houston. The Americans wanted to cut a deal with the Taliban but the parts were haggling about transit fees.

So, this was going on through the second term of the Clinton administration. After 9/11 I got even more interesting because I was following  this in conjunction with another story, which was the construction of the Baku Tbilisi Ceyhan, BTC pipeline, from Azerbaijan through Georgia and then through Turkey all the way to its Mediterranean coast. That was a big Zbig Brzezinski idea, by the way, he went to Baku himself to sell this idea to the Azerbaijanis.

LS: Yeah, that was about British Petroleum, BP.

PE: He was a top advisor to BP, something maybe a lot of people in Europe don’t know. BP basically runs Azerbaijan, not only because of the pipeline, they have the best deals with the local oil company SOCAR. And obviously they run Azerbaijan practically as a fiefdom alongside with the Aliyev ruling dynasty, they always were very, very close to say the least. So I was following this story in Afghanistan and this story from the Caspian Sea to Turkey, and then I started to travel along the areas where these pipelines to be would be built. This means Central  Asia, the Caucasus, I was visiting all these countries involved in the pipelines and future pipelines. Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, across the Caspian a few times. And then the next destination for TAP would be India, which aligned to the US wanted to have cheap gas, but the solution through Afghanistan, nobody wanted it, because they knew it would be very hard to build.

The BTC was the beginning of the American policy of trying to bypass at the same time Russia and Iran. So, it’s crazy. They built a pipeline that at the time cost $5-6 billion just to bypass Iran and not buy gas from Iran, whereas if they had built a pipeline from Iran it would have cost like $700 million, $800 million maximum. So then I started to travel in all these lands I call Pipelineistan basically from Central Asia to the Caucasus following the American policy of bypassing Russia and China, and the coups and counter coups by the nations in the area, and the progressive… not interference, but profiting by China of this whole situation, which only happened in the past few years.

LS: Yeah. Coming back to TAPI, or TAP, this pipeline from Turkmenistan via Afghanistan and Pakistan to India, the plan was to use the Taliban as a sort of pipeline police?

PE: Oh, yes. In fact, they didn’t care about the Taliban, from 1996 onwards a lot of the Clinton administration officials, they were saying, “Okay, these towel-heads, they’re crazy, but we can do business with them.” They didn’t care about human rights violations, they didn’t care that the Taliban installed a 7th Century-style emirate in Afghanistan which was absolutely horrible. I travelled there as a journalist from the east, the Pakistani border to the west, the Iranian border, and I had never seen anything similar anywhere in the world. It was back to 7th Century Islam. Oh, their interpretation of Islam, of course.

But the Americas didn’t care, they wanted to build a pipeline. So, they talked to the leader of Turkmenistan at the time, the fabulous Saparmurat Niyazov, the supreme ruler of Turkmenistan. They had Musharraf on board, also called Busharraf by what, 90% of the Pakistanis, and they needed a stable government in Afghanistan. So, after the Taliban and after 9/11 when they installed their puppet Hamid Karzai they had the three guys that they needed to talk to to pull this off. So, very important. In December 2001 there was a meeting between Niyazov, Hamid Karzai and Musharraf. And they signed a memorandum of understanding to build TAP. At the time was not TAPI, there was no India.

So, obviously afterwards everything unravelled because there was the Taliban resistance and you simply could not get financing, which would be basically from the Asian Development Bank, which is essentially a US-Japanese racket that controls… It’s a sort of mini-world bank for Asia controlled by the US and Japan. They will never finance a pipeline in a war zone. Everybody knew that. And at the same time they started to float the possibility of extending it to India as well, which would be a nice breaker in terms of India-Pakistani relations as well.

So all the time in the background of 9/11, the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, America, in Central Asia… the number one imperative was to build this pipeline. When we look at the situation now, end of 2014, beginning of 2015 nothing happened. And they are still promising, “Oh, now that we have a new government in Afghanistan finally we’re going to build TAPI.” And the costs, of course, spiralled out of control and they still will face the same problem if this is ever built. They’re going to cut across a war area in western Afghanistan, and the Taliban simply won’t allow this pipeline to be built in areas that they still control and they will keep controlling, unless they get a cut. 

LS: A competitor of this pipeline would be a pipeline that would be built from Iran to Pakistan. Do you think that pipeline will be built?

PE: Well, this is one of these Pipelinestan dramas that I have been following for years, in fact, and it is completely crazy because until, what, maybe two years ago there was the impression that Iran-Pakistan, the IP pipeline would be built before TAP or TAPI, because the Iranians, they have built their stretch as far as the Iran-Pakistani border in south-east Iran, in Sistan-Balochistan.  The problem is the Pakistanis have no money, so the Iranians said, “Okay, we’ll give you $500 million so you can build your stretch.” And then the Pakistanis started to receive what else? Even more pressure from the Obama administration following the pressure that they received before that from Bush One and Bush Two.

So, now this whole thing is stalled once again. So, the Iranians are saying, “Okay, if we don’t build the Pakistani side then there’s no… Obviously there’s no deal, and it’s your problem. We can sell our gas to somebody else now or in the future.” And there is also a problem in the Pakistani side because this pipeline in Balochistan would traverse an area that is very much in conflict, in direct conflict with Islamabad. There are at least two Balochistan independence movements, they are always complaining that they are neglected by Islamabad. They are rich in oil themselves, but all the oil that is extracted over there, most of, what, 80%, 90% of the funds stay in Islamabad, they don’t go back to the province, Balochistan, which is a very poor province.

So, both pipelines at the moment are stalled, and obviously who’s losing in all this? And they desperately need the energy. Pakistan. And the Indians, they are thinking about maybe another mechanism with Iran, but it’s very hard because they cannot do it bypassing Pakistan as well. So, the situation at the moment is very murky, and still… It’s crazy, since 1996 when these negotiations started, like 18 years later, almost 19 we still don’t have a pipeline either from Turkmenistan or from Iran benefitting both Pakistan and India.

LS: Coming back to 2001, in the summer of that year you’ve met Ahmad Shah Massoud, the leader of the so-called Northern Alliance who was murdered shortly before 9/11. Later on you wrote, “Did Washington know in advance that an Al-Qaeda connection would kill Afghan nationalist Ahmad Shah Massoud, aka the lion of the Panjshir? Only two days before 9/11. Massoud was fighting the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, helped by Russia and Iran. According to the Northern Alliance Massoud was killed by an ISI Taliban Al-Qaeda axis. If still alive he would never have allowed the US to rig a Loya Jirga, a grand council in Afghanistan and install a puppet, former CIA asset Hamid Kazai as the leader of the country.” Please explain.

PE: Well, the second part is the most important thing in my opinion, because if Massoud was alive he would have repelled the Taliban by himself. That’s what he was doing when I met him in August 2001. He controlled only three provinces in Northern Afghanistan, but he was receiving help from Iran and Russia. Probably this helped in the medium, short to medium term. And he would be able to repel the Taliban. And even with some possible help from the Americans, considering that they wanted to fight the Taliban and Al-Qaeda as well.

The fact that he was killed two days before 9/11 was a God-send for the Americans because they got rid of an Afghan nationalist that would never agree to what the Americans did afterwards. They sidelined King Zahir Shah, which the Afghans were sure would return to Afghanistan to rule again, and they installed their own puppet, Hamid Kazai, brimming with American connections.

The first part is more complicated because what Massoud told me at the time was there was this unholy alliance of the Taliban, Al-Qaeda and the ISI, Pakistani Intelligence. They wanted to rule Afghanistan, control Afghanistan as part of their strategic depth doctrine, which at the time was the military intelligence doctrine in Pakistan. What 9/11 changed is that Musharraf had to change sides, otherwise he would be decimated, or Pakistan, as the Americans said, would be bombed out back to the Middle Ages. Osama Bin Laden also escaped and they were being hunted. Afghanistan disintegrated completely, but the Americans had a puppet. So, the Americans had accomplished their agenda of being based directly inside Afghanistan. For them, it was perfect, because if they were inside Afghanistan they would be able to control from Afghanistan most of Central Asia and interfere in Western China as well, allied with some „splittist“ movements, as the Chinese call them. 

So, what Massoud was visualizing three weeks before he was assassinated, in fact, was a completely different scenario where Afghanistan would be independently ruled by a nationalist. He would in the end defeat the Taliban helped by Iran and Russia, it would be a completely different situation. But in the end we got the American supremacist historical takeover,  but we all know how the blowback worked, and when we look at Afghanistan today the Americans are out, but they’re still in, Al-Qaeda is completely out, there’s no space for Afghan nationalism, but at the same time Russia and China, they have an increasing more powerful economic presence inside of Afghanistan as well. So, it’s not exactly what the neo-con Americans were thinking in 2001.

LS: Has Osama Bin Laden been a major topic in 2001 in Afghanistan when you were there?

PE: A major what? I’m sorry.

LS: A major topic, or problem, or point of discussion?

PE: No, Osama was more or less sidelined, in fact. It was crazy because he was living in Kandahar at the time, he was married to one of Mullah Omar’s daughters. But there was an uneasy relationship because the Taliban were afraid that the Americans would sooner or later do something inside the country to snatch Osama, and complicate Taliban rule inside Afghanistan. This was the situation two weeks before 9/11 in fact. When I came back from Afghanistan I stopped in Peshawar, the capital of the tribal areas. And in Peshawar I learned that the Americans wanted to infiltrate a commando to snatch Osama in Kandahar, and Musharraf said no, no way.  Obviously he said no because he was… ISI, the Pakistani intelligence, they were in contact with the Taliban as well. So, they both vetoed the American plan, and Musharraf’s excuse to the Americans was, “If I do this there’s going to be a civil war in Pakistan the same day. I cannot allow you guys to traverse Pakistani territory, go into Afghanistan to mount an operation inside Afghanistan.”

But Osama at the time was more or less sidelined. He was not a very important character. He was important in terms of people in Pakistan who support extreme medievalist versions of Islam would support Osama, but it’s not… It was far from being the majority of the population. In fact, in Peshawar itself, yes, because Peshawar, a lot of hard-core jihadists and Taliban, they always circulate through Peshawar, which is a kind of a Rome of Pakistan, all roads converge to Peshawar. I even bought a fantastic T-shirt in the Peshawar market with the effigy of Osama as the King of the Mujahideen. This was, what, ten days before 9/11 in fact. But after 9/11 the prestige of Osama inside Pakistan soared, absolutely, and even people who were secular, they were supporting him because they were not convinced that he had organized 9/11 and they saw America was again a bully bombing in Empire of Chaos mode.

LS: How did you learn about the fact that 9/11 happened?

PE: Well, I left Afghanistan at the end of August, went to Peshawar, then Karachi, then South Africa and I came back to Brazil to write a series of articles about my stay in Afghanistan in August. There was a lot of stuff to write about. Massoud’s prisons, the war in the front lines, what was happening in the Bagram air base, an interview with Massoud, an interview with commanders working for Massoud, etc.

While I was doing this I received an email on September 9th, it was very cryptic, it said „the commander has been hit“. But it didn’t say that he had died, because there was a gag order by the Northern Alliance, they couldn’t tell anybody that Massoud had been assassinated the same day. So, I was trying to get in touch with them, very complicated communications with Afghanistan, they were very complicated always. Sat-phone, you name it, and then two days later, of course, in fact a day and a half later if you consider the timezones, 9/11 happened, I was in Sao Paulo. I looked at the TV, my first reaction was Massoud was sort of visualising something like this, so it had to be Al-Qaeda. Of course, we didn’t have any proof, we didn’t know. CNN, of course, knew, because it took them two hours to blame Al-Qaeda, you know. We all remember the story, right?

Yeah, so one week after that I was back in Karachi and Peshawar and Islamabad and then I stayed there and then I moved back to Afghanistan. So, I spent half of 2001 between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

LS: Yeah. Is the war on terror that followed 9/11 a disaster, and if you are answering this question, does the answer depend on which end of the gas pump you are standing?

PE: It depends on which end of the gas pump, it depends on if you have a short term perspective which is, let’s say, the past decade, or if you’re thinking in terms of the war on terror being perpetuated by the Washington elites for the next 10, 20, 30 years, and don’t forget that everything that you hear from the Pentagon, especially related to what’s happening in Syria and Iraq, they say this is going to be a long war all over again. When you compare what they’re saying now to what they’re saying in 2001, when the concept of the long war were sold by the  Pentagon to the rest of the world, it’s the war on terror and it’s the long war. Nothing has changed, in fact. It is a gift that keeps on giving, self-perpetuating along this enormous arc which the Pentagon itself defines as the arc of instability which is from the Maghreb in Northern Africa across the Middle East, across parts of Central Asia all the way to the western borderlands of China.

And it’s not going to stop, because we still have American troops and American influence all over this area, and the Pentagon doesn’t want to abandon American military influence in the arc of instability. So, if there is no instability they create a little bit more.

LS: How would you describe 9/11? I, for example, describe it rather as an attack on the collective psyche of the West.

PE: That’s a very good definition. I remember that Baudrillard at the time defined it as a spectacular work of art as well, he also conceptualized it in terms of an event that never happened, it was a unique work of art. If you think of the intricacies of pulling off 9/11, yes, we can say that. But it was a… Whoever conceived it, I’m still open to all possible stories or narratives that give us a coherent narrative of what happened in 9/11. We still don’t know what really happened, period, that’s the bottom line. But whoever pulled it off, it was certainly… The way the aesthetic experience was organized, it had a profound effect on the collective consciousness of the West, there is absolutely no question about it.

But to what ends? To provoke even more chaos. To perpetuate a war on terror forever, in fact. Or if it was really pulled by Islamic radicals they thought that this would debilitate the West psychologically for decades or centuries to come. That’s what we still don’t know, because we still don’t know exactly who pulled it off, and the real motivation behind 9/11.

LS: Yeah, I see it the same as you, but if we don’t know what happened on that day, why it happened, who were the perpetrators and so on, but nevertheless we are doing wars because of it, what does this tell you?

PE: What it tells us is that the Western „world system“, as Wallerstein would say, is always going in war-mongering mode, in fact. As I call it, Empire of Chaos mode. Provoking more chaos, being hit by chaos blowback, but basically the logic is confrontational and a warmongering logic. Assuming that this was pulled by a bunch of Islamic radicals, a Western reaction would be… Okay, let’s try to fight their motivations, let’s try to, in fact, establish a dialogue of civilizations so this would never happen again. Let’s try to prove them that we don’t want to antagonize them and treat them as second class or third class, and we can have an understanding between major monotheistic religions, between the Western system of liberal democracy and an Islamic system ruled by sharia law, let’s put it this way. Dialogue instead of bombing. Obviously this is a very romantic position and very unrealistic, I agree, but it could’ve been the West’s plan B to deal with 9/11, and instead we had total hysteria, we had a logic of bombing, coercing, and even bombing places that had nothing to do with 9/11 which was the Iraqi adventure nightmare which is the destruction of a country that had nothing to do with 9/11. And of course antagonizing, I would say, huge swathes of Islamic lands all over the world.

So, this proves once again that the people who… The Western, especially American elites, the people who run our system, they have no interest in dialogue with The Other. [25:00] So, we should talk in Levis-Strauss’s terms once again. The West does not understand The Other and does not want to understand The Other.

LS: As long as you can gain a lot of money from it?

PE: Oh, yes, you’re right, Lars. As long as you can profit from The Other.

LS: Yeah, and would you say that the military-industrial complex in the US is a huge beneficiary of the war on terror?

PE: Sectors of it. This is not a… Washington is not a homogenous entity, or the Beltway in general. Of course sectors of the industrial military complex, especially the weaponizing sector and defence contractors, they profited handsomely all over the spectrum and they will continue to profit handsomely, and instigating more wars and more bombing via their media shills, very well placed in American corporate media. There’s no question. And of course in terms of the revolving door in Washington, many neo-cons, and many humanitarian libertarians that are part of the Clinton system, they also have very good connections with the industrial military complex, and some of them do the revolving door between academia, government and industrial military complex, and the Pentagon. So, this is not going to change, but it’s not all over the place. There are many very good analysts inside the industrial military complex, they know, for instance, nowadays that it’s crazy to pick a war simultaneously with both Russia and China, which the US would never win. And this is the real war, this is not the war on terror. The real war from the perspective of the Washington elites, fighting the only two emerging powers that can face the US. And in case of Russia stare down the US because of their nuclear capabilities and missile strike capabilities. Militarily, China is still building their response to the US. I would say China by 2025 is going to be a formidable military power as well, especially in terms of submarines, new fighter jets, missile systems. They’re building it little by little.

LS: Yeah, but what does this tell you? That the military industrial complex in the US is so huge. I mean, they only create things that can destroy, but cannot create anything good.

PE: It’s true. It’s true, because it always comes back to the same thing. The logic is to maintain a monopoly. The mission is of a unilateral exceptionalist power that rules the world, imposing their own version of order and progress and unity, which the Pentagon framed as the Full Spectrum Dominance doctrine.  So, you have to coerce vassals all over the world, intimidate them, and if they don’t behave you have to go there and bomb them, or in the case of Iraq, the famous slogan at the time, bomb them into democracy, which was the American Western liberalism version of American democracy.

It’s not a benign empire, which is also another myth circulated in the US all the time. A benign empire that spreads not only democracy, but well-being for many peoples around the world. Not at all. This is the official rhetoric. In practice their number one arm is the industrial military complex. They also have financial capitalism and neoliberalism, casino capitalism arm as well, which is to inflict havoc all over the world if you don’t comply with their greedy agenda, in fact, or countries that disobey what they are doing they can wreak havoc financially, even more than militarily on these countries.

So, it is a Divide and Rule predatory enterprise when you look at it. There’s absolutely no way around it, and the problem is this has been the case since the end of the Second World War, Europe is basically an appendix to it, and their means of domination essentially is NATO. If Europe doesn’t get rid of NATO, Europe will always be a midget politically. Not only in Europe, but all [30:00] over the world, and the developing world, they see it clearly. The Russian, Indian, Brazilian, Indonesian, South Korean states, they know this. They know this very, very well. So, that’s why they don’t respect Europe politically anyway.

LS: One last question. You and I, we both have been in the US, and we know that the US is a very religious country, but would you say spiritual-wise America is dead?

PE: In terms of monotheistic religion that explains everything, oh yes, they are. It’s a huge, deeply Christian country believing in all sorts of myths peddled by Christianity, and obviously considering other religions lesser religions in itself, or maybe lesser evils according to many of their hard-core practitioners. But spiritually there is a void, a complete void because materialism as it has been carried by the US over these past few decades, especially after the end of the Second World War, decimated society. In fact, the family tissue, the social tissue was imploded by this extreme circus mentality, of course fuelled by unbridled materialism.

So, you can say that spiritually most of the country is actually dead even though you have pockets of excellence all across the US. It never ceases to amaze me and inspire me that you find people who are attracted to eastern religions, or they are Buddhists in disguise, or that they are really true American pacifists in a very long pacifist tradition. But these are pockets. Most of the country, they are anesthetised, and now the fact that the middle classes are disappearing very fast all across the US, not only they are anesthetised, they fear everything in terms of their future. They won’t have a job, their house will be repossessed, the car will be repossessed, they won’t be able to pay their credit card bills, they won’t be able to send their sons and daughters to college, absolutely out of the question.

So, they only see fear around them, and obviously the ruling elites they can manipulate fear coming from all over the world, be it Al-Qaeda, evil commies, the Russians are back, the evil Chinese, you name it, to deviate the attention of the bulk of the population, but now they are having problems to survive in America, in fact, which is something that hasn’t happened until the past decade. Those years of abundance in the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s, now it’s over. And for them, this is a… They simply cannot deal with it because they are not equipped to deal with it. 

The whole narrative of the American reign will have to change, and they are not mentally, psychologically equipped to change their narrative towards a more realist narrative of the future of America.

LS: Do you think that Alex Jones is putting it right in a way when he says, you know the slogan, “There’s a war going on for your mind.” Do you think this is really what it’s all about?

PE: We could say that in global terms, Lars. There’s a global war for the minds of the global population, in fact, concerning our immediate future and the future of the planet as a whole. When we look at the possibilities, the horrible possibilities until the end of this century, in fact, if we go on like this, with this economic system, or as Wallerstein would say, world system that is imploding all the time all over the place with no substitute system on the horizon, with the possibility of, summarily, that we could have a major war caused exactly by the decline of the empire trying to fight its own decline and trying to postpone its own decline via war, it’s all absolutely terrifying when you look at it.

So, and obviously most people in the developing world, they still have hope because they are now entering the market, let’s put it this way, or at least starting to live not as second or third class citizens. I’m talking about the new middle classes in all developing, big developing countries especially, in Russia, in China and India, Brazil, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, all these countries, and Argentina, South America as a whole, you name it. They have hope because their lives can get better even if the world is getting worse.

But in terms of the middle classes of the West who enjoyed peace, now not exactly peace, but sort of peace and prosperity for the past 30, 40, 50 years, they know that their sons and daughters are going to find and fight in a world that’s going to be extremely nasty. Like, the return of Leviathan on a global basis.


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