Martini Chat: A War Expert Discusses Afghanistan

Marvin Zonis is a professor at the University of Chicago focusing on U.S. foreign policy.
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The following interview was excerpted from TheStreet.com's online Martini Chart, Thursday, Oct. 18. For the transcript of the entire Martini Chat, click here .

Welcome to

TheStreet.com's

Martini Chat. Our first guest adds significant value to any discussion regarding the geopolitical landscape and, especially to any discussion regarding the politics and business of the Middle East.

Marvin Zonis is professor at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business, focusing on U.S. foreign policy, global politics and economic development, Middle Eastern and Russian politics, and economics. He also is the principal of an international risk-consulting firm that bears his name.

Zonis is widely published on Middle Eastern affairs and has previously focused research on Iran and the Israel-Palestinian peace process. He has served as a consultant to the Policy Planning Council, U.S. Department of State, and the National Security Council, not to mention as a consultant on the implications of geopolitical events on investments and the energy markets to a number of investment firms.

Dr. Zonis, welcome to

TheStreet.com

Martini Chat.

Zonis:

Chris, nice to be with you.

Chris Edmonds:

Let me begin with a very general question. How do you gauge the progress of our military campaign in Afghanistan to date and, at the end of the day, what do you expect to see next from U.S. and coalition forces in the region as we advance this new war against terrorism?

Zonis:

From what I can tell, it seems that the military campaign is a success. We are first destroying the command structure of the Taliban. Second, we are destroying its antiaircraft capabilities, giving us control of the skies. Now we are moving in to destroy the morale of the Taliban troops.

Part of the service is not to make it possible for the Northern Alliance to move in on Kabul and capture that city. It's to have the Taliban regime disintegrate

by demoralization and have its other allies withdraw their support. It's going quite well.

Edmonds:

You have opined recently that this offensive isn't likely to end in Afghanistan. You have spent a lot of time thinking and speaking about the implications of our strategy in the Middle East. What are the implications of U.S. action, say against Iraq or others, on the global economy and, specifically, on the energy markets?

Zonis:

This is a very important issue. There is speculation growing in the press that Iraq may have been the source of the anthrax, which is now being visited upon the U.S.

Former Secretary of State George Shultz has called Iraq "The Kmart of weapons for terrorists." There is a real drumbeat building up for an attack on Iraq. It's very difficult to think what the U.S. government could do in Iraq that would be useful that would not kill tens of thousands of Iraqi people. Since most of Saddam's important political installations are in Bahgdad or highly populated places.

If there is military action in Iraq, that would lead to a spike in oil prices and a possible interruption in supply. Very different from the Afghan campaign outright.

Zonis:

President Putin signing in on the international coalition was in the service of Russia's eventual replacement of Saudi Arabia as the chief pillar of global oil supply. And they'd be America's essential oil supplier as we distance ourselves away from the Saudi rulers.

If there is a disruption with Russia because of the campaign with Iraq, that new relationship would be in jeopardy. If there is credible evidence that anthrax comes from Iraq we'd have to convince the Russians to come along. In my opinion, the antrhax is coming from the U.S. I wouldn't be surprised if there was a small amount of it stolen from our own programs. This remains to be seen.

Edmonds:

One very interesting development in the current war is the overtures that Vladimir Putin has made to the U.S. You think current Russian diplomacy is economically motivated. What are and how high are the stakes for Putin?

Zonis:

It is tough. I believe that President Putin has gone way beyond what his military and political elites really thought was appropriate for Russia. He's way out in front of the people he's trying to bring along. If we were to now go and bomb Iraq, he'd have a real hard time trying to bring them along. We'd have to demonstrate to them that he's right. The future of Russia's economy and its democracy depends on them throwing their lot with the West, not on them forming a coalition of states to stand up to the U.S.

Eric Gillin:

Professor, Eric Gillin here. I'm curious about the stability of many of our partners in the region, especially Pakistan. How stable are the third-world nations in our coalition and what are the risks of aligning with say Uzbekistan? And what are the chances of a power struggle in Pakistan and the possibility that India might seize the opportunity to make a move? It could be a global jump ball at any minute.

Zonis:

Those are important points. Most of the countries surrounding Afghanistan are not politically stable places. The ruler of Uzbekistan, Islam Kharimov, is one of the all-time bad guys of the world. He's a ruthless dictator. He's killed lots of Muslims in Uzbekistan fearing that they would become fundamentalists and challenge him. He's had a ruthless regime and it's not stable there.

Zonis:

Pakistan is not a stable, coherent country. General Musharraf is ruling by military dictatorship, but there are lots of elements in the military that are sympathetic to Islamic fundamentalists. There is a vast number of Afghan refugees who are disrupting Pakistan in the service of anti-American work. Karachi, the largest city in the country, is the murder capital of the world; it's full of instability. The danger is that Pakistan has nuclear weapons. It's very threatening. If the terrorists had weapons of mass destruction, they would have used them.

Gillin:

How important is stability between Israel and Palestine to ending the war against terrorism? Is such stability even possible at this point?

Zonis:

The Israeli/Palestinian relationship is a central piece in the war on terrorism. People are right when people say Osama bin Laden does not really care about Palestine and Israel. His issue is about the issue of Islamic fundamentalism.

The point is there are 600 million Muslims from Morocco through Pakistan who care desperately about Israel and the Palestinians. It's their hatred of the U.S. for our unmitigated support of Israel, which provides the fertile ground, the cultural background for the hatred and for the emergence of terrorism sympathetic to Osama bin Laden. We have to move on the matter of Israel and Palestine. With this cast of characters, Ariel Sharon and Yasir Arafat, it's going to be very difficult to make any progress.

When we get the current action in Afghanistan behind us, it will be time to both end the violence and make accommodations. Both these parties have to be moved to peace process, which will lead to an independent Palestinian state. There is no alternative to that outcome.

Edmonds:

I also like your take on China. There are reports of troop build-ups along the Afghan border, speculation they have provided aid to the Taliban and even some concern about possible action against Taiwan. What is China's strategy and is that country a real wild card here?

Zonis:

It's an important day to talk about this. President Bush is in Beijing, China, meeting with President Jiang Zemin and with President Putin for the Asia Pacific economic meeting. China has always been opposed to the Taliban. They've been seen as a wild card stirring up Islamic fundamentalism in the northwest of China. The northwest province of Xinjiang is where the Chinese Muslims live. They've been stirred up by the Taliban.

President Jiang Zemin and the Chinese political leaders have decided that standing up to the West is fruitless. They made huge concessions to the World Trade Organization. They need trade and foreign investment. We have an historic opportunity to bring China and Russia into a coalition with the U.S. and build a new globalization.

Edmonds:

Returning to the energy markets for a moment, what is OPEC to do here? It appears Saudi Arabia is very reluctant to cut production at the moment, although prices are well below OPEC's price band. Will OPEC make a move in November? And will the cartel become fragmented if we expand our campaign to an OPEC nation like Iraq or Libya?

Zonis:

Let me take the second question first. There are five countries on the U.S. terrorist list: Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Sudan and Libya. The national commission on terrorism recommended to President Bush to remove Libya and Sudan. They've enacted very significant efforts to clamp down on organizations in their countries that promote terrorism.

They've acted properly. If we strike at Iraq, that would lead to disruptions. We'd mobilize Islamic public opinion. Saudi Arabia would have to distance themselves from America. They'd have to start withholding oil. They've done it before and they'll do it again.

Zonis:

Absent an attack on Iraq, the bad guy is President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. If you go back to 1973, it was Venezuela that was one of the instigators of the oil embargo. They didn't care about the Middle East, but they used it as an occasion to hold oil back to drive up the prices.

Chavez is getting desperate because he promised the Venezuelan people prosperity. Venezuela is not a rich country, even with prices rising. He's in the Middle East now trying to slow down production. He's not likely to succeed. The pressure from the U.S. is immense. Global demand is falling. These countries will not take that risk. Other states will produce more as a way to gain market share.

Gillin:

What about Libya? Muammar Gaddafi has condemned Osama bin Laden and bioterrorism as evil and cowardly. How much can we count on him? Would he help find a Benedict Arnold that would actually turn on bin Laden and indicate where he is?

Zonis:

I hadn't heard that. He's had quite a turnaround. He tried to bring about a greater association of the Islamic states of the Arab world. He failed. He was so fed up that he cut his ties with Arab countries. He's instead focused Libya's efforts to bring about economic development to sub-Saharan Africa. He's been condemning terrorism.

The only reason President Bush didn't take him off the list is because he wanted him to put up money to pay the families of the victims of Lockerbie. Libya was found to be involved in that trial in Amsterdam.

Edmonds:

I want to get to one question from our readers.

Reader Question:

Bin Laden needs provisions. How difficult is it to follow the trail of food and necessities to the cave where he is hiding?

Zonis:

Great question. The image of bin Laden sitting alone in a cave is a false one. They've put their finger on how we'll locate and kill Osama bin Laden. He's surrounded by a couple of hundred troops. Those people need supplies. They communicate. They are not as security-conscious as bin Laden himself. Afghan is covered with pilotless drones

that will enable us to follow the movement of goods and supplies. It won't be quick, they are quiet and know how to lay low, but you can't keep that quiet indefinitely.

Edmonds:

Marvin, thank you for being here. Our guest has been Marvin Zonis, professor at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business and, very clearly, an expert on Middle Eastern policy and the global economy.