Interview with History

Robert Fisk Talks About Iraq, Afghanistan, and War


One of the United Kingdom’s most prominent foreign correspondents, Robert Fisk currently reports on the Middle East for The Independent ( He has received numerous awards for his reporting, including the Amnesty International Overall Media Award (1998) for his work in Algeria, and the British International Journalist of the Year Award–which he received seven times. The son of a decorated World War I veteran who would take him on yearly treks to battle sites, Fisk grew up with a keen sense of 20th-century history. A frequent lecturer on campuses throughout the United States, Fisk was in Austin recently, speaking at the University of Texas. The following excerpts are taken from a long and wide-ranging interview with the Observer.

Texas Observer: Where is the opposition to the war in Iraq going to come from in the United States if there are so many problems with reporting in the mainstream press?

Robert Fisk: On September 10, 2002, I was at George Mason University in North Carolina and I was invited to student seminars. There were all these very worthy people: academics, activists, ladies with strange buns and guys with long gray hair from Vietnam. And they all said, “How can we build bridges between the mainstream press and activists and the academics?” I replied that first of all, the mainstream press is irredeemable. You are not going to get your point of view over and what you want to say in The New York Times, LA Times or the Washington Post, except maybe in token ways. Second, why do you want to bridge-build with activists? The people you should be talking to are the bellhops and the guys riding Amtrak trains. I gave a lecture at the University of Southern California six weeks ago and I got six bellhops to come–two of whom were going to be called up. They should have truck drivers coming to lectures… the poor who go to the military to get educated and also get sent to Iraq. The rather esoteric strain of the academic world in the United States doesn’t want to talk–with some exceptions–to the hoi polloi.

TO: Should anything be done about Saddam Hussein?

RF: We should never have created him.

TO: But now that we have?

RF: Ah, that’s what they say about Osama bin Laden too. And the mujahedin. We created the mujahedin. Look, when Qaddafi first took over in 1969 from King Idris in Libya, the [British] Foreign Office was very happy. When the generals overthrew King Farouk in 1952 in Egypt we loved the idea. And the British Prime Minister Anthony Eden was very keen on President Nasser until Egypt nationalized the Suez Canal. The British bombed Egypt when that happened. So, there’s a long history of the West creating and supporting these people. As long as they don’t turn against us, we love them.

In 1991 I went to a press conference held by Colin Powell at one of Saddam’s former airbases in Northern Iraq, and suddenly he’s saying Iraqi officials this, Iraqi officials that. There’s something missing. What’s happened to Saddam? He’d disappeared. Just as Osama bin Laden disappeared from all official speeches after about March last year. They hadn’t got him. I said, “Excuse me, General Powell, why don’t you mention Saddam Hussein?” He sort of looked at me, shrugged his shoulders and went on talking about Iraqi officials. I wrote in the paper, “No doubt they can bring [Saddam] back again later when they need him.” And they have. Sure enough, they have.

TO: What about U.S.-backed opposition, such as the Iraqi National Congress?

RF: The leader of the INC, Ahmed Chalabi, is regarded in the Middle East as a crook because he’s wanted on fraud charges in Jordan. One of the former INC people wrote me a letter saying he’s migrating to America to get away from them because half of them are Saddam agents anyway. Immediately after the Gulf War in 1991 there was a big meeting in Beirut of Iraqi opposition groups organized by Syria but including all the usual suspects. They all came along: pro Iranian, pro-Shiite, anti-Saddam, secular, monarchist, the whole shebang. And the Americans were very interested, they encouraged this. “Look here’s the new government,” the Americans said. And on the second day there was a unanimous showing of hands by all the groups, including the secular ones, for a motion that said–and it was referring to the American troops still in Southern Iraq, almost into Basra– we will not tolerate the continued contamination of the sacred waters of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers by foreign troops. And suddenly, America lost interest.

A lot of these opposition groups still think the same thing. Forget the puppets they are going to stick in, they’ve already got Zalmay Khalilzad, a former UNOCAL employee, as special representative to the Iraqi opposition. The man who tried to do the oil pipeline deal for UNOCAL with the Taliban and ended up as Bush’s special envoy to Afghanistan a year ago is now the U.S.’s chief liaison with the Iraqi opposition.

And we will betray them if necessary, as we betrayed them before in 1991. And again in 1996 or 1997, whenever that appalling thing was when the CIA pulled out and Iraq moved in and tortured to death many of the Iraqi opposition at Irbil. What happens, though, in Southern Iraq after the American occupation when the imams in the mosques demand the withdrawal of the United States? Are they going to arrest all the imams? Will it end up like Afghanistan?

I’ve been to Afghanistan recently. The Americans are retreating out of mountain hilltop posts because they are under fire too much. They are being shot at every night, you can’t drive on the roads, the drug barons are back, there’s rape in the North. Afghanistan is going back into the total shambles it was under the Northern Alliance between 1992 and 1996. [U.S. forces] are present in some mountain areas but they are being shot at by Pakistani soldiers who don’t like them now. I went to this place called Hajibirgit, 40 or 50 miles from Kandahar. The Americans had gone in there last spring. They’d been tipped off Al Qaeda was there. So they stormed in, threw stun grenades into the houses, German stun grenades. They later claimed they didn’t use them. But I collected all the stun grenades. They’re all made in Hamburg and sold to the U.S. military. I’ve got pictures. This is what happened in Hajibirgit. The Americans rounded up all the people. A little 8-year-old girl, frightened of the stun grenade, ran away, fell down a well and drowned. Somebody or some group, either the Americans or their Afghan allies, chased the 86-year-old village leader into the mosque where he was gunned down. The bullet hole was in the floor and his brains were in the part in the wall of the mosque that faces Mecca. This was an American operation in which U.S. troops were present. The Americans then loaded up to 100 villagers–male of course–and the man’s body–maybe he was Osama bin Laden, right?–onto helicopters, and took them off. They were interrogated, according to the villagers, naked in front of American troops. The troops asked them questions: “What do you think of Americans?” And the answer: “Well, I was told they were here to liberate us. But what am I to think now?” Another one was: “Do you know how to shoot a gun?” ” No. I have never touched a gun.” “What do you think of Osama bin Laden?” “I have never met bin Laden.”

It’s a classic. After a week they’re all rounded up, three American special forces guys come along and say, “Sorry, you guys, it’s a mistake.” And they take them in helicopters and land them in the sports stadium in Kandahar–where the executions used to take place under the Taliban. Just leave them there. They’re given lifts back to their village, a remote village in the desert. Everything’s been stolen by the rival villagers in the next village who tipped off the Americans that Osama bin Laden’s people were in that village. They wanted their properties. The Americans were totally conned and now, all those people in that village want to do is kill Americans. And that’s exactly what happened with the Russians.

I remember Bagram airbase one year after the Russian invasion. A Soviet general made a statement to us, saying, “There are only remnants of the terrorists left in the mountains. There is complete peace and calm. This is a great military intervention.” And now? One year after [the U.S. began bombing in Afghanistan] an American general turned up at Bagram and said there are only “remnants” of Al Qaeda left. You remember that big battle at Takur Ghar in the Shahikot Mountains in the spring of 2002 where the Americans lost seven men? This was the scene of the first major ambush of the Soviet convoy in 1980; I remember it from when I was there before. It’s the same valley. Some of these guys are simply repeating their performance.

So many of the American statements read just like the Soviet statements. The worst thing is, the journalists follow this. They talk about “remnants,” too. I had a long interview with Amira Hass who is the great Israeli journalist with Ha’aretz who is based in Ramallah, some months ago. I was asking about the purpose of journalism and of course I was rabbiting on about writing the first page of history. And she said, “No, Robert, you are wrong, it’s about monitoring the centers of power.” By and large we don’t do that. The French have a lovely word, fonctionnaire. Members of the media have become functionaries for government. On CNN, for example, you find journalists go to the White House, the Pentagon and report what officials are saying. Journalists have become mouthpieces. You know, I don’t care what the State Department says. I want to know what the journalist knows is going on. These American officials who are now quoted so obsequiously failed to find out about September 11. These guys are responsible for the biggest intelligence failure in the history of mankind. And they are now being quoted with respect in The New York Times. (Let’s say the last 100 years. I’m sure that something happened in the Roman Empire.)

TO: What’s changed over the last 27 years you have spent in the Middle East?

RF: The biggest change is that Arabs are no longer afraid. The Arab leaders are. They still shiver in their golden mosques because they are paid by us. The Saudis are particularly frightened that the Arab people might be so unafraid that they’ll have to change the regime–which we won’t allow … For ordinary Arabs it started with the Hezbollah in Lebanon in 1982. The Israeli invasion of Lebanon created the Hezbollah in 1982. Lebanon had been invaded before. The Lebanese must have been the most threatened Arabs I have ever come across. And then, suddenly in 1982, they started shooting back. I was on the beach in Beirut at Khaldeh and suddenly a whole group of bearded men with Islamic yellow and green bands around their heads (I’d never seen them before in my life), [came] running along the beach beside me and up the hill beside the main dual carriageway where there was a tank and an armored vehicle. They stormed the tank, climbed on top of it, dropped grenades inside and the Israelis suddenly ran for their lives from the armored vehicle and hid in an abandoned school. The Hezbollah jumped in the armored vehicle and drove to central Beirut. Nobody knew who these people were. They called themselves something else then, Jund’allah, Army of God, as opposed to Hezbollah, Party of God.

I wrote that this was some new phenomenon in the area. They were Lebanese, Shiites, of course. Then, later, we heard the Hezbollah existed. The head of the Shiite institutions in Beirut called for resistance against the Israelis. Then, of course, we had the suicide bombings on the Americans and the French, which were a satellite of Hezbollah, then we had the kidnappings, and then we had this ferocious guerrilla war that drove the Israelis out by the year 2000. And that showed the Palestinians you can do it. I don’t think the Palestinians are afraid any more. when a whole people stops being afraid you can’t re-inoculate them. Remember that speech that Sharon made, “We shall have to give them greater losses?” It doesn’t work. He’s wrong. Give them more losses. It won’t make any difference. I think that all across the Arab world now, there are people who are no longer afraid.

TO: In your writings you point out inaccurate historical interpretations. What do you make of the Bush administration’s Second World War rhetoric and using the United Nations to go to war?

RF: It was Truman’s idea after the Second World War to make sure there were no more Second World Wars. The idea of the UN was to make sure there were no more Sommes, no more Stalingrads, no more Dunkirks, and no more Holocausts, and so on. If you read the initial speeches and commentaries from the conference in San Francisco, they’re all talking about the need to prevent war. The idea of the United Nations was that it would be a means to avoid wars. Not a means to legitimize wars. Now Bush goes around to these various sports stadiums and also in the UN on September 12 last year saying, “If the UN doesn’t act strongly it’ll become like the League of Nations, a mere talking shop.” The League of Nations primarily collapsed because the major powers within it overrode it and forced it to do what they wanted, against its will. The French went to the League of Nations and said the Germans weren’t repaying their reparations from the First World War. The Germans wouldn’t pay and the Belgians also wanted reparations. They went to the League of Nations and said, “We’ll have to deal with this.”

The French said the British were best suited to resolve the issue of unpaid reparations. But the British demurred because they wanted to remain the major power with a naval force. So the French and Belgians crossed the German frontier in 1923 and took over the Rhineland to get their reparations. So, ultimately the major member powers destroyed the League of Nations because they simply weren’t prepared to let it negotiate for them. They wanted military action. It failed in Ethiopia for similar reasons. It failed in the Spanish Civil War for similar reasons. Bush is doing to the UN now what the major powers did to the League of Nations before the Second World War. But he’s playing the role of someone who says “The UN has got to prove it’s strong.” Well, the UN can’t pass that test if it’s being ordered to do what the US wants.

Lawrence of Arabia described war as like trying to drink soup off a knife. Things go wrong. Bush must have hoped that the economy would have recovered better. He wouldn’t have imagined that the dollar had dipped so much. He wouldn’t have been able to foresee Venezuela. He never could have foreseen North Korea–who have thrown the inspectors out!

I gave a talk the other day in Derry, Northern Ireland for the Bloody Sun-day Memorial Lecture, for the 14 Catholics who were killed by the Parachute Regiment in 1972. And I was trying to compare the Irish treaty of 1920 with the Middle East. I discovered in all my books and files that in a period from 1919 to 1920–a period of just 17 months–the victorious powers of the First World War drew the borders of Northern Ireland, Yugoslavia and most of the Middle East. And I’ve spent almost my entire professional career covering Northern Ireland, Yugoslavia, and the Middle East. I’ve watched all those people burn. And I’m very struck by the malign influence of history. We cannot cut it off from us. That’s why I so object to these references to the Second World War.

Middle East people don’t see history happening so long ago because they are living the results of it now.</p

Observer intern Patrick Timmons was born in England. An Anglo-Texan, he spent the first year of his life in Lebanon, and before the age of six lived for two years in Saudi Arabia. Now 28, he remembers his late father saying the United States would look for any pretext to get Mid East oil.