Graham E. Fuller is a political scientist and author of many books about West Asia and the Muslim World. Fuller is a former adjunct professor of history at Simon Fraser University Vancouver, Canada. He has lived and worked in the Muslim world for nearly two decades. He is the author of numerous books about West Asia, including The Future of Political Islam, A World Without Islam, Turkey and the Arab Spring: Leadership in the Middle East (April 2014), and Arab Shi’a: The Forgotten Muslims (1999), with Rend Rahim Francke. He is also the author of a memoir, Three Truths and a Lie, and a novel, Breaking Faith (February 2015) about the US imbroglio in Pakistan.
He served as an operations officer in the CIA for two decades. His assignments included postings in: Germany, Turkey, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, North Yemen, Afghanistan, and Hong Kong. Fuller was Kabul CIA Station Chief until 1978, where he was brought to the CIA headquarters in Washington, where he was appointed National Intelligence Officer for Near East and South Asia in 1982. In 1986, the CIA appointed him vice-chairman of the National Intelligence Council.
After 25 years with the US government, he felt it was time to leave. He joined a major think tank – RAND – in California as a senior political scientist. In 2004, he moved to Canada and became an adjunct professor of history at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver.
Al Mayadeen has interviewed Mr. Fuller over Zoom about international and regional issues, starting from the geostrategic situation in Afghanistan to the new Cold War between America and China.
Thank you for joining us in this interview. Let’s start with Afghanistan. How do you perceive the US withdrawal from the country?
The United States had been there for 20 years with uncertain goals. At the end of the war 20 years later, with the killing of lots of Americans, Afghans, and Pakistanis, and with the dislocation of tens of thousands of Afghans, the mission had failed. So, I hope that the United States now will have learned its lessons from this very negative experience.
Do you think the withdrawal reflects a US decline or the beginning of the fall of the American Empire?
Well, yes and no. I mean certainly yes, I think the idea that America can be the global hegemon now is clearly impossible. Americans are having great difficulty in acknowledging this general decline. But, of course, it will always remain – at least for a long time – the most powerful military force in the world. Economically and even technologically, it is still quite creative. But, I think the idea that America can intervene anywhere, all the time, is slowly beginning to disappear, and that is very good news.
Was it really a surprise to US intelligence and to the Biden administration that the Taliban will control the whole country in just a few days?
I don’t know what the American intelligence organizations were saying in their reports to the president, but I certainly have the impression that there was a general failure, at least at the political level, to understand how quickly this collapse was coming. I must say, I thought it would come much faster than 6 months. I expected it to be maybe weeks, but I was wrong and it actually happened in days. So, the degree of the rot within the Afghan military became very clear. It had no strength, and no willpower to resist.
Do you believe that the Taliban has changed? And what about their connection with Al-Qaeda?
We do not know yet what kind of government the Taliban will bring to Afghanistan. There is debate over that issue. I feel that the new leadership in the Taliban is a new generation. They have had much international experience; they have lost power before; they have maybe learned some lessons from that; they have had contact with Russia, with China and countries all over the Middle East, including the United States. So, I think they now have a greater understanding of international geopolitics. In that sense, I think they understand that for them to support Jihadi terrorism outside of the country would be a very, very, dangerous and foolish mistake for the Taliban to make. On the other hand, I’m not sure that the Taliban forces within the country have learned very much. They may still be extremely conservative on issues such as women, the rights of women, female education, and groups like Shia in Afghanistan.
We now have a new geostrategic situation in this region, what is the role of Pakistan in Afghanistan?
Well Pakistan is the number one country of importance in influencing future events in Afghanistan. Pakistan has always been at the center of these events, going back to the struggle of the Mujahideen against the Soviet occupation. Pakistan has been a key political force in managing the Afghan war. For Pakistan, the number one goal, perhaps of its foreign policy, is to make sure that Afghanistan remains a country that is friendly and sympathetic to Pakistan. As you know, Pakistan is already surrounded on the one side by the huge power of India. So, the last thing that Pakistan wants is to have a hostile power also on its western side.
I think Pakistan will work very hard to both keep the Taliban sensible, to try to maintain good relations with them, and also to work closely with China. The number two country of importance in that region now is China, economically and even politically. I view that as very positive, although major countries in the region – Iran, China and Russia – are negative, hostile, and enemy countries in the American view. But, I think all of these countries share the same interest with the United States in Afghanistan. They want no terrorism. They want a reasonably moderate government; they want stability and to prevent the exportation of terrorism to outside countries. So, I think, in theory, that the room for cooperation between the United States and all of those four countries is an opportunity if Washington would accept that degree of cooperation.
Don’t you think that America wanted, by its departure from Afghanistan, to create chaos, or instability for China, Russia and Iran?
I think that it’s quite possible that the US may decide to do that. It would be a stupid and dangerous decision if the United States decides to maintain its instability in Afghanistan to make life difficult for Iran, China, Russia or even Pakistan. My expectation is that the United States will not make that stupid mistake, but there are no guarantees given the political thinking in the United States in general, and its unwillingness to accept the fading American hegemony in the region.
How do you assess the American-Pakistani relations at this current moment?
I think it’s always going to have some degree of tension. It always has. Pakistan naturally looks out for its own interests. The United States, when it invaded Afghanistan, demanded and expected that Pakistan would serve American interests exclusively and completely in Afghanistan. But Pakistan, of course, was not willing to do that. They know that America would one day, sooner or later, decide to leave Afghanistan. Maybe nobody expected that this would last 20 years – but still – Pakistan is looking after its own interests, and that means that it has to have good relations with the Taliban. However, Pakistan has a very complicated problem with the Pashtuns, some of whom want to join their brothers in Afghanistan for a greater Pashtunistan. That would be a huge fear for the Pakistani government.
Do you think that Pakistan is now closer to China than the US, or is it balancing relations between the two superpowers?
I think it would like to balance. But if it comes to a crisis, I think it will look to China, which has been a more reliable partner over the years. Furthermore, China does not have good relations with India, whereas the US wants to have very good relations with India. I think Pakistan feels much safer in its ties with China, and of course China’s interested in investing money in this Belt and Road Initiative for new economic relations in Central Asia.
Let’s talk about Iran. What’s hindering them from rejoining the 2015 Nuclear Deal?
I think a great deal of America’s foreign policy problems have to do with domestic problems. One political scientist one day said that all foreign policy is domestic. I don’t know how true that is always, but certainly, domestic policy plays a great role in this issue, especially the role of the Israeli lobby and Israeli pressures on the United States. I think Israeli influence in the United States is slowly weakening but not all that much. It is weakening in American public opinion for sure, but the American Congress is terrified of the Israeli lobby – and no one in Congress, almost no one, will stand up against Israeli wishes.
Therefore, it’s very difficult for the Biden administration, I think, to push for the re-opening of the old agreement with Iran. It’s not impossible; it may happen, and I think Washington knows it’s important to do this for regional stability, but I am not confident that domestic politics and Israeli pressure will. I’m not just talking about political pressure in the United States, I’m also talking about Israeli pressure as an independent “state” against Washington. I think that it’s still very powerful.
Recent Israeli reports claimed that Iran is very close to attaining a nuclear bomb. What do you think?
Look, this is a technical issue about what it means that Iran is close or not close to a nuclear weapon, but I should say that “Israel” and American neoconservatives have been saying this for 20 years – that Iran is close to a nuclear weapon, and that it’s a matter of months. Generally, the analysis was that Iran is one or two years away from a bomb. I don’t believe almost any of this analysis anymore. It is very politically driven; it’s mainly propaganda, I think, to pressure Washington.
Do you think the military option against Iran is still on the table for both the United States and “Israel”?
I think the chances of “Israel” doing that are fairly high. I think the chances of the US doing that are much much lower, and I certainly do not think that either Washington or “Israel” will be using nuclear weapons against Iran. But, I think there is a good chance that “Israel” might attempt to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities.
This scenario might lead to a regional war. Will the United States allow “Israel” to attack Iran, taking into consideration the consequences?
Frankly, I don’t believe the United States is able to prevent “Israel” from doing that, except through using massive political force, and I do not think that it will do that. I’m sure “Israel” understands that the US basically does not want to see an Israeli strike against Iran, or Iran’s nuclear facilities. But, I think it may happen – I think “Israel” may well act independently, and they have said as much.
I’m not sure that this will lead to a general war in the Middle East as a whole. I think countries in the Gulf for example would be very nervous about any war in the region. They know they will suffer more than any other country. Saudi Arabia and the UAE in particular, both countries would be targeted by Iran, and it simply would be a big mess. I don’t think Iraq would want to become involved in actual fighting. So frankly, I’m not sure it would lead to a general war in the Middle East, but certainly to a great rise in regional tensions, very dangerous regional tensions.
Does “Israel” want the US to be involved in any attack against Iran?
Well, I tend to think that Washington will not want to be part of an Israeli strike against Iran unless there are huge provocations from Iran itself against the United States or US interests. I really think American strategic thinkers, even though they have made many mistakes, certainly must understand that this would lead to an extremely dangerous situation vis-à-vis Lebanon. Syria is already a mess but in Lebanon… Maybe I am naïve in this regard. I’m generally quite pessimistic about a lot of events, but I really am not sure that the US will support or engage in active support for an Israeli strike against Iran. I think it really would want to avoid participating. It may remain silent about it, but participate military? I doubt it.
Do you believe we are already in a new Cold War between the two countries? And could both afford such a confrontation?
Yes, I fear that there is some kind of new Cold War going on, and I think that this is mainly due to US unwillingness and inability to believe that China could become the number two power or even the number one power in the world, and that the US would lose its monopoly of global hegemony. I think both countries are going to be very cautious about this because they know the high cost that any such war would bring.
America is learning, slowly, slowly, and slowly, that it cannot remain the number one dominant power all across Asia. This is simply a disappearing skill. The United States simply cannot maintain that posture much longer.
Regarding the fall of the US Empire, some observers believe that this will not happen without a military confrontation. What is your opinion?
No, I’m not that negative. China is being generally, somewhat cautious. It is the United States that declares that China is the….they may not use the actual word “enemy,” but it certainly means enemy. China is their number one rival, number one threat in the region. Those are words that China does not use. But nonetheless, China is slowly and quietly building its power and will continue to do so.
I think in the end, the United States will lose its dominance, especially in East Asia, and in the East Asian Pacific Ocean. I’m optimistic enough to believe that it will not come to a nuclear war, but the risk is there and mistakes are possible.
Will the US peacefully accept China becoming the first or second player in the world without a confrontation?
You know, I don’t think the US has a choice in this regard. The military instrument is not a way to prevent this from happening. This is taking place in the area of politics, diplomacy, economics and soft power. And in that way, China is winning on all of those fronts for the most part. The United States, unfortunately, has depended upon military instruments to maintain its dominance in the world in the past 20-30 years. But, it is now clear that the military instrument is not sufficient to meet the Chinese challenge, and slowly, I think Washington is learning that. But, they will have no choice but to accept the new very important role of China in the world.
Regarding the progressives in the Democratic Party, how powerful is this trend in the Democratic Party and US public opinion?
It’s hard to say for sure. However, the Democratic Party is now very divided on the issue of “Israel,” and the younger generation is generally more pro-Palestinian. Another important fact is that American Jews themselves, possibly a majority of American Jews, are very uncomfortable with Israeli politics and Israeli policies. Now, the power of “Israel” in the US is not through American Jews so much as through the powerful Zionist lobby. But even there, there is another Jewish lobby, which is called “J Street,” you may have heard it, which wants a much more balanced approach to “Israel” and Palestine than the dominant force AIPAC.
AIPAC is slowly losing influence, but sadly, the last power of “Israel” in the United States remains in Congress. Congressmen who do not understand the issue, or more to the point do not care to understand, are simply traditionally afraid of the power of the Israeli lobby to give money to their political opposition. I think, slowly, that is changing as well. It will take some time, but in my view, the trends are positive regarding this direction.
Do you think the United States will change its policy towards Lebanon, especially in terms of the economic siege?
I think US policy toward Lebanon is driven primarily by American policy towards Iran, and of course, that involves Hezbollah. It also involves Israeli influences and pressures on Washington, not only because of Hezbollah, but “Israel” also wants Lebanon to be very weak and tired in the region. It also has to do with the war in Syria, which is the third American disaster in the area. America had lost the war against Bashar al-Assad. It has wanted to get rid of the Assad family for 20-30-40 years because the Assad family stood for Arab nationalism and the struggle against “Israel.”
America’s policy toward Syria has also been a major driver for its views toward Lebanon. As the US withdraws from Iraq and lessens its participation in Syria, its pressure on Lebanon will be reduced.
Also, Saudi Arabia and the war on Yemen – that has been another disaster for the Saudis. For the US’ minor support for Saudi Arabia there, I think, slowly, that there are fewer reasons now for the US to be planning a hardline policy in Lebanon.
Thank you Mr. Fuller for your rich answers and deep insights