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Commentary: Playing with fire

By ARNAUD DE BORCHGRAVE, UPI Editor at Large   |   Feb. 8, 2008 at 9:46 AM   |   Comments

SINGAPORE, Feb. 8 (UPI) -- NATO's future is at stake in Afghanistan, warned Asia's senior statesman, and unless America's European allies abandon appeasement and the United States realizes Afghanistan cannot succeed as a democracy, the world balance of power will shift in favor of Russia and China.

In an exclusive interview with United Press International, Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew, long known as the Kissinger of the orient, took the Europeans to task for balking at casualties in Afghanistan. He blamed "short memories" that have forgotten that "America came to rescue them in two world wars," which has rekindled the "appeasement" of the 1930s.

The United States, said this key player in every major Asian event for almost half a century, "should realize Afghanistan cannot succeed as a democracy. You attempted too much. Let the warlords sort it out in such a way you don't try to build a new state. The British tried and failed. Just make clear if they commit aggression again and offer safe haven to Taliban, they will be punished."

Now known as the "minister mentor" of Singapore, who turned a malarial island into a city of skyscrapers that thinks like a great power and is more important to the global economy than most big countries, Lee fears failure in Afghanistan will alter the world balance of power in favor of China and Russia. These two powers "would be faced with a much weakened West in the ongoing global contest."

Europe's NATO allies have turned a deaf ear to Bush administration requests to send additional troops to bolster the 21,000 U.S. and 20,000 NATO soldiers now in Afghanistan. Canada warned last month it would pull its 2,500 troops out early next year unless NATO agrees to send reinforcements. In Afghanistan last month, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates took the European allies to task for contributing to this rising violence in the fight against the Taliban as some of them "don't know how to do counterinsurgency operations." Hoping to show the example, Gates committed an additional 3,200 troops -- all Marines -- to the Afghan war.

The Europeans have cut defense budgets back to a stage where they cannot afford to send additional helicopters, aircraft for evacuating wounded, or troops to the Afghan theater where only British, Canadian, Dutch and U.S. troops conduct offensive operations. Responding to criticism at home, even these have been sharply curtailed in recent months. The other 22 NATO members have placed caveats on the use of their troops designed to keep them out of harm's way.

The Taliban uses privileged sanctuaries in Pakistan's tribal areas where President Pervez Musharraf has warned the United States it cannot conduct military operations. Most European terrorist trails also track back to what is known as Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas.

Asked about the "Pakistan-terrorist nexus," Lee Kuan Yew -- "Harry" to his close friends -- replied, "We should learn to live with it for a long time. My fear is Pakistan may well get worse. What is the choice? Musharraf is the only general I know (there) who is totally secular in his approach. But he's got to maneuver between his extremists who are sympathetic to Taliban and al-Qaida and moderate elements with a Western outlook. … There is an interesting study of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency that says 20 percent of the Pakistani army's officer corps is fundamentalist (and therefore pro-Taliban, an organization that was originally organized and subsequently controlled by ISI until Sept. 11)."

And what happens to al-Qaida in this hands-off Pakistan approach?

"Any U.S. interference in Pakistan would result in its four provinces becoming four failed states. And then what happens to Pakistan's nuclear arsenal? It's a horrendous festering problem," he said.

Iraq was a mistake, Lee said. Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with al-Qaida or Sept. 11. It was a costly diversion from the war on al-Qaida. "I cannot see them winning, and by that I mean able to impose their extremist system ... even if we can't win, we mustn't lose or tire. We cannot allow them to believe they have a winning strategy and that more suicide bombers and WMD will advance their cause and give them a chance to take over."

The "Islamist" bomb, said Kuan Yew ("the light that shines far and wide," in Chinese), has already traveled from Pakistan to Iran "and the U.S., the Europeans, even the Russians, will (now) have to make up their minds whether to allow Iran to go nuclear." He took Russian President Vladimir Putin to task "for playing a game, posing as the nice guys with Iran, supplying nuclear fuel, and making it look as if America is causing all this trouble. But if I were Russia today, I would be very worried about Iran acquiring the bomb, because Russia is more at risk than America. The risk Israel runs is another dimension.

"Russia is at risk," he explained, "because whether it's the Chechens or Central Asian Muslim states that were former Soviet Republics, none are friendly to Moscow. Next time there's an explosion in Moscow, it may be a suicide bomber who isn't wearing an explosive jacket, but something a lot bigger. It would certainly be in Russia's interest to say … to Iran, 'this far and no further.'"

But Lee said, "It could also be that Russia no longer knows how to stop it, in which case the Russians will be opening the door to a very dangerous world of nuclear proliferation. You can also be quite sure that … when Iran gets the bomb, the Middle East will go nuclear."

When this reporter last interviewed Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore in May 2001, he said his biggest concern about the future "is an Islamist bomb and mark my words it will travel." It now has done just that courtesy of Pakistan's A. Q. Khan, the anti-American father of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal. When asked this week about the advisability of the United States or Israel bombing Iran's nuclear facilities, Lee fell silent. He was about to express an opinion, then changed his mind. "I can express no views on that," he said lowering his voice.

Lee's second-biggest concern eight years ago was China's challenge to the global status quo. No longer. "Will China be to the 21st century what America was to the 20th?" we asked.

If the Chinese leaders stay on their present course, Lee answered, "The peaceful rise of China's power will prevail. They are determined not to challenge any existing power, meaning America, EU, Russia, but just make friends with everybody. Given the rules of the game now that China is in WTO, they can only grow stronger year by year, and within three or four decades, China's GDP will equal America's, their technology will be equal to what was long regarded as the world's only superpower, and their GDP will be larger than America's.

"And all that stems from what they have long studied in details in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore. … They are sending 250,000 students abroad every year, and even though they may lose 60 percent to 70 percent of them to other countries, they don't care because they know many of them will come back eventually. … They want to avoid building a pre-World War II Japan or Germany. Territorial conquest is not necessary as it once was.

"You don't have to be a genius to know that they are producing five times as many engineers and scientists as the Americans. … They are everywhere (in the world) today. Can you be everywhere while focused on Iraq? In the Caribbean you have one Embassy in Barbados that serves six other tiny island countries. The Chinese have an embassy in each place. And that's what you call your front yard."

Taiwan?

"They won't invade," Lee responded, "and try to take over militarily. That would be far too costly for them all over the world. … Can the Chinese land troops in Taiwan and establish and hold and widen a beachhead? The answer is no. Can they conquer Taiwan militarily? Again, no. They can only inflict damage." Today, Lee added, "Taiwan goes to America to get its technology, which then transits to China. If they take back Taiwan, it becomes Chinese without the same freedom of access to U.S. technology and research labs. So why kill the goose that lays the golden eggs?"

© 2008 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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