As the world is focused on ISIL in Iraq, this morning’s banner story on nytimes.com is Taliban Mount Major Assault in Afghanistan. Calling it ” … one of the most significant coordinated assaults on the government in years … “, the article states – “the Taliban offensive presents a new worst-case situation for Western officials: an aggressive insurgent push that is seizing territory even before American troops have completed their withdrawal from Afghanistan.”
1. Contrast between “old” Iraq & Afghanistan
At least, the American venture in Iraq was a success before it recently came apart. The American venture in Afghanistan has been a mess since the first major victory. The immediate goal of overthrowing the terrorism-hosting Taleban regime was accomplished quickly. Then, with the help of Iran, America established a multi-ethnic government in Kabul in 2001 with Hamid Karzai, a Pashtun, as President & Mohammad Fahim, a Tajik, as Vice President. That was the high point.
Today, it is widely regarded as a failure – the longest war in American history that is about to end in a withdrawal without accomplishing any of the major objectives. In contrast, the venture in Iraq did end as a success. The surge in Iraq did break the back of the Sunni insurgency and America was able to bring together Shia & Sunni leaders into one multi-ethnic government. That is why President Obama was able to withdraw from Iraq with the thanks of the Iraqi government. That is why Vice President Biden confidently asserted in 2011 that Iraq would be regarded as a great success of the Obama Administration.
The reason the Iraq venture succeeded was clarity – clarity about American objectives & clarity about who were allies and adversaries of America in Iraq. America understood clearly that the enemies of this venture were the rich Sunni regimes of the Middle East, the friends & “allies” of America led by Saudi Arabia. America understood with great clarity that while Saudi Arabia was a major “ally” of the USA, the interests of America & Saudi Arabia were in utter conflict in Iraq. So America kept Saudi Arabia & the Gulf countries out of the Iraq theater. This clarity is the untold story of why America succeeded in Iraq.
The other equally important reason was Geography. Iraq was a closed theater. The US troops controlled the borders of Iraq and the Sunni insurgents were mainly confined within Iraq. This allowed the US forces to slowly squeeze the insurgency from all sides and “persuade” the Sunni leaders to end their support of the insurgents & join the US led effort for both survival & monetary gains.
The US venture in Afghanistan was just the opposite. Once the Karzai-Fahim government was established, the US venture lost all its clarity. The Bush Administration assumed the war was over when the Taleban fled across the line of control into NPak-occupied Pashtun areas. That assumption was due to the fundamental mistake America made in the Afghan venture – accepting the NonPakistani* military as an ally. The Obama Administration compounded this mistake and declared that the “stability” of NPakistan was the critical linchpin for success in Afghanistan. This was being dumb, deaf & blind at the same time.
The Obama Administration never understood the reality of the Af-Pak war as we saw it back in December 2009:
- the Pakistani Army is fighting a proxy war against the American Army in Afghanistan while maintaining the illusion of being America’s ally.
Others had the same opinion. Leslie Gelb, emeritus founder of the Council of Foreign Affairs, wrote back then:
- “Pakistan urges the United States to stay and fight in Afghanistan to keep the Indians out, but provides succor to the Taleban to hedge against an American withdrawal. So, the Pakistanis want us to stay in Afghanistan as they help the Taleban to kill our troops.(emphasis ours) “
But the Obama Administration remained blind to this obvious & vivid reality. Ergo, the utter mess in Afghanistan.
2. Lack of Clarity in Syria & Its Consequences
Today’s mess in Iraq stems entirely from the big mistake made by the Obama Administration in Syria. That probably came from their core belief in 2009 that the “war on terror” was over. That assumption was bolstered by the way the Arab Spring began – demonstrations by students & “intellectuals” for democracy & freedom. The Obama Administration enthusiastically embraced this freedom movement.
Their NeoLib supporters went much farther and advocated an aggressively interventionist policy. This was succinctly enunciated by Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times in a recent TV segment as “we may not have interests [there] but we have values“. So imperial intervention in other countries for American “values” became a la mode for NeoLibs.
The intervention against the Assad regime in Syria became cause celebre for both NeoLibs & NeoCons – the former in pursuit of values & the latter in pursuit of the strategic war against Iran, Syria’s benefactor. And this intervention was backed by America’s long standing “allies” like Saudi Arabia & Qatar. Add to that American foreign establishment’s delusional confidence in their ability to somehow recognize & separate “moderate” Sunni fighters from “extremist” Sunni fighters.
So the Obama Administration publicly declared that “Assad must go” and began supporting the “less jihadi” fighters among the Sunni rebels fighting Assad. America’s “allies” began supporting their own chosen jihadis in Syria – Saudi Arabia supporting “less jihadi” factions & Qatar supporting “more jihadi” factions.
Think how nuts this is – the Obama Administration was following two completely different approaches & policies across a thin colonially created line, the Sykes-Pichot line separating Iraq & Syria. In Syria, the US is supporting Arab Sunni insurgents with weapons (delivered via America’s “allies”) fighting a Shia-like regime while, across that thin line in Iraq, the US was supporting the Shia regime against Arab Sunni insurgents. The only way this made sense was the US assumption that Syria & Iraq were two completely different & segregated theaters.
Where did you see America act this way before? In Afghanistan, where the US policy has been to distinguish between “good” Taleban and “bad” Taleban. In Afghanistan, where the US has followed two different policies across a thin colonially created line called the Durand line separating Afghanistan & NPakistan. In Afghanistan US is fighting the Sunni Taleban nurtured & supported by the NPakistani military while inside NPakistan, the US is supporting the same military regime fight the Sunni Taleban. What supports this nutty policy is the assumption that Afghanistan & NPakistan are two different theaters in which American interests are different & segregated.
But the Taleban have never accepted the Durand line and to them Af-Pak is one integrated theater in Pashtunistan. The Sunni insurgents do not accept the Sykes-Pichot line and to them Iraq-Syria is one integrated theater in al-Sham. ISIL demonstrated this to the world by walking into Iraq and seizing territory just as the Taleban walked into Afghanistan this week to seize territory.
3. Iraq becomes Afghanistan
With the merging of Syria and Iraq into one theater, the conflict in Iraq has become the conflict in Afghanistan. Iraq is no longer a closed theater. As a result, any military effort to damage or destroy ISIL must be simultaneously undertaken in both Iraq & Syria. Otherwise, attacking ISIL inside Iraq would be like attacking the Taleban inside Afghanistan – helpful but not decisive because both Taleban & ISIL can retreat back to their bases across the “border”.
The one positive difference is that the Syrian regime would enthusiastically welcome American attacks on Sunni rebels inside Syria while the NPakistani regime would fight such American attacks on the Taleban in their occupied territories. The huge negative difference is America’s characterization of the Syrian regime as “foe” and of the NPakistani regime as “ally”. It would be hard for America to bomb ISIL inside Syria because it might look like helping America’s “foe” Asaad.
American policy is stuck in a quagmire in Afghanistan and now in Iraq because America’s “ally” NPakistan is really America’s “adversary” in Afghanistan and America’s “foe” Syria is really America’s “ally” in the battle against ISIL & Sunni jihadis.
The complexity of handling “allies” who are really adversaries & “foes” who are actually “allies” requires the ability to “publicly display the charm of a James Garner while privately engaging in tactics of a Disraeli“, we wrote back in January 26, 2013. The NeoCon-dominated Bush Administration did not display this ability. The NeoLib-dominated Obama Administration has not displayed this ability, at least not yet.
That is why we have the concurrent mess in Iraq & Afghanistan.
4. America, Iran & Russia
Two weeks ago, we discussed why a relationship between America, Iran & Russia is crucial to success in Iraq and Afghanistan. That was in Section 3 of our article titled Rinse & Repeat – Levant-i-Stan. Rather than repeat our views, we include below excerpts from this week’s article by Leslie Gelb, President Emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, titled A U.S. Playbook For Iraq and Syria.
- “The Obama administration should collaborate, at least temporarily, with Iran and Russia in a campaign against Sunni extremist groups fighting in Iraq and Syria “
- “Strategy has to start with this: who’s the real threat in that part of the world now? And the answer is, in Syria, it’s the jihadis. And in Iraq, it’s the jihadis. So we’ve got to look for allies to confront that threat. That’s the most serious thing.”
- “And in Syria, it means cooperating in some fashion with the guys we don’t like and eventually want to get rid of, namely President Bashar al-Assad, and as well working with Iran and Russia, who also oppose the jihadis in Syria.”
- “The Iranians are not our buddies, but they have their own interests. … also worry about the jihadis. So there is a basis for cooperating with them. It’s not a basis for a love and marriage, but it is for cooperation.”
- “If you ask the Russian leadership what they worry about most, it’s the internal threat from Muslim extremists and the Caucasus. They see a connection—and there are connections—between those Muslim extremists and the Muslim extremists in the Middle East that we’ve been talking about. And that’s one of the main reasons why they’ve been such big supporters of Assad. It’s been to fight the jihadis.”
What about our “allies”? Gelb writes:
- who has been financing the terrorists, the jihadis? Who’s been giving them money and arms? It’s come principally from three places, from three of our—I put this in quotes—“allies,” from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Qatar. The fact is they have been funding the very people who threaten our friends and allies, and ourselves. We’ve got to crack down on them.
Leslie Gelb gets the need to understand and handle the distinctions between “Alliversaries” and “Foellies”. We hope the American NeoLib & NeoCon establishments get this & quickly.
Send your feedback to email@example.com Or @MacroViewpoints on Twitter.