Archive for the ‘Iranian Region’ category

Escaping the Afghan Quagmire

January 28, 2009

In his campaign, Obama pointed out that instead of finishing the job in Afghanistan, the actual origin of 9/11, we had squandered resources, lives, and reputation on an unnecessary war in Iraq. He proposed to remedy this mistake by moving as fast as possible to get out of Iraq while inserting another 30,000 troops into Afghanistan. He seems determined, and his generals seem determined to follow this approach. Some argue that it is essentially the transfer of the successful surge and tribal militia tactics in Iraq to Afghanistan.

Unfortunately over the last year or more, information has been coming in that we are failing to a greater extent in Afghanistan than had been imagined. The trends are negative, and they are not trends that 30,000 or so additional troops are likely to reverse. A good analysis of the situation from an Australian perspective may be found here. On January 22, the NY Times came out with a description of what is happening in the south that is reminiscent of the Russians found themselves in before they left. Our side (U.S., NATO, government forces, etc.) control the major cities and some district capitals most of the time. But the vast majority of the villages are essentially under Taliban control or open to the Taliban whenever they wish to come in. The situation is much the same in the eastern part of the country. In the west and north the situation is better, but even here there have been significant Taliban inroads. Meanwhile, over the border, Pakistan’s army has been making a major effort to reduce the sway of the Taliban in the tribal agencies and the Northwest frontier provinces. Success remains limited. The Taliban have, for example, been able to move beyond the border areas and now control essentially all of the Swat District of NWFP, imposing their fanatical way of life on a formerly moderate people.

On Sunday, the NYTimes “Week in Review” gave the opinion of a number of experts on what was referred to as a developing “quagmire”, with or without the extra troops. The Kabul government is not performing, its agents are widely despised, and its police forces are generally ineffective. We are reminded that with 100,000 troops the Russians were able to do little more than control the cities and maintain logistics routes and provide secure living facilities for their forces. The more effective our forces become, the more they end up killing civilians. For both our forces and the Russians, airpower is regarded as essential for tactical success, and yet after many such successes, we find we have made yet another community turn against us because of the lives and property we have destroyed. In most areas our successes against the insurgents are not followed up with consistent protection of the people. Many Afghans do not like the Taliban, but if they have to exist alongside them, they have to act as though they do. There are too many villages for our forces to do much more.

One solution might be to simply pack up and leave as the British and the Russians did before. However, this would have moral and strategic downsides. In Kabul and other parts of the country we have encouraged people to adopt new values and new hopes and new behaviors that they would have to abandon should we leave. The bravery of school girls in the face of deadly threats suggests how important a new way of life is to these people. People of this kind are still a minority, but yet a vital minority whose protectors the West and the westernized middle classes have become. We should also not lightly abandon the tribal peoples of the west and the north of the country who fought in our cause after 9/11.

Another approach is to rethink our strategy. The first step would be to develop improved relations with Iran and Pakistan. Iran helped us initially. It has many logistics routes we could use. It has historical and ethnic ties to the Hazara and more broadly to the Tajiks (who literature and history is essentially inseparable from that of Iran). Herat was formerly a major Iranian city. Iran continues to provide assistance to Kabul, with which it has close and friendly relations. In the east and south, Pakistan has theoretical control over the longest Afghan border. Historically, it has not controlled many border areas, but it now realizes that it can no longer allow these areas to remain outside its control.

I emphasize improving relations with these states even though they are neither ideal, well-governed, nor reliable. But if they are weak and corrupt, the are still far from being as corrupt and feckless as the Afghan government. Afghanistan has nothing like the well-educated bureaucracies of the civil and military services that Pakistan inherited from the British. If we could develop effective means of dealing with these states, we would have a much more plausible basis for eventual success in Afghanistan.

Within Afghanistan, we should build from our strengths. We should bolster our rear by making more sure than we have that Kabul, Herat, Mazar i Sharif and other relatively peaceful cities remain outside the war zone. Qandahar should perhaps be included in the list even though it is very much in the war zone. (Qandahar is particularly important to the Pashtun section of the population, and thereby to President Karzai. It also has a remarkable group of anti-Taliban, pro-women’s education advocates.) We should strengthen those leaders in the north and west who reject the Taliban. By various inducements, we may be able to modify their addictions to drugs and corruption and gradually make certain parts of the country into models for the rest. The Hazarajat, the land of the Hazara shi’a minority, is prepared to defend itself against the hated Taliban. These are the areas in which we should emphasize development projects, the training of police and judges, etc.

In the east and south, we should initially try to reach a stalemate with tactics similar to those we have followed up to now. But our side should strive to rely less on air power, since the potential for error is not going to go away. We should also reduce the number of offensive operations. The goal should be to give whoever we contact a sense that they can rely on us to protect them if they assist us. We might try in a few areas to resurrect CAP units like the Marines used in Vietnam. This meant that a platoon would establish itself in a village (“hamlet” in Vietnam terminology) and stay there as they trained the local self-defense forces and helped local development. The approach worked quite well. (For more on this see the book “Can We Win in Vietnam?”) In areas where this model started to work in Afghanistan, more villages might gradually be included. Note, however, that real progress beyond this stalemate would depend on the effectiveness of an increasing effort by the Pakistanis in border areas — supported indirectly by American military and nonmilitary assistance. This includes education.

Note that we are talking here of a long term strategy. The Australian analysis referenced above was developed on the basis of a fifteen year stay. This will be possible only if we show some progress.

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Iranian Access Routes into Afghanistan

January 5, 2009


In a recent item in the NYT (December 31), there was extensive discussion of the need for alternative supply routes into Afghanistan for both military and development assistance. The Khyber pass may simply become too exposed to use successfully.


Although a quick look at the map would suggest that transit through Iran is the obvious alternative, Iran was notably absent from the discussion. Compared to the use of Central Asia, which was emphasized in the article, it would be much more cost effective to land supplies at the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas on the Persian Gulf and use its rail and road connections to Mashhad in northeast Iran. From Mashhad, there are well developed roads and may soon be railroads to Herat in Afghanistan.


We may not like the Iranian regime, but we did not let such considerations bar us from using Iran as a conduit for supplies for Stalin’s USSR in World War II.


Iran helped us in the beginning of our Afghan adventure, has maintained good relations with Kabul, and its Shiite adherents are mortal enemies of the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Let us build on our common interests so that we might forge a more effective and less costly Middle Eastern Strategy. This should be high on the agenda when President Obama “sits down” with the Iranians.

Iran in Iraq

March 21, 2007

In the last few days the Times has given us a summary of the recent economic penetration by Iran into Iraq. We could view this negatively, as many in Washington are wont to do. But from the viewpoint of all but the hardest line Sunnis, it should be considered as a real harbinger of hope for the future.

The stores are full of Iranian produce, air conditioners, automobiles and much else. Several Iraqi cities, including Basra, depend on Iran for their electricity. Iran has loaned Iraq one billion dollars and is establishing a bank in Baghdad. Iran is helping to relieve a severe gasoline shortage in Iraq by bringing gasoline in from Turkmenistan. Iranian trade with the Kurdish region now amounts to one billion dollars a year. Iranian tourism, particularly to the shrines in Karbala and Najaf has added considerably to the economy in some areas. Iran has assisted in the building of tourist facilities in both cities.

British Withdrawals

February 24, 2007

The announcement that the British intended to evacuate nearly half of their forces cast a gloomy shadow over American plans. Commentators noted that several of the other coalition partners had plans to reduce their forces or leave completely in the near future. These were mostly small symbolic forces, but symbols are important.

Juan Cole tells us in the current Salon online magazine that in leaving Basra the British will be leaving a city that they have simply been unable to control. After a brave effort to bring the militias to heel early on, in recent months they have backed off and let the militias do most of the policing. Cole tells us that the Virtue Party (a Shi’a group with which I am not familiar) and SCIRI (whose leader’s son the U.S. briefly detained on the Persian border) have both infiltrated the police to such an extent that they have divided up most of the city between their militias (in police uniforms). Both of these groups have enforced Taliban-like restrictions on dress, alcohol and so forth. The situation is complicated by the Marsh Arabs, many of whom have emerged in this area as criminal gangs. Most of Iraq’s oil passes through Basra and its environs, and the local warfare is to a large extent over who gets the bulk of the massive pilferage of oil that goes on.

Basra is said to be a completely Shi’a area. Yet at least in the environs there is a tough Sunni community that has strived to preserve its own turf against repeated Shi’a inroads.

Cole points out that nearly all the supplies for the American army in the center of the country must come through the Basra area. As the British presence is reduced, the chance that the militia-police might gradually or abruptly choke off these supply lines must worry the Pentagon. It may force the Americans to place more troops along this supply line. In any event, holding power in this chokepoint increases the bargaining power of SCIRI and other Basra militias on the national scene. SCIRI is very close to the Iranians and is the most likely group to approve of increased Iranian involvement in Iraq. Some months back a reporter in Basra was telling us that the city was essentially in the hands of the Iranians through its client organizations. I have not heard this claim lately, but in the end it may come down to this.

In conclusion, the British withdrawal will be opening the country to even more Iranians presence and pressure. As I have said elsewhere, this certainly seems reasonable from their perspective, but, again, it is not reassuring to Americans who have a rather different perspective.

Afghanistan: Our First Responsibility

February 13, 2007

In the January/February Foreign Affairs Barnett Rubin has summarized in excellent and disheartening detail the problems we face in attempting to stabilize Afghanistan. He asserts that we have not lost yet, but the country is still ours to lose. The importance of winning goes beyond both the welfare of the Afghan people and the maintenance of America’s position in the world. He points out that NATO is now intimately involved in the effort to turn back the Taliban. If it should fail, this will not only harm the United States and NATO, but also seriously set back the effort to make NATO an accepted and viable alternative for bringing order to future situations.

While it is impossible to separate the country from its context, let us begin with the challenges that would be faced even if there were no Taliban. Rubin finds only one major effective institution — the army. Beyond that, the police and the judicial system and local government are all highly corrupt and incompetent. The lack of any believable security and justice for the average person leads to a crushing lack of confidence that makes reconstruction almost impossible. Pervasive corruption makes the distribution of security funds a losing proposition. The only cash crop many Afghans have is opium. It has become much more important than it ever was because of the impossibility of getting more bulky products to the market. This problem is exacerbated by the high price paid for opium because other countries have been much more able to reduce production. Rubin adds that the opium problem is essentially impossible to control as long as the developed world criminalizes opium. The inevitable result of criminalization is high returns for those outside the law, a sphere in which most Afghans reside and will remain for the foreseeable future. The result of the situation is the empowering of “warlords”, which we might define as persons able to act without restraint against those under them. These warlords may be the old fashioned variety or the newer Taliban leaders.

Rubin points out some basic facts that it are easy to forget. The Afghans have been living through what is now a thirty years war. He also reminds us that Afghanistan has suffered from extreme poverty for generations, and it is this poverty that makes any effort by government, before or after this war, almost doomed to failure. Governments just cannot collect the funds that would allow them to do anything outside Kabul.

Yet with all this, his interviews suggest that the people do not want the Taliban back if there is a real alternative.

The other major thrust of Rubin’s article is that no insurgency has ever been overcome when there is an outside country willing to maintain a steady supply of insurgents. No matter how many we kill, there will be more. He explains that Islamabad supports the Taliban as part of a long-term strategy that we at one time seconded of opposing India at every opportunity. Strange as it may seem, Pakistan’s leading class lives in constant fear that India will “do them in”. In this paranoid vision, India is continually trying to squeeze Pakistan in a pincher between Afghanistan and India. All this goes back to the time of partition when some leaders of the NWFP sided with India and tried to strike out on their own by creating “Pakhtoonistan”. Pakistan saw the hand of India in all this. So its intelligence services took it upon themselves to block India. In recent years this has meant supplying and training the Taliban both within the country and in Afghanistan, as well as support for similar groups in Kashmir. To Pakistan, the American invasion of Afghanistan was a disaster — Rubin reports Islamabad considered going to war with the U.S. to preserve their Taliban ally.

All of which illustrates again that we are mucking around in an area that is almost impossible to understand, with allies and friends all mixed up together in strange relationships.

Nevertheless, Rubin echoes the Iraq Study Group’s call for negotiations with Pakistan, as well as the other players. As he points out, we may not like, understand, or agree with the positions of other players, but we cannot simply ignore them. For example, the only way to get the Pakistanis to change their behavior in regard to the Taliban is to give them assurances, even guarantees, that their worst fears will not be realized if they cooperate with us. Even then, we might not succeed, but this is the only shot we have.

We Must Negotiate with Iran

January 31, 2007

In a recent New York Times Op-Ed (January 30), Viorst makes a case for involving the Arab League in efforts to end the war in Iraq. Unfortunately, he contrasts this suggestion with that of the Iraq Study Group that emphasizes negotiation with Syria and Iran, “the very countries”, he asserts, “that have an interest in Iraq’s instability.” This mistaken contrast undermines what chances we might have for serious negotiation as a way out of Iraq.

Iran is the only non-coalition country directly involved in Iraq. Its interests in the country are manifold and have a much deeper historical background than our own. It never had a love affair with Saddam Hussein and spent millions of lives rejecting his advances. Recently, it has been developing peaceful and constructive relations with leaders throughout the region, including the Kurdish leaders in the north and Shi’a leaders in the south. Its political, religious, and business leaders are willing and able to play a major role in the reconstruction of Iraq, and are beginning to negotiate this role with these leaders.

Yes, the Iranians are bound to be particularly interested in the fate of their co-religionists in Iraq. But they know that the best path to assuring Shi’ite success is the stabilization of the present constitutional system that guarantees their interests. If the United States would abandon its rejection of Iranians as though they had no business in “our Iraq”, then we could talk to them about how we might work together to achieve mutual goals. We might at last find a way to move beyond the chaos that our clumsiness has created.

Escape from Iraq Through Iran

January 15, 2007


Many in Washington believe that the alternatives to a disastrous retreat from Iraq are few. One of the alternatives that some feel administration people are entertaining is a widening of the war to Iran. American statements in regard to Iran have been threatening since the “Axis of Evil” speech. Iran was never given credit for the help that they gave us in defeating the Taliban. Since the Taliban and Al-Qaeda are fiercely anti-Shi’a, one would think Tehran would have been a natural ally. Instead, the Iranians have been reviled for suspected attempts to develop a nuclear weapon, for their support of Hezbollah in Lebanon, and for supposedly sending weapons into Iraq.

Some month ago Seymour Hersh reported that American agents were being sent into Iran to help dissident movements in Iranian Baluchistan and Iranian Kurdistan. Scott Ritter, the former weapon’s inspector and Hersh are all over the internet with statements about these agents, along with Israeli agents. Ritter has predicted war with Iran in the near future. Recently, we have announced that we are sending additional ships to protect the Persian Gulf against Iran. One of the greatest downsides to a war with Iran is that the Iranians could disrupt the movement of oil in the Gulf. Presumably the ships and their associated planes could reduce this danger. On two occasions recently we have arrested Iranians in Iraq. The latest event in Erbil in Kurdistan infuriated both the central Iraq government and the Kurdish regional government. We claim they are involved in bringing in weapons or explosives for the Shiite militias. Perhaps they are. In any event, we have signaled that we will be more active in the future in preventing such intrusions. We have repeatedly claimed that the Iranians are breaking the law in moving ahead with a nuclear enrichment program. The Iranians claim it is all for peaceful purposes, but even if not, after essentially approving the Indian, Pakistani, and Israel programs, we have a weak basis from which to criticize.

In any event, can one imagine a better way for the Bush people to reverse the Iraq disaster? After this new front heats up a bit, it can plausibly be argued that our problems in Iraq are due to Iranian intervention, that we have actually been fighting Iran all along without realizing it. I don’t see a great deal of ground action, but there could be a lot of dead Iranians if we use our air power to “teach them a lesson”. A new way to make friends in the region.