Archive for the ‘western ideology’ category

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.


Iraqi Kurdistan: Democratic or Democratic Enough?

July 7, 2007

In a recent Op-Ed, Thomas Friedman proposed that if we lose out on all our other dreams in Iraq, we should at least make sure that we preserve Iraq’s Kurdistan as a bastion of democracy. He and others admit that it is not perfect, referring to its well-known high level of corruption.

I am afraid that corruption is only one of the failings of this enclave that is often pictured as a shining exception. Politically, the area is two areas, ruled for years by strong tribal leaders exercising what is essentially dictatorial powers. Half is run by the KDP under the Barzanis, the other half by the PUK under the Talabanis (Talibani is also the current President of Iraq — “President” being a largely ceremonial post). PUK and the KDP are actually modern versions of long-standing tribal alliances, alliances that have often fought each other as much as the outside world. Barzani even invited Saddam in to help him with one of these contests in the 1990s. Later, the two groups “made up”, at least temporarily, forming an alliance that is still maintained

The elections that have been held recently reflect absolute internal control within the subregions. As one reporter recently wrote here : “These areas should not be confused with democracies. They are one-party statelets little different from places like Azerbaijan or Kazakhstan, both secular U.S.-aligned dictatorships run by and for a clique of clans unafraid to maintain their rule through force.”

I agree with Friedman that we should help preserve the level of security and welfare and progress that the Kurds have achieved. But we should be preserving it not so much as a example of our success in bringing democracy to the Middle East, but as an example of the level of achievement that it is rational at this point in the political development of the area to aspire to. Our mistake in Iraq was to imagine that the Iraqis wished to and could establish thriving democratic institutions. We might have done better to have helped Baath civilian and military leaders form a government based on Iraqi values and abilities, a government that we could have turned over the country to long before now. In accepting and defending the emerging Kurdish state or “autonomous province” in the old Soviet terminology, we would be demonstrating that we can work with partial solutions to the problem of governance, solutions that are more democratic than exist now in most of the area and yet fall short of, and will for many years continue to fall short of Western ideals.

Blood in the Sand

June 5, 2007

The more we learn about Iraq, the less we seem to know. Americans try to get between the killers and their prey while many Iraqis want to kill Americans so that they can go back to killing one another. Of course, all Iraqis are not like this. But many of those who are not are long gone from the country, leaving behind an ever more warped populace.

In Sunday’s NYT “Week in Review” section, the reporter Edward Wong tells us that Iraqis have long been famous in the region for desiring a particular outcome in their conflicts, an outcome that is described by the word “sahel”. Sahel means the absolute destruction of opponents, followed by the complete destruction and humiliation of their bodies. The hanging of Americans in Falluja was by no means a fluke. It was SOP.

Wong’s conversations with Iraqis suggest that many feel this way about their enemies. They do not intend to rest until they have completely destroyed them. Even if they belong to a minority like the Sunnis, they feel that their honor demands that they strive persistently and unwaveringly toward destroying their foes. The Sunnis are convinced that they are meant to rule, and the Shi’a are trash from which the country must be cleansed. The Shi’as see themselves as humiliated and violated for centuries. It is past time for them to wreak their vengeance. Both groups see Kurds as unimportant people meant to be ruled. The Kurds, on the other hand, have their own grievances and unsatisfiable aspirations.

In this context, the American hope that the factions will tire of the conflict seems unlikely to be realized. All sides see death as strengthening their cause, either the death of their own or of the enemy. And the more horrible the deaths on either side, the more they fire the desires, self-righteousness and hatred of those still alive.

We should add to this the general Iraqi view that Americans are weak and unreliable. They are unreliable because they do not have the depth of feeling of the Iraqis. Whatever schedule we might have for leaving, we will leave, so many Iraqis feel they can just wait us out. But the last few days suggest that they are not willing to wait bloodlessly. They want to kill us to encourage our departure, but also because they just like to kill whomever they have defined as the enemy. And they want to kill one another to position themselves for the real struggle that will follow.

One should add that the Shi’a mistrust the coalition because outsiders have always abandoned them, and they see our real allegiance to be to the Sunni countries of the region, such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan. The Sunnis mistrust us because our supposed dedication to “democracy” produces a system that favors the Shi’a. Neither side has any concept of sharing or compromise. The Kurds mistrust us because we have repeatedly abandoned them after encouraging their efforts, and because they feel our stronger tie is to the Turks in NATO who want nothing to do with an independent Kurdistan.

(In making this summary of Wong, I am leaving aside the much more complex texture of the society in which hatreds and killings often reflect, and reflect intensely, animosities that exist within each of the broad groupings with which we must deal.)

Wong’s analysis does not provide the analytical basis with which analysts generally like to approach conflict. But the continued inability of American forces to reduce the killing of either Iraqis or Americans in the current “surge” must be confounding to the generals. This inability cries out for an analysis that admits we are lost in the bloody sand and don’t know what to do next. Ultimately, the key failure in Iraq has more to do with being there at all and less with failures of strategy, tactics, equipment, or an inadequate number of boots on the ground.

American Irrresponsibility

May 17, 2007

In Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, Nir Rosen had an excellent piece on Iraqi refugees. There are now about two million outside the country, nearly all in the Middle East, and nearly as many displaced persons still within the country. The largest number is in Syria, and here the refugees have found the most welcoming situation. Syria is the only major state that welcomes Shiites, and it is the only state that has managed to reduce hostilities among competing groups from Iraq. It does this by trying to remain friendly to all, and by strongly discouraging any talk of sectarianism (a stance that also fits its internal balance of power requirements).

There are fascinating glimpses of the approaches of the factional leaders now in Syria. Originally, they saw the enemy as the Americans. But over time this has been changing. Now their most intransigent enemies are the al-Qaeda and Jihadist groups who have no real interest in Iraq or Iraqis. They distinguish sharply between the “honorable struggle” that targets only foreigners and the al-Qaeda approach that targets civilians as well. They are also coming to see the Iranians as a common enemy of Iraq. (It must be said that most of the conversations are with Sunnis). They also see Iraq under Hussein as being essentially non-sectarian, pointing out that the coup attempts against Hussein were almost entirely by Sunnis.

But the most discouraging section of the piece is that on the American response. We have done almost nothing for the refugees and do not intend to. Our position is that of Bolton, former ambassador to the UN. He told the author that Americans have no responsibility for the refugee problem “Our obligation was to give them new institutions and provide security. We have fulfilled that obligation.”  Another high-ranking official in the Bush State Department agreed, pointing out that “Refugees are created by repressive regimes — the refugee problem was caused by Saddam Hussein”. Thus, when we got rid of him, we had essentially “solved” the refugee problem.

It would seem as though many in this administration live in an alternate universe. There is no recognition that the chaos has been caused by faulty decisions, no matter how well intentioned they might have been. We have produced a mess from which the Iraqis flee. Of course, they are partly responsible, but the world believes and I believe that we are also responsible — for ending the war and for what it has produced.

Iraqi Opinions

March 24, 2007

Juan Cole leads us to consider some recent polls. A recent survey by the British Opinion Research Business (ORB) showed that Iraqis had remarkable confidence in spite of all that has happened. Support for Prime Minister Maliki was much more widespread than had been expected. In their polls, increase in support compared with September was quite dramatic. Not surprisingly more Shi’a preferred the present system to Saddam’s, yet the difference was not as great as might have been expected (51% of Sunnis preferred the Baathist regime; 66% preferred Maliki). Only 15% of Shiites believed they were in a civil war, while 40% of Sunnis believed this. (I would note that this was a countrywide poll, and many of those reported as Sunni were in fact Sunni Kurds, a fact that should temper our surprise at the results.) Yet it might be discouraging to the surge folks that 53% nationwide thought that the security situation would improve after foreign troops left, while only 26% thought it would get worse.

According to Cole, the most recent USA Today poll showed that 83% of Shiites and 97% of Sunni Arabs oppose the presence of coalition forces in Iraq; 75% of Kurds support them. By more than 3 to 1, Iraqis say the presence of U.S. forces is making the security situation worse. The respondents want the foreigners out, but only 35% want them to leave immediately, perhaps six months to a year would be best. 40% of Shiites want a theocracy governed by Islamic law. 58% want a strongman to rule. Even 34% of Kurds reject democracy. This seems to contrast remarkably with the growing support for Maliki, who is, after all, the first person to come to power by a more or less democratic process in a long time. I think the association of a foreign occupation force with “democracy” has given the system a bad name for the moment. In any event, few Iraqis are likely to be willing to fight for democracy. What they are willing to fight for, other than security, is still up in the air.

Afghanistan: Less is More

March 21, 2007

Rory Stewart, who works out of Kabul, is presently a guest Op-Ed writer for the New York Times. He has been making a concerted effort to tell us, and the West, to “back off”in Afghanistan. This is very counter-intuitive for me. I was one of those who counseled when we went to Afghanistan after 9/11 to be sure and “do it right” This meant to follow the post-World War II example of what we did in Germany and Japan: massive assistance, total occupation; reeducation on many levels etc. According to this analysis, we sent far too few troops to Afghanistan and spent far too little. We still might have been right, but Stewart makes one wonder. In the present environment of limited resources and reluctant publics in both Europe and America, he is certainly worth listening to.

His basic idea is that the Afghanis simply do not understand the priorities we place on our assistance. They increasingly feel that we have spent a lot of money and accomplished very little. Some are even nostalgic for the return of the Russians. “At least, they built bridges, roads and airports”. Instead of talking in general terms about building democracy or reforming the economy, we should talk to the Afghans more, find out what they really want and need, and help them with that. He finds the Afghans have responded favorably to, “excellent models, from U.N. Habitat to the Aga Khan network, which has restored historic buildings, run rural health projects, and established a five-star hotel and Afghanistan’s mobile telephone network.”. And he speaks of a functioning soap manufacturing business that an American woman has promoted.

In many areas we seem to be fighting the people instead of the terrorists. He finds that in many areas our opponents have no fixed political agenda; they are certainly uninterested in attacking Europe or the United States. He reports a Dutch experience in one area where they found that if left alone, the Taliban defeated themselves with their ideological preaching. He contrasts Dutch inaction to the British offensives in the South which accomplished little besides the alienation of large areas. He asserts that “Pacifying the tribal areas is a task for Afghans, working with Pakistan and Iran. It will involve moving from the overcentralized state and developing formal but flexible relationships with councils in all their varied village forms”.

His conclusion is that we were more correct than we knew when we sent only limited forces into the country after 9/11. We may be making a mistake in trying to reverse this policy. I guess Afghanistan is not Iraq. (Or maybe it is?)

Thoughts on Resolving the Democrat’s Dilemma

March 15, 2007

Unfortunately, the only good strategy most democrats have for getting out of Iraq is a rewriting of the argument that we shouldn’t have gotten in, and when we got in, we should have done x, y, and z. This is all true, but as David Brooks point out in today’s Op-Ed, it doesn’t add up to much. The Bush Republican’s “more of the same” doesn’t look that intelligent either, but at least it is a strategy that the observer can get his mind around.

The problem that Brooks points out is that the Democrats are looking for a middle strategy and the situation doesn’t seem amenable to such a solution. Another problem is that there has been some improvement under the surge. Outside of Baghdad, Maliki has gone to Anbar Province for the first time and he seems to have one faction of Sunnis there that support the government. As strategies develop, mature and fade away, there will always be gains and losses, and at no time are we likely to be able to decide much more clearly than we do today.

Another difficulty is that those who want to leave, necessarily emphasize American losses. Losses, and grievous injury are always sad, but the number are still about a tenth of what happened in Vietnam when we had a smaller national population. This emphasis on American losses seems most hard-hearted in that it ignores the many many times greater Iraqi losses of life and property, losses that go on every day, and are likely to go on if we leave. No one can say whether this loss will be enhanced or reduced if we leave. And this inability necessarily holds the tongues of the democrats. The real possibility that leaving could make things worse, and they could certainly be worse, keeps the discussion returning to how many of our “boys and girls” have been damaged. This is not a very humane approach. If a Democrat could somehow come up with any strategy that guaranteed a reduction in these Iraqi losses, he or she should be canonized.

So what should the critic say and do? I do not know, but here are some points. We should agree:

(1) to emphasize the wishes of the Iraqi people, both as represented by the government and other political leaders, as well as regional, factional and militia leaders. Keep in continual contact with such leaders. Start to define and refine what we do in light of their feelings and desires. Do not take it upon ourselves, for example, to keep the Iranians out. If and when and where, Iraqis want help in keeping out Iranians, help them. If they want Iranian help elsewhere, welcome it.

(2) to let them structure their society as they wish. In particular, this means that we should not insist on the privatization of the oil industry. Most Iraqis see this as another plan to rob them of their heritage. It is not all that, but we should respond to their desires. More generally, we should not insist on a blueprint for the economy. They have a legislature. It is up to this body to make laws.

(3) Provide Iraqi institutions, civilian and military, with the best equipment as soon as we can — and provide it with the maintenance facilities that go with it. For example, their troops should have our body armor and they should have the new trucks that cannot be blown up with roadside bombs. It would be best if such items were manufactured in Iraq.

(4) Encourage the operation of more government facilities and offices outside the Green Zone. It will be dangerous at first, but if they can develop with our assistance an ability to hold ministerial conferences and even parliamentary sessions outside this area, it would have great symbolic importance.

(5) Encourage agreements between violent groups and the government that will offer hope to the “enemies” that they can play a role in a new society. There are surely some enemies that this would not affect, but many others would no doubt be amenable to a believable offer.

(6) Accept and protect the separation of ethnic groups where this seems to be a better choice than trying to maintain mixed neighborhoods indefinitely. Help should be available for resulting redeployments of population, with some more creative solutions than simply refugee camps. Wherever possible work with the leaders of ethnic factions to define their minimum aims, so that they might be able to agree with their neighbors on “boundaries”. Some groups will have no minimum aims, but many will.

(7) Encourage the development of protected zones in the less dangerous parts of the country which could serve as magnets for those Iraqis who would like to return to the country. Emphasizing using our forces to protect such areas.

(8) In general, deemphasize aggressive campaigns and air strikes where these serve the purposes of the Americans in terms of our concepts of how to fight the war. In many cases, where the Iraqis clearly want and need such support, it should be given, but this should be their responsibility, not ours.