Dire Warnings: From Syria to Iraq to Afghanistan

Greg Sheridan, in The Weekend Australian, 21 June 2012, where the title is “Danger lies in tribal loyalties”

SO President Barack Obama will send 300 US military advisers into Iraq after all. Is this the start of something bigger, as military advisers so often are? Probably not, given Obama’s determination to get out of Iraq and his promise that there will be no US troops involved fighting on the ground. Is it then a shrewd way of maintaining US influence in Iraq and bolstering the feeble Iraqi army? Or is it a lowest common denominator political compromise, seeking to get the symbolism of US power to do the work that the substance of US power once did?

AFGHANISTAN S-ATACKAFGHAN policemen scramble in response toa suicide attack

predator drone US predator drone

But look away from Iraq for a moment. By the end of this year, Western combat troops will have gone from Afghanistan, with only several thousand foreign soldiers left for training, advising and, presumably, emergencies. By the end of 2016, even the residual Western presence will be gone or vanishingly small.

Will Afghanistan’s tomorrow resemble Iraq’s today? The odds are that it will.

Pakistan might do for Afghanistan what Syria is now doing for Iraq. Pakistan for all its troubles is an infinitely more stable and functioning state than Syria. But, like Syria, it will probably continue to provide a more or less inexhaustible supply of jihadists to attack and cripple the Afghan state, just as Syria supplies these people to Iraq, as well as a safe haven for the Taliban to retreat to whenever it needs a rest, again as Syria does for ISIS.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have had many consequences geo-strategically. One has been the rebirth of counter-insurgency, travelling under the typical military acronym COIN, as a central US military doctrine, and then the strangulation and ultimate death and unmourned burial of COIN.

Make no mistake. The US paradigm has shifted fundamentally. COIN is dead and gone. The new paradigm is offshore balancing and external support.

The Middle East and central Asia this past decade have given us a virtual laboratory of intervention, and indeed non-intervention, techniques.

How did they all go?

Take Iraq. You cannot blame all of today’s problems in Iraq on the US invasion. Nor, however, can you possibly argue that the invasion produced the results US and allied policymakers wanted. Chalk that up as a signal failure for intervention and COIN.

Take Libya. Here was a much more limited intervention designed initially to stop Muammar Gaddafi massacring the residents of Benghazi. How did that go? It saved Benghazi but it led to the collapse of Libya, the rise of regional and tribal war lords, the disintegration of order, the spread of Libyan arms throughout North Africa and to al-Qa’ida, and the contagion of instability among Libya’s neighbours.

What about non-intervention? Take Syria. An entirely indigenous revolt broke out against the dictator, Bashir al-Assad. The US didn’t intervene. It didn’t arm the rebels. It didn’t bomb the dictator. It offered mainly humanitarian aid. How did that go? Many more than 100,000 dead, the Syrian state a shambles, millions of refugees, and now the most savage extremists of the modern Middle East flooding into Iraq.

What about Egypt? The US used to be accused of supporting dictators in the Middle East. It stopped supporting the military dictatorship in Egypt. How did that go? One election produced a government led by the extremist Muslim Brotherhood, which governed so badly that the economy collapsed, it was thrown out by a popular revolt and a new military dictatorship has been established that has produced some sort of stability and now enjoys broad US support. Not exactly a success, certainly no triumph for democracy, the best you can say is it isn’t as bad as it might have been.

No Western strategy at all has worked well in the Middle East.

Which brings us back to Afghanistan.

Karl Eikenberry, a former US general who served as a soldier in Afghanistan and later as the US ambassador there, told me this week that he thought the US after 9/11 had no real option but to engage in a military operation in Afghanistan, especially after the Taliban government refused the Bush administration’s quite reasonable demands that it separate from al-Qa’ida.

The question of history though, Eikenberry suggested, would centre on whether the US became far too ambitious and unrealistic about what it could achieve in Afghanistan.

Reflecting generally on the moment we are in, Eikenberry commented ruefully: “We need to figure out how to promote our values (including democracy) in a much more sophisticated, pragmatic and effective way.

“Making the starting point elections, which often should be the culminating point of a long transitional political process and must be organic, is actually undermining our credibility.’’

I have become very pessimistic about Afghanistan. Eikenberry sees no indication that Pakistan will change the pattern of its behaviour. It keeps up a substantial investment in the Afghan Taliban, and other terrorist groups like the Haqqani network, because it sees them as a way of exercising influence in Afghanistan in the future.

For all of Afghanistan’s enormous internal problems, Pakistan’s attitude alone means there is simply no chance of it reaching reasonable stability. But Pakistan may not be able to take any other attitude. Islamabad fears an alliance between the Pakistan Taliban, which targets the Pakistan state, and the Afghan Taliban, which will leave the Pakistan state alone while it is focused on the struggle in Afghanistan.

Moreover, like Iraq, Afghanistan faces deep internal hostilities. In Afghanistan the internal conflicts are mainly ethnic, not, as in Iraq, religious. The southern Pashtuns are wildly under-represented in the Afghan National Army and do not acknowledge that Kabul should govern them. They have much more in common with Pashtuns across the border in northern Pakistan than they do with the northern Afghans who still dominate the upper reaches of the Afghan military.

Even with tens of thousands of US troops in Afghanistan, Kabul cannot establish authority in the south. Without the US troops, it has virtually no chance.

There is a paradox in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Both societies are intrinsically violent with deep traditions of Islamic machismo and militias.

Yet we saw the Iraqi army melt in the face of ISIS aggression. The Afghan army loses 60,000 men a year in desertions and resignations. It fights OK with the Americans beside it and American air cover. Why is it the only institution that doesn’t routinely fight well on its own?

This is because all over the Middle East and central Asia the experience is that localised, communitarian, ethnic, religious and regionally based militias will fight savagely and tenaciously to defend their turf or their religious ­vision.

But artificial state constructs such as the Iraqi army or the Afghan army command no deep loyalty. They have no soul.

In some nations such as Egypt and Pakistan, the army has built up its own institutional esprit de corps. But even here its institutional coherence comes from soldiers’ loyalty to their army, which often provides for all their economic and social needs and indeed often has even a hereditary element, rather than to their nation.

Saddam Hussein’s army was based on the leadership of his Tikrit clan, Assad’s army is based on the Alawite and familial networks, the whole Saudi system is based on the thousands of branches of the royal family holding influence throughout Saudi institutions.

In devastating revelations in Bob Carr’s diary he records that the Americans now accept Afghanistan will be a disaster.

But his most telling passage is one that recounts a discussion with his “senior people’’. As these are not designated as DFAT people, and from the nature of the conversation, we must assume they are ASIS analysts and operatives. Carr writes: “They agree that, after 12 years, the whole war has been a waste. The Taliban is laughing.

“Said one of them, who had been there twice a year over the last 10, “We spent a billion dollars in Uruzgan province.

It has a population of just over 300,000. We could have achieved the same result if I’d been sent up there with $10 million to distribute bribes.’

They agree that after September 11 we could have had a special forces intervention to take out al-Qa’ida. Instead it became a huge, expensive exercise in counterinsurgency and nation-building.’’

In Afgantsy, a withering account of the Soviet experience in Afghanistan, Rodric Braithwaite reaches an eerily similar conclusion about Moscow’s efforts. After all the Russian troops were gone, they kept their client Najibullah government in office in Kabul with just $3 billion a year in assistance. Najibullah and his soldiers fought because they judged, rightly, that they would be slaughtered by the mujaheddin if they lost. Only when Soviet money dried up did they collapse.

The West has huge interests in the Middle East and central Asia. The time when those interests can be secured by Western soldiers has passed.

It’s not only in aid that we need a new paradigm.


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