US Alliance enmeshed in Middle Eastern Mess without an Exit Route

David Kilcullen, from The Weekend Australian 13-14 February 2016, where the title is “Already Weary of the long war that we are not winning” … and where Kilcullen clarifies the spread-effects of the Bush administration’s disastrous intervention in Iraq and its efforts to “spread democracy at the barrel of a gun” (in Maajid Nawaz’s words) reaching a point  “when there is no drawbridge NOW” — Editorial Comment

As I write, Western countries (several, particularly the US, now with severely reduced international credibility) face a larger, more unified, capable, experienced and savage enemy, in a less stable, more fragmented region, with a far higher level of geopolitical competi­tion, and a much more severe risk of great-power conflict, than at any time since 9/11. It isn’t just Islamic State; al-Qa’ida has emerged from its eclipse and is back in the game in Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Syria, Somalia and Yemen. We’re dealing with not one but two global terrorist organisations, each with regional branches, plus a vastly larger radicalised population at home, and a flow of foreign terrorist fighters 10 to 12 times the size of anything seen before. Likewise, last year’s Taliban resurgence shows that as bad as things seem now, they can get much worse if the Afghan drawdown creates the same opportunity for Islamic State next year as the Iraqi drawdown did in 2012. Kilcullen —

And with Russia’s intervention in Syria — more broadly, with what Carnegie Moscow Centre director Dmitri Trenin called Vladimir Putin’s “breakout from the international system since the end of the Cold War” — we’re facing a revival of great-power military competition in the Middle East, the Mediterranean, the Pacific and Europe that vastly complicates our options.

Far from being coincidental, this, too, is a direct result of the way our failures in Iraq, Afghanistan and the broader war on terrorism since 2001 have telegraphed the limits of Western power and showed adversaries exactly how to fight us.

In the Middle East, we’re watching an escalating Sunni-Shia proxy conflict — once a cold war but getting hotter by the day — in Yemen, Syria, Libya, Iraq and increasingly Turkey, a conflict that’s drawing battle lines between Iran and its allies, on the one hand, and a fractious coalition of Sunni states, led by Egypt and Saudi Arabia, on the other. We’re facing an unprecedented number of asylum-seekers and displaced persons, prompting a mass migration crisis on a scale not seen since the end of World War II.

Beside the immediate humanitarian impact of that crisis, its long-term effects on the political complexion (and hence on the security environment) of Western Europe and elsewhere are hard to predict, but unlikely to be positive.

As journalist James Traub put it, writing about the Saudi-Egyptian intervention in Yemen, “America has abdicated its guiding role in the Middle East to a sectarian Arab military force — what could (possibly) go wrong?”

You could say the same about Iraq and Syria, except that the sectarian force that has moved into a leadership role is Shia Iran, freed from the restrictions of a punishing sanctions regime, allied with a newly aggressive, revisionist Russia, and increasingly able to call the shots in Iraq and Syria. In any case, whether or not we think it’s feasible (or proper, or sustainable) for the US to assume a “guiding role” after Russian military intervention and the Iranian nuclear deal have so fundamentally changed the facts on the ground, today’s Western leaders (in the US and elsewhere) have proven that they have little appetite for any role at all in the Middle East, let alone for more conflict.

Almost 15 years after 9/11, people are tired of war — I know I am. What they want most of all is for the conflict to be over, which is far from an ideal position in which to be facing such a wide range of resurgent threats. Where do we go from here?

The first step is to admit that this really is, every bit, the strategic failure it seems to be. For the hard truth is that the events of 2014-2016, including the “Blood Year” that started with the fall of Mosul, represent nothing less than the collapse of Western counterterrorism strategy as we’ve known it since 2001.

After 14 years, thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars, we’re worse off today than before 9/11, with a stronger, more motivated, more dangerous enemy than ever. So much is happening, simultaneously, in so many places, that leaders are struggling to decide what to do and in what order. The twin dangers are (on the one hand) that policymakers will engage in knee-jerk responses, rather than taking time to consider what an effective strategy looks like, or on the other that they will freeze, paralysed by analysis, and be unable to respond effectively at all.

blood year‘Blood Year’ by David Kilcullen

We’ve seen both of these path­ologies since 9/11. The Bush administration’s large-footprint approach, invading and occupying Iraq and Afghanistan, then committing to rebuild those countries from scratch at vast cost in time, troops, money and blood, amounted to what Maajid Nawaz, the former Islamist radical who now heads the London-based anti-radicalisation Quilliam Foundation, describes as “spreading democracy at the barrel of a gun”. Iraq, in particular, was an almost indescribably enormous strategic error that bogged down the US and its allies in a decade-plus counter-insurgency fight that demanded immense sacrifices from our troops, cost us our strategic freedom of action and eroded the legitimacy of a cause that, at the outset, enjoyed huge global support. There’s nothing particularly controversial or original about that judgment, by the way — former president George W. Bush’s brother Jeb, running for president himself, said in May last year: “Knowing what we know now, I would not have engaged. I would not have gone into Iraq.”

This framing, of course, misses the obvious fact policy isn’t made with the benefit of hindsight; the real question is “knowing what you knew then, what would you have done?”

On the other hand, the Obama administration’s strategy of retrenchment — conflating leaving the war with ending it and mistaking rhetorical poses for effective policies — led to a series of withdrawals, climb-downs and half-measures that pulled the rug out from underneath whatever pro­gress had been made in stabilising Iraq and Afghanistan, rendering those sacrifices useless and making a bad situation even worse.

It was an equal and opposite error: Barack Obama’s inaction in the face of crises in Egypt and Libya, failure to support democracy movements in Syria and Iran, and reliance on unilateral drone strikes, raids and targeted killings — to use Nawaz’s words again, “getting rid of the democracy but keeping the gun” — signalled weakness to Iran and Russia, midwifed the rebirth of Islamic State from the ashes of al-Qa’ida in Iraq, precipitated a horrific human tragedy in Syria and ultimately failed just as badly.

Again, there isn’t — or shouldn’t be — anything politically partisan or controversial about this assessment, which I often hear in private (though not, in an election year, in public) from people close to the administration, including in the National Security Council. If George Bush’s administration was a study in the perils of over-reaction and maximalist foreign policy, then Obama’s has been a lesson in the risks of passivity and under-reaction.

America’s allies — including Australia, Britain and virtually all of NATO — went along with both these flawed approaches out of solidarity, while corrupt, non-inclusive governments in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere were just as responsible as anyone for the dire outcomes in their own countries. Nobody’s in the clear: this is a bipartisan, multinational, equal-opportunity screw-up.

By far the best comment on this comes from Jack Keane, former vice-chief of the US Army, who critiqued the decision to invade in 2003, was a key architect of the surge, and was critical of the “zero option” in 2011 (which is to say, he made the right call on every Iraq decision of the past decade). Testifying before congress in May last year, Keane said: “We need to get past our political psychosis on Iraq. While (both invading and withdrawing completely) were crucial policy decisions, and there’s much to learn about them, we have to get past it. ISIS (Islamic State) is much more than Iraq.”

Keane, yet again, is absolutely right: we must focus on the reality of today because, whatever the merits of those decisions, in the here and now there’s a war on and we’re not winning it.

The second step is to realise this war truly is, as many have argued, a long war. There’s no magic bullet, no instant solution, let alone some carefully calibrated combination of firepower, diplomacy and technology that can quickly put the genie back in the bottle. Many Islamic State fighters are the sons of Iraqis imprisoned by occupation forces more than a decade ago; many al-Shabab fighters in Somalia, Ansar al-Sharia militants in Libya and Boko Haram guerillas in Nigeria are teenagers. As the Kunduz battle shows, today’s Taliban is younger, more radical, more battle-hardened and better trained than those we fought in 2001 — they have plenty of energy and all the time in the world.

Even as of early this year, there are still more than 35,000 fighters in Islamic State, and roughly as many in the Taliban and other extremist movements. The rise of Islamic State, the stimulating effect of its rivalry with al-Qa’ida, the Taliban resurgence and Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Bagh­dadi’s declaration of the caliphate are breathing life into a movement that seemed to be fading — proving that the ideology, like the movements defined by it, is tough and resilient. This conflict will not be going away any time soon and it certainly won’t end quickly or cleanly. On the contrary; this is, and will be, a multigenerational struggle against an implacable enemy, and the violence we’re dealing with in the Middle East and Africa is not some unfortunate aberration — it’s the new normal.

Neither can we pull up the drawbridge, disengage from the world and somehow avoid the fight. There is no drawbridge now; we live in interdependent, connected societies whose prosperity and success rely on trade, travel and free intercourse with the world.

Particularly for Australians, North Americans and Europeans, citizens of multicultural nations, plugged into the global economy, key players in regional and world events, opting out just isn’t feasible. If we fail to face the threat where it is today — primarily in the Middle East and North Africa — we’ll suffer the consequences at home. I’m not just talking about the spillover in Western countries because of our failure to deal with Syria, though that’s part of it.

While there’s an entity, whether it is Islamic State, al-Qa’ida or any other group, that can attract and motivate disaffected young people in our societies, preying on their idealism and alienation, drawing them into what the late, great Time magazine Baghdad correspondent Jim Frederick called a “hyperviolent, nihilistic band of exterminators”, the threat will remain. But as we’ve sought to disaggregate the threat, the rise of Islamic State has exposed the weakness of a strategic approach that, for too long, focused just on neutralising terrorist plots and killing or capturing senior terrorist leaders. This strategy looked, and often felt, as if it were proactive; “taking the fight to the enemy”. But, as the defeats of 2014-15 have shown, disaggregation was too narrowly focused to succeed.

In short, what we’ve been doing has failed; we need a complete rethink. That rethink, I suggest, needs to start with a threat analysis. What, exactly, is the threat we’re facing, and how can we address it in ways that are cheap enough, effective enough and non-intrusive enough to be sustainable across the long term, without undermining the openness, democracy and prosperity that make our societies worth defending in the first place?

David Kilcullen’s book Blood Year Islamic State and the Failures of the War on Terror (Black Inc.), adapted from his Walkley Award winning Quarterly Essay, is released on Monday, $29.99.

Kilcullen-200pxx281 Pic from

David Kilcullen was a senior adviser to General David Petraeus in 2007-08, when he helped to design and monitor the Iraq war coalition troop surge and was a special adviser for counter-insurgency to US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice.


For COMMENTS… ALREADY 168 in number

Example: from Iain (BTLSS) 17 hours ago

While not arguing with the history and the current terrorist risk, I am not sure if the realpolitik might not be a bit more complex.

The only reason that the Syrian opposition parties have come to the negotiating table is because Russia’s ruthless battle plan (not too dissimilar to what it did in Chechnya) has changed the status of the Syrian conflict and Assad is now gaining the upper hand.

While it is inhumane, unconscionable and repugnant, despite all of the international protests, Russia’s entry into the Syrian conflict and its battle plan suits the US and its allies – it would have been internationally and domestically impossible for the US to have done this (although Donald Trump appears to be arguing that this is what needs to be done).

Given the prime minister of Turkey’s ideological and religious vision for Turkey and the Middle East (including the elimination of the Kurds), it is inevitable that there would be a clash of objectives with its NATO allies, the only question is whether the current situation suits the preferred timing of Saudi Arabia, Turkey’s main support (having funded the creation of Al-Qa’ida and its offspring ISIS and then apparently lost control of both, Saudi Arabia may prefer to see Russia and the West reduce their power/economic base so that they have to come back into the fold).

Sunni v’s Shiite- from a negotiating stance, Iran is still too weak to negotiate a Middle East solution with Saudi Arabia (which still includes the expunging of Israel which is an anathema to both). The formation of a coalition of the willing (Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and others) will change the negotiating balance (the acquisition of the atomic bomb would have done it also).

The creation of massive numbers of refugees is one of the weapons being used to reduce the resolve of the Western nations (just as terribly wounded soldiers were used in the Vietnam war).

Is it a mess? – yes but it has been so for a very long time – especially exacerbated by the way Britain implement the dividing up of the area of the Ottoman empire under its control after WW1 (access to oil reserves apparently played a major part).



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