Archive for August, 2003

[Originally published in the Valley News.]

The United States is living on the edge in the Middle East.  Right now, when time is of the absolute essence, the Bush administration seems interested only in its own internal realities – disinterested in the objective realities on the ground in the area.  There are three hotspots that illustrate the predicament we are in.  They are all quite different, requiring different approaches and different solutions, but all intertwined and demanding a level of attention and commitment they are not now getting.

The oldest issue is the Arab-Israeli conflict. Given the tenor of the recent visit of House Majority Leader Tom Delay to Israel, it is probably safe to say that the positions of some fundamentalist American Christians, known as Christian Zionists, are a major factor in the Bush Administration’s policy.  The conviction that the continued Jewish occupation of historic Palestine is one of the necessary stages leading to the second coming of Christ is very much part of their motivation.

Right wing Israeli politicians led by Sharon and the Likud Party seem uncomfortable following our “road map” and may opt instead for the continued, permanent occupation of the West Bank. Their unyielding position on settlements and on their new Berlin wall give hints at their real goals. It would appear that the Bush administration is quietly going along with Israeli policy as has been strongly suggested by knowledgeable commentators with close Israeli ties like Zev Chafets of the NY Daily News.  If this proves to be the case, that part of the world will very likely enter into a protracted conflict starting with a renewed Palestinian Intifada slowly spreading chaos across the Middle East.  If Israel were to confront its right wing demons right now and give up the West Bank in return for peaceful, secure borders, the situation might turn out quite differently.

Afghanistan is a wholly different matter.  We are there because it was clear that the Taliban regime had enabled the 9/11 attacks by giving sanctuary to Al Qaida.  We went there to deny them that sanctuary and to destroy Al Qaida.  We clearly have accomplished neither.  We have not done away with the top Al Qaida brass, which is said to remain in Afghanistan, and there is apparently a resurgence of the Taliban in the remote tribal regions of Afghanistan.

It is clear that the only Kabul and its immediate surroundings have even been modestly tamed. Neither the Afghan government nor the US military has been able to pacify the rest of the country or wrest power from tribal warlords.  No one, most prominently the United States, has provided the wherewithal needed in terms of troops and assistance that would enable the pacification of the country. If it is not in our interest to succeed in Afghanistan, then where is it?  After all, this is a country where we enjoyed UN approval and support of our invasion.  A failure to carry through with our previously formulated plans and goals could cause us terrible future consequences.

Finally, we are mired in an extraordinarily difficult situation in Iraq.  We are working there on a very tricky timetable.  Our troops are getting killed.  That means they are defensive, anxious and trigger-happy.  Who wouldn’t be?  We are shooting at Iraqis and killing them. We have not been able to restore even the most rudimentary elements of the Iraqi infrastructure.  No reliable power, oil or gas.  We are not only unable to restore the old infrastructure, but seem unable to defend what is left of it.  Power lines, pipelines and now, waterlines are not defended.  No police force, therefore no order. We are methodically alienating the Iraqis. How much time do we have before things turn even more sour?

Further, the Sunnis who supported Saddam have absolutely no future in an American model of Iraq.  They are the remnants of the old regime and they are worried about Shiite ascendancy and Kurdish revanchism.  They have nothing to lose and provide the largest numbers of those who attack our troops.  That’s bad enough, but if things don’t get better in a hurry and we can’t stop alienating the Iraqis, others will sign on.  Note the recent widespread Iraqi rejoicing at our misfortune with the Northeast power outage.  We also have to be concerned with Shiite fundamentalism.  Shiite fundamentalists are not persuaded that democracy is any kind of answer, as the Koran does not promote it.

Finally, there seems to be evidence of anti-American, non-Iraqis joining in on attempts to kill our troops in Iraq.  Our presence in Iraq represents an irresistible opportunity to every crazy who would like to kill Americans.  Iraq is a target-rich environment not terribly hostile to the killers.  We can probably count on that increasing as long as we have not truly pacified that country and solved our other dilemmas in the area.

Through all of this, Bush administration officials maintain that everything is OK and getting better.  The objective facts support that, they say.  On the other hand, Iraqis do not share that perception and we must remember that perception often becomes reality.  That means that as long as the Iraqis think things are bad, they are, even if we think the opposite. No matter how often our officials say things are going well, if the Iraqis say they are not, that perception will shape the future realities of this irregular conflict.

Our handling of these three issues – The Palestine problem, Afghanistan and Iraq – will have a profound effect on our success in the area, whether we like it or not or whether or not we think it is fair.  We will not be able to fail at one and succeed at the others. Middle East realities will not let us do that.

One of the many points made during the run up to this US invasion of Iraq was that the Middle East is a very complicated part of the world where a real objective understanding of local realities must be part of any planning processes.  That observation seems to be borne out today.  We face horribly complicated circumstances on the ground in three disparate countries, with a one size-fits-all policy molded by a naïve, simplistic, fundamentalist view of the world. The Bush administration seems philosophically disinclined to acknowledge objective realities in the area.  In addition, our frantic policy implementation suggests an administration suffering from collective Attention Deficit Disorder without benefit of Ritalin.  This is a prescription for disaster.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA Station Chief who, inter alia, served in Beirut and Tehran and was Chief of CIA’s Counterterrorism Staff.  He lives in Williston, Vermont.

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