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Archive for August, 2010

Things fall apart in Iraq

[Originally published in the Rutland Herald and Barre Times-Argus.]

Tensions and violence in Iraq are mounting today in the face of the political, ethnic and religious impasses that deepen the natural divides in that “country.”

Since the March parliamentary elections, the Sunnis, Shia and Kurds have been unable to agree on either a future president or a political course for the country. This ongoing stalemate is simply not in our interest any more than is the current uptick in sectarian killings. Both threaten stability.

Ages-old ethnic and sectarian rivalries and issues are at the root of these disputes. The diffusion of the national vote across six major competing parties has resulted in a top vote-getter with less than 30 percent, a situation which normally would argue for forming a coalition government. Not so in Iraq where it appears that none of the political, ethnic and religious groups involved sufficiently trusts any of the others to enter into any sort of coalition government.

More recently, there have been reports that al-Qaida has been wooing our old allies, the Sunni Sons of Iraq into their apparatus by offering them more money than we are paying them. So, in true Middle East fashion, and in the face of their belief that the Americans are going to withdraw, our former allies are currently succumbing to the blandishments of our enemies.

Anytime any ethnocentric, naive American government thinks that its “rented” allies will remain loyal to it, particularly in the face of an imminent American departure, that government is in trouble. Money buys loyalty only conditionally and only as long as it continues to flow and is not outbid. True loyalty to foreigners is unheard of in Iraq.

In the absence of the former iron-fisted suppressor, Saddam Hussien, America has become the only enforcer available in a country that must have one for stability. Iraq is not a country, but rather the self-interested creation of imperial Great Britain. Iraq consists of groups that really haven’t much in common, certainly not enough to hold out hope that it will stay in one piece.

The commander of Iraq’s military establishment, Gen. Babaker Shawkat Zebari, who said in 2007 that U.S. forces would be able to withdraw in 2008, has recently insisted that U.S. forces must stay in Iraq until 2020 because Iraqi forces will not be up to the task of maintaining stability for another 10 years. At the same time, the White House insists that our troops will be leaving Iraq permanently in 2011. For any solution to work, we have to be on the same page.

Al-Qaida loves seeing our troops in Iraq. Our 2003 invasion was an absolute boon for them. We introduced masses of conventional U.S. ground forces into the Middle East. That simple act drew al-Qaida into Iraq, a place where they had never before had even a toe-hold, and presented them with a target-rich environment in which to recruit, train, kill and raise funds. Additionally, the presence of a foreign military occupying force created the necessary conditions for the subsequent insurgency against our occupation.

Al-Qaida simply cannot survive in Islam without conflict. Moderate Muslims vastly outnumber fundamentalist supporters of terrorism. Moderates are neutralized by an insurgency because they are forced to choose between supporting the foreign occupier, in this case America, or supporting or being neutral toward the fundamentalists who spearhead the insurgency. The latter has become moderate Islam’s Hobson’s choice.

Thus, our military establishment, rather than remaining the liberating element in Iraq, became the main destabilizer and enemy as our invasion slid slowly and inexorably into an occupation and insurgency.

Today’s increasing violence, coupled with Iraq’s inherent instability, points to an al-Qaida goal of prolonging that instability, as it continues to destablize the country and the region.

As long as we continue to insist that Iraq, a manufactured country, keep its disparate and competing ethnic and religious groups under one tent without coercion, we will have instability. That is what al-Qaida needs, because instability, particularly when induced by foreign military occupation, is the only thing that keeps them in business.

If ever given the opportunity to choose their own path, Iraqis will probably split into their basic ethnic, political and religious components. That process may be quite violent. We cannot afford to have such an outcome surprise us.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA station chief who served in Eastern and Western Europe and the Middle East and as chief of the counterterrorism staff.

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[Originally published in the Randolph Herald.]

Over the past decade, we have heard constant calls from the White House for the spread of our “democracy” around the world. Webster defines democracy as “1 a : government by the people; especially : rule of the majority b : a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections”.

Therefore, what is being pushed as our export item is “majority rule”. However, our own Founding Fathers viewed “majority rule” as synonymous with “rule by the rabble” and wanted no part of it.

In fact, neither the Declaration of Independence nor the Constitution contains any mention of “democracy”. It is absent because the Founders thought of “democracy” as something to be avoided.

What the Founders were really supporting were the liberal underpinnings that were needed to support a system which functioned on the basis of free elections, without the peril of rule by a non-benevolent majority. They were not talking about “liberal” in contrast to “conservative”, but rather about the nature of our organizations and attitudes.

The Webster definition of “liberal” that is relevant here is: “of or constituting a political party associated with ideals of individual, especially, economic freedom, greater individual participation in government, and constitutional, political, and administrative reforms designed to secure these objectives”.

Those liberal underpinnings—laws, behaviors and the belief structures that govern individual behavior—are the foundation of the system the Founders wanted to create. All of these underpinnings are critical to the establishment and success of liberal democracy.

The other critical element is the existence of a supporting constitution. That constitution has to protect individual rights, establish rules for elections and lawmaking, guarantee a free press and create an independent judiciary. Those things must be guaranteed if any liberal democracy is to succeed.

A liberal democracy with the appropriate rules, as envisaged by the founders, is the primary means that the citizenry has to protect itself against the state. If it is properly designed, it will not only do that, but it will guarantee the same protections to all its citizens, unlike the European systems from which it evolved.

The reason the founders shied so strongly away from “democracy” is because they realized that unless those liberal underpinnings were in place, functioning and ingrained in the national psyche, there was little hope that the evils of democracy or mob rule could be contained. For that to happen, those liberal underpinnings had to enjoy not only a successful history in the country, but the general acceptance of the population as well.

There are a lot of reasons why today’s ongoing talk about spreading democracy is counterproductive and self-delusional. When we say that is our goal, what we are really saying is that all that’s needed for democracy is free elections.

We make no mention of the requirement for liberal preconditions to take hold before there is any hope for liberal democracy. So, as we have just now done in both Iraq and Afghanistan, we say we have pulled off “free” elections and that everything is OK because of that. Democracy is on the march!

The main problem with this is that “democracy” exists in many places where, although elections are in place, none of the necessary liberal underpinnings are in sight. Look at just about any one-party, self-designated “democratic” government in Africa, the Middle East, Latin America or Asia, where “free” elections are how the decision is made who rules. There are dozens of states like Cuba, Venezuela, Singapore, China and Russia that hold regular elections but nevertheless cannot be called liberal democracies.

Exporting “democracy” to a state that has no liberal underpinnings is ultimately likely to consign that state to a perpetual absence of liberal democracy. Mob rule never voluntarily gives up its power. Thus, the simple goal of wishing and trying, as we have for the past decade, to “export democracy” in the absence of the critical liberal preconditions, probably will prove to be terminally damaging to the worldwide development of liberal democracies.

The successful promotion and nurturing of the critical liberal preconditions that necessarily precede the establishment of liberal democracies is probably impossible in many parts of the world, almost certainly in Islam. Yet, we persist. Our export of democracy and subsequent inevitable involvement in nation-building in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, where we judge “success” based on the existence of free elections, is almost certainly doomed to failure.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA Station Chief who served in East and West Europe and the Middle East and as Chief of the Counterterrorism Staff. He is a former long time resident of Brookfield who now lives in Williston.

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[Originally published in the Barre Times-Argus and Rutland Herald.]

Shortly after his spring 2009 arrival in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal made the following statement: “(Afghanistan) is complex in terms of geography; it’s complex in terms of demographics, of resources, or more specifically the lack of resources, to include what I normally like to refer to as the lack of human capital, the lack of — the availability of people that can provide governance in Afghanistan, and that’s probably a fact of education in many years to come.”

What we have done in our 2001 invasion and subsequent 2008 reinvasion of Afghanistan is completely disrupt the patterns of governance that have existed there for centuries. Those patterns, whether or not we like, admire or approve of them, are the instruments that have made past life in Afghanistan workable.

Anyone who optimistically sees any sort of democracy as a logical destination for Afghanistan is self-delusional. Regardless how our policy evolves, we are not going to successfully turn Afghanistan into anything that would be appealing to the American or western mind. To be stable, Afghanistan will need to essentially revert to what it was in the pre-Taliban era.

Afghanistan has been at its workable best when it has had a weak central government surrounded by a strong and independent tribal system. A quick look at Afghan history will show that outsiders mess with that system at their own peril.

How, then, do we resolve this endless and unproductive Afghanistan struggle without “losing”?

First we must acknowledge the salient realities of the Afghan people. They are largely illiterate, xenophobic, bellicose, corrupt and independent. True warriors, they don’t negotiate, they shoot. The last thing they want is to be invaded and occupied by foreigners.

Tradition and human raw material in Afghanistan do not lead to anything we could think of as a desirable government, yet we must acknowledge that Afghans should and will choose their own form of government.

We can facilitate that in two ways: We should remove our military forces which, as a provocative and rather blunt instrument, represent one of the few unifying factors against us in present day Afghanistan. Having done that, we should support the old Afghan system by funding (or buying off, depending on your level of cynicism) the tribes and, by talking to them, find out what sort of a central government they would like to have. That will almost certainly include some element of the Taliban.

Since its birth in 1994, the Taliban’s brutal fundamentalism has alienated so many people that they do not enjoy great popular support. With appropriate U.S. support for Afghan tribes, there is no reason the Taliban will ever approach the power it enjoyed before 2001.

In arranging tribal funding, we will have to make a number of stipulations. This is a flexible list, subject to the needs of the US Administration, but which could include; an absolute ban on the return of Al Qaida, universal education and no further poppy cultivation. Those stipulations can be supported by an appropriate long-term commitment of U.S. Special Operations troops.

By doing this, we restart the attempt to return to the only model that has ever provided stability for the Afghan people. The simple drawdown of American military involvement will begin the change in today’s Afghanistan. Our military approach has brought us a major insurgency which is aimed primarily at us as a foreign power, and only secondarily at our lapdog, the Karzai government.

This sort of effort will not be cheap. However, if you stack it up against the $73 billion we are spending annually in the Afghan war, it all becomes relative.

There are 12 major tribes with hundreds of subdivisions in Afghanistan. The U.S. administration should be able to figure out precisely how to apportion funds to those tribes based on sub-tribes, population, need and politics.

If you start with the fact that we are now spending $200 million a day, it would seem we could easily settle an average of $100 million a year on each of those 12 major tribes. That would total up to $1.2 billion per year, a far cry from today’s costs of $73 billion. That, in itself, gives us great flexibility in setting subsidies. When you add in the costs to us of dead and wounded, it looks even more favorable.

We will never “win” in Afghanistan, whatever that may mean. However, getting out as planned can mean reduced financial and time commitments as well as sharply reduced military casualties.

All in all, a cheap solution.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA station chief who served in East and West Europe and the Middle East and as chief of the counterterrorism staff.

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