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Archive for the ‘Afghanistan’ Category

Originally published in RURAL RUMINATIONS

The development and implementation of the Trump administration’s current Afghan policy appears to have been deferred to the Pentagon. All we know about Trump policy toward that region is that he vowed during the presidential campaign to completely destroy ISIS, Al Qaida and any other threatening terrorist organization.

Estimates coming out of the Pentagon indicate the likelihood of an additional commitment of several thousand troops to Afghanistan. Before we make any moves in Afghanistan, it is important to look critically at the past and at our motivation for what to do now and in the future.

We got to Afghanistan based on two realities. The immediate catalyst was 9/11. Second, we saw it as a key element in our oil interests in the region, a way to get our foot in the door. The outgrowth of that was our fabricated rationale for the invasion of Iraq. which morphed into our current array of difficult dilemmas in Libya, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states.

In short, that momentous decision in 2001 launched us into a region which our government studiously never chose to understand and which was so incredibly complicated that it flummoxed one US administration after another.

So, what do we want or expect from our continued military involvement in Afghanistan and the Middle East? Apparently, we would like to see a stable region under democratic rule. We never hear US officials talking about self-determination, only about regime change and democracy.

In fact, it makes no ultimate difference what the US wants for Afghanistan and the Middle East. It only matters what they want for themselves and as long as we are pushing values and ideas that are alien to them, we will never see the end of chaos.

Afghanistan’s geographic location has made it an important cog in the Middle East. It has been fought over and occupied for millennia by big powers seeking regional hegemony. That has relatively recently included England, Russia and the United States and none of those powers has succeeded in changing the country or the minds of its peoples. Over many centuries, those and other struggles have caused hundreds of thousands of Afghan deaths and significant resentment.

Given recent developments in the world, oil no longer plays the role that it did 25 years ago.   That alters one of our reasons for remaining militarily engaged in the region.

Terrorism is our other worry. We were hard hit on 9/11, but that sort of operation against us seems to be far better controlled now than it was in 2001. The fact is that the nature of terrorism has changed. It no longer requires hideaways in the mountains or deserts of the Middle East where terrorists can be given rigorous military training. Terrorism today involves self-motivated, highly disaffected individuals who volunteer to ISIS or any other terrorist organization to carry out suicide attacks. They work with automatic weapons and murderous vehicles. Even bombs are within their reach and recent operations have shown that those weapons can be developed undetected in apartments in major western cities.

Terrorists have no need for “bases” like those previously operated in the Middle East. All they need are volunteers and central direction and that can be found, as is now the case, in countries that are not in the reach of US troops assigned to Afghanistan or the Middle East, making them no longer critical to our counterterrorism needs.

What, therefore, could possibly motivate US policy makers to continue and even augment a decades-long war that is today virtually irrelevant to the realities and motivations that got us there in the first place? It would seem that the only rationale that stems logically from that is that we are interested in regime change and the subsequent maintenance of a democracy imposed on them by us. And yet, we know that doesn’t work.

Perhaps it is time to acknowledge that Middle Eastern nations have values that differ from ours. In doing that, we would also have to acknowledge that there are major, conflicting differences between some of the states in that region and that to leave them to the resolution of their own conflicts would likely be a violent process.

Yet, the only real peace and stability that can ultimately exist in the region is that engineered by the people involved. Perhaps we should give them the opportunity to work that out in the absence of on-site US military power while limiting ourselves to diplomatic, political and economic involvements.

 

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Originally published in the Rutland Herald on October 07, 2015

Our military involvement in the Middle East began with Operation Desert Shield in 1990. At the end of that invasion, we did the only intelligent thing we have done in that area, we withdrew without ending Saddam Hussein’s rule in Iraq.

In the 15 years since then, we have invaded Afghanistan and Iraq. We have been militarily involved in Syria, Yemen and Libya. The purpose of this involvement clearly was a desire to bring democracy to the Middle East, based on our idea of American exceptionalism.

Thus, we effectively ended the reign of the existing governments as the first step in establishing democracy. However hard it was pushed by the neoconservatives as part of a “regime change” policy during the administration of President George W. Bush, democracy was a goal we never reached. It never took because the countries and people in question had never had any exposure to democracy and had none of the prerequisites for reaching it successfully.

What we did was remove or try to remove the repressive governments in question. We succeeded in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya and essentially, brought chaos to those countries, which previously had enjoyed stability brought on by repressive governance. We created that chaos by militarily removing those regimes and then not being able to install the kind of benevolent democratic governance we wanted to see in place.

Our current administration has been severely criticized by its political opponents for not having stayed on and maintained order in Afghanistan and Iraq. Theoretically, we could have done that. The problem is that there would have been no end to those occupations because the countries in question have inherent internal religious, tribal and ethnic conflicts that have never been fixed and that may never be resolved.

These are problems that have been contained over the past 14 centuries through repressive governance. Any continued successful occupation of those countries by U.S. forces would have had to have been repressive as well as open-ended. Under those circumstances, the result of our ultimate withdrawal would most likely have ended in instability as it has today.

Essentially, what we have done is destroy existing, repressive order expecting to install democracy. Democracy doesn’t take, and we end up, inevitably, with chaos.

Consider Egypt. The Arab Spring brought a revolution to Egypt. A military dictator was deposed and a new, allegedly fundamentalist government was installed. That terrified the military establishment, which engineered a coup and reinstalled a military dictatorship which in turn, reestablished stability on their own terms. Egypt went full circle from military dictatorship through free elections back to military dictatorship and imposed order.

It seemed to many that the Obama administration would have a different attitude toward the cycles described above. They would get us out of the convoluted messes that neoconservative policies had created in the Middle East. Unfortunately, the Obama administration swapped their very own “liberal interventionists” for the Bush era neoconservatives. We began hands-off wars with drones and “clean” air power. No troops on the ground. We got involved in Libya, Yemen and Syria, adding to our declining popularity in the Middle East and to the mass exodus to Europe now under way.

Where are we heading in Syria? Our government opposes both Syrian President Assad and all the fundamentalist groups aligned against him. We have supported some of the groups opposed to the government and trained a pathetically small number of others, but we have frequently said that it is too difficult to identify those who are really sympathetic to our democratic goals.

To further complicate an already complicated scene, Libya and Saudi Arabia support the rebels (most of whom are Sunni) against the Assad government, which is Alawite (a branch of Shia Islam). On the other side of the issue, Shia Iran and Russia support the Assad government. Russia’s President Putin has said, somewhat cynically, that he is interested only in stability for Syria. It is difficult to say precisely what we seek for that same country, but let’s arbitrarily stipulate that it’s some form of democracy.

You can’t get there from here. If we depose Assad, whom do we support when he is gone? What we might consider, since our real enemy is ISIS and the other fundamentalist groups, is simply turning a blind eye, for the moment, to Assad and joining in a fight, which others are now conducting against those real enemies without moaning about Assad.

What we stand to gain from this is imposed, repressive stability, an end to the killing and to the terribly dangerous migration of hundreds of thousands toward our friends in Europe. Politically, Syria will have to evolve on its own through self-determination, not imposed democracy.

 

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Originally published in the Rutland Herald

September 24,2015

It is impossible for any sentient human being to look at the flow of refugees and migrants out of the Middle East toward Europe and not be appalled by the entire situation. Iraqis, Afghans, Libyans and Syrians, who are Shia, Sunni, both moderate and radical, as well as Christians, are heading toward Europe in rapidly mounting numbers, creating unprecedented pressures on European governments.

 

Clearly the original cause of this migration is the Syrian civil war, which has now been underway for more than four years. As of January 2015, this conflict had caused somewhere between 220,000 and 310,000 deaths, enough to make any sane Syrian nervous for his and his family’s well-being. In addition to this very real fear, it is now being reported that many Syrians have left because others of their tribe, religion, neighborhood, social or professional group have left, setting an example.

 

The size of this migration is unprecedented, making the trip additionally dangerous. By now, most of the Europe-bound migrants have learned from those who preceded them that the trip is exceedingly dangerous, thanks largely to the unprincipled human smugglers into whose hands they entrust their lives. Thousands are said to have died during the journey.

 

Much of the problem, as we see it today, rests in the minds of the migrants. They expect to be welcomed by Europe with open arms and to be treated like human beings. The growing notion that this is not always true has been a shock to them.

 

And why is that not true? Europe is not used to migrants. The European countries involved are generally politically stable, having worked through ethnic, national, religious and tribal issues over the past centuries. However, they are essentially closed societies. Unlike America, Europe was not built through migration, and the result is likely to be that migrants will be horribly disappointed at what they find in Europe.

 

The European countries are not built to deal with the speed of arrival and the volume of today’s incoming migrants. In many countries, migrants will be barred from legally working, some for years, while their petitions for asylum are processed. Language problems will add to their difficulties.

 

Migrants will find themselves in marginal, squalid camps and settlements. Many will find themselves in the continent’s growing migrant ghettos. They will find few jobs in countries that have little need for cheap labor and will live on the fringes of societies that are likely to increasingly resent their presence.

 

Worst of all, despite many well-wishing welcomers, the migrants will find growing hostility, often from the radical, Muslim-hating right. Germany, for example, has been talking of taking in 800,000 migrants this year. Last year, 47 percent of all racist attacks in Germany took place in the former East Germany, where many if not most of the refugees are being settled, although it is home to only 17 percent of Germany’s population. Germany’s interior ministry has counted 202 attacks on refugee shelters in the first half of 2015, as many as in all of 2014 and there have been reports of dozens more such attacks in July and August.

 

The long and short of it is that Europe is ill-prepared to take in migrants. The result of this contemporary influx is likely to precipitate a hostile reaction across Europe, ranging from the border fences we have already seen in Hungary and elsewhere to restrictive laws, protracted delays in documenting the migrants, horrible living conditions, even physical attacks and, most sadly, hopelessness.

 

In fact, in the face of ever-rising numbers, many European countries, responding to pressures from their people, have begun the process of limiting their involvement with the migrants. Germany has reinstated border controls with Austria. Reports from Syrian migrants have been negative about the reception they have received in Belgium, Sweden and France, where one migrant said his asylum application had taken months and in the meantime he was living in misery, homeless and without the right to work.

 

The solution to the migrant problem does not lie in Europe or the Western Hemisphere. It lies in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan and any other Middle Eastern country that is adding to the migrant flow. The only way to stop the flow and the misery and unhappiness that inevitably come with it is to stop the migration by fixing the problems that are forcing it. That means, quite simply, creating the conditions that lead to the end of the conflicts.

 

If we do not succeed in this, we will inevitably see the radicalization of migrants who have lost all hope and wish to strike out against the Europeans they unjustly blame for having caused it. A perfect hunting ground for ISIS.

 

 

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Originally published in the Rutland Herald and the Barre Times-Argus

When the Bush Administration decided to invade Iraq in 2003, Americans were given sequential reasons for that decision.  We were told that Iraq was full of Al Qaida terrorists, even though no such terrorist could conceivably have survived under Saddam Hussein.  We were told that Iraq was full of WMD.  There was poison gas and nuclear weapons.  None of this proved to be true.

What was never explicitly said at the time was that we were invading Iraq in order to turn it into a democracy.  That democracy would then be the model for the rest of Islam.  The flourishing of democracy in Islam would make the Middle East a safer place for Israel.  And that was the key reason behind the invasion – increasing Israel’s security.

This was not the first time that Americans had thought of the democratization of Islam.  Many knowledgeable US government experts on the region had seen it as worth consideration. However, in the end, based on the realities as they existed in Islam, that idea had been rejected.  Parenthetically, it is of minor historical interest to note that even when the idea was popular, Iraq was the last country in Islam thought by our experts to be susceptible to such democratization.

The lack of suitability of so many Islamic Middle East countries for democratization is part of the DNA of the region.  The issues that surround regional nationalism, tribalism and sectarianism are, at least for the foreseeable future, so great as to make democratization, at best, problematical.

Nevertheless, we did commit American troops to bringing down Saddam Hussein in Iraq.  In doing so, we precipitated a number of inevitabilities.  Saddam was not beloved by his people. When we removed him and his supporters, we created a situation in which our troops, the “foreign invaders”, became the surrogates for Saddam’s repressive troops.  American troops maintained the order.  Where we thought we were involved in a liberation, we soon found ourselves in an insurgency against our presence.

The same became true as we lingered on in Afghanistan.  Afghanis, who never loved the Taliban, retreated into their tribal mode and turned against us in an insurgency.  All of a sudden, in both Iraq         and Afghanistan, we were fighting insurgencies rather than hunting terrorists, primarily because we were the foreigners.  When an indigenous population has to choose between it’s own “bad guys” and foreign “bad guys”, even though they may not actively support their own, chances are they will not help the foreigners at all. A successful  counterinsurgency requires at least local passivity, and preferably some cooperation.

According to American counterinsurgency doctrine, in order to successfully deal with an insurgency, the counterinsurgents  (the USA) must commit 25 combat soldiers for every 1000 people in the local population.  That would have required around 850,000 American troops on the ground in Afghanistan and an equal number in Iraq, an impossible commitment for us to seriously consider.

Most countries that have dealt with terrorism believe for the reasons outlined above that terrorists should never be confronted militarily, but rather should be dealt with as a criminal matter using police, intelligence and special forces.

The decision to use the term “War on Terror” was a major mistake as it misdirected most of our counterterrorism activities.

The first thing we need to do in the Middle East is decide precisely why we are there.  What is there in our national interest that should be driving our policies?    We are not in the process of installing democracy in that region.  The absolute best we can logically hope for is stability through self-determination.   Beyond that, it is reasonable to hope for a moderate Islam.  Only a tiny fraction of Muslims are fundamentalists.  With real self-determination, it is reasonable to hope that Muslims will elect moderates.  And that should be our goal – the election of moderate Muslim regimes.

After a dozen years of military activity, America has little credibility in the region.  Some of that credibility can be restored with the removal of our uniformed troops and the cessation of hostilities.  The simple absence of drone activity would be a tremendous help.

With our troops gone and our military activities ended, we will regain the opportunity to use all the other available foreign policy tools:  diplomacy, propaganda, covert action, police, liaison with indigenous organizations and economic activity.

We might even get back to the greater level of respect and admiration we enjoyed last century.

 

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Originally published in Rural Ruminations
 

Iran appears outwardly to be a relatively stable Middle East country.  The Ayatollahs, backed by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, look to be firmly in charge.  The only thing that would appear to challenge that notion of stability are the protests that took place after the 2009-2010 election.

What does the future hold for Iran.  Is it a candidate for democratization or moderation?  For a number of reasons, Iran is worthy of examination in the wake of the Arab Spring

First, despite external appearances, Iran has an extraordinarily pro-western population.  Remember, they are Indo-Europeans, not Arabs.  They have long admired western culture and commerce.  The average Persians on the street have comparatively paltry beefs with America, primarily because, unlike other Middle East countries, they have not seen American troops or weapons on Iranian soil this decade.  They are legitimately angry that in 1953 we engineered the covert overthrow of the only elected government they have ever had and because today’s international sanctions, seen appropriately as American sponsored, severely hurt the man on the street, not the leadership.

On the positive side and whether we like it or not, our invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq plus our increased military involvement across the region (Libya and Syria) have greatly benefitted Iran.

Iran sees the Taliban as an enemy, so all our Afghan counterinsurgency operations are of potential benefit to them. However, most important, our ouster of Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq has removed Iran’s most powerful and hostile regional enemy and replaced his regime with a pro-Iranian Shia government.

At 636,000 square miles, Iran is the 18th largest country in the world.  It has a population of 75,000,000 of whom two thirds are Persian and two thirds are under thirty-five.  Iran’s rate of literacy is over seventy-five percent and sixty-seven percent of university students are women.  Iran produces one quarter of the world’s oil and is repository for two thirds of the world’s crude oil reserves.  They have all the tickets to be a major player in their region.

In terms of the ongoing impediments to political moderation, Iran is in pretty good shape.  Over ninety percent of Iranians are Shia, while less than ten percent are Sunni.  In terms of nationalities, two thirds are Persian with the largest minority found in Azerbaijanis at sixteen percent.  As Aryans (non-Arabs), tribes play a far lesser role than they do in most of the rest of the Middle East.  Thus, the pressures and divisive problems created by Nationalism, Sectarianism and Tribalism are greatly reduced.

In any examination of discussion of Iran it is extremely important to know some Iranian/Persian history.  Settlements in Iran date to 7,000 BC.  The first Persian kingdom existed in the third century BC and around 500 BC, the Persian Empire stretched from the Mediterranean Sea to the Indus River.  It was the greatest empire of its time and made major contributions to Art and Science.

This kind of history affects peoples’ attitudes.  Iranians have a real sense of who they are.  They are educated, thoughtful, smart, clever and nationalistic and have a very good understanding of how the world works.

Why would the Iranians want to develop nuclear weapons, if, in fact, that is what they are doing?  Largely because ownership of the bomb would be a virtual guarantee that they would not be attacked by any conceivable enemy.  Iranians want the bomb simply because having it, as opposed to using it, is power incarnate.

Additionally, they almost certainly believe that the bomb will bring them the respect they feel is due them as a power in the region. In that context they have everything else they need to gain that respect and influence.

Iran was a player in the Cold War and understands how the West dealt with the Soviet threat. The Iranians understand MAD. They know that if they were to acquire the bomb, any use they might make of it — say, against Israel or some other American friend in the region — would result in the obliteration of their country.

In short, like all today’s members of the nuclear club, they know that the bomb is useful only as a threat. It is essentially useless as a weapon because its use leads inevitably to self-annihilation.

All of that aside, the best reason America has to forget an attack on Iran and undertake a dialog with them is that only an attack by America, with or without Israel, can unite the population behind the regime.  Absent that, they will always represent festering potential trouble for the Ayatollahs.

 

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Originally published in Harvard’s Nieman Watchdog

Over the past dozen years, the United States has spent vast amounts of its human treasure and national resources on a series of foreign interventions.  We have now been involved in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, with Syria and Iran and Central Africa representing candidates for the immediate future.

All of this has been and will be done without declarations of war, over the supine body of our Congress, without the agreement of the majority of the American people and without real scrutiny from the press. We have become a nation of onlookers.

In the United States, Congress has the power under the constitution to “declare war”. However neither the US Constitution, nor the law, tell us what format a declaration of war must take.  The last time Congress passed joint resolutions saying that a “state of war” existed was on June 5, 1942, when the U.S. declared war on Bulgaria, Hungary, and Rumania Since then, the U.S. has used the term “authorization to use military force”, as in the case against Iraq in 2003.

For a variety of reasons, all of which are based on local historical, tribal, ethnic and national realities, our adventures in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya are not turning out as we might have wished.  Despite early warnings from our governmental and academic experts on those areas, it seems clear that any hopes we had for bettering the situations that existed there are likely to fail.  In fact, our military involvement in the region has lead to instability in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, as it almost certainly will if we succumb to local and international pressures to become involved in Syria and Iran.  And now we are told we should become militarily involved in Central Africa.

This is all well and good, but one key ingredient is missing.  We have never had a national discussion about the efficacy of American military intervention abroad.  We have seen two Presidents act in ways that made Congress disposed to support them without intelligent discussion of the activities proposed.

Over the past year, two thirds of Americans have been polled as opposed to our activities in Iraq and Afghanistan. Americans are now faced with the specific prospect of military activity in Syria and Iran and with further future interventions around the world, it is time for America to have this discussion.

First, we need to discuss whether or not we want to conduct such operations at all.  If so, should we act independently of the UN and international coalitions, as stipulated, or unilaterally as many of our hawks and neocons would wish?

We need to have a discussion that defines the specific intervention problem and its solution.  We need to know the precise goal of the intervention, how long it will last and what the likely response to our intervention will be.

Then we need to and how it will be funded.  Are there to be more unfunded interventions like Iraq and Afghanistan at a time when we are already in deep economic trouble resulting from our past interventionist adventures?

Additionally, we need to be reassured that if the intervention involves terrorism, our approach will be limited to police and intelligence work.  We have learned far too much from Iraq and Afghanistan to again involve our military establishment in counterterrorism operations.

If we learn that an insurgency is involved, we need to know how our government plans to avoid subsequent nation building and the export of democracy.  Again, Iraq and Afghanistan provide the wholly negative lesson for us here.

Finally, we must determine whether or not any proposed intervention is in our true national interest and we need to do that in the absence of foreign pressures.

The only way we will learn the answers to these critical questions is through a national discussion of any proposed future intervention.  Our Government isn’t holding such a debate except for a little squawking by individuals now and then.  The media should and could do so, with one or more news organizations making it a front-burner item, interviewing experts and political leaders and staying on the subject.

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What Iraq and Afghanistan have taught us and what Syria and Iran can teach us further is that American needs to have a robust debate on if, why, where and when we should be involved in future foreign interventions.

In 2001, solely as a result of the events of 9/11, the United States invaded Afghanistan.  There were some Americans who spoke out against that invasion, largely on moral grounds, but in the main, we understood why we were doing it and agreed with that invasion.

In the longer run, as is now becoming painfully clear to the average American, absent repressive governance, the bitterly tribal Afghanis are so resistant to any central government that they are unlikely to achieve any kind of unity.  The likely result is instability.

When we had wiped out Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, we shifted our aim to Iraq and for reasons still largely unknown to the American people, we invaded there.  In our rationale for that invasion, we painted Iraq as “a regime that developed and used weapons of mass destruction, that harbored and supported terrorists, committed outrageous human rights abuses, and defied the just demands of the United Nations and the world”.

None of those reasons passed muster with us.

Although most of our governmental and academic experts on the region said that would not work, the Bush administration implemented the plan.  Since then, we have seen no sign of ultimate success.  Sectarian and national differences within that country make unity illusory, as many experts told us in 2003.  How can we expect Sunni, Shia, Arab and Kurd to get together when they have never previously done so except when coerced?  The likely result is instability.

Our next Middle East adventure was in Libya where we became involved primarily with air support for the anti-Ghaddafi rebels.  In the case of Libya, we were ultimately “successful” in that the rebels did bring about the demise of Ghaddafi.  In the longer run, we are seeing the effect of centuries-old tribal realities – about 150 of them – which split the country and make non-coercive, central government extremely difficult, if not impossible.  The likely result is instability.

Now, the pressure is on here at home for us to “do something” in Syria.  “Do something” apparently ranges in the minds of Americans from Invasion, through air support, to the creation of “safe zones”, but the fact is that we really don’t know what to do.

In Syria sectarianism is at work.  It is a country ruled by a 12% minority Shiite government of Alawites, over the the 74% majority Sunnis.  Since its beginnings in 1963, it has not been a happy arrangement.  The people don’t like either the Baath Party or the Assad family.  Unfortunately, that’s about all they have in common.  There is no indication that those rebellious Syrians have anything much in common when it comes to what sort of post-Assad, post-Alawite government they would support.  Given the extent of anger on both sides, it is probably safe to assume that the losers in this ongoing

struggle will exit Syria in coffins.  There seems to be little hope for a triumph of either reason or humanity.  The likely result is instability.

And finally, let’s move on to Iran where American pro-war activists and the Israeli government are clambering for the invasion of a country which has not yet decided, according to the US and Israeli governments, whether or not to build nuclear weapons, where the Supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, has referred to nuclear weapons as a sin and where, in 2005, he issued a fatwa forbidding their production, stockpiling and use.

Given the other salient realities of Iran and their unquestioned ability to harm our interests in the region, one has to wonder why we are so intent on an attack. In addition, there are current Iranian overtures for talks and the fact remains that any attack on Iran will be the only event that will unite the fractious and unhappy Iranians under its current leaders, which is certainly not in our interest.

The real issue here is whether or not Americans want to be involved in such activities at all and if we do, how will we decide where to intervene?  Is it in our national interest?  Should we involve ourselves in Syria, Iraq, or, as President Obama seems to wish, in Central Africa?

The American people have never had that discussion.  With a war-weary population and before we rush off to some new “worthy” intervention, the discussion simply has to take place.

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