Tag Archives: Bush legacy

The US, not winning in Iraq and losing in Afghanistan

As US initiates a frantic diplomatic drive, recent foreign policy in the Middle East demonstrates that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts

To many, Afghanistan has long become a forgotten war. After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Afghanistan became the primary focus of the former US president George W. Bush’s new world order. The speedy and decisive manner of the US victory against the Taleban regime in 2001, afforded the US a perceived rest bite to concentrate on another more pressing foreign policy agenda item, Iraq.

While the US has been bogged into a costly and protracted occupation in Iraq, the foremost attention of the US was battling against a raging insurgency and consequent insecurity in Iraq and promoting national reconciliation and a democracy that was hoped to serve as a beacon for the greater region.

Even as the US has stationed thousands of troops in Iraq, at a cost of billions of dollars, the all elusive “victory” in Iraq has been unachievable. As the US became progressively entrenched into the Iraqi security nightmare and the embittered nature of the Iraqi political horizon, the focus turned to a much more relative concept of “success”.

US strategy and ideals on the Middle East have suffered as firstly the beacon of light that they had hoped would emerge from the Mesopotamian plains has failed to significantly materialise, whilst other key factors in the region have been neglected.

Under new US president Barack Obama, the US appears keen to leverage the time, money and resources across the Middle East. While they cannot win in Iraq in the manner they had first hoped, they can not simply continue to invest heavily in Iraq and wait patiently while other parts of the region slip further from their grasp.

Losing the war in Afghanistan

While the US certainly has not won the war in Iraq, by their own admission they are losing the war in Afghanistan.

The US military, already stretched, simply could not accommodate the same intensity in Afghanistan as in Iraq that the new realities on the ground have demanded in the recent years. The Taleban are very much resurgent in Afghanistan, and both in terms of the military capability of the NATO forces spearheading the Afghan mission or in the sphere of political progress, the US and its allies have been fire-fighting for far too long in Afghanistan.

The ease of the victory against the Taleban meant that Afghanistan was seen as somewhat of a forgone conclusion, a mistake that was gravely repeated after the apparent ease by which Saddam Hussein was removed from power in Iraq that was then followed by a brief episode of national euphoria.

Now with Obama at the helm, Afghanistan is set to become a forefront of US foreign policy.

The whole is greater than the sum of the parts

Iraq has received much more attention for a number of reasons. Iraq has all the ingredients to destabilise the region en-masse. Not only have the US been under internal pressure to stabilise and succeed in Iraq, but it also been pressured further by mindful Sunni neighbours and also Turkey. The drastic implications of a failed Iraqi state and the risk of its disintegration, leading to an expansion of the war across its borders, was perceived to be much pertinent than the reawakening of the Taleban threat.

Furthermore, with huge oil reserves in Iraq, stability and prosperity in Iraq had a global focus.

Bush’s tough adventure in Iraq has meant that ties with neighbouring countries have become hindered, and in the case of Iran has resulted in a proxy war. Furthermore, other historic problems such as attaining elusive peace between Israel and the Palestinians and the growing threat of Iran, have been side tracked.

Now the Obama administration realises that even significant democratic success in Iraq will not be enough to dispel the negative perception of the US in the Middle East and the general antagonism felt by the Muslim world. Bush’s foreign policy to a great extent alienated the broader Middle Eastern landscape, prompting Obama to vow to listen and not dictate as he sought to heal the wounds inflicted since the turn of the century.

The US and the West simply can not afford to judge the Middle East in terms of its parts, without looking at the bigger picture. The Middle East has a much greater entanglement and influences and meddling from neighbouring countries are as significant as the individual country under the spotlight.

Fire-fighting or preventing the fire?

The plight of the US and its allies in Afghanistan can be very much likened to a fire fighting exercise without truly striking at the root of the problem. By dropping their guard, the Taleban have been allowed to regroup and pose a menacing threat as ever.

Just as the Iraqi tide was only finally turned by appeasing insurgent elements and appealing to the moderate masses, the Afghan war will only succeed by winning the hearts and minds of the population.

It is down to the Afghan population to determine how this war will pan out, and not the military arsenal of the West. Like Iraq, Afghanistan has too suffered from deep-rooted disparity and lack of national unity. Like much of the Iraqi population, the Afghan people have suffered tremendously from three decades of deadly wars that has shattered the economy and the countries infrastructure.

At such a crippling disadvantage, progression will not be quick, but the foundation to a new flourishing state must be start with solid governance in Kabul that can quickly assume overall security, provide basis social services, fight corruption, promote unity and entice moderate elements into the political arena.

In the short-term, the decision to divert thousands of US troops to Afghanistan will aid to bridge a much needed security gap in the country. While the US administration may have to “restart” its mission in Afghanistan, it is now faced with a much tenser regional climate. Pakistan is facing a difficult battle of its own with growing friction blighting ties with US, and with key Western allies not keen to extend their military adventure, fearing that they will be sucked into a vacuum for many years to come.

In 2001, given the extraordinary events of 9/11, most Western allies were swift respond positively to Bush’s plea that they were “with us or against us”. However, the economic and political landscape has changed a great deal since then.

The countries presidential election this year will be an important milestone and a chance for the Kabul political hierarchy to get a firm grip with much needed improvement in governance.

Ultimately it’s the Afghan national government that can sway the true direction of the country, all the West can do is buy time and short-term stability, while Afghans make fast-track progress and move towards self-sufficiency. Improvements in the political circles and basic services will go a long way to improving mindsets of the Afghan people.

Adapting tactics

Afghan officials have welcome Barack Obama’s willingness to adapt tactics used to deal with more moderate insurgency in Iraq. There is a clear realisation that fulcrum of the fight starts on the ground in Afghan towns and villages.

Intelligence from sections of the Afghan population has already been a major factor in the battle against the Taleban, and extending this by engaging the local population more directly both in terms of tactics and military means will be crucial.

Without an ell-encompassing strategy, throwing more troops at the Afghanistan problem will not serve as a means to an ends, but a platform to become sucked into a quagmire. Presidential elections and new tactics in Afghanistan will help to break the stalemate that NATO commanders have long expressed was undermining their mission.

It will also allow NATO forces to maintain gains, by handing “cleared” zone to capable and dependable local Afghan security forces. The climate of fear and the strained local security apparatus, often has resulted in cleared areas been redeployed all too quickly by Taleban forces.

Reaching out to the people to garner key support is only one part of Obama’s new strategy across the Middle East.

Frantic Diplomacy Drive

Since his highly-publicised inauguration, Obama has wasted no time in getting to work on his foreign policy vision.

Only this week, a frantic two-day American diplomatic drive, included overtures to Russia where ties were very much strained in 2008 over the Russian invasion of Georgia and contentious plans for a US missile defence system in Eastern Europe, and also Iran where a communication channel is acutely craved by the US administration, in addition to a general reach out to Muslim countries in the region.

In the not so distant future, Obama is set to visit Turkey to give a first speech in a Muslim country.

Overtures to Iran, Syria, Russia and moderate elements of Taleban have turned a few eyes. It has been long mentioned by Obama about the need to open unconditional diplomatic channels to Tehran, if it could “unclench” its fist, but at the time when there are wide reports that Iran has enough enriched uranium to make one nuclear weapon, it makes US  advances towards Iran all the more contentious.

However, it is evident that for US foreign policy to succeed in the larger context, concessions will be vital if not a prerequisite for regional foreign policy healing. Diplomatic initiatives towards Iran may eventually see it swayed from nuclear programmes, and lead to a lifting of international sanctions on Iran, in turn for more “productive” Iranian support in Iraq and Afghanistan, where Iran could play a more supportive part in the battle against the Taleban and promotion of national unity. Russians could be swayed by the dropping of the missile system defence plans in Europe, if Russians can sufficiently convince their Iranian counterparts to steer clear from nuclear ambitions.

Effectively manoeuvring regional ties, by resetting relations with the Russians as widely publicised at the recent meeting between both countries and breaking the stalemate with other long-time adversaries, may then contribute in turn towards advances in other US goals, such as stability in Afghanistan and winning the battle against extremism 

Americans can longer afford to lose the wars that they are currently fighting with such perceived sacrifice and simultaneously drive a wedge between historic foes and other contentious regional powers.

The new US drive was best summed up by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, emphasising their immense effort to create more partners and less adversaries.

With the globe exponentially smaller and ever more intrinsically linked, the time for unilateralism is certainly over.

First Published On: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Online Opinion, Peyamner, Various Misc.

Obama’s pledge to listen instead of dictate bodes well

While not a “miracle worker”, Obama is set to change the way the Muslim world perceives the US.

The Middle East will prove a Tough Nut to Crack for Obama, But “listening” is a good start

In the time since his widely publicised inauguration in front of million of expectant onlookers from around the world, US President Barack Obama has wasted no time in getting to work.

So lofty is the level of expectation and responsibility placed on his broad shoulders that Obama needs to use every minute to live up to the billing he has received as “global saviour”. 

The Middle East will prove as much of a ubiquitous agenda item as any in Washington, and may well be the platform on which he is measured at the end of his tenure. So keen was Obama to showcase the new determination to engage more actively in the Middle east, that within hours of his appointment as US envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell, was half-way across the Atlantic en route to a Middle Eastern tour.

Bush’s imprint on the Middle East

Without a doubt, the era of George W. Bush will forever be symbolised by key failings in the Middle East. Bush’s track record left behind an uncertain region and no significant results, in spite of the democratic projects and peace roadmaps his administration tried so hard to implement.

Some benefitted greatly from Bush’s foreign policy: just ask the much repressed Kurds and Shiites who suffered immensely under decades of barbarian dictatorships in Iraq; however, the overall consensus is that Bush lost the support and respect of the greater region.

One of Obama’s first goals will be to draw a line in the Middle Eastern sand. His eagerness to highlight the birth of a new chapter and all the opportunities that it brings could not make this intention clearer.

Obama does not want to be prejudiced, for the perceived failing of a predecessor, before his work has even begun. In this light, even the staunch foes of the previous regime, are addressed in the most diplomatic and tactful manner.

Under Obama burnt bridges are being restored and there now exists an opportunity for anyone willing to “unclench their fist”.

Obama’s message of hope and friendship

Above all the aspiration, dynamism and guile, Obama is a realist. Long before he ran for presidency, he would have known from his extensive network of advisors, the size and complexity of the task facing him in the Middle East. Obama knew long before his accession to prominence, that unless he worked diligently to alter policies, even the more established relationships in the region could be threatened.

The first public statement on the Middle East by Obama was judged along the same lines as before, but in a recent television address on a prominent Arabic news channel, Obama was able to put his oratorical skills to great use, in the quest to strike a different tone in the region and build new ties with the Muslim world.

Leaving Iraq responsibly

In many ways, Iraq was Bush’s Achilles heel and became the cornerstone of Obama’s election campaign. In spite of the early promise, and almost six years of a costly occupation, Iraq continued to be a vicious thorn in the side of the Bush administration.

Obama never supported the war from the outset, was against the troop surge in 2007, and pledged to withdraw troops within 16 months of taking oath.

A security agreement took affect on January 1, 2009, effectively handing over full sovereignty to the Iraqi government and setting a timetable for withdrawal. However, the task of withdrawing thousands US troops is only half the battle in Iraq. Obama requires a long-term vision for Iraq and a strategic understanding with Iraq as well as neighbouring countries. The troops may ultimately leave but this does not always mean the headache will go.

Iraq has come a long way in the past couple of years, especially in respect to security. But with so much attention being paid to the US exit strategy, not much emphasis has been placed on the exit strategy of the Iraqis themselves.

The US would do well to leave “responsibly”. Nonetheless, much in the same way as the word “success” in reference to Iraq provided a rather ambiguous term for the previous administration, leaving Iraq in “reasonable shape” may prove to be similarly ambiguous.

Key long-term problems remain unresolved in Iraq, and this is one battle over which, in practice,  the US may have little sway. It is down to the Iraqis to compromise and seek greater national reconciliation, but if all sides do not embrace democratic conventions and companionship in the same manner, there is little the US can do.

Key spanners in the Iraqi works

Iraq is a case in point that illustrates that imposing ideals on a population, even those taking for granted in the West, will never work if those same ideals are not embraced by that population – however logical they may seem to a Western onlooker.

More importantly, the West needs to allow time for its ideals to take effect, without supervision and forceful steering, and must appreciate that the result or outcomes are not always going to be as hoped.

The Iraqi transitional road to democracy is as uncertain as ever. Many key issues continue to blight the national horizon, but none more so than the unwillingness of some sides to reach true compromise.

To his credit, Obama has been insistent on thorough planning. This “planning” must finally show a realisation that objectives in Iraq must be viewed in the long-term and not just in short-term success measures, which will allow the US a much needed and credible escape route.

Iraq represents a fragmented society and classic diplomacy, unfortunately, is not always their option of choice when it comes to bridging historic ethnic and sectarian differences.

Whether Obama adopts the much discussed plan by his now vice president Joe Biden, to divide Iraq into three semi-autonomous federal entities, remains unclear, but what is certain is that it will take the pioneering mindset of someone like Biden with a policy that is genuinely out of the box, to prevent further bloodshed in Iraq, let alone preserve its long-term unity.

Outgoing US ambassador Ryan Crocker ominously warned Obama about the challenges that lay ahead in Iraq and the difficulty in pinning timescales for their resolution.

Key milestones in Iraq

In many ways, 2009 will be a decisive year for Iraq and a litmus test for the readiness of Iraqis to go it “alone”. Events in the next six months may well shape events in years to come.

In most of the country voting took place on January 31, to appoint provincial councils with parliamentary balloting also set to be concluded by the end of 2009.

It remains to be seen whether Iraq will be better leveraged and balanced on the national stage as a result of these elections.

Obama administration will need show new vigour and flexibility as the same rigid mentality of the previous regime will prove counter-productive.

Common mistrust among politicians and a simmering war of words between Kurdistan Regional Government and Baghdad, show that the appetite for true reconciliation and a common vision will remain elusive for some time to come, regardless of the number of elections held.

Listen rather than dictate

A real welcome to all in the Middle East was Obama’s pledge to listen rather than dictate. This may yet prove to Obama’s biggest strength. By planning and analysing the facts, the US can slowly reach out to the predominantly Muslim population of the Middle East. The new administration must steer away from the perception that the US is anti-Islamic.

Perhaps, this is an underlying reason why peace between Israelis and the Palestinians under Bush fast became a mirage. Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and prospective wars touted for so long in Syria and particularly Iran, only encouraged Islamist sceptics who long-alleged an anti-Islamic agenda and the ambition of the US to shape the Middle East according to colonial mindsets and a thirst for oil.

The desire for an open diplomatic approach stressed by Obama was evident as he emphasised that Israelis and Palestinians will have to make some tough decisions and the US could not dictate proceedings.

The US appears intent on looking at the bigger picture when resolving matters in the Middle East. Clearly, from Iraq to Palestine, one can not foster long-term prosperity without appreciating the ripple affects and the influence that neighbouring countries often induce.

Obama implied that in the future the US would have to take into account all the factors involved, this was a clear dig at Bush and the chaos that ensued in the aftermath of Iraq’s liberation.

Hoping for a miracle

Although, a new platform of optimism is badly needed in the region, Obama is not a miracle worker. No guarantees can be provided that decade’s long conflicts and disputes, so elusive to many US presidents, can be fixed by injections of pragmatism alone.

There is always room for manoeuvre in foreign policy, but the fundamental blueprints of US policy, such as its historical support of Israel can not be shifted all too easily.

What is clear is that with Obama’s new thinking and an active approach, he may get closer than any former president in building new peaceful ties in the region and setting a genuine stage for much needed progress.

First Published On: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Online Opinion, Peyamner, Various Misc.

The Countdown to the Inheritance of Bush’s Headache

It is proving for the US that one man can take a horse to water but a thousand can’t make him drink. 

Five years of a conflict with seemingly no end-sight has taken its toll. With the cost of operations in Iraq at $10billion a month, a US economy in recession, rocketing fuel prices, over 4000 US casualties and protracted political progress in Iraq, disgruntled voices in the Senate and general US public are understandably growing by the day.

Much like their Iraqi counterparts in their transition to democracy, the US has often taken one step forward and two steps back. This view was reinforced after President Bush as widely expected announced his intention to freeze troop withdrawals from July and allow senior commander General David Petraeus time to evaluate and assess the next steps.

With Petraeus unwilling to commit on troop numbers and Bush’s wait and see approach, it is apparent that at least under his presidential tenure, Bush has no strategy for ending America’s highly contentious and costly involvement in Iraq.  

The Democrats have accused Bush of handing over the headache to the next president by side-stepping tough decisions. The announcement to halt troop drawdown means that US troop levels will remain above 140,000 well into 2009 at the minimum. Although Democrat-presidential hopefuls Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have signalled their intention to withdraw as soon as feasible, the next administrations hands may well have been tied for the foreseeable future.

Even in the face of other critical concerns at home headed by looming economic recession, it is easy to see why Iraq has dominated the presidential race.

Bush may well be executing his own exit strategy as he hailed a “major strategic shift” in Iraq.  Bush’s stance was notably more encouraging than that of Petraeus and Crocker, as he delivered an upbeat speech pointing out to military, political and economic progress in Iraq.

However, although the surge has reaped dividends in Iraq, the ultimate goal of political reconciliation in Iraq has been instigated at a leisurely pace. Whilst the US has too-often hailed what has been achieved, the emptier half of the glass is of far greater weighting. Key benchmarks such as a representative national government, oil sharing and provincial powers are proving as elusive as ever. On the ground, reconstruction is slow and heavily reliant on US funding.

As Bush may have tied the hands of the next administration, Baghdad has effectively tied the hands of Bush.   The Iraqi military, riven by sectarianism, is still heavily reliant on the US and unable to function effectively as a ‘central’ force. Meanwhile, the fractious Iraqi political landscape is plagued by common mistrust with the cancerous influence of numerous militias proving a major time-bomb. Recent violence in Basra only highlighted the tentative and volatile climate in Iraq.

Violence has certainly dropped and al-Qaeda has taken a major blow, thanks largely to the onset of Sunni councils. However, this may yet haunt Iraq in the future if Sunni demands for a bigger slice of the political cake are not fulfilled.

Petraeus has warned that any hasty pullout would undercut security, while the US institute for Peace claiming “the U.S. is no closer to being able to leave Iraq than it was a year ago”, warned of mass chaos and genocide in such an eventuality.

While more troops can enforce valuable security, at the end of the day any sacrifice is in vain if Iraqis do not capitalise on the windows of opportunity afforded. Even with all the time and money in the world, the appetite of the Iraqi factions for reconciliation and compromise, is far more empowering than the might of any army.

If the current US vision of a democratic, prosperous and peaceful Iraq is to be realised, one can forget withdrawal in the next 10 years. Ominously, even then such full US-engagement may prove inconclusive or even powerless to avoid civil war.

The only way the US can withdraw in the next 1-2 years is to implement a drastically fuzzier interpretation of “success”, then possibly opt to allow nature to run its course in Iraq. Bush may be accused of creating the current mayhem in Iraq, but in reality they only lifted the unceremonious lid. Iraq’s problems are far more deep-rooted and artificial. Century’s old sectarian and ethnic tension can not be papered over by Western values.

If the Iraqis do not advocate the same ideals, the US can dream all it likes. 

First Published On: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Peyamner, Various Misc.