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.
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.