May 8, 2004
Politically speaking, the US government is engaged in none-too-orderly about-turns in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and also indirectly in South Waziristan in Pakistan.
Despairing of the competence of pro-US Iraqi and Afghan emigres to deliver and lead their countries' transition to the hoped-for democracy, US policymakers have opted for questionable shortcuts.
To pacify and administer Iraq, Coalition Provisional Authority chief L Paul Bremer has begun inducting former Ba'athist officials into the civilian administration being put together there, hoping that they do not have a particularly bad record of having oppressed their own people.
There was an outcry about a former Republican Guard general who was given command of the newly organized Iraqi army to guard Fallujah city. Washington had to make the lame excuse that the general in question had not been adequately vetted before being appointed. But it is the general policy that matters: rely on the experienced Ba'athists to run the new administration.
Promoters of President Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan, meanwhile, have had a similar experience. His inability to look like the head of a government that works had become obvious soon enough after he took over in early 2002. Now Karzai is engaged in negotiating with "moderate" Taliban, seeking their cooperation in running the country, especially in containing the influence of the warlords. The Taliban, remember, were the people the United States bombed out of government in late 2001.
Battles in Iraq
On Thursday, US forces battled militiamen loyal to Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in Karbala and outside Najaf. Some reports said US troops destroyed Muqtada's office in Karbala before taking up positions in the city center. Earlier in the day, US troops seized the governor's office in Najaf. US forces also exchanged heavy fire with Muqtada's militia east of the city, killing, the US military said, some 40 fighters.
The moves came shortly after Bremer announced he has appointed a new governor for the Najaf region. Bremer said the new governor, Adnan al-Zurufi, will have US support to recruit, train and equip a new Iraqi police and civil-defense force.
The troubles with the Shi'ites come as a blow to the US. Shi'ite Arabs are the majority cultural group in Iraq, composing about 60 percent of the population. Since the Shi'ites are a majority, their support is absolutely critical to keep a general level of stability in the country.
Furthermore, before the start of the invasion, Washington policymakers believed the Shi'ite population to be an easy group to win the "hearts and minds" of. The Shi'ite community was harshly repressed under Saddam Hussein's Ba'athist government and were occasionally the recipients of brutal crackdowns due to their open resistance to Baghdad's rule, as was seen in the wake of Operation Desert Storm in 1991 when Iraqi troops loyal to Saddam forcefully quelled a Shi'ite uprising that began due to the power vacuum created after the retreat of the Iraqi military from Kuwait, and also due to the first Bush administration's call for them to rise up.
Additionally, there was the effort by Washington policymakers to marginalize Iraq's Sunni Arab population, since they were the traditional power base behind the Ba'ath Party. Often the recipients of special favors by Saddam's government in Baghdad, Iraq's Sunni Arab population was more privileged than the country's other major cultural groups, such as Sunni Kurds and Shi'ite Arabs. For these reasons, the administration of President George W Bush decided that its best course of action would be to push this population off to the sidelines and deal with the victims of the Ba'ath Party's brutality since it would be likely that they would be more open to supporting the United States and therefore more beholden to US interests.
Therefore, shortly after the invasion, it is likely that the guerrilla movement in Iraq was exactly as Washington claimed: disfranchised Sunni Arab militants who were taking up arms against US-led forces. Yet as the occupation continued and Washington was unable to achieve relative stability in the country, it became clear that it was not only Sunni Arabs that were taking up arms against US-led forces. This development was evident by the various tapes sent to Arab news networks, such as Aljazeera, by Iraqi insurgents; in the videos, various militants expressed their hatred for Saddam's Ba'ath Party in addition to their hatred for the US-led coalition.
As the occupation proceeded, and the level of stability in Iraq did not improve, the insurgency became more and more diversified, as attacks were launched against US-led troops, Kurds in the north, Sunni Arabs and Shi'ite Arabs. During this time, various groups in Iraq were taking advantage of the power vacuum created after the fall of Saddam to weaken the power base of their enemies or ideological opponents - indeed, not only is it possible that Sunni and Shi'ite Arabs were killing each other, but, as the US alleges, Shi'ite leaders may have been assassinating other Shi'ite leaders.
Fallout with the Shi'ites
This state of affairs continued for months, with the Shi'ite community largely remaining docile in the hopes that true democracy in Iraq would be achieved, thus guaranteeing their ascension as the majority powerbrokers in any new government. Washington, worried over the possibility of too much Shi'ite control, began to backtrack slightly on its promise of national elections, and attempted to work certain balancing constraints into the interim constitution. These constraints attempted to equalize the power between Sunni Kurds, Sunni Arabs and Shi'ite Arabs.
Angered by the change in US policy, Shi'ite leaders began to become more outspoken toward the US-led coalition, with both more radical leaders, such as Muqtada, and more moderate leaders, such as Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, speaking with a unified voice over their disapproval of Washington's plans.
This increasing anger caused the Shi'ite community to move away from outspoken support of US policies, and also paved the way for more radical Shi'ite leaders such as Muqtada to increase the size of their following. Muqtada, whose power rests upon his Mahdi Army, a private militia containing thousands of fighters, heightened his rhetoric against the US-led coalition to the point that Washington policymakers decided to punish him, closing down his al-Hawza newspaper and arresting one of his top deputies on a murder charge.
Muqtada's rebellion, which may have initially been supported by a small minority of Shi'ites, had a unifying effect on the Shi'ite community, as Washington's open confrontation with Mahdi fighters put Iraqis in the position of either supporting one side or the other. As in all cases of occupation, the local population generally supports those who share their culture and history over foreign occupiers, no matter either side's ultimate intentions. Indeed, this was partly the reason other more moderate Shi'ite leaders, such as Sistani, have been careful about criticizing Muqtada and have, in effect, offered him safe haven in Najaf.
More balance needed
After witnessing the explosive power of the Shi'ite community, Washington policymakers came to the understanding that they would not be able to revive Iraq through the support of Shi'ite Arabs and Kurds alone; Iraq's Sunni Arab population would have to be better incorporated into the government. Faced with an insurgency encompassing both Shi'ite and Sunni Arabs, Washington has now attempted to remove some of the grievances behind the insurgency.
Also, because Iraq's Sunni Arab population was favored by Saddam, they were often the most educated and skilled Iraqis, a reality that has hurt Washington since it has excluded these pertinent individuals from government and societal affairs. Recognizing its mistake, Washington has now reversed its de-Ba'athification policy and is actively reincorporating former Sunni Arabs, who worked with the Ba'ath Party, into positions of influence.
The threat of Shi'ite rebellion also forced Washington to draft a better solution to the continuing problem of Sunni militants. While before the Shi'ite rebellion Washington had enough troop power to spar with these militants, faced with an insurgency encompassing two of Iraq's three main cultural groups, Washington quickly discovered that it did not have the troop force to fight so many different enemies at once. Now, in an effort to alleviate this danger, Washington has recruited former Ba'athist generals and placed them in positions of military power. By giving many former soldiers their jobs back, Washington hopes to eliminate much of the fodder that is impelling Sunni militants to attack US-led troops.
Of course, this balancing act is difficult to maintain. As Washington helps Sunni Arabs achieve their interests, it risks upsetting Iraqi Shi'ites, thus throwing off the balance once again. To be successful, Washington has to be very attuned to the concerns of all groups involved in Iraqi affairs and be able to rapidly shift its strategy in light of new political shifts and developments. Failure to do so will mean that inevitably Washington will be unable to sustain its balancing act; should this occur, a debilitating situation on the ground will likely erupt.
Battles in Afghanistan
As the United States seeks to draw the Taliban into the political process, it should not be forgotten that the Taliban posed the problem in Afghanistan in the first place and that US-led forces carried out war on the country in November 2001 because of them. The war's whole point was to overthrow the obscurantists so that Afghanistan could be modernized and that a more open and free system should replace the Taliban theocracy, and to prevent them harboring people such as Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda.
To seek the Taliban's cooperation now - the moderates among them, to be sure, if there is such a thing - while equally bigoted warlords rule the roost over most of Afghanistan is to leave people bewildered.
Dealing with the Taliban inevitably involves Pakistan, which recruited them from its madrassas or Islamic seminaries in Balochistan and the North West Frontier Province, which border Afghanistan. Their ethnic distinctions are two. First, they are Pashtuns, and second they are Islamic zealots fired by the Deobandi or Wahhabi Islam.
Pashtuns in Afghanistan are estimated to be just under 50 percent of the population. Pashtuns live contiguously in both Afghanistan and Pakistan's Pashtun belt, traditionally disregarding the famous Durand Line between the two countries. The Pashtuns on both sides speak the same language and all of them are Muslims of the same faith, except for a small minority of Shi'ites.
Pakistan had promoted and protected the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, regarding it as its own extension. The US authorities then forced Pakistan to change tack and join the "war against terrorism". But the social and political commonalities that united Islamabad and the old Afghan regime continue to exist in Pakistan's Pashtun belt.
The US government has been looking for the leaders of al-Qaeda and the Taliban's regime and their information was that they were still hiding in the Waziristan Agency, especially South Waziristan. They asked Islamabad to ferret them out. Despite being bound by myriad ties and the fact that those Pashtuns are of Pakistani citizenship, Islamabad mounted a big operation in March to catch bin Laden's lieutenant Ayman al-Zawahiri and his supporters.
Since the residents of the tribal areas are armed and are famous as sharpshooters, the 15-day operation incurred scores of fatalities on the Pakistani army's side, and 40 on the tribesmen's side.
The operation was halted halfway, and later the traditional method of talks with the help of jirgas or assemblies was adopted. Tribesmen wanted amnesty for themselves and their foreign supporters of the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
Although negotiations are still ongoing, all arrested foreigners and resisting tribesmen have been released. Pakistan has agreed not to hand over any foreign suspect to the US government - and all of them will come under the amnesty only if they register and promise not to break the nebulous law of that area. In short, they can go on living legally in Pakistan.
Thus the operation in South Waziristan, centering on Wana town, was a serious setback for Pakistan. Islamabad, with Washington behind it, got nothing out of it. Indeed, the tribesmen's traditional privileges have been reaffirmed.
There is no firm information about Pakistan and the US government having pursued a joint strategy in Islamabad's acceptance of virtually all the tribesmen's demands against vague verbal promises.
It would be odd if the US government was out of the loop, because the operations were only reluctantly undertaken by Islamabad under US pressure. It stands to reason that experts may have advised that continuing to do what Islamabad was doing could cause a general uprising among all the Pashtun tribes - inside and outside Pakistan.
The prospect must have looked too horrifying to the normally gung-ho US officials. But then the top US general in Afghanistan has again advised Islamabad to use force in Pakistan's tribal areas. It would be odd if this remains the firm Washington view after what Bremer in Iraq and Karzai in Afghanistan are engaged in -calling in previous "outcasts" to get them out of trouble.
Parallels between Iraq and Afghanistan
The growing instability in Afghanistan has been overshadowed by news of the escalating violence, torture and killings in Iraq. But analysts say security in Afghanistan remains "tenuous" and "has shown no signs of improvement". And they predict that the explosive situation there might soon turn out to be as bad as Iraq, though on a smaller scale.
The similarities are striking. As in Iraq, insurgents in Afghanistan have been attacking not only the multinational military force but also local police and foreign aid workers. The Pentagon, responding to charges of torture by US soldiers, said on Wednesday that at least 25 prisoners had died in US custody, in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
But unlike Iraq, the potential destabilization of Afghanistan has taken added momentum since last week's announcement of possible US troop withdrawals from the politically troubled country.
During a visit to the Afghan capital Kabul, General Richard Myers, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, hinted that Washington might gradually reduce its 15,500 troops immediately after nationwide elections scheduled for September.
Any such action, say Afghan analysts, would be a recipe for political and military disaster. "If the United States cuts the number of troops after the Afghan elections, it would be the clearest confirmation of what many have feared - that the US's main interest in Afghanistan is not stabilizing the country or improving people's lives, but getting Hamid Karzai elected president and making Afghanistan look like a 'war on terror' success in time for US [presidential] elections in November," says James Ingalls of the California Institute of Technology.
Ingalls, a founding director of the Afghan Women's Mission, also remains skeptical about the ability of the Karzai government to hold "fair and free elections", postponed until September from the original June timetable.
"The US-backed warlords continue to control parts of the country with impunity," he told Inter Press Service (IPS). "If allowed to participate in the political process, they will likely bully and buy their way into parliamentary positions, as they have in the past. Those who don't get their way will resort to force. They have little incentive to do otherwise," he said.
"At best," Ingalls predicted, "the elections will be meaningless because the people have no real choices - who are Karzai's challenger[s]? - at worst, the elections could spark a new civil war."
Mark Sedra, a research associate at the Bonn International Center for Conversion, where he leads a project that monitors and analyses security in Afghanistan, is equally pessimistic about the future. "A significant reduction of US troops in Afghanistan would send a very negative signal to the Afghan people," Sedra told IPS.
"It would fuel the growing perception among Afghans that the United States and the international community are once again turning their backs on the country - as they did after the withdrawal of the Soviet Union," he added.
The Soviets, who militarily occupied Afghanistan for more than a decade, pulled out in 1989. The Taliban government that followed was ousted by US military forces in late 2001. Washington then installed Karzai, described by many as a US puppet, as the new president.
While insurgent groups such as the Taliban are not in a position to overthrow the central government, says Sedra, they still pose a potent security risk. "By focusing their attacks on 'soft targets' such as aid workers and Afghan government employees, they have effectively halted development work in approximately one-third of the country," said Sedra, who recently returned from Afghanistan, where he managed, on behalf of the United Nations, the security section of the Afghan government study tabled at last month's donor conference in Berlin.
Reconstruction of war-battered Iraq has come to a complete standstill because of the security situation. Both the World Bank and the United Nations, along with major humanitarian-aid groups, have withdrawn all of their international staff because of security fears.
Since the killing of a UN aid worker in Afghanistan last November, most international staff working for more than 30 UN agencies have been withdrawn from southern and eastern Afghanistan. As a result, the UN has also suspended aid to refugees returning from neighboring Pakistan.
Jean Arnault, the UN special representative in the country, said he was shocked by last week's "brutal slayings" of two local aid workers in the southern city of Kandahar. The two worked for Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance, an international aid organization.
"This and other recent attacks in Kandahar urgently point towards the need to make more forces available to the provincial authorities in order to enable them to uphold the law and facilitate the expansion of reconstruction," Arnault told reporters last week.
The Taliban, warlordism and the booming opium trade are other current threats to the reconstruction of Afghanistan, according to Sedra. "The US military presence in the country, while limited compared to Iraq, serves as a powerful deterrent to the outbreak of major hostilities, whether perpetrated by the Taliban or a regional warlord," he said.
The US military also provides vital support to the multinational International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), which is in the process of expanding outside Kabul. "The timing of the potential troop reduction, however, is also disconcerting, for if elections do take place in September, the period immediately following will likely be extremely tense," Sedra pointed out.
"It is in the immediate aftermath of the polls that we will see whether the country's major powerbrokers will accept its result. The withdrawal of even a small number of troops would provide a psychological boost to insurgent groups and terrorists; embolden regional warlords to challenge the central government; and encourage interference in the country's affairs by regional actors, notably Pakistan and Iran," he said.
After his return from Kabul in January, UN Special Representative to Afghanistan Lakhdar Brahimi said that despite a heavy Western military presence and a two-year-old US-backed government in Kabul, Afghanistan was reduced to a country with no rule of law.
He implicitly criticized the government, the police, the army, the international community and the 4,500-strong ISAF for their failure to resolve the problem of insecurity. "There is of course what we see in our press, what we hear about on the radio, what we see on television about bombs that blow up here and there, about rockets that fall here and there," he said. "But there is [also] the insecurity we don't see in the press: the fear that is in the heart of practically every Afghan because there is no rule of law yet in this country."
Copyright 2003, Asia Times Online