Wednesday, June 22, 2016
You can say we left Iraq and Afghanistan too soon, and that’s why there are al Qaeda and ISIS forces (and their loving compatriots) with such abiding power, why the Orlando shooting took place (thank you Senator John McCain for explaining that to me). You can say that we shouldn’t have been in either of these wars in the first place, and that our presence caused the rise of al Qaeda and ISIS in the first place. And frankly, both positions have validity… to a point. Having spent 4 of my teenaged years living in the Middle East, when Americans were wildly popular, and steadily thereafter observed the constant erosion of American credibility with some dynamic socio-cultural changes shattering political realities, it merits asking, once again, “what went wrong?”
For those who think we left way too early, be advised that the peak “boots on the ground” numbers for US forces in those combat zones peaked in 2008 at just shy of 190,000 (number courtesy of the Congressional Research Services). Factor One: Misunderstanding the Impact of Western Power over the Forms of Local Government: We definitely controlled Iraq but imposed, for whatever absurd reason we believed was a good idea, a representative democracy. This notwithstanding the animosity of three rather divergent and hostile factions – Kurds in the north, a 60% majority Shiites in the east and south and a 20% minority of Sunnis (brutal dictator Saddam Hussein was Sunni) in the western reaches – slammed together in 1916 by selfish British and French diplomats carving up the spoils of the crushed Ottoman Empire.
By the majority vote we shoved at them, Shiites took control… brutal control. The Kurds effectively pulled out and created their own world in the north, and Sunnis turned to face the wrath of the formerly-oppressed Shiites, now in power. The Shiites beat the crap out of the Sunnis, disenfranchised them at every turn and lurched heavily into the Iranian (almost entirely Shiite) sphere of influence and control. Sunnis retaliated, with suicide bombers and sporadic gunfire at first, until the most radical Sunnis – al Qaeda, ISIS, etc. – “came to their rescue” with sustained insurrection. This easily spilled over into Syria, where a minority Shiite (10%) dictatorship played hob with a majority (80%) Sunni population.
But there were undercurrents that ran throughout this. Take Shiite Iran, for example. It was, literally, all about the oil. When a democratically elected government nationalized the oil industry in Iran, the US and the UK killed that government and replaced it with the old monarchy, the infamous (and securlar) Shah (Mohammad Rezâ Šâhe Pahlavi) took over, a brutal dictator in his own right. “The 1953 Iranian coup d'état, known in Iran as the 28 Mordad coup, was the overthrow of the democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran Mohammad Mosaddegh on 19 August 1953, masterminded by the United States (under the name TPAJAX Project) and backed by the United Kingdom (under the name ‘Operation Boot’).” Wikipedia. He in turn fell to Ayatollah-led revolution in 1979. And they have always hated us for what we did to support the Shah.
We backed Iraq’s brutal dictator, Saddam Hussein, until the Cheney/Bush administration needed a war to justify asking Congress to restore presidential military power (under the Patriot Act), and then we turned on him under the false “weapons of mass destruction” premise. Bottom line: we lost all semblance of credibility with these “regime change” missteps, failed political strategies, a complete lack of understanding of local tribal, religious and cultural divides, all amplified with waterboarding, humiliation and bullying.
If we really wanted to maintain American control of Iraq, we probably would have needed a military force two or three times larger than we actually deployed (even with our NATO allies) and willingness to stay there for decades. Would that have worked? We might have been even more wildly unpopular than we are now, but with enough troops, we could have suppressed opposition… until the day we left… in one year, ten years or fifty years. We would have had to make Iraq our colony, at a cost of trillions of dollars and tons of American (and local) lives. And are really, really, really bad at regime change, as recent history has so fully illustrated.
Factor number two: Creating false expectations. The 1960s were a pivotal time in the Middle East. Western lifestyles and values were heavily depicted on television and on the big screen. Lots of locals, particularly the young, were enchanted with the potential of living that way and that well. But when their corrupt leaders (almost all supported by American/Western military and civilian government aid… bribes against competing bribes from the Soviet Union) siphoned all the money that would have funded better schools, hospitals and higher-end job creation, the people turned against both their brutal leaders… and the world power that kept them in office: the United States of America.
Knowing that their getting a better life in this world was a false hope, betrayed peoples found solace with Islamic fundamentalists, Shiite and Sunni, now promising that poverty and piousness in this world would lead to peace, abundance and fulfillment in the next. The affluent and seemingly irreligious lifestyle of the West became the false path, and those who fostered and lived that Western lifestyle became the enemy. As American forces in Afghanistan and Iraq repeatedly ran roughshod over locals, humiliating prisoners, and calling the shots, they became the symbols for everything that these religious leaders opposed. Religious fever grew. Anti-Americanism exploded.
Factor number three: Humiliation. I cannot overemphasize the relevance of humiliation in the average Middle Eastern culture. As much as “disrespect” can get you killed in a US prison or on the streets of the inner city here, humiliation can drive masses of people in Islamic nations to seek revenge, to define their mission and their enemies with precision and clarity. Think about how Donald Trump’s message plays to just about everyone in the Middle East. The lack of cultural sensitivity combined with the legitimate plight of decimated peoples fleeing bombs, bullets, torture and genocide… with a strong dose of starvation and loss of livelihood and home… engendered in biased speech increasingly justifies acts of violence against the West, particularly the United States, as a growing sense of duty among the faithful.
Factor number four Global Warming. Vast tracks of land, particularly in Sunni-dominated regions, have gone from agriculturally productive farm to irretrievable dust over the past decade. As farmers sequentially lost their livelihoods, as Shiite governments in Damascus and Baghdad refused to respond to their plight, well over a million human beings were forced to find subsistence elsewhere… and these Sunnis had absolutely nothing left to lose. Easy pickings for Islamists offering food and hope. They became the backbone of the new insurrection.
Ignorance of and Ignoring Cultural and Religious Sensibilities. We seem to suffer from the same noblesse oblige that justified European colonialization for centuries. Although essential to operating in the Middle East, almost no Americans have the slightest understanding of the differences between Shiite and Sunnis and why they are so incredibly fractious. If you really want to understand the differences, I strongly recommend you read my explanation, set out in my October 20, 2015 blog.
We tread heavily on Muslim, tribal and cultural values, slam the violent passages in the Qur’an (as if our Old Testament didn’t contain equally horrific admonitions) and have this hoity-toity notion that our Judeo-Christian values trump (sorry) their deeply-felt religious and cultural values. So much of what we “hate” are not so much Islamic mandates as holdovers from tribal values.
The reality remains that much of this part of the world, particularly Afghanistan, is comprised of deeply conservative and religious illiterate subsistence farmers who would prefer an oppressive regime that creates stability over an “elected” government that cannot stop the chaos. That the Afghan government we imposed on this rugged land is listed as one of the three most corrupt regimes on earth (by Transparency International) again reflects on our rather bleak recent track record of regime change.
We do not appreciate how deeply felt the opposition to our Western concepts is. The Taliban have moved from waiting us out to crushing the local “elected” government wherever they can. According to our own Afghan theater commander, General John W. Nicholson, today the Taliban control the largest swath of that country than at any time since that government was toppled in 2001.
Other than the region immediately around the capital city of Kabul, the rest of the country is up for grabs. Kabul wants more training and lots of sophisticated weapon from us now. “Since all foreign combat troops pulled out of Afghanistan at the end of 2014, leaving only an advisory and training contingent of international forces behind, the Afghan military has struggled in leading the fight, its 195,000 soldiers learning as they go.
“The 9,800 remaining U.S. troops in Afghanistan are scheduled to drop to 5,500 by the end of this year, but the pace of that decline has yet to be decided. One factor in determining future troop levels is the extent to which NATO allies are willing to remain involved in training and advising the Afghans…
“The United States has arguably already stepped up its involvement in the Afghan war, with the drone strike that killed Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour as he was driving through neighboring Pakistan's Baluchistan province last month.
“But Mansour was replaced by hard-line cleric Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, who is as opposed as his predecessor to joining any peace talks with the Kabul government.
“Across southern Helmand, Kandahar and Uruzgan provinces where the Taliban have stepped up the fight, local community leaders and politicians say that rather than relying on foreign advisers every step of the way, they prefer a permanent solution: a well-equipped Afghan army able to fight alone.” MilitaryTimes.com, June 16th.
What are the odds of maintaining a pro-US elected, stable government in Afghanistan absent a massive, and I do mean massive, build-up of US combat troops: nil, zero. Remember when the Soviets fought their Afghan war – 1979-1989 – draining their national budget and losing nonetheless. The Soviet government, wracked with failure and its coffers drained, fell almost instantly after that failed mission.
When will we ever learn? We do have to deal with the rising tide of militancy and radicalism in the Islamic world, but we most certainly aren’t going to have a clear military victory (they are all over the Middle East, Africa, Asia, etc. with sympathizers everywhere). We need to look carefully at the above-cited Soviet failure. Perhaps we should truly appreciate that what we have done is the past is an abysmal failure. One popular definition of insanity is “repeating the same behavior and expecting different results.” It will take decades, if not generations, to correct the damage. At this point, there are absolutely no quick fixes.
I’m Peter Dekom, and as long as peoples have reached the point of “nothing left to lose,” we are going to hit a wall of hatred and stiff resistance against us for our failed policies.