Archive for January, 2009
Barack Obama is in office. Guantanamo is closing (though not immediately), America’s interest in Iraq seems to finally be fizzling and the new President gave a distinctive address to the people of the Middle East via al-Arabiya, al-Jazeera’s quietist rival. However one particularly disastrous bit of foreign policy President Obama has neither rebuffed nor assuaged the “Muslim world” are the missile strikes launched by UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) that have been unleashed on ungoverned spaces in Pakistan’s hinterlands. These pilotless planes buzz high in the sky above their targets waiting to launch Hellfire missiles on the inaccessible, mud brick compound of the CIA’s choice.
Although the aerial attacks have taken out several “high value targets” (a term used to create dissonance between the alleged terrorists and their humanity), they have also killed scores of Pashtun peasants in the Tribal Belt. The strikes create more problems than they solve for several reasons. The militant leaders and their acolytes know that the Pakistani government has let its sovereignty be eroded by both the Bush White House and the new administration in its infancy. As the death toll mounts, Islamabad is further emasculated in the eyes of furious tribesman who feel their own government does not have the bravado to directly confront them. While Pakistani ground forces have failed miserably to dislodge Taliban elements and the notorious Haqqani family from their ideological trenches, the fact that American forces cannot enter Pakistan (though it is understood they have occasionally done so) through an announced legal framework makes the air strikes a viable option. Almost…
Through the lens of Pashtunwali, the regional code of rigid masculinity and hospitality, the drones circling overhead are birds of cowardice. Obama is immediately stuck in a policy vice grip. He campaigned for renewed diplomacy and outreach yet must still smash his progressive fist somewhere on some godforsaken poor people in order not be ridiculed as a throwback to an exaggerated moment of appeasement that has never been relevant. It is a scenario that requires a studied rethink. American forces cannot effectively enter northwestern Pakistan en masse. Pakistani forces have sustained immense casualties when they have attempted to enter the region from the east meeting heavy resistance. Meanwhile, the current policy of war by video game is inflaming Pakistani public opinion and national pride. The Americans have had, with limited success, obliterated some of their long sought enemies. The overwhelming outcome of these attacks is more of the “smoking ’em out” sort with negligible intelligence benefits.
Obama made waves in his campaign by stating he would be (possibly) willing to negotiate with contrarian states like Iran and Syria in order to achieve U.S. goals in Iraq and Palestine. What he did not say, however, is whether he would be willing to talk to non-state actors like the Taliban in order to achieve a modicum of regional stability in the Afghanistan-Pakistan cross border region known colloquially as Pushtunistan. In a term formerly reserved for the Kurds of the northern Middle East, Peter Bergen has said that the Pashtuns are in fact the world’s largest group of people without a state. Dealing solely with states is so twentieth century as we have painfully come to learn at the outset of the twenty-first. Ugly as it may be, the Taliban do represent some genuine Pashtun interest which has only more recently grafted with ideas of globalist holy war. The Taliban rose to power as a militant Pashtun nationalist movement with rather narrow domestic objectives under a democratically elected Bhutto administration in the mid-1990s in next door Pakistan. The UAVs will never accomplish a long term strategic reordering of Pushtunistan or eliminate al-Qaeda ideology from its mountain hideouts and humming online servers.
Pakistan is in a very fragile state with regard to its own domestic consciousness. Militants have killed so many innocents in the last few years, that while it may be difficult for people in the West to sympathize, normal Pakistanis live in fear from the day to day actual, unrelenting terrorism that has turned the public deeply against these barbaric groups. The other side of the equation has Urdu and English language national satellite new channels showing yet another missile impact killing children in the Frontier that Pakistanis are well aware their own elected government does not have the technological capability to carry out. The civilian population of Pakistan has something in common with President Obama. Both are in situations desperately in need of a third way. Escalating the overt war in Afghanistan and the covert war in Pakistan is a tired paradigm without a visible shift on the horizon.
Far more destructive to the confines of militant thought would be the financing of new roads and schools in a joint Pakistani-American venture, perhaps with the blessing of enlightened members of the local ulema (religious councils). The people of Pushtunistan would likely welcome decent state healthcare for their children and the financing of at least minimal infrastructure in the region if it was not peppered with condescending, Punjabi dominated governance. Doing the necessary work in Pakistan’s deteriorating northwest would require a long and perhaps initially dangerous commitment. Hearts and minds cannot be won with Hellfire.
As Israeli tanks and soldiers pound their way through the Mediterranean’s most destitute outpost, let’s think about how we arrived at this point.
During the 2006 war between the Israeli state and Hezbollah, the Middle East raged with hell fire once again. Israel has been battling the Shia milita cum political party for decades most notably in the unsuccessful offensives of 1993 and 1996. The Israelis have tried to “dislodge” and “cleanse” the Party of God from southern Lebanon with both airstrikes and a failed twenty-two year military occupation. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have never been able to accomplish their goal of neutralizing their northern enemies much less quell internal and external Palestinian dissident factions. In July and August of 2006, the IDF and the Israeli Air Force (IAF), attempted to achieve the same goals with an unyielding strategy of occupation and collective punishment. However, there has been a drastic paradigm shift in the power dynamic of the Middle East, and Israel’s political and military leadership hasn’t altered policy or their grand designs accordingly. Today the IDF and IAF are reigning down terrifying technology on their southern Sunni enemies, Hamas in Gaza. In contrast, Iran’s clerics appear relatively comfortable and unfazed.
In the recent past Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has publicly stated a sort of “let’s not be more Catholic than the Pope” policy regarding Iran’s patronage of Palestinian resistance movements. Though the Iranian government has said that if the Palestinians come to a lasting accord with Israel regarding their future that Iran would be forced to accept such an outcome, the Iranian establishment is only too pleased when tensions between Israel and its Palestinian and Lebanese neighbors become physically acrimonious. When Sunni Arab Hamas acts out its agenda in a violent form, it doubles as a fitting proxy for Iran’s schizophrenic dreams of regional hegemony. In a clever dichotomy, Iran is both Persian and Shia (de facto anti-Arab/Sunni) on one hand while striving to appear broadly Islamic and anti-Western on the other. The Nasserite dinosaurs in Egypt and Syria appear pathetic in comparison. The Iranians, being enshrined as pariahs since the end of the Carter administration, are perhaps the only power in the region that feels no compunction whatsoever to acquiesce to any international status quo since the demise of Iraq and Afghanistan as fellow black sheep states following their respective Anglo-American overthrows. In short, Hamas is backed by a power with which the United States has essentially no leverage. With Israel, in the eyes of America’s critics, the U.S. does not posses enough leverage to reign in its undisciplined client. American diplomacy is faltering either way.
While fearing and antagonizing Iran, Western powers and Israel failed to recognize its ascendency in the region and in the context Asia as a whole. While the Op-Ed pages of major American newspapers are constantly touting the “Rise of India” and the “Rise of China”, they seem to missing a third and vital player: the rise of the Islamic Republic of Iran. While more as an Asian regional power than a world power, it is likely due to our bias and consistently backfiring, think tank-inspired policy that leads Americans to readily ignore this almost passé sea change. Pundits often decry Iran as a power in persistent decline and as a volatile “petro-authoritarian” clerical fiefdom ready to implode at any moment in some unwieldy demographic time bomb. None of these things have happened. Iran has been consistently gaining strength and has only been encouraged by rudderless American leadership for the last eight years.
Just as the Chinese are asserting themselves in the Pacific theater by vastly increasing their naval capabilities and the Indians are opening up consulates in Afghanistan, the Iranians are firming up their doctrinaire military proxies in the Middle East and Central Asia. Foremost among Iran’s proxies are Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. Hezbollah are part indigenous resistance movement and part creation of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps. Hezbollah was formed in the early 1980’s to resist the military occupation of Lebanon by foreign forces; those consisted of an invading Israel from the south and American, French, Italian and British troops landing in the country under the guise of peacekeeping.
Today Hezbollah is an extraordinarily powerful political force in the Lebanese polity holding ministerial positions in the country’s cabinet and multiple seats in parliament. Hezbollah demonstrated its heightened state of popularity within Lebanon when the group’s leader Secretary General Seyyid Hassan Nasrallah held a vast rally in which several hundred thousand (perhaps half a million) supporters turned out in a nation of just 4 million. Nasrallah defiantly declared a “Divine Victory” over Israeli forces and claimed that his party’s strength had not only remained undiminished, but rather the opposite had happened. Hezbollah had increased in strength and even formed an alliance with former rival General Michel Aoun’s Maronite Chrisitian “Free Patriotic Movement”. In a bizarre alliance achievable perhaps nowhere else but the Byzantine corridors of Lebanese politics, a secular Christian General once allied to Iraqi Sunni President Saddam Hussein can form a partnership with an audacious Shi’ite leader allied to the Iranian clerical establishment in Qom.
Though much of neo-conservative doctrine is viewed as bankrupt, the world is still forced to sift through its ideological rubble. Their talk of a “Greater Middle East” (read: Greater Israel) lives in intellectual isolation from reality. Sheikh Nasrallah’s sheer defiance and emboldened stance are in large part the product of Iran’s strengthening hand across its sphere of influence which now stretches from the Mediterranean Sea (Gaza) to the China’s western frontier (Persian-speaking Tajikistan).
Since the last gasps of the Carter years, American policy has been to isolate Iran politically, economically and when possible, militarily, in retaliation for being tossed out along with the Shah in the turmoil of 1979 when embassy staff were humiliatingly taken hostage and paraded on the world stage. Four years later, the Cold Warriors in the Reagan administration were routed out of Lebanon after the Marine barracks and US embassy bombings in Beirut, both of which were later ascribed to Hezbollah (albeit inconclusively). Israeli foreign policy has coincided, at some points converged with, and at other points, overridden America’s stated policy of post-revolutionary Iran as a sworn enemy to be thwarted at every turn. Today however, the notion of exporting sweeping eschatological revolution is now largely seen as defunct, and the only glowering a long dead Ayatollah Khomeni does these days are from billboards in Tehran and faded posters in Beirut’s southern suburbs.
The American military inadvertently elevated Tehran greatly in its response to the Wahabbi-inspired Sunnist suicide attacks against the United States in the fall of 2001. American commanders struck out by demolishing the minimal infrastructure of the militantly anti-Shia Taleban government in Afghanistan. Well less than two years later, the US eviscerated the authoritarianism of a vehemently anti-Persian Ba’ath party in Baghdad. By smashing the vitriolic Sunni regimes on either side of the modern Iranian state, itself a truncated core of the millennia-old Persian empire, Iran could now vastly expand it’s influence among it’s destabilized neighbors across their broken borders.
American foreign policy had performed an awkward u-turn after being attacked not by oft loathed millenarian Shi’ites, but rather by radical young men who were the sons of several outwardly pro-American Sunni states. For decades, the United States was closely allied with regimes that were both majority and minority ruled by Sunni governments unsympathetic to the generally poor, pious Shia populace in their midst. Desperately trying to ignore Iran for years and trying to undermine Hezbollah while Lebanon festered in civil war and occupation were seen as appropriate measures of inaction that fit squarely into a long outdated Arabist, pro-Sunni paradigm.
In the post-9/11 environment, the US quietly proclaimed a transparent victory for human rights in Afghanistan in the name of the Hazara, an embattled pro-Iranian Turkic Shia minority in the nation’s center. Shortly after Americas’ perceived Afghan triumph, key players in Washington and London wasted no time courting at motley parade of long exiled Iraqi Shia dissidents who could be brought in from abroad and placed in power in a simplistic Pentagon plan in the coming aftermath of toppling the dreadful President Hussein. For a brief but crucial period, American and Iranian interests dovetailed rather neatly. Suddenly, Shi’ites, once thought as a bloc of anti-American firebrands in the broad Western political psyche, now seemed a reasonable alternative to some of these odious regimes. This scenario would suit both Iran and our own neoconservative demagogues quite well. The romance between the U.S. and Iran after 9/11 was short lived. It ended in a bitter break-up once American troops occupied Iraq. Iran insisted on muscling its way into Afghanistan and Iraq during periods of heightened vulnerability the way it had done previously in Palestine and Lebanon. Previously, the Iranians could inflict pain on America indirectly by antagonizing the Israelis whereas now they have been able to clandestinely battle the “Great Satan” itself.
The significance of those 34 days of destruction in the Levant in 2006 may have seemed inconsequential when compared to the ongoing fitna, or intra-Islamic sectarian warfare, in Iraq. But one should realize the “Iraq Effect” (my quotes) in the context of the Lebanon war and the ongoing violence in Gaza. Iran has not been isolated further by being flanked by US troops on both its’ eastern and western frontiers as Pentagon planners would have dreamed. It has been fortified by such actions. As Israel risks treasure and futility in Gaza repeating many of its failures in Lebanon, Iran will undoubtedly feel victorious by default no matter who the tactical victor. As well as the industrial rise of China and the intellectual rise of India, a third power has risen in Asia and it is the Lion of Persia. Unlike the latter, this has certainly not been to everyone’s liking.