The US in the Middle East: playing into the enemy’s hands?

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
16 July 2002

The past fortnight has seen an impressive range of leaks from different parts of the Bush administration, all focusing on a potential war with Iraq. The most dominant of these was the detailed coverage in the New York Times describing plans for a full-scale invasion intended to destroy the Saddam Hussein regime. There have been other indications, however, that such an option is decidedly unpopular in the State Department and is even viewed with concern in some sectors of the armed forces.

Part of the concern within the military comes from a private acknowledgement that a full-scale war with Iraq could go disastrously wrong, especially if the regime escalates to the use of chemical and biological weapons as it faces destruction.

In the State Department there is a wider concern with the effects of a war on the region. In part, this relates to the fear of a wave of anti-American action, but there is also a concern that a post-Saddam Iraq would fragment into an unstable state. According to this view, Kurdish elements in the north would coalesce with their neighbours in Turkey, causing major problems for the Turkish government, and the Shi’ite communities of southern Iraq would look to Iran, increasing that country’s influence in a key part of the Middle East.

A further complication is that some of the various leaks about war with Iraq may have more to do with easing the pressure on President Bush as he faces further probes into the business activities of himself and Vice-President Cheney. Cynics would say that this is the core reason for the leaks and, if they are right, we might well expect a ‘mini-crisis’ with Iraq in the next few weeks, involving a period of sustained air strikes in response to perceived or actual Iraqi provocation.

The more general questions raised by the leaks relate to how the prospective war with Iraq would link to the conflict with al-Qaida, and its further connection with the continuing Israeli suppression of the Palestinians in the occupied territories. The relevance of broader US attitudes towards the Middle East is also starting to emerge as a key issue.

Forging peace in Afghanistan?

In Afghanistan itself, the formation and training of a national Afghan army is proceeding at a very slow pace, with the important Pashtun ethnic group constituting a very small proportion of the recruits. The drop-out rate of new recruits has been alarmingly high and it is clear that regional war lords retain enormous power and influence.

The president, Hamid Karzai, is evidently working hard to hold the government together, but he is doing it without centralised security forces and has already had to cope with the assassination of a Cabinet Minister and a Vice-President. He also faces the extraordinary situation where his Defence Minister retains a private army with several hundred armoured vehicles, in the vicinity of Kabul.

The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) is now led by the Turks but remains a small and lightly armed force of under 5,000, providing little more than a policing presence in and around Kabul. While this has served a valuable purpose, repeated requests to see it increased to around 30,000 and deployed throughout Afghanistan have been blocked by Washington, intent as it is on having free rein for counter-guerrilla operations away from Kabul.

Most such operations are listed as anti-al-Qaida actions, but there is little evidence of al-Qaida activity as the organisation studiously avoids direct contact with foreign special forces. Most of the actions are against Taliban groups and associated foreign fighters, with al-Qaida fighters widely dispersed across south-west Asia, and the organisation itself operating in numerous countries. It is noticeable that there have been hardly any arrests of senior al-Qaida members for the best part of four months, in spite of a ready acknowledgement that the organisation remains active.

While there has been some real progress in state-building in a few parts of Afghanistan, including the return of many refugees, the reality is that the international aid programme has been far too small. Efforts to ensure national stability and security have been limited in the extreme compared with what is required. With Washington concentrating excessively on military actions, the much more important task of aiding a return to some form of normality is being missed.

There is a growing feeling among Pashtuns that Hamid Karzai will find it very difficult to deliver any kind of representative administration. This has been heightened by a sense that power resides with ethnic Tajiks and with warlords, together with a bitterness over the US raid on 1 July that killed 48 civilians at a wedding party and injured over 120.

This appears to have little effect on Washington, not least because US troops in Afghanistan are experiencing problems that are not widely reported outside the country. Since the 1 July incident, there have been three reported attacks on US units. Two were near Kandahar, with each injuring a US soldier. More recently a US special forces base came under fire from small arms and rocket-propelled grenades, but there were no casualties.

These incidents reinforce the view in Washington that continued special forces operations, backed by air power, are essential. They take precedence over state-building and may involve long-term military commitments.

Bush’s free hand for Israel

Some weeks after President Bush’s speech on Israel and the Palestinians, it is evident that the Sharon government has seen it as an opportunity to use a free hand in the West Bank and Gaza. This has involved the further development of what amounts to an open prison of one million people in Gaza, with an increasing number of them impoverished and supported by UNRWA and other agencies.

It has also resulted in the control of most of the key towns and cities of the West Bank by the Israeli Army. It has caused renewed hardship right across the territories, leading to concern within governments across Europe but little or no criticism from Washington.

An indication of Sharon’s determination to enforce control of the occupied territories is the appointment of General Moshe Ya’alon as the new Chief of General Staff. Ya’alon, a former paratrooper, previously served as head of military intelligence and of Israel’s Central Command which controls the West Bank. His predecessor, General Shaul Mofaz, is a noted hawk who believes that Palestinian paramilitaries must be controlled by military force. Mofaz could well be a future defence minister and Ya’alon is expected to follow his policy of rigorous military control.

In the wider region, while Israeli policy has further incensed opinion across most of the Middle East, some of the key governments have been notably silent on the issue. The underlying reason for this may have a significance that transcends the immediate confrontation between the Israelis and Palestinians, although current Israeli actions are virtually certain to result in a further violent response against their own people.

US security policy in the region

The more we look at President Bush’s speech, the more we see an attitude taking root that indicates the overall approach of the administration to the region. What it appears to be about is a belief that the problems of the region can be controlled by means of three approaches – working with the elites of selected states, rigorous support for Israel and its hardline treatment of the Palestinians, and the use of US military force when required.

The major such requirement is the termination of the Saddam Hussein regime. This is seen as a fundamental necessity. It is not so much that such a ‘rogue state’ cannot be allowed to exist in such a geo-politically important region; it is, rather, that states considered to be enemies of the United States simply cannot be allowed to develop their own weapons of mass destruction.

This strategy actually has a further element in that if the Saddam Hussein regime is ended, it will demonstrate unequivocally that the US and its allies are in control, discouraging other regimes from following a similar path. In every sense, then, the Iraqi regime has to go. It may take time, and there may be a dispute over how to do it, but it is necessary that it be done.

Apart from support for Israel, the other element in the US strategy appears to be a ready willingness to work with the elites of a number of states in the region, most notably Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. While the Saudi leadership is very cautious in its dealings with Washington, it is also acutely conscious of the opposition within its own population, and would prefer, on balance, to see the Iraqi regime fall.

Washington’s support for certain regimes needs to be seen in the context of the political illegitimacy of most of the regimes in the region. If one element of dissent in the region is the continuing action of the Israeli government, the other is far less clear-cut but nevertheless endemic. This is the deep division between ruling elites and their associates on the one hand, and large sectors of their populations, including huge numbers of educated but disengaged and frustrated young people .

The elites are generally aware of this, but largely fail to address it, and it is for this reason that they are prepared to accept US influence and support, not least in the interests of their own security. Washington, meanwhile, sees a potential axis of support involving the apparently disparate elements of a hard-line Israeli government and some key elites in the Gulf states.

On such a basis, it believes that its own massive military power can be used effectively to deal with Iraq, and that subsequent actions can ensure a stable region. Control, in short, can be maintained, Israel can be secure, the immense oil reserves of the region remain available and the activities of the terrorist networks can be limited.

Can it work? The short answer, given US military strength and political determination coupled with the concerns of regional ruling elites, is that it may appear to – at least for the time being. Thus the Israelis will control Palestinian militants by force, military action will be taken against Iraq and stability will be ensured. It takes little account of the risk of an escalating war involving weapons of mass destruction, for that is seen as a necessary risk in the circumstances.

There is, though, another and much greater problem that does not seem to enter the minds of the key strategists in the Bush administration, at least outside of some of the thoughtful people in the State Department. This is that such a policy is precisely what paramilitary groups such as al-Qaida actually want.

Over the next few months we can see the prospect of firm control of the Palestinians by an Israeli government very close to Washington. This will be coupled with the careful nurturing of connections with selected ruling elites, especially in the western Gulf states, and the build-up of substantial military forces in the region.

From the point of view of al-Qaida, it is a near-perfect scenario, calculated impressively to give it far greater financial and personal support across much of the region. Anti-American and anti-elite sentiments will grow, leading to the strengthening of al-Qaida and the development of similar groups.

In the short term, Washington may believe that the US can maintain control and deal with Iraq. In the long term it is setting up precisely those forces that will lead to formidable problems that will actually increase its own insecurity.

What appears to be a potentially successful strategy for maintaining control of a strategically crucial part of the world is actually a strategy more likely to end in a loss of control and greater risks to US interests, both abroad and at home.

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