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Why Is Obama Ignoring Iraq?: Anthony Cordesman, Real Clear World, June 5, 2013—It is hard to determine why Iraq receives so little U.S. attention as it drifts towards sectarian conflict, civil war, and alignment with Iran. Tensions in Iraq have been rising for well over a year, and the UN warned on June 1, 2013 that "1,045 Iraqis were killed and another 2,397 were wounded in acts of terrorism and acts of violence in May.
Why the Massive Jailbreak in Iraq Is Worse than You Think: Hayes Brown, Think Progress, July 22, 2013—Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) has engineered a massive jailbreak from the infamous Abu Ghraib prison, according to reports from the country. Reuters quotes a senior member of the Iraqi Parliament as saying that at least 500 convicts have escaped, possibly as many as 1,000.
U.S. Troops Should Not Abandon Afghanistan: Michael O’Hanlon, Washington Post, July 11, 2013—The Obama administration is reportedly considering an accelerated pullout of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, followed by a “zero option” — the complete elimination of an American and, presumably, international military presence in Afghanistan after 2014.
Churchill on Afghanistan: Robert Kaplan, Real Clear World, July 4, 2013—In March 1898, a 23-year-old Winston Churchill published his first book, The Story of the Malakand Field Force. In it, he advanced the best advice yet given on how an outside imperial power should deal with a country like Afghanistan.
The ‘Zero Option’ Will Finally End the Afghan War: David Francis, The Fiscal Times, July 10, 2013
The Iraq War Is not Over: Kimberly Kagan, The Weekly Standard, July 1, 2013—3
How to Save the War in Afghanistan: Anthony Cordesman, Real Clear World, July 24, 2013
Real Clear World, June 5, 2013
It is hard to determine why Iraq receives so little U.S. attention as it drifts towards sectarian conflict, civil war, and alignment with Iran. Tensions in Iraq have been rising for well over a year, and the UN warned on June 1, 2013 that "1,045 Iraqis were killed and another 2,397 were wounded in acts of terrorism and acts of violence in May. The number of civilians killed was 963 (including 181 civilian police), and the number of civilians injured was 2,191 (including 359 civilian police). A further 82 members of the Iraqi Security Forces were killed and 206 were injured."
This neglect may be a matter of war fatigue; the result of a conflict the United States "won" at a tactical level but seems to have lost at a strategic level. It may be the result of the fact the civil war in Syria is more intensive, produces more human suffering, and is more open to the media. The end result, however, is that that the United States is just beginning to see how much of a strategic pivot Iraq has become.
The strategic map of the region is changing and Iraq's role in that change is critical. It used to be possible to largely separate the Gulf and the Levant. One set of tensions focused on the Arab-Israel conflict versus tensions focused on the Gulf. Iraq stood between them. It sometimes became a crisis on its own but always acted as a strategic buffer between two major subregions in the Middle East.
However, it has become clear over the last year that the upheavals in the Islamic and Arab world have become a clash within a civilization rather than a clash between civilizations. The Sunni vs. Alewite civil war in Syria is increasingly interacting with the Sunni versus Shi'ite tensions in the Gulf that are edging Iraq back towards civil war. They also interact with the Sunni-Shi'ite, Maronite, and other confessional struggles in Lebanon.
The "Kurdish problem" now spreads from Syria to Iraq to Turkey to Iran. The question of Arab identity versus Sunni or Shi'ite sectarian identity divides Iraq from the Arab Gulf states and pushes it towards Iran. Instead of terrorism we have counterinsurgency, instability, and religious and ethnic conflict.
For all the current attention to Syria, Iraq is the larger and more important state…This does not mean the conflict in Syria is not tragic or that it is not important. But from a practical strategic viewpoint, Iraq divided Iran from the Arab Gulf states. Iraqi-Iranian tensions acted as a strategic buffer between Iran and the rest of the Middle East for half a century between the 1950s and 2003. Today, Iraq has s Shi'ite government with close links to Iran and is a military vacuum. Iraq's Shi'ite leaders treat its Sunnis and Kurds more as a threat than as countrymen. Its Arab neighbours treat Iraq's regime more as a threat than an ally, and the growing Sunni-Shi'ite tension in the rest of the region make things steadily worse in Iraq and drive it towards Iran.
If Iraq moves towards active civil war, its Shi'ites will be driven further towards Iran and Syria. If Assad survives and the Arab Gulf states continue to isolate Iraq, the largely token U.S. presence in Iraq is likely to become irrelevant and Iraq is likely to become part of a "Shi'ite" axis going from Lebanon to Iran. If Assad falls, and U.S. and Gulf Arab tensions with Iran continue to rise, Iran seems likely to do everything it can to replace its ties to Syria with influence in Iraq.
Arab and Turkish pressure on Iraq seems more likely to push Iraq towards Iran than away from it. If Iraq becomes caught up in sectarian and ethnic civil war, this will push its Shi'ite majority towards Iran, push its Kurds toward separatism, and push the Arab states around Iraq to do even more to support Sunni factions in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq while suppressing their own Shi'ites.
The United States has limited cards to play. The U.S.-Iraqi Strategic Framework Agreement exists on paper, but it did not survive the Iraqi political power struggles that came as the United States left. The U.S. military presence has been reduced to a small U.S. office of military cooperation at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and it is steadily shrinking. The cumbersome U.S. arms transfer process has already pushed Iraq to buy arms from Russia and other suppliers. The U.S. State Department's efforts to replace the military police training program collapsed before they really began. The United States is a marginal player in the Iraqi economy and economic development, and its only aid efforts are funded through money from past years. The State Department did not make an aid request for Iraq for FY2014.
However, it is far from clear that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki or most of the Shi'ite ruling elite really want alignment with Iran or that anyone in Iraq wants civil war. A revitalized U.S. office of military cooperation and timely U.S. arms transfer might give the United States more leverage, and U.S. efforts to persuade Arab Gulf states that it is far better to try to work with Iraq than isolate it might have a major impact. Limited and well-focused U.S. economic and governance aid might improve leverage in a country that may have major oil export earnings but whose economy needs aid in reform more than money and today has the per capita income of a poverty state, ranking only 162 in the world.
Making Iraq a major strategic focus in dealing with Turkey and our Arab friends and allies might avoid creating a strategic bridge between Iran and the Gulf states. It might limit the growing linkages between the tensions and conflicts in the Gulf and those in the Levant, and help secure Jordan, Lebanon, and Egypt. It would not be a major expense to give the State Department's country team in Baghdad all of the aid resources it needs to move Iraq towards economic reform and a stable military.
Even limited success in damping down internal conflict in Iraq and helping Iraq keep a distance from Iran might save the United States far more, even in the short run, than substituting strategic neglect for strategic patience. It also might help prevent Iraq from becoming a far worse civil conflict than now exists in Syria, fueling the religious war between Sunnis and Shi'ites, which can turn a clash within a civilization into a serious war and spill over into terrorism in the West.
Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the
Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.
Think Progress, July 22, 2013
Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) has engineered a massive jailbreak from the infamous Abu Ghraib prison, according to reports from the country. Reuters quotes a senior member of the Iraqi Parliament as saying that at least 500 convicts have escaped, possibly as many as 1,000. “Most of them were convicted senior members of al Qaeda and had received death sentences,” Hakim Al-Zamili said. This would be troubling under any circumstances, but the present situation in the Middle East lends to Monday’s escape being a situation with possible repercussions for the entire region. Here are a few reasons why:
The attack was well-planned and well-executed.
According to the reports coming out of Iraq, this was no piecemeal attempt from AQI to free a few of their compatriots. Instead, it was a full-fledged assault on Abu Ghraib. “Suicide bombers drove cars with explosives into the gates of the prison on the outskirts of Baghdad on Sunday night, while gunmen attacked guards with mortar fire as well as rocket propelled grenades,” Russia Today reports, adding that additional assailants wearing suicide vests entered the prison to help convicts make their escape. At least 14 Iraqi security forces died in the attack, which only ended when military helicopters arrived to provide back-up. A simultaneous attack, a hallmark of Al Qaeda strategy, took place at a prison 12 miles north of Baghdad; reports are conflicting as to whether any of those inmates were able to escape.
Violence in Iraq was already high.
2013 has not been a good year for Iraq, as sectarian violence has grown over the past few months. Just two days ago, six car bombs detonated in Baghdad, killing at least 46 people and wounding 152 more. AQI has been implicated in the bombings, due to the coordinated nature of the explosions. More than 2,700 people have been killed so far in Iraq so far this year, according to AFP figures, mostly in similar car bombs across the country. The freeing of a large number of mostly Sunni fighters — the minority sect in Iraq, which is mostly Shiite — into the streets of Baghdad only increases the chances of greater sectarian strife.
Syria’s civil war is just over the border.
The sudden influx of a large number of trained fighters and convicted terrorists into Iraq would be a problem even if there wasn’t a civil war next door. Given the ongoing conflict in Syria, however, this could mark a radical shift in how the war proceeds. While talks of a merger between the two have gone back and forth, AQI and Syrian rebel group Jahbat al-Nusra have been cooperating for months, to the point that the State Department has listed Nusra as a subsidiary of the terrorist group. Aaron Zelin, Richard Borow Fellow at the Washington Institute for Middle East Policy, told ThinkProgress that it will be interesting to see if those who escaped do go to Syria, whether they will bring with them some of their more radical tactics. At present, according to Zelin, there are jihadi groups who provide social services to civilians and perform other acts that could see themselves undermined by an influx of “hardened fighters” captured during the U.S. “surge” in Iraq.
Real Clear World, July 4, 2013
In March 1898, a 23-year-old Winston Churchill published his first book, The Story of the Malakand Field Force. In it, he advanced the best advice yet given on how an outside imperial power should deal with a country like Afghanistan. The young subaltern was, of course, referring to how Britain should approach the population of the Pashtun frontier beyond the Indian subcontinent, but he might just as well have been referring to how the early 21st century United States should do so. For much as its people and elites abjure the term, America is in an imperial-like position in much of the world.
Churchill intimated three courses of action. The first course, that of "bad and nervous sailors," essentially meant to withdraw entirely and henceforth have nothing whatsoever to do with the region. The second course, that of "'Full steam ahead,'" was to initiate a large military operation until the people of the frontier "are as safe and civilized as Hyde Park." Whereas the first course is irresponsible, the second is unfeasible, given the expenditure of resources required. Then there is the third course: "a system of gradual advance, of political intrigue among the tribes, of subsidies and small expeditions." Churchill admitted that this third course is "undignified," nevertheless, he saw no alternative for a great power, recognizing that any grand strategy must marry goals with available resources. Thus, was a 23-year-old far wiser than many an elderly policymaker.
Churchill's third course does not fit exactly the proper direction of the United States in Afghanistan (geographical shorthand for Churchill's tribes of the frontier). But it is a starting point. The United States cannot withdraw utterly and thus have nothing whatsoever to do with the region — an approach the United States adopted following the 1989 Soviet withdrawal with disastrous results. Indeed, the United States will have a continuing interest in preventing transnational terrorists from planning 9/11-style attacks from Afghan soil. And it has interests in the political direction of adjacent regions like Pakistan, Central Asia and Iran. Nor can the United States simply keep large numbers of forces in Afghanistan indefinitely until the political situation there is set to rights. There is simply no public support for such a policy, not to mention the financial cost. For that reason, the current attempt at negotiations with the Taliban is arguably less negotiations over the future of Afghanistan than merely an attempt to arrange a decent interval: so that the government of Hamid Karzai does not begin to crumble the moment the last American ground troops depart….
Just as there are three courses of action for a country like Afghanistan, as expounded by Churchill, there are three directions in which a post-American Afghanistan might go. The first course is that Karzai — or rather an elected, moderate successor — will remain in power just as in the past, with an Afghan government supported by the international community even gradually gaining in legitimacy. This is possible but unlikely. The Afghan government, despite more than a decade in power, is thoroughly corrupt, suffers questionable legitimacy in large swaths of the countryside and is weakly institutionalized. Without American troops to properly support it, its prospects must be dimmer than beforehand. The second course is that the Taliban will relatively quickly overrun much of the country, as they did in the mid-1990s, following the mujahideen-inflicted anarchy: anarchy that, in turn, followed the Soviet withdrawal. This, too, is quite possible. With the Americans more or less gone, and the Kabul government's legitimacy highly problematic, the Taliban, though a different, weaker force than they were in the 1990s, might simply be the last man standing.
But such a scenario might, in turn, be simplistic. Afghanistan is an urbanized state to a much greater extent than it was in the 1990s. There is a feisty civil society that was altogether absent back then and that is often under-appreciated by those in the West; nor is there the vacuum in authority to quite the same extent as existed the last time the Taliban overran much of the country. History has rough equivalents, but rarely do situations repeat themselves entirely. Do not expect a precise replica of the mid-1990s.
Therefore, the third scenario presents itself: one that fits nicely with the third of Churchill's courses for dealing with the frontier tribes in the first place. This scenario can be described as semi-chaos. As the Taliban establish some control in parts of the Pashtun south and southeast of the country, a grouping of the Tajiks and Uzbeks re-establish some variant of the old Northern Alliance beyond the Hindu Kush, adjacent to former Soviet Central Asia. This will be complex and half-hearted, as the Pashtuns have forged alliances with parts of the Tajik and Uzbek north over the past decade. The Kabul government may not collapse so much as shrink or weaken a bit, becoming, once again, the enlarged city-state of Greater Kabul, with modest influence elsewhere in the country. As for the Talibanistan in parts of the south and southeast, that might be less a solid frame mini-state than an assemblage of loosely allied emirates of a sort, riven by different clans and criminal networks. Over time, that itself might encourage the ability of the ethnic Pashtun slice of western Pakistan to further distance itself from the central government in Islamabad, creating what a geographer might label Pashtunistan, even as the term itself went out of some fashion decades ago and thus will be vehemently denied by experts who concentrate on all the undeniable cleavages within the Pashtun tribal region….
In such a scenario, Pakistan, while not arming the Taliban, will be the most significant outside power in southern and eastern Afghanistan, even as the Iranians already are in western and parts of central Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the Russians will do what they can to insure that transnational jihadists do not infiltrate back into northern Central Asia, following the American withdrawal from southern Central Asia. Thus, from the Iranian Plateau eastward to the Indus River Valley there will be vague political authority at best, matching the vagueness of such authority in the other direction, from the Iranian Plateau westward to the Mediterranean.
So we are back to the young Churchill's dictum, about manoeuvring, at times in an undignified fashion, with the tribes and other forces in order to achieve, in this case, very limited objectives. Churchill had in mind an advance toward Afghanistan to buffer British India. America is trying to do just enough to ensure it will not have to return to the subcontinent out of military necessity. The goals are vastly different, but Churchill's conception bears repeating.
Washington Post, July 11, 2013
The Obama administration is reportedly considering an accelerated pullout of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, followed by a “zero option” — the complete elimination of an American and, presumably, international military presence in Afghanistan after 2014. This is an understandable but unwise idea. Even raising it as a bargaining device is a mistake in our ongoing mission in Afghanistan — a place that President Obama clearly considers crucial to U.S. security, given that more than 60,000 U.S. troops are still there.
In fairness, the zero-option idea has appeal not only because the war has been long and frustrating but also because Afghan President Hamid Karzai has been so difficult to work with. Beyond all the past brouhahas over corruption, tainted elections and other matters, there is the burst of invective Karzai recently leveled against the United States over what he described as a duplicitous approach to negotiating with the Taliban. Karzai has criticized Washington and broken off negotiations about the long-term U.S. presence because, when the Taliban opened an office for exploratory peace talks in Doha, Qatar, last month, it again called itself the Government of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and otherwise sought to portray the new facility as a quasi-embassy for a government in waiting. Karzai decided that Washington was complicit because the Obama administration failed to prevent that outcome.
Karzai worries that U.S. officials will secretly cut a deal with the Taliban at his expense to hasten the U.S. troop departure from Afghanistan. Karzai has also accused the United States of instigating radical extremism on his territory, and he suspects that our real desire in having bases in Afghanistan after next year is quasi-imperialist, with an eye toward broader regional purposes beyond the immediate needs of Afghanistan and counterterrorism.
These actions and this attitude toward Washington are indeed regrettable. But they are no reason for the United States to threaten to pull the plug on all it has invested in Afghanistan.
Karzai’s recent outbursts, although excessive, are partly understandable. He had warned the Obama administration in private and public that the Taliban would seek to use its new political office in Doha as a virtual embassy. Washington not only failed to prevent that development but also seemed caught off-guard when it happened.
The bigger point, however, is this: Karzai is not Afghanistan, nor does he represent all Afghans. He won two presidential elections — and the United States should do a better job of acknowledging that he earned a mandate from his own people, despite election irregularities. But Karzai’s frustrations with the war and the international community, and his frequent lashing-out, should not be conflated with any desire by most Afghans for U.S. troops to leave. Virtually all other Afghan political leaders I know very much want the international community to stay and remember all too well what happened a quarter-century ago, when the United States abruptly terminated its role in their country.
Leaving too soon, and withdrawing all U.S. and international forces, would greatly increase the risk of mission failure for the international community. An accelerated departure and a zero option are inconsistent with the fact that Afghan security forces, although much improved, still need support and guidance and will continue to need them even after the NATO mission ends next year. This aid includes air support, technical aspects of intelligence, bomb-clearing technology and embedded mentors for commanders in the field.
Afghan security forces are holding their own on the battlefield and are in the lead nationwide. U.S. force numbers are down by one-third from their peak in 2011, and our rate of casualties has declined by an even higher percentage since then. Afghan army and police casualties are way up, indicating a commitment to the fight that we should admire and want to support. Yet the Afghan forces aren’t strong enough to win or even guarantee continued containment of the Taliban on their own.
Beyond the military effects, if the international community totally withdrew, Afghan reformers and all those interested in building a new Afghanistan would suffer a huge psychological blow. Echoes of 1989 would be unmistakable. The ensuing crisis of confidence could be fatal. Indeed, it could affect next year’s presidential elections, as many politicians and citizens could respond by seeking protection within their own ethnic communities, when what is needed is national unity….
The United States would be much better served by declaring its desire to help Afghanistan, provided that Afghans do their part and have a serious election next year and that Karzai then step down as required by his country’s constitution (and as he has pledged to do). We need to help the Afghans with that process and avoid being bogged down in public squabbles that serve no constructive purpose.
Michael O’Hanlon is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He has observed Afghan elections and made several trips there sponsored by the International Security Assistance Force.
The ‘Zero Option’ Will Finally End the Afghan War: David Francis, The Fiscal Times, July 10, 2013—President Obama is reportedly considering abandoning his plan of leaving a small residual force in Afghanistan after the majority of U.S. troops leave next summer. The so-called “zero option” is said to be under consideration following another disastrous encounter between the president and his Afghan counterpart Hamid Karzai.
The Iraq War Is not Over: Kimberly Kagan, The Weekly Standard, July 1, 2013—Sectarian war has reignited in Iraq. Iranian-backed Shia militias have remobilized, Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) is conducting an intensive and escalating campaign of spectacular attacks against Shia targets, and some of the former Baathist insurgents are staging an effective campaign against the Iraqi Security Forces in the vicinity of Mosul.
How to Save the War in Afghanistan: Anthony Cordesman, Real Clear World, July 24, 2013—The U.S. is slowly and steadily losing the war in Afghanistan. It is not losing the war at the military level – although such defeat is possible in coming years if the U.S. does not provide the necessary funds, advisors, and partners. The U.S. is losing the war at the political level by failing to win (and merit) the support of the Congress, the American people, its allies, and the Afghans.
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