The scope of clashes in the Middle East since 9/11

If the US had stopped with Afghanistan, its world standing might be better.

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Consider the changes in the Middle East since the attack of 9/11 on the United States:

1. Afghanistan. The ultraconservative government of the Taliban has been overthrown, but the prevailing opinion in the country remains so ultraconservative that a Muslim who converted to Christianity was threatened with execution.

2. Iraq. Saddam Hussein, who was the US target, has been overthrown and is a prisoner on trial for sundry crimes. Sectarian strife, which Mr. Hussein had brutally suppressed, continues in the open with Sunnis fighting Shiites fighting Kurds. This is reminiscent of the religious sects who fought each other in the early days of the US involvement in south Vietnam.

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3. Nationalism. This has reemerged as perhaps the one force as strong as religion. (During the cold war, nationalism stood out as the one force stronger than either communism or democracy.)

4. Pakistan. Shortly after 9/11, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell persuaded President Pervez Musharraf to support the US in the pursuit of Osama bin Laden, but it is doubtful how far this filtered down through the Pakistani Army. Pakistani Army Intelligence remains suspiciously sympathetic to Al Qaeda, and it's an open question as to who controls what territory along the Afghan-Pakistani border.

5. Iran. Here is the prime example of nationalism, so much so that a country without nuclear weapons is considered less than fully sovereign.

6. India. It is equally insistent on nukes as a sovereign right. A difference is that India is supported by the US while Iran is not. The Muslim world has surely noted this distinction.

7. Kurdistan. The country exists only as a nationalist dream among Kurds, but it is the stuff of nightmares among soldiers and statesmen responsible for international security.

Iraqi Kurds are feeling their oats after what can, without exaggeration, be called their liberation with the downfall of Saddam Hussein. Now, suppose these Kurds decide to carry their liberation a step further and declare an independent state of Kurdistan in the Kurdish-populated areas of northern Iraq. There are also significant Kurdish populations in adjacent areas of Syria, Iran, and especially Turkey.

What would these Kurds do if they had an independent Kurdistan next door? They might migrate and settle in it. Or they might seek its expansion to include them. It is unlikely that the Syrian, Iranian, and Turkish governments and armies would accept this latter solution. Here are the ingredients of a wider war in the Middle East. What does the US do if this happens while American troops are still in Iraq?

Historically, the US and Britain have supported Iraqi Kurds. During the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, the CIA had covert aid programs for them. After the first Gulf War, the US and Britain enforced no-fly zones for Iraqi aircraft as a means of protecting the Kurds. What would the US and Britain do if they were confronted with a war against the Kurds by an Iraqi-Syrian-Turkish-Iranian coalition?

On the fringes of the area, Pakistan and India have refrained from using their nuclear weapons. But what would either of them do in the face of temptations to strengthen their regional positions and perhaps grab Kashmir while they hoped no one was looking?

None of this necessarily followed 9/11. Some of it may never happen. But the US position would be much stronger, both politically and militarily, if the American government had proceeded differently.

The initial US reaction to 9/11 did not need to go beyond Afghanistan. It was Afghanistan and its Taliban government that shielded bin Laden. After the victory over the Taliban, the US should have pursued him more vigorously. His capture in those early days could have ended the whole affair, but the White House was intent on spreading democracy. There was no Iraq-Al Qaeda connection until after the US established an American presence in Iraq. Hence, there was no need to invade.

Iran would still be hard to get along with. The Pakistani-Indian and the Israeli-Palestinian standoffs would still be intractable and dangerous.

But the standing of the US in the rest of the world would be immeasurably better, not to mention the US domestic situation.

For such shreds of prestige as we have left, we can largely thank our humanitarian relief efforts following natural disasters such as the tsunami in Asia and the earthquake in Pakistan.

The worst of the scenarios outlined above may not come to pass, but those that have already happened - unnecessarily - are quite bad enough.

Pat M. Holt is former chief of staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

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