The Atlantic recently re-posted a piece they'd commissioned from William R. Polk in 1958 and I stumbled across it when I was looking for some of Mr. Polk's more recent work this morning.
Mr. Polk's essay was published five months after the July 1958 coup that ended the pro-Western monarchy that the British had installed in Iraq in 1921 and came at a time of enormous regional upheaval, when forms of government were being upended, new ideologies were burbling throughout the Arab cultural and social sphere, and the US and its closest allies were desperately scrambling for a new regional modus videndi. The essay is simply titled "The Lesson of Iraq" and I'm putting it straight into my "the more things change..." file.
Here's the first paragraph: "Crash programs seldom result in a sound policy. Too often our State Department has waited until the United States was involved in a new crisis before it began to improvise a pact, a doctrine, or a show of force; too often we have reacted in the heat of emergency, under circumstances not of our own choosing."
There's a lot of wisdom in those words alone as regards US behavior in the years since 9/11, certainly for our nearly decade of war in Iraq, which removed the secular-nationalist Baath Party (that rose to power with a coup of its own in 1963), and for America's fumbling for new policies in a region that is once again being turned on its head. In the 1950s, US-friendly monarchs were overthrown in Iraq and Egypt and replaced by officers angry at what they considered the humiliation of being Western client states and seeking to upend what they saw as corrupt domestic orders. Across the region, publics were inflamed with the pan-Arabism preached by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser.
Today, political Islam has come to the fore in Egypt. In Iraq, a Shiite-Islamist dominated government resulted from the US war to remove Saddam Hussein. In Syria a bloody, sectarian war is raging with the US uncertain of what to do, seeking influence with a rebellion, many of whose members have as little love for America as Abdel Karim Kassem did for the US in 1958.
Also interesting is his comments on the lack of a US plan b in Iraq in the 1950s, which reminds me very much of our long-standing relationship with Mubarak's Egypt. Iraq then was awash in secret police and informants, a place where all peaceful avenues for channeling political dissent were shut down, leaving a chaotic uprising the only real avenue for change. Nuri as-Said was the political power behind the Iraqi throne, a seven-term prime minister who Polk called the "keystone of the Iraqi arch of power." But he was also aging, in ill-health, and in a country with growing aspirations and frustrations brought on by rising levels of education and industrialization thanks to oil wealth, he wouldn't have hung on for long, coup or no coup.
Yet "in case of his retirement, which Washington should have foreseen, upon whom or what were we planning to rely? Nuri built no party organization and had no follower of sufficient ability to succeed in command. The hatred directed toward his government, which was held in check by the fear he inspired, could not be controlled by any of his associates or followers."
While it is far from a perfect analogy, the US also had no plan b for Egypt after Hosni Mubarak, the reliable dictator who was aging, in ill-health, had closed off all avenues for peaceful political dissent, and was trying to find a way to pass power to his unpopular son that most observers predicted would end in disaster.
The Egyptian uprising of Jan. 2011 couldn't have been timed or predicted. But that a change was coming was clear for years. I covered Egypt intensely from 2003-2008 and have made frequent visits since. The US constantly urged Mubarak to "reform" in public, but in private the flow of military and economic aid was assured, and when the change came, which has brought the Muslim Brotherhood to power (at least for now), US policy makers were ill-prepared.
The piece covers a lot of ground -- from the Arab-Israeli conflict, the stability of Jordan and the oil monarchies of the Gulf, and the definition of US interests. A lot of the context has changed, but much of this essay still rings true. He concludes with a call to US policy-makers, reminding his readers that, in the end, most people in the region want to prosper, the oil states want to sell their oil, and no one wants ruinous wars if they can avoid it.
"Let us not forget that our essential policy interests are identical with those of the Arabs," he writes.
While the core of the group's objections derives from their interpretation of Islamic law, their complaints revealed what many in Egypt feel is a regressive long-term plan for women in Egyptian society. The Brothers, who propelled President Mohamed Morsi to power, warned that the UN is seeking to place the right to decide when to work or where to travel in the hands of women, rather than their husbands; that a married man who rapes his wife would face the same legal risks as if a stranger had raped the woman; or that a woman who had a son out of wedlock could make the same demands on the father as if she were married to him.
While no UN document would have any effect whatsoever on Egyptian society unless Egypt agreed with it, I was curious as to why the Muslim Brotherhood was so riled up. A proposal to the UN Commission on the Status of Women, part of the UN Women organization created in 2010, was presented in early March and has been the subject of negotiation since (so the draft I've found, grandly titled, "The elimination and prevention of all forms of violence against women and girls," may be substantially different now).
It contains a lot of vague, aspirational language. For instance, the proposal calls on UN member states to "promote and protect the human rights of all women and girls, including their right to have control over and decide freely and responsibly on matters related to their sexuality free of coercion, discrimination and violence, their right to the highest standard of health, including sexual and reproductive health, and their reproductive rights." And it also wants governments to "accelerate efforts to eliminate discrimination against women and girls and ensure women’s equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the right to education, health, social security, land, property, inheritance, employment, participation and decision-making in all spheres of life."
Founded in 2010 by a vote of the General Assembly, UN Women's task is to promote "gender equality and the empowerment of women." The first is something the Brotherhood is openly hostile too -- they reject the notion that men and women should be strictly equal. And they don't seem so hot on the "empowerment of women" since they have strongly patriarchal views that require wives to be subservient to husbands.
A lot of the UN ideas do directly conflict with the Muslim Brothers' religious views. Calling for women to have "equal enjoyment" of rights regarding property and inheritance, for instance, conflicts with the Brothers' interpretation of Islamic law, which requires women to inherit less than men. And the Brothers strongly believe that women should not be free to make decisions without interference from their adult male relatives or husbands.To be fair, the drafters of the UN document are trying to universalize their own cultural beliefs, what the Brothers termed an attempted "intellectual and cultural invasion of Muslim countries."
But s the UN going to have any impact on the Brothers plans for Egyptian society (or an effect on places where the rights of women are far more restricted, like Saudi Arabia)? No. But the strength of the Brothers' reaction is a reminder that just because a country has free elections, or is trying to build a more democratic system, its leaders won't necessarily be interested in liberal values more broadly understood.
This is a latest salvo in a long-running culture war, one that Egypt's new leaders seem eager to enter. And they have friends. According to Reuters, Egypt has been joined by Russia, Iran and the Vatican in making strenuous objections to the proposal, finding common cause against the draft's call for better treatment of sexually transmitted diseases and access to abortion.
The United Nations said today that more than 5 million Syrians – about 20 percent of its population – have been left reliant on aid handouts by the ferocious civil war that has raged there for two years now.
A glance at today's headlines gives good reason to expect the number of Syrians driven from their homes to bulge – they highlight the prospect of more arms flowing into a conflict that has already claimed 70,000 lives and driven more than 1 million refugees into neighboring countries.
Saudi Arabia and Qatar are already arming the rebellion, and Iran and its partner Hezbollah in Lebanon have been sending arms and men to fight alongside President Bashar al-Assad's troops. Now Britain and France want to open the door to direct arming of the rebels themselves. Yesterday, the two countries said they want to lift immediately a European Union embargo on arming the rebels, set to expire on May 31.
"We have to go very fast," French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said, indicating France may act even if it doesn't get an EU green light. "We are a sovereign nation," he emphasized.
The UK doesn't appear to be quite as gung-ho as France, but still seems to be inching close to much stronger intervention in Syria's war. "We have no plans at the moment to do anything different," Foreign Secretary William Hague said in London today.
But he also didn't fully distance himself from the French position, adding, "I have said of course that that policy may need to change again in the future if the situation continues to get worse, more people dying, more people fleeing, but we have no plans at the moment, the British government has no plans to send lethal arms, lethal equipment to Syria."
The one constant of this war has been more people dying and more people fleeing, so Mr. Hague appears to be laying the public ground for a shift. The UN refugee agency said registered Syrians who had fled their country surged to 121,000 last week, 10 percent of the running total of 1 million refugees generated in the past two years. UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres called the increases a "staggering escalation." He said the daily flow of refugees more than doubled from December to February – from 3,000 a day to 8,000.
This is tragic, but hardly surprising. December is when it first became clear that the rebels had tapped into a new arms supply, since confirmed to be supplied by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, mostly via Jordan. As a result, rebels have made gains in a number areas, but has also intensified fighting that has reduced whole blocks of cities like Homs and Aleppo to rubble. The Syrian government has responded with an even greater willingness to target civilian residential neighborhoods with stand off weapons like mortars, rockets and cluster bombs.
Research carried out inside Syria in the last fortnight confirms that government forces continue to bomb civilians indiscriminately, often with internationally banned weapons, flattening entire neighborhoods. Detainees held by these forces are routinely subjected to torture, enforced disappearances or extra-judicial executions
“While the vast majority of war crimes and other gross violations continue to be committed by government forces, our research also points to an escalation in abuses by armed opposition groups,” said Ann Harrison, Deputy Director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Programme. “If left unaddressed such practices risk becoming more and more entrenched - it is imperative that all those concerned know they will be held accountable for their actions.”
So, will even more arms for the rebels make a difference? While US Secretary of State John Kerry said on a visit to Saudi Arabia earlier this month that the US hopes arms flows to the rebels will force Assad to the negotiating table, so far they have only bolstered the resolve of the rebellion while doing nothing to take away from the commitment of Assad's troops, many of whom belong to his minority Alawite sect and view victory in this war as a question of survival.
The sectarian dimension, both locally and internationally, looms ever larger. Syria is already in many ways a hot proxy war in Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia's long tussle for regional power and influence. Iraq, which has a Shiite-led government but an angry Sunni minority, is providing aid to both Assad via official channels and to the rebels via Sunni militants who see victory for Syria's rebellion as a potential gamechanger for their own prospects inside Iraq.
With all this activity comes the possibility of blowback for international actors. Secretary Kerry has said the US is convinced that current arms flows are going only to nationalist groups, rather than to the jihadi-inspired organizations like Jabhat al-Nusra, which have been at the forefront of some of Syria's bloodiest recent rebels, but the historic track record of making sure only the "good guys" end up with the weapons is not very promising.
Consider the US and Saudi effort to arm the mujahideen who fought the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s. While the US tried to avoid arming what it viewed as the most extreme and anti-American groups fighting the Soviets, the Saudis had far fewer qualms about this. In any event, following the Soviet withdrawal, the weapons that ended up in the hands of what became the Taliban enabled them to win their own civil war, at an enormous cost that country is still counting today.
Syria is not Afghanistan. A different place, a different culture, a different time. But there are at least superficial similarities. The Global Post reported on Wednesday that "hundreds of young Saudis are secretly making their way into Syria to join extremist groups fighting against the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad... over a dozen sources have confirmed that wealthy Saudis, as well as the government, are arming some Syrian rebel groups. Saudi and Syrian sources confirm that hundreds of Saudis are joining the rebels, but the government denies any sponsoring role."
Sound familiar? It should. Saudi fighters flowed to the Afghan jihad too, and were the vanguard of what became Al Qaeda. Back then, the House of Saud didn't consider the dangers of blowback. They may be making the same mistake again.
Meanwhile, US involvement continues apace, and is making for strange bedfellows. The Wall Street Journal had an interesting story this week about the CIA stepping up training and equipping efforts for Iraqi anti-terrorism units that answer directly to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
"The stepped-up mission expands a covert US presence on the edges of the two-year-old Syrian conflict, at a time of American concerns about the growing power of extremists in the Syrian rebellion," WSJ wrote. "Al Qaeda in Iraq, the terrorist network's affiliate in the country, has close ties to Syria-based Jabhat al Nusra, also known as the Nusra Front, an opposition militant group that has attacked government installations and controls territory in northern Syria. The State Department placed Al Nusra on its list of foreign terror organizations in December, calling the group an alias for Al Qaeda in Iraq."
The concerns are obvious. But units that answer directly to Mr. Maliki have frequently been accused of torture and execution, with their efforts largely targeted at Iraq's Sunni Arabs. And Iraq's goal in this is to stem the flow of support and fighters to Syria's rebellion – a rebellion the US says it would like to see succeed, even as Iraq helps Iran arm Bashar al-Assad.
This all seems likely to grow more, not less, complex. While the outcome remains difficult to predict, the near-term future seems to promise more suffering for Syria's people.
The clocks are ticking down to the tenth anniversary of the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq. Forums and roundtables are convening to look back at all the spending and the death and trying to put a bow around what it means and what we've learned from the fiasco.
Back in Iraq of course, the war never really ended, as a highly sophisticated series of attacks that claimed over 25 lives in downtown Baghdad today demonstrated.
Though Iraq is much more peaceful than it was during the height of its sectarian civil war from 2003 to 2009, which claimed more than 165,000 lives, it remains one of the world's most dangerous places. In 2011 it suffered more terrorist attacks and deaths from terrorist attacks than any other country but Afghanistan.
When the numbers are counted for 2012, it is unlikely that Iraq's rankings will have improved much. All indications going back into early 2012 have been of rising sectarian violence, and more effective use of terror tactics by Sunni militants.
Thursday's events in Baghdad, a complex, well-coordinated attack on the government in the heart of the capital, are in some ways a culmination of that rising trend. The Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has sidelined Sunni political rivals, when it hasn’t pursued politically-motivated terrorism investigations against them.
In Sunni majority areas like Anbar Province, running west from Baghdad along the Euphrates, the grievances that have simmered since the US departure from Iraq have come close to boiling again.
What that means is not only more recruits for Sunni militant groups, but also a greater willingness of Sunnis not directly involved to look the other way when they stumble across a neighbor preparing a suicide car bomb in his garage.
That Iraqi unity and “reconciliation” that the US troop surge was supposed to set the stage for in the country? That never happened.
Helped by the sectarian war across the border in Syria, Jihadi groups like the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI), which has links to Al Qaeda, have been on the upswing recently. There has been no claim of responsibility for today’s attacks, but it would make sense for the ISI to have carried it out.
They’re certainly capable; earlier this month the ISI killed 46 Syrian government troops, taking a breather from fighting the largely Sunni uprising at home in Iraq. Iraq’s Sunni militants and Syria’s have many causes and goals in common, while Maliki is viewed as aligned with Bashar al-Assad’s Shiite patron, Iran. A victory for the rebels in Syria could prove a major boost for militants in Iraq.
They’re already doing alright. At about 1 p.m. Baghdad time Thursday, a suicide bomber detonated himself in the lobby of the Justice Ministry, which is huddled behind layers of security checkpoints and fencing, killing bystanders, and setting off panic. Three comrades of his, armed with rifles, then stormed the building and exchanged fire with police before being killed themselves. Then, another car bomb targeted this area.
At roughly the same time in another part of town, a suicide car bomber targeted an Interior Ministry facility.
These are exactly the type of tactics that became so common during the height of America’s involvement in the war, and the perpetrators are likely to be the same kind of people that US spokesmen were so found of calling “dead-enders.” These attacks require planning, operational security, and coordination.
Iraq’s Sunnis have gotten the short end of the stick from Maliki, who is theoretically the head of a "power-sharing" government designed to address sectarian grievances, but in practice has been running the country by fiat since the US departure from Iraq at the end of 2011. A growing protest movement among the Sunni population, particularly in Anbar, where the fiercest engagements of the US war in Iraq were fought, has been volatile. In January, government troops killed five protesters in Fallujah, the town that US infantry and Marines tried to “pacify,” twice.
If Maliki isn’t careful, the war that never really ended could get a lot worse.
Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, the power behind President Mohamed Morsi, usually makes its more incendiary statements in Arabic only. But such was the movement's horror at a United Nations proposal to reduce violence against women that it issued a statement in English today complaining that "the complete disintegration of society" would result if the UN adopts a set of recommendations from its Commission on the Status of Women.
While I haven't read the document in question, judging from the Brothers' response, the UN thinks it would be useful to raise the age of marriage, decriminalize homosexuality, make contraceptives more readily available, and give unmarried mothers the same rights as married ones. The Brothers are not pleased:
"The document includes articles that contradict established principles of Islam, undermine Islamic ethics and destroy the family, the basic building block of society, according to the Egyptian Constitution," the movement wrote. "This declaration, if ratified, would lead to complete disintegration of society, and would certainly be the final step in the intellectual and cultural invasion of Muslim countries, eliminating the moral specificity that helps preserve cohesion of Islamic societies."
A concern about cultural colonization is what spurred the foundation of the Muslim Brothers 80 years ago. Leading early Brotherhood member and influential thinker Sayyid Qutb (an earlier version of this article incorrectly called him a "founding member"), executed by the Nasser regime in the 1960s for his activism, spent time in the late 1940s in the US and was horrified by what he considered the country's loose morals and materialism. A desire to preserve Egypt and Islam from what its leaders view as an external, hostile onslaught remains at the forefront of their agenda today.
They are terrified that the modern world is dragging Egyptians back to jahalliya, the age of ignorance before the coming of Islam, and made that clear in their complaint today. "These are destructive tools meant to undermine the family as an important institution," they complained of the UN proposal. "They would subvert the entire society, and drag it to pre-Islamic ignorance."
It's hardly a surprise that the Muslim Brotherhood is opposed to equal rights for women in society. But the vehemence of today's statement, directed at a UN committee document that will have no binding authority over any member state, let alone Egypt, is striking. At least there's admirable clarity from the Brothers on where they stand. Some of their complaints are on specifically religious grounds, some related more to cultural attitudes toward women that require them to be subservient to men.
Below is their list of what "decadence awaits our world" if the UN passes this violence against women document:
1. Granting girls full sexual freedom, as well as the freedom to decide their own gender and the gender of their partners (ie, choose to have normal or homo- sexual relationships), while raising the age of marriage.
2. Providing contraceptives for adolescent girls and training them to use those, while legalizing abortion to get rid of unwanted pregnancies, in the name of sexual and reproductive rights.
3. Granting equal rights to adulterous wives and illegitimate sons resulting from adulterous relationships.
4. Granting equal rights to homosexuals, and providing protection and respect for prostitutes.
5. Giving wives full rights to file legal complaints against husbands accusing them of rape or sexual harassment, obliging competent authorities to deal husbands punishments similar to those prescribed for raping or sexually harassing a stranger.
6. Equal inheritance (between men and women).
7. Replacing guardianship with partnership, and full sharing of roles within the family between men and women such as: spending, child care and home chores.
8. Full equality in marriage legislation such as: allowing Muslim women to marry non-Muslim men, and abolition of polygamy, dowry, men taking charge of family spending, etc.
9. Removing the authority of divorce from husbands and placing it in the hands of judges, and sharing all property after divorce.
10. Cancelling the need for a husband’s consent in matters like: travel, work, or use of contraception.
It's also worth remembering that Egypt is gripped in a financial and political crisis, yet the Brother's would prefer to fight quixotic battles against foreign "subversive immorality."
War is hell, right? Soldiers do whatever they can to win and survive. Officers do whatever they can to shape engagements so that superior numbers and firepower are rained down on an outnumbered enemy. Boobytraps, killing the other guy while he sleeps in his bed, and dropping artillery on his head from a safe distance are all part of a day’s work.
Aside from the fact that the word “terrorism” has been tortured beyond all semblance of its conventional meaning in the past decade, it’s a comment – deliberate or not – that illuminates the strange, dangerous, and contradictory waters the US is wading into in Syria.
RECOMMENDED: Quiz: How much do you know about terrorism?
The US has recently announced more support for Syria’s rebels and has tacitly approved an arms pipeline paid for by Saudi Arabia and running through Jordan to militias fighting to take down Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Syria has been under US sanctions for decades and President George W. Bush's most hawkish advisers, like Dick Cheney, were eager to invade Syria on the heels of Iraq in 2003.
So the killing of Syrian soldiers by rebels is good, right? Well, not exactly. Depending on who does the killing it can be labelled as terrorism or the actions of a people striving to be free.
Where the weapons are
In this case the killing was done by the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI), an Al Qaeda affiliated group that's been helping its Syrian comrades across the border. Among their friends are Jabhat al-Nusra, one of the most effective rebel military units, which was recently added to the US terrorist list. The militia is largely composed of jihadis, ideologically akin to Al Qaeda, and the US has been worried that the arms and prestige they’re accruing in the fight against Assad will be turned on American interests later.
The large number of Sunni Islamists in the fight in Syria, many of whom have traveled from around the region to fight Assad and his heretical (in their eyes) Alawite faith, much as jihadis flocked to fight the Americans in Iraq, or the Russians in Afghanistan, frighten the US.
US officials say the arms flowing into Syria have bypassed Nusra and other jihadi groups, but in most conflicts like this, weapons flow to the best fighters, and Nusra like to lead from the front. Civilian leaders of the uprising have been exasperated with the US position, complaining that the US is more interested in measuring the length of rebels' beards than in seeing them defeat Assad.
Not surprisingly, reporters on the ground say they’ve started to see the weapons Saudi Arabia is buying from Croatia to arm the “good” rebels in jihadi hands.
The US has spent months trying to find a way to support the anti-Assad side of the Syrian civil war in a way that will limit sectarian killings and other atrocities, and steer pro-American forces into the best position to take over the country if and when the current regime collapses.
Has it found a good way to do this? No. It’s a nearly impossible task, particularly now that the war has dragged on for more than two years with nearly 70,000 dead and one in 20 Syrians displaced from their homes. It’s hard to imagine a decisive victory – for either the rebels, mostly members of Syria’s Sunni Arab majority, or for the regime, which relies heavily on the Alawite minority Assad belongs to – that doesn’t lead to large numbers of sectarian reprisal killings.
Which brings us back to events in Iraq, a country that's no stranger to sectarian violence.
According to Ms. Nuland, the Syrian soldiers killed last week had been wounded on the battlefield and taken to Iraq for medical care. As they were being transported back to the fight, they were ambushed by the ISI. "They were attacked with terrorist tactics," she said, calling the soldiers "noncombatants." In fact, killing enemy soldiers returning to the battlefield is something the US, like most militaries, has done in all of its conflicts.
Iraq support for Assad
So what's going on?
Notice that Iraq is providing at least passive assistance to Assad's military. It has good reason to, notwithstanding that puts it at odds with US policy. The Shiite-dominated Iraq the US helped create is hated by both homegrown jihadis and their friends across the border. A defeat for Assad would lead to a Sunni-dominated neighbor, certain to be more hostile to Iraq's interests and potentially a supporter of a reignited Sunni insurgency.
Syria was a popular safe haven and transit point for insurgents during the height of the Iraq war (while Assad had reason to fear jihadis himself, given that the US had repeatedly threatened an invasion, allowing them to tie up US forces in another country made sense) and could easily become one again under a Sunni regime.
So it's the US position that looks strange. It spent billions of dollars and the lives of nearly 4,500 soldiers in Iraq, fighting to put down a Sunni insurgency that was described as a grave threat to American interests. Today, the US government policy is assisting a Sunni insurgency in Syria that is not only similar in character to the one put down in Iraq, but has surviving Iraqi veterans of the war serving in it. The ISI’s core strength is in Anbar Province (these folks fought ferocious pitched battles against the US in Fallujah in 2004 and 2005), and its members have strong family and tribal ties along the Euphrates river into Syria.
The US knows this, and is trying to find a way to reassure countries like Iraq that Sunni Islamists will not dominate Syria if Assad is defeated. After all, Iraq may be helping Assad a little bit, but it could do a lot more if its alarm levels rise. In essence, the US is pursuing a policy that's harmful to Iraqi interests, can potentially empower people that are hostile to both Iraqi and US interests, and is trying to use language to smooth all this over.
Which led Nuland into a very odd, strained statement. She appeared to define terrorism as killing anyone not in the middle of an all-out battle. "We’ve been pretty clear about calling out attacks against folks who are not in the middle of a firefight all the way through this from both sides," she said. By this definition, every drone assassination carried out by the Bush and Obama administrations has been terrorism, as have the frequent tactics of bombing or ambushing insurgents at home, in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
That's an absurd definition of terrorism. Usually governments say absurd things when the policy being discussed is filled with contradictions.
RECOMMENDED: Quiz: How much do you know about terrorism?
During the past decade of war there, billions of dollars of US spending have been stolen, squandered, or have simply disappeared into well-intentioned projects that were inappropriate for Afghan needs.
So what is the US up to now? Planning more spending, even after US troops depart at the end of next year when it will have even less ability to monitor and account for spending than it does now.
This year the US is planning to spend $10 billion on Afghan "reconstruction" alone. While US plans for the country may begin to get some attention given the fight in Washington over slashing spending, raising taxes, or doing both, US plans for Afghanistan seem to be on auto-pilot. And some, frankly, seem utopian given its experiences there.
Take USAID's announced plan to spend some $300 million on Afghan women's rights over the next five years (which has been in the works for more than a year, with for-profit companies scrambling for the spoils). Considering past problems, the prospect that all this money will be spent wisely, or spent at all, is very low, with US and other foreign troops scheduled to leave the country by the end of 2014. At that point, traveling the country at the behest of the US telling Afghans they need to change their culture will become even more dangerous than it is today.
But even if every nickel was spent as the US government intended, it's still a bad idea. And it reveals the fact that the US, after a decade of war there, still doesn't seem to understand Afghanistan, either in terms of culture or its basic needs.
The cart before the horse
After US forces drove the Taliban from power in 2002, Afghanistan remained a land where warlords wield power in their home districts, where the principal business of government officials is the collecting of rents and the direction of patronage to friends and family members, and where the massive US military presence is nothing so much as an ore-body to be mined, relentlessly, until it's tapped out.
In the absence of law and order, quality health care, and economic opportunity (Afghanistan's GDP is largely driven by aid spending and the opium trade), $300 million on women's rights in isolation seems like a folly. If you can't enforce basic order, or find a way to finance the government beyond foreign handouts, or make major inroads into high maternal and childhood mortality rates (US claims healthcare successes there to the contrary), how are hundreds of millions of dollars going to make any difference?
Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told Afghanistan's women "we will not abandon you." Well, members of Congress are probably not going to start tabling bills to allow Afghan women to emigrate to the US to escape harsh conditions in their home country. And when it becomes too dangerous for young, well-meaning foreigners to travel across Afghanistan explaining to local folk how they're leading their lives in the wrong fashion, what then?
Read this sentence from the USAID proposal and see if you can count the management-speak buzzwords: "WLD will enable women to develop urgently needed leadership competencies that will create a prominent group of female role models and change agents in all sectors who will serve as models for girls and younger women.”
"WLD" stands for "Women's Leadership Development," a $20 million chunk of the USAID plan, and it is highly unlikely it will "enable" much beyond the careers of a few aid workers.
Positive role models are nice and all, but the problem for women and girls in Afghanistan isn’t that they’re unaware that women can have successful careers. It's that sometimes they get killed by their male family members for participating in programs like this, or are targeted by groups like the Taliban. In Afghanistan's Laghman Province, the local director of women's affairs, Naija Sediqi, was assassinated last December. She had been on the job for five months, following the assassination of her female predecessor Hanifa Safi.
The USAID document soliciting bids for this large women's rights project acknowledges it isn't just the Taliban that are hostile to their overall goals, noting that a clerical code of conduct for women endorsed by the government "condones wife beating under certain circumstances and aims to restrict women's mobility, causing many Afghan women to fear that transition will herald a reversal of their decade-long struggle for safety and rights." Afghan President Hamid Karzai last year defended his endorsement of the code, saying "it is the sharia law of all Muslims and all Afghans."
USAID's document makes clear that a primary goal of this effort is fundamental social and cultural change: "Achieving a critical mass of women in leadership roles in government, civil society and the economy will make the phenomenon of women seeking and acquiring such roles less unusual, less inappropriate and viewed as a more “new normal” pattern of behavior. When applied to women, the critical mass theory is quite specific about how the advantages of women’s leadership contributions accrue to and thus become apparent to and accepted by family, community, company, and country."
Are women treated appallingly in Afghan society? Clearly. But is USAID up to the task of rendering cultural change in a place that bristles at interference from foreigners?
Even in less contentious areas, aid spending in Afghanistan has a spotty track record, at best.
The Monitor's Ben Arnoldy reported in 2010 on the mismanagement of USAID in Afghanistan, a litany of failed promises: A claim that electricity had tripled for two communities that saw almost no increase in power at all; a road paved for $2.5 million that disintegrated back into a dirt track within three months; huge sums of aid money directed to the protection of engineers and other workers, a necessary response to insurgency, but on that so most goals for development fall short.
Will USAID's plan to use "small-group interventions [to] create large-scale social change through the impact that specific participants have on
those within their personal and professional spheres of influence" work? Well, that's their theory.
From the perspective of women's rights, large-scale social change would be very welcome. But the Afghans may not agree. The one thing Afghanistan (and Iraq) should have taught the US by now is the limits of its own power.
Programs like this one show the US still hasn't learned that lesson.
The news today of two more US soldiers killed by an Afghan soldier armed and trained with American resources is a reminder that the US war there has gone off the rails.
For more than a decade now, the US public has been told the US was transforming Afghanistan from a place that once hosted Al Qaeda into a stable and more or less pro-American country that wouldn't harbor terrorists. That hasn’t ever really been true, but lately, with the United States preparing to leave and Afghans well aware of that fact, American efforts there have begun to take on a particularly futile hue.
Remember “the surge” masterminded by Gen. David Petraeus?
That came quietly to end last year, with little change in the political facts on the ground.
The two soldiers killed this morning, along with two Afghan officers and three cops, were murdered on a US base in Wardak – the troubled province on Kabul’s eastern flank. President Hamid Karzai recently ordered US Special Forces out of Wardak after accusing them of torture and murder in the province.
The orders – from the man the US installed as Afghan president all those years ago – came amid a string of anti-US rhetoric from him in recent months. Today was the deadline for those US troops whose job is to train Afghan soldiers and work with them to track down insurgents, to depart the province.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s pleading with Mr. Karzai on a visit yesterday to relent on Wardak apparently fell on deaf ears.
Or maybe Karzai didn’t hear him over his own insults against the US. Karzai blamed the US for conspiring with the Taliban to conduct two suicide bombings that claimed 19 lives on Sunday.
“The explosions in Kabul and Khost yesterday showed that [the Taliban] are at the service of America and at the service of this phrase: 2014,” Karzai said in a nationally televised speech. “They are trying to frighten us into thinking that if the foreigners are not in Afghanistan, we would be facing these sorts of incidents."
While Karzai’s near-constant stream of anti-American jabs might seem a strange case of biting the hand that feeds him, his comments make domestic political sense.
The US military presence is unpopular among Afghans, and since Karzai and everyone else knows the US is leaving, he needs to make his own arrangements for his long-term political and financial survival.
With the gravy train pulling into the station he’s going to have to wheel and deal with the Taliban, Pakistan, private armies established thanks to US convoy protection contracts, opium lords, and prominent members of Afghanistan’s various ethnic groups, including his own Pashtuns.
Oh, and elected local politicians, too.
So with everyone in Afghanistan setting the table for the departure of most US troops by the end of next year – and perhaps all of them since there isn’t yet a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) between the US and Afghanistan that would grant US soldiers immunity from Afghan prosecution, a necessary condition of a continued US military presence – hard questions need to be asked about what’s being bought with the blood of US soldiers in the interim.
There will be lots of talk in the coming months of not squandering all those lives already lost, all those billions of dollars sprinkled across Afghanistan.
But how many more lives and how much money will be required to ratify all that's already been lost? Will a few hundred more American dead change anything? Almost certainly not. Afghanistan’s president doesn’t seem to like the US, many of its soldiers seem happy to turn their guns on the US troops training them, and corruption is rampant.
Former Monitor South Asia bureau chief Ben Arnoldy wrote last week about Badakshan, considered one of the safest provinces in the country, noting that it’s also a hive of intrigue and backstabbing between local police and officials over control of drug-trafficking routes into Tajikistan.
Violence is rising there for much the same reason that violence rose on the streets of Chicago during Prohibition, though there might be even less distance between the Afghan gangsters and the government than there was between Al Capone and City Hall.
If Badakhshan has been one of those “safe” provinces where the transformative, nation-building magic of the US-led coalition was supposed to do its work all these years, imagine what it’s like in Wardak.
In early February, a leaked white paper from the Obama Justice Department caused a small stir, because it laid out an expansive set of circumstances under which the president could order a citizen killed abroad. In September 2011, the US killed Al Qaeda propagandist Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan, both US citizens, and a few weeks later a US drone strike in Yemen also killed Awlaki's 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman.
Early claims from US officials were that Abdulrahman was over 21 and a fighter for Al Qaeda at the time of his death, though those were walked back after relatives in America provided a birth certificate that showed he was born in Denver in 1995. It's not clear if Abdulrahman was specifically targeted or merely collateral damage in a strike that killed an adult and another teenager.
Meanwhile, the UK is stripping people it alleges of having joined militant groups of their citizenship, some of whom have gone on to be killed in US strikes. Stripping people of their citizenship, strips people of whatever protection they theoretically had as citizens under UK law.
An investigation by The Independent newspaper out today says that since 2002, when a law allowing dual nationals to be stripped of their citizenship for doing something "seriously prejudicial" to the UK was passed, 21 people have had their citizenship taken away. That pace has dramatically increased under the current government, with The Independent reporting that 16 of that total have had their citizenship taken away by the order of Home Secretary Theresa May since 2010.
The paper quotes political opposition and human rights activists as being appalled at the practice. Liberal Democrat legislator Simon Hughes said he would call for a review of the practice and human rights lawyer Gareth Pierce said the government's actions "smacked of medieval exile, just as cruel and just as arbitrary.”
The paper recounts the cases of Bilal al-Berjawi and his friend Mohamed Sakr, who traveled from the UK to Somalia in 2009 and apparently joined up with Al-Shabaab, a militant group there with ties to Al Qaeda. The paper reports that the men were stripped of their citizenship in 2010. In June 2011, Mr. Berjawi was injured in a US drone strike, and was eventually killed along with Mr. Sakr by the US in 2012.
In January 2012, The Long War Journal cited a press release from Al-Shabaab describing Berjawi was a British national who had been killed in a drone strike on the 21st of that month. The website wrote:
Berjawi, who is also known as Abu Hafsa, "was second-in-command" to slain al Qaeda leader Fazul Mohammed, a US intelligence official who closely tracks al Qaeda in the Middle East and beyond told The Long War Journal. Fazul was the leader of al Qaeda in East Africa and a senior Shabaab commander. He was killed by Somali troops at a checkpoint on the outskirts of Mogadishu in June 2011.
The drone campaign, dramatically stepped up under President Obama, will continue to raise questions about whether the legal protections for even citizens are being skirted, with limited if any judicial oversight of "targeted killing" orders and what appears to be a very broad definition of who and what constitutes an "imminent threat."
Stripping alleged combatants of citizenship is a step that the US hasn't yet taken, and probably won't, given the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution's right of due process. But it's a strong, and unusual, step for any Western country to take.
There is form for it in some countries though. Saudi Arabia, for instance, stripped Osama bin Laden, who'd been a conduit for arms and money from the country to Mujahideen fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s and later to participants in Afghanistan's civil war, of his citizenship in 1994 after he had called for the fall of the monarchy.
Though that's far from the US position on the Syrian civil war, the tepid support the US has promised for elements of the Syrian opposition in the past couple of days bring Mr. Kissinger's comments to mind. The half-hearted backing will likely lead to an opposition that is harder to defeat, but still lacking the strengh to win the war.
After almost two years of fighting and 70,000 dead, Syria is as polarized a nation as could be imagined. There are strong sectarian overtones to the fighting, with the core of Bashar al-Assad's strength lying in the Alawite minority he hails from, and the oppositions strength lying in the Sunni community that is the country's majority. Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militant group and political party, has taken up arms for the regime while some Lebanese Sunnis, including jihadis, have fought alongside the rebels.
The prospects of major sectarian reprisals if one or the other side wins decisively are high – and allegations of sectarian butchery against both rebels and Mr. Assad's army have already been made with alarming frequency. Further afield, Assad's staunchest backer is Shiite Iran, while its old opponent for regional supremacy, Sunni Saudi Arabia, has been providing arms to the rebellion.
So this does not appear to be a situation where either side is in a mood for the compromises that would be required for a negotiated settlement.
But that appears to be what the US is hoping for by making the rebels stronger, but not too strong. Secretary of State John Kerry said today in Rome the US would supply "non-lethal" aid – food, medicine, and possibly things like communications equipment – directly to the Free Syrian Army and a further $60 million to the political wing of the uprising.
Earlier in the week, there were rumors that the US was considering providing military training to rebel units, but those failed to materialize today. On Feb. 25, citing "American and Western officials," The New York Times reported that Saudi Arabia began directly arming rebels in December. The Times report said Saudi Arabia was purchasing large quantities of rifles, machine guns, mortars, and other infantry weapons from Croatia, and delivering them to rebels in Syria via Jordan. The Times asserts that the weapons went primarily to secular groups and side-stepped the jihadi militias like Jabhat al-Nusra, which was added to the US terrorist list last year.
Jordan and Saudi Arabia are two of the Arab militaries closest to the US, and relying as they do on US arms (and in the case of Jordan, US aid) it's safe to assume their activities have the tacit approval of the US.
All of this remains far short of the massive intervention by NATO and others in Libya in 2011, in which weapons and trainers flowed to Libyan militias fighting Muammar Qaddafi and NATO airpower paved the way for their march on Tripoli, the capital.
The light weapons and the aid from the US will certainly help the rebels. The blogger Brown Moses, who closely tracks the Syrian civil war, started reporting in mid-January on the growing numbers of weapons from the former Yugoslavia (which Croatia was a part of) turning up in videos from the Syrian battlefield. He's noticed Yugoslav-made rocket launchers, recoilless rifles, and grenade launchers.
Someone – a current player? a new one? – was giving a big boost in weapons to the insurgents.
Since then, the Free Syrian Army has succeeded with a series of surprise attacks, capturing several towns, border crossings, and roads. They then repeled tank convoys, airstrikes, infantry invasions, and even paratroopers...
The weapons are being brought in from outside Syria and put into the hands of Free Syrian Army units, rather than the Islamist Jabhat al-Nusra or other factions distrusted by the international coalition supporting the opposition.
Mr. Kerry told reporters after his meetings in Rome that “I am very confident from what I heard in there from other foreign ministers that the totality of this effort is going to have an impact on the ability of the Syrian opposition to accomplish its goals.”
But not everyone was convinced.
Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib, leader of the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC), complained at a joint press conference with Kerry of an "international decision to prevent arming Syrian rebels with quality arms" and said, "Plenty of people focus more on the length of a fighter's beard than on the scope of the regime's massacres."
That's a reference to the fear that jihadis, kissing cousins of Al Qaeda in Iraq that caused so many problems for the US occupation there, are a major component of the fight against Assad, and could come out on top after his eventual defeat. Those are people who, while they may be fighting Assad, the US decidedly does not want to see win.
It appears for now that the Obama team, with Kerry in the lead, is hoping to shift the balance of military power and fear in Syria sufficiently that Assad is convinced to make concessions and that some of his backers abandon him. While Iran, locked in its own nuclear standoff with the US and with few friends in the region beyond Assad's Syria, is unlikely to call off its support, Russia has also been a steadfast supporter of Assad, but has far less to lose if he goes down.
The AP reports that Russian President Vladimir Putin signaled a possible shift away from support for Assad today, telling reporters at a joint press conference with French President Francois Hollande, "We should listen to the opinion of our partners on some of the aspects of that difficult problem." France has been a major proponent of removing Assad from power.
Will this war and its truly horrific casualty rate continue to grind on, making all Syrians inevitable losers? Or is the cautious approach of the US, and the Saudis, enough to nudge all this to a faster conclusion? Time will tell – but it has been more than two years so far of false dawns.