How not to end a war

At the heart of the gloomy nadir in Washington’s foreign policy engagement are several profound lessons that, regrettably, are never likely to be recognised

June 20, 2014 12:50 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:24 pm IST

June can be an uncomfortably hot month in Washington but no one must have felt the heat more in the beltway in recent weeks than U.S. President Barack Obama, a man on the verge of witnessing his most cherished campaign promises bite the dust.

The 44th President may be ruing the day he vowed to wind down two wars, flushed as his 2008 dream run to the polls was with the idea of “Hope.”

Nearly six years on, the Nobel Peace Prize winner’s vision lies in tatters, courtesy of a toxic combination of terrorists from al-Qaeda, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the Afghan Taliban and their vicious cousins across the Durand Line.

Delivering the death blow This month ISIS in particular appeared to strike the death blow to the prospect of Mr. Obama claiming peace in Iraq as his enduring legacy, even as Twitter was flooded with images showing what seemed to be the militant group’s squads gunning down Iraqi air force recruits in Tikrit, some 1,700 of them, if propaganda materials were to be believed.

After capturing Tikrit, Mosul and possibly Tal Afar, ISIS was said to be no more than 60 kilometres from Baghdad and U.S. military personnel are being rushed in to protect their embassy in the city.

A much-vaunted “no-boots-on-the-ground” moment turned into an international joke.

In the face of this menace, the words of Qubad Talabani, son of the Iraqi president, are most ominous: “The Iraq that we know has come to an end,” he said in a recent media interview.

In Afghanistan, the murky saga of Bowe Bergdahl, the U.S. soldier of questionable conduct who was held prisoner by the Taliban for five years and then swapped for five senior Taliban commanders held in Guantanamo Bay, has again exposed Mr. Obama’s keenness to tie a bow on his legacy at any cost, regional security concerns be damned.

Could there be any scenario under which the Taliban’s intelligence chiefs, chief of army staff, interior minister, provincial governor, and one prisoner linked to a joint Taliban al-Qaeda cell would not seek revenge on the Western power that stuffed them into orange jumpsuits, and then force-fed and brutalised them in a myriad of ways for the better part of a decade?

At the heart of this gloomy nadir in Washington’s foreign policy engagement are several profound lessons that, regrettably, are never likely to be recognised, for they all have to do with ending the ‘long wars’ that the U.S. seems to have an irrepressible taste for.

Consider Iraq, for example, where the toppling of Saddam Hussein was followed not by any lasting, inclusive agreement assuring a fair deal for the country’s Sunni minority, but rather a backsliding Shia Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who sought to steadily degrade that community, ever more since the withdrawal of U.S. forces in December 2011.

Initially Mr. Maliki was said to have targeted Sunni vice-president Tariq al-Hashemi, who is now in exile, and then along with others manoeuvred against the cross-sectarian Iraqi National Movement, or Iraqiyya coalition that had been a vehicle for the representation of Sunni Arabs in the 2010 parliamentary elections.

The U.S. adopted an aggressive sanctions regime against Iran over disputed claims about nuclear enrichment violations; why could it not bring itself to exert similar pressure on Mr. Maliki to include Iraqi Sunnis in his country’s grand bargain? Or, thinking creatively, why not help all parties involved explore the prospect of a bifurcated or trifurcated nation respecting hard-to-bridge ethnic divisions?

The defence that this would be tantamount to meddling in a sovereign nation’s domestic political affairs is eyewash given the U.S.’ willingness to embark on the military occupation in the first place, based on a proven-disingenuous Weapons of Mass Destruction allegation.

As it turned out, Iraq’s refusal to sign a bilateral security accord with Washington was the coupe de grace for any hope that a small contingent of U.S. troops may remain in the country after 2011.

The breathtakingly quick dash for the exits that this precipitated seems to be paralleled only by the ferocity of the ISIS-led insurgency scarcely three years down the line.

Looking beyond this emerging vortex of regional instability, the fact of greatest concern to policymakers as far away as New Delhi is that the mirror image of events in Iraq 2010-11 is Afghanistan 2014-15.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has similarly refused to approve the bilateral security agreement with the U.S. and NATO.

Resilience of Taliban If there is one thing the Bergdahl saga demonstrates, it is the resilience of the Taliban, who, similar to Sunni extremists in Iraq, are likely to step in to fill the security vacuum left by departing Western forces.

Finally, just as ISIS took over vast tracts of neighbouring Syria and used these to establish safe havens for recruiting and training thousands of jihadists for the Iraq offensive, so too a neighbour to Afghanistan’s east has both government and militant-linked groups that would be delighted at the prospect of setting up terror training camps, networks for illicit weapons-and-drugs trade and much, much more.

The reason why Afghanistan is poised to head ‘back to the future’ — essentially to where it stood in the early 1990s — is that yet again the West has entered and is exiting the nation with only a myopic, military-focussed strategy, and an utter lack of appreciation for the complex social and political realities that inexorably shape the balance of power on the ground.

Mr. Obama once called the Iraq occupation a “dumb war.” A dumber war-ending there never was.


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