By Amin Saikal, author of Zone of Crisis: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and Iraq
The Middle East and its wider eastern environs are in the grip of multiple humanitarian and geopolitical crises. The entire region from Pakistan and Afghanistan to Iraq and Syria to Palestine and Libya is shattered by more violence than usual and long-term structural instability, not seen since the end of World War II. However, none of these issues has been more stunning than the declaration of the ‘Islamic State’ (IS) of vast swaths of territories in Iraq and Syria.
The US and its allies are so shocked by the sudden rise of IS and alarmed by the dangerous electoral dispute and the continuation of the robust Taliban-led insurgency in Afghanistan that they have resorted to measures which were unthinkable a few months ago. They have found it imperative to coordinate what is called a ‘non-combat humanitarian military assault’ on IS, to rethink their policy of no direct military intervention in Syria, to re-evaluate their troop drawdown from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, to beef up their anti-terrorism laws and to monitor closely the Muslim segment of their population.
They are embarrassed once again by their intelligence failures about the rise of IS and how the situation, in which the US has invested so much in blood and money, has turned sour in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Not to speak of other regional crises, these two developments have been in the making for some time.
In the case of Iraq, it goes back to the 2003 US-led invasion of the country. The US destruction of the Iraqi state along with that of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, and Washington’s poor understanding of the Iraqi and regional complexities and its failure to have any viable plan for a stable post-invasion order, generated a massive political and strategic vacuum in the country. In a highly socially divided Iraq, various traditionally hostile societal groups found it opportune and necessary to contest one another for filling the vacuum at the cost of each other and the invading forces.
The US military exit by the end of 2011, which did not achieve any of its original objectives, left Iraq with no foundations for an enduring stability and security. This situation, together with regional rivalries and the faltering Western policy approach to the Syrian crisis, ultimately helped a force like the IS to consolidate from 2010. As brutal as it is, IS has now secured a resourceful Sunni Arab sectarian and territorial base, which has attracted like-minded Muslim extremists from around the world to fight for IS.
The IS now cannot easily be eliminated by mere air strikes, as the US has enacted. The US and its NATO and non-NATO allies have not been able to contain and defeat the Taliban and their affiliates through direct combat operations in Afghanistan. One wonders what has persuaded them that they can wipe out IS through aerial bombardment alone. Whatever the nature and mode of their operations, they will most likely entail blow back, as has been the case in the past. Their stress on the humanitarian aspect of their operations may not wash well with all those Muslims who view them as part of the traditional Western double standards: war against IS, but no defense of the Palestinians under Israel’s devastating fire power
Even if the US and its allies succeed against IS, it will not necessarily mean a more stable Iraq or region. The conditions across the area are highly conducive for replacing IS with a successor group and for enforcing the position of the existing ones, ranging from Afghan and Pakistan Taliban to Al Qaeda.
Afghanistan has the potential to go down the same path as Iraq. The disputed presidential election results fatally threaten the undoing of the country. After 13 years of US-led intervention at high human and material costs for the Afghan people and foreign forces, Afghanistan remains mired, similar to Iraq, in instability, insecurity and corruption. It lacks the foundations for a smooth transfer of power from one person to another through a clean and credible presidential election. The extent of fraud in the recent presidential run-off between Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani is so astronomical that irrespective of which one is eventually declared the winner, he will not have the necessary basis for a stable government and a viable political order – all to the delight of the Taliban-led insurgents and their Pakistani backers.
It is time for the US and its allies to take stock of their past mistakes and act in ways that could help the people of the region to generate the kind of conditions in their countries which will prevent the rise of such forces as IS and the Taliban and such dictatorial ruling elites that have stifled their societies. The question is: do they have a comprehensive and selfless political strategy for moving in this direction? The indications are that they have not since 9/11 and this remains the case to date.
Amin Saikal is Director of the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies and Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University. He has been a visiting fellow at the Universities of Princeton and Cambridge, as well as at Sussex University’s Institute of Development Studies. He has also been a Rockefeller Foundation Fellow in International Relations. He is the author of a number of works on the Middle East, Central Asia and Russia, including Modern Afghanistan: A History of Struggle and Survival (I.B.Tauris, revised 2012). His most recent book is Zone of Crisis: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and Iraq (I.B. Tauris, 2014) at Amazon
, also available directly from Palgrave.com.