Karzai’s Compromises

Hamid Karzai is quite the shrewd politician. He realises that his foreign friends with the big guns could be leaving Afghanistan soon, and is expending considerable effort to ensure that he remains in power after they leave.

Renewed efforts to shore up local Afghani defense forces are meeting with the approval of Karzai and General David Petraeus, who knows as well as Karzai that the US and its allies are on the way out. Former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown, in a hilarious political euphemism, once called the groups they are trying to form “community defense initiatives“. Such local forces are, in effect, militias or paramilitary units that are supposed to fight the Taliban or keep it at bay (or, to the truly deluded, dismantle and destroy it). But there are a couple of reasons why that might not happen.

First, it is unlikely that these local forces feel much loyalty to Hamid Karzai or his government, which is seen by many Afghans as a puppet of foreign occupiers. Even if Karzai were seen as legitimate, ordinary Afghans are not likely to respect a government that forces them to pay large portions of their income in bribes for public services. They may even join the other side. There is no reason to think they would be less loyal to the Taliban than anyone else who might pay their salaries. These bands of fighters will not protect Afghanistan but only their friends and family. If there is a more effective route to doing so, for instance getting paid better by income from poppy farming, which might come from anyone, they could take it.

Second, Karzai is making deals with the Taliban, too. The consummate pragmatist, Hamid Karzai realises that the Taliban is strong, stronger than he, and without thousands of ISAF troops behind him, his future is uncertain. The US government has blacklisted many Taliban leaders by name, which means placing them on a UN list presumably so that they are not allowed to fly or talk to officials anywhere the US or UN have enough influence to stop them. Hamid Karzai asked the UN to remove as many as 50 of the names from the blacklist so that he could talk to them. Besides the fact that they are not all terrorists (whatever American authorities say), Karzai is reaching out to those who will want to wrench power from him when he is weak.

Hillary will visit Kabul soon for an international conference on Afghanistan after her present trip to Islamabad. (Her visit and its urgency were heralded by a suicide bombing in Kabul yesterday, not far from the US embassy.) She will likely discuss the US’s plans for reintegrating low level Taliban, the militias, anti-corruption efforts and aid, all of which are meaningless if there is no strong commitment to them for the next ten or twenty years. But we do not have ten or twenty years. The Barack administration plans to begin, carefully, to withdraw troops from Afghanistan in 2011, a year before an election. 2011 and 12 could be interesting years for the short term future of Afghanistan; however, its medium and long terms are in the hands of Afghanis. A British withdrawal is scheduled for 2014; however, if British forces suffer inordinate casualties due to increased pressure from Afghan fighters, the curtain may fall before then. Karzai will attempt to make it look as if he was the strong leader who demanded that the foreign troops leave. The real reason ISAF troops are leaving, however, is because the citizens they answer to are no longer convinced it is in their interest to shore up another corrupt dictator of a failed state.

If all these deals and olive branches and community defense initiatives work, it could mean that the US government claim that Afghanistan will fall apart if it leaves might turn out false. Again, Karzai is a shrewd politician, which means he is a power broker, and his remaining in power for now might mean an end to the decades of conflict Afghanis have had to endure. Either way, Karzai’s actions are a clear indication that relying on the ISAF to always be there would be foolish.

Public Opinion: Afghanistan and Vietnam

Currently, my greatest interest is in how public opinion legitimises war. There is considerable evidence that, although military decisions are made behind closed doors by small groups, wars would not get fought if the people were vehemently opposed to them. Public approval, disapproval, demonstration for and against, discourse and apathy all factor into political calculations in a democracy (and to an extent in other forms of regime as well), and wars have major political consequences. Far from being inherently peaceful, democracies are sometimes more violent against non-democracies, turning wars into crusades against evil. The Cold War is one example: the Western public was convinced of its justifications for fighting the godless communists and their evil empire. World War Two was perhaps an even clearer example. The mythology of those quests remains to this day, continuing to influence culture.

The Leader of the Free World’s most destructive war since WW2 was the Vietnam War. The Vietnam War started and escalated with strategic decisions but ended with a public decision. The American people had had enough. Approval for the Vietnam War among American voters was highest in 1965, a year after the Gulf of Tonkin Incident and Lyndon Johnson’s landslide electoral victory. It fell nearly every year after that. Although American soldiers usually defeated the Vietcong, the American government did not defeat the antiwar movement at home. Why did support drop?

One obvious reason is that Vietnamese and Americans were dying in the thousands. By the end of the war, nearly 60,000 US troops and some two million Vietnamese people died. The people could not see why American soldiers should be drafted just to die. Coffins with flags on them are a major cause of war weariness.

Another is some of the spectacular embarrassments the US war effort incurred. 1968 was particularly bad. In January was the Tet Offensive. Though a tactical victory for the US and its South Vietnamese allies, it was a propaganda victory for Ho Chi Minh. A spectacular surprise attack by the communists, the Tet Offensive marked a turning point in the war that reversed US escalation in Vietnam. Soon after the Tet Offensive came the massacre at My Lai. The US Army brutally killed some 400 or 500 Vietnamese villagers, all civilians and mostly women, children and elderly. When the news of My Lai came out, Vietnam war protests increased, as more moderates became vocal objectors.

By 1973, the US was out. Thirty years later, it was back in; except this time, it found itself in Afghanistan and Iraq. Barack is pulling most troops from Iraq but he is placing more in Afghanistan. The American public’s attention has largely refocused on what the president likes to call a war of necessity. The US public initially agreed with a US invasion of Afghanistan, but it could be waning.

There are differences between the two wars, but here we are concerned with public opinion. Americans are lukewarm on Afghanistan, about half approving of their country’s presence there. 60% of Canadians would choose not to extend the Canadian military’s role in Afghanistan beyond the scheduled 2011, even though there is no reason to believe a mere one more year will stabilise the country. About two-thirds of Germans want to bring the troops home. 64% of Britons polled think that the war is unwinnable, and 69% that the government has not done all it can to support its soldiers. With an election coming up, these figures are crucial.

Soldiers in Afghanistan and even Iraq have not died in nearly the same numbers as in Vietnam. But we are of a different generation. We are living in a time of fast food, high speed internet, immediate results and easy victories. If the Western allies who are again fighting an opponent they do not entirely understand do not show markedly improved results soon, governments will fall and the war in Afghanistan will end.

How long will the public approve of this war? Will they care enough about its stated goals to continue to support it? Is there any chance public opinion on the war will rise in the US, UK, Germany or Canada, even with some tactical victories? History suggests that, if there is an Afghan Tet Offensive or a Pakistani My Lai, the West will suffer another humiliating defeat in another faraway land.

Another perspective on drone attacks

In my last post, I argued that the US government’s crocodile tears at the execution of an Iranian protester were hypocritical in light of its accidental killing of civilians in drone attacks in Pakistan. I was attempting to provide perspective that the US government did not have. However, perhaps I was in need of perspective.

According to Pakistan’s Daily Times, civilians in Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas should and do support such drone attacks. Farhat Taj says that, having discussed the matter with hundreds of residents of Waziristan, the people “see the US drone attacks as their liberators from the clutches of the terrorists” (the Taliban and al Qaeda). She also says that the civilian casualty figures commonly quoted, six to seven hundred, are misleading. Her whole report is an eye-opener.

An earlier article in the same paper describes the Awami National Party, the ruling party of Northeast Pakistan, as highly supportive of drone attacks and American involvement to oust the Taliban et al. (although that may be because the latter are a threat to its power). Another party, the Pakistan Muslim League, was opposed to drone attacks but nonetheless encouraged the US to help revive the economy. So continued American involvement is not all bad for anyone but the Taliban.

For more perspective on why the Taliban are so unpleasant, one might start with Robert Fisk. In his book The Great War for Civilisation, Fisk explains that the Taliban imposed the kind of state they knew. They grew up in refugee camps in Pakistan, terribly poor, their mothers and sisters reduced to servitude, with no education or entertainment or hope but the Quran. It is no wonder they turned to a particularly brutal and purist form of Islam when they took over Afghanistan. They are still imposing it where they are today.

Is assassination by drone the best way to end their rule and bring peace to Central Asia? If combined with the right political and economic strategy, it may be.

Barack’s foreign policy: change or continuity?

Two very learned men have recently written treatises analysing the Barack administration’s foreign policy. Tariq Ali is a socialist, a historian and an editor of the New Left Review. Zbigniew Brzezinski is a realist, a professor of American foreign policy at Johns Hopkins University and former National Security Advisor to Jimmy Carter. Though these men are not actually debating each other, I have chosen to put them in a post and let them duke it out. The question before them is, does Barack Obama’s foreign policy represent a break with that of his predecessors, or a continuation of it?

Tariq has no doubt: Barack has not broken the trajectory of US imperium. The end of the disastrous Bush administration being over, we all believed change was in the air. “Rarely has self-interested mythology—or well-meaning gullibility—been more quickly exposed.” The Middle East, including Afghanistan and Pakistan (“AfPak”), is still “the central battlefield for the imposition of American power around the world.

Zbigniew, however, is less dismissive. Though he has not scored many major successes yet, Zbigniew notes, Barack has reordered American foreign policy with respect to all of its most important features, presenting “a strategically and historically coherent worldview.” But what, in effect, has changed? Let us delve deeper.

Whither the peace process?

Both men recognise Israel as central to American foreign policy. Tariq points out that Operation Cast Lead, the Israeli massacre in the Gaza Strip, carefully timed to fall between Barack’s election and his inauguration, elicited not a word from the new president about the plight of the Palestinians. In fact, he expressed sympathy for the Israelis, who vocally championed their war against “Hamas”. Barack picked the “ultra-Zionist” (Tariq’s words) Rahm Emanuel as his chief of staff. Like every US president, Barack has called for peace between Israelis and Palestinians, an end to settlement building and the renunciation of terrorism. But settlement building, which necessarily includes demolishing Arab houses in the Occupied Territories, is continuing, Palestinians are getting angrier, and peace seems as remote as ever. With no change in the “special relationship” between the US and Israel, we can expect more of the same.

Zbigniew reminds us that the reordering of Barack’s foreign policy includes the essential ideas that Islam is not the enemy and the War on Terror is not the focal point of American foreign policy anymore; and that the US will be an honest broker in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In fact, it has to be if the fighting is ever to end. Jews and Arabs will never achieve peace on their own. “[T]he Palestinians are too divided and too weak to make the critical decisions necessary to push the peace process forward, and the Israelis are too divided and too strong to do the same.” But Zbigniew agrees with Tariq that the push for peace, the necessary stimulus only the US government can provide, has not been forthcoming. He outlines the international consensus on the necessary conditions for Israeli-Palestinian peace: no right of return for Palestinian refugees; a shared Jerusalem; a two-state solution along the 1948 partition lines but that incorporate some of the larger West Bank settlements; and American or NATO troops stationed along the Jordan River to keep the peace. Barack has publicly urged these ideas, “[b]ut so far, the Obama team has shown neither the tactical skill nor the strategic firmness needed to move the peace process forward.

Questions on Iran

The structures of both articles are similar: both begin with Israel-Palestine, close with Afghanistan and Pakistan, and right in the centre is Iran. Zbigniew calls Barack’s declared intentions to pursue negotiations with Iran over its nuclear programme a step in the right direction. “[H]e has basically downgraded the U.S. military option, although it is still fashionable to say that ‘all options remain on the table.’” But two questions are central to this issue. First, are the Iranians willing to negotiate? They are not about to give up uranium, but they may be persuaded not to produce the bomb. Second, are the Americans? “It would not be conducive to serious negotiations if the United States were to persist in publicly labeling Iran as a terrorist state, as a state that is not to be trusted, as a state against which sanctions or even a military option should be prepared. Doing that would simply play into the hands of the most hard-line elements in Iran. It would facilitate their appeal to Iranian nationalism, and it would narrow the cleavage that has recently emerged in Iran between those who desire a more liberal regime and those who seek to perpetuate a fanatical dictatorship.” Barack will not get what he wants with Iran by holding out one hand to shake and the other to punch.

Zbigniew expresses skepticism with sanctions, but admits they may become necessary. As a statesman, he points out that the US government should think strategically about their long term relations with Iran. Do they want Iran to become an ally once again? Or are they intent on treating it with hostility and potentially further destabilising an already unstable region? Despite all these questions, Zbigniew maintains that Barack has, so far, shown leadership on Iran.

Tariq writes from the premise that, regarding Iran policy in Washington, Israel is calling the shots. Because Iran continually (verbally) threatens Israel, and because the Israel Lobby ensures that a challenge to the Israeli monopoly on WMDs in the Middle East is intolerable, Barack has few friendly words for Persia. Barack initially considered “a forgive-and-forget dialogue with Tehran“. But when the protests began in Iran, “the opportunity for ideological posturing was too great to resist.” Barack sanctimoniously lamented the death of a protester in Tehran on the same day an American drone killed 80 civilians in Pakistan. Like George Bush, Barack is using his political capital to impose more sanctions and opprobrium on Iran. The air strikes, looming menacingly, while unlikely, cannot be ruled out, says Tariq, “if only because once the West at large—in this case not only Obama, but Sarkozy, Brown and Merkel—has pronounced any Iranian nuclear capability intolerable, little rhetorical room for retreat is left if this should materialize.” Along with Israel’s apologists, the Saudis want to cut off Iran’s influence in the Middle East and isolate it. Kowtowing to Israel and Saudi Arabia is not new and is a clear indication that Barack has not broken with the past.

Escalation in Central Asia

Afghanistan and Pakistan are the last, but not least important, of Barack’s priorities that our unwitting debaters touch on. Tariq has always been a critic of the NATO presence in Afghanistan, and sees Barack’s policies in the region as “widening the front of imperial aggression with a major escalation of violence, both technological and territorial.” In an article in 2008, Tariq takes apart the canard that Afghanistan is a “just war”, and he castigates Barack for keeping his promise to send more troops and firepower to crush the native resistance. He also takes the president to task for making no changes to the corrupt and undemocratic regime of Hamid Karzai. But the proof is in the pudding, right? Afghani guerrillas are not relenting and still control most of the country; drone attacks are up and killing more innocents; drug production is up, so global crime syndicates have an interest in continued instability in the region. In his scathing review, Tariq likens the AfPak war to Vietnam.

Zbigniew begins his section on Central Asia with “the United States must be very careful lest its engagement in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which still has primarily and most visibly a military dimension, comes to be viewed by the Afghans and the Pakistanis as yet another case of Western colonialism and elicits from them an increasingly militant response.” (I wonder if they do not already feel this way.) He does not advocate withdrawal from Afghanistan but neither recommends attempting to obliterate the resistance. The Northern Alliance and the Afghani government should be reaching out to the Taliban with concessions, attracting the ones it can and then defeating the remainder. The reality in the region “demands a strategy that is more political than military.” Barack should also strengthen the transatlantic alliance on Afghanistan and draw China in as a partner with a stake in regional stability.

Conclusions

Despite their different ideological points of view, Tariq Ali and Zbigniew Brzezinski are in agreement about one thing: Barack has not brought any big changes to the world through his foreign policy. Tariq’s thesis is that Barack has not broken with his predecessor. His rather cynical tone indicates that only the rhetoric has changed, and even the rhetoric continues to portray the typical manichean impulses of US governments: America bears a “special burden” in carrying the world; “Our cause is just, our resolve unwavering“; “The Palestinians must renounce violence“, and “the Iraqi people are ultimately better off” for American occupation. In other words, lower your expectations. The emperor has only changed his clothes.

Zbigniew propounds that, while he has restructured American foreign policy, which may lead to long term gains down the line, Barack has yet to make the changes everyone anticipates. His job will be to manage the complicated web of relationships, (if possible) break away from the domestic lobbies that his foreign policy is beholden to, and pursue the audacious vision he has set out in speeches. “[H]e has not yet made the transition from inspiring orator to compelling statesman. Advocating that something happen is not the same as making it happen.

My opinion is that the long term vision of a democratic and prosperous world that the US government has always claimed to pursue is so ethereal, and is causing such short term damage, that it is not worth the pain. Tariq’s article is a reminder that we must always consider our vision in light of the costs of our policies, and not simply the other way round. In this way, I agree with him. However, Tariq is not a statesman, and he does not consider the strategic side of the foreign policy equation. Zbigniew reminds Barack that he needs to effectively cultivate the strategic relationships with China, Russia and the like if he wants the US to remain the undisputed hegemon. He believes that American power can be a force for good in the world, and while I agree that it could be, it is often far more destructive than constructive. In the end, I believe that, if Barack wants to help the world, he should play to his strength, bringing people closer together, and leave the troops at home.

Ali, Tariq. “President of Cant.” New Left Review 61. January-February 2010. http://www.newleftreview.org/?page=article&view=2821

Brzezinski, Zbigniew. “From hope to audacity: appraising Obama’s foreign policy.” Foreign Affairs 89.1 (2010): 16. CPI.Q (Canadian Periodicals). Web. 25 Feb. 2010. http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/65720/zbigniew-brzezinski/from-hope-to-audacity

The demonisation of Iran

On Thursday, Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a public address that he believed Iran was pursuing a nuclear weapon. Iran’s possessing the bomb would be “potentially a very, very destabilizing outcome. On the other hand,” he said, “when asked about striking Iran, specifically, that also has a very, very destabilizing outcome…. I think it so important is that we continue internationally, diplomatically, politically — not just we, the United States, but the international community — continue to focus on this to prevent those two outcomes.”

Some people might say that the obvious course is to strike now while the iron is hot. They are wrong. The US should not be pushing for regime change in Iran, which at any rate is unlikely at this time. The answer is to engage with Iran and, over time, make it an ally.

The Islamic Republic has not always been anti-American. Those with good memories will remember that, before Ahmadinejad, Iran had two moderate, “reformist” presidents in power: Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Seyed Mohammad Khatami. They urged cooperation with the West, reconciliation with the US and domestic freedoms. Rafsanjani spoke last July in support of the pro-democracy activists, and Khatami won the 2009 Global Dialogue Prize, and officially repudiated the fatwa on Salman Rushdie.

During the 1990s, Iran’s governments were interested in improving relations with the US, but the Clinton administration pushed Iran away. Iran offered the American oil firm Conoco a contract, chosen over other foreign oil companies in order to improve ties with the US, and the Clinton administration imposed sanctions on Iran in 1995.

Oil producers do not control the US government in the way most people imagine. War and sanctions are not in many oilmen’s interest. Sanctions prevent the development of oil fields by American companies and award them to rival companies from rival countries that do not participate in the sanctions regime. While security and stability are necessary to pump and transport oil, war produces instability. Whenever the US imposes sanctions on countries such as Iran, Iraq and Libya, or goes to war with countries like Iraq, it does so counter to US oil interests, not in line with them. As could have been expected, Conoco’s parent company, DuPont, lobbied against hurting its business.

But the sanctions came along anyway. In fact, the sanctions on Iran came at the behest of the Israel Lobby, the collection of hardline, right wing, Zionist pressure groups in the US whose actions have led to numerous strategic blunders for the US, including the subject at hand. In 1994, the US’s second most powerful lobby group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), circulated a paper called “Comprehensive US sanctions against Iran: a plan for action”. It sought to close all of the loopholes American companies squeezed through to do business with Iran. Bill Clinton, under pressure from the Israel Lobby, scuttled the Conoco deal, and banned all American oil companies from helping Iran develop its oil fields.

In Autumn 2001, Iran helped facilitate the toppling of the Taliban regime and its replacement with the friendly government of Hamid Karzai. Iranians even held candlelight vigils to commemorate those who died on 9/11. President Khatami took these moves to mean relations with the US would improve. Instead, in 2002, George Bush placed Iran in the Axis of Evil, indicating he was keen on regime change there as well.

In 2003, after the US invaded Iraq, Bush publicly pressured Syria and Iran. Neocons and the Israel Lobby, apparently under the delusion that they could rearrange the entire Middle East, began pushing for a zero tolerance policy against Iran. Neocons accused Tehran of harbouring al-Qaeda operatives, though the CIA and the State Department thought it unlikely. Norman Podhoretz, part of the Israel Lobby, wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal in 2007 entitled “The Case for Bombing Iran: I hope and pray that President Bush will do it.” John Hagee of Christians United for Israel told AIPAC “it is 1938; Iran is Germany and Ahmadinejad is the new Hitler.”Retired general Wesley Clark, when asked why he was worried the US would go to war with Iran, said “[y]ou just have to read what’s in the Israeli press. The Jewish community is divided but there is so much pressure being channeled from the New York money people to the office seekers.” He was, predictably, lambasted as an anti-Semite. But as Matthew Yglesias wrote at the time, “everyone knows [what Clark said was] true.”

George Bush said his administration was willing to go to war with Iran to protect Israel. (The Israel Lobby’s leaders were quick to distance themselves from Bush’s statements, as they did not want to seem like the cause of the US’s unilateral belligerence.) All the 2008 presidential candidates echoed Bush’s remarks. While campaigning, Barack Obama said

“There is no greater threat to Israel, or to the peace and stability of the region, than Iran…. Let there be no doubt: I will always keep the threat of military action on the table to defend our security and our ally Israel…. I will do everything in my power to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon… everything.”

Now, perhaps having seen the folly of this position, or perhaps because he had been speaking to AIPAC when he said it, Barack has since softened his position and extended a hand to Iran.

I believe it is unlikely that the Iranian government will be easily induced to give up its development of nuclear weapons (assuming, which we should, it is indeed attempting to produce them). Nukes are good for regimes who face an existential threat. It is understandable to prepare for war with a country like the US, which has started two wars with Iran’s immediate neighbours, and Israel, which publishes daily headlines that scream of the colossal threat posed by Tehran’s nuclear bomb and the necessity of preventing them from acquiring one. President Barack wants to eliminate them but doing so would require extremely costly incentives (eg. lots of money and security guarantees for countries like North Korea) or disincentives (eg. war). And if possessing the bomb is the best way to win a prize, what is to stop everyone from having them?

Therefore, relevant questions include the following: Will Iran use nuclear weapons against Israel or the US? I doubt it. If an Iranian missile landed on the US or Israel, those two countries together would walk all over Iran. Let them have a nuclear weapon. They will not use it.

Will it give them to terrorists who will use them on everyone? This is an unrealistic prospect. First, Iran wants to keep its foes on their toes, but does not want to destroy the world. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric is just posturing. Men love to strut and posture and look tough. Men build big guns and missiles and hold military parades to feel good about themselves. Some men will always talk tough, even if, behind the scenes, they are actually hoping they will not have to carry through.

Second, most terrorists have no ability to detonate a nuclear weapon. As John Mueller explains, a nuclear bomb is not a toy. It is very hard to assemble and use, and will not simply blow up the world if tapped with a hammer. Moreover, if Iran supplied terrorists with weapons, intelligence agencies would find out and governments would fiercely punish Iran.

It is time for the US to engage with Iran. Doing so would lead Iran’s government to assist in stabilising Afghanistan and Iraq, two unstable zones that could produce anti-Western terrorism and contribute to radicalising the Middle East and Central Asia. Indian foreign secretary Shiv Shankar Menon said in 2008, “Frankly, from our point of view, the more engagement there is, the more Iran becomes a factor of stability in the region, the better is is for us all.” The fact is, we need all the help we can get, and we do not need another intractable conflict. The State Department, the CIA and the US military all favour direct discussion with Iran’s leaders, as does a majority of Americans. In 2006, the Iraq Study Group urged talks with Iran and Syria, which was initially rejected by the Bush administration who thought it was doing just fine in Iraq without them.

So they continued to refer to Iran as the most dangerous country in the world. Gallup polls indicate that the percentage of Americans who believe Iran is their greatest enemy has increased every year since 2001. The reason might be that rhetoric on Iran has gone up concurrently. US and Israeli warmongerers want us to believe it to buoy support for military action. They believe that, by eliminating all enemies, they can be secure. But when we attempt to destroy all enemies, we imperil our own security most, because everyone will mistrust us, and most will defend themselves.

Talk of war tends to push the potential victims of that war into the hands of tough-talking governments. To both decry Ahmadinejad’s election and threaten Iran is to defeat one’s purpose. There are wiser solutions.

Another Gallup poll of Americans taken in 2007 showed a clear majority in favour of economic and diplomatic efforts to induce Iran to give up its nuclear program. The survey then asked those who were in favour of economic and diplomatic efforts, if such efforts failed, would you support a military strike? 55% said no. Even despite the rhetoric, even though most of them believe Iran is trying to acquire a nuclear weapon, Americans are largely not in favour of further military action against the US’s latest “enemy”.

They have probably not yet forgotten how we were all duped into supporting the war against Saddam. All the same transparent words are being used: evil, irrational, radical, WMDs and so on. Yet, aside from interfering with American wars on its borders, a rational act given that tying down the US in Iraq and Afghanistan makes it less able to attack Iran, Iran has never attacked the US or Israel. Why would it do so now?

Are we afraid because Iran’s government is a pack of religious fanatics with an apocalyptic worldview that puts them on a collision course with civilisation? People who take this view tend also to see everyone an American newspaper might call “jihadists” in the same light: ready to kill themselves and everyone else to bring on the end of the world. The differences among these groups are significant and often ignored. Iran’s Islamic revolution was a nationalist one, and though it supports other Shia groups in the Middle East against Western interests, this has been largely in reaction to isolation and demonisation by America and Israel, not to spread holy war. It does not support groups like al-Qaeda, though I am sure that if they get desperate, the Israel Lobby and Neocons will fabricate evidence that they do.

Being religious does not mean being stupid. Everyone responds to carrots and sticks. Iran’s leaders have shown they can be reasonable and even friendly to foreign interests, including those of the Great Satan, and may be again. Besides, if religious fanatics could not be negotiated with, no one would ever have approached the Bush White House.

Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett recommend Barack give up his “half-hearted” approach to diplomacy with Iran and look to Richard Nixon’s example. Nixon flew to China during the Cultural Revolution and the Vietnam War. Since then, the US has been committed to engagement with the Chinese government. Barack could be the president that flies to Tehran.

Power no longer comes from wars of words or wars of bullets. It comes from close, lasting relationships with other people and governments. The benefits to engaging Iran are a new ally, a more stable Middle East and Central Asia, and a more trustworthy nuclear partner. The benefits to castigating Iran serve only the warmongering elite. It is time to reconcile American and Iranian interests and end the demonisation of the US’s chosen enemy.

Why terrorism works

Why do we always fall for it? Since September 11, 2001, there has been one successful terrorist attack in the United States, and everyone says the world has changed. We indeed lost some of our freedom, our security and our rationality on that day, not in the attack itself, but in our reaction to it. Our overreaction, to be more precise, is why terrorism works.

Everyone was scared. I lived at the time in Victoria, BC, a town of 300,000, and even there people were afraid there would be an attack on their office. Meanwhile, in the US, the Patriot Act eliminated some of the basic freedoms Americans have enjoyed for over 200 years, and new airline security regulations made flying harder and longer and more invasive than ever before.

The media blared with warnings of who did it, where terrorists might bomb next, what they could do, what new security measures should be implemented, and where the US should invade to end terrorism. The bombs began to fly over Afghanistan, and then over Iraq in perhaps the most unnecessary and abortive military operation since the Vietnam War. One terrorist attack, two wars. This was an incredible overreaction, and it was entirely predictable.

One feature of human nature is our predictable behaviour. Not all of our behaviour is predictable, of course, but when an entire society is pushed to the limit of its fear it is certain to overreact. The US played right into the hands of the terrorists. It joined what Reza Aslan calls a cosmic war: a war for god and heaven and apocalypse. It is a war it cannot win. The US simply killed Muslims, which enraged moderate Muslims, pushing them into the hands of extremists. It also gave Israel the green light to use any measures it wanted against its own terrorists (who had nothing to do with the 9/11 bombers), deepening Muslim rage against the West. The extremists wanted polarisation and they got it.

Terrorism even works when it does not work. Witness the new security rules implemented after the failed attempt to use gelatine explosives–now we cannot bring toothpaste onto an aircraft. Observe the attempted “shoe bomber” incident–now we must take our shoes off before boarding a plane. Most recently, a Nigerian man failed to kill people on Christmas and security rules are tighter and stricter.

Some say that reactions to terrorism such as the invasion of Afghanistan were the right reactions, and that ending those wars and leaving Iraq, Afghanistan and the Saudi peninsula, ending aid to Israel and the House of Saud, and so on are wrong because they mean giving in to terrorism. This argument is misleading. It implies that, no matter what the right initial reaction would have been, reversing the chosen course would be wrong. However, if the initial reactions were wrong, that means reversing them should be considered. It still might be the right thing to do.

The War on Terror is unwinnable. It will only make people angrier and waste resources. Giving in to terrorism is not about pulling troops out of the Middle East. It is about not overreacting in the first place. Stay strong in the face of terrorism and it will not be terrorism.

Finally, an end to poppy eradication in Afghanistan

After years of wrongheaded “War on Drugs” policies in Afghanistan, the United States says it has changed. Richard Holbrooke, a highly experienced diplomat, now US Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, said “we’re going to phase out eradication” of heroin-producing poppies. This can only be good.

87% of the heroin bought in the world in 2004 was made from poppies grown in Afghanistan. (1) That number has climbed from 70% in the 1990s, a big drop in 2000 due to a ban on poppy farming by the Taliban (2), and a resurgence to as much as 90% today (3) (though figures vary).

Eradication efforts do indeed destroy some acreage of poppy farms, but they do not help reach any of the US’s goals. The UN Office of Drugs and Crime report that “the Taliban and other anti-government forces” earned between 50 and 70 million dollars from poppy production in 2008. (4) Antonio Costa, Executive Director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, says that the same people may also be hoarding poppy stocks, in order to decrease the amount available on the market and push up prices. (4) Moreover, spraying crops punishes the innocent farmers growing them. If Afghan farmers lose their crops to foreign invaders, who are they likely to turn to for protection? If more poppies are eradicated, the price of heroin goes up, the so-called insurgents make more money and gain more allies. Is it any wonder they are putting up such a fight?

In fact, President Barack’s focus is shifting from Iraq to Afghanistan precisely because it is becoming the more difficult of the two conflicts to win. Iraq has always been seen as the pointless, unnecessary war, the bad war, and the one most frequently designated a quagmire. The reality has changed as Iraq has become more stable and Afghanistan conflict has become to look intractable. Richard Holbrooke has been saying since he was sworn in as Special Representative that Afghanistan will be “much tougher than Iraq” (5), and since a year earlier that US counter-narcotic policy in Afghanistan “may be the single most ineffective program in the history of American foreign policy”. (6) He also said that “Nato’s future is on the line”. He is surely right. More importantly, a collapse of NATO’s operations in Afghanistan could mean more violence in Central Asia, more radical Islamism and more suicide terrorism in America and Europe.

For now, let’s get back to drugs. There are alternatives to destroying poppies (though Afghanistan’s Ministry of Counter Narcotics might disagree (7)). Growing poppies could be considered an advantage rather than a scourge. The Senlis Council suggests using them to manufacture opiate-based, legal painkillers such as morphine. (8) Other countries, such as Turkey, grow poppies legally and sell opiates to the United States. Giving farmers a rich market for their crops would mean giving them a livelihood and delivering them from the Taliban. Decriminalising poppy production in Afghanistan will help the cause of NATO forces.

Spokespeople have used the words “phasing out” to explain their shift in policy away from spraying poppy fields. These words make it sound like a slow process that will not end overnight. Nevertheless, policy is moving in the right direction. An end to the eradication of poppies could be the turning point in the war for a democratic and stable Afghanistan.

Barack and Islam: the to-do list

President Barack has just given a speech in Cairo intended for an audience of the entire Muslim world. The speech was a good one–sincere, inclusive, friendly–but there is a lot more to be done.

Though I do not think Islamic terrorism is America’s biggest problem, nor will it ever be, I do think Islamic extremism poses a serious threat to American interests. Those interests include free markets, secularism, democracy and peace. And contrary to popular belief, extremism is caused far less by poverty and religious pluralism than by perceived injustice with no outlet through which to vent. And on this note, we begin Barack’s To-Do List for Better Relations with the Islamic World.

#1: Encourage freedom and support pluralism in Muslim countries

The Barack administration needs to work with its allies among Muslim countries to ensure everyone has a voice. With so many repressive states that are nominally Islamic, and so many of them (again nominally) aligned with the US, Barack and Hillary need to continue the pressure on people like the House of Saud to allow freedom of expression. Eliminating extremism is not a question of democracy per se; indeed, the idea of democracy has become a laughing stock among many Middle Easterners. The unpopular Bush administration promoted democracy as a panacea, and as soon as an Islamic party (Hamas) was “democratically” elected, it refused to recognise it.

But pluralism and freedom are still ways to promote peace–if you disagree with me, you can say so without getting arrested. To say they are not suited to Islam is nonsense: they were part of Islamic civilisation for at least 500 years during the Islamic Golden Age. Without pluralism and freedom of expression, Muslim civilisation would never have made such great scientific advances. Saying pluralism and Islam cannot coexist is like saying Muslims speak with one voice. Yet these values are at the root of the debate going on within Islam today. Having lived in Indonesia, Barack is in a good position to understand and sympathise with Muslims.

His charm is also handy. Though I do not like the idea that charm can move mountains, it can. They have won him his popularity up to this point, and have even slightly increased the United States’ abysmal image among Muslims. Charm has brought him to this point, but it can take him no further. It has opened up many doors, and Barack must enter with a plan. The focus of his plan must be understanding.

#2: Foster cross-cultural understanding

Back to the president’s speech. Barack set some things straight about religious freedom in America. “[F]reedom in America is indivisible from the freedom to practice one’s religion. That is why there is a mosque in every state of our union, and over 1,200 mosques within our borders. That is why the US government has gone to court to protect the right of women and girls to wear the hijab, and to punish those who would deny it.

So let there be no doubt: Islam is a part of America.” (Youtube, 12:00)

He addressed the stereotypes many Muslims hold of America and Americans hold of Muslims. He has started the intercultural ball rolling. Other people need to run with it. Start programs that teach, at all ages, about each other’s culture and religion and help them to see each other’s points of view. Let them see and feel the plurality of views among the people, that the other side is not a monolithic or hateful mass, and the new ways of thinking all of us can learn from this interaction.

Even the language we use limits our understanding. It can be difficult not to speak and think in terms of “Muslim countries”, “Islamic states” and moderates vs. extremists, but there is so much more to the issues than this thinking implies. We need to realise that, like everywhere, there are nuances in the groups we are talking about that we can work with to achieve goals that benefit everyone.

“And I believe that America holds within her the truth that regardless of race, religion, or station in life, all of us share common aspirations to live in peace and security; to get an education and to work with dignity; to love our families, our communities, and our god. These things we share. This is the hope of all humanity.” (Youtube, 12:30) Barack has begun to bring us all together in common humanity.

Another part of his plan is the prison at Guantanamo Bay.

#3: Close Guantanamo

Barack said “unequivocally” that he prohibited the use of torture by any forces he commands. This is quite the promise for an American president to make, as it is convenient to invoke the misleading ticking time bomb scenario and to the charge of torture plead patriotism. If no stories of torture emerge under his presidency, we should be impressed by his adherence to principle.

He also said, as he has done before, that he will close Guantanamo. Great. When? When everyone else agrees to take the US’s prisoners? I am not clear on why the prisoners at Guantanamo cannot be shipped to civilian tribunals in the United States. This is the most logical answer to me. By asking other countries to take them, the US government is asking favours. Charm has made closing Guantanamo a possibility, but it will not ensure the safe transfer and fair trial of its prisoners without costs to the US’s international political capital. And that capital will run out even faster if he does not do what he promised on the campaign trail.

#4: Bring the boys home from Iraq

Barack has promised to bring the troops home from Iraq by 2012. This may or may not be a good idea; suffice it to say, it is a promise, and fulfilling it will bring him credibility (right in time for his reelection). As part of the wider War on Terror, which many Muslims see as a war on their religion, the war in Iraq was framed as the way to keep the US safer. Having inflamed many a Mohamedan mind with images of fear, torture and killing, it has clearly had the opposite effect.

Part of the reason is the us vs. them attitude exhibited by all the War’s protagonists. We have a tendency to view struggles as good against evil, and I need to know who everyone around me supports so that I can know who the good guys are. But conflict is rarely about good and evil but two groups who do not want to listen to each other and admit they are wrong. Barack seems to realise this, and when he speaks of reconciliation with the Islamic world, he is trying to forge a wider “us”. Bringing the troops home from Iraq would mean that one of the biggest symbols of “them” to so many people, the continuation of a war on Islam, will be over. That is, unless American troop presences elsewhere become increasingly seen as illegitimate. The wrong moves in Afghanistan could reverse progress on Barack’s goodwill efforts.

#5: Win Afghanistan and Pakistan

The United States military, in conjunction with Pakistan’s, has an incredibly difficult task ahead of it: stabilise perhaps the most dangerous region on earth. They have scored some military victories, but the real question is, are they winning hearts and minds? This is war among the people, not between states, and it is not clear that technology and manpower will end it. What is needed are hospitals, schools, entrepreneurship, legitimate government, grassroots organisations and the rule of law. These are not possible outcomes in the short, election-focused, American political attention span.

Barack must make skeptical Muslims realise the benefits of this war, which will be very hard. Perhaps even harder, he also needs to show progress. “[W]e plan to invest $1.5 billion each year over the next five years to partner with Pakistanis to build schools and hospitals, roads and businesses, and hundreds of millions to help those who have been displaced…. [W]e are providing more than $2.8 billion to help Afghans develop their economy and deliver services that people depend upon.” (Youtube, 20:16) Will it be enough?

Likewise, Barack must sell this war realistically to the American people. The American public needs to understand that Afghanistan is a twenty, thirty, forty-year project. Not resolving every last one of these conflicts in Barack’s term will not make him a failure. But no matter how long it takes, it will cost more money and more lives. If they are not clear on these points, they will demand the troops return home as soon as there is an Afghani equivalent of the Tet Offensive. If that happens, Afghanistan will become an oppressive, totalitarian Islamic state, a hotbed of extremism and America’s worst nightmare. It may go the way of Iran, or it may go a lot further. Ironically, Iran is a potential ally in defusing the Islamist threat on its borders.

#6: Stop antagonising Iran

That is just what the hardliners want you to do. When governments feel threatened, many, especially those whose economies are booming, will act tough. If their nation is threatened, proud nationalists in Iran will vote in a hawkish government, on the belief that it is better positioned to protect them. Pushing Iran on any major issue will give Iranian government hawks just the backing they need to escalate the country’s military and nuclear development. A conciliatory approach, however, will give liberals room to manoeuver in Iranian politics, and the results could be a partner in the wider fight against extremism.

It is very unlikely the US and Iran will get into any direct conflict, as I have said before; but Iran could still put a stop to Barack’s plans in the Muslim world, especially if oil prices rise again. If, on the other hand, the US reached out to Iran as a partner in the wider struggle against extremism, it may gain from it. It would be seen as less threatening to Muslims as once believed. Its government is not as psychopathic as some Americans seem to think, and the people have some power to choose their representatives. Iran’s government might look petty if it rejected an olive branch; then again, it might look justified. Iran’s people may perceive a bigger threat in the form of the equally belligerent Israel. With a lot of effort, Barack could smooth over the tensions between these two. This task will be easier if Israel cooperates. Progress on Israeli-Palestinian peace dialogue would not hurt.

#7: Resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

But how? Does he have a new road map? Will he try to resurrect an old one? Barack proposes a two-state solution. Is this idea viable? Creative, new ideas could be encouraged. Does he and his team have any new ideas, such as some of the ones shot down here, on any of the complicated issues? Will the president lead peace negotiations? Will he continue to back Israel unconditionally? If so, and it certainly seems so given his actions since his election and his use of the word “unbreakable” to describe the US-Israeli relationship, what are the consequences for the Palestinians’ security? For example, is the American government willing to provide more humanitarian aid to the Occupied Territories? What would it take for it to intervene to stop an Israeli offensive in its territories or neigbours? Will American-led progress elsewhere among Muslims make finding a resolution easier? The answers to these questions will determine the outcome of peace talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians. It might take a lot longer than eight years, but if Barack can move ahead on a resolution between the longtime rivals, he will have done his best. Honest efforts to end the violence in Israel will be viewed positively by some people, but let us hope Barack is not stepping into the crossfire with this one.

#8: Stop calling the United States a Christian nation

Every president the United States has ever had has invoked the Christian god in his speeches. It is time to stop throwing bones to the Christian majority of the United States and to start acknowledging what it really is: a pluralist nation. Actually, Barack has already done this one. So he is well on his way. This task completed, perhaps more Muslim Americans will emerge as political leaders, making American politics more pluralist, and thereby wiser.

In his speech, President Barack went into details about how American Muslims have helped make America great. “Since our founding, American Muslims have enriched the United States. They have fought in our wars, served in government, stood for civil rights, started businesses, taught at our universities, excelled in our sports arenas, won Nobel Prizes, built our tallest building, and lit the Olympic Torch.” (Youtube, 8:31)

Barack and his administration have a daunting to-do list. Can he complete all these tasks and realise our goals of a more peaceful and just world? He has started many of them already, and eight years is a long time in the modern world. But anything could derail progress: another major terrorist attack in the name of god on American soil, broken promises, American domestic politics, nuclear weapons here, a collapsed state there. But I have confidence that the Barack administration can maintain the support and good judgement it needs to resolve one of the major conflicts of our time, between the US and Islam.

Youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6BlqLwCKkeY

The international politics of Afghanistan’s new Shiite Personal Status law

A new law signed by Afghan president Hamid Karzai is infuriating some people from his NATO allies. The law is controversial because it appears to restrict the rights of married women.

The first thing people need to do is calm down. When passions are aroused like this, we are bound to make mistakes. The biggest danger, I believe, is taking this law to be something it is not. I have not read the law–how could I? It is too long. (Even Hamid Karzai admits he did not read it.) I am not supporting the Shiite Personal Status law, but I am not willing to call it the “rape law”, as many others are doing, because doing so closes the mind. Perhaps the law is not as bad as it seems; it only affects Afghanistan’s 10% Shiite minority. Or perhaps it really is that bad; but if all we have to go on are translated tidbits from newspapers, we do not have the full story.

Assuming the law does trample on women’s rights, which it appears to, I agree that NATO leaders have a role to play in seeing it repealed. Never mind sovereignty: rights are at stake. I agree with critics of the law in asking, why are NATO forces there if not to uphold human rights?

But there could be something more going on here. Recent polls found just under 50% of Americans in favour of the war in Afghanistan, and 71% of Canadians said Stephen Harper should decline if Barack asks Canada to contribute more troops. (Support for the war in France, Germany and Britain is even lower.) As I said in my last post, public support for the war in Afghanistan in Canada and the US, two of the biggest contributors to the mission, could decline rapidly over the next two years or so. If it does, this law could provide the pretext political leaders need to scale down involvement in Afghanistan.

NATO’s civilian leaders are all politicians from democratic nations that can topple governments in punishment for unwanted wars. If there are more laws like this one, it is possible that the governments will say, that’s it, I am taking a stand, the troops are coming home and you are on your own. It is not necessary that anyone reads the laws, it is only important that the leaders speak to the law their constituents think is written. Leaders are sometimes called cowardly if they pull troops because they are dying, but this would provide an excellent pretext for them to be called decisive. And if they can time their decisions in line with elections, they could get reelected. Afghan laws could, at a stretch, be the making, or the undoing, of the Harper and Barack governments.

Patience with Afghanistan could be wearing thin

Governments of democratic countries take a big risk when they go to war. The war can only go on if the people allow it. If public sentiment turns against the war, perhaps because too many troops are dying, a new government will come to power and end it. Vietnam is a good example of this: public opposition in the US increased every year until the war ended.

President Barack wants to increase American and NATO troop levels in Afghanistan for a war that up to now has looked unwinnable. Some reports have certainly said that troop levels are too low, so more fighters could be the way to gain the ground that has been slipping away. But the insurgency NATO is fighting has been increasing in intensity. Moreover, Pakistan is slowly crumbling and could become the next Afghanistan: ineffectual, corrupt government, violent, chaotic, and a hotbed of Muslim hatred of the West.

If that were not enough, NATO has been talking about rebalancing its priorities, afraid of Russian encroachment in Eastern Europe and the Arctic. While Barack might want to focus his war efforts on Afghanistan, his allies have other worries. For international alliances, public opinion in other countries matters just as much as at home.

The main reason the US effort in Vietnam failed was because the marines did not win hearts and minds. Hearts and minds means building hospitals and schools, protecting civilians and arresting–but not torturing–those who target them. If the accounts are correct, there is some effort to do these things in Afghanistan. Could more be done? Could we see the results? And are Afghanis really benefiting from NATO’s presence? The answers to these questions are in the hands of the militaries, in charge of strategy and the media, in charge of perception.

I predict that the public in the US, Canada and Britain will lose patience with the war in Afghanistan before NATO’s mission is complete. If there are not marked improvements in the lives of most Afghanis in the next two years, expect the boys home by 2012.