Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Afghanistan Issues

After the attacks of 9/11, there was consensus in the country that Osama bin Laden had masterminded the attack. Since the Taliban were harboring him in Afghanistan, there was also consensus among the people of the US that Afghanistan should be attacked in retaliation. Freeman characterizes this kind of response in reaction to stimulus as part of the “national interest.” In the immediate aftermath of the attack, combined with the anthrax attacks, there was a lot of fear in the country that the survival of America was at stake. According to Freeman “Survival is the supreme national interest. Challenges to it lead to war.” (Pg 14)

Here, I think it is important to examine national power. Freeman is primarily concerned with national power as a perception in the minds of potential opponents. A crucial aspect of national power and potential is the fear that political leaders have of being voted out of office should they fail to respond as vigorously as the electorate demands. President Bush attempted to forestall an attack by diplomatically offering the Taliban a choice to give up bin Laden or being attacked. As we know, the Taliban refused and Pres Bush was forced to make a choice that would effect the international perception of national power. “Neither military, nor economic, nor political strength, no matter how immense, is much value if adversaries disbelieve it will be applied.” (pg 15) So, since Pres Bush had essentially told the Taliban to give up bin Laden or else, to preserve the perception of US national power, he toppled the regime.

Although Freeman might not agree with this use of power, President Bush has articulated another reason to attack Afghanistan. “Our strategy to keep the peace in the longer term is to help change the conditions that give rise to extremism and terror, especially in the broader Middle East. This status quo of despotism and anger cannot be ignored or appeased, kept in a box or bought off, because we have witnessed how the violence in that region can reach easily across borders and oceans. The entire world has an urgent interest in the progress, and hope, and freedom in the broader Middle East.” (March 8, 2005) Freeman, in other contexts, has worried that the US is establishing an empire, but President Bush’s attempt to instill “progress, hope and freedom” would truly be an example of the “art of power.”

Pakistan’s role in the Afghanistan’s recovery is different from Pakistan’s role is supporting the Taliban, but the end is the same. The British Foreign Minister from 1846-1851, Lord Palmerson, was reported to have said: “Nations have no permanent friends or allies, they only have permanent interests.” Pakistan’s interests have not changed in the decade or so that has seen the rise and fall of the Taliban and the rise of the US back Karzai government. According to Weinbaum, Pakistan wants “strategic depth” to deal with India. Strategic depth is the safety and resources additional space provides an army or nation. V. R. Raghavan, in his article Strategic depth in Afghanistan from the Times of India of 7 November 2001 argues that in the specific case of Pakistan vis a vis Afghanistan, strategic depth refers to the belief in Pakistan, dating from the time of President Zia that “The support it received from the U.S. in waging an armed response against the Soviet occupation triggered the belief. The success of that endeavour with no apparent costs to itself, gave Islamabad the illusion of being able to play a major role in the geo-politics of Central Asia. This more than anything else led to the belief that Afghanistan provided the strategic leverage Pakistan had long been seeking. The energy-rich Muslim states of Central Asia beckoned both Pakistan and the energy-seeking multi-nationals.” Essentially, Pakistan wants a dependent or at least closely allied Pashtu nation that will support Pakistan’s strategic interests.”

Pakistan’s desire for strategic depth explains why Musharraf was so willing to disregard international condemnation for his recognition of the Taliban and also why he so quickly threw them aside when given the ultimatum by the United States. Musharraf saw having influence in Afghanistan as a vital interest, but quickly realized that staying on the good side of an angry and aggressive United States in the Fall of 2001 as a Supreme Interest. Failing to support the US could well have led to some regime change in Pakistan as well as in Afghanistan. Switching sides has benefited Pakistan and their search for “strategic depth” by making it less likely that the US will overwhelmingly tilt toward India. Freeman observes that “shifting balances of power and perception or the emergence of new issues between states will cause an alert state to reexamine and readjust its existing patter of foreign relations.” (pg 81) Musharraf was alert, and made the change.

The improved economic climate in Afghanistan has also had economic benefits for Pakistan. The combination of a relatively stable neighbor, the return of capitalism and the availability of Western capital has benefited both countries.

In the Fall of 2001, Iran also saw that the United States was angry and liable to do things that weeks earlier would have been unthinkable. With the US conduction operations in the Afghanistan, Iran made conciliatory gestures, most notable of which was the offer to assist in the rescue of downed airmen. However, with the fall of the Taliban and a return to stasis in the region, Iran has returned to their three decades long cold war against the US. Part of Iran’s rush to develop nuclear weapons and accurate delivery platforms is that fact that Iran is now surrounded by forces hosting significant US combat power. For years, Iran railed against the great Satan. Now, the great Satan has 200,000 troops on both flanks, significant combat power on the seas to the South and a dangerous and unpredictable ally in the Little Satan, Israel, with the ability and willingness to use weapons of mass destruction of its own. Nonetheless, Iran has decided to ratchet up the tension, supplying arms to the remnants of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Iran presses forward with the effort to obtain nuclear weapons even in the face of threats from the United States and France to prevent them forcibly from getting them. Why would Iran insist on provoking the US when it is in such a strong position?

Freeman supplies the answers. Iran does not believe that the US has the will to effectively counter its ambitions, and therefore, Iran will succeed in acquiring nuclear weapons. Once Iran has weapons the world will have to shift perceptions and accommodate Iran. Iran’s power flows from its obstinacy. Since the Islamic Revolution, it has pursued power relentlessly and is on the verge of attaining it, even with American combat power on the border. Iran’s determination to insist on terms advantageous to itself, and to increase its power to make other countries accept those terms.

I agree that there is no real national interest in moving in to instill democracy where it does not exist. If that were truly a worthwhile policy, I would recommend that we start with Zimbabwe, Cuba or North Korea. However, instilling democracy is not a goal unto itself worth the cost to America. Instead, instilling democracy is only a means towards something that is a bona fide goal of US foreign policy. That goal is to reduce the likelihood of terrorist attacks against the US homeland. The justification can be found in the adage that says “insanity can be defined as doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” For the United States, the same old foreign policy towards the Middle East of propping up some dictators and trying to contain others only resulted in a breeding ground of terrorists willing and able to attack America. Merely repeating the George HW Bush – Baker – Freeman policy of ignoring oppression of everyone in the Middle East while favoring some despots resulted only in seething resentment among the people towards the US from Morocco to Indonesia. George Bush decided to overthrow the most virulent, expansionistic yet most vulnerable regimes and replace them with more representative governments. His hope was that changing the conditions that bred terrorism and the harbors of terrorism would seed further political improvement throughout the region and thereby reduce the likelihood that grievances would fester and result in terrorism against the US. Will Bush’s gamble prove successful? The jury is still out on that. We do know what the status quo brought America; the hope is that by boldly crashing the status quo, the resulting changes in the region will enhance the security of the US.

Regarding the question of how the strategic policies of the US in the region affect Pakistani and Iranian actions, I read your response to say that Iran (and Pakistan) now have the opportunity to collaborate with the US on reconstruction of Afghanistan and thereby gain prestige. I think Iran has something different in mind. Iran has been at war with the US since storming the American embassy in 1979. The US now has tens of thousands of troops and civilians within striking distance of Iranian weapons. US policy makers have worried about the threat of an Iranian weapon of mass destruction as payload on missiles aimed at Europe or the United States. However, US strategic policy has given Iran convenient targets just across their borders. Even though Iran may have had traditional trading and religious interests in Afghanistan, the chance to deal a massive defeat to America in one stroke may prove to be too tempting. Iran would at the same time be striking Afghanistan, but Iran and Iranian backed forces have shown little compunction about collateral damage when the target is the US. I think the desire to strike at the US is more likely an Iranian reaction to US strategy than an attempt to build rapport or prestige.

I wonder how “on edge” Central Asia is really feeling about the continued US presence? What evidence is there that the US stays one minute longer than it is wanted once the local government says asks the US to leave? The US even respects the wishes of a bloody tyrant like Karimov in Uzbekistan whose military is capable of little more than firing into masses of unarmed protestors. If the US were truly some kind of imperial power as Philip Gordon fantasizes, then it would have been little trouble to overthrow Karimov’s kleptocracy and install a more compliant figurehead. Instead, the US packed up and left when served an eviction notice for the K2 Airbase. It is a strange kind of empire that quits when it is asked to.

The governments of Afghanistan and Iran are well aware that if they ask, the US will pull out. Yet, neither has asked. Both governments know that evicting the US would mean victory for the murderous, nihilistic terrorists still lurking within their borders. Eviction of the Americans would hearten the terrorists to continue their murderous assault on the people. A real tangible victory would embolden the terrorists. Osama bin Laden himself made this clear when he observed in the aftermath of 9/11 in December 2001 that “when people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature, they will like the strong horse.” So, while Philip Gordon and the Brookings Institution may think that re-heating the status quo ante 9/11 is really the key to American security, actual empirical evidence shows that bin Laden was dead-on in his assessment of people. People want to follow the strong horse; in Afghanistan and Iraq now, the US is the strong horse. There is no evidence that the large US presence in either country is a particularly effective recruiting device for terrorists, rather, young men are flocking to join security services whose mission is to destroy al Qaeda.

Further, Philip Gordon establishes a straw man when he argues that it would be alienating to many countries for the US to mobilize 16 million and occupy a bunch of countries and instead, the US should withdraw and allow diplomacy to change perceptions in the Middle East. Are these really the only alternatives? The US mobilized approximately 12% of the population during World War II, a proportion that would equal a force of 30 million today. Does Philip Gordon really think that if America had 30 million troops available to destroy terrorists around the world that United State’s security would decrease? Talk about a strong horse! However, such a mobilization would be achieved only at the cost of the American standard of living, and no one in the US is willing to do that. Instead, there is a middle ground between Gordon’s straw man of “total mobilization” and the feckless American diplomacy of the 30 years that preceded 9/11. That middle ground includes much of what is happening now. Pursuing terrorists where they are, supporting democrats where they exist and generally being the “strong horse.” Bin Laden would recognize that as a recipe for long term security even if Philip Gordon does not.

Freeman Jr., Chas. Arts of Power. Washington DC, 1997.

Weinbaum, Marvin G. “Afghanistan and Its Neighbors.” United States Institute of Peace Special Report (June 2006).

Bush, George. (March 8, 2005) “President Discusses War on Terror; National Defense University; Fort Lesley J. McNair.” Retrieved October 23, 2007 from

Gordon, Philip H. “Can the War on Terror Be Won?” Foreign Affairs; Nov/Dec 2007, Vol 86 Issue 6, pg 53-66