Saturday, December 18, 2010

US Choices in the Middle East

Dear Friend of Israelis and Palestinians,

Stephen Sizer sent me/us an encylclopedic overview of US foreign policies in the Middle East by Patrick Seale, a UK journalist with long experience in the ME.

If you wish to read the whole thing, ask me for it and I'll send it. It is exhaustive, compelling, and comprehensive.

I'm sending the last paragraphs of his overview, and his suggestions for going forward.

First let me send you a few facts about the author, Patrick Seale. JRK

Patrick Abram Seale is a British journalist and author who specialises in the Middle East, as well as a literary agent and art dealer. He is a former correspondent for The Observer and has interviewed many of the Middle East's most prominent leaders and personalities.


Seale's father was the Arabist and Theologian Morris S. Seale (1896-1993). He was educated at Balliol and St Antony's College, Oxford, where he specialised in Middle East history. He obtained his D.Litt at Oxford. His journalistic experience includes six years with Reuters, mainly as a financial journalist, and over twelve with The Observer, covering the Middle East, Africa, and India.


Based in France, Seale is syndicated by Agence Global.[1] His columns appear in most major newspapers around the world, and are carried weekly by several newspapers, including Al-Hayat (London), Al-Ittihad (Abu Dhabi), The Daily Star (Beirut), The Saudi Gazette (Jeddah) and Gulf News (Dubai).

Here are Sections 11 and 12 of Seale's Overview (JRK)
It is the greatest pity that Obama did not seize the opportunity of his triumphant election two years ago to announce a withdrawal from Afghanistan as well as from Iraq. Instead -- evidently not wanting to be portrayed as a wimp -- he declared that the war in Afghanistan was a ‘necessary’ war, necessary for the struggle against al-Qaida. This was probably his greatest single mistake. Following his election, he should have called at once for a tribal council, or Loya Jirga, of Afghanistan’s chieftains to discuss peace. He should have declared an immediate ceasefire, rallied Afghanistan’s neighbours to support a settlement, promised massive development aid and ordered as early a withdrawal as possible of US forces. He should indeed have followed his own instinct and not agreed to a military surge. But, as Bob Woodward relates in his latest book, Obama was defeated by his own military. The war has since spread to Pakistan, with potentially very unpleasant consequences for all concerned.

There is now talk at last of negotiations with the Taliban. President Hamid Karzai says he has been in contact with Taliban leaders, although we don’t yet know at what level. He has named 68 top religious, ethnic and faction leaders to a High Peace Council, and given them authority to conduct talks. He is evidently seeking his own way out of the war. However, Robert Gates, the US Defence Secretary, still says that the Taliban must be defeated, or at least held in check, before high level talks can proceed. His policy seems to be: Kill them first, and talk to them afterwards! This is not a policy likely to bring them to the table.

Ahmad Rashid, one of the best experts on Afghanistan, wrote in the Financial Times on October 6 that: ‘There are compelling reasons why the West – unless prepared to countenance another 5 to 10 years in Afghanistan – needs to start negotiations with the Taliban. The first thing Mr Obama needs to do to push aside the military pundits and base his decisions on realities on the ground...’

John Chipman, head of the fairly hawkish London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies, believes that the Afghan Taliban pose no external threat to the West. In a recent article, he wrote: ‘The present counterinsurgency strategy is too ambitious, too draining and out of proportion to the threat. An effective containment and deterrence strategy could ensure that the Taliban did not invite al-Qaida back in when western forces withdraw.’ (International Herald Tribune 11-12 September 2010.)

There are some 40 million Pashtun tribesmen in Afghanistan. They provide the backbone of the Taliban. Tribal, fervently Muslim and xenophobic, they are determined to protect their traditions, their religion and their homeland. They have rarely, if ever, been conquered. Their age-old impulse is to resist foreign occupation. They should be left alone to find their own way to modernity. (Anecdote)

The CIA’s greatly increased use of drones to kills militants in the north-west of Pakistan is, in my view, a serious mistake. Has the insurgency been tamed by such strikes? What if Bin Laden himself were killed by a drone? Would that end the insurgency or, on the contrary, provoke it to greater militancy? This year, missile strikes have killed several hundred militants as well as some of their leaders. But such strikes inevitably cause civilian deaths as well and arouse violent anti-American feeling.

The United States has long been pressuring Pakistan to make war on militants in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). Some months ago Pakistan was persuaded to launch a military operation against Swat. The result was calamitous. Very large numbers of innocent people were displaced from their homes. The militants have been provoked to hit back. Pakistan has suffered three years of virtually non-stop suicide bombings and has been gravely destabilised. Its leaders have lost legitimacy. Undaunted, the US is now pressing Pakistan to attack North Waziristan as well. General David Petraeus has even issued veiled warnings to top Pakistan commanders that, if Pakistan did not do so, the US could itself launch ground operations in North Waziristan. This is sheer folly.

Over the past nine years, the US has spent over $350 billion on the war in Afghanistan. This year alone some 600 soldiers of the international force have been killed. For what noble cause have these young men died? Seeking to impose a Western model of society on Afghanistan is a doomed enterprise.


What needs to be done?

May I end by making some policy recommendations, which many might consider utopian.

First, America and its allies should stop killing Muslims! They should end their military interventions in Muslim countries and adopt a policy of containment (as George Kennan once recommended for dealing with the Soviet Union). Does the US really need vast military bases in the Gulf? Would not an ‘over the horizon’ presence be less provocative and as effective?

In seeking an end to the Afghan conflict, the help of major states in the region should urgently be sought –Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, Russia, China, all have an interest in Afghan stability. In view of its widely different regions and ethnicities, a more decentralised form of government might suit Afghanistan best. The US should allow the Afghans to choose their own form of government and it should forget about exporting Western-style democracy.

Afghanistan is said to be rich in mineral resources. China will snap them all up unless the West withdraws its forces rapidly and seeks to repair the ravages of war with massive economic aid. Prosperity could bring peace.

Yemen has been much in the news. The US has opened a new war-front in that country – with drone attacks and operations by Special Forces. Washington has agreed to provide Yemen with some $50m a year in development aid, but is now said to be considering giving it $1.2 billion in military assistance -- to fight al-Qaida. The figures should be reversed. Yemen needs economic aid far more than guns. Yemen is a poor country. It is very short of drinking water. Its water table and its oil output are both falling. Hunger is a major problem. It faces a rebellion in the north, a secessionist movement in the south, as well as al-Qaida militants, inflamed against the government and its Western backers. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Yemen also gives asylum to close to 170,000 registered Somali refugees fleeing the violence in their own country. Yemeni sources say the number of Somali and Ethiopian migrants is closer to one million. About 3,000 wretched Somalis drown each year trying to reach the Yemeni shore. Economic development may be the only way to rob ‘Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula’ of its local support.

Another Al-Qaida franchise – ‘Al-Qaida au Maghreb Islamique’– or AQMI -- operates in a vast, poverty-stricken zone of the Sahel comprising parts of Mauretania, Mali, Niger and southern Algeria, where memories of French Colonialism are still fresh. In the past two years, AQMI has kidnapped 20 Westerners including, most recently, five French people seized last September from the Uranium mining town of Arlit in northern Niger. AQMI has branded President Nicolas Sarkozy an enemy of Allah. It wants him to withdraw French troops from Afghanistan and rescind the ban on the Burqa, the full face veil.

Niger, Mali and Mauretania are all in dire need of a major international effort to relieve poverty, hunger and desperate under-development. A large aid programme, rather than military operations, may be the best, perhaps the only way, to tame AQMI.

If putting an end to killing Muslims is one way to quell Muslim hostility, a second must surely be the resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict – a conflict which has poisoned every political relationship in the region and especially the relationship between the West and Islam. A small fraction of the colossal sums spent on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan could have been used to compensate Palestinian refugees, pay Israeli settlers to return to Israel and spread prosperity and peace throughout the Middle East.

Instead of guaranteeing Israel’s military supremacy, the US should promote the emergence of a regional balance of power. History shows that a balance of power keeps the peace, whereas an imbalance causes war, as the stronger party will always seek to impose its will by force. Instead of security for Israel alone, the aim should be security for all.

If the US is crippled by domestic constraints, other states must have the courage to act -- and why not Britain in the lead since it bears a historic responsibility for the problem? Britain, some of its European partners and Russia, together with other members of the International Community, should use their muscle in insisting on a global settlement, involving Syria and Lebanon as well as the Palestinians. There is no reason why Israel should not face sanctions to persuade it to withdraw from the Golan, dismantle its illegal West Bank Settlements, and allow the birth of a Palestinian State. That would go a very long way to defusing Islamic anger and restoring the West’s battered reputation.

Israel’s present behaviour is far more damaging to Western interests and security than anything Iran is doing. If the Greater Israel project is not checked, the West will pay a very heavy price. Muslim rage will not easily be contained. It is safe to predict that an unprecedented tragedy will befall the whole region, from which the Arabs, Israel and its Western backers will not escape.

Some far-sighted Israelis are aware that their country is on a dangerous course -- a concern which seems to be shared by many American Jews. They are alarmed at the racist and fascistic trends in Israeli society as well as the cruel behaviour of the IDF, which have badly damaged Israel’s image.

At the same time, in spite of America’s massive help, Israel’s strategic environment is deteriorating. A Tehran-Damascus-Hizballah axis is challenging the regional hegemony of both Israel and its American ally. Hizballah’s asymmetric warfare forced Israel out of south Lebanon in 2000 after an 18-year stay. In a bid to destroy the movement, Israel invaded Lebanon yet again in 2006. It failed to achieve its goal, but it killed some fifteen hundred Lebanese. In like manner, Israel attacked Gaza in 2008-9, but failed to destroy Hamas. Some fourteen hundred Palestinians died. Having lost Iran thirty years ago, Israel is now in danger of losing Turkey, two countries which were once its major regional allies. Clearly, its security doctrine needs rethinking.

Yet Israel still insists on military supremacy. As has often been said, peace with its neighbours and integration into the region would be a far better recipe for its long-term security. The Arab Peace Initiative is still on the table. It offers Israel recognition and normal relations with all 22 members of the Arab League, indeed with all 59 Muslim-majority countries. In return, Israel would have to withdraw to the 1967 borders and allow the establishment of a viable Palestinian state. The real challenge for Israel is to know when and where to stop. Hubris, if unchecked, can lead to nemesis.

The modern state of Iran, heir to an ancient civilization, needs to be treated with the respect it deserves as a major regional power of 70 million inhabitants. Its right to the peaceful enrichment of Uranium should be recognised. The military option should be taken off the table, once and for all. The US should issue a public warning to Israel not to consider military action. In return, Iran should sign the additional protocol of the NPT, and allow intensive inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

An Israeli or American attack on Iran would be catastrophic for Western interests and for the vulnerable Gulf States -- the one Arab pole of prosperity and development, which would find itself in the line of fire.

Instead of seeking to isolate it, Iran should be drawn into the security architecture of the Gulf region. Instead of attempting to mobilise the Arabs against Iran, the Arab Gulf States should be encouraged to conclude a security pact with the Islamic Republic. Both Qatar and Oman have friendly relations with Iran. Others should follow their example. The basis of a security pact exists: Iran could pledge not to use Shi‘ite communities to undermine the political order in the Gulf, while the Gulf States could pledge not to allow their territories to be used for an attack on Iran.

Iranian society is in a highly delicate state. The regime is being challenged by the professional middle classes and by a rising generation of educated young people. More than two million Iranians are at university. After thirty years of the Islamic Republic, many Iranians are eager for a different, less theocratic model of society. The West would be wise to allow the process of change to take its course without external intervention.

The West should also recognise the vital role Turkey can play in resolving regional conflicts. It may be the one country which, if given the right support and encouragement, could defuse the dangerous crises in both Iran and Afghanistan and help draw the poison from the Arab-Israeli conflict. The US is making a vast mistake in allowing Turkey’s strained relations with Israel to influence its own attitude towards Turkey.

Evidently, there is an urgent need to end the war between Islam and the West. In dealing with Terrorism, police and counter-terrorist methods are obviously necessary, but they are not sufficient. The flow of angry recruits into militant organisations must be staunched. The only way to do so is to bring about a radical change in Western policies and attitudes towards the Arab and Muslim world and its conflicts.

Is there a realistic chance of any of this happening any time soon? I must admit that I don’t think so. Obama has been weakened; Europe remains divided; Israel is unrelenting; Islamophobia is on the upswing. It looks as if the struggle will continue. We may indeed have to expect further calamities.

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