View Full Version : Obama Just Can't Afford to Neglect Iraq

11-26-2009, 12:05 PM
Assyrian International News AgencyObama Just Can't Afford to Neglect Iraq

Posted GMT 11-26-2009 0:50:33 http://www.aina.org/images/print.gif (http://www.aina.org/news/20091125185033.htm) http://www.aina.org/images/closewindow.gif (http://www.aina.org/news/20091125185033.htm)

Next week, US President Barack Obama will announce his new strategy for Afghanistan. After a long delay, it's about time. The available information suggests the president will increase US forces by some 34,000 over a nine-month period, to roughly 100,000, with various benchmarks set, which, if they are not met, would allow Obama to take "off-ramps" to reduce his military commitment.
This decision raises a question. Obama accused his predecessor, George W. Bush, of fighting the "wrong" war in Iraq, not the "right" one in Afghanistan. Given Washington's different political challenges in the broader Middle East today, is Obama making that mistake in reverse? Is Iraq now the "right" war, while Afghanistan's importance has been overplayed?
The question is academic. Obama is not about to revoke his withdrawal plan for Iraq. He intends to remove all American combat troops by August 2010, and all forces by the end of 2011. However, that only shines a light on the president's ambiguities in defining his strategic priorities. In essence, does Obama consider it more important to contain Iranian power in Iraq and the Gulf region, or to inhibit Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan?
Both are worthy objectives. But as dangerous as Al-Qaeda is, there are numerous uncertainties about its capabilities as well as the advantages it might derive from a more favorable environment in the future -- some of these raised by American officials themselves. For example, it is unclear whether a Taliban victory would necessarily enhance Al-Qaeda's effectiveness. It might, but given the complex interests in the country today, not least those of Pakistan, as well as the fact that a comprehensive Taliban victory is less probable than it was in 1996, Obama's deployment of 100,000 US soldiers can be legitimately questioned.
What is not open to question, however, is that the emergence of a powerful, even hegemonic, Iran may undo over six decades of American policy in the Gulf specifically, and the Middle East generally. Thanks to Bush's blunders in Iraq after 2003, particularly his creating a vacuum there that Tehran exploited to its advantage, America's allies to Iraq's south have existential fears. There is very little to like in most Gulf regimes, but that's irrelevant: Washington must decide whether it can afford to ignore their possible destabilization, even collapse.
In this context, the Obama administration's approach to the Iranian nuclear program is essential. Much of the focus has been on Israel and whether it can tolerate a nuclear Iran. But Israel has a nuclear deterrence capability. America's Gulf allies do not, and would be the first affected by an Iran in possession of atomic weapons. Their sole deterrent would be sectarianism, the manipulation of Sunni fears of Shiite domination. If Obama's principle aim is to weaken Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, a Sunni-Shiite conflict in the Gulf that the United States indirectly permits by staying aloof in the region could spawn hundreds of Al-Qaedas.
Obama's lack of a strategic vision has been written about to death. Everywhere, he speaks softly and carries a big carrot. A more pertinent question at this juncture is what should be done? A pullout from Iraq is inevitable. However, the US can do two things in the coming year to limit Iran's ability to profit from the aftermath.
First, the administration must work to strengthen the authority and cohesiveness of the Iraq state by pushing much harder for Sunni-Shiite reconciliation, perhaps enlisting regional support; and it must help sponsor, even try to impose, an agreement between Baghdad and the Kurds over the disputed province of Kirkuk. This is easier said than done, particularly in the midst of an American drawdown, and would doubtless require Obama's personal involvement. However, it can be done, because only an empowered Iraqi state, one whose different components are at peace with one another, would have a chance of limiting external meddling and avoiding a further escalation in domestic communal violence.
A second step must be to reinforce the American military presence in the Gulf area, as a fallback measure once the troops have left Iraq. This would demonstrate that the US intends to draw a line against Iran. Such an initiative would gain in significance by being formulated in a multilateral framework agreed, let's say, with the Gulf Cooperation Council.
What about the Afghan conflict? Obama's notion of "off-ramps" exposes the indecision in Washington, of wanting to have it both ways. According to press leaks, as of next June Washington will begin looking at a number of developments in Afghanistan -- political reform, the performance of President Hamid Karzai and his sincerity in limiting corruption, military success, and more. If there are few signs of progress on these fronts, Obama would retain the option of cutting back American forces.
As White House press secretary Robert Gibbs put it on Monday, it's "not just how we get people there, but what's the strategy for getting them out."
Yet what a contradiction it is for Obama to imply how vitally important Afghanistan is through a 30-percent increase in forces (in addition to the 21,000 troops he sent last March), while simultaneously affirming that if things don't work out in the coming nine months, the US might reduce its presence. Either winning in Afghanistan is crucial, in which case the administration should avoid hard deadlines to remove its combat units, or it is not that crucial, in which case little justifies Obama's large build-up.
It is this inconsistency that allowed Vice President Joe Biden to alter Obama's thinking on the military plan presented by General Stanley McChrystal earlier this year. Biden prefers a more limited counter-terrorism strategy in Afghanistan, and while there may be flaws in the approach, his questioning has forced the administration to ponder how important Afghan*istan really is. Part of that exercise requires reassessing its approach to Iraq and Iran, America's greatest headache.
By Michael Young
Daily Star, Lebanon