(RIEAS Senior Advisor)
When Donald Rumsfeld was still US Secretary of Defense, many officials and soldiers criticized his willingness to focus the US military budget and strategic decisions on low intensity conflicts and terrorism by favouring the use of Special Forces, intelligence and high technology. His departure and the arrival of former CIA director Robert Gates was to change all that and make the improvement of the situation in Iraq the top priority. It was mostly about breaking with the Rumsfeld era by providing the armed forces with more conventional means and by sending more troops on the ground for a better control of the territory, especially in Iraq. It was « The Surge » and the arrival of reinforcements, inter alia supported by US Senator John McCain, that led to the significant and current improvement of the security situation in Iraq.
Although there are still murderous attacks, the number of attacks has been decreased. While the internal difficulties related to sectarian, religious and political beliefs are far from being settled, Iraq seems on the path of greater stability. The resumption of dialogue between Iraq and Iran proved essential. The situation got worse in Afghanistan at the same time of a growing destabilization of Pakistan plagued by very serious political difficulties and the worst seems yet to come. The Taliban and their Al Qaeda allies have won several major victories: the official establishment of Sharia in the valley of Swat, greater freedom of movement on both sides of the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan and finally the offering hand of President Karzai and his western allies to «win over» the « moderates » among them. Such a scenario would have been unthinkable in 2002 when only the all-out war on terrorism was the valid strategy and that in a few months, Mullah Omar and his friends had been swept from the Afghan scene, in appearance at least.
To sum up, the situation has improved in Iraq when it deteriorated in Afghanistan. But there is more than that. If one cannot question the quality of the allied and American forces that operate in Afghanistan and Iraq, one can note with surprise that the sum of the problems in 2003 and before the war in Iraq is equivalent, according to the most optimistic analysis, to the situation today. Clearly, after thousands of losses and trillions of dollars spent, the global context has stabilized according to the very optimistic analysts, it worsened for the neutral ones and it deeply exacerbated for the pessimistic ones. The situation in Iraq improved due to a greater US military presence, a more experienced and larger Iraqi army but also and mostly because Iran dramatically stepped down its clandestine war in Iraq. It was confirmed by US officials. Iran reached its objectives since Saddam Hussein and the Baath party no longer exist, the central government in Baghdad cooperates readily with Tehran and the United States of Barack Obama is determined to leave.
If more stability profits everyone, the United States is not the main beneficiary. The Iranians were the most skilful and at the end, nothing is settled. Their uranium enrichment program continues and time is their best ally to become a nuclear power. No sanction was added to the already-long list that never prevented them from keeping their nuclear ambitions up. Even better, the Obama administration could no longer put the end of all enrichment as a precondition for the resumption of negotiations. Tehran did not dare to dream of it, Washington might do it. Tehran said « thank you » by condemning Irano-American journalist Roxana Saberi to eight years in prison for espionage in which the evidence lacks as much as the so-called valuable information obtained from her « illegal activities ». In Afghanistan, the situation is very worrying. NATO countries sent more troops and continue their relentless fight against the Taliban who are more determined, trained and sophisticated compared to their « amateurism » following 9/11 and the beginning of operation « Enduring Freedom ». In both camps, the losses increase but it is clear that the new recruits of the Taliban and/or Al Qaeda are not fewer. They are even better trained and learnt from past setbacks. No more disordered ambushes, now that is offensive with hundreds of men, coordinated with « snipers » and well-placed IEDs. The new budget of the Pentagon gives priority to drones, Special Forces and helicopters. The strategy is changing and insists on the absolute need for economic development to stabilize the region.
In the words, the plan looks better but it remains unclear and does not take enough into account the crucial importance of poppy cultivation in the Afghan economy. How to replace a highly profitable and easy cultivation with a more difficult and less profitable traditional agriculture? For now, nobody knows the answer. Even Kabul acknowledges that it will be difficult to eradicate the cradle of the heroin's world market. NATO and the Obama administration have chosen to concentrate the bulk of their troops on Afghanistan and the Pakistani border without a credible strategy to replace the warlords, to reduce the influence of the Taliban and to destroy the narcotics industry. This is not a strategy for victory, but a strategy for containment at best. Obama told we will prevail. No, we will contain because it is the best that can be done objectively and durably. Changing history or culture of a country like Afghanistan by considering that democracy is a political system that can be applied rather than a result of history, is like fighting with good ideas and bad weapons. If the goal is laudable, the result that counts and it is not good yet.