Posted by Gilmour Poincaree on November 18, 2008

Published: November 14, 2008

by Walid Phares

As the transition in the United States between the administrations of Usama bin LadinGeorge W. Bush and Barack Obama is moving forward feverishly while world crises escalate, observers of conflicts are focusing on the messages emanating from the next foreign policy team in Washington.

The smooth passing of the torch from one leadership to another in the middle of unfinished wars and gigantic counterterrorism efforts is critical, especially if a strategic change of direction is on its way.

Analysts wonder about the nature of change to come: is it about managing battlefields or reducing them?

The first post election statements made by Obama sources – incorporated into a Washington Post article by Karen DeYoung published on Nov. 11, “Obama to Explore New Approach in Afghanistan War” – are very revealing.

Although these “conversations” with aides are still unofficial positions at the formal level, one must read them as the first salvo in setting the tone and guidelines for early 2009.

Thus, and in order to engage in a national discussion on what seems to be the near future, we must analyze these propositions one by one and contrast them with the intensity of the evolving threat.

Therefore, the following are early comments on the emerging new policies.

The Washington Post article began by stating that the Obama administration is planning on “exploring a more regional strategy to the war in Afghanistan including possible talks with Iran.” Citing Obama national security advisers, the Post added that the new strategy “looks favorably on the nascent dialogue between the Afghan government and ‘reconcilable’ elements of the Taliban.”

These two so-called strategic components of the forthcoming administration’s plan to end the conflict in central Asia deserve a high level of attention and thorough examination. In a post Sept. 11, 2001 environment – meaning seven years into a confrontation with jihadist forces – not only experts but a large segment of the American public has developed a higher awareness of the threat of the enemy and of its long-term objectives. Arguments in foreign policy analysis are not as alien as they were to citizens prior to the 2001 attacks. Many Americans know who the Taliban are and what their goals are, and they know as well of the dangerous fantasies of the mullah regime in Tehran.

A new strategy in the region covering Pakistan and Iran is indeed needed to achieve advances in defeating the jihadis and in empowering the democracy forces in Afghanistan.

If the Bush administration was too slow in reaching that conclusion, then one would expect the Obama foreign policy team to bridge the gap and quickly arrive at a successful next stage.

But the “regional” proposition unveiled by the Washington Post defies logic, instead of consolidating it.

For I wonder on what grounds the Iranian regime would shift from a virulent anti-U.S. attitude to a favorable team player in stabilizing Afghanistan? Even the gurus of classical realism would wonder.

If a deal is possible with Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, it cannot be on establishing a democratic government in Kabul. It simply doesn’t add up knowing the essence of the Islamic Republic of Iran and its oppressive nature.

Therefore, and before the new administration even begins to sell the idea, it is important for all to realize that any Afghan deal cut with Iran must assume that the next regime in Kabul will satisfy the agenda in Tehran: meaning non-democratic. This is the first hurdle.

Amazingly, the second proposition simultaneously would invite the Taliban (postulating that a milder wing indeed exists) to share power in the country as a way to end the conflict. More problems emerge here: first, if the “good” Taliban are brought to the deal (assuming this is even feasible), what happens with the “bad” Taliban? Will the latter just “go away” or will there be a fight between the “good and the bad” factions? And how can the new strategy end the new Afghan war and will we come to the rescue of the nice jihadists against the ugly ones? Obviously, it doesn’t add up either.

Second, assuming there would be a partial re-Talibanization of Afghanistan, how could this co-exist with the Iranians? The same Washington Post article quoted the same advisers, underscoring that “The Iranians don’t want Sunni extremists in charge of Afghanistan any more than we do.”

How can the architects reconcile bringing in the Iranians for help and, at the same time, inviting the “Sunni extremists” to be sitting in Kabul? This construct doesn’t fly on mere logic.

As I wondered in an interview with Fox News the same day, are the new foreign policy planners talking about changing the strategy or changing the enemy?

The most logical ally against most of the Taliban should be the democratically-elected government in Pakistan, which is already waging a campaign against al-Qaida and its Taliban allies. Why would Washington replace this potential ally (regardless of all mishaps) with two foes: the non-democratic regime of Iran and a faction of the totalitarian Taliban?

In this dizzying maze a la 1990s, one begins to wonder if we are flipping the enemy into an ally, and vice versa, merely so that the slogan of “change” is then materialized. My feeling is that post electoral political pressures are so intense that it may produce a recipe for greater confusion and even disaster.

The problem is not the idea of “talking” to any of the players, including the current foes; engaging in contacts is always an option and has always been practiced. The problem is the perception by the new U.S. officials (and even current ones) that we can simply and naively “create” the conditions that we wish, regardless of the intentions of the other side. When reading these suggestions, one concludes that they were conceived on paper as unilateral designs lacking any strategic understanding of the enemy.

Take two examples as a starter: first, if you want to engage the so-called “acceptable” Taliban into a national unity government in Kabul (which is not an impossible idea theoretically), did you incorporate what their minimal demands are? And can your analysis of the jihadis’ long-term strategy produce a projection over four to six years of a return of these jihadis to power? I don’t think so.

Second, if you wish to enlist Iran as a partner in Afghanistan, will you be able to continue with the sanctions over its nuclear program? Obviously not. Thus the bottom line is that the price for befriending Tehran in Kabul is to allow it to reach its nuclear military ambitions. If it is otherwise, the upcoming foreign policy team has a lot of explaining to do.

Another interesting statement made by an adviser, according to the Washington Post, was that “the incoming administration intends to remind Americans how the fight “against Islamist extremists” began – on Sept. 11, 2001, before the Afghanistan and Iraq wars – and to underscore that al-Qaida remains the nation’s highest priority. “This is our enemy,” one adviser said of Bin Laden, “and he should be our principal target.”

Although as a reader I am not sure if DeYoung was discussing the new strategies in the war with the same “source,” the latter, stronger sentence is of great value for future inquiries. For if indeed the incoming administration intends to remind U.S. citizens that the fight is “against Islamist extremists,” then this would be a good bridge to the Bush administration’s bold rhetoric, which ended in 2006.

If the Obama administration “change” in strategy is to redefine the confrontation in the precise manner the adviser did, then we will be lucky. If that is the case, then we would hope and expect the new administration to repel the irresponsible “lexicon” disseminated by bureaucrats within the Bush administration and instead issue a strong document identifying the threat as stated in the Washington Post article, explaining once and for all the ideology of bin Laden so that indeed we can understand “our principal target.”

These early remarks are aimed at helping the Obama administration from its inception to clearly strategize and target so that the next four, and maybe eight years, will be a leap forward in protecting this country and in defending democracy worldwide.

This is only a glimpse of conversations to come about America’s national security and the hope to see a real qualitative change for the best.

(*) – Dr. Walid Phares is the director of the Future Terrorism Project at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and the author of “The Confrontation: Winning the War against Future Jihad”.




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