What Was Accomplished in Afghanistan?

The U.S.-led intervention in Afghanistan was justified in large part by highlighting the plight of women under Taliban governance. Within the first weeks of the campaign, Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush and Cherie Blair helped spearhead a highly-effective propaganda effort to convince the public that the U.S. and the U.K. were engaged in a moral war—one which was fundamentally about human rights rather than merely advancing geopolitical or security interests—thereby necessitating a massive ground invasion and state-building enterprise to transform Afghan society, rather than a more limited venture to  dislodge and degrade the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

Of course, the U.S. bore significant moral responsibility for the plight of Afghan women, given the central role that the CIA played in sponsoring mujahedeen in Afghanistan during the Cold War—before, during, and after the Russian occupation. Leaders trained in these programs would go on to found the Taliban, the Haqqani Network and al-Qaeda—groups which were not only responsible for the widespread oppression of the Afghan people, but also for planning and executing the suicide bombings of September 11, 2001.

And so, the moral implications of the war were extraordinary: had Operation Enduring Freedom been successful, it would have not only liberated Afghan women, but avenged 9/11—and in the process, helped to rectify a particularly dark chapter in U.S. foreign policy. And this, it was held, would go a long way towards winning the “hearts and minds” of people around the world.

Unfortunately, the mission was not a success, and most of the promises made at the outset of the conflict, particularly with regards to women’s empowerment, have failed to materialize. In response, insofar as they talk about Afghanistan at all, policymakers have attempted to claim that the primary U.S. interest in the country is, and always has been, about denying a foothold to the Taliban and other extremist groups—although even by this measure, the campaign has been a failure.

Nonetheless, this revisionism cannot be allowed to stand. We must evaluate America’s longest war according to the terms by which the occupation was justified–improving the status of Afghan women. And by this standard, the war must be condemned in the strongest terms: according to the U.S. Special Inspector for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), it is impossible to verify whether any of the U.S. investments in Afghanistan have benefitted women at all.

 

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Understanding Iran’s Nuclear Intentions

Iran’s nuclear program was founded in 1957 as part of U.S. President Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” initiative. As part of this deal, the United States helped provide the training, technology and infrastructure allowing Iran to become a nuclear power. It was America that built Iran’s first nuclear reactor in 1967, subsequently providing them with the highly-enriched uranium to power it.

Soon thereafter, Iran began researching how to weaponize the technology. Ironic from today’s vantage point, Israel played a pivotal role in helping Tehran develop this capacity–much to the chagrin of the United States at the time. Washington would soon see further “Atoms for Peace” investments in India, Pakistan and Israel translated into weapons programs—with these latter three refusing to sign onto the U.S.-sponsored Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and eventually obtaining the bomb. In a further irony, all three have emerged as critical U.S. allies in the region despite these maneuvers.

For his part, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi did sign onto the treaty in 1968, although this did not end his ambition for weaponized nuclear capacity, which was ultimately brought to a halt by the 1979 Islamic Revolution which drove him from power.

Iran’s new religious leadership not only reaffirmed the NPT signed by the deposed dictator, but Ayatollah Khomeini disparaged nuclear weapons as haram under Islamic law–a binding fatwa reiterated and expanded in 2005 by Khomeini’s successor and current Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. Continue reading “Understanding Iran’s Nuclear Intentions”

Rethinking ISIL’s Immolation of Moaz al-Kasasbeh

One of the most popular narratives about ISIL’s recent immolation of Jordanian Moaz al-Kasasbeh is that the group resorted to such brutal measures against the pilot because they are desperate—pushed to the brink by coalition airstrikes. However, there are four major problems with this interpretation: Continue reading “Rethinking ISIL’s Immolation of Moaz al-Kasasbeh”

Critical Context on the U.S. Airstrikes in Syria

The Obama Administration has just announced that they and their coalition allies have begun a fierce campaign of airstrikes in Syria, bombing primarily “hard-targets” in the IS stronghold of Raqqa (about 20 of them). Here’s what is known—and perhaps more importantly—what is not known so far:


“Sunni Arab” Partners

The U.S. was the only non-Arab actor to participate in the Syria raids. Collaborating with the U.S. were five other Arab states: Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE, Bahrain, and Jordan.

While many pundits have and will continue to describe them as “moderate Arab allies”—what “moderate” usually means is something akin to “compliant with the U.S. agenda in the region.” What may be more significant to note about these powers is that they are all monarchies—in fact, the actors who took part in the strike are most of the region’s surviving dynasties (excluding only Oman, Kuwait, and Morocco).

The Gulf monarchs are far from beloved in Iraq, even among the Sunni population. Readers may remember that the “Sunni” Hussein regime wanted to go to war with the KSA, provoking the U.S.-led Operation Desert Shield; even in the face of the ISIS threat, Iraq has categorically refused to allow ground troops from these countries to operate on Iraqi soil. There is a long enmity between the peoples of Iraq and the Gulf monarchs—and an even deeper enmity between these powers and the Syrians. So the idea that the populations of IS-occupied Iraq and Syria will find these forces and their actions legitimate simply in virtue of the fact that they are “Sunni” is a gross oversimplification that reinforces problematic sectarian narratives even as it obscures important geopolitical truths. Among them:

If anything, the alliance that carried out the strike actually reinforces the narrative of the IS: it will be framed as the United States and its oppressive monarchic proxies collaborating to stifle the Arab Uprisings in order to preserve the doomed status quo. Continue reading “Critical Context on the U.S. Airstrikes in Syria”

The Obama Administration’s “Yeminization” of the Mideast

Earlier this month, the White House unveiled its new foreign policy credo: “Don’t do stupid shit.” While many lamented the modesty of this approach, acting with restraint in order to limit iatrogenesis is certainly a worthy goal—and an approach with wide and enduring popular support—in fact, this is the vision most of Obama’s voters endorsed they elected him (twice).

Despite the past several years of a foreign policy which uncomfortably mirrors that of his predecessor, there have been faint glimmers of hope, such as when the Administration took the long-overdue measure of shuttering many of the State Department’s semi-clandestine “democracy promotion” programs, or its gesturing towards reconciliation with Iran. But these moments of sanity have been far too few and far between. And it didn’t take long for this new commitment to run off the rails, despite its humble aspirations. In fact, it was dead on arrival: Continue reading “The Obama Administration’s “Yeminization” of the Mideast”

Ignorance, Xenophobia & Toxic Alliances Inform Nuclear Standoff with Iran

Initially, Bashar al-Asad had developed his chemical weapons programs as a deterrent against Israeli and Western aggression—lately, he has discovered that these arms are more of a liability than an asset, nearly provoking the very invasion they were intended to ward off.

For its part, Iran has been unyielding in their condemnation of the use and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction—and for good reason: they were the victims of a heinous series of attacks at the hands of Saddam Hussein, with the tacit approval of his Western patrons. Few understand as profoundly as Iran how truly abominable these armaments are—the same impetus which drives the Europeans to abolish these weapons also motivates the Islamic Republic.

And yet, in his recent speech at the U.N. General Assembly, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed a number of dire warnings related to Iran’s nuclear energy program. As part of this tirade, he recalled how North Korea made a similar bid to have sanctions reduced in exchange for deconstructing their nuclear program. He correctly reminds us that once these embargoes had been sufficiently lifted, the regime “sprinted” towards finishing and testing a nuclear weapon, now menacing the region, and indeed, the world. He warned about a similar outcome should sanctions be lifted “prematurely” on Iran.

Of course, the obvious flaw in Netanyahu’s “logic” is that Iran has no desire to be another North Korea pariah state— instead, to transform into the economic and geopolitical superpower they are destined to become once international sanctions are lifted. And they hardly need nuclear weapons to achieve this end. Continue reading “Ignorance, Xenophobia & Toxic Alliances Inform Nuclear Standoff with Iran”

The Semantics of Revolution

Many in media and academic circles seem to pride themselves on having advanced beyond the “Clash of Civilizations” rhetoric that defined the aftermath of  September 11th (2001).  However, upon analysis is clear that the primary development has been the transformation of these frameworks into euphemistic forms:  consider, for instance, the supposed conflict between the liberals and the Islamists; this dichotomy is ill-formed on several levels:

First, the categories are not mutually exclusive: one can simultaneously be an Islamist and a liberal. And while there are certainly conflicts vis a vis liberalism across the Middle East and North Africa, the tension is not between liberalism and  Islam—instead, it is a tension internal to liberalism itself, in simultaneously promoting free markets, secularism, pluralism, and democracy—ideologies which are neither intrinsically compatible nor inevitable. Insofar as these values are unpopular in the MENA region, it is often because they conflict with socio-cultural norms which transcend any particular religion (or religion altogether). Of course, left out of this discussion is any suggestion that liberalism may not be the ideal social model, or that the people of the MENA region have a right, perhaps a duty,  to derive alternative models from their own history, culture, values, and frames of reference.

In a similar manner, the supposed dichotomy of “moderates v. extremists” is ill-formed. Typically when this distinction is deployed it is unclear what “moderate” means. The most natural definition of a moderate would be someone who rejects extreme methodologies (such as violence) in order to advance their ideological views. But by that standard, many hardcore salafi groups would be moderates, as would the Muslim Brotherhood—while the (ever-elusive) liberal-secular components of the Free Syrian Army would be extremists, as they are attempting to instantiate their political ideal through force. However, as many news reports convey a desire to arm the  “moderate” factions of the rebels, it seems as though a rejection of extreme methods cannot be what is meant by the term.

Instead, a “moderate” is typically one who espouses  pro-West or liberal sentiments—regardless of how extreme they may be in terms of methodologies or ideological fervor relative to their adversaries. Conversely, anyone who resists Western values, interests, or modes of governance is de facto an “extremist.”

The dichotomy between “Islam” and “the West” is ill-formed first because it presupposes that the two are separate–when in fact, their history is intimately intertwined. And secondarily, because it presents Islam as a monolith. Insofar as commentators now acknowledge diversity within Islam, the talk primarily circles around the supposed clash between Sunnis and Shiites. However, this portrayal is also problematic. For one, it assumes that Sunnis and Shiites are a homogenous forces, rather than extremely diverse populations with a number of conflicting ideologies, interests, and alliances. Moreover, this framing obscures Islamic sects who do not neatly fall into the “Sunni/ Shia” divide, such as Sufis and the Druze. Finally, this caricature overlooks the significant (if dwindling) populations of other MENA religions, such as Christians, Assyrians, and Zoroastrians.  And then there is the large (and growing) Jewish population, most of whom reside in Israel—a significant source of tension with both Sunnis and Shiites (and also between them). However, in the Jewish case, as with others (such as the Kurds), ethnic alliances are actually more significant than religious or other identities. Perhaps most significantly, these narratives presume Sunnism and Shiism to be incompatible, when in fact the two have a long history of interplay and periods of syncretization. The current climate of sectarianism is largely the result of U.S. policies in Iraq, rather than reflecting an ancient and unyielding feud.

While terms like “Islamist,” “Moderate,” “Sharia Law,” “Muslim,” etc. are frequently bandied about in popular discourse, their referents are typically opaque (at best), rendering the conversations which rely upon these terms more-or-less vacuous. Not only do reductive binaries (e.g. “liberals v. islamists,” “moderates v. extremists,” “West v. Islam,” “Sunnis v. Shiites”) fail to address the critical dynamics at work in the region—they actually obscure said dynamics even as they polarize discussants. While these conceptions are convenient insofar as they reinforce ethnocentric narratives and can be easily fit into the small segments of news-themed entertainment between advertisements—greater nuance is required should one wish to understand the real underway across the Middle East and North Africa, and the revolution which may be at hand:

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Barack Hussein Obama, Moderate Neoconservative

In early 2003, Saddam Hussein’s regional and international allies were all warning him that an American invasion was imminent. Hussein’s reply was basically, “I know Washington’s tone is getting aggressive, but they aren’t going to try to remove me. I’m the only one in the region who is really taking the fight to the terrorists and fundamentalists. I’m the only one in the region putting real pressure on Iran. Despite our differences, they aren’t crazy! There is no way the United States is going to invade Iraq.”

Saddam was gravely overestimating America’s sanity. Forty-five months later, he was hanging from the gallows, his Baath regime dismantled, his country in shambles. The carnage and chaos that followed the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq horrified the world.

With the 2008 election of Barack Obama, there was widespread hope that we would see a new chapter in U.S. foreign policy:  troops would leave Afghanistan and Iraq, detainees would leave Guantanamo. No more gunboat liberalism. No more wars fought on false pretenses, driven by delusional ideologues, and contrary to American interests. The death of the nebulous global “war on terror” was nigh.

This “hope” proved ill-founded – the promised “change,” ephemeral.

Since Obama took office, the war on terror has dramatically expanded. Nomenclature notwithstanding, it remains global, vague, and unending – increasing its dimensions from the Middle East to West Africa, and the real world into cyberspace with digital pre-emptive strikes. It is a war which continues to be waged at the expense of civil liberties. America continues to drive more people towards extremism than it removes from the field through many of its counterterrorism tactics such as the drone program.

As far as Palestine or Iran are concerned, Ehud Barak said it best: “I can hardly remember a better period of American support and backing, and Israeli cooperation and similar strategic understanding of events around us than what we have right now.”

The astonishing continuity between the Bush II and Obama administrations is nowhere clearer than America’s disastrous foreign policies related to the Arab Spring – policies which were driven by ideology and misinformation, no less under Obama than his predecessor (in fact, many of the same people from the Bush Administration inform policies for Obama).

The Arab Uprisings brought regime change to Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and likely Syria; the United States played a decisive role in all of these “revolutions.”  And that role was usually to make things worse and more complicated.

 

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The Arab Spring’s Third Wave

Insofar as it is helpful or accurate to understand the “Arab Spring” as a meta-movement which began with the December 17, 2010 self-immolation of Mohammad Bouazizi, we can break it into a few significant “waves.” The first wave of revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt were quick, peaceful and orderly, relative to the second wave with the much more protracted, chaotic and violent uprisings in Yemen, Libya and Syria.

As these movements continue to evolve, some have argued that much of the Arab world would lose their appetite for civil disobedience once the revolutions got bloody, were radicalized or descended into civil war. It was even proclaimed that the Arab Spring was dead because a few similar authoritarian regimes remained quite unscathed.

While secular dictators have been overthrown, the Arab monarchs seem to have weathered the storm through a potent mix of token gestures of reform, fear-mongering, internal repression, historical/cultural hegemony, and geopolitical maneuvering.

For their part, Western nations and the international media have tired of championing popular democratic change in the region – especially as the monarchies in question are some of the West’s closest regional allies. In spite of all of these countervailing forces, however, there has been a recent renewal and escalation of protests in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Morocco, and Jordan. We are witnessing the formation of a third wave of the Arab Spring uprisings, wherein protesters target monarchs instead of dictators.
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