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Friday, March 13, 2009

See-saw of American hot spots
March 14, 2009

There are worse places to be today than Baghdad: try Kabul. Six years ago this month, Washington unleashed its "shock and awe" attacks on Iraq. And this week, the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, hosted a visit to Australia by the third Iraqi prime minister of the post-Saddam era - the democratically elected Nouri al-Maliki.
After all the bloodletting, and continuing loss of hundreds of billions of donor dollars in the black hole that is Baghdad, Iraq remains a parlous state.
But as Washington embarks on a tentative drawdown on its 140,000 troops in Iraq, there is enough apparent upside in Maliki's homeland to make Afghanistan's President, Hamid Karzai, green with envy.
The brutal graphs that traced the arcs of violence and mayhem in Iraq now trend down dramatically - suicide-bombings; civilian and military dead and wounded; weapons caches confiscated; journalists kidnapped; foreign-fighters arriving; and attacks on vital oil and gas pipelines.
These easing convulsions are measured in figures that have tumbled from the horrific peaks of 2006 and 2007 to levels that give rise to optimism - but which remain at multiples of the level of violence in, say, the Northern Ireland troubles 30 years ago. Compared with the past six years, however, much of today's data on Iraq is good news. Fleshed out with reports of surging foreign investment and astronomical hikes in mobile phone and internet use and new news-media outlets, it all looks better; even stabilised.
In this context, it might seem churlish to dwell on the five million Iraqis who were displaced internally or have fled the country as refugees, including significantly more than half of Iraq's doctors. There's stubbornly high unemployment and oil production rarely exceeds that of the Saddam days. Electricity is available little more than half the time and Oxfam this week described Iraqi essential services as collapsed. This remains a country that has been rocked to the core.
A string of flashpoint issues - including ethnic and religious tensions and territorial and revenue disputes - could catapult Iraq back to the furnaces of hell.
"I don't think there is any illusion by anyone that this is by any means over," an American major in Iraq cautioned The New York Times last weekend, as respected analysts warned of the real possibility of a return to civil war. "This may be the most fragile time in the six years we've been here."
A two-pronged American strategy has turned the Iraqi tide, so much as it has turned. An extra 28,000 troops were sent in, mostly to the greater Baghdad area, and Washington paid minority Sunni tribesmen to turn their guns away from US-led forces and on to the al-Qaeda chapter in Iraq and its foreign hangers-on.

Time will tell. But a disturbing line of analysis argues that in spiking their guns, extremists in both camps - Sunni and Shiite - opted to bide their time, taking whatever was on offer from the US, knowing their co-operation would hasten American departure and leave Iraqis to fight it out another day.
Meanwhile, as Afghanistan and neighbouring Pakistan topple into the abyss, a new administration in Washington is adapting the two-step Iraq strategy for Afghanistan.
Asked last weekend if America was winning in Afghanistan, Barack Obama bluntly answered "no". The measure of Washington disappointment in its man in Kabul, President Hamid Karzai, hovers somewhere between the failure of his police force - only 3 per cent are ranked good or very good - and the failure of his armed forces - just 30 per cent are ranked good or very good. Eight years after the US-led invasion, Afghanistan is a fractured, perhaps ungoverned narco-state, in which the Taliban, tribal warlords and drug barons wield inordinate power. A "witch's brew", says Michael O'Hanlon, of the Brookings Institution.
It's that brew America wants Afghanis to reject. The US objective is for Afghanis to turn their backs on endless war, under-development and the isolation it imposes. Adds O'Hanlon: "[But] things are likely to get worse before they get better in 2009, as increased US forces move into previously uncontested areas."
The Herald accompanied US troops on patrol in the east of Afghanistan late last year, when tribal leaders in the border region categorically refused to volunteer their young men for a new border security patrol because, they said, "If we do, the Taliban will come in the night and slit our throats."
The extra US force for Afghanistan - 17,000 this year and another 17,000 expected next year - is a little bigger than the Iraq surge, but will be spread more thinly among a more diverse and more impoverished population. Most of the Iraq surge concentrated on Baghdad.
Afghanistan has deteriorated year by year. But foreign troop levels were only half those in Iraq, before the extra 17,000. Violence escalated quicker than troop numbers.
According to Associated Press's tally, American deaths in Afghanistan more than tripled in the first two months of this year - from eight in the same period last year, to 29. And, in January and February, US and allied operations killed more Afghan civilians than did Taliban attacks - 100 to 60. Obama awaits the report within months of the fourth review of the Afghanistan crisis, this time by the former Clinton White House adviser and CIA veteran Bruce Riedel, before elaborating on the detail of his plans to rescue Afghanistan, Pakistan and, by extension, himself.

Two aspects of the emerging approach don't add up, when management of the Afghanistan crisis is compared with that in Iraq. Washington expects to do more with less - troop numbers, diplomacy and reconstruction funds. There is rising scepticism about the availability of a "moderate" Taliban element capable of being seduced away from hard-core terrorist elements - a la Iraq. The Taliban's key demand is that all foreign troops leave Afghanistan.
Before he was retained to advise Obama, Riedel wrote in January: "The Taliban's leader Mullah Omar is confidently predicting the NATO forces will leave defeated within a few years, like the Soviets in 1989, and is even offering them 'safe passage' out of the country." Put aside the extraordinary fact that Mullah Omar is alive and still a public spokesman for the Taliban after eight years of being pursued by the Americans, Riedel's note is alarming.
This week the NATO and US commander in Afghanistan, General David McKiernan, bluntly acknowledged his forces' failure in the south and in part of the east, where "more has to happen along multiple lines of operation in order for anyone, by any metric, to say that the Afghans are winning or the efforts of the coalition are winning".
If the US-NATO coalition is surging in Afghanistan, so too are the insurgencies.
There is speculation that just as Iraqi extremists lie low in the hope Washington withdraws from Iraq, Taliban elements in Pakistan have agreed to ceasefire deals with the Government of President Asif Ali Zardari - going quiet in Pakistan, so that maximum insurgency resources can be directed against coalition forces in Afghanistan, when the coming spring thaw allows them to cross mountain passes.
Even as the drawdown in Iraq begins, and possibly years before it can be contemplated in Afghanistan, the simple act of pulling troops out of a country in crisis does not guarantee closure for those left behind or for the departing troops and their political masters. Canvassing the aftermath of US intervention in Vietnam, Cambodia, Lebanon and Somalia, observations by the analyst Bennett Ramberg in the current issue of Foreign Affairs are dispiriting.
"Unfortunately for Iraq, [these cases] consistently suggest that whenever the US does withdraw, the country's sectarian violence will likely intensify," the former State Department operative writes. "It will be the Iraqis who will define their own future in their own way. Given the country's deep divisions, the likely outcome will look more like the periodically erupting Lebanon than the long-stable Vietnam."
In his Iraq book The Gamble, Thomas Ricks, a Washington Post reporter, is more alarming. "No matter how the US war in Iraq ends, it appears that today we may be only half-way through it," he wrote. "The events for which the Iraq war will be remembered probably have not happened yet."
If, against all hope, Bennett and Ricks are proved right, and if six years of blood and treasure with a dollop of surge and bribery have brought only a false dawn for Iraqis, what hope might there be for Afghans who, by the judgment of others, don't have the luxury of time?
"The war in Afghanistan will either be reversed during 2009 to 2010," the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies' Anthony Cordesman ventured in a recent analysis, "or it will be lost".
Paul McGeough is the Herald's chief correspondent.

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