IRD: The United States’ wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are unlikely to come to an end, even after the death of Osama Bin Laden. These wars which were initiated and continued based on the sacred and ideological aim of the complete destruction of world terrorism (Al Qaeda) will simultaneously provide the grounds for local and opposing forces to justify their resistance in the form of a sacred ideological war against foreign occupiers. In the case of a bilateral ideological war, with no possible winner, therefore, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which have mostly local and regional roots, will not come to end in the near future.
The U.S. “ideological” and “sacred” war against global terrorism in the Middle East started during the George W. Bush administration and albeit in a different form has continued through the Barak Obama administration. In this war, victory over Western opponents, including terrorist and violent groups, regional warlords, adversarial governments, etc., were considered victories for the international community and a step forward in maintaining so-called global security. Such a feature has raised world public expectations in winning these wars. For instance, by expecting a complete defeat of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the West is hoping to diminish the roots of Al Qaeda terrorism.
The main challenge of the prolongation of the wars in the region is this kind of ideological conceptualization regarding the possibility of victory in the wars which ultimately have no possible winner. The U.S. ideological war against the Taliban and Al Qaeda terrorism has simultaneously provided the grounds for the Taliban to legitimize its war with America and the West as a sacred war and battle against the occupation forces to protect its Islamic extremist ideology thereby recruiting local opposing forces. The growth of extremism in Afghanistan has always had a direct relation to battling foreign intrusion. Al Qaeda and Bin Laden are the result of the battle against the Soviet Union occupation during the 1980s.
In this respect, the change in U.S. strategy in controlling the crisis in Afghanistan through negotiating with the “good Taliban” will not be fruitful either. Because the Taliban is not typically a pro-negotiation group desiring to work in a coalition government. The Taliban is a monopolistic and ideological group which desires to hold all the power in Afghanistan. Therefore, the possibility of witnessing a prolonged coalition government in Afghanistan with the participation of the Taliban is probably untenable. Such a development could even provoke a new civil war, this time from the South to the North of Afghanistan and among the Pashtuns, Tajiks, and the Uzbeks.
The U.S. war in Iraq also started with the ideological and sacred goal of fighting against terrorism and extremism in the region. The initial justification for going to war was to prevent the transfer of WMD by Saddam’s Baathist regime to Al Qaeda; then the ideological ambition of fostering democracy in the region starting with Iraq as a model for the region. In both these cases, the U.S. justification for legitimizing the war was to preserve global security or perhaps more accurately U.S. security.
The United States is pursuing another ideological war in the region which is the attempt to neutralize Iran’s nuclear program. By emphasizing the theme of “weaponization” and “deterrence” of the program, the U.S. has turned Iran’s nuclear program into a matter of international security and has raised the expectations of the international community and the U.S. public on the basis of an ideological war of “all or nothing”. This policy while it has blocked any possibility of reaching a solution acceptable for both sides, has in turn galvanized the ideological and sacred rationale for Iran to confront the United States in tackling a foreign threat by all possible means. Threatening Iran with war only increases the ruling elite's steadfastness with unpredictable consequences with respect to the future direction of Iran’s nuclear program.
To eliminate the roots of wars in the region, instead of focusing on the ideological and international aspects of the conflicts, the United States should emphasize the “objective” and “regional” aspects of the wars in the Middle East. Regionalization of Middle Eastern issues does not necessarily mean the elimination or downsizing of the role of trans-regional players or an emphasis on the role of any specific regional player. For two reasons, from a realistic perspective, this is unlikely to happen. First, external powers like the U.S. and EU have deep political-economic interests in the region and are unlikely to abandon them. Furthermore, the existing balance of power in the region will not allow any specific regional actor to gain a disproportionate role and power. Second, the structure of power and politics in the region is such that relates it to international institutions and trends. Therefore, at present many forces within the region e.g., ethnic-religious minorities, internal oppositions, the dependent ruling elites, etc., advocate the presence of trans-regional actors.
Regionalization here means putting the emphasis on the regional and local characteristics of the regional crises thereby creating a kind of balance between the political-security demands of regional players on the one hand and the interests of the international community and concerned trans-regional players on the other. Beyond the issue of Al Qaeda and terrorism, an international security issue, the main root of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq are related to the issue domestic power politics, ethnic geopolitics, along with the interests of neighboring states. Ignoring regional factors, for instance, as long as the U.S. regularly threatens Iran and labeling it as the main source of threat to international security, it cannot expect to make use of Iran’s potential to play a more constructive role in solving regional crises. As a result, Iran pursues its own specific policy and containment strategy to preserve its security interests in the region.
The U.S. foreign policy orientation in relating the security of the world to that of the Middle East is an ideological and value-based equation which ignores regional interests. This itself results in the spread of extremism and further tensions in the region. President Obama’s counterinsurgency strategy (COIN) is primarily planned to preserve the United States’ regional and global interests rather than the region’s interests and consistently bears the ideological signs of the Bush era as well. If the U.S. had accepted the regional-based endeavor of the Baker-Hamilton Initiative in 2006, the Iraq crisis may have ended in a more timely fashion and at a lesser cost. Or in the case of Iran’s nuclear dossier, if the U.S. and the Israeli regime refrained from pressuring Iran and promulgating the unfounded “weaponization” allegation surrounding Iran’s nuclear program (the international security aspect), the Iran-EU3 negotiations in 2004, which emphasized the peaceful theme of the program (the regional aspect of the crisis) may have reached an outcome which would remain sustainable into the longer term.
Therefore, the internationalization of Middle Eastern issues in an ideological framework will not necessarily result in sustainable global security. Now, after Bin Laden, there is an opportunity for the United States to end justifying the continuation of the U.S. sacred and ideological war in the region. Redefining the U.S. strategy in a regional context will give a more realistic and accurate picture with respect to the aim of ending the wars in the region. Only by assuring a safer region for the main regional players, can the United States hope to put an end to the current wars.
Dr. Kayhan Barzegar is a faculty member at the Science and Research Branch of the Islamic Azad University and Director of International Affairs at the Center for Middle East Strategic Studies in Tehran