Small Wars

This Week at War: Gates Fishes for Friends in the Persian Gulf

What the four-stars are reading -- a weekly column from Small Wars Journal.

A U.S.-Gulf alliance against Iran?

On Sept. 4, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates granted an interview to Al Jazeera. In the final segment of the interview Gates got a chance to deliver a message on Iran's nuclear program. He said:

I think there's a central question or a central point here to be made.  And it has to do with both our friends and allies in the region, our Arab friends and allies, as well as the Iranian nuclear program.  And that is, one of the pathways to getting the Iranians to change their approach, on the nuclear issue, is to persuade them that moving down that path will actually jeopardize their security, not enhance it.

And so the more that our Arab friends and allies can strengthen their security capabilities, the more they can strengthen their cooperation both with each other and with us, I think, sends the signal to the Iranians that this path that they're on is not going to advance Iranian security but in fact could weaken it.

And so that's one of the reasons why I think our relationship with these countries and our security cooperation with them is so important.

Gates realizes that there is a stalemate on the Iran nuclear problem, a stalemate that allows Iran to advance its nuclear program and eventually bring online whichever options it wishes to pursue. For a variety of reasons, U.S. and European policymakers have been unable to achieve sufficient leverage to change Iranian policies. Targeted economic and financial sanctions against Iranian leaders and organizations have been too tepid or leaky to be persuasive. The Russian and Chinese governments have thus far blocked more wide-ranging sanctions. Subtle threats of military force by Israel or the United States have lacked credibility. The United States and Europe have been unwilling to impose economic measures that would abruptly harm the Iranian people. And these policymakers have been deterred by fears of violent Iranian retaliation.

In his remarks to Al Jazeera, Gates fished in the Persian Gulf for the leverage over Iran the United States has thus far lacked. If U.S. or Israeli military options lack credibility, perhaps, Gates is hoping, the prospect of an increasingly capable Sunni-Arab military alliance might provide the leverage necessary to change Iranian behavior.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) recently published a report on the Iran versus Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) strategic balance. According to the report, GCC air power dominates Iran's defensive and offensive air combat capabilities. On paper, Saudi Arabia and the other mostly Sunni-Arab states in the Gulf could strip Iran of its air defenses and pummel Iran's military targets while defending against Iranian aerial counterattacks. According to CSIS, Iran's advantage in ballistic missiles would not be useful against GCC military targets but could terrorize population centers. Yet as the CSIS report itself explains, the Gulf states, even after decades of Western assistance, need to do much more work on military doctrine, training, supporting infrastructure, sustainment, and cooperation with each other before the GCC will be a persuasive military force.

Gates is hoping that Gulf-state unity and effective U.S. security assistance to the GCC will persuade Iran to change course. The U.S. has had some success this decade with security assistance -- training constabulary foot soldiers. The confrontation with Iran would occur, or at least begin, in the aerospace realm. U.S. security assistance needs to be successful there, too.

Karzai has some thinking to do

U.S. foreign-policy analysts are focused on what President Barack Obama intends to do about Afghanistan. But Obama isn't the only one with decisions to make. President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan must also be pondering his options.

Whether it was his design or not, electoral fraud has marred the legitimacy of Karzai's likely reelection. This outcome is particularly regrettable since any other prospective winner would have been more destabilizing than Karzai. Having the support of many of Afghanistan's power brokers, Karzai was the most viable president. But the West will now have a hard time sustaining support for him.

Karzai is undoubtedly aware that political support for the Afghan effort is falling fast in Europe and the United States. A European call for an international conference on Afghanistan, to provide "new benchmarks and timelines," may be cover for a run to the exits.

The president must now prepare for what may come next. The West's presence in Afghanistan has been useful to Karzai. An enormous flow of money has benefitted many of his friends and perhaps Karzai personally. Western soldiers do much of the dirty work against his government's enemies. And the Western presence provides a foil for Karzai to demonstrate his nationalist credentials.

Karzai would surely miss much of what the United States and Europe are bringing to his country. Yet he must sense that their contribution no longer seems sustainable. Or at least he must begin planning for that possibility.

Should the West pull out, Karzai would need a new outside patron. Indian might be the most willing prospect. Instead of taking on the NATO mission to stabilize Afghanistan, India's more modest goal would be to provide a distraction to Pakistan and to prevent Pakistan from gaining too much influence over Afghanistan. India might be able to achieve these limited objectives by providing funding to Afghan factions aligned with its goals.

India would never replace the largesse the West has injected into Afghanistan. But for Afghans who don't feel very secure and who have lost faith in NATO's counterinsurgency tactics, a new non-Western patron might be a welcome change. A new patron might mean new rules for Karzai and the factions that support him, such as the Sri Lankan Rules that seem to have decisively ended a long insurgency.

Is it too soon for Karzai to contemplate such drastic changes? This week, U.S. and British officials again pledged their unwavering support for the Afghan mission. But with the Afghan election turning into a mess, events could change rapidly. It is not too soon for Karzai to plan ahead.

AFP/Getty Images

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