National Security

Curing America's Fear of Commitment

Karzai is an ingrate, but the Afghans need us.

Not since the days of Charles de Gaulle has America spilled blood and treasure on a less grateful national leader than Afghan President Hamid Karzai. In a bid to be viewed as ideologically independent, Karzai has famously criticized the West, and the United States in particular, in apparent attempts to strengthen his political hand at home.

In one year, Karzai will leave office. Around that same time, America's formal commitments to Afghanistan will end. That's a mistake. A guarantee that the United States will maintain a presence in Afghanistan after 2014 is not just important for the future; it could have significant effects right now. It could change the presidential candidates' behavior in the coming election campaign, and it could smooth the transition of power later.

The Afghan people are frantic to secure their future, and the longer the United States remains mute on its plans, the more chaotic Afghanistan may become.

Fear of abandonment. The Afghans's circumspection about any U.S. dedication to their wellbeing can be seen on a daily basis. For instance, Afghan citizens have been told that those who served U.S. forces and agencies in various roles, but usually as interpreters, can obtain visas to the United States -- once they complete a lengthy application and review process. It is known as the U.S. special immigrant's visa program, or SIV. This isn't just a reward; it's a vital component of the two countries' abilities to work with one another. Afghans are under constant threat of Taliban retaliation once it is known they have worked for the Americans; without SIV, many Afghans would be at serious risk.

Unfortunately, due to a Kafkaesque bureaucratic nuance, many Afghans who work directly for the Americans are in fact ineligible for the visa. Afghans who were hired by the International Security Assistance Force instead of by the U.S. military directly are precluded from participating in the SIV program. As word has spread throughout the community, it reflects poorly on the United States. These are common people, without dual citizenship or condos in Dubai, people who aided the United States at their own peril. Combine this disappointment with the sense that America is about to bail on the country altogether, and you have a potentially critical resentment among the Afghans.

Hedging strategies. Additionally, throughout Afghanistan, the number of reintegrated citizens -- that is, those who have left the Taliban and agreed to rejoin their home communities and to live in accordance with the Afghan constitution -- has flattened out this past year. Why commit to the government of Afghanistan if the United States is just going to abandon it? Along with this growing unwillingness to commit to a democratic government, we are seeing a brain drain from Afghanistan, along with capital flight. Professionals and academics are fleeing, and currency and even gold bars are carried out on a daily basis from the commercial airport in Kabul.

Afghans tend to believe that history repeats itself exactly as it has in the past. Karzai's predecessor, Najibullah, managed to hold the country together for several years after the Soviets left, even in the face of attacks from Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, because the Soviets kept funding the Afghan army. This lasted until the Soviet Union finally collapsed -- then financial support ended and the Afghan army dissolved into its ethnic components, ultimately allowing the Taliban to take over in Kabul. Thus, it's not hard to imagine how the Afghans see their future this time: America abandons Afghanistan and provides no aid, then the Taliban creeps right back into the power vacuum. A post-2014 commitment now could at least ameliorate some of this fear of abandonment and ill will before any more Afghans hedge their bets and give up on the idea of a democratic government.

The U.S. mission. Of course the U.S. mission in Afghanistan needs to shift and change as well -- and it will change by the end of 2014. But drifting along, silent on the issue of any enduring commitment, is creating a situation that could well predetermine the outcome of Afghanistan's future -- for the worse. American commanders on the ground need a clearly articulated policy statement in the face of increasing Afghan worries. The silence is eroding the best efforts of American leaders in Afghanistan, who do not know what's in store for the Afghans and cannot implement forward-thinking plans.

Currently, more than 60,000 uniformed Americans are serving in Afghanistan. At present, the plan is to withdraw approximately half of those forces by next February. There are two major inflection points left between now and the end of 2014: turning complete control of the fighting mission over to Afghan forces in 2013, and providing security assistance for the Afghan elections, scheduled for next April. (Though possibly the elections will be delayed a few months due to snow accumulations in the higher mountain passes or simply to the inevitable delays that come with conducting an election in Afghanistan.) The good news is that the United States is well on the way to reaching its goal of empowering the Afghan forces to take over and, by early 2014, an American force presence of more than 30,000 should be enough to enable Afghan security forces to provide for their own election security.

The election. The bad news is that all of this important work could be undone if a post-2014 commitment of some kind is not made soon. Afghanistan is in a delicate state, and at some point next year there will be a new administration. Candidates are already testing the waters, putting their names out there, and judging their viability. Who takes the helm of the nation will have a lot to do with Afghans's experiences over the next year.

This is a pivotal point: A new administration in Kabul will be at its weakest immediately after the election results are in and there's a handover of power. Assuming a credible election process, no mean feat in Afghanistan, Karzai's successor will have to deal with all the problems and responsibilities that go with sovereignty. Why not have a post-2014 commitment in place soon, so that the candidates out there now are informed of an enduring U.S. commitment? Armed with this narrative, candidates will know they are not going it alone. Otherwise, we may see candidates being forced into an early reconciliation process with the Taliban due to a perception that the United States will be abandoning the country.

This is not an argument for staying a day longer than needed in Afghanistan, as there is near-universal agreement that the goal of changing the mission at the end of 2014 is a wise one. The problem in this era of sequestration and budget cuts is that there is little domestic interest in discussing a post-2014 billion-dollar-plus program that continues funding for Afghan National Security Forces. However, reticence on the size and nature of the post-2014 training mission will only promote the ongoing quiet panic that is detrimental to America's interests. Better a fast announcement now, with some basic specificity in terms of numbers of trainers and advisers, than a carefully detailed policy that gets announced too late.

The fact that the United States is still in Afghanistan after 12 years -- in no small part because it decided to invade Iraq -- doesn't diminish the U.S. responsibility to leave an Afghan government behind that stands the best chance of achieving some semblance of stability and support for several years to come. Not to mention America's own interests in the matter: Allowing Afghanistan to fall back into the hands of the Taliban will only serve to further jeopardize U.S. national security. And that, at least, should be unacceptable to American politicians everywhere.

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Argument

Metternich in Baghdad

No, America hasn't "lost" Iraq. But a dangerous realpolitik is the new normal in Baghdad.

When U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in March on the 10th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, there was little doubt that he would raise the issue of Iranian flyovers to Syria, which the United States suspects are being used to funnel weapons to the Syrian regime. Convinced that external support gives Syrian President Bashar al-Assad false confidence that he can prevail over rebel forces, Barack Obama's administration has repeatedly tried -- and failed -- to persuade Maliki to deny Iran Iraqi airspace. (In exchange for halting the flights, Kerry offered Iraq a role in any international negotiations about a post-Assad Syria.)

The Iraqi prime minister's apparent intransigence has lent credence to the idea that the United States has somehow "lost" Iraq. A more accurate characterization would be that, following the end of the U.S. occupation in 2011, Iraq is simply reasserting its regional role -- bridging external realities with internal interests.

The new Iraq is no longer just an observer or victim of the whims of regional gamesmanship; it is now a player in that game. But as the recent surge in sectarian violence has demonstrated, domestic concerns are never far from the surface -- and they bear directly on the country's foreign-policy calculus.

In April, deadly clashes between government forces and demonstrators in the Sunni city of Hawija set off a chain reaction of retaliatory attacks across Iraq that threaten to plunge the country into the kind of sectarian war it experienced between 2005 and 2007. The month of April was the deadliest since June 2008, with 712 Iraqis killed, according to the U.N. Assistance Mission for Iraq. Just this past week, more than 200 people were killed, as Shitte and Sunni neighborhoods and places of worship were targeted in a cycle of sectarian violence reminiscent of the civil war period. Today, the scenario of two, adjacent civil wars along sectarian lines is becoming a growing reality.

Today, Iraq's fragile and nascent political system is overheating, with internal and external pressures reaching unsustainable levels. The country's traditional coolants -- the psychological effect of the U.S. military presence and war fatigue among the general population -- have disappeared and worn off, respectively. At the same time, new forces are propelling the country toward conflict: "The peaceful demonstrations are over," a Sunni tribal leader in Hawija warned recently. "Now we are going to carry weapons. We have all the weapons we need, and we are getting support from other provinces."

With a sectarian storm brewing in his own country -- as well as one across the border in Syria threatening to turn up the heat -- Maliki's concerns have grown considerably since September 2011, when his government signaled that Assad should step aside and make room for a political transition. Now, as he weighs America's requests to halt Iranian flyovers, he must consider what the victory of a mostly Sunni Syrian insurgency would mean for the balance of power inside Iraq.

To be sure, Maliki considers Assad neither a friend nor an ally. Although the Alawite sect to which Assad subscribes is an offshoot of Shiite Islam, Baghdad has long viewed Damascus with deep suspicion, seeing it as a facilitator of the Sunni insurgency within Iraq's own borders. Assad has also meddled directly in Iraqi politics, even attempting to prevent Maliki from winning a second term as prime minister in 2010. In July of that year, for example, in the midst of Iraq's post-election political stalemate, Assad relayed a message to Tehran from Maliki's archrival, Ayad Allawi, requesting support for an alternative compromise candidate. The Iranians, of course, rebuffed Allawi's request, but only after Maliki became the inevitable choice did Assad finally bite his tongue and back the incumbent.

Against this backdrop, many observers view Iraq's tacit support for Assad as the result of external pressure and emblematic of declining U.S. influence and the superiority of Iranian clout. But though fighting in Syria has indeed situated Washington and Baghdad on opposing sides in a regional proxy war -- with Iraq siding with Russia, Iran, and Lebanese Hezbollah -- Maliki's foreign policy is not the product of Iranian arm-twisting. Rather, it reflects the regime's interests, which given the heightened sectarian environment, happen to dovetail with those of Iran. Maliki has many reasons to fear Assad's ouster, and for now he's simply bandwagoning on Iran's efforts to prop him up.

In many ways, Maliki is like any other Arab leader -- paranoid, conspiratorial, sensitive to criticism, and, most especially, aware of threats to his rule and credibility. He is not governing Iraq, but ruling it -- and he's bent on surviving at whatever cost. During his tenure, Maliki has proved to be a man of many biases and few principles. Nationalism and sectarianism, for example, are not political ideologies to him, but political tools. He plays the anti-Kurdish card when he needs to be an Arab nationalist, and he plays the anti-Sunni card when he needs to be regarded as the Shiite guardian. Maliki's supporters "are not motivated by a shared ideology," writes Iraq scholar Lt. Col. Joel Rayburn of the National Defense University. "They are driven, instead, by the acquisition and holding of power, and above all are deeply committed to keeping Prime Minister Maliki in power," he writes.

Since he consolidated power in 2008, Maliki's doctrine has been about maintaining the primacy of the regime. As he stands atop the political pyramid, his minimalist aim is to preserve the status quo, neutralizing potential threats that could undermine his authority or Iraq's Shiite political order. But given the highly uncertain regional and political environment -- compounded by pervasive distrust, weak national institutions, and a political culture that is colored by a history of coups -- Maliki has been compelled to go on the offensive (purging the country's security forces of political rivals and installing his own loyalists in key government positions). If he does not make a power grab, his enemies will.

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With the U.S. military no longer an occupying power, Maliki's doctrine of regime survival now must be projected beyond Iraq's borders. For the prime minister and his cadre of loyalists, the neighboring civil war in Syria represents an existential threat to the regime -- one with security, political, and strategic dimensions.

The security threat posed by the Syrian conflict is the most immediate, as anti-Assad forces have signaled their intention to carry on the revolution outside Syria's borders. The formation of countless armed Sunni militias next door has aroused considerable fear in Baghdad -- and rightly so. After ridding Syria of Assad, these insurgents could potentially turn their attention and Persian Gulf resources on Maliki's regime in Iraq. As Hadi al-Amiri, Iraq's minister of transportation, warned in February, "Presenting money and weapons to al Qaeda [in Syria] by Qatar and Turkey is a declaration of armed action against Iraq.… These weapons will reach Iraqi chests for sure."

The threat is already on Maliki's doorstep. Sunni insurgents in Iraq are currently attempting to merge Iraq and Syria into a single sectarian theater of war. The recent joint venture of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Jabhat al-Nusra -- the most effective rebel group fighting Assad in Syria -- hints at the potential for a transnational sectarian cause aimed at removing Shiites from power.

But it's not just al Qaeda branches that unite the threats on either side of the border. The weak national identity and artificial borders of both countries -- byproducts of the fall and breakup of the Ottoman Empire -- have laid the foundation for a growing nexus between the Sunnis in Syria and Iraq. As Middle East scholar Kenneth Pollack recently wrote, "The fact that many Sunni Arab tribes span the border simply adds fuel to that fire: the Shammaris, Dulaimis, Ubaydis and other tribesmen of Iraq are glad to help their cousins across the border fight the Shia regime in Damascus."

Today, sympathy for the fellow Sunnis fighting a Shiite ruler can be seen expressed throughout Sunni demonstrations in Iraq, as flags of the Free Syrian Army are raised and celebrated in Iraqi protests. Rumors about the formation of a so-called "Free Iraqi Army" in Anbar province -- aligned with its Syrian counterpart and waiting to carry out a revolution in Iraq -- have only deepened Maliki's paranoia. Should the Assad regime collapse, the prime minister has few illusions about what would happen: "The most dangerous thing in this process is that if the opposition is victorious, there will be a civil war in Lebanon, divisions in Jordan, and a sectarian war in Iraq," he said in a recent interview with the Associated Press.

On the political front, victory by anti-Assad forces would threaten Maliki by invigorating his domestic political rivals. The prime minister's opponents privately admit that they are waiting for the downfall of the Syrian regime and preparing to channel that momentum toward pushing Maliki out with a no-confidence vote. Maliki has survived such attempts in the past, but he will certainly be more vulnerable if the Syrian regime collapses.

At the very least, Maliki would like to see Assad remain in power until after the 2014 parliamentary election, when he will be seeking a third term as prime minister. Maliki is far more vulnerable today than he was in the run-up to the 2010 general election, when his campaign focused on ending the U.S. military occupation and improving security in Iraq -- both of which are obsolete slogans for this election cycle. It will be fear, not success, that drives his reelection bid. Not only has the prime minister alienated potential political allies by repeatedly failing to follow through on deals, but he has grown increasingly heavy-handed, deploying his security forces to sideline opponents and sparking large demonstrations against his rule.

Going into the 2014 elections, the Iraqi leader is looking at establishing a cross-sectarian coalition with Sunni Arab nationalists who have grown discontent with their fellow Sunnis' cooperation with the Kurds. But an early Syrian rebel victory could easily upend Maliki's efforts by healing divisions within the opposition. Were that to happen, Maliki's political survival would be very much at risk.

Finally, Assad's ouster represents a strategic threat to Maliki's regime because it promises to upset the regional balance of power. Since the 2003 fall of Saddam Hussein, Iraq has struggled to assert sovereignty over its internal affairs, leaving the country exposed as a sectarian battleground for regional competition to play out on. Lengthy efforts by the United States to reintegrate Iraq back into the Arab fold, moreover, have produced only superficial results. Sectarian barriers to trust have limited the scope and depth of cooperation between Shiite Iraq and Sunni Arab leaders, who view Baghdad as an extension of Iranian power.

Politics in Iraq is not a game played by Iraqis alone. As Assad's attempt to meddle in Iraq's last government-formation crisis demonstrated, regional power politics weigh heavily on the domestic political process. Today's emerging Middle East map is not only unfavorable to Maliki's regime, but also to Iraq as a Shiite-ruled state. The rise of a Sunni-dominated government in Damascus would align the new state with Iraq's regional adversaries. While Sunni Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood are being empowered across the region, Iraqi Shiites are experiencing the fears of hostile encirclement.

In Shiites' traumatized psyche, the return of Sunni hegemony is always a near reality. Without confidence that the Arab world has definitively accepted Iraq as a Shiite state -- forever immune from outside efforts to reinstall a Sunni political order -- that fear will play a dominant role in Iraq's foreign policy for the foreseeable future.

Indeed, fear about what comes next is prompting many Iraqis to question why the United States is apparently siding with terrorists (and al Qaeda) against a secular regime. It is one thing for Assad to fall as an indigenous outcome; it is another for the United States to be perceived as siding with one sect in what is essentially a sectarian civil war.

The prospect of Syria becoming a hostile actor aligned with regional adversaries is a scenario taken seriously in Baghdad. Indeed, Iraq's recent international arms purchases were motivated, at least in part, by the desire to build up defense capabilities in the face of an increasingly volatile regional environment.

But it goes beyond defense. Should Assad's regime crumble, it is in Baghdad's interests that any future government in Damascus be weak and dysfunctional -- hunkered down with internal crises and unable to stir up trouble in Iraq. Just as Saudi Arabia and Iran attempted to keep post-Saddam Iraq weak and divided, Maliki's government won't likely play a constructive role in post-revolutionary Syria.

To the extent that Baghdad has flirted with diplomacy in Syria, it has advocated a power-sharing agreement to replace the existing one-party system. In other words, Maliki does not want a majoritarian system to emerge in Damascus. Ironically, he hopes Syrians will adopt the same model of government he has worked for years to undermine in Iraq.

But as the insurgency has grown more radicalized, Iraq has lost confidence in the prospect of an inclusive governing coalition in Syria. This outlook has left Baghdad with no realistic alternative but to support efforts that prolong Assad's survival, hoping for the best while delaying the worst. Today, Washington does not have the credibility to sell international talks as a venue for getting outside actors, particularly Iraq, to buy in and alter their calculus. For Maliki, taking up Kerry's offer would be nothing short of a leap of faith -- one that could very well lead to his own demise.

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