Things Fall Apart. Except When They Don't.

A cohesive Iraqi state will always be a fiction. ISIS will shoot itself in the foot. And other important truths to guide U.S. policy in today’s increasingly turbulent Middle East.

In chilling fashion, on the eve of World War II, W.B. Yeats held forth in his poem "The Second Coming":

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,


And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,

Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Though written almost 90 years ago, these words might easily be said today of Syria and Iraq -- if not the entire Middle East.

Syria is melting down, and now Iraq is on the verge too. Refugees and radicals flood the region with abandon. Sunnis and Shiites -- each with their respective patrons -- face off. Even in Israel and the Palestinian territories, violence threatens. Also, Iran with nukes? Terrorists with access to money, weapons, and passports threatening Europe and America with bloody jihad? There are those possibilities too.

No serious observer would want to take these calamities (or potential ones) lightly. And certainly, as one of the more annoyingly negative analysts of this region, I have no stake in downplaying the severity of the broken, angry, dysfunctional Middle East that is now coming apart. Arab Spring, where art thou?

But still, some perspective is in order.

Before jumping off the deep end -- as happened with the analysis of the Ukraine crisis as a new Cold War, or after 9/11 when America launched a social science project that cost more than a trillion dollars by invading Iraq -- one must reason things out a bit more. Spinning doomsday scenarios serves no one's interest. Indeed, it interferes with the kind of cool, rational analysis that usually leads to good decisions, or at least to avoiding the worst ones. There may be no good options here, but there are ways to stop the slide and avert disaster. And that first requires recognizing some key realities -- and adjusting expectations downward.

Iraq is a fiction. Even before the events of the last few weeks, Iraq wasn't a cohesive country. It's as simple as that. America couldn't fix it in 2003; and it certainly cannot fix Iraq now. That is, if "fixed" means creating a unified, stable, and productive polity where everyone shares power fairly and happily. Sure, it may matter some if Nouri al-Maliki stays or goes. But on balance, what Iraq is and where it is -- that is, its demography and geography -- will continue to undermine any ecumenical vision one might have for it.

But that doesn't mean Iraq as we know it will fracture, disintegrate, or merge into a seamless sectarian mess with Syria. Iraq's neighbors and the Iraqis themselves (who do have a sense of national identity) will want to keep the fiction alive for their own reasons. Iraq may never be unified, but it doesn't have to be a failed state either. Most likely, assuming that the advance of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) can be checked and a modicum of political reform occurs, Iraq will evolve into an even looser series of decentralized polities, with the Kurds, Shiites, and Sunnis each seeking advantage and protection from one another.

ISIS, shmisis. To be sure, ISIS is a terrifying phenomenon. Right now, it seems like the group is on a veritable run -- depicted like a cross between the Mongol horde taking over the Middle East or Hitler rolling throughout Western Europe. It faces little opposition and thus rules by default where it has seized control. And it's hard to predict how it will evolve. The dysfunction of the Iraqi state, and the catastrophe in Syria, have given it a foothold in both places.

But it is unlikely that it will come to rule Syria or Iraq in full, let alone fulfill its fantasy of creating an Islamic caliphate. Its own character and ideology of Muslim hating-and-baiting will limit its influence, even as it feeds on Sunni disenfranchisement. Should ISIS try to govern territory in a more structured way, it will offer up a physical address, which will make it vulnerable to military strikes. And while it may welcome those attacks as a way to feed its jihad, the group's cruelty and arbitrary character will sooner or later create contradictions that will make it vulnerable to Sunni dissent and opposition from within. As a recent International Crisis Group study points out, ISIS has time and again proved to be its own worst enemy.

Instead, it is likely that ISIS will become a major counterterrorism problem for the region, and perhaps for Europe. As for striking America, that's a more complicated issue. It didn't work out so well for al Qaeda's central operations, as recent history shows. And as my Foreign Policy colleague Micah Zenko reminds us, in 2013 there were 17,800 global fatalities due to terrorism, but only 16 of those were Americans. Although preventing attacks is the most important foreign policy priority, bar none, terrorism -- including from ISIS -- just isn't a strategic threat to the homeland right now.

Assad is sitting pretty. If the 2013 U.S.-Russian chemical weapons agreement was a life preserver for Assad, the rise of ISIS has been a gift that will keep giving for quite a while. Assad now seems vindicated and strengthened. Not only is the world attention diverted from getting rid of him, his allies, particularly Russia, will increasingly argue that kicking him out simply can't happen -- as a matter of security. Does the world want Syria taken over by ISIS?

A rough alignment is now emerging in which Russia, Iran, Iraqi Shiites, and Syrian Alawis are the lesser of the evils in play, even a front line of defense against the jihadi hordes. The United States isn't going to ally with this cabal directly. But it certainly isn't going to be calling for Assad's demise, either. Indeed, the United States is in peculiar bind: Assad's brutality has helped make ISIS possible, but the regime is now moving to constrain the group. So Washington is left in the anomalous position of supporting moderate Sunni elements against Assad, while going after ISIS -- perhaps soon with air and missile strikes -- in a way that also indirectly strengthens the Syrian leader.

Is Iran a new kind of partner? Certainly, Iranian and U.S. goals aren't compatible in Iraq or in Syria: Washington would like a coherent, independent Iraqi state, for instance, while Tehran wants a weak one under Shiite auspices that it can influence. But in the "enemy of my enemy is my friend" game that is now afoot, Tehran must be seen as another way to check ISIS's advance It can do this partly by pressing Maliki to reform, and partly by trying to control other Shiite militias so that an all-out sectarian war can be avoided. Talk about letting the fox guard the henhouse.

The price may well be conceding, or even validating, Iranian sway in Iraq. But that was more or less inevitable anyway: Iraq is in Iran's sphere of influence, not America's. That doesn't mean Washington has to roll over, but it does mean it needs to be realistic about what it can actually do, and what sort of unlikely partners it will need to accomplish the things it cannot do alone. (Meanwhile, keep an eye on putative U.S.-Iranian cooperation if there is no nuclear deal.)

Forget democracy -- and Palestine. In my view, these two elements have always been discretionary, not vital, to U.S. interests in the post-9/11 Middle East. Not because they aren't important, but because Washington really can't do much about them -- except, that is, to further mess them up. Now, with the situations in Syria and Iraq, the focus will really need to be on stability, rather than creating new democratic litmus tests for allies like Egypt, or trying to turn Iraq into a real democracy. America needs all the friends it can get these days, and that means improving ties with Egypt, coordinating with Turkey and Saudi Arabia, and bucking up Jordan. (Those efforts will also provide a good balance to a new, cozier relationship with Iran.)

As for the Israeli-Palestinian issue, Secretary of State John Kerry has rightly hung a "temporarily closed" sign on the door. Things have been deteriorating as Israel churns up the West Bank looking for kidnapped kids, arresting and alienating Palestinians. But c'est la vie: Mahmoud Abbas, Hamas, and Israel all have a stake in avoiding a blow-up and keeping the jihadis at bay.


In 2003, the Bush administration sought to transform the Middle East. It failed. Today the U.S. goal isn't transformation or redemption; it's transaction. Separate what's important from what isn't; understand what's doable and what isn't; and don't expand horizons, but contract them. In short, take care of business: press for a more credible political arrangement in Iraq, buck up the moderate opposition in Syria, hit ISIS to blunt its advances, and work with regional partners to further contain the group's threat.

But more than anything, America can't start dreaming about either fixing things or leaving the region. There are no solutions to any of the Middle East's problems, only outcomes. Washington has to be smart and tough in trying to shape those outcomes. But it also has to be careful.



Stuffing the Sheep in Kabul

As accusations of voter fraud fly, Afghanistan’s presidential race is ripping the country apart.

It's déjà vu season in America's "right" and "wrong" war zones. In Iraq, the old Bush-era neocons are back on the airwaves, blaming everyone but themselves for the latest perfect storm of crises. In Afghanistan, the same old candidate is once again crying electoral fraud. His archrival, the outgoing president, has been forced back into the picture. And the international community, this time the United Nations, has been dragged yet again into helping a country that has faced so many "crunch times," we may as well call it Crunchistan.

This is all happening as Afghanistan desperately needs a security deal with the United States -- fast -- or Iraq will seem like an opening act for the all-star meltdown to come on the eastern fringes of the so-called Shiite Crescent. 

The latest crisis was sparked last week with Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah's shock announcement that he was boycotting the vote count for the June 14 runoff because of alleged fraud. Abdullah is making his second successive bid for the presidency, this time running against Ashraf Ghani in the race to replace President Hamid Karzai, who is constitutionally barred from seeking a third term.

His boycott threatens to derail Afghanistan's first-ever democratic power transfer and plunge a country with a history of sectarian conflict into another political crisis.

On Saturday, June 21, several hundred Abdullah supporters took to the streets of Kabul, blocking the main airport road and chanting, "Death to Karzai," and "Death to Ghani," while burning photographs of the chief electoral officer, Ziaulhaq Amarkhil.

The crisis took a slightly surreal turn the next day, when the Abdullah campaign released audio recordings purporting to show Amarkhil urging a colleague to "bring the sheep stuffed and not empty." References to sheep and goats -- apparent allusions to ballot boxes and voters -- appeared frequently in the 15 minutes of recorded conversations, which were broadcast on several Afghan TV stations. Amarkhil denied any wrongdoing and insisted the tapes were faked. But by Monday, he had turned into the lamb ushered to the slaughter, when he announced his resignation "for the sake of Afghanistan."

Following Amarkhil's resignation, Abdullah conceded somewhat, offering that, "now the door is open for us to talk to the [election] commission and talk about the conditions and circumstances that will help the process." For the moment, Abdullah seems to have got his way -- or at the very least, a chance to save face and get back to the electoral process amid, one can only assume, pressure from his international backers to behave.

But in the long run, his premature electoral fraud hissy fit has not won him any extra fans or credit in the international community. The damage back home is probably worse. For the millions of Afghans who did not vote for the former mujahideen leader, the timing and sheer force of Abdullah's display of discontent has reopened a musty trunk of memories in a country that has never addressed the brutality and excesses of the past.

* * *

It's too early to pass a verdict on the extent of the electoral fraud. Certainly in a country like Afghanistan, where an insurgency is raging in the southern and southeastern provinces, most experts expect some election irregularities. (As I noted just days before the first round, "It will be messy. It will be difficult. It will most certainly be dangerous. But it will happen.")

To be fair to Afghanistan, the country has invested considerable efforts in putting together an electoral framework ahead of the 2014 vote. In a statement released shortly after Abdullah boycotted the vote count, Jan Kubis, the head of the U.N. Mission in Afghanistan, implicitly acknowledged this when he stated, "We believe that the electoral process should continue as laid out in the laws passed by the National Assembly. In particular, the mandate of the electoral institutions ... must be respected." He then warned: "With the utmost concern, the UN Mission notes that appeals to circumvent or abandon the legal process and framework and appeal directly to supporters could incite violence."

There were early signs that the voting process was going to be contentious.

Barely two weeks before the final elections, at a floridly lit Kabul wedding hall, Ismail Khan, the strongman of Herat, announced his support for "our holy warrior brother Dr. Abdullah Abdullah." He also informed the audience that, "We have gathered as the mujahideen family of the past 30 years to protect this country."

Khan, a Tajik warlord, was the running mate of first-round presidential candidate Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, a Sunni Islamist strongman and former Osama bin Laden mentor reviled by the mostly Shiite Hazara community. Although Sayyaf did not personally endorse Abdullah, the political game in the lead-up to the latest contest was focused on securing endorsements.

Suddenly, the boogeyman of ethnicity -- which had receded into the background in the April 5 race featuring eight candidates -- was taking center stage.

Abdullah is half-Tajik, half-Pashtun, but largely viewed as an ethnic Tajik for his association with the Panjshir-based, anti-Taliban Northern Alliance. Ghani is an ethnic Pashtun. Comprising around 42 percent of the population and harboring a historic sense of entitlement to rule Afghanistan, the Pashtuns are an ethnic group that no candidate can ignore. Abdullah made assiduous efforts to secure Pashtun support -- this included an endorsement from Zalmai Rassoul, a former foreign minister widely believed to have been Karzai's preferred candidate in the first round, who nonetheless came in third.

Not that Ghani -- a Kuchi Pashtun, whose brother, Hashmat, is the Grand Council Chieftain of the Kuchis -- was taking it easy. 

Just days before Khan endorsed Abdullah, the Ghani campaign packed Kabul's cavernous Loya Jirga Hall with religious and mujahideen leaders all claiming impeccable Islamic and holy warrior credentials. The Ghani camp includes his running mate, Abdul Rashid Dostum, a controversial former warlord who has blood on his hands -- and the Uzbek vote in the palm of those hands.

Still, this is the Afghan, big-tent way of doing political business, so everyone was willing to cut the candidates some slack. 

Electoral fraud allegations started circulating even before the polls opened on June 14. On the eve of the runoff, the Guardian reported that the rival camps had tweeted the same photograph purporting to show soldiers with pre-marked ballots. Each side declared the ballot was marked in favor of the opposing candidate. But most Afghans -- and certainly the international community -- hoped the two campaigns would stick to the rules and take their complaints to the Independent Election Complaints Commission (IECC, or ECC, as it's more popularly known).

While both camps have alleged fraud, the Ghani campaign has maintained they are content to let the ECC do its job. For Abdullah, however, the cry of foul play came as soon as the Independent Election Commission (IEC) announced the initial voter turnout: 7 million, up from 6.6 million in the first round. These figures, Abdullah argues, are inflated and show an "unbelievable high turnout" in the restive, Pashtun-dominated southeastern provinces.

He has pointed to Khost and Paktik, areas believed to be Ghani strongholds, where high levels of insecurity typically deter voters from going to the polls. In Khost, for instance, initial regional tallies showed that more than 400,000 voters cast ballots, up from 113,000 in the first round, according to the Wall Street Journal. In nearby Paktika, 390,000 voters cast ballots, up from 180,000.

The figures are going to take some time to ascertain and it won't be easy, not least because there has not been a full census in Afghanistan for over three decades. During previous elections, there have been problems with multiple registration of voters, which means about 21 million voter cards have been issued around the country over the past decade, although the estimated number of eligible voters is around 13 million.

But the figures the Abdullah campaign has been citing are initial, regional IEC tallies. Preliminary runoff results are only due on July 2, and final results on July 22. The sheer ferocity of Abdullah's premature response has sparked questions over whether the former mujahideen-era leader is simply trying to cover up his loss. Reports of the ongoing vote count suggest that Ghani has made a surprise comeback after finishing behind Abdullah in the April 5 first round.

Ghani contends that a successful voter mobilization campaign ahead of the latest vote is responsible for the last-minute surge in ballot casting. That could be true. Or it could just be a cover-up for dubiously magnified figures. With suspicions feeding the Kabul rumor mills, there have even been mumblings that the Taliban did not stage attacks on election day because the Pashtun militant group favors a Ghani victory. There's no proof of this, of course. And even if it were true that the Taliban has an insidious, unacknowledged stake in favoring one candidate over another, it may not necessarily be disastrous for Afghanistan.

* * *

But there was worse to come. In his statements to the press, Abdullah accused his old foe, Karzai, of "not being neutral" -- raising alarm bells, but failing to provide any evidence that the outgoing president had interfered in the electoral process.

Few Afghans doubt the irregularities in the disastrous 2009 vote that pitted Abdullah against Karzai were overwhelmingly conducted in the incumbent's favor. At that time, the ECC rejected more than a million ballots, most of them cast for Karzai. Despite that intervention -- and noises from an international community that would have been happier to work with Abdullah than the inconsistent, paranoid Karzai -- the Afghan president was re-elected.

But after that deeply flawed election, there were measures taken to avoid a 2009 repeat, including new electoral laws passed in 2013, which were deemed "fairly balanced and workable" by some of the leading Afghan experts.

Dragging Karzai thus out of the woodwork -- after he has been studiously trying to maintain his neutrality -- was disconcerting for many Afghans outside the Abdullah camp. There's no doubt that Karzai would prefer Ghani reside in Kabul's Arg presidential palace. But that does not qualify as evidence of any backroom dealing or manipulation by Karzai to get his former finance minister, instead of his former foreign minister, in power.

Karzai was forced to intervene late last week, when he said he would welcome the U.N.'s help in mediating the process. (Mind you, this comes from a president who has spent the last five years at the Arg palace marinating in a stew of anti-Western conspiracy theories.) While the U.N. Mission in Afghanistan was initially unwilling to get involved in the post-electoral process, the sheer gravity of the situation has led to a change in tone. But this time, even the studied, banal U.N. statements display hints of exasperation.

"We think the most important assistance we can give now is to provide a bridge between those who need to be talking to each other," Nicholas Haysom, U.N. deputy special representative for Afghanistan, told reporters at the press briefing in Kabul on Saturday. "And at least part of the message that we have for them -- and have had really since the outset -- is that there will be a winner and there will be a loser and what we expect of the candidates is to exhibit statesmanship, not gamesmanship."

But there was little display of statesmanship over the weekend, with Abdullah's supporters taking to social media sites blasting a rigged system while his opponents responded with equal vitriol, branding the former foreign minister a sore loser.

On Saturday, as Kabul's residents maneuvered roadblocks and rushed home worrying that the demonstrations could get violent, it looked like this latest election crisis was boiling down to a spat between the Panjshiris and southern Pashtun elites. For ordinary Afghans, that could spell nothing but trouble ahead.

"I just want this election process to end," said a friend, who preferred not be named, in a phone call from Kabul. A Pashtun with Tajik family members, he noted that the rifts were being felt in the family. "At dinner last night, my Tajik brother-in-law was saying that if Ghani is president and goes abroad, could we live with [his vice-president, the Uzbek warlord] Dostum in charge of the country? But my elder brother replied, 'Is it better to have Dostum for a few weeks than Dr. Abdullah, who was involved in the civil war, for five years?' I don't care if the U.N. makes a deal between Ghani and Abdullah; I just don't want to see these angry people on the streets."