Where is the Muslim world on Afghanistan?

By Brian Katulis

“Af-Pak” (or “Pak-Af,” depending on your perspective) has topped the two-month old Obama administration’s national security agenda. This part of the world is bound to get more media attention in the coming weeks with the conclusion of the administration’s policy review and the NATO summit early next month.

In the big debates about U.S. policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan, one set of questions that shouldn’t be ignored is how to get others around the world to support efforts to stabilize Afghanistan.  The effort to stabilize Afghanistan, after all, is not just about U.S. security - it is about global security. And as I argued in this article for the Middle East Bulletin last week, the countries of the Arab Gulf play a pivotal role in many of the economic, political, and security linkages between the Middle East and South Asia. 

With the Obama administration gearing up for a rollout of a new strategy on Afghanistan and Pakistan, one related question to the issue of broader global support seems important:  Why don’t other Muslim-majority countries play more of a role in Afghanistan?  It’s not that Muslim-majority countries aren’t doing anything at all - but it seems to me that there is room for more to be done, particularly as the effort to stabilize Afghanistan is close to a geographic center of the so-called Muslim world - a bridge between the parts of the Middle East and Asia where the vast majority of Muslims live.

One briefing on my trip to the Emirates that stands out is the session the delegation had with the Special Operations Command in the Emirates. Respecting the ground rules of that briefing - clarified at the outset of the meeting by our hosts as on background (meaning I can use the facts but can’t quote the officials) - here’s what I can say about the small Emirati Special Forces units that have operated on the ground in Afghanistan.  

•    A couple hundred Emirati Special Forces have operated inside of Afghanistan since 2003, and their role wasn’t publicly acknowledged until the spring of 2008, allegedly catching even the Saudis by surprise.  
•    These Emirati forces are the only Arab troops on the ground with a full combat mission in Afghanistan - at least publicly acknowledged - and the Emirati forces have seen combat in the volatile south; they also provide support for counterinsurgency activities such as health and education.  (Small numbers of Jordanian forces have played a role in Afghanistan, deploying in 2001 and helping with things such as establishing medical services).  

•    The number one operational challenge is getting intelligence out of U.S. forces, according to one of our briefers - the Australian forces were much better at sharing intel.  There were also complaints voiced that the missions received by this unit as not being as serious as they are capable of conducting.  (“Pissant” was the phrase used by one).  

•    Outside of Afghanistan, Emirati forces have also been engaged in Kuwait in 1990-1991, Somalia in 1993, Kosovo in 1999, and in Lebanon and Iraq in diplomatic protection missions, including an effort to offer protection to the president of Iraq’s interim government.  

This Emirati presence in Afghanistan is really minor in the larger picture of the foreign troop presence in the country (representing far less than 1 percent of the total foreign troop presence). But these forces have some useful language and cultural sensitivity skills that Western troops lack.  And the symbolism is important - and publicly admitting a role in Afghanistan seems like a brave thing to do, especially when one considers other Muslim-majority countries and their stance on Afghanistan. 

Besides the Emirates, Turkey seems to be the only Muslim-majority country with large numbers of troops on the ground. A NATO ally, Turkey has hundreds of troops operating as part of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). Of course, having a military presence on the ground isn’t the only way for countries to support the effort to stabilize Afghanistan - although one wonders why countries like Egypt, with nearly half a million active duty military personnel, a country whose regime was the target of some of the same Islamist extremist groups that operate in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and has been the recipient of billions of dollars of U.S. military assistance for the past three decades, doesn’t contribute more to the effort in Afghanistan. 

Part of the answer may lie in public attitudes towards the war in Afghanistan in some of these countries - the effort to stabilize Afghanistan may be deeply unpopular, particularly if it has an American face on it. This World Public Opinion.org poll published in February of this year found that 83 percent of Egyptians supported attacks against U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Support for such attacks was varied in other countries (61 percent in Morocco, 29 percent in Pakistan, and 21 percent in Indonesia). 

So sending troops may not be an option for some Muslim-majority countries - the question then should be asked, what more can they do to help contribute to political and economic stability in Afghanistan?  And will more countries be willing to break the taboo against supporting such efforts?

At the very least, perhaps more countries can help cut off the financial links that sustain terrorist networks that operate in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  There are several instances in which the United States froze the assets of organizations it alleges to have evidence of ties to financing terror networks - such as the Kuwaiti Revival of Islamic Heritage Society - but close allies like Kuwait deny the allegations, and the cases remain unresolved. Cutting off these financial links that support extremist networks could be a key to stability in Afghanistan - when the full history of what happened in Iraq in 2007-2008, it will likely reveal the important role in cutting off the financial ties of insurgent and terrorist groups as a key to greater stability.  But doing so in Afghanistan and Pakistan will require more cooperation from more countries around the world - including key Muslim-majority countries.  As the United States commits more resources to stabilize Afghanistan and Pakistan, it should ask its friends if they are willing to do the same.

The Afghanistan war isn’t the Iraq war, of course - the war in Afghanistan enjoyed greater international legitimacy.  And if the Obama administration is committed to using the full range of power - including political and economic power - at America’s disposal - it should ask its friends what they might be willing to do to help another Muslim-majority country seek greater stability and a decent life for their people.  If the small Emirati military can contribute forces to the fight, countries with larger budgets and militaries, as well as leverage to cut off ties to terrorist networks, should be able to do more.


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