Not since the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and its aftermath has the Middle East experienced the level of turmoil that has occurred since 2011. Whereas earlier periods of upheaval–the Iran-Iraq War, the Lebanon War and the 1991 Gulf War–were relatively contained by the big powers, that of the past two years has spread across the region. The “Arab Spring” toppled pro-Western governments in Tunisia and Egypt and has brought Islamists into power. Libya’s Qaddafi has been overthrown and killed, to be replaced by a weak central government in what has effectively become an al-Qaeda fiefdom. Syria is wracked by a bloody civil war in which a host of players (Saudi Arabia and Qatar, Iran, and al-Qaeda, among others) are fighting to gain or keep control of the country. Jordan faces increasing pressure from it’s large Palestinian population and the Muslim Brotherhood, while Yemen and Bahrain are experiencing increasing instability due to their Shia populations, backed by Iran. Add to this list the Iranian nuclear crisis, the strategic encirclement of Israel by Iran and its proxies and growing instability in Lebanon, where Hezbollah effectively holds power, and a perfect storm for major regional war is brewing.
Two countries that serve as a fulcrum for such a conflict are Iraq and Afghanistan. Both are now key to the great power struggle for the Middle East between the United States and Iran. Both hold important geopolitical positions in the region. Iraq is the gateway between Iran and the Arabian Peninsula, while Afghanistan has for centuries held a position as a buffer between the Indian Subcontinent and such powers as Russia and Iran.
First and foremost, there is Iraq. By the time Barrack Obama took office in January 2009, U.S. forces, thanks considerably to the 2007 surge, had brought about a considerable improvement in security in the country. As a result, Iraq’s government was able to establish its control though much of the country. This could have been used by the incoming administration to help establish Iraq as a buffer to Iran. Instead, President Obama showed little interest in using this situation for American advantage. The negotiations over the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) were a case in point.
Signed between Washington and Baghdad in 2008, SOFA stipulated that all U.S. forces were to withdraw by December 2011, which was completed. However, efforts to renegotiate SOFA in 2011, to allow 10-12,000 U.S. troops to remain after the deadline for withdrawal, were rejected by Iraq’s government. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Shia and pro-Iranian, was strongly opposed to any changes to SOFA. In a 2010 interview with the Wall Street Journal, Maliki stated unequivocally that “The withdrawal of forces agreement expires on December 31, 2011. The last American soldier will leave Iraq.” Given that President Obama had made opposition to the Iraq War a major plank of his political career and 2008 campaign, he made little effort to dissuade Maliki. This despite private admissions by key Iraqi leaders that their country’s military was still heavily dependent on U.S. assistance. Thus, just 5,000 private contractors, hired by the U.S. Embassy, are left to provide support to Iraq’s 806,000-strong military and security forces.
Furthermore, these forces are divided along sectarian lines (70-80 percent of the army’s enlisted personnel are Shia) and are increasingly politicized. Both the security forces and the military have been structured by Maliki to ensure personal loyalty to him. Officials close to the Prime Minister have been placed in key positions in both the Ministry of Interior (which controls the security forces) and the Ministry of Defense. The same process has occurred within the high command of the military. This has enabled Maliki to establish an authoritarian style of leadership, one which rests on strong Shia support and is, not surprisingly, pro-Iranian. Teheran has shipped large quantities of arms to support the Assad regime in Syria via Iraq, and Maliki has refused to shut down this vital conduit despite American requests.
What all this means is that Iraq has effectively become a de facto ally of Iran. During the Iraq War, Teheran supplied large quantities of weapons to Shia insurgents, especially Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, itself defeated thanks to the U.S. surge. However, Sadr has since turned to politics, and his party is now the largest in Iraq’s parliament. This, combined with Maliki’s style of leadership and foreign policy, has seen a considerable increase in Iran’s influence over the past couple of years.
Given that armed conflict resulting from Iran’s continuing effort to develop nuclear weapons is a distinct possibility, Iraq’s strategic importance becomes apparent. An Iranian thrust into Kuwait and Saudi Arabia is made much easier thanks to a pro-Iranian government in Baghdad. Iranian forces could easily transit through southern Iraq, the country’s Shia heartland. Indeed, the presence established by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps’ al-Qods Corps–specifically meant to spread Iran’s Islamic revolution abroad–in southern Iraq would make this go very smoothly, especially since this force is based near the Iraqi border. Given the increasingly close cooperation between Teheran and Baghdad in intelligence and security, Iranian forces could launch an attack from Iraq into the Arabian Peninsula, using insurgent and terrorist attacks (made simpler by the large Shia populations in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, concentrated in the oil-rich coastal regions) as a prelude to a conventional invasion. The warning time available to U.S. planners would be greatly reduced, as would the ability to react effectively. Since this would be probably taken in concert with Iranian moves elsewhere (i.e. the Strait of Hormuz and by proxy against Israel), the danger of Teheran successfully waging war is considerably increased.
Then there is Afghanistan. Here, the threat is of a somewhat different variety. To be sure, Iran has been involved in supporting the Taliban, burying the hatchet (caused by the divisions between the Sunni fundamentalist Taliban and Shia Iran) in order to fight a common enemy. However, the Taliban present the greater danger for the United States and it allies. The growing effectiveness of Taliban forces, including a car bombing that killed a U.S. diplomat, the first since Benghazi in September 2011, along with Taliban infiltration of the Afghan National Army (ANA) and increasingly lethal attacks on U.S. and NATO forces, has called into question whether or not U.S. forces can be fully withdrawn by December 2014, when their combat mission is to conclude. Indeed, the situation is similar in this regard to that in Iraq in 2007. The government of Hamid Karzai is ineffective, unable to exercise its authority beyond Kabul. The ANA remains a less-than-effective force to say the least, and despite the guarded optimism expressed by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey that the ANA will take the lead combat role against the Taliban as early as May or June, this is not a realistic prospect.
Indeed, depending on a SOFA between Washington and Kabul, there may be a need for as many as 10,000 U.S. troops to remain in Afghanistan after December 2014 in both an advisory and combat (counterinsurgency) role. The much-touted surge undertaken by the Obama Administration has not had the success hoped for, while political efforts to incorporate “moderate” Taliban elements into a peace process have also been a failure.
The second is from the Taliban and where it is concentrated. It is a Pashtun organization, which means that it has a strong presence both in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan. Indeed, the Pakistani ISI helped establish the Taliban as an effective force during the 1990s. As the killing of Osama bin Laden in Abottabad showed, there are considerable elements within the ISI, as well as the Pakistani government and military, that share the Taliban’s (and al-Qaeda’s) Islamist ideology. Here lies the danger. If, after 2014, all U.S. forces are withdrawn and the Taliban manage to take large parts of the country (including Kabul), Pakistan, regardless of the composition of its government, will enjoy considerable influence in Afghanistan. Even a nominally friendly government in Islamabad will be problematic for U.S. interests, as has been shown many times in the past few years. If a hard-line Islamic government were to come to power, however, then things would be much more dangerous. Given the strong influence of Islamism in Pakistani politics and society, and the presence of tens of thousands of veteran Pakistani Taliban in the country’s North-West Frontier abutting Afghanistan, this is a realistic prospect. This would place Pakistan–with its large armed forces, its long coastline along the Indian Ocean in proximity to the oil-rich Persian Gulf, and, of course, its nuclear weapons, including ballistic missiles–under a fundamentalist Islamic government.
This could lead to similar regimes taking control in much of Central Asia (where Islamism is also a powerful force), as well as a threat to the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf. It could also lead to war with India, which, needless to say, would be catastrophic.
Given these unacceptable prospects, the United States is unlikely to withdraw from Afghanistan within two years, despite President Obama’s promises. Given the war-weariness of the American public–not to mention those of Allied nations–the only realistic option will be to engage in a full-scale counterinsurgency campaign, in order to eradicate the most effective Taliban groups and force the remainder to cease fighting and make peace with Kabul. This will mean increased casualties, which will lead to additional loss of public support, and thus a race between successful completion of this goal and a forced withdrawal, the latter with the above consequences. The morale of the U.S. military, which faces major reductions in funding over the next several years under Obama Administration plans, would no doubt be eroded if withdrawal without victory was the course taken.
As for Iraq, the consequences of the failure of an effective SOFA has helped lead not only to increased Iranian influence, but to a resurgence of al-Qaeda, which has used Iraq as a base to wage war in both Libya and Syria. It has succeeded in the former, establishing an effective Islamist state that has projected force into both Algeria and Mali. It could succeed in Syria, where at least part of the country could fall under al-Qaeda control. This would no doubt lead to continued violence and instability with rival forces in that country. Worse, it could lead to al-Qaeda influence in Lebanon and even Turkey. Most worrisome, if al-Qaeda militias take control of Syrian chemical weapons, it could trigger Israeli (and probably U.S.) involvement, leading to a wider war with much deadlier consequences.
Whatever the course of events, the above scenarios would cause enormous destabilization in the Middle East. Add such wild cards as the unfinished “Arab Spring,” use of WMD by states as Iran and Syria and an Iranian-sponsored guerrilla and terror offensive against Israel, and the consequences only become more disastrous. At worst, the position of the United States in the Middle East–an area of vital concern to the West–might collapse, with results that, for the world as a whole, would be a catastrophe.