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Chaos in the Greater Middle East | The Nation

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Chaos in the Greater Middle East

[ Part 1 of "Six Crises in Search of an Author, How the Bush Administration Destabilized the Arc of Instability"-- "Bush's Absurdist Imperialism" -- appeared yesterday. Here is part 2:]

Sweeping across the region from East to West, let's briefly note the six festering or clamoring crisis spots, any one of which could end up with the major role in the epic drama George Bush and his neocons supporters thought they were writing back in their Global War on Terror glory days.

Pakistan: The Pakistani government was America's main partner, along with the Saudis, in funding, arming, and running the anti-Soviet struggle of the mujahedeen, including Osama bin Laden, in Afghanistan back in the 1980s; and Pakistan's intelligence agency, the ISI, was the godfather of the Taliban (and remains, it seems, a supporter to this day). In September 2001, the Bush administration gave the country's coup-installed military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf, the basic you're-either-with-us-or-against-us choice. He chose the "with" and in the course of these last years, under constant American pressure, has lost almost complete control over Pakistan's tribal regions along the Afghan border to various tribal groups, the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and other foreign jihadis, who have established bases there. Now, significant parts of the country are experiencing unrest in what looks increasingly like a countdown to chaos in a nuclear-armed nation.

Afghanistan: In the meantime, from those Pakistani base areas, the revived and rearmed Taliban (and their al-Qaeda partners) are preparing to launch a major spring offensive in Afghanistan, using tactics from the Iraq War (suicide bombers or "Mullah Omar's Missiles," as they call them, and the roadside bomb or IED). They are already capable of taking over southern Afghan districts for periods of time. The Bush administration used the Northern Alliance--that is, proxy Afghan forces--to take Kabul in November 2001. It then set up its bases and prisons and established President Hamid Karzai as the "mayor of Kabul," only to abandon the task of providing real security and beginning the genuine reconstruction of the country in order to invade Iraq. The rest of this particular horror story is, by now, reasonably well known. The country beyond booming Kabul remains impoverished and significantly in ruins; the population evidently ever more dissatisfied; the American and NATO air war ever more indiscriminate; and it is again the planet's largest producer of opium poppies and, as such, supplier of heroin. Over five years after its "liberation" from the Taliban, Afghanistan is a failed state, home to a successful guerrilla war by one of the most primitively fundamentalist movements on the planet, and a thriving narco-kingdom. It is only likely to get worse. For the first time, the possibility that, like the Russians before them, the Americans (and their NATO allies) could actually suffer defeat in that rugged land seems imaginable.

Iran: The country is a rising regional power, with enormous energy resources, and Shiite allies and allied movements of various sorts throughout the region, including in southern Iraq. But it also has an embattled, divided, fundamentalist government capable of rallying its disgruntled populace only with nationalism (call it, playing the American card). Energy-rich as it is, Iran also has a fractured, weakened economy, threatened with sanctions; and its major enemy, the Bush administration, is running a series of terror operations against it, while trying to cause dissension in its oil-rich minority regions. It is also deploying an unprecedented show of naval and air strength in the Persian Gulf. (An aircraft-carrier, the USS Nimitz, with its strike group, is now on its way to join the two carrier task forces already in place there.) In addition, the administration has threatened to launch a massive air assault on Iran's nuclear and other facilities. Though Iraq runs it a close race, Iran may be the single potentially most explosive hot spot in the arc of instability. In a nanosecond, it would be capable, under U.S. attack, or even some set of miscalculations on all sides, both of suffering grievous harm and of imposing enormous damage not just on American troops in Iraq, or on the oil economy of the region, but on the global economy as well.

Iraq: Do I need to say a word? Iraq is the poster-boy for the Bush administration's ability to turn whatever it touches into hell on Earth. In Iraq, the vaunted American military has been stopped in its tracks by a minority Sunni insurgency. (In recent weeks, however, the war there is threatening to turn into something larger, as the American military launches attacks on radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia.) Iraq now is the site of a religio-ethnic civil war of striking brutality, loosing waves of refugees within the country and on neighboring states; neighborhoods are being ethnically cleansed and deaths have reached into the hundreds of thousands. Amid all this, the occupying U.S. military fully controls only Baghdad's fortified citadel within a city, the Green Zone (and even there dangers are mounting) as well as a series of enormous, multibillion-dollar bases it has built around the country. Iraq is now essentially a failed state and the situation continues to devolve under the pressure of the President's latest "surge" plan. If that plan were to succeed, the citadel-state of the Green Zone would, at best, be turned into the city-state of Baghdad in a sea of chaos. Like Iran, Iraq has the potential to draw other states in the region into a widening civil-cum-religious-cum-terrorist war.

Israel/Palestine/Lebanon: From an early green light for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to join the Global War on Terror (against the Palestinians) to a green light for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to launch and continue a war against Hezbollah in Lebanon last summer, the Bush administration has largely green-lighted Israel these last years. It has also ignored or, in the case of the Lebanon War, purposely held back any possibility of serious peace talks. The provisional results are in. In Lebanon, the heavily populated areas of the Shiite south were strewn with Israeli cluster bombs, making some areas nearly uninhabitable; up to a quarter of the population was, for a time, turned into refugees; parts of Lebanese cities including Beirut were flattened by the Israeli air force; and yet Hezbollah was strengthened, the U.S.-backed Siniora government radically weakened, and the country drawn closer to a possible civil war. In the Palestinian areas, Bush administration democracy-promotion efforts ended with a Hamas electoral victory. Starved of foreign aid and having suffered further Israeli military assaults, the Palestinian population is ever more immiserated; Hamas and Fatah are at each other's throats; and the U.S.-backed President of the Palestinian National Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, is in a weakened position. In the wake of a disastrous war, Israel, with a government whose head has a 3% approval rate, is hardly the triumphant, dominant power in the Middle East that various Bush administration figures imagined once upon a time. This looks like another deteriorating situation with no end in sight.

Somalia (or Blackhawk Down, Round 2): In 2006, Director Porter Goss's CIA bet on a group of discredited Somali warlords, threw money and support behind them, and -- typically -- lost out to an Islamist militia that took most of the country and imposed relative peace on it for the first time in years. The ever proactive Bush administration then turned to the autocratic Ethiopian regime and its military (advised and armed by the U.S. with a helping hand from the North Koreans) to open "a new front" in the Global War on Terror. The Ethiopians promptly launched their own "preventive" invasion of Somalia (with modest U.S. air support), installed a government in the capital, Mogadishu, proclaimed victory over the Islamists, and -- giant surprise --promptly found themselves mired in an inter-clan civil war with Iraqi overtones. Today, Somalia, long a failed state and then, for a few months, almost a peaceful land (even if ruled by Islamists fundamentalists), is experiencing the worst fighting and death levels in 15 years. The new government in Mogadishu is shaky; their Ethiopian military supporters bloodied; over 1,000 civilians in the capital are dead or wounded, and tens of thousands of refugees are fleeing Mogadishu and crossing borders in a state of need. Rate it: a developing disaster -- with worse to come.

In short, from Somalia to Pakistan, the region that Bush administration officials, neocons supporters and allied pundits liked to call "the arc of instability" back in 2002-2003 is today a genuine arc of instability. It is filled with ever more failed states (Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Palestine, which never even made it to statehood before collapse), possible future failed states (Lebanon, Pakistan), ever shakier autocracies (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan); and huge floods of refugees, internal and external (Somalia, Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan) as well as massively damaged areas (Afghanistan, Iraq, Gaza, Lebanon). It is also witnessing the growth of extremist and terrorist organizations and sentiments.

[Tomorrow, part 3 of this series: "A Rube Goldberg Instability Machine."]

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