Friday, July 25, 2014

Understanding Sunni-Shia Differences to Analyze MiddleEast Affairs

I was surprised to hear that there were virtually no differences between Sunni and Shia as they were both Islam, in s special report of Iraq in “News in Depth” on NHK TV on June 21. That is merely a wishful thinking of passive pacifism. In present day political contexts, the Sunni-Shia division poses critical impacts to national and ethno-sectarian clashes. However, it is not of so much use to argue theological detail for strategists and students of foreign policy. Therefore, I would like to talk about basic historical background and religious behavior.

As widely known, the origin of sectarian chasm dates back to the dispute between the 4th caliph Ali and Muawia. After the death of Ali, the Rushdyn was replaced by the Umayyads which was founded by Muawia. Since then, the Muslim minority objected to the Umayyad rule to insist that only Ali’s successor be the legitimate heir of caliph throne. It was this religious minority who founded the Shia sect, while the majority has become Sunnis. The landmark of the Sunni-Shiite chasm is the Battle of Karbala in 680. Upon request from Shias in Kufa, located in current south central Iraq, Ali’s second son Hussain ibn Ali stood up against Umayyad caliph Yazid I, that resulted in an annihilation on Hussain’s side.

The Battle of Karbala had deep psychological impacts on both sects, and reinforced Shiite identity. The first point is close relations between Shia and Iranian ethnicity. According to Shia, Hussain married Shahbanu, a daughter of the last Sasanid Persian king Yazdegerd III to give birth to the 4th imam Ali ibn Hussain Zayn al-Abidin. Therefore, from Shiite interpretation of Karbala, Hussain’s successors in the early Middle Age were also descendants of the Sasanid royal family. Even though Iranians had been ruled by Arabs, Turkics, and Mongolians, until they found their own Safavid Empire in the 16th century, they maintained their national identity through devotion to Shiite belief. In order to restore the Iranian nation since the Arab conquest of Persia, the Safavid dynasty made Shia Islam as the state religion. Outside Iran, Shias are distributed in the Gulf area, southern Iraq, Lebanon, Hazara habitats in Afghanistan, etc. People in those areas are culturally and spiritually tied with Iran. For example, Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani of Iraq was born in Iran, and his surname is related to the Sistan area in the south east of Iran.

The second point is a mindset of the oppressed. Today, Sunnis account for 85% of the total Muslims in the world, while Shias accounts for 15% (“The Sunni-Shia Divide”; Council on Foreign Relations; 2014). The most symbolic event to show this is the Day of Ashura when Shias mourn for the martyrdom of Hussain standing against overwhelming power of the Umayyads in the Battle of Karbala. In order to share pains and grieves with Hussain and his loyalists, Shiite males whip their bodies by themselves to bleed. Ritual is not just a ritual. It shapes mindsets of community or sect members. The choice of sect is the choice of the way of life. The annual ritual reminds Shias of their religious devotion through pain and plight, and their historical position as mostazafin, which is Ruhollah Khomeini’s favorite word meaning the oppressed.

In view of basic understandings of Sunni-Shiite relations, one of the key foreign policy focuses is the recent rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia. As widely known, Iran is a Shiite theocracy, while Saudi Arabia is a monarchy of Wahhabist, ultraconservative school of the Sunni. This May, Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Saud al Faisal invited Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif to discuss Gulf security and Syria (“Saudi Arabia moves to settle differences with Iran”; Guardian; 13 May 2014). Will the relationship of both countries improve dramatically? This is unlikely. For Saudi Arabia, “It is therefore prudent for them not to draw Iran’s ire,” as Iran is a powerful neighbor (“What’s going on between Saudi Arabia and Iran?”; Jerusalem Post; June 11, 2014). The problem is, Iran’s Shiite missionary ideology provokes socially and economically marginalized Shias in Saudi Arabia’s oil rich Gulf area. Those mostazafins are displaced and live in poverty, while Sunni majority oil dominates oil business (“Iraq conflict reignites sectarian rivalry in Saudi Arabia”; Baltimore Sun; April 27, 2006). While Israel regards Iran’s nuclear attack as the primary threat, Saudi Arabia is more concerned with Iran’s vision of Shiite hegemony (Next Test for Obama: Soothing the Saudis”; Los Angels Times; March 24, 2014).

Considering the nature of Tehran’s Shiite theocracy and politics of its Arab neighbors, it is too optimistic to assume dramatic reconciliation of Iran and Saudi Arabia. Nor should we expect Iran to act as the regional guard. Sunni Arab emirates embraced the Pahlavi Iran as the guard, because it was a secular and enlightened state, and a vital ally of the United States. Unfortunately, Iran today is an odd man out in the Gulf like China is in East Asia. Current Saudi Arabia behaves like Britain appeasing Nazi Germany. Had America been more Wilsonian, Neville Chamberlain would have stood much firmer against Adolf Hitler’s ambition. In present days, Saudi Arabia feels itself less and less secure in view of Obama’s engagement with America’s adversaries. Basic understanding of culture and religion is so crucial to analyze current foreign affairs.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

American strategy to overturn Obama’s failure in Iraq


The Obama administration is forced to overturn the complete withdrawal of US troops from Iraq in 2011, due to the rapid advancement of the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) early June. Apparently, President Barack Obama and his cabinet members made a wrong strategic assessment of Iraq. In an interview with Larry King on February 11, 2010, Vice President Joseph Biden commented optimistically that Iraq would move toward a stable democracy without gun fights. See the video below.






However, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) warned of radical Islamist attacks to the United Stes and Britain long before the ISIS thrust this June, as they monitored telegraph messages among ISIS, tribal leaders, and Baathists (“Washington and London Ignored Warnings about the ISIS Offensive in Iraq”; Daily Beast; June 24, 2014). More importantly, some Republican senators like John McCain and Lindsey Graham warned of Sunni militant uprisings without residual US forces after 2011 (“GOP on Iraq: We told you so”; Politico; June 13, 2014). In the Morning Joe on MSNBC on June 13, McCain even demanded that Obama’s national security team resign, and they be replaced by experts such as General David Petraeus, General Jack Keane, and Former Ambassador Ryan Crocker. Furthermore, he mentioned that residual forces were necessary in Iraq as in Japan, Germany, and South Korea to maintain post occupational stability. See the following video.





Let me examine why things in Iraq have developed so destabilized, and explore strategies to defeat the ISIS and stop geopolitical rivals like Iran and Russia, primarily based on the panel discussion by Senator John McCain and Retired General Jack Keane at the American Enterprise Institute on June 18, because they are the most influential and well-versed policymakers on Iraq as seen in the surge in 2007. With residual forces, McCain argued that the United States could have deterred the rise of insurgents, and even steered Maliki to form an inclusive government to overcome ethnic and sectarian differences. In a recent article, Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations also comments that Iraqi security could have been more stabilized with at least 10,000 military advisors, and America would have exerted more diplomatic influence on Maliki to run more ethnically and religiously balanced government (“Obama’s Iraq”; Weekly Standard; Jun 23, 2014). Apparently, Obama hardly had any intention of driving Iraq to evolve into another Japan or Germany.






How can the United States and the Iraqi government bounce back ISIS and their allies? It is vital to split the insurgents. ISIS is allied with Ansar al Islam, a coalition of Sunni Arab tribes, and ex-Baathists, as the Maliki administration is heavily dependent on Shiites. They are not necessarily cohesive, and it is necessary to explore true causes of non-ISIS militant uprisings, according to Hassan Hassan, Research Associate at the Delma Institute of the United Arab Emirates (“More Than ISIS, Iraq’s Sunni Insurgency”; Carnegie Endowment for international Peace -- Sada Journal; June 17, 2014). The strategic priorities are to defend Baghdad and to launch counter offenses against terrorists. Despite the striking advancement into the Iraqi territory, General Keane commented that ISIS had no “force generation (ARFORGEN)” to capture Baghdad as it was a sprawling city. On the other hand, they are founding the largest realm of Islamic extremism in history from Syria to Iraq. Keane mentioned that they could attack Europe and the United States directly from this safe haven. McCain said even Stalin didn’t pose such threats. Therefore, both panelists stressed the danger of Islamic terrorists.


American option is limited as war weary public shall not approve of sending ground troops. However, Keane says that the United States can help Iraq by the following ways. First, American advisors can provide intelligence service to know the location of the enemy, and give information about Syria and northern Iraq for the Iraqi federal government. Also, American advisors can help Iraqi planning to defend Baghdad and launch counter offenses against insurgents. In addition, American special forces must attack critical targets and terrorist leaders to help the Iraqi security forces. Furthermore, American air operations must be coordinated with special forces on the ground that speak local languages. Though the air campaign is critical for limited and targeted attacks on the ground, Keane stressed that US air power not act as a Shiite air force.


In addition to military perspectives, American strategy must be explored from political perspectives. Iraqi neighbors, including Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Gulf emirates, worry American disengagement rather than “decline”. McCain told that it was presidential leadership that would persuade war weary public to accept global engagement as Harry Truman did during the Korean War. He stressed US help to Iraq was urgent because ISIS was more dreadful than Al Qaeda as to displace 500,000 people in Mosul, and execute 1,700 of them. In PBS News Hour on June 21, Gideon Rose, Editor of Foreign Affairs, pointed out that ISIS was disowned by Al Qaeda, because of the brutality. See the video below.






Currently, ISIS is richer than Al Qaeada as they took oil fields, and extort tax from the business. Furthermore, they seized money and gold from the bank when they captured Mosul. See the video below.






On the other hand, the shadow of Iran is growing among Shiites. Is it likely that the United States work with Iran? In response to Maliki’s call for the Shiite militia to fight against Sunni insurgents, Iranian proxies moved from Syria to southern Iraq. Maliki could lapse into heavily dependent on Iran (“Iranian Proxies Step Up Their Role in Iraq”; Washington Institute for Near East Policy---Policy Watch; June 13, 2014). Meanwhile, Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei condemned US intervention in Iraq when Obama announced to send 300 troops there. Some watchers see it a warning against the United States not to replace Maliki with someone else (“Iran rejects U.S. action in Iraq, ISIL tightens Syria border grip”; Reuters News; June 23, 2014). Iran’s leverage in Syria, Iraq, and Gulf Arabs, is growing. In view of this, Camille Pescasting, Senior Associate Professor at the School of Advanced International Studies of the Johns Hopkins University, even argues that Iran may act as the Regional Guard as it did under the Nixon doctrine, since Obama is so unwilling to get involved (“Iran, the New Force for Regional Stability?”; World Affairs Online; June 2014). However, General Keane pointed out that Iran was hardly interested in driving ISIS out of the desert in western Iraq, and simply wanted to take the oil rich south. Therefore, Keane told it nonsense to work with Iran, or rely on this country for regional stability.


In addition to domestic and regional power interactions, things will be increasingly unpredictable as Maliki’s purchase of 12 Su-25 ground attack fighters from Russia. Iraq was frustrated with slow delivery of F-16 fighters from the United States. Though Iraq agreed to buy 18 of them in 2011, they acquired the first one this June (“From Iraq to Syria, splinter groups now larger worry than al-Qaeda”; Washington Post; June 10, 2014). Also, Obama ordered drones to protect US personnel on the ground who were on non-combat missions (“Iraq receives Russian fighter jets to fight rebels”; BBC News; 29 June, 2014). Russian instructors came to Iraq along with Sukhoi jets, which is an implicit challenge to the United States. In addition, there is a rumor that Iran will return some Saddam Hussein’s warplane to Iraq, mostly Russian and some French Mirage F-1s, that evacuated from US air attack during 1990-91 Gulf War (“Russian Jets and Experts Sent to Iraq to Aid Army”; New York Times; June 29, 2014). The problem is, the Iraqi armed force has been Americanized in weaponry systems and training after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Even if redeploying Soviet-made Su-25s, can Iraqi pilots use them effectively? In addition, it is quite doubtful whether old Soviet fighters can coordinate with US special forces on the ground in targeted and limited attacks.


As seen in the contract on F-16 fighters and Apache helicopters, the Obama administration withdrew the whole of US forces before building up the Iraqi security forces. McCain told the critical point that Obama was elected in protest of Bush’s long war in Iraq and Afghanistan, at the panel discussion. His non Western thoughts and backgrounds are the antitheses of traditional America. The current crisis is a result of disrespect to foreign policy continuity. Will the United States overturn this negative trend in Iraq as General Keane suggests, and not repeat the same mistake in Afghanistan?

Monday, June 30, 2014

Can Iraq use Sukhoi 25 from Russia effectively?


This is Sukhoi 25 fighter for ground attack. Though it is rather outdated, Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki of Iraq was impatient with the delay of F-16 and Apache arrival from the United States. Therefore, he received Sukhoi 25 fighters from Russia to fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and al Shaam. Can US-trained Iraqi pilots fly Soviet era fighters, once deployed by Saddam's air force?






See the above video of its combat mission in Chechnya.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

China and Islam

It is generally assumed that confrontations between Islam and the West are one of the most critical clashes of civilizations since the battle of Tours and Poitiers. However, China may emerge as another main collision counterpart to the Islamic world, because China has replaced the United States as the top oil importer of the world last September, before “overtaking” its GDP (“China surpasses US as biggest oil importer”; NewYork Post; October 10, 2013). This implies that China will have more contacts with Islamic nations overseas, and more frictions with them are expected as seen in Africa. This will undermine China’s self-assumed position as the liberator of Islam from Western dominance and the leader of developing nations. Also, the Chinese economy will be more vulnerable to political challenges in the Islamic sphere than the West.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Agency’s “China Country Report 2012”, main oil exporters to China among Islamic nations are Saudi Arabia (1st), Iran (3rd), Oman (5th), Iraq (6th), Sudan (7th), Kazakhstan (9th), followed by Kuwait (10th) and so forth (“Fueling a NewOrder? The New Geopolitical and Security Consequences of Energy”; BrookingsInstitution; April 15, 2014). So heavily dependent on Islam oil, China needs to adopt tightrope foreign and domestic policies in the Middle East and Central Asia, in order to secure its economic interests and strengthen its power on the global stage.

In the Middle East, China’s primary strategic focuses are Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. Iran has been in close relations with China since the Islamic Revolution. However, it is an archrival against Saudi Arabia in the Persian Gulf, and China needs to strike a subtle balance between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Unlike Israel that Tehran’s fears nuclear threats, Saudi Arabia worries Iran’s hegemony in the Gulf through Shiite encirclement from Iraq, Bahrain, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, to its own eastern territory (“Next Test for Obama: Soothing the Saudis”; Los Angels Times; March24, 2014). In a military exercise this spring, Saudi Arabia demonstrated Dengfeng 3 ballistic missiles from China. Though Saudi purchased this missile in 1988, they kept it secret until this exercise. According to CIA, they imported more advanced Dengfeng 21 from China in 2007, which was not displayed in public yet (“Saudi missile parade a signal to Iran, Israelidefense expert tells ‘Post’”; Jerusalem Post; May 1, 2014).

Saudi Arabia is critically concerned with the Obama administration’s engagement with Iran. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel had to soothe anxieties among Arab allies that the United States would not sacrifice security ties with Persian Gulf allies as it restarted nuclear talks with Iran, at the Gulf Cooperation Council this May (“Hagel Says Iran Deal Won’tWeaken Gulf Security”; Eurasia Review; May 15, 2014). There is nothing strange that Saudi Arabia turns to China as the security umbrella of the United States appears unreliable, and China needs oil from there. But is China really willing to get involved in geopolitical and religious rivalries between Saudi Arabia and Iran? Despite such a problem, China is in no position to behave  as a lovable and good customer of oil, while leaving dangerous responsibilities entirely to the United States, and to some extent to Britain and France, as Japan took it for granted from the 1960s to the 80s. China has to manage the power game in the region on its own, in order to augment influence and secure oil supply. Arms export is a key policy for these objectives.

Even a non-oil exporter like Turkey is a potential market for China’s arms export. Under Islamist Erdoğan administration, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu envisions Turkey at the heart of the Afro-Eurasian sphere, and moving closer to Islam and Asia, rather than the West, which is a deviation from Kemalism. China seeks more influence on a keystone country for its Middle East and Eurasian strategy. This is typically seen in the Chinese missile controversy between Turkey and its Western allies. The Chinese Precision Machinery Import and Export Corporation (CPMIEC) offered generous conditions to sell their anti-air missile systems, including lower price and less restrictive requirements for technological transfer. Western rivals such as Raytheon/Lochkeed Martin and Eurosam were about to be edged out by Red China, which could have dissolved the Trans Atlantic alliance. However, with pressures from NATO allies, Turkey’s missile deal with China was annulled (WhyTurkey May Not Buy Chinese Missile Systems After All”; Diplomat Magazine; May7, 2014). Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was involved in persuading Turkey to cancel the deal when he met Prime Minister Recep Erdoğan last October (“TurkeyCancelled the Missile Deal with China, due to the meeting with Abe?”; Xinhua News;October 31, 2013). However, the missile deal shows China’s formidable potential to penetrate defense markets in the emerging economies, according to Denise Der, Research Intern at the National Defense University.

Despite such a Great Leap Forward, China has an inherent disadvantage to tighten its grip on the Middle East. In the recent operation to search the missing Malaysian airliner in the southern Indian Ocean, China sent a huge squadron of 18 warships, coastguard vessels, a civilian cargo ship and an Antarctic icebreaker. It has become apparent that China needs overseas naval logistic network if it really were to be a blue water navy. China uses Australian ports for this mission, but most of the Indo-Pacific sea lane countries are allied with the United States (Search for MH370 reveals amilitary vulnerability for China”; Reuters News; April 22, 2014). More political and economic presence implies more contact with people in the region, which leads it more likely that Chinese are attacked by extremists. Despite rapid naval build up as shown in aircraft carrier Liaoning, poor backup will undermine China’s independent power projection capability in the Middle East.

Central Asia is landlocked and adjacent, thus, China does not have to worry about navy backup. However, China is already notorious for natural resource exploitation and environmental destruction in Africa, and even in the Far Eastern territory of Russia, its anti-Western comrade. More business with the Islamic sphere will cause more frictions between China and local people accordingly. This may have some impact on Xinjiang. Quite interestingly, Rabiya Kadeer, President of the World Uyghur Congress, comments that China takes repressive approaches to Uyghurs but not to other Muslim minorities so as not to offend Central Asian neighbors (“Incidents of unrest in the East Turkestanreflect a Uighur Awakening”; The New Turkey; November 6, 2013). How long can China adopt such a divide and rule approach in Xinjiang? Economic and cultural frictions with Central Asian residents can easily spill over into China’s north west frontier. Uyghur resistance is growing sharply this year (“Q & A: Xinjiang and tensionsin China's restive far west”; CNN; May 23, 2014). China’s gas guzzling economy can trigger further conflicts there.

The Sino-Islam clash will bring unprecedented uncertainties in the Middle East and Central Asia. Traditionally, China has assumed itself the leader of developing nations against Western imperialism, as typically seen in the aid to the TANZARA railway. But today, China is more likely to become another target of hatred among local extremists, along with the West. Remember that kaffirs are kaffirs for Islamic radicals, whether Christians or non-Christians, white or non-white. What influence will the clash bring to China’s relationship with geostrategic rivlals, primarily with the United States and Japan, and also, with Europe?

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Stabilize and Reinforce the US-Japanese Alliance beyond Partisanship

It is often said that the US-Japanese relationship is good under the Republican rule, but cools down when the Democrats take office. The reason for this is unknown even among pundits. However, as Professor Gerald Curtis of Columbia University, argued at the Foreign Policy Roundtable on April 16, Japan needs to strengthen ties with the Democratic Party in order to stabilize US-Japanese relations. I agree to the view that Japan’s relationship with the United States must not be swayed by partisan politics in Washington.

As to this issue, I would like to mention the Anglo-American relationship in the Major era. Prime Minister-then John Major told the press that he preferred Republican incumbent President-then George H. W. Bush to Democrat Bill Clinton, in order to maintain staunch Anglo-American relations. However, as Clinton was elected, the relationship between Britain and America downturned. In those days, Britain was isolated and dwarfed in Europe, due to domestic conflicts over ratification of the Maastricht treaty and German unification. The relationship with the United States recovered when Major stepped down and the Blair administration took office (”Witnessed on the White House lawn, the ups and downs of the specialrelationship”; Independent; 2 March, 2009). Japanese politicians should not make the same mistake as Major made.

However, if we were to reinforce the US-Japanese relationship bipartisanly, the credential of Democrat politicians needs to be upgraded. This concern is typically seen in the fact that the Obama administration is dependent on Republicans for the Secretary of Defense such as Robert Gates and Chuck Hagel. Has the Democratic Party run out of human talents to assume responsibility in American defense? In other words, the problem is whether there are some political leaders on the Democrat side who can execute global strategy for America beyond partisan entanglement. In my view, the fundamental aspects of the US-Japanese relationship are almost the same as those of bilateral relations with the United Stats and major allies around the world like Britain, Germany, Israel, and Saudi Arabia.

Practitioners and intellectuals on the Japanese side argue that the Democratic Party needs politicians who understand Japanese culture and mindsets, like Former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and Michael Green, Japan Chair of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. There is no doubt that they made a great contribution to US Japanese relations, but that is a kind of unexpected bonus”. Unlike the era of Ambassador Edwin Reischauer, current Japan is in no position of asking generosity to heal wartime scars. From this point, we do not need politicians with strong focus and background on Japan so much, but leaders who value the role of the United States as the global superpower. As Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon bitterly criticized that President Obama was making global security feeble by appeasing challengers in the Middle East, and China, and also Russia, American allies want an America that is firmly committed to the role of the superpower (”'Mystified'US slams Israeli defense minister Ya'alon's criticism of Obama”; JerusalemPost; March 19, 2014).

Therefore, in order to maintain friendly US-Japanese relations under Democrat rule, they need to find a politician like late Senator Henry Jackson, who was a key member in their own party and assumed bipartisan leadership in American foreign policy and national security, rather than people of the same cadre like Republican Armitage and Green. Are there any politicians in the Democratic Party who can act beyond partisan constrictions as mentioned above like Jackson did? His policy staff Richard Perle was involved in foreign policy making in the Reagan and the Bush 43rd administrations, instead of the Democrat team. Joseph Lieberman had been assuming himself the right heir of Jackson in the Democrat Party, but he has already retired from the Senate. In order to reinforce the US-Japanese alliance beyond partisanship, The Democrat Party has to cultivate talents to manage global security.

On the other hand, as seen in the paneldiscussion on Afghan security after Karzai hosted by the American Enterprise Instituteon March 24, internationalists of the Democrat and the Republican sides explore bipartisan policymaking, and this is a welcome step. Particularly, as we found in protest to intervention in Syria recently, isolationism is on the rise both in the Democrat and the Republican Parties respectively. A staunch partnership of internationalists of both parties will be helpful to strengthen and stabilize the US-Japanese alliance. The problem is how much influential is such partnership of internationalists in political corridors in Washington? This is a very interesting point.

In view of fulfilling the role of the superpower, there are some questions that Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton must answer clearly, as she is supposed to be the most prospective candidate for the Democrat presidential nominee. First, how much she was involved in the Benghazi incident. This accident prevented Susan Rice from becoming the Secretary of State. The other question to be answered is her refusal to include Boko Haram in the terrorist list (”US SaysBoko Haram Now 'Top Priority'”; Military.com: May 16, 2014). If the president is lukewarm against terrorists, we have to worry whether she can manage the threat of China. If the United States were to strike a delicate balance of keeping economic ties with China while checking its maritime expansionism as Professor Curtis mentioned, even a trivial error could become fatal. Therefore, we should question how well versed Democrat politicians are in security, and whether they are firmly determined to maintain American preeminence in the world.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

America Must Continue to Engage with Afghanistan after Karzai

The presidential election in Afghanistan is a dead heat between Former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah and Former Finance Minister Asraf Ghani, and neither of them won a majority in the preliminary round, according to the Independent Election Commission of Afghanistan (IEC). The election will go to the second round (“Preliminary Afghan vote results released”; Khaama Press; April 26, 2014). This election is vital to the future of Afghan security from the following points. It is the first peaceful power transition in Afghan history as the constitution prohibits President Hamid Karzai from running for the third term. In addition, security responsibility will be transferred to the Afghan government from NATO led ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) by the end of this year.

Prior to this election, the American Enterprise Institute held a panel discussion, moderated by Frederick Kagan, Director of the Critical Threats Project, to debate American policy in post Karzai Afghanistan on March 24. This event is so important because it explored bipartisan strategy for Afghan and regional security after the cutback of NATO troops. Guest speakers for this event were Congressman Adam Kinzinger and Seth Jones, Associate Director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at RAND Corporation, from the Republican side, and Caroline Wadhams, Senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, from the Democrat side. The panelists and attendants discussed a broad range of issues, including the BSA (Bilatelal Security Agreement), regional power interactions, and local livelihood. Furthermore, in terms of US foreign policy and the world order, Afghanistan is a critical test whether America can overcome domestic pressure of war-fatigued isolationism. Let’s see the following video.




Currently, the United States is preoccupied with new foreign policy focuses appearing one after another, from Syria to Ukraine, but it is utterly wrong to dismiss critical strategic implication of the war in Afghanistan, in view of the lessons of 9-11 attacks. As Frederick Kagan stated clearly, the greatest threat to the United States does not come from abroad but isolationism of both parties. Regardless of partisanship and ideology, the panelists speak unanimously against politicization of Afghan strategy, and told that internationalists work together to promote awareness. Among them, Congressman Kinzinger emphasized importance of US engagement with Afghanistan through his experience as an air force pilot to fight the War on Terror in Iraq. Though Karzai delays to sign the BSA through blaming collateral damages by the US forces, he stressed that Afghans from the Loya Jirga to the civil societies are on the American side. Having met Afghan leaders and citizens on his visit there, he told that the Afghan Security Forces had been professionalized to fight against Taliban and Al Qaeda, and deserting rate dropped sharply.

However, we know that the Obama administration did not leave sufficient troops in Iraq, though Secretary of Defense-then Robert Gates insisted on stationing several thousand of them after 2011 (“Redefining the Role of the U.S. Military in Iraq”; New York Times; December 21, 2008). Apparently, President Barack Obama appeased war-exhausted public. The consequence of it is so fatal as witnessed by the penetration of Jabhat al-Nusra to Syria from Al Qaeda re-rising Iraq. Therefore, Kinzinger argued that politicians should have courage to tell necessary policy to their constituencies however unpopular it is. He insists that America must stand for freedom and justice. As seen in Syria, conservative opponents to global intervention are reluctant to American sacrifice for the sake of “remote” people, particularly Muslims who appears potential enemy for them. On the other hand, liberal opponents are apologetic to American military presence abroad. Meanwhile, Democratic Senator Bob Casey represents one of few liberal proponents for continual US engagement after 2014. Afghan security depends on successful bipartisan alliance of internationalists in Washington.

Why is the American public so unenthusiastic with continual involvement? Wadhams refuted widely spread misunderstandings that the Obama administration was disengaging from Afghanistan. She argued that the Obama team sent top members to Afghanistan, like Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, in order to discuss the future of regional security. However, the public is fatigued with long wars since the Bush era. In addition, she told that Americans were losing confidence in global commitment because of disillusionment with foreign engagement and domestic priority to improve the economy. She said furthermore, that Americans would be disappointed if human rights abuse and corruption become serious in Afghanistan. At the Tokyo conference, donor countries demanded the Karzai administration to curb corruption in return for $16 billion aid (“Afghanistan aid: Donors pledge $16bn at Tokyo meeting”; BBC News; 8 July 2012 and Tokyo Conference on Afghanistan The Tokyo Declaration; Ministry of Foreign Affairs Japan; July 8, 2012). Regarding war fatigue, Frederick Kagan mentioned quite an interesting fact that most of the Americans lived irrelevantly and uninterested in wars abroad. Throughout the Clinton, Bush, and Obama era, American debt has not risen by the war, according to Kagan. In other words, he says American people are hardly sacrificed by the war, and only 1% are eligible to complain of war burdens. His comment is quite symbolic as shown in the case that American media reported the news about Miley Cyrus 12 times more than that about Syria when Obama was persuading the congress to approve of bombing (“Americans prefer Miley to Syria stories by huge number”; USA Today; September 9, 2013).

Considering public apathy to the war in Afghanistan, it is necessary to educate them to understand why US presence is required. Quite surprisingly, Kinzinger told that 90% of Americans do not know Karzai is leaving office in a month or so. But fortunately, both second round contester Abdullah and Ghani are more positive to the BSA than Karzai. Jones outlines strategic imperatives for the United States to stay in Afghanistan from the following reasons. Al Qaeda and other terrorists are still rampant on the AF-Pak border, and they can attack the United States, Europe, and India from there. Also, he said that Jihadists would interpret US withdrawal their victory. Therefore, US and NATO allies must retain sufficient troops to curb Taliban and Al Qaeda, and train Afghan forces. However, the Obama administration recently hinted that the United States would leave less than 10,000, or even below 5,000 residual troops in Afghanistan, which is far smaller than recommendations by the ISAF commander General Joseph Dunford and other NATO generals (“Exclusive - U.S. force in Afghanistan may be cut to less than 10,000 troops”; Reuters News; April 22, 2014). If President Obama hopes to placate war -weary public, that is a fatal mistake as he made in Iraq. Currently, sectarian tensions between Shiite militias and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) are growing in Iraq, but American influence to mediate those disputes dropped sharply after 2011 withdrawal (“Historic Iraq Election Brings New Uncertainties”; Council on Foreign Relations; April 28,2014).

When we talk about the BSA and post Karzai Afghan security, it is necessary to give consideration to Afghan neighbors. As Jones noted in the event, Afghanistan’s neighboring stakeholders are nuclear or would be nuclear power, ie, Russia, China, India, Pakistan, and Iran. The power vacuum of whimsical Western withdrawal may lead India to intervene to fight against Jihadists, which could make Afghanistan another field of Indo-Pakistani clash like Kashmir, according to Kagan. More alarmingly, Iran explores to augment influence in Afghanistan after 2014. We have to bear in mind that Iran is the only country that blames the BSA in public, as they see this agreement a grave threat to their own security. Actually, Karzai is balancing America and Iran. When Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani visited Kabul to celebrate Nowruz, he told foreign troops to leave from this “occupied nation”(“Iranian President visits Kabul, describes Afghanistan an occupied nation”; Khaama Press; March 28, 2014). Though Abdullah and Ghani are positive to the BSA, Karzai’s influence will remain in political corridors in Kabul, and Iran seeks to penetrate there with a common cultural heritage.

Russia and China do not see the Western presence in Afghanistan preferable, in view of geopolitics in Central Asia. However, both of them need stability in Afghanistan and its neighborhood for fear of Islamic extremism. Let me talk about Russia. Since the Bush era, Kremlin regarded American air bases in Central Asia as an intrusion to their sphere. Along with China, Russia pressured US forces to leave there (“Q&A: U.S. Military Bases in Central Asia”; New York Times; July 26, 2005). Russia ratified a military base deal with Tajikistan, in order to edge out American influence in the region, and defend Central Asia from the instability of post-ISAF Afghanistan (“Ratification of Russian military base deal provides Tajikistan with important security guarantees”; Jane’s Intelligence Weekly; 1 October 2013). In Kyrgystan, while the United States uses the Manas base for logistical support for the war in Afghanistan, while Russia has one in Kant. For energy rich, but corrupt and poor Central Asian countries, American presence is a gift to save their economy (“The United States in Central Asia”; Economist; December 7, 2013). In view of troop cutback, the United States considers having additional drone bases in Centrak Asia to attack terrorist havens in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But the problem is not just objection from Russia and China. Three countries on the northern border of Afghanistan have drawbacks. Tajikistan is too pro-Russian. Uzbekistan has a serious human rights problem, and Turkmenistan is a permanently neutralized state (“Where In Central Asia Would The U.S. Put A Drone Base?”; Eurasia Net—The Bug Pit; February 17, 2014).

China worries not only encirclement by the United States, but also stimulus for Uyghur liberty, with strong US presence in Afghanistan and Central Asia. Due to economic growth, China has surpassed the United States as the largest oil importer in September last year (“China surpasses US as biggest oil importer”; New York Post; October 10, 2013). As a result, it has become increasingly vulnerable to unrests in Islamic nations in the Middle East and Central Asia, including Saudi Arabia, Iran, Kazakhstan, and so forth (“Fueling a New Order? The New Geopolitical and Security Consequences of Energy”; Brookings Institution; April 15, 2014). How can China balance the threat of Islamic uprisings and the challenge of US-led freedom? China wants to expand influence in Afghanistan after ISAF cutback, through mining contracts and development aids (“China emerges as key strategic player in Afghanistan”; Khaama Press; April 14, 2014). However, those Chinese business acitivities there shall never succeed without the security umbrella of the United States.

It is utterly wrong for America to choose whimsical Zero option simply for cost cutting, myopic disillusionment with political reform, and uninterest in the war. Karzai’s influence may remain, but Afghans are keenly aware of vital implications of the BSA for their future. In addition to bilateral aspects, strategic interactions among neighboring stakeholders need more attention. They do not necessarily see US presence in Afghanistan and Central Asia preferable, but it is the security umbrella of the United States that provides the public goods of regional security. As if illustrating such complicated games, India agreed to finance Afghanistan to buy Russian weapons this February (“India to finance Russian arms supply to Afghan security forces”; Khaama Press; February 18, 2014), while Prime Minister Manmohan Singh urged President Hamid Karzai to sign the BSA last December. President Obama reiterated strategic rebalance to Asia during his visit to East Asia this April, but disengagement from the Middle East shall never serve this objective. America must complete the mission as the superpower to help post-Karzai Afghanistan move toward stable democracy to make the world safe. That is far more important than Miley Cyrus isolationism.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Afghan Presidential Election and the BSA with America

It is a critical year for Afghanistan this year. While President Hamid Karzai stands tough against the Obama administration to conclude the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the United States, the presidential election will be held on April 5. NATO troops will leave by the end of this year, but the Afghan Security Forces need substantial help from the United States to fight the War on Terror. Though early conclusion is anticipated, Karzai quibbles over the condition of the BSA. As he is stepping down, and he cannot run for the next term by the constitution, the role of the next president cannot be neglected in post 2014 security and stability in Afghanistan.

Let me talk briefly about the BSA, and the reason why Karzai makes complaints about the process, despite the approval by the Loya Jirga. The BSA is a part of the “Enduring Strategic Partnership Agreement between the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the United States of America”. This agreement was implemented on July 4, 2012, for long term framework of bilateral relations. Under the Strategic Partnership Agreement, the United States provides development aid and governance advice for socioeconomic reforms, including education, health care, regional cooperation, and so forth. However, issues like the status of US forces after 2014 drawback and long term US military presence in Afghanistan were not stated in this deal. Therefore, both the United States and Afghanistan started negotiations for the BSA started on November 15, 2012. Both sides stressed that the United States respect Afghan sovereignty and not seek permanent military presence there so as not to pose threats to Afghan neighbors. Despite the scale down, the US forces are expected to support the Afghan Security Forces to fight against still rampant terrorists and insurgents.

The focal point of BSA debates is Article 13, which gives the US forces exclusive right to try their soldiers within their own military tribunal. The Loya Jirga approved this clause on November 21 last year (“US troops immunity approved by majority in Afghan Loya Jirga”; Khaama Press; November 23, 2013), but Karzai overturned the bill to demand new conditions when he met National Security Advisor Susan Rice in Kabul in late November. Karzai raised doubts regarding the status of the US forces at the Loya Jirga when the delegates passed the bill. Though the BSA restricts US forces to commit themselves to combat operations unless mutually agreed, Karzai demands furthermore to limit US presence within 10 years (“Afghan President Hamid Karzai says he’ll delay signing of U.S. accord on troops”; Washington Post; November 21, 2013). His speech startled Loya Jirga members, and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel even suggested the Zero Option to urge Karzai to sign the deal early (“Hagel Threatens Complete Withdrawal from Afghanistan”; Fiscal Times; December 9, 2013). The United States plans to station 8,000 to 10,000 forces in Afghanistan for training and counterterrorism after 2014, and demands legal immunity of US soldiers from insufficiently arranged Afghan criminal laws. Karzai’s overturn was taken outrageous among American policymakers. While Karzai complains that security control and decision making are in favor of the United States, former ISAF commander General John Allen argues not to give too much decision making power to him, in view of sacrifices America made and future security of Afghanistan (“U.S. Backing off its deadline for Afghan security agreement”; Washington Post; December 12, 2013).

Why does Karzai delay the BSA process, despite Loya Jisrga’s approval? Ahmad Akatawazai, staff writer of Khaama Press, comments that Karzai wants to maintain political influence after stepping down, as he is barred from running for the next presidential term. It is understood that the candidate most closely tied with Karzai will win the election (“Is Karzai using BSA as Leverage in the Forthcoming Presidential Elections?”; Khaama Press; January 14, 2014). Karzai demands the United States to stop military raids on civilian homes, and hand over Afghan prisoners in Guantánamo (“New differences revealed over Afghan-US security deal” Khaama Press; November 26, 2013). Karzai complained furthermore, that too many Afghans died in the war just for the sake of Western interests. He was disappointed that the United States focused too much on Taliban in Pakistan rather than those in Afghan villages (“President Karzai says Afghan war fought in West’s interest”; Khaama Press; March 3, 2014). Karzai denounced that Americans cause Afghan casualties too impetuously in their combats. He even argued conspiracy theory that the United States deliberately nurtured insurgent attacks in his country. Karzai’s stance is partly because he wants to impress himself a great leader who stood tough against the superpower. Quite disturbingly, insurgent attacks are accompanied by collateral damages of US drone attacks (“Karzai suspects U.S. is behind insurgent-style attacks, Afghan officials say”; Washington Post; January 28, 2014).

It is quite puzzling for other stakeholders that Karzai is so pushy to delay the BSA. Current ISAF Commander, General Joseph Dunford urged the Karzai administration sign the BSA soon at the press conference on January 9, because there was no alternative to assure reconstruction of Afghanistan after 2014. See the video below.





NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen emphasized that the BSA is indispensable to implement NATO Status of Forces Agreement with Afghanistan, at the defense ministers meeting in Brussels on February 26.

On the other hand, the Karzai administration is exploring an alternative to the BSA, in case of the Zero Option. While making quibbles with issues like the status of US forces, Karzai visited Tehran to conclude a long term friendship and cooperation pact with Iran, which was signed in August. Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani told Western forces to leave Afghanistan as they would pose substantial threats to Afghan neighbors (“Afghanistan agrees to pact with Iran, while resisting US accord”; FOX News; December 8, 2013). Karzai turns to Iran because he wants bigger bargains in BSA negotiations, and prepare for possible failure to conclude the deal with the United States. In addition, since Iran started nuclear talks with P5+1, that has removed some restrictions for India to work with them to stabilize Afghanistan. Besides major western powers like the United States and Britain, India agreed to provide military aid to Afghanistan, though the Singh administration expressed their hope that Karzai finalize the BSA (“Could Iran and India be Afghanistan’s ‘Plan B?’”; Diplomat; February 14, 2014). Karzai takes another measure. He approached Taliban secretly, which undermined confidence between the United States and his administration. Actually Karzai was infuriated with the Obama administration as they invited Taliban to the Qatar peace talk last June. Karzai insisted that his government was the only legitimate government to represent Afghanistan, and Taliban’s Qatar office be closed. In addition to backlash over the sovereignty issue in the past, Karzai tries to appear himself tough for the United States to Pashtun-dominated Taliban (“Karzai Arranged Secret Contacts With the Taliban”; New York Times; February 3, 2014).

Karzai’s approach to the BSA is extremely dangerous. Ahmad Shah Katawazai, An Afghan diplomat and permanent member of the Academy of Sciences of Afghanistan, warns that the Zero Option invigorates Jihadists and Al Qaeda in Central Asia, which will make Afghanistan fall into turmoil like Iraq. Both Loya Jirga delegates and Afghan people understand how important the BSA is. Katawazai argues that a departure of US forces will be a psychological blow to Afghan reformers who dedicate themselves to the reconstruction of their country (“Iraq a bloody lesson for Zero Option in Afghanistan”; Khaama Press; January 7, 2014). Last September, General Dunford made it clear that US forces should help the Afghan security force develop their combat capability, and the cost of neglect would be far greater than engagement (“First person: Top U.S. general in Afghanistan maps out next phase of war”; Military Times; September 12, 2013). Quite perplexingly, Karzai makes fake cases of collateral damage by air strikes, just in order to demand tight restrictions on US forces in the BSA (“Karzai Government Submits False Evidence To Substantiate US Collateral Damage”; Diplomat; January 27, 2014).

In order to override Karzai’s delay, Former National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley of the Bush administration, suggests three measures. First, the United States should reconfirm the agreement that its forces focus on essential night raids, and facilitate socioeconomic reforms and the peace process, in order to save Karzai’s face. Second, Obama should tell the exact number of troops to be left in Afghanistan, in order to assure US presence after 2014. This will pave the way for NATO allies to make similar commitments. Finally, Obama should articulate that he is willing to sign the agreement, but not pressure the Afghan side to do it before the election. A mere mention of the Zero Option will erode mutual trust, and destabilize the nuclear possessing neighbor Pakistan (“In Afghanistan, an alternate approach to a security pact”; Washington Post; January 15, 2014).

In the forthcoming election, Karzai’s influence and ethnic balance count more than specific policy issues. According to a recent survey by Afghan based ATR Consulting, Ashraf Ghani leads, followed by Abdullah Abdullah and other candidates (“Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai emerges as leading presidential candidate: Survey”; Khaama Press; March 30, 2014). Pashtun Ghani runs with Uzbek General Rashid Dostum, while Tajik Abdullah with Islamist Mohammad Khan and Hazara Mohammad Mohaqeq. However, Helena Malikyar, an Afghan political analyst, points out that materialism also plays a substantial role along with ethnic patchwork. Followers demand money and future positions in the government to the candidates (“Afghanistan elections: The myth and reality about ethnic divides”; Al Jazeera; March 3, 2014 and “Abdullah, in Interview, Speaks About His Presidential Campaign”; Wall Street Journal; October 3, 2013). Both candidates understand the importance of the BSA and that no other alternatives can supplant it. Ghani was a World Bank economist, while Abdullah served as a Foreign Minister. In any case, the BSA was approved by the Loya Jirga. As both candidates worked for President Hamid Karzai, how will he exert his influence after the election?