After withdrawal: American foreign policy options in Afghanistan and Iraq

Guest post by Mark N. Katz

The Bush Administration’s decisions to intervene first in Afghanistan and then in Iraq have proven to be highly costly ventures.  Many lives have been lost and disrupted, much property has been damaged, and vast resources have been expended.  Despite this effort, neither country has been stabilized, much less democratized.  Further, America’s image was badly tarnished, and relations with other countries—even close allies—were negatively impacted.

Thus, the Obama Administration’s decision to withdraw American forces first from Iraq (completed at the end of 2011) and then from Afghanistan (to be completed by the end of 2014) have been popular both at home and abroad.

But despite the popularity of the Obama Administration’s decisions to withdraw—and despite the unlikelihood that a Romney Administration would be willing or able to reverse them—these withdrawals are not going to bring about a happy resolution to the conflict situations in and around Iraq and Afghanistan.

Indeed, the withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan cannot help but remind those of us old enough to remember what happened after the U.S. withdrawal from Indochina.  American forces completed their withdrawal at the beginning of 1973—and communist forces took over South Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos just over two years later in the spring of 1975.

And as much as we abhorred the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the withdrawal of Soviet forces over the course of 1988-89 that was followed by the downfall of the Marxist regime there in 1992 and the rise of the Taliban in 1996 does not bode well for what might happen following the departure of Western forces at the end of 2014.  Indeed, it is entirely possible that the Taliban or a similar group could again overrun Afghanistan.

As for Iraq:  it was surely not the intention of the Bush Administration to put into office there a government that would become friends with American’s adversary, Iran.  Yet that is exactly what has happened.

So what do we do now?  Indeed, can we do anything at all to prevent disaster short of massive re-intervention—which, of course, would also be disastrous?

I would like to suggest that there are policy options between massive intervention on the one hand and doing nothing on the other, and that these “in-between” options might be better suited both for advancing long-term American interests as well as promoting security in the region.  Understanding what these options are, though, requires an understanding of two things:  1) what is it that we are afraid of? and 2) what factors are likely to continue or arise in the region as the U.S. withdraws from the Iraqi and Afghan conflicts that the U.S. can work with either to prevent that which we fear from occurring, or mitigate it if we can’t?

Describing what we fear is easy.  In Afghanistan, it’s the return to power of a vengeful Taliban regime (or a reasonable facsimile) bent on supporting Al Qaeda and other jihadist movements.  In Iraq, it’s the prospect of seeing that everything we did there has only succeeded in installing a pro-Iranian regime in Baghdad which will work with Tehran to undermine America’s oil rich but militarily weak Sunni allies in the Gulf—as many see the ongoing Shi’a unrest in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province as evidence of.

There are, though, three tendencies that the U.S. can take advantage of to prevent or mitigate these negative scenarios.

The first is that regional rivalries will continue whether the U.S. stays or goes.  Even after the departure of U.S. forces, then, neighboring countries will act to oppose the return of the Taliban to power in Afghanistan or the rise of Iranian influence in Iraq.  The U.S. can support these efforts.

The second is the tendency for those whom we oppose to overplay their hand once they think they have beaten us, behave in an authoritarian manner whenever they have the opportunity to do so, and thus alienate the people of their own country as well as neighboring ones—whom we and our allies can help.

The third is the tendency for radical forces opposed to the U.S. to also oppose one another—especially when, once again, they think that American power is on the decline.  When the opportunity arises, the U.S. can exploit these rivalries—but only if it recognizes opportunities to do so when they arise.

Taking advantage of these three tendencies is the theory, if you will, advanced in my book, Leaving without Losing.  But can the U.S. do this in the specific cases of Afghanistan and Iraq?

Let’s start first with Afghanistan.  As noted earlier, what we fear here is that the U.S. withdrawal will be followed by the return to power of the Taliban or a similar group.  But there are others who fear this too:  India, Russia, and the Central Asian Republics.  Indeed, all these actors may be more highly motivated than the U.S. to prevent the return of a Pakistani-backed Islamist regime to Afghanistan.  The U.S. can do much to help them in this.  At the very least, we should not hinder them.

In addition, the Taliban established a strong record of misrule during its first period in power from 1996 to 2001.  Unlike before the first time they overran most of the country, then, Afghans are under no illusion now about what their rule will be like if they take over again.  The Haqqani Network—a more vicious as well as more pro-Pakistani group—are even more feared.  The prospect of groups such as these coming to power should provide a powerful incentive to Afghans to oppose them.  Even after withdrawing its own forces, then, the U.S. can—and should—continue to assist those Afghans willing to resist them to do so.

Now some might ask, “If Afghan government forces are doing so poorly against the Taliban while U.S. forces are still in Afghanistan, how can they be expected to resist them once the U.S. leaves?”  The model those who ask this undoubtedly have in mind is Indochina four decades ago when the U.S. withdrawal in early 1973 was followed by the downfall of the governments it was protecting in the spring of 1975, or even when the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989 was followed by the downfall of the Marxist regime there in 1992.

But this sequence of events is not inevitable.  The withdrawal of foreign forces fighting an insurgency is not always followed by the downfall of the government they were protecting.  In some cases, the government being protected has actually survived the withdrawal of the foreign forces and brought an end to the conflict with its internal opponents.  This happened in North Yemen following the withdrawal of Egyptian forces in 1967 and in Angola following the withdrawal of Cuban forces at the end of the Cold War.  Other examples could be cited.  The key thing to keep in mind is that—despite how unflattering to them this might be—the presence of foreign protectors often negatively affects the legitimacy of the governments they were sent to protect.  The withdrawal of the foreign forces, then, can actually increase the legitimacy of beleaguered governments—especially when they can point out how it is their opponents who are the ones linked to foreign governments (as the Taliban is with Pakistan).

Finally, we already know that relations between the Taliban and its Pakistani supporters are fraught with difficulty.  As the U.S. withdrawal proceeds, the more likely it is that these differences will increase.  This may provide opportunities for the U.S. to exploit.  One could be arranging for an internal Afghan settlement that includes the Taliban and thus liberates it from dependence on Pakistan.  Or, if the Afghan Taliban (which has gotten help from Pakistan) gives aid and support to the Pakistani Taliban (which opposes the Pakistani government), the Pakistani government may finally realize that supporting radical Islamists is not in its interests and seek American assistance against them.  Whether either of these situations will arise is unclear.  But we can’t take advantage of them if we refuse to acknowledge that they are possible.

Let’s turn next to Iraq.  Even with the U.S. having withdrawn, there are others in the region seeking to prevent Iran from gaining influence in Iraq and beyond.  These states include Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the other oil rich monarchies.  Israel shares this interest with them.  The U.S. can help them in these efforts.

In addition, the democratically elected Arab Shi’a-dominated government of Prime Minister Maleki that the U.S. intervention made possible has not just made friends with Iran, but has been ruling in an increasingly autocratic manner.  The U.S. intervention, though, also benefited the Kurdish minority in the north and allowed it to establish a regional government, relatively independent from Baghdad, which has established a remarkable degree of stability and prosperity in this area.  Continued American support for this de facto Kurdish state serves American interests through enabling a people strongly motivated to keep both Tehran’s and Baghdad’s ambitions in check to do so successfully.

Another accomplishment of the U.S. occupation of Iraq was how relations between the U.S. armed forces on the one hand and the Sunni Arab minority on the other went from extremely hostile to very good (thanks, in part, to Al Qaeda in Iraq’s bad behavior).  What the U.S. did not succeed at, however, is reconciling the Shi’a Arab majority with the Sunni Arab minority (or the Kurdish minority).  And since the completion of the U.S. withdrawal, the Shi’a-dominated Iraqi government’s behavior toward the Sunni minority has become increasingly oppressive.  What this means, of course, is that (like the Kurds), the Sunni Arab minority in Iraq is also strongly motivated to keep Baghdad’s and Tehran’s ambitions in check.

We must not, though, just write off the Iraqi Shi’a.  They are divided among themselves.  What this means is that if Maleki or other leaders lean toward Iran, at least some of their Shi’a rivals are likely to seek American support.  More importantly, it must not be forgotten that Iraq and Iran have historically been rivals.  Just because Iraq has gone from being ruled by a Sunni minority regime to being ruled by a Shi’a majority one may not change this.  The division between Arab and Persian appears to be much stronger than the common tie of Shi’ism—as the Iranian government’s failure to spark a revolt by the Iraqi Shi’as against Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War showed.  Further, the Iraqi Shi’a ayatollahs do not accept the authority of Iran’s Supreme Leader.  If and when differences between Baghdad and Tehran emerge, this will provide an opportunity for Washington.

What all this means, though, is that dealing with Iraq will be tricky.  The more that the U.S. and its allies support the Kurdish and Arab Sunni minorities, the less likely that the Arab Shi’a government in Baghdad will move away from Tehran.  But the more that the U.S. and its allies support the government in Baghdad, the more likely it is to feel that it can treat the minorities harshly—thus creating opportunities for groups such as Al Qaeda in Iraq.  Thus, whatever else America does in Iraq, its long-term interests would be best served through patiently promoting what would also be in the best interests of all Iraqis:  the establishment of a true federal democracy that keeps Iraq united, but respects the autonomy of its principal communities.  Unless and until they are all on board with this, however, it is not going to come into being—but their differences will allow the U.S. room for maneuver against any which ally with Iran.

The foreign policy approach I am proposing here for the U.S. to pursue toward Iraq and Afghanistan after withdrawing from them is—I freely admit—not big and bold.  Nor do I apologize for this.  It was the Bush Administration’s big and bold foreign policy approach toward Afghanistan and Iraq, after all, which got us into the mess we’re now in.  But this is not the first time we’ve been in such a mess.  It was a similar big and bold foreign policy approach that got us into a similar situation in Indochina which we also ended up extricating ourselves from through withdrawal.  And then when America went to the other extreme of being completely unwilling to intervene afterward because we wanted “no more Vietnams,” the Marxists took advantage of this to seize power in several more (what were then known as) Third World countries during the 1970s.

Back then, though, the U.S. adopted a three-part foreign policy approach, similar to the one I’m advocating here, of exploiting the opportunities provided by regional rivalries, the opposition generated by our adversaries’ authoritarian rule, and the seemingly inevitable hostility that arises within the ranks of radicals.  And it was this prudent and pragmatic foreign policy approach that contributed to a dramatic change from an overextended America being taken advantage of by its adversaries in the late 1960s and the 1970s to a seemingly weakened America being able to take advantage of its Marxist adversaries’ overextension in the 1980s.

In the wake of the U.S. withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan, I feel confident that the adoption of the prudent and pragmatic foreign policy approach outlined here will also prove more successful than the extremes of massive intervention on the one hand doing nothing on the other.

Mark N. Katz is a professor of government and politics at George Mason University and the author of several books, most recently Leaving without Losing: The War on Terror after Iraq and Afghanistan, which is available for just $12.00 through the end of September at our Virtual APSA 2012 exhibit booth. This blog post was originally published at Professor Katz’s own blog, Travels and Observations.