Obama Should Withdraw From Afghanistan, Not Iraq

By October 7, 2010

BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 115

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: The US can and should withdraw its forces from Afghanistan because there are other states capable of shouldering the burden of stabilizing the country, and the threat from Afghanistan to US security is no longer acute. Iraq, however, can be stabilized only by the US, and its long-term stability is a vital US interest with lasting and broad implications. Consequently, Obama should not be withdrawing troops from Iraq now.

President Barack Obama is making a serious mistake of potentially historical proportions in withdrawing from Iraq. He should reverse direction and withdraw from Afghanistan while staying put in Iraq. Failure to do so might spell the end of America’s preeminence on the world stage, a presence that is critical to global security.

The White House errs in focusing on the war against terror instead of focusing on more traditional concerns, like relations with and between states and mechanisms of maintaining regional balances of power. A reconsideration of the situation in Afghanistan with a balance of power prism leads to the conclusion that at least two emerging world powers, China and India, can be encouraged to become more involved in containing the Afghani situation. Rather than piggybacking on American taxpayers’ money – as Europe did in the Cold War under a US umbrella – these countries should be cajoled in assuming greater responsibility for the situation in Afghanistan.

Indeed, for the first time since the Cold War, other states could play the role of policeman in a battle in Afghanistan and could contain the risk of nuclear fallout in Pakistan. China and India have more to lose than the US in not coping with these problems.

Furthermore, Afghanistan is less important to America today for the following additional reason: Despite the formidable comeback of the Taliban and al-Qaida in Afghanistan and Pakistan since 2005, and the expansion of the terrorist sanctuary there, terrorism against the West has actually declined. This draws into question the link between available sanctuaries and the protection of the US from terrorism.

Though it is true that a Pakistani-Chinese alliance supportive of the Taliban might emerge against the present Karzai regime, which would be supported by India and perhaps Iran, the costs of such instability would be borne by these states. They are sufficiently mature states to resolve the conflict without needing the US to shoulder the burden and drain its resources. A preeminent power should know where to get involved and where, at maximum, to use its good offices, in order to foster stability. America should take advantage of what the British Empire lacked during its very problematic involvement in the region in the 19th century – a regional array of strong states to cope with the fallout and tensions emanating from the Afghani crisis.

By contrast, no one in the Middle East can fill the place of the US if America withdraws from Iraq. Egypt, a state in relative decline, will be lucky if it can cope in the near future with its domestic problems. Saudi Arabia projects no effective power beyond its borders no matter how large the arms deal it signs with the US. The Gulf States are vulnerable to aggressive states, as the Iraq takeover of Kuwait proved a generation ago. All they can and should do is foot more of the bill for US protection.

Another regional power, Turkey, is a problematic player. Its relationship with the US since 2003, and increasingly since Prime Minister Erdogan’s reelection to office in 2007 during which he showed his Islamist colors, suggests that Turkey might become more of a problem for America than a solution to the fallout. Only Israel, a strategic ally of consequence, could conceivably play a role in aiding moderate Arab states in times of crisis.

The future of Iraq, by contrast, is a critical component in maintaining key US interests, if not its continued preeminence. The fall of Iraq could have a domino effect, threatening stability in Jordan and inducing the emergence of a Shiite corridor. Turkey could conceivably join the ranks of Islamic radicalism, alongside Iran, as it carves up the state of Iraq. An expanded Iranian presence in Iraq might embolden Syria to become an even more destabilizing force than at present.

Above all, a stable, pro-Western Iraq is necessary in containing Iran and preventing Saudi Arabia and the weak Gulf States from “bandwagoning” with Iran, just as Jordan was induced to join forces with Egypt’s Nasser in 1967. There is a palpable danger that the world’s major oil resources could then come under control of a nascent, undemocratic counter-alliance that could include China as well.

The facile idea that it does not matter who controls the oil because it would have to be sold in the international market place ignores the reality of a rising Chinese demand for energy sources. Such a control of oil would enable Iran to cut the supply of this crucial resource to democratic states like India. Politically motivated small cuts in oil supply to specific states could raise prices and damage relations between Western allies, making it more difficult for them to meet shared international challenges.

The implications of such empowerment, including the creation of a terrorist groundswell – with obvious ramifications for American allies in the region, from Saudi Arabia to Ethiopia, Egypt, Jordan and Israel – should not be underestimated. A failed Iraq would only increase the danger that Somalia and the potential state failures of Yemen and Lebanon pose to regional and world stability. In short, the state-directed terrorist fallout from Iraq is potentially far greater than from Pakistan/Afghanistan.

State-building in Iraq is doable, but problematic. The party that secured the most votes in the last election is led by Iyad Allawi, a secular Shiite, while most of its voters were Sunnis. The Shiites and Kurds, two groups who have oil, know that they must come to terms with the Sunni minority in order to ensure that the oil reaches international markets, for the benefit of all Iraqis. In Afghanistan, the sharp societal disparities, the lack of a strong modern state tradition, and the mountainous terrain, render a solution to the state-building problem virtually impossible.

Does Obama have the political courage to re-assess his current direction and reevaluate America’s troop deployments in line with true, long-term US national interests? As outlined above, these interests clearly require a long-term American presence in Iraq, while Afghanistan is the front from which he could relatively safely order a withdrawal.

BESA Center Perspectives Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family

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Prof. Hillel Frisch
Prof. Hillel Frisch

Prof. Hillel Frisch is a professor of political studies and Middle East studies at Bar-Ilan University and a senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. Email: [email protected]