THE 'DETERIORATING' SITUATIONS IN IRAQ AND AFGHANISTAN
August 23, 2009
The chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael Mullen, said in a CNN interview on Sunday that the situation in Afghanistan was “deteriorating.” He also expressed concerns over suicide bombing attacks last week against Iraq’s foreign and finance ministries that left some 100 dead and more than 1,000 wounded, saying that sectarian violence had the potential to undo the fragile post-Baathist political arrangement.
Mullen’s comments point to a potentially dangerous situation emerging in the theaters where the bulk of U.S. military forces are engaged. His comments run counter to U.S. expectations for both countries; Washington has hoped that improved security in Iraq would facilitate a drawdown of forces, which would then allow the United States to focus on Afghanistan -- defined by the Obama administration as the main battleground in the jihadist war. Yet the situation in both countries appears to be taking a turn for the worse.
It had been hoped that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government would be able to maintain relative calm in Iraq as domestic forces assumed greater security responsibilities. Despite having moved away from his Islamist Shiite sectarian political past toward a more secular Iraqi nationalist identity, al-Maliki has not made significant progress in accommodating Sunnis within the political system. Furthermore, relations have deteriorated severely between al-Maliki’s Shiite-dominated central government and the autonomous Kurdish regional government.
Al Qaeda and its allies, who have staged a wave of significant attacks across Iraq in recent months, are exploiting these ethno-sectarian fault lines. After the latest bombings in Baghdad, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurd, criticized the government’s security arrangements and said the bombers had help from security forces. In a related development, intelligence chief Mohammed al-Shahwani -- a Sunni -- retired days before the bombings in Baghdad. This likely will aggravate tensions between the government and the Sunnis. These security and political developments do not bode well for Iraq, which is six months away from parliamentary elections -- a major test of the stability of its political system.
Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, where the situation is far worse than in Iraq, the United States has been trying to craft a strategy for combating the Taliban insurgency, which has spread beyond the Pashtun areas in the south and east to provinces in the northwest. The Obama administration also has a problem to deal with that stems from Afghanistan’s Aug. 20 presidential election. President Hamid Karzai, who easily won elections in 2004, likely will have to go through a run-off this time against his main challenger, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah.
With first-round votes still being counted and official preliminary results not due until early September, Abdullah rejected Karzai’s claims of victory and claimed to have won more than half the vote. Now, he is accusing the Karzai government of massive electoral fraud, throwing the election process into crisis. For the United States, which was hoping the election would be wrapped up quickly and the status quo maintained, this is an unexpected and major problem. At a time when Washington needs coherence in Kabul in order to deal with the core issue -- the Taliban -- the array of anti-Taliban players it has been relying on have begun to clash. Therefore, before it can deal meaningfully with the Pashtun jihadist insurgency, Washington first must repair the system it built after ousting the Taliban regime almost eight years ago.
Washington has been hoping to bring closure to its military engagements in the jihadist war in order to deal with other critical issues, such as the rise of Russia and the crisis with Iran. But in both Iraq and Afghanistan, to varying degrees, Washington is facing reversals: The political arrangements it has been trying to establish are threatening to break down.