Friday, July 31, 2009

US Military Interventions: What Do They Accomplish?

As I look around at the countries where the US military has been sent in (and, in Iraq, is preparing to leave), I'm not comforted by what they're leaving behind. (And let's not forget that as of today, the British military is officially out of Iraq, leaving behind a not exactly tidy situation in Basra.) And I don't necessarily blame the generals or the troops (although some of the troops dirtied the military's reputation - the name Stephen Green comes to mind, as well as the Marines who slaughtered the Iraqi children and elderly at Haditha a few years ago - and of course those fun-loving Abu Ghraib prison guards).

All over the news - and the blogosphere - is the report (written up by Michael Gordon of the NYT) of a highly respected U.S. military adviser’s blunt memo on Iraq: time ‘to go home’. Gen. Odierno's staff are rushing to counter ("This doesn't reflect official thinking" blah blah), but the adviser makes some cogent points: the US has done all it can, and our presence is only raising the level of Iraqi resentment. Agreed. But what's being left behind is going to come back to bite both the US and the region.

What's being left behind? Here's a sample from today's news:

At least 5 people were killed and 14 others wounded on Thursday when a pair of explosions ripped through the offices of a Sunni political party in Diyala Province while the party’s leaders met, the Iraqi police said.
It was the second time this year that the building housing the party, the Reform and Development Party, was bombed, the authorities said, even though the party is a relatively minor political force.

Bombs Outside Mosques in Baghdad Kill at Least 29. Five Shii mosques - all of them places where Muqtada al-Sadr has strong support - were targetted, pretty much simultaneously. In other words, a well-planned and well-coordinated attack. By whom? Sunni insurgents? Rival Shii? The point here is that Iraqi security forces weren't able to prevent it.

Meanwhile, fighting continues at Camp Ashraf, where the Iraqi army went in to "deal with" members of the Mujahedin e-Khalk (MEK), killing a number of them. Who are the MEK? they are an Iranian underground group that used to undertake terror attacks against the Iranian Islamist regime. Once upon a time the US regarded them as a terrorist group, but after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, and as we began to look eastward (remember: Iran was supposed to be next on the US hit-list), the US gave them refuge at Camp Ashraf (and neocon geniuses like Richard Perle were suddenly touting them as useful allies to undercut the regime in Tehran). But now US troops are pulling out, which more or less has hung the MEK out to dry. So, Maliki has sent in his army, in a move that many see as his doing the bidding of the Ahmadinejad government. The US leaves, Iran moves in - that's the perception. Not exactly what Mr. Bush and his gang had in mind, is it? And how many people have died to achieve that result?

Another unhappy result of the US military intervention: the trashing of the site of ancient Babylon. (Not that Saddam hadn't made a mess there himself in the decades before the US showed up.) This is old news, but it bears remembering.

Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, the UN reports that over the last year, civilian deaths are up by 24 percent. Most of them were caused by Taliban "insurgents," who the report states were responsible for 60 percent of the deaths. But the report also noted

increased efforts by international and American forces in Afghanistan to reduce the number of civilian casualties, such as by creating a special system to track such deaths, and said that the number of civilians inadvertently being shot at checkpoints had been reduced.

The high number of deaths caused by airstrikes, however, as well as reports of excessive force used by joint Afghan and international patrols in search-and-seizure raids, remain sources of concern, the report said.

Afghan civilians are increasingly finding themselves in the center of the deepening operations to rout the Taliban militants. More of the fighting is taking place in civilian areas as the government seeks to quell the insurgency, the report said.

The deaths caused by pro-government operations are leading to “a strong feeling of anger and disappointment among the Afghan general public,” the report warned, adding that they are “undermining support for the continued presence of the international military forces, and the international community generally.”
Finally, take note of the NYT op-ed from Abolhassan Bani Sadr, who was the first president of Iran after the 1979 revolution - and who has been in exile in recent decades. He believes that the current political crisis in Iran "offers parallels with the political unrest leading up to the 1979 Islamic Revolution that ended the rule of the shah." He further notes:
Historically, the Iranian government has enjoyed four sources of legitimacy: its competence in managing state affairs, its official religious authority, its commitment to Iran’s independence, and its ability to provide a stable base of social support. All of these have now been irretrievably undone.

The massive vote rigging on June 12 brought President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s ability to run the state’s affairs under intense public scrutiny, and the spontaneous uprising in its wake removed the government’s political legitimacy.

Shortly afterwards, in a speech at Friday prayers, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, threatened a violent crackdown unless the official election results were accepted. This removed the last vestiges of the regime’s religious legitimacy as well.

That legitimacy had been waning for some time, even within the regime and among Islamic traditionalists. Ayatollah Ali Sistani (the most prominent Shiite clergyman in Iraq) was opposed to the principle of velayat-e faqih (the rule of the clergy), and Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri (Khomeini’s would-be successor who later became his critic) had argued that the doctrine was simply a proof of shirk , or false God-making. Moreover, the Constitution states unambiguously that the authority of the supreme leader, the president and the Parliament should emanate from the people’s vote, not from God.

Apart from this, the regime has lost a key power base that has historically made despotism possible in Iran — the economic rule of the bazaars and the large landowners. It has therefore bolstered itself with another tool of Iranian despotism: attempting to use the threat of foreign intervention to justify secret dealings and open crises with other states, primarily the United States.

George W. Bush’s presidency was a fruitful time for the Iranian regime, as the constant menace of military action and economic sanctions strengthened its control over the population. Barack Obama’s non-confrontational approach has placed the regime in a difficult position. It can no longer portray itself as the defender of sovereign independence against foreign intrusion.

Finally, the regime’s first and foremost base of support, the clergy, has been replaced by a military-financial mafia. The Revolutionary Guard now occupies the entire government and believes that the clergy’s task is not to run the country, but simply to lend its legitimacy to those who do.

Like the monarchy before it, the power of the present regime rests on both an internal and external foundation, which makes it vulnerable to public unrest. We can draw a comparison between Jimmy Carter’s election in 1976 and Mr. Obama’s in 2008. Iranians viewed Mr. Carter’s election as a threat to the monarchy’s main source of external power, U.S. support for the shah. In the same way, if Mr. Obama continues to abandon hawkish policies toward Iran and deprives the regime of the crisis factor, this uprising may follow a similar trajectory.

But the present movement differs from the unrest that led to the 1979 revolution in some important ways. While the first actions of dissent in 1979 came from outside the regime, the present opposition began within the regime itself, when the election was rigged against Mir Hussein Moussavi. While there are strong signs that the protest movement is growing, it still needs time to spread throughout the country.

Where might all this lead? In part, the future may depend on the outcome of a political deadlock created by Ayatollah Khamenei himself. The facts that the election was rigged and that Mr. Khamenei attempted to stage a “velvet coup d’├ętat” have polarized both sides.

Changing position in either camp would be political suicide. Mr. Khamenei and Mr. Ahmadinejad cannot admit that they rigged the election, since doing so would strip them of whatever remains of their legal and political legitimacy. Former President Ali Akbar Rafsanjani is now under severe attack by Mr. Khamenei’s supporters, and Mr. Moussavi and Mehdi Karoubi, another presidential candidate, know that they will lose popular support and be at the mercy of the unforgiving regime if they submit to Mr. Khamenei’s demands.

Several outcomes are possible. Historically, the regime’s top tactic for maintaining control has been to divide the country’s elites into two competing groups and eliminate one. Now, as this process has reached into the heart of the regime, that has become lethal. The regime’s own cadres oppose Mr. Ahmadinejad, and the deepening economic crisis has deprived the regime of resources and spurred further public discontent. This has provided an opening in which the Iranian people can determine the outcome of the struggle.

If the people cease resisting, times will become even harder; if they continue, their uprising will be transformed into a full-fledged revolution. This would make the establishment of democracy a real possibility. And all indications point to the determination of the Iranian people to see this uprising through.

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