Reflections on the Middle East in 2011

2011 has been an eventful year for the Middle East. Like the creation of Israel in 1948, the “Six Day War” in 1967, the Iranian Revolution, the rise of Saddam Hussein, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, and the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon in 2001, the Arab Spring in 2011 has turned the geopolitical status quo of the region upside down. While only time will tell whether or not the current strife in the Middle East will ultimately benefit the people there, or the world at large, there is no question that significant change is on the horizon.

The Arab Spring

However, while people are fighting, and dying, for their ideals across the Middle East, foreign governments with real, or potential, interests in the region are debating the pros and cons of letting the Arabs lead their own political destiny. In other worlds, these governments are debating whether or not they should do the right thing by allowing these people to choose their own path, or the convenient thing by trying to manipulate the process to serve their own purposes. This can be seen by the seemingly contradictory fashion in which the leading Western nations and Russia have responded to the Arab Spring.

Russia is simply playing the card it used during the Cold War. This involves criticizing the Western world in general, and America in particular, for supporting brutal dictators and labeling them hypocrites for not doing more to support human rights. Meanwhile Russia has refused to back the NATO mission in Libya, and vetoed a resolution condemning the brutal crack down by the regime in Syria.

America’s response to the Arab Spring has been no less confusing. Given the sudden nature of the uprisings, and the fervent desire of the Obama administration to keep a lid on the Middle East after the chaotic period that coincided with President Bush’s Presidency, it is no wonder that the Arab Spring caught America unprepared. Tunisia was small, and relatively unimportant to U.S. interests and its sudden demise did not produce much concern for the Americans. However, Egypt was a different story. The most populous, powerful, and influential Arab state, Egypt is a pillar for American foreign policy in the region. Having been the first country to make peace for Israel, a voice for moderation in a sea of extremism, and a bulwark against rogue states like Syria and Iran and terrorist entities such as Al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, and Hamas, Egypt’s importance to Washington cannot be overstated.

Yet remarkably the Obama administration, clearly taken by surprise by the outbreak of civil disobedience across the region, did little to save Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian President and loyal ally for 30 years, from being ousted. While the U.S. did not initially join in the chorus asking for Mubarak to go, they effectively quashed any chance of him staying in power when they told him to re-connect social media and electronic communications (which have had a significant impact on the Arab Spring) and made it clear they would not tolerate violence against the protesters. This left Mubarak with the sole option of promising wide ranging reforms, which coming from a despot stained by corruption was insulting at worst, and laughable at best.

And so Hosni Mubarak was forced to step down to be replaced by a provisional government made up of military cadres like himself. Incredibly, so far this has appeased the Egyptian people who respect their military despite the fact they are just as corrupt, and were just as influential in oppressing them, as Mubarak was. Whether or not the provisional government will live up to its promises of fair elections and granting more freedom, and whether or not such elections and freedoms will benefit fanatical elements such as the Muslim Brotherhood who are known to be hostile to Western interests, remains to be seen.

A more interventionist policy was adopted by the Western nations towards Libya. Not being a strategic asset like Egypt, and significantly weaker than Syria or Iran, Libya was a relatively easy target to make an example of. Muammar Gaddafi, who was arguably the most hated man in the Middle East after Saddam Hussein lost his neck, did not even bother with the pretense of reform and adopted the Syrian policy of unequivocal oppression via the force of arms when the Arab Spring came to Libya.

Whatever else can be said about America’s response to the Arab Spring, in Libya Obama did everything right. Having clearly learned from the mistakes of the War in Iraq, Obama invested heavily in diplomacy, did not promote grandiose objectives, refused to put troops on the ground and encouraged, but did not pressure, the Libyans to adopt democratic reforms. The result being that while the campaign to topple Gaddafi took longer than anticipated it did not cause Obama serious political capital (due in no small part to the lack of American casualties and not promising swift results). And while as in Egypt there are no guarantees the next power brokers in Libya will be democratic, let alone friendly to western interests, it would hardly be America’s fault given its exceedingly scrupulously conduct.

However, despite the fact America has championed (some would say acquiesced in) popular revolutions in North Africa, it has been more sedate in its support for similar movements in Yemen, Bahrain, and Syria. For while Tunisia and Libya could be toppled with negligible cost, and Egypt took the Americans by surprise, notable intervention in Yemen, Bahrain and Syria has been restrained by realpolitik.

In the case of Yemen and Bahrain the Americans have been reluctant to turn on useful allies for the sake of supporting the popular movements. Much of Yemen has become a safe haven for Al-Qaeda and the Americans are propping up the government in Sana’a to combat the terrorist organization and receive useful intelligence. In lieu of the recent killing of Anwar al-Awlaki (the U.S. born Al-Qaeda Iman whom American intelligence officials stated was more dangerous than Osama Bin Laden nearly a year ago) by a Predator drone this consideration cannot be considered lightly. As for Bahrain, it is home to the U.S. Fifth fleet, which is critical in guaranteeing the passage of maritime shipping (including 60% of the world’s seaborne oil trade) through the Persian Gulf, as well as serving as a deterrent to Iran.

Some may wonder why America allowed Egypt, but not Yemen and Bahrain, to fall given its inestimable importance to U.S. interests. There are a number of factors to consider. Firstly, as stated above, Egypt took the Americans by surprise and they had little time to react. Secondly, Egypt is a big country that receives much media attention whereas Yemen and Bahrain are small and have been mostly ignored by the world’s media. This has allowed the respective governments in Sana’a and Manama to use oppression on a significantly higher scale than was allowed in Egypt. Finally, at least in the case of Bahrain, foreign troops (Saudi and Kuwaiti) were brought in to help the government maintain power.

Either way, for the time being the Americans seem happy to give lip service to the  protesters’ cause, while at the same time imploring their allies to refrain from more obvious forms of oppression and offer at least some reforms to appease the people. While it seems as though this has been enough, at least for now, to keep a lid on Bahrain, Yemen looks as though it may fall like Tunisia and Egypt as the President has finally agreed to step down sooner rather than later.

Then there is Syria, perhaps the biggest thorn in the Americans’, the Israelis’, and even much of the Middle Easts’, side. No country in the region, not even Iran, has a more consistent history of refusing to promote peace, of supporting terrorism, of playing countries against other, and of being a general nuisance, than Syria. It has singlehandedly sabotaged the peace process several times, backed insurgencies and terrorism against all of its neighbors, and even killed between 20,000 and 40,000 of its own people in Hama in 1982. In recent memory it has backed the Sunni insurgency in Iraq, treated Lebanon as its fiefdom and supported Hezbollah and Hamas against Israel. It also serves as a proxy for Iran, giving it access to the western part of the Middle East, allowing it to sponsor terrorism against Israel, and giving it diplomat clout in a region full of countries hostile to its long term goals.

If ever there was a case, both morally and strategically, for the Western world to back civil disobedience against a corrupt and decadent ruling caste it would be in Syria. The potential rewards are enticing: A Syrian-Israeli peace treaty that would end more than 60 years of intermittent conflict between the two nations. A Lebanese-Israeli peace treaty given that Lebanon is practically a Syrian satellite. The weakening, if not neutralization, of Hezbollah and Hamas as Syria would no longer have any interest in fighting Israel. An increasingly isolated Iran as Syria is by far her most important ally. The list is far from complete.

However, the Americans, the Europeans, and even the Israelis have chosen to focus on the potential pitfalls of such a course of action. Besides obvious facts such as that Syria is more populous than Libya, has a much bigger (if mostly inept) army, and has a considerable stock of chemical and biological weapons there are other considerations. Like Iraq under Saddam Hussein, Bashar al-Assad, the President of Syria, maintains power through the Syrian Ba’ath party. Most of the leaders in the party, the government, in business and the military come from the Alawite and Christian minorities while the Sunni majority is mostly oppressed (just as the Sunnis oppressed the Shiites and Kurds in Iraq). Put simply, Israel and the west are terrified of Syria becoming the next Iraq.

There is also the chance that if the west significantly backed the protesters in Syria that Assad would try to turn the conflict into an anti-Israeli crusade. While Saddam Hussein failed trying such a stratagem during the Gulf War by hitting Israel with Scud missiles, there is still a risk that backing the uprising in Syria would drag Israel into the Arab Spring, which it has so far managed to avoid. Finally there is the misguided notion in some Western circles that Bashar al-Assad is a potential reformer and will change Syria from the inside. Taken together these factors explain why the West is hesitant in supporting the uprising in Syria. So far the best it has done was introducing a harshly toned resolution condemning Syria’s brutal crackdown on the dissidents at the United Nations; which as noted above was quickly vetoed by the Russians.

One aspect all of the so called “experts” seemed to miss about the Arab Spring was which countries it did not include, and why this is important. The Middle East almost seems to have a perverse satisfaction in trying every single type of government and ideology, the vast majority of which end up being thoroughly discredited after a considerable human and economic cost.

Pan-Arabism, the attempt to merge all Arab countries into one state failed due to petty infighting, corruption, and the lack of trust among the various Arab leaders. The Arab monarchies with their rubber stamping parliaments are also nearing extinction due to their refusal to offer of any real democratic reform and sharing next to none of their oil wealth with their people. Secular and socialist countries such as Ba’athist Syria and Iraq (when under Saddam Hussein) have killed more people than even the religious fanatics, and mismanaged their economies so poorly that even Iraq’s oil wealth, and Syria’s domination of Lebanon were not enough to fix their economic woes. The Islamic Republic in Iran was admittedly popular at first, but the 8 year long “Iran-Iraq War,” economic stagnation, lack of any real democratic reform, and growing number of young, unemployed and desperate youth is slowly catching up with it. Finally there is the remnants of the Taliban in Afghanistan, which has more popularity than most Westerners would admit, but has not been able to arouse the same impressive resistance agains the occupying Americans as the Afghanis have done so brilliantly in the past against the British and the Russians.

However, there are three countries in the region that are relatively stable, democratic, and prosperous. These three countries, differing in ethnic, religious and other cultural considerations, provide alternative models for governance for what are generally stagnant, and authoritarian, Arab states. Yet, for reasons that shall be discussed shortly these three countries are seldom mentioned, or rarely mimicked, by the ruling Arab elite.

The first is Israel. Israel is by far the most democratic, stable, and in terms of GDP, the riches country in the region. In terms of health care, infrastructure, and technology it dwarfs its neighbors. There is however a minuscule problem when suggesting the Arab countries could adopt the Israeli state as a model; and that is that it is Israel! Unless you’ve lived under a rock your whole life you will know that the Arabs in general hate everything about Israel. The Palestinian refugees, the 7 or 8 “Arab Israeli Wars,” Israel’s tendency to shoot first and ask questions later, even the Arab’s own inadequacies, are just some of the countless things the Arabs blame on Israel. As such, Israel will never be, and could never be, a realistic model for the Arab world to adopt.

The next possible model would be Turkey. At first this seems like it would not be a problem as Turkey is a strong, independent Muslim nation. It is relatively democratic, has a big economy and, after Israel, the most impressive military in the Middle East. However, Turkey is not an Arab country, being mostly populated by Turks. Under the Ottoman Empire, the Turks dominated, and subjugated, most of the Arab world. And while the West is constantly chastised for occupying most of the region for a mere generation after the “First World War” the Turks occupied it for several centuries. This is no small consideration if you keep in mind that the Arabs have a better sense of history than most Westerners do. Also, Turkey is very secular, and this generally does not bode well as most Arabs usually want at least some aspects of Sharia (Islamic Law) governing society and their day to day lives.

Finally there is Iraq. While only a fool would dismiss the horrible warfare, sectarian violence, instability and general misery that Iraq has suffered since the American invasion, the fact remains that Iraq has finally achieved relative stability, has a more representative democracy than any other in the region, and according to all polls the vast majority of Iraqis are more hopeful for the future than they have ever been. While no one is suggesting that American or Western armies should invade other Arab countries and impose freedom, it is not completely insane to suggest that Iraq’s newly created democratic institutions and checks and balances may merit some consideration in by Muslim countries. However, like Israel, anything to do with the Iraqi experiment is thoroughly discredited in the Arab world, and admittedly there is no telling what will happen as soon as the Americans withdraw later this year.

Yet the fact remains that during the Arab Spring there have been no movements in Israel, Turkey, or Iraq to overthrow the existing political order. In fact the only blip was a series of mostly peaceful protests where the Iraqis demanded better conditions and more accountability from their government. These were not the scenes of a potential revolution but of concerned citizens exercising their legitimate right to protest.

There have also been instances of Arab rulers being able to appease some of the popular movements. In Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait the Monarchies in power have managed to temporarily postpone the inevitable by employing a number of stratagems. For oil rich Saudi Arabia and Kuwait this was accomplished by bribing their inhabitants with money, while in Jordan (where the Monarchy has always been popular) the people’s frustrations were allayed by promises of quick reform. Whether or not these Monarchies can cling to power in the long term without serious reform, or considerable oppression (the Syrian option), is questionable.

However, even though the Arab Spring is a significant geo-political phenomenon there is still the question of “then what?” Governments, peoples and often even historians have a remarkable tendency to focus on short term objectives and events at the expense of the long term and bigger picture. Often this is a by product of trying not to be overwhelmed by great events at hand. For example, it is hard to blame the Western Allies during “World War 2” for focusing on defeating Germany and Japan at the expense of not producing a clear, and coherent, plan for confronting Communism by the end of the conflict. Likewise, as in the case of countless insurgencies throughout history (the Chinese, Iranian, French and Russian revolutions to name a few), it is unfair to criticize people fighting for their lives for not putting enough consideration into how to build a peaceful, stable, and democratic society once their oppressors have been overthrown.

Yet ultimately “what then” must be addressed and if one looks at the last 60 years in the history of the Middle East he would be forgiven if he was cynical about the Arab Spring producing democratic, and economically viable, states. For since the beginning of de-colonization after the “Second World War” there have been countless revolutions, popular movements, insurgencies and coups, all in the name of freedom and progress, throughout the Middle East. Needless to say only in the case of Israel has it produced a working democracy. As noted above, the Middle East has gone through nearly every type of government and ideology under the sun to little positive effect. So the pertinent question to ask would be “why should it be different this time?”

Optimists would cite the growing influence of social media such as Twitter and Facebook to help democratic movements organize, and attract bigger crowds. Unfortunately, more often than not, governments are more adept at using communications and information technology than protesters and usually use social media to track, and often trap, potential malcontents and troublemakers. Iran, China, and Syria have scores of intelligence personnel, and informers, scouring Facebook, Twitter and other social media and this helps explain why they have been more successful at quashing dissent than governments less concerned about controlling communications technology such as Tunisia and Egypt. While the comparison is not flattering, these democratic movements may have to emulate terrorist organizations (at least in regard to communications) who generally shun cell phones and e-mails and communicate face to face, or via messengers.

The optimists may also believe that the growing influence of American, and Western, culture among the youth of the Middle East may make them more amenable to democratic values. Indeed, a look at Eastern Europe is helpful here. One could argue the cold war was as much about values as weapons and certainly twenty years after the fall of the Soviet Union most of Eastern Europe has turned its back on Russia and Socialism and has embraced democracy and capitalism. However, besides the point that Eastern Europe has much more cultural similarities with the West, than the West and the Arab World, there is the fact that cultural influence does not always produce such positive results.

For example, French efforts to educate select elements of Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Algerian people about freedom and equality backfired when these people realized France had no intention of freeing their respective countries. Ironically, these people formed resistance movements (including the Vietminh and the F.L.N.) that ultimately forced the French to leave their colonies. It should also be noted that these resistance movements (in fact most resistance movements in general) that successfully fought for independence have never embraced legitimate democratic reforms. In other words, just because the Arabs like drinking Coke and listening to Britney Spears does not mean they want to be our friends or adopt our type of governance.

It may also be hopeful to believe that the Americans, and the West, may have finally learnt the lesson that it would be better to either to let the Arabs embrace democracy, at the risk of anti-western governments rising in the place of pro-western despots, or at least limiting their influence over the Arab states to decrease resentment. However, this would be naive as factors such as access to oil, western strategic and economic interests, and the fact that arguably less scrupulous countries such as Russia, China and Iran would take their place, are clearly more important considerations to Western statesmen than embracing the democratization of the Middle East. This does not rule out that the West would not be in favor of more democracy in the region, only that it would probably want it introduced in a slow, and more controllable, form. Needless to say the Arab Street, understandably, probably wants to see significant signs of freedom sooner rather than later.

One thing that does not bode well for the long term is the fact that there is very little tradition of democracy in the Middle East. Indeed, the three case studies mentioned above are all relatively recent creations (in Iraq’s case only in the last few years). Indeed, some cynics would suggest that often for democracy to succeed it has had to be imposed, or at least influenced by, external forces. This was the case with many of Britain’s commonwealths and former colonies where there were many times when the British imposed self ruling institutions against the wishes of the inhabitants. Certainly, there are those who credit the Americans and the British for turning totalitarian regimes suchq as Germany and Japan into legitimate and prosperous democracies in the aftermath of the “Second World War.” However, this point may not be decisive as there has been at least one other precedent of a legitimate democracy in the Middle East (in Iran in the 1950s which unfortunately was overthrown by the British and Americans due to fear of Soviet influence) and even the most authoritarian and conservative regimes in the region are slowly introducing limited reforms regarding voting and women’s rights.

Finally, there is the fear that either militant Islamists will take power in several countries, or at least that whoever takes power will impose Sharia law to the detriment of legitimate democratic reforms. While there is no question that regimes that have little warmth to the West, or Israel, could emerge in the region, it is not a given that they will be hostile. Considering such an anti-western organization as Al-Qaeda has not made any inroads in the area during the Arab Spring, and as many of the budding democratic movements are actually welcoming U.S. and Western aid, it is likely a live and let live attitude will develop between the West and the Arab world. Certainly it would be suicidal for any new government to adopt a fervently anti-western stance as they would quickly lose any support and would likely face sanctions or worse.

The argument against implementing Sharia Law is likewise disingenuous. One could argue that Western democracies are significantly based on religions such as Catholicism, Protestantism and Judaism, all of which have been criticized for having undemocratic tenets and offer the potential to oppress women and minorities. It is often conveniently forgotten how long it took for universal suffrage, and increased rights for marginalized groups, to emerge in Western countries after so called “legitimate democracy” was introduced. One should also remember that secular regimes such as Syria and Iraq were much bloodier than the worst zealots. Perhaps a more realistic approach for the West to adopt would either to be patient about the Arabs introducing democratic reforms and Sharia Law, or at least realize that whatever choices they make (so long as they do not threaten Western security) are really none of its business.

Which leads to a simple point that somehow the smartest minds in Washington, London and Tel-Aviv inevitably forget. No one, especially the pride sensitive Arabs, like being lectured or told what to do. Just like teenagers, even if the advice or direction is well intentioned and his merit, they will automatically resist if the originator of the idea seems pompous, naive, or hypocritical. As such, and while it may seem as a compromise of the West’s well meaning, yet often naive, quest to spread democracy, capitalism and human rights across the globe, it is far more pragmatic, and probably for its better interests, to generally just leave the Arabs alone.

The “War on Terror”

Besides the Arab Spring, 2011 has also seen some hallmarks in the “war on terror,” as well. The most obvious example would be the assassination of terrorist mastermind Osama Bin Laden by U.S. special forces near Abbottabad, Pakistan. This was the end result of a well executed intelligence operation that had been in the works for several months. While the Americans are usually accused, rather unfairly, of being poor at mounting such operations, this one succeeded brilliantly. The Americans patiently waited for one of Bin Laden’s trusted couriers to lead him to his hide out, then sent special forces, supposedly via some sort of Stealth helicopters, to find and execute him. And while I do not subscribe to the view that the higher ups in Pakistan already knew about his location, it was a good thing the Americans did not inform the Pakistani authorities of the raid in advance as there is always a mole, a Vichyite, or an opportunist willing to betray such a sensitive operation.

While Bin Laden’s influence had become largely symbolic, and Al-Qaeda itself had been (and still is) steadily becoming less relevant, the morale boost to the Americans, and the psychological blow to Muslim fundamentalism, was substantial. This may not seem important but in the myriad conflict that is terrorism and counter-terrorism, perception is victory.

The other notable event, already mentioned above, was the recent assassination via predator drone of Anwar al-Awlaki (the U.S. born Al-Qaeda Iman) in Yemen. As he was supposed to represent the so called “home grown” terrorist threat, and as he had lately been depicted as a greater threat than even Osama Bin Laden, his execution was arguably of more strategic, if admittedly less symbolic, importance than Bin Laden’s.

Finally there is the fact that Al-Qaeda has had next to no influence on the Arab Spring. While the Muslim Brotherhood and some of its offshoots may benefit from the current political climate in the region, there has been no increase in recruitment, political capital, or sympathy for the terrorist organization. Bin Laden and al-Awlaki’s death produced a whimper instead of a bang, and Al-Qaeda has been unusually subdued in its communications compared to the passionate tirades it produced during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The fact that the budding democratic movements in the region are asking for help from the Americans and the West, instead of the fanatics, is perhaps the most damning proof.

Afghanistan and Iraq

No review of the Middle East would be complete without a few observations about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. These wars are controversial to put it mildly. The hawks would say they are necessary to protect Western interests and fight terrorism, the doves that they are unnecessary, bloody, and actually increase terrorism. The truth is somewhere in between. While the justification for the War in Iraq (Weapons of Mass Destruction and links between Saddam Hussein and Al-Qaeda) have proven to be unequivocally false there is no doubt that going after Al-Qaeda was justified given its unprovoked attack on the U.S. on 9/11 and the fact that Afghanistan was providing it sanctuary. However, the Americans made a mistake in that they invested so much in a war that had arguably little legitimacy (Iraq) and so little in one that had plenty (Afghanistan).

Yet whether one agrees with the wars or not there is a strong case for “staying the course” in both countries and providing their people with the means to defend themselves, making them economically self sufficient, and allowing them to govern their own affairs. For whatever the critics of the war are right about, they are dead wrong if they think that Al-Qaeda or the Taliban in Afghanistan, or Al-Qaeda or Sunni or Shiite militias in Iraq, would provide a more humane or enlightened form of governance than the administrations that currently exercise power in these two nations.

As it is the governments in Afghanistan and Iraq have mechanisms that ensure all factions are fairly represented and provide for more rights for women and other minorities than would exist under Islamic fanatics or militias. Additionally, leaving Iraq and Afghanistan in the hands of administrations that the United States helped to create, and thus have some dependency on U.S. aid, is better for Western security and strategic concerns in the long run rather than allowing terrorist elements or insurgent bands (who are obviously hostile to Western interests) to seize power when America finally pulls its forces out.
For while Afghanistan and Iraq are hardly model countries with perfect institutions, in the last few years they have witnessed impressive gains regarding security, stability and increased competency regarding their governments, police forces and militaries. These gains have made it possible for the Americans to promise to pull out all its troops from Iraq by 2012 and Afghanistan in 2014, confident as they are of the Iraqis and Afghanis to provide their own security and govern themselves effectively.

How the Americans turned the tide in Afghanistan and Iraq provides a notable illustration of how a military trained to fight conventional wars can effectively adapt to successfully execute counter-insurgency. Most armies are poor at waging counter-insurgency and the U.S. Army (despite the lessons of Vietnam) was no exception during the early years in Iraq. Indeed, until 2007 and the appointment of General David Petraeus to high command, the situation in that country was getting worse.

Clearly underestimating the scope of the growing insurgency in Iraq, and having little training regarding counter-insurgency, the Americans focused on a military solution to pacify Iraq. This type of counter-insurgency (the violent approach) can work, but usually only if the nation enacting it is willing to use all available brutal means to crush the insurgents and terrorize the population. The Germans and Japanese during the “Second World War” and the Syrians in 1982 at Hama, used this approach effectively by destroying whole cities, murdering civilians indiscriminately and convincing the occupied peoples that they would use any means necessary to crush the insurgents. Needless to say that while dictatorships can use this approach, legitimate democracies (constrained by public opinion and media) cannot. As such, in Iraq the Americans got the worst of both worlds as they used enough brutal means to alienate the Iraqi people and fuel the insurgency, but not enough to convince the Iraqis that they would kill their way to victory.

However the tide began to turn in 2007 when General David Petraeus, with help from Lt. Colonel John Nagl and Lt. Colonel David Kilcullen, devised a new counter-insurgency doctrine for the U.S. army that switched the American emphasis in Iraq from the “violent approach” to the “population approach.” This approach (usually adopted by democracies that cannot realistically use the violent approach) places the protection, and winning over, of the population as the primary focus of counter-insurgency rather than killing insurgents. Insurgencies need control of populated centers for recruitment, logistics, intelligence and safe havens. Like Mao’s analogy that guerrillas must be able to blend in among the population as fish among water, insurgents also hide within the masses to evade security forces and invite attacks upon civilians to increase resentment regarding the occupation. The “population approach” is supposed to drain the swamp and expose the fish (insurgents) to attack.

Essentially, in the first years in Iraq the Americans would enter a city, kill a bunch of terrorists (and many civilians) and then leave, allowing the insurgents to retain control of the population. Starting in 2007, and coinciding with the surge of troops sent to Iraq by President Bush, the Americans engaged in “clearing and hold” operations that cleared insurgents of important populated areas and then staying to help the Iraqi people defend themselves and improve their lives. This takes a significant investment in time and resources but ultimately pays off if the population ends up supporting the government and isolates the insurgents. Among the most significant benefits of this strategy is that the protection of the population facilitates a drastic increase of human intelligence regarding the insurgency. While technical intelligence has limited use in combatting insurgents, humint is often decisive (something the Israelis could have told the Americans before they invaded Iraq).

Besides the implementation of the new counter-insurgency doctrine by General Petraeus, the decision by the majority of the Sunni militias to desert Al-Qaeda in Iraq was perhaps the other most important factor that led to the relative stabilization of the country. The Sunnis, having benefited the most from Saddam Hussein’s rule, and not having the numbers the Shiites and Kurds have, arguably had the most to lose from a post Baa’thist Iraq and allied themselves with Al-Qaeda early in the conflict to force the Americans to withdraw from Iraq. However, Al-Qaeda’s heavy handed role in the insurgency, its attempts to force its fanatical ideology on the secular Sunnis and its indiscriminate attacks on civilians ultimately turned the Sunni militias against them. Realizing that the new government in Baghdad was willing to give adequate representation, and some perks, to the Sunnis, the militias ultimately concluded they had more to gain by adapting to the new status quo.

Just as in the early years in Iraq, the counter-insurgency effort in Afghanistan also suffered from an American focus on killing insurgents at the expense of securing the population. While Kabul (the capital) and much of the North of the country has been mostly stable since 2002, it has taken nearly ten years of trial and error to bring sufficient security to the Kandahar and Helmand provinces (the heart of the Taliban insurgency). And just like in Iraq it took additional troops (30,000 sent by Obama in 2009), a change in emphasis towards “the population approach” and the arrival of General Petraeus to take command, to turn the tide in the conflict.

In a recent article in “Foreign Affairs” magazine a former commander in Afghanistan, General David M. Rodriguez, argued that the Americans have made sufficient progress in the last few years to expect the Afghanis will indeed be ready to assume responsibility for their own security by 2014. Among the many factors he cites for the American’s success was the securing of important population centers, the focus on building up local governance to address grievances and edge out the Taliban, finally addressing the endemic corruption in the Afghan government, limiting civilian casualties, and significantly increasing the size and professionalism of the Afghan army and police forces.

A few statistics should be adequate to place these factors into context. For example, the recruitment quotas for the Afghan army and police forces were surpassed by an impressive margin (143,000 to 134,000 and 120,000 to 110,000 respectively). This is significant because a good indication of success, or failure, in counter-insurgency is reflected by levels of recruitment since a low number is usually an indication that the population believes the government is losing. Additionally 4 times the amount of
people in Helmand province feel safe versus two years ago. Also, and as an illustration as to the importance of humint in defeating insurgencies, there has been 4 times the amount of insurgent weapons caches seized by coalition forces in 2011 than the previous year (thanks to tip offs by civilians). Finally, the Afghan army doubled the amount of successful operations it led this year compared to last. These are all good indications of how drastically the situation in Afghanistan has improved over the last few years.

While critics will always chastise the Americans for their initial arrogance, the high cost, and the protracted nature of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is worth considering that compared to most counter-insurgency campaigns waged by powerful nations throughout history the American efforts in these two countries should be considered successes. Versus countless failures such as Napoleon in Spain, France in Algeria, America in Vietnam and the Soviets in Afghanistan, there are a few notable victories such as the British in Malaysia and Northern Ireland, and America in the Philippines. And to be frank, these “victories” often took decades and tons of resources to secure. However, to be fair these conflicts are not over yet and history, not pundits, will get the final word.

Causes for concern

However, despite the promise of the last year there are still reasons for concern. Firstly, Iran is still continuing its course towards completing its Nuclear Weapons program which has the potential to turn the region into a very dark place indeed. While the likelihood of Iran using nukes against Israel, or giving some to terrorist proxies such as Hezbollah or Al-Qaeda, are slight the risk is still potential devastating. At the least Iran will feel emboldened to continue its support of terrorist organizations and insurrection movements against its neighbors as well as challenging America for dominance in the region. There is also the chance, in the event of Iran acquiring Nuclear Weapons, of America turning its back on the Arab Spring and investing more support in the Sunni authoritarian regimes and Monarchies who arguably have more to fear from Iran than the populist Islamist movements that are now poised to come to power in several countries.

There is also the chance that the breakout of another “Arab Israeli War” could further polarize the region. While it seems unlikely at the moment, Israel could suddenly find itself fighting Hezbollah, Hamas, Syria, Iran, or even all of them combined. And anyone who thinks that the region is full of rational statesmen who always carefully weigh the pros and cons before going to war should remember the countless times where seemingly unimportant considerations have pushed countries to embark upon disastrous wars. Certainly the false intelligence reports produced by the Russians that influenced the Arabs to provoke the Israelis in 1967, a Kuwaiti diplomat’s remark to Saddam Hussein implying Iraqi women were whores that led to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, and Israel’s decision to bomb everything in Lebanon under the son after Hezbollah kidnapped 2 of its soldiers in 2006 provide ample proof that politicians in the region are often anything but rational.

Yet launched under rational considerations or not, such a war would potentially further inflame anti-American and anti-semitism sentiment in the region and push the movements flourishing under the Arab Spring towards the Syrian-Iranian (or anti-Western camp). However, this could be alarmist considering 60 years of Arab-Israeli conflict, Western support of Arab Despots, and the Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have not been enough for the Syrians, Iranians, Al-Qaeda, and other dubious entities to procure enough political capital to seriously challenge American hegemony in the region.

Finally, as stated above, there is the chance that just like previous waves of revolution and nationalism in the region the Arab Spring will fail to produce legitimate and prosperous democracies and ultimately lead to more violence and desperation in the area. Certainly history, manipulation by external powers, and the lack of democratic traditions in the region offer the potential of such a course. However, besides the fanatics, the Arab people are beyond tired of despotism and violence, are astute students of history, and are now connected to each other via social media and communications technology. If America, and the West, choose to embrace Arab democracy, rather than circumvent or control it, and confront those who will not hesitate to manipulate it (Russia, China, Syria, Iran, Al-Qaeda and other terrorist entities) there is a real chance that the Arab Spring will go down in history as the beginning of the end of Arab-Western conflict, instead of another case study in false hope.

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