July 7, 2011

Iran ups the ante in Iraq and Afghanistan

The Iranians are moving to replace the United States as the key power broker in both Iraq and Afghanistan as the Obama Administration withdraws American forces from those two countries. (See my earlier piece, Iran picks up the pieces - again.

That is to be expected, especially since the Obama Administration has in essence handed the area to the Iranians. The Iranians have assessed - correctly in my opinion - that the current Administration must please its voting base and withdraw its forces whether or not it makes sense militarily. It is difficult to blame the Iranians, after all, they are acting in their own national interest.

However, the Iranians have taken this effort to another level, one for which we can blame them. Not content to wait out the American troop withdrawal and simply ingratiate themselves with the corrupt governments of Nuri al-Maliki in Baghdad and Hamid Karzai in Kabul, the Iranians have upped the ante by providing additional and more effective weapons to the Taliban in Afghanistan and three Shi'a militias in Iraq. These weapons have been tied directly to recent deaths of American troops both countries.

In somewhat refreshing declarations, American military leaders in Baghdad and Washington, as well as American ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey, have unambiguously identified the weaponry as originating in Iran, provided by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and tied directly to American casualties. This is a welcome change - in the past two years, no official would acknowledge what we all knew to be true, that Iranian weapons were killing American forces. To admit that would be to cast doubt on the wisdom of the Obama Administration's policy of engagement with Iran.

This policy has failed. In fact, it has gone beyond failure and led to a series of Iranian policy successes. One only need look at the status of the Iranian nuclear weapons issue to realize this. If you are still under the impression that Iran is developing a nuclear electrical energy generation capability, you may not care to read further. Iran is developing nuclear weapons - it already has the missiles to deliver them. If they did not have the missiles, the United States would not be seeking an anti-missile capability that specifically addresses Iran's capabilities.

Why has the Iranian leadership decided to provide weapons to the Taliban and Iraqi Shi'a militias, weapons they know will be used against American troops? Why not wait for the American troops to just leave?

In the case of Iraq, that withdrawal will be later this year, unless the Iraqis ask for the continued presence of American troops. The Iranians are astute followers of American domestic politics. They know that if they use their surrogates to cause increased American casualties, it will not matter if the Iraqi government asks for troops to remain because American public opinion will not support it. I view an Iraqi request for a continued American troop presence as unlikely as long as al-Maliki is in the pockets of the Iranians.

In the case of Afghanistan, the Iranians know that the war is becoming unpopular in the United States. They assess - again correctly in my opinion - that President Obama is making decisions based on politics and not the military situation. As the United States enters the 2012 Presidential election cycle, Obama will be even more prone to view Afghanistan through the political optic versus the military situation.

Now we have the failure of the "engagement" policy converging with the fact that President Obama wants to be re-elected. Given the abysmal state of the so-called economic "recovery," the last thing the President needs is continued involvement in two increasingly unpopular wars in which American casualties as perceived as rising. The Iranians are trying to create the impression in Afghanistan and Iraq that they are forcing the Americans out. They may be successful on both counts.

Mr. Obama, I am puzzled. One of two conditions exist in your Administration. Either you don't have anyone that knows much about the Middle East, or you are not listening to them. I have to believe it is the latter since I have worked with some of the Middle East specialists at the Pentagon, CIA and State - many are excellent analysts with years of experience.

Since you seem to have chosen to ignore their counsel, let me offer you some free advice. First, your engagement policy was misguided - you allowed the Iranians to take the lead on virtually every occasion. While in your mind this makes the United States the stronger, the more respected, the party willing to go the extra mile. That may be, but in the minds of the Iranians and Arabs that comprise the majority of the people in the Middle East, it makes the United States look weak, like we are caving in to their demands. They know you are not going to use military force, so any threat - and that includes your "nothing is off the table" rhetoric - you might make is meaningless. Perception is reality, and you are perceived as weak.

Mr. Obama, if you disagree with my analysis, please feel free to point out the diplomatic successes your "engagement" has brought us.