Rethinking Objectives in Afghanistan

The United States invaded Afghanistan to defeat al Qaeda. It should stay that way.


The sense of unknown was pervasive during the CIA’s nightly al Qaeda threat briefings in the first years after 9/11. Was a second catastrophe in progress? Were its perpetrators deployed? Might they use chemical, biological, or nuclear material? Our knowledge of al Qaeda grew quickly in 2002 and afterward, but we knew that our window into the group was nowhere near good enough to assure policymakers, legislators, and the American people that we in the agency, where I served from as deputy director of the Counterterrorist Center from 2003 to 2005, could prevent another strike. The United States entered Afghanistan to resolve this threat, to hunt those who had orchestrated the 9/11 murders, and to disrupt, then dismantle, the network that would organize future plots. The Bonn diplomatic process that resulted in the creation of Hamid Karzai’s government in Kabul supported this goal of uprooting and eviscerating al Qaeda. We would help Afghanistan choose legitimate, competent leaders who would not allow terrorist safe havens on Afghan soil. But there was not going to be any nation-building effort, and certainly not on the scale of the Marshall Plan in postwar Europe. U.S. troops weren’t fighting in the hills of Tora Bora as a result of civil unrest and Taliban atrocities: After all, we chose not to intervene in Afghanistan before the attacks, despite rampant human rights abuses and seemingly interminable chaos. We simply wanted to stop attacks at home. Now, nine years later, the link between terrorism and the war is obscure. Americans now wonder why their sons are still fighting and dying for the Karzai government, with its periodic criticism of coalition operations and reputation for corruption, including during elections this year. Yet we are still there, perhaps because we have incurred such a cost by intervening in Afghanistan that we cannot bear to consider disinvesting. Perhaps because our national reputation is at stake: Cut out now and we will be perceived as shortsighted (remember the Somalia and Lebanon withdrawals during the 1990s), not a characteristic of great powers. This is not to say we should be cautious about setting withdrawal timetables; instead, our question might be how we maintain a counterterrorism capability rather than whether we have the capability to oversee a return to some sort of Afghan normalcy. We shouldn’t delink these problems, though, for brutal but inescapable national security reasons: If our initial intervention stemmed from the attacks, should not follow-on decisions, such as whether to speak to the Taliban about reconciliation, relate directly to the al Qaeda fight? If we want to destroy al Qaeda, does our current strategy of isolating the Taliban — which has a far greater penetration of Afghan society and provincial life that we or the Kabul government ever will — make sense? It does if we want to build a civil society; it doesn’t if we want local Taliban leaders to limit an al Qaeda presence because it might interfere with their goal of creating an Afghan emirate. Over the long term, the Taliban, a Pashtun movement with limited aims, will not threaten U.S. national security interests; al Qaeda, if it resuscitates, just might. More pointedly, a deal with Taliban elements might help us pursue al Qaeda and limit our investment in Afghanistan, but it will result in human rights abuses and, possibly, a new civil war. We might remember that these problems, however disturbing from a Western perspective, were not sufficient cause for us to intervene in Afghanistan before the 9/11 attacks. We went in for national security interests, not to extend good governance. If we believe that we now owe more to the country, after nine years of intervention, we should be clear about the implications: We won’t be able to create a civil society; this expanded goal is not a part of a counterterrorism strategy; and our investment in blood and money will have to be far greater than it is today. We underinvested nine years ago; we are paying the price now. If we return to linking these two issues — al Qaeda and our intervention in Afghanistan — we would have to accept a painful reality that no force presence is likely to change. No power, from the British to the Russians to any Afghan government, has exercised control over the country’s ethnically diverse provinces. Coalition power has proved equally limited: When insurgents, in this case the Taliban, benefit from local support, even the most heavily armed and technologically adept foreign forces in history — U.S. soldiers and Marines — face an uphill battle in uprooting them. Assuming both sides are willing to cut a deal instead, there remains, then, the question of whether the Taliban would have the capability to police the country — and whether Taliban leaders, themselves Islamist ideologues, would acquiesce to the presence of foreign fighters who intend to attack the United States. Taliban leaders obviously harbored Osama bin Laden and friends in the past, but it’s not clear how deep their commitment was — they are local tribal leaders, after all, not global jihadists. To prevent an al Qaeda resurgence, the conversation, long term, might center on how we maintain an intelligence-collection capability to detect terrorist training and how we strike quickly when we find any information suggesting that training is taking place. The fight against al Qaeda is in Pakistan, not Afghanistan. Without foreign occupiers for al Qaeda and its allies to fight in Afghanistan, our job in Pakistan might become narrower, and more achievable. It is a safe bet that Pakistani authorities do not much care whether tribes along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan cross into Afghanistan to fight against coalition forces that are viewed negatively throughout Pakistan. But if we eliminate the cause for cross-border activity by bringing in Taliban elements, U.S.-Pakistan tensions will diminish — we won’t need help policing resupply routes through hostile tribal areas, for example, and we won’t need to run cross-border military operations. Conversely, Pakistan might have more motivation to help when it sees a government in Kabul that allows the Pakistani Army to believe that its long-term goal of strategic depth — a comfortable flank in Afghanistan that helps keep the focus on India — isn’t being undermined. Far from believing that we are an ally in this campaign, Pakistan now sees us as an unreliable, sometimes duplicitous, partner. Our support for an Indian seat on the U.N. Security Council is a good strategic move, but in the short term it will help cement Pakistanis’ view that we will abandon them eventually in favor of a far more attractive strategic partnership with their rival in New Delhi. It’s an equally safe bet that Pakistani officials, including in the security apparatus, are deeply concerned about the Pakistani Taliban and its allies as they attack Pakistani civilians outside the tribal areas and threaten to expand the extremist presence into cities such as Peshawar and Karachi. If we can eliminate the allure of cross-border operations for jihadists in Pakistan’s tribal belt, we might be able to more effectively accomplish what the British — and the Pakistanis — have done in the past: pit one Pakistani tribe against another, with a focus on isolating those that harbor al Qaeda elements. Rough politics, maybe. But we’re not going to eliminate al Qaeda by Hellfire missile alone, and the Pakistani security forces have spent nine years showing us they’re not going to do it either, especially not for us. The only remaining lever is those who own the territory — the tribes — and they don’t operate by our rules. We should go into any of these policy evolutions with our eyes wide open. A return of the Taliban in Kabul might well result in a renewed civil war as the Northern Alliance that joined us to oust the Taliban grows nervous that we will allow the return of their enemy, and rearms. Let’s not sidestep the potential human rights implications either: Abuses will escalate, sharply. But we fought the Taliban because they harbored terrorists, not because they failed to provide a healthy civil society. For the future, nation-building will remain a mirage in Afghanistan, with nine years of futility as proof. But destroying al Qaeda is a reachable goal, and a far more salient one for the United States. We’ve now turned these priorities around. Philip Mudd is a senior global advisor at Oxford Analytica. He served as deputy director of the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center from 2002 to 2005 and then the first-ever deputy director of the FBI’s National Security Branch. Mudd resigned from government service in early 2010 from his position as the bureau’s senior intelligence advisor.

(Foreign Policy, 17 November 2010)


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Timetable Abandoned: U.S. And NATO To Wage Endless War In Afghanistan



15 Nov 10


By Rick Rozoff

The mainstream news media and alternative sources alike have seized on a recent revelation – though it is hardly such – published by McClatchy Newspapers that “The Obama administration has decided to begin publicly walking away from what it once touted as key deadlines in the war in Afghanistan in an effort to remove emphasis from Barack Obama’s pledge that he would begin withdrawing US forces in July 2011.” [1]

An article in this series of over a month earlier, U.S. And NATO To Wage War 15-Year War In Afghanistan And Pakistan [2], documented that much and more, and any attentive reader of news on the Internet during the preceding weeks would not have been surprised by the McClatchy feature.

On October 25 Edmund Whiteside, North Atlantic Treaty Organization Council Secretary, spoke at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada, and according to the local press said, “Expect the war in Afghanistan — the longest military engagement in both Canadian and American history — to continue for a ‘very long’ time.” In his exact words, “Afghanistan will be a very long military venture.”

His position will be confirmed at the NATO summit in Lisbon, Portugal next week, as will a major commitment demanded by the U.S.-dominated military bloc’s new Strategic Concept to be adopted at the meeting: The retention of nuclear arms in NATO’s arsenal and the continued stationing of American nuclear bombs in Europe. Whiteside also argued: “Canada says that it doesn’t need ballistic missiles. But Canada is part of a nuclear policy alliance. There’s no getting around that….” [3]

On November 8, the day before the McClatchy article appeared, the spokesman for the 152,000-troop, 50-nation, NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, German Brigadier-General Josef Blotz, stated that “no timetable has been set for withdrawal of coalition troops from Afghanistan.”

Blotz confirmed that “There has been no timetable yet.” In regard to transferring security control to Afghan forces, he said, “We will not [proceed] according to a fixed timetable, it will be carried out based on conditions to be achieved over the next couple of years.” [4]

On November 11, Prime Minister Stephen Harper of Canada spoke on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Seoul, South Korea and said that “he’s decided…to keep troops in Afghanistan in a noncombat training role after Canada’s combat mission ends in 2011.”

Associated Press cited a senior Canadian government official verifying that his nation “will keep 750 military trainers and 250 support staff in Afghanistan until 2014….” [5]  A similarly bleak perspective on any withdrawal – or beginning of one – next year was offered on the preceding day by the commander of British forces in southern Afghanistan, Major General Nick Carter, who “gave a devastating assessment of the war effort in Afghanistan.”

Carter admitted that “In my tour I lost 302 soldiers. Most of them American. The cost in blood and treasure has been enormous.” He added that NATO wouldn’t know if it was winning – whatever that word signifies in a war already in its tenth year and escalating to new heights by the day – until June of 2011, “when the fighting season begins again” and the Atlantic Alliance and the Pentagon can “compare Taliban attacks with this year.” [6]

The U.S. and NATO – the distinction is merely formal as recent estimates are that 140,000 of the 150,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan now serve under NATO command – have lost 633 troops in the war as of November 11. That compares to 521 for all of last year and 295 in 2008. 1,184 of the total 2,203 Western military deaths in the country have occurred in the past 22 months.

Citing U.S. Air Force statistics, an ABC News report of November 10, “Number of Afghan Air Strikes Highest Ever,” disclosed that the amount of air strikes conducted in Afghanistan in October – approximately 1,000 – was the highest monthly total in the war that began in 2001, up from 700 the previous month, which itself marked a 172 per cent increase over September of 2009.

The article also detailed that the amount of American and NATO combat sorties so far this year, 26,948, exceeds the previous high of 26,474 from last year. [7]  Across the border in Pakistan, the U.S. has launched at least 20 drone missile attacks that have killed 130 or more people since the beginning of last month.


A violation of Pakistani airspace by a NATO helicopter gunship in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas occurred on November 2 for at least the fifth time since September, with one killing three Pakistani soldiers on the last day of the latter month. Earlier this month opposition parliamentarians in Pakistan “expressed serious concern over the violation of Pakistani airspace by North Atlantic Territory Organisation (NATO) forces” and “staged a walkout from [a] Senate session in protest and strongly condemned the airspace violations by NATO forces.” [8]

According to a feature in India’s Frontline magazine, “President Obama has substantially increased defence spending and has expanded the war in Afghanistan,” and “the Obama administration has wholeheartedly endorsed the Bush administration’s policy of eliminating terror suspects using pilotless high-tech drone aircraft. Instead of using the laborious technique of capturing alleged terrorists from their hideouts in crowded cities and remote villages, the drones just bomb the house or village where the suspects are holed up. In the process, there has been huge collateral damage. Innocent civilians killed far outnumber those killed in the fight against the occupation.

“Ever since he took office two years ago, Obama has made the deadly drones a key instrument in his fight against the militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The drones are also being used liberally to target militants in Yemen and Somalia.” [9]

The Afghan war in its tenth year has expanded into a far broader conflict, one which grows in both scope and lethality with each passing week and will escalate yet further before it begins to wind down, if it ever does. President Obama’s pledge last year to “draw down” U.S. and NATO combat forces from South and Central Asia – they are also stationed in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan – next year is now revealed to be the transparent political manipulation it was from the start.

A piece by Stephen M. Walt was published on the website of National Public Radio on November 11, entitled “Foreign Policy: Bait And Switch In Afghanistan.” Walt is a professor of international affairs at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, serves on the editorial boards of Foreign Policy, Security Studies, International Relations, and the Journal of Cold War Studies, and is the co-author of The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy with John Mearsheimer.

He wondered at the chorus of surprise, genuine or feigned, that has greeted the McClatchy article, stating:

“I don’t know anyone who thought the U.S. could turn things around in 18 months, and that particular deadline was little more than a piece of political sleight-of-hand designed to make escalation look like a temporary step. Reasonable people can disagree about whether Obama’s decision to escalate in Afghanistan was the right one (I think it wasn’t), but Obama’s straddle on this issue is one reason why some of his most enthusiastic supporters have become disenchanted.”

Listing historical precedents, and at least hinting at the public’s inveterate gullibility, Walt added, “there’s a long tradition of presidents telling the American people that some new military mission won’t take long and won’t cost that much. Nixon told us he has a ‘secret plan’ to end the Vietnam War (he didn’t) and Bill Clinton said U.S. troops would only be in Bosnia for 12 months (it was more like nine years). President George W. Bush and his advisors said that the occupation of Iraq would be brief and pay for itself yet we are still there today. And now Obama has done essentially same thing: selling an increase committed by suggesting that it is only temporary, and then backing away from his own self-imposed deadline.” [10]

Further vows to deescalate the conflict, not only the longest war in American history as was noted above but also in Afghanistan’s, will predictably follow the U.S. political cycle, especially the 2012 presidential election and Obama’s presumed reelection bid, but will prove as false as last year’s.

The Pentagon and what on November 19 and 20 will be officially unveiled as global NATO have reaped substantial benefits from the war in Afghanistan that both are reluctant to relinquish. They have insinuated their militaries into the center of Eurasia for the long haul. And they have built an international network of installations and military partnerships to service the war, from the world’s first multinational strategic airlift operation in Hungary to a transit base in Kyrgyzstan through which at least 50,000 troops pass each month in and out of Afghanistan and the subordination of the armed forces of scores of nations in Europe and Asia.

In recent days, for example, the Afghan war has provided the U.S. and NATO with unprecedented opportunities to expand their worldwide military reach:

President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan, which has the largest oil and natural gas reserves in the Caspian Sea Basin and borders Russia and China, visited NATO Headquarters in Brussels to meet with Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen. Rasmussen “thanked President Nazarbayev for his country’s support for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan,” [11] and Nazarbayev announced that “Several Kazakhstani troops will serve at the headquarters of the international coalition in Afghanistan.” [12]

Admiral Giampaolo di Paola, Chairman of the NATO Military Committee, visited Georgia to meet with the country’s defense and foreign ministers and the chief of the Joint Staff of the Georgian Armed Forces and to inspect the NATO-supported Krtsanisi National Training Center, the newly established NATO Liaison Office in the nation’s capital, and the “33rd Battalion of the III Infantry Brigade going to replace [the] contingent of the 32nd Battalion currently deployed in Afghanistan.” [13] Georgia fought a five-day war with Russia in August of 2008 and NATO is training its armed forces for more than just the war in Afghanistan.

U.S. Special Operations Command recently concluded training exercises for troops from the Czech Republic, Lithuania and Poland in Germany. The Pentagon described their purpose as follows:

“Coordination and synchronization between conventional and special operations forces (SOF) is crucial on the modern battlefield since both share integral roles within an area of responsibility – whether it involves intelligence gathering or conducting combat operations….[T]he training event was part of an annual brigade-level mission rehearsal exercise…to prepare conventional force units assigned to the U.S. European Command area of operations for deployment to Afghanistan.” [14]

Lithuania and Poland have borders with Russia and both host NATO forces, at an air base in the first and a training center in the second nation. Earlier this month the Czech parliament approved the deployment of additional troops, including special forces, to Afghanistan next year, raising the nation’s NATO contingent to 720 soldiers.

Also this month, Polish troops trained at an Illinois Army National Guard base an hour’s drive from Chicago, and a Polish officer involved in the training stated: “We train together because we fight together. If we train together we fight and work better in Afghanistan. It is good idea to train together before we deploy. We are good soldiers and our brigade was deployed in Iraq two times and in Afghanistan so we work at a high level. We are ready.” [15]

The connection between nations supplying troops for the war in Afghanistan and the U.S. committing to intervene on their behalf in conflicts with neighboring states was recently affirmed by Philip H. Gordon, Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs. At a strategy meeting in Poland late last month he said: “I think there is broad support among allies for the balance between NATO’s traditional missions of Article 5, which is collective defence, and also the need for the Alliance to deal with new security challenges around the world, and we are very comfortable with that balance.” [16]

The Swedish parliament has extended the deployment of troops to Afghanistan, where Sweden is engaged in combat operations and has lost troops for the first time in two centuries, months after the government abolished the last vestige of conscription to meet NATO “professionalization” demands and announced a mandatory foreign deployment obligation for all troops.

Last week German Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg visited Mongolia, which also borders China and Russia, and met “with soldiers of the first Mongolian mission contingent, which had been deployed to the German defense area in Afghanistan.” [17]

Against the backdrop of President Obama’s visit to Mumbai and New Delhi, reports have surfaced that India could be enlisted to provide troops for NATO’s International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. Indian defense analyst Bharat Singh recently asserted that “The almost 9,000 Indian troops deployed on UN peacekeeping missions could easily be re-deployed in Afghanistan.” [18]

In Bulgaria, where the Pentagon has acquired four new military bases – including two air bases – since 2006, Defense Minister Anyu Angelov recently stated that 7 percent of his nation’s defense – if it can be called that – budget is allotted for the war in Afghanistan, where troop strength will rise from 536 to over 600. He also said that Bulgaria “will be setting no deadline for withdrawal of its troops from Afghanistan.” [19]

Nevertheless, James Warlick, U.S. ambassador to the country, spoke at a conference entitled Europe for Afghanistan: from Understanding to Support held at the Military Club in the Bulgarian capital, saying “Bulgaria could up its efforts in Afghanistan and do more.” [20]

The consolidation of a far-reaching military nexus for and dependent on the Afghan war is not limited to Europe’s east. Last month “A small corner of Cornwall [became] Afghanistan.” At the Royal Air Force St Mawgan facility 1,000 troops from NATO’s Allied Rapid Reaction Corps (ARRC) participated in “a major NATO training exercise, the first of its kind in the UK” [21] in preparation for deployment to Afghanistan in January.

“The ARRC servicemen were in the county preparing for their final training before being deployed for operational service in Afghanistan next year.

“Exercise ARRCade Spear II aims to offer recruits training ahead of their work as part of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force.” [22]

Shortly afterward, “328 soldiers, including 45 teams from the full-time British Army, UK Territorial Army teams and entrants from foreign armies” took part in Exercise Cambrian Patrol in Wales, “as one of the most prestigious patrolling tests within NATO.” [23]

From Cornwall to Mongolia, Kazakhstan to Illinois, Sweden to Wales, Poland to Georgia, Lithuania to India and beyond, NATO and the Pentagon are strengthening military partnerships and networks around the Afghan war. Neither Washington nor Brussels is in a hurry to abandon a conflict that has allowed both to globalize their military roles.   


1) Nancy A. Youssef, Obama officials moving away from 2011 Afghan
   McClatchy Newspapers, November 6, 2010
2) U.S. And NATO To Wage War 15-Year War In Afghanistan And Pakistan
   Stop NATO, October 6, 2010
3) The Link, November 2, 2010
4) Xinhua News Agency, November 8, 2010
5) Associated Press, November 11, 2010
6) Daily Mirror, November 11, 2010
7) Luis Martinez, Number of Afghan Air Strikes Highest Ever
   ABC News, November 10, 2010
8) Daily Times, November 4, 2010
9) John Cherian, Hellfire from the sky
   Frontline, November 6-19, 2010
10) Stephen M. Walt, Foreign Policy: Bait And Switch In Afghanistan
   National Public Radio, November 11, 2010
11) North Atlantic Treaty Organization, October 26, 2010
    Kazakhstan: U.S., NATO Seek Military Outpost Between Russia And China
    Stop NATO, April 14, 2010
12) Central Asia Online, October 27, 2010
13) Ministry of Defence of Georgia, October 29, 2010
14) U.S. European Command, October 26, 2010
15) Belleville News Democrat, November 1, 2010
16) Polish Radio, October 29, 2010
17) Ulaanbaatar Post, November 5, 2010
    Mongolia: Pentagon Trojan Horse Wedged Between China And Russia
    Stop NATO, March 31, 2010
18) Daily Times, November 7, 2010
19) Sofia News Agency, October 26, 2010
20) Sofia News Agency, October 26, 2010
21) Pirate FM, October 14, 2010
22) This Is Cornwall, October 14, 2010
23) The Star, November 1, 2010




Global Research, Canada   –   November 12, 2010

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A Grim Year for the Middle East

For internal circulation
4 Jan 10
The furore after polls in Iran, the snub delivered to America by Israel and the continuing war in Iraq hint at a new year full of problems from the past

By Patrick Seale

The year 2009, which began with Israel’s murderous assault on Gaza, has been one of great torment and much misery in the Middle East. Even the ascent last January of Barack Obama to the presidency of the United States has not been enough to bring a semblance of peace to a profoundly troubled region.

At first, Obama’s arrival seemed like a gift from paradise. Here was a highly unusual, brilliantly eloquent leader who promised to reinvent America, and heal the ravages of the Bush years. But the immense hopes he aroused — especially in the Arab and Muslim world — have not yet been fully realised. But one must not despair: Obama’s mandate still has three years to run.

In spite of Obama’s efforts so far, the situation remains unsettled and potentially explosive in Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan, and in the arena of the Arab-Israeli conflict, bearing witness to the enduring nature of the crises in these countries, but also to the inability of an enfeebled US to impose its will.

For 20 years after the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet empire that followed, the US seemed to be the world’s unchallenged superpower, able to dictate terms to friends and enemies alike. One of the striking lessons of 2009 is how fast this supremacy has been eroded.

Several factors have contributed to it. The following must be counted among them: the enraged response of the Bush administration to the 9/11 attacks; the lamentable influence of pro-Israeli neo-cons on America’s Middle East policy; the catastrophic Iraq war; the ill-judged “Global War on Terror”, widely seen as a war on Islam; the grave international financial crisis triggered by Wall Street’s unbridled greed; and, not least, the rise of China — a shift in the global balance of power, which the splendour of the Beijing Olympic Games brought home by television to every living-room across the world.

Nothing illustrates the decline of American power better than the defiant rejection of American wishes by both Israel and Iran, as well as the evident reluctance of European allies to contribute more than token forces to the war in Afghanistan.

It would seem that Obama’s unenviable task will be to manage the US decline as best he can.

In Iraq, Obama has pledged to end America’s military involvement, bringing Bush’s Mesopotamian adventure to a close. But this has not brought peace to that shattered country. Terrorist explosions, each with its terrible toll of dead and wounded, continue to rock Baghdad and other cities.

The region will have to suffer the consequences of Iraq’s destruction for many years to come. Among these consequences are the unfortunate sharpening of Sunni-Shiite tensions and the overturning of the balance of power in the Gulf to Iran’s advantage. History will no doubt judge the invasion and occupation of Iraq as one of the great crimes of our time.

One of the most spectacular developments this year has been the explosion of protest in the Islamic Republic of Iran which followed last June’s rigged elections. President Ahmadinejad — and indeed Supreme Leader Khamenei as well — are being challenged not only by repeated mass demonstrations in Tehran and elsewhere, but also by a split in the ruling elite. Severe repression has failed to deter this growing opposition. The result has been to reveal to the world a picture of another Iran — brave, youthful, educated, aspiring for real democracy, while remaining true to Islamic values. It remains to be seen whether this movement will be crushed, or whether it will eventually shape Iran’s future.

Meanwhile, Iran has forged ahead with uranium enrichment, a programme driven as much by prickly nationalism as by the need to acquire a deterrent against military attack.

Neither negotiations nor sanctions have persuaded Iran to give up uranium enrichment, nor even the threat of a military strike by Israel and/or the US. The world may, after all, have to live with an Iranian bomb. The consequence may not be as bad as some fear. It may even contribute to peace by establishing a regional balance of power.

The war in Afghanistan is undoubtedly President Obama’s biggest challenge. He has bowed (possibly against his will) to the request of his military commanders to send more troops. But very few observers believe this will ensure victory. A negotiation with the Taliban — and especially with the powerful Pashtun tribes that live astride the Afghan-Pakistan border — will eventually be necessary if the nine-year war is ever to be brought to an end.

Crises and myopia

What of the long-stalemated Arab-Israeli conflict? Determined to resolve it, Obama sprang into action in the very first hours of his presidency, naming the veteran negotiator George Mitchell as his special envoy. But after much frustration the one success so far has been to wring out of Israel’s reluctant Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu a partial, 10-month colony freeze, which excludes Arab East Jerusalem, which Israel continues to colonise.

Meanwhile, the Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas, continue their interminable feud, as if indifferent to the damage this does to their cause.

Tolerably good news has come this year from those squabbling twins, Syria and Lebanon. With help from France, Qatar, Turkey and other well-wishers, Syria has emerged from the isolation in which the Bush administration had attempted to confine it. The young President Bashar Al Assad is attempting with some success to build a modern state, but his efforts — and his country’s image — have been marred by human rights abuses and a crackdown on dissent.

Meanwhile, Lebanon, having elected its former army chief, General Michel Sulaiman, as president in 2008, has now, after endless months of sterile bargaining, a new government under the majority leader Sa’ad Hariri.

He was able to reach a compromise with Hezbollah — the most robust element of the opposition — under which the Shiite movement will retain its weapons to defend the country against any future Israeli assault.

In spite of the domestic and regional turmoil, Lebanese banks have continued to prosper, while the irrepressible Lebanese — or at least the affluent middle classes among them — have continued to enjoy themselves, as only the Lebanese know how to.

To complete the picture, mention should perhaps be made of Yemen, afflicted by serious disturbances both in the north and the south of the country; of Egypt, obsessed by the unresolved question of the succession to the long-serving President Mubarak.

I have two choices for the winners in 2009: they are Turkey and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

These two powerful states have emerged as the stable and sensible “big brothers” of the region. Turkey — led by President Abdullah Gül, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Foreign Minister Ahmed Davudoglu — has won the admiration of the world by its active diplomacy, aimed at spreading peace, prosperity and good neighbourliness across the region.

Turkey may not yet have joined the European Union — as it deserves to do — but it has rapidly forged friendly political and economic ties with Syria, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and a host of other countries, including its old adversary Armenia.

It has even taken cautious steps towards settling its quarrel with its Kurdish population, although these efforts received a setback in December when riots broke out following the dissolution by the constitutional court of the main Kurdish political party.

Saudi Arabia has this year consolidated its position as the Arab world’s leading country, distinguished by its great wealth, by the size and varied talents of its ruling elite (both royal and non-royal), and by the consensus-seeking style of government and reformist policies of King Abdullah. The Allegiance Council (Al haya’ Al baya’) the king created in 2006 is well-placed to ensure the continuity of good governance in the future.

Among King Abdullah’s many achievements in 2009 were the benign influence he has exerted within the Gulf Cooperation Council, the curbing of radical and often obscurantist clerics at home, and the launch of KAUST, which is the long-awaited King Abdullah University of Science and Technology as a graduate centre of scientific excellence.

Pointers to the king’s reformist vision are the fact that the campus of this new university is co-educational — the first in the kingdom — as well as the appointment, for the first time, of a woman, Noora Al Fayez, to the post of deputy minister for women’s education.

These are highly positive developments, but they cannot obscure the sad truth that the Middle East, plagued by many unresolved conflicts, remains at the centre of the world crisis.  

Patrick Seale is a commentator and author of several books on Middle East affairs.
Gulf News, Dubai  –  1 Jan 10