When nation-building goes wrong

Middle East Eye

The toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue by an American armoured vehicle in Baghdad’s Firdos Square in April 2003 became a telling reference point in Iraq’s recent history. The event marked the end of the battle for Baghdad, which shown live in many parts of the world had been hailed as proof that the US was still the world’s master, less than three years after the trauma of the 11 September, 2001 attacks.

Although the event was portrayed as one of great significance, important aspects were missed in the United States and the rest of the Western world. For instance, it was obvious that the crowds present there were small, and their enthusiasm not great.

Before the statue was toppled, US marine corporal Edward Chin covered the statue’s face with an American flag. The crowd became silent, and one woman shouted at the soldiers to remove the flag, which was replaced with an Iraqi one. Cynics later suggested that the whole event had been staged by the United States military.

Iraq descends

Post-Saddam triumphalism then so overwhelmed the American psyche that president George W Bush, just three weeks later on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln, proclaimed this a “mission accomplished” moment. Within a month, Bush had appointed Paul Bremer as governor of Iraq, and dissolved the Ba’ath Party and armed forces — moves that in effect dismanted Iraq’s state structure. The logic was that only by destroying all the old regime could a Western-style democracy modelled on America’s vision be created.

Examples of post-conflict reconstruction in Japan and Germany after their defeat in World War II loomed large. However, both of these defeated powers were wealthy with advanced systems of their own before the war. The versions of democracy created as part of reconstruction had distinct Japanese and German cultural and national imprints.

It was assumed that a new Iraqi state after the 2003 invasion would equally have a strong imprint of Iraqi culture and historical experience. However, when after almost nine years of occupation the American military presence formally ended in December 2011, few could say this had been achieved.

Iraq’s chaotic emergence from eight years of occupation in 2011 was a reminder of what can go wrong in state- or nation-building, particularly when the victorious power’s cultural makeup is radically different from that of the defeated country. The cultural values on which a society is founded take long to evolve, and are so durable that any change involves risks and uncertainties.

However, Iraq is not a solitary example exposing the limits of American military power and its capacity for state-building in this century. As the world’s only remaining superpower, the US had visualised a world in its own image — a community of docile nations who would not challenge American power.

After experiences in Iraq, Afghanistan, and more recently Libya and Syria, Washington remains far from achieving this. Although America’s overwhelming power enables it to intervene and occupy foreign lands, the country’s ability to sustain war against resistors and undertake the task of state- or nation-building has been found wanting again and again.

Ruthless rulers emerge

Decisions taken immediately after Saddam Hussein’s overthrow were aimed at creating a new state structure to replace Iraq. Instead of a return to stability and rise to democracy, Iraq sank into a vicious multi-layered conflict after 2006, forcing the outgoing Bush administration to negotiate America’s exit — not the dawn of democracy Bush envisioned before leaving the White House. The downbeat exit in 2011 marked an embarrassing finale for the Bush presidency and a painful beginning for his successor, Barack Obama.

Democracy in Iraq is a forlorn hope. The continuing violence in which scores of people are killed and maimed every week is a largely forgotten story in the Western world. The Iraqi state, weakened by harsh American-led sanctions in the 1990s and dismantled in 2003, never regained the capacity to impose control over a fragmented nation, which was created under the 2005 constitution along with a new power elite.

The Shiite majority in the south and the Kurds in the north, long suppressed under Saddam’s rule, have become dominant. The minority Sunni elite that dominated the erstwhile power structure has been isolated, even demonised, in the absence of the effective checks and balances that a real democracy requires.

As sectarian violence prevails in today’s Iraq, ruthless and manipulative politicians like Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki have emerged. The country is neither a democracy nor a US ally.

A graveyard for nation-builders

Instead, Iran, once Iraq’s fiercest enemy, is now its closest ally. America’s neoconservative political establishment and its military-industrial complex may derive perverse satisfaction that Iraq is now unable to challenge the United States in the way that Saddam Hussein had attempted, but this seems cold comfort in the wider context.

Iraq has become the most serious failure in America’s democracy promotion enterprise thus far in the 21st century. But there are other examples, both in the immediate past and in the previous century.

The 11 September, 2001 attacks in New York and Washington prompted a US response in Afghanistan for the second time in two decades — the previous response being in the proxy war against the Soviet occupying forces in the 1980s. The enemy changed from communism to the Taliban militia; the motive was to shape events in West Asia in the West’s interests under the auspices of spreading freedom and democracy.

The US intervention in support of Afghanistan’s mujahideen against communist rule, in particular after the Soviets invaded the country in December 1979, revealed contradictions often seen in other places. An external power’s backing for radical groups in an internal conflict changes the balance in ways that have long- and short-term. In conflicts like Afghanistan, when the intervening power supports a weak non-state or state player, the motive is to gain a foothold and then permanent influence. However, the power thereby contributes to a culture in which violence becomes the primary means of settling disputes and keeping order.

Fragmented societies

Armed groups may not enjoy support in the wider population, but they gain ascendancy. Constitutional arrangements are under sustained pressure until they lose legitimacy. The result is a new fragmented society in which different militant groups occupy their own domains. This is the very opposite of democracy, which takes a long time to evolve.

The failure of nation-building in Afghanistan since the mid-20th century has been due to a combination of factors: conflicting ideological visions of the Soviet Union and the United States as they fought for influence in West Asia during the Cold War, and interests and motives of regional players, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran and India.

America’s stated aim was to build state institutions, but the war undermined all such efforts. Since the decade of democracy in the 1960s, the legislative, executive and judicial branches of state were supposed to bring various interest groups together at the centre in Kabul and build a system of checks and balances based on the Western democratic model. Persistent foreign involvement made certain that the reverse happened.

The destruction of the Afghan state from the 1978 communist coup to America’s overthrow of the Taliban regime in December 2001, weeks after the 11 September attacks, was complete.

America’s return after years of neglect raised new hopes for Afghanistan. Those hopes, however, began to fade with the Taliban’s revival barely three years later. Since then, a combination of violence, societal resistance and corruption has created obstacles which have proved insurmountable, steadily draining America’s will to sustain its nation-building mission.

The Afghan experience

Amid a serious crisis of confidence between the Obama administration and President Hamid Karzai in his final months as president, the December 2014 deadline for US military withdrawal is rapidly approaching. A proposed military agreement to keep a limited number of troops in Afghanistan has not been signed, but left to President Karzai’s successor. Like Iraq, the United States is about to leave Afghanistan with its mission of nation-building far from successful.

After 13 years of US-led occupation, the Afghan state remains fragile. It is dependent on massive foreign aid, and its fragmented society is a threat to itself and others. The United States’ presence over these years has halted Afghanistan’s slide into disorder. But the US military’s heavy-handed tactics, such as drone attacks and night raids on the homes of Afghans have also fuelled resentment against the US.

The Taliban’s campaign of violence against the 2014 presidential elections in March failed to frighten away voters, who defied threats to turn out in large numbers. However, tribal societies are built in ways that give certain individuals and groups power beyond their size – a danger that still exists.

Afghanistan, Iraq and other Middle Eastern countries have their own particularities, and not to fully comprehend them is central to America’s difficulties in the region. Power in these societies flows from tribal sheikhs who disburse the means of livelihood in rural communities; village imams who interpret customary law, act as judges to settle disputes and issue edicts; and traders who control the bazaar. The king has needed all three to stay on the throne. When the ruler has lost support of one or more sources of real power, he is in trouble.

Great powers who have attempted to impose a new model on these countries have encountered great difficulties. When a king is bought, or a weak individual is installed by an outside power, there often is a rebellion from below involving local elites. When a people feel manipulated by an external power, there is often a sense of resentment and victimhood in that society against the outsider.

In countries such as Egypt and Pakistan, the United States has supported dictatorships to win advantage in the race for influence. The result is deterioration of legislative bodies which are supposed to represent citizens, and judiciary that delivers justice in which people must have confidence. Hence, the nation’s political system becomes hostage to great power ambitions. It has happened not only in the Middle East and South Asia, but elsewhere during the Cold War and after – for instance, in the Philippines, South Korea and South Vietnam; Somalia and what was Zaire; and Argentina, Chile, El Salvador and Nicaragua.

Geopolitical interests

These and other countries have seen some of the most brutal right-wing dictatorships and human rights violations, supported covertly or overtly by Washington, because they served US interests. Twenty-five years after the Cold War ended, the trend continues, and the cause of democracy and nation-building suffers as it runs counter to American geopolitical interests.

Washington’s policy towards popular uprisings across the Arab world has illustrated its contradictions in recent years. When massive protests broke out against authoritarian rule in Tunisia and spread towards the Persian Gulf, including Egypt, Libya, Syria and Bahrain, the Obama administration was caught by surprise, and appeared unsure about what to do. Libyan and Syrian rulers had challenged United States policy in the Cold War, aligning themselves with Moscow; Egypt, Jordan and Bahrain were close military allies of Washington, serving America’s interests in the region.

Freedom, democracy, human rights and state-building were therefore all important in Libya, where Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown and killed by anti-Gaddafi militias backed by the United States and allies. In Syria, Washington first backed anti-Assad groups, then got cold feet. Assad survives for now, but the conflict has left Syria in ruins, and atrocities by both sides have caused great misery for millions of civilians. Syria’s refugee crisis is among the worst today.

Libya under Gaddafi was a failing state ruled by a maverick dictator through strictly controlled people’s committees. Now, it is a failed and fragmented state. Rival militias fight between themselves. Much of the infrastructure has been destroyed. People live in fear, and the country has become a leading source of weapons to militants who fight in conflicts across the Arab world. Even the prime minister of Libya cannot feel safe.

A history of failures

United States policy towards Saudi Arabia’s theocracy is mostly one of respectful silence. The Saud family exercises absolute power, state institutions are few and governance is according to the ruling family’s own strict interpretation of Islamic law. When relations between Washington and Riyadh are strained, such as over the Obama administration’s attempts to improve ties with Iran and his decision not to launch air attacks against the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, it is the United States that makes overt attempts to repair those relations.

Saudi Arabia is too important as an oil supplier to the industrialised world, buyer of sophisticated weaponry and as the leader of Sunni Islam to alienate. Amid all the push for state-building, democracy and free institutions elsewhere, change in Saudi Arabia takes a back seat. Since Egyptian president Anwar Sadat’s decision to break from the Soviet Union and join the United States in the 1970s, and his signing of the 1979 peace treaty with Israel, the US alliance with Egypt has been too important to jeopardise American interests in the Middle East.

America’s unease over Egypt’s popular uprising against President Hosni Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood’s rise to power and the Obama administration’s soft reaction following President Mohammed Morsi’s removal by the military illustrate the difference between the reality of American actions and the rhetoric about the freedom agenda and nation-building in Washington.

The question remains whether the real motive of the United States is to build free, democratic and sustainable nations. Or it is to eliminate perceived threats to American interests, and if state-building proves too arduous, to leave such countries weak and vulnerable.

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Afghanistan: Countdown to US withdrawal

AL JAZEERA

Attention may now turn from the Arab uprisings to Afghanistan as the US and NATO forces prepare to leave in 2014. 

For three years, the world’s eyes have been focused on the Arab uprisings and subsequent events, but now the attention is going to turn to Afghanistan as US-led foreign troops prepare to leave the country next year. Even though some foreign advisers will remain, the NATO withdrawal will bring an end to the military response of President George W Bush against Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers, which was launched with lofty promises after the September 11 attacks on the US.

It is undeniable that the war has been very costly. Today, the Taliban are stronger than they were immediately after their eviction from Kabul. The militancy has spread far beyond the country’s borders, and the mission that President Barack Obama called a “just war” is reaching its finale without its most important aims fulfilled.

It is difficult to think of an Afghan more congenial than Hamid Karzai that Washington could have found to install in power following the removal of the Taliban in 2001. As he prepares to leave office after the April 2014 election, President Karzai is sharply critical of NATO, remonstrating that “on the security front, the entire NATO exercise caused Afghanistan a lot of suffering, a lot of loss of life and no gains, because the country is not secure”.

Afghan reality

NATO and the US have accused Karzai of unreliability and corruption, but they ignore the Afghan reality. President Karzai has to voice the deep antagonism felt against foreign troops in the country and cannot remain silent about civilian casualties. He is mindful of the fragile nature of Afghanistan’s military and police forces, which NATO undertook to train and equip.

As many as 50,000 desertions are haemorrhaging Afghanistan’s security forces every year. The latest high-profile defector was a special forces commander who joined the Hizb-e-Islami organisation, a Taliban-affiliated group, taking with him guns and high-tech military equipment.

Corruption has been a sad historical fact in a country that is among the most impoverished in the world. Ceaseless wars since the 1970s – wars in which external powers, the US, the Soviet Union and Afghanistan’s neighbours have been active participants – have made Afghanistan’s destitution all the greater. Western accusations of corruption against the Karzai administration are self-serving at times, and ignore the West’s own corrupt practices in the course of the Afghan war.

Military occupation and offence to the occupied go together. Afghans have suffered cruel losses and humiliation again and again during the past twelve years, under Soviet occupation in the 1980s and before. Afghanistan’s ethno-tribal society requires its rulers to be close to their subjects in ways that Western governments have not fully understood.

The legacy of US war in Afghanistan

The departure of US and NATO troops in 2014 will be another landmark in the 35-year history of Afghan wars. The symbolism of the Soviet retreat in 1989 was greater because it happened as the Soviet empire was collapsing. The circumstances for the US empire are not so precarious, and NATO’s immediate future is not in doubt.

However, in Afghanistan and outside, there are going to be those who will see this withdrawal as another defeat of a great power. The US will continue to struggle to justify its claim that the Afghan mission has been a success. Once fervent supporters of the mission to eliminate terrorism and redesign society now realise the Afghan project’s grim realities. Even those less partisan may conclude that it has been a missed opportunity in several respects.

The legality and morality of US drone attacks across the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, and increasingly in other countries, is a subject of open debate, raising questions about laws of war, human rights and national sovereignty. The impact of this debate on international relations is going to be an enduring legacy of the Bush and Obama administrations.

That legacy will continue to evoke memories of the tense relationship between Obama and Karzai – who was the US choice to be the leader of Afghanistan but who could not entirely support Washington’s agenda. For all his charm, elegance and urbane manners, Karzai is still an Afghan who cannot remove himself enough from his fellow countrymen to please the US. He will be remembered as a president whose true authority was always limited, but was held responsible for many of the failures of others.

End of foreign involvement?

More than a decade after the US went to Afghanistan to eliminate the Taliban and al-Qaeda, the curtain is about to close on one more episode in the country’s endless wars. In 1989, the Americans were euphoric about defeating the Soviet occupiers with the Mujahideen’s help in a proxy war. As the Americans prepare to bail out in 2014, the old fog of euphoria has lifted, and it is possible to argue with greater certainty that, ultimately, Afghans do not need a major external power to fight the enemy.

Words attributed to two of the best known Afghan warlords of modern times are informative. In the 1980s, when Washington was the Mujahideen’s main backer against the Soviet Union, Ismael Khan said: “The Americans want us to continue fighting but not to win, just to bleed the Russians.” Another anti-Soviet commander, Ahmad Shah Masood, remarked: “We will not be a pawn in someone else’s game; we will always be Afghanistan.”

The Obama administration’s attempts to launch negotiations with the Taliban on concrete matters have not brought success. At times, President Karzai has felt left out, and has reacted with his own overtures to the Taliban. Such overtures have not pleased the US, which has appeared to undermine Karzai’s independent initiatives. The recent arrest of senior Taliban commander Latif Mehsud by the US angered the Afghan president, because it was reported that his government was trying to recruit Mehsud as a go-between for peace talks.

Haunting possibilities

As the departure of foreign troops draws closer, many in Afghanistan and its regional neighbourhood are concerned about the future. There are questions about next year’s presidential election taking place in a peaceful and orderly manner, and whether the new government will be stable.

What will the Taliban and members of Pakistan’s political and military establishments with links to the armed group do? How will Saudi Arabia and Iran, representing the Sunni-Shia struggle for influence in the Muslim world, affect Afghanistan as the country tries to stand on its own two feet? Will influential players of the international community help Afghanistan? Or will they walk away like they did following the 1989 Soviet retreat, leaving regional powers and Afghan factions to fight it out?

Such haunting possibilities are going to occupy minds more and more as US and NATO troops prepare to leave Afghanistan.

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On Bradley Manning and America

Richard Falk writes in a guest column that originally appeared on his blog

I am posting on this blog two important texts that deserve the widest public attention and deep reflection in the United States and elsewhere. I would stress the following:

–the extraordinary disconnect between the impunity of Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Yoo, and others who authorized and vindicated the practice of torture, were complicit in crimes against humanity, and supported aggressive wars against foreign countries and the vindictive rendering of ‘justice’ via criminal prosecutions, harsh treatment, and overseas hunts for Snowden and Assange, all individuals who acted selflessly out of concern for justice and the rights of citizens in democratic society to be informed about governmental behavior depicting incriminating information kept secret to hide responsibility for the commission of crimes of state and awkward diplomacy; a perverse justice dimension of the Manning case is well expressed in the statement below of the Center of Constitutional Rights “It is a travesty of justice that Manning who helped bring to light the criminality of U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, is being punished while the alleged perpetrators are not even investigated.” And “We fear for the future of our country in the wake of this case.”

–the vindictive punishment of Bradley Manning, a historically stiff imprisonment for the unlawful release of classified documents, a dishonorable discharge from military service that is a permanent stain, a demotion to the lowest rank, and imprisonment for 35 years;

–the failure of the prosecution or the military judge or the national leadership to acknowledge the relevance of Manning’s obviously ethical and patriotic motivations and the extenuating circumstance of stress in a combat zone that was producing observable deteriorations in his mental health;

–an increasingly evident pattern of constructing a national security state that disguises its character by lies, secrecy, and deception, thereby undermining trust between the government and the people, creating a crisis of legitimacy; it is part of the pattern of ‘dirty wars’ fought on a global battlefield comprehensively described in Jeremy Scahill’s book with that title;

–the mounting challenge directed at President Obama to grant Manning’s request for a presidential pardon, and to reverse course with respect to the further authoritarian drift that has occurred during his time in the White House; ever since Obama’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech when he claimed American adherence to the rule of law, it has been evident that such a commitment does not extend to high level governmental violators at home (“too important to prosecute”) or to the sovereign rights of foreign countries within the gunsights of the Pentagon or the CIA or to the crimes of America’s closest allies; international law is reserved for the enemies of Washington, especially those who resist intervention and occupation, or those who dare to be whistle-blowers or truth-tellers in such a highly charged atmosphere that has prevailed since the 9/11 attacks; the opening of Manning’s statement below suggests the relevance of such a context to the evolution of his own moral and political consciousness;

–the noted author and public intellectual, Cornel West, offered a salutation to Manning relating to his announcement about his/her gender identity shift that I wholeheartedly endorse: “My dear brother Bradley Manning – and from now on sister Chelsea Manning – I still salute your courage, honesty and decency. Morality is always deeper than the law. My presence at your trial yesterday inspires me even more!”

–read Bradley Manning’s statement and ask yourself whether this man belongs in prison for 35 years (even granting eligibility for parole in seven years), or even for a day; imagine the contrary signal sent to our citizenry and the world if Manning were to be awarded the Medal of Freedom! It is past time that we all heeded Thomas Jefferson’s urgent call for ‘the vigilance’ of the citizenry as indispensable to the maintenance of democracy.

STATEMENT BY BRADLEY MANNING ON BEING SENTENCED

The decisions that I made in 2010 were made out of a concern for my country and the world that we live in. Since the tragic events of 9/11, our country has been at war. We’ve been at war with an enemy that chooses not to meet us on any traditional battlefield, and due to this fact we’ve had to alter our methods of combating the risks posed to us and our way of life.

I initially agreed with these methods and chose to volunteer to help defend my country. It was not until I was in Iraq and reading secret military reports on a daily basis that I started to question the morality of what we were doing. It was at this time I realized in our efforts to meet this risk posed to us by the enemy, we have forgotten our humanity. We consciously elected to devalue human life both in Iraq and Afghanistan. When we engaged those that we perceived were the enemy, we sometimes killed innocent civilians. Whenever we killed innocent civilians, instead of accepting responsibility for our conduct, we elected to hide behind the veil of national security and classified information in order to avoid any public accountability.

In our zeal to kill the enemy, we internally debated the definition of torture. We held individuals at Guantanamo for years without due process. We inexplicably turned a blind eye to torture and executions by the Iraqi government. And we stomached countless other acts in the name of our war on terror.

Patriotism is often the cry extolled when morally questionable acts are advocated by those in power. When these cries of patriotism drown our any logically based intentions [unclear], it is usually an American soldier that is ordered to carry out some ill-conceived mission.

Our nation has had similar dark moments for the virtues of democracy—the Japanese-American internment camps to name a few. I am confident that many of our actions since 9/11 will one day be viewed in a similar light.

As the late Howard Zinn once said, “There is not a flag large enough to cover the shame of killing innocent people.”

I understand that my actions violated the law, and I regret if my actions hurt anyone or harmed the <a title=”United States”. It was never my intention to hurt anyone. I only wanted to help people. When I chose to disclose classified information, I did so out of a love for my country and a sense of duty to others.

If you deny my request for a pardon, I will serve my time knowing that sometimes you have to pay a heavy price to live in a free society. I will gladly pay that price if it means we could have country that is truly conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all women and men are created equal.

STATEMENT OF THE CENTER FOR CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS

August 21, 2013 – Today, in response to the sentencing of Pfc. Bradley Manning, the Center for Constitutional Rights issued the following statement.

We are outraged that a whistleblower and a patriot has been sentenced on a conviction under the Espionage Act. The government has stretched this archaic and discredited law to send an unmistakable warning to potential whistleblowers and journalists willing to publish their information. We can only hope that Manning’s courage will continue to inspire others who witness state crimes to speak up.

This show trial was a frontal assault on the First Amendment, from the way the prosecution twisted Manning’s actions to blur the distinction between whistleblowing and spying to the government’s tireless efforts to obstruct media coverage of the proceedings. It is a travesty of justice that Manning, who helped bring to light the criminality of U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, is being punished while the alleged perpetrators of the crimes he exposed are not even investigated.  Every aspect of this case sets a dangerous precedent for future prosecutions of whistleblowers – who play an essential role in democratic government by telling us the truth about government wrongdoing – and we fear for the future of our country in the wake of this case.

We must channel our outrage and continue building political pressure for Manning’s freedom. President Obama should pardon Bradley Manning, and if he refuses, a presidential pardon must be an election issue in 2016.

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