The chilling massacre of 16 Afghan civilians reportedly killed by a lone U.S. Army sergeant in the Panjwayi district early on Sunday morning has the Obama administration reeling. They should be. Every imperial war and occupation has an “atrocity crisis,”which galvanizes opposition to the occupying forces in-theater, and opposition in the homeland to end the conflict. It remains to be seen if the Panjwayi Massacre will be that crisis moment; but one thing is clear, President Obama is moving with serious dispatch to contain the collateral damage on both fronts.
President Obama took office vowing to strike al-Queda forces inside Pakistan if President Zardari’s government failed to ferret out the nations’ terrorists networks. But after ten months of foot dragging by Pakistan’s military, President Obama’s initial threat to respond to “actionable intelligence” has been replaced by an aggressive U.S. counterterrorist war to change the “facts on the ground.” While international attention has focused on the success or failure of America’s troop surge in Afghanistan, the center of gravity of Obama’s AF-PAC strategy has shifted to Pakistan. The tilt to Pakistan has occurred for two reasons. First Osama bin-Ladin and al Queda’s forces in Pakistan still poses the greatest threat to America’s national security. Thus Obama’s goal of “disrupting, dismantling and destroying” al-Queda calls for sustained air and ground attacks on their base of operations in Pakistan. Second, President Obama is pulling American troops out of Afghanistan. To shorten the war he must force the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table; that means significantly degrading the cross border operations and resupply centers of its two major organizations nesting in Pakistan. To that end Obama has intensified Predator drone attacks and expanded America’s Special Forces operations in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas.
The dangers inherent in President Obama’s counterterrorist strategy are far reaching. The air strikes and U.S. military forces operating inside Pakistan are inflaming anti-American sentiment, undermining President Zardari’s brittle civilian government and strengthening the recruiting power of Pakistan’s Islamic extremists groups. The September 30 U.S. helicopter attack that killed two Pakistani soldiers mistaken for insurgents is a case in point. Pakistan’s government protested the incident by closing a major border crossing that supply U.S.-NATO forces in Afghanistan for ten days. Militants then blew up 55 oil tankers stranded at the strategic Khyber Pass. President Obama is keenly aware of the perils of America’s escalation of counterterrorist actions in Pakistan; but his options are limited. He is also running out of time to change the dynamics of the war in Afghanistan and the cancerous spread of Islamic extremism across Pakistan.
Before officially announcing his AF-PAC policy at West Point Academy in December 2009, President Obama had set his counterterrorist campaign in Pakistan in motion on October 7. Obama ordered C.I.A. Director Leon Panetta to: increase the number of Predator drones operating in Pakistan; expand the grid where drone attacks would be permitted; open new secret U.S. facilities in Pakistan and embed U.S. military advisors in operational Pakistani units. Since coming to office Obama has tripled the number of predator drone attacks in Pakistan compared to President Bush; launching 87 attacks from January 2009 to June 2010 that have claimed over 700 lives. The failed May 1, 2010 New York Times Square bombing attempt by Faisal Shazad–a Pakistani-born American citizen–prompted Obama to further expand America’s secret war in Pakistan. Although Shazad’s makeshift bomb failed to detonate, the discovery that he was trained by the Pakistan Taliban (TTP) unsettled the White House.
On May 19, Obama dispatched National Security Director James Jones and C.I.A. Director Leon Panetta to Pakistan to meet with President Zardari and Pakistan’s Chief of the Army Ashfaq Kayani. The two leaders were told that President Obama would be forced to respond to any future attack on America originating from Pakistan. Although it’s doubtful the United States would implement its current Pakistan “Retribution Plan” that calls for bombing up to 150 known bases of Pakistan’s radical organizations, the message was clear. Zardari and Kayani were also warned that if Pakistan was complicit in any future attacks on India–like the Mumbai massacre–the United States would not be in a position to restrain the Indian government. Jones and Panetta backed up their tough talk with President Obama’s demand that Pakistan engage in full intelligence sharing, provide the United States with its airline passenger lists and expedite visa applications for over 150 American military and intelligence personnel. Still, Zardari and Kayani were non-committal and complained about American encroachments on their sovereignty.
Jones and Panetta left Afghanistan convinced that America needed more boots on the ground in Pakistan. Seeking to limit the exposure of U.S. military personnel in Pakistan, Jones and Panetta moved the Counterterrorism Pursuit Team–a 3000-man paramilitary unit of highly skilled Afghan troops that are paid, trained and controlled by the CIA—across the border into Pakistan. American Predator drones also take off and land at secret facilities inside Pakistan. And the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) now runs a not so covert forward operating base in the port city of Karachi. Recently, Pentagon officials and spokesmen from Blackwater—a private security contracting firm now called “Xe”–have confirmed that Blackwater and its subsidiary Total Intelligence Solutions (T.I.S.) employees are operating in a JSOC secret program inside Pakistan. Blackwater contractors are assisting in conducting targeted assassinations of suspected Taliban and Al Qaeda operatives, “snatch and grabs” of high-value targets and helping to gather intelligence for the Predator drone bombing campaign.
Thus far Obama’s secret wars have concentrated on al-Queda operatives and the Pakistan Taliban TTP (Tehrik e-Taliban). American drone attacks have killed high value al-Queda leaders and Baitullah Mehsud, former leader of the TTP. The recent buildup of U.S. clandestine forces in Pakistan aims to increasingly target the two major Afghan Taliban groups (Haqqani forces in North Waziristan and Mulla Omar’s Quetta Shura in Balochistan) while for the moment ignoring Gulbuddin Hetmayar’s Hizb–i-Islami group based outside of Peshawar. The U.S. wants to disrupt the cross-border movement of Taliban forces, supplies and narcotics smuggling operations that have financially sustained their strongholds in Afghanistan’s Helmand and Kandahar provinces. At the same time, by July 2011 President Obama hopes that U.S.-NATO forces will have gained control of larger swaths of Kandahar and Helmand provinces where most of the fighting is occurring in Afghanistan. Obama’s goal is not to destroy the Haqqani and Quetta Shura safe havens or kill their leaders. Instead he wants to significantly degrade their organizations enough to force them to stay at the negotiating table with President Karzai. Over the past month President Karzai has been holding talks with representatives of the Haqanni network and the Quetta Shura. Indeed, their safe passage to travel to Kabul from Pakistan has been guaranteed by the U.S. military.
Finally, two things can be said about President Obama’s escalation of the counterterrorist war in Pakistan. The attacks against al-Queda and Pakistan’s indigenous Islamic extremists groups are strategic and will continue as long as Islamabad’s government and military permits them to occur. However, the buildup of U.S. Special Forces and covert operations to disrupt the Afghan Taliban’s safe havens in Pakistan is more tactical in nature. It is a key element in President Obama’s strategy to accelerate the process of reaching a political settlement to end the war in Afghanistan and withdraw American troops. Nevertheless the risks to Pakistan and the region are enormous. The possibility that America’s secret war in Pakistan could trigger a chain of events that lead to the fall of President Zardari’s weak government, the outbreak of civil war, renewed conflict with India or most likely a military coup cannot be dismissed. One thing is certain; the contingency plans developed by the U.S. military to prevent Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal from falling into the hands of Islamic radicals won’t be far from President Obama’s desk.
by Webster Brooks
Those who think President Obama’s combat troop withdrawal in Iraq and the 2011 drawdown of forces in Afghanistan signal America’s retreat from the region should think again. Quite the opposite President Obama’s escalation of secret Special Operations in the Middle East and Central Asia mark a shift in America’s military doctrine to pacify the region; it is an aggressive and long-term strategy. The emerging “Ghost Wars” foreshadow the transformation of America’s military from a conventional force to a counterinsurgency (COIN) centered leviathan. Since taking office President Obama has approved an unprecedented number of assassinations of al-Queda and jihadist leaders. Special Operations missions across the region have been scaled up and the new “Unconventional Warfare Task Force Execute Order” allowing U.S. military commanders to launch intelligence gathering operations are well underway. As the vector of a new counterinsurgency strategy President Obama’s “Ghost Wars” are being buttressed by more U.S. military bases in Central Asia, advanced weapons sales to U.S. allies and NATO enlargement in Southern Eurasia. In short, President Obama is reconfiguring American hard power to prevail in the “Long War” in the Middle East and Central Asia’s epic “Great Game.”
Under the veil of waging a war to disrupt, dismantle and destroy al-Queda President Obama’s secret wars constitute a far reaching project. Its three central objectives are: the pacification of anti-American Islamists and militant forces; containing Iran, China and Russia’s regional influence and securing a share of the area’s abundant energy resources. As evidenced by recent events in Kyrgyzstan, Somalia and Yemen the region and its authoritarian regimes are increasingly vulnerable to popular upsurges, succession movements, non-state militia challenges, inter-ethnic and religious conflicts and proxy armies sponsored by foreign governments. These flashpoints of instability call for a new American military response–one that is ubiquitous, mobile, stealth and capable of striking quickly with deadly force. Thus President Obama has already approved Special Operations in Georgia, Ukraine, Pakistan, Somalia, Kenya, Saudi Arabia, Azerbaijan, Turkey, Iran and Yemen. Obama’s “Ghost Wars” are forward-leaning and preemptive as America attempts to shape the outcome of events rather than continuing to react to them.
How to move forward with the “Shadow Wars” has become an intense point of debate with the Obama administration. Since coming to office Obama has tripled the number of predator drone attacks in Pakistan compared to President Bush; launching 87 attacks from January 2009 to June 2010 and claiming over 700 lives. Faulty intelligence rather than inaccurate laser-guided strikes inevitably have resulted in the death of innocent civilians and created sympathy for the very jihadists in Afghanistan and Pakistan that America seeks to kill and isolate.
Yemen is another case in point where four drone attacks have been launched against al-Queda targets since the failed Christmas day bomber’s attempt to detonate a explosive on a flight from London to Detroit. In May, U.S. drone attacks in Marib Province killed the provincial deputy governor–a personal friend of President Saleh—who was negotiating with AQP members to put down their weapons. The Yemen strikes were conducted under the U.S. military’s Special Access Program, which unlike C.I.A. operations required no presidential authorization or notification to the Congressional intelligence committees. White House officials are now debating whether the Yemen campaign should be taken over by the C.I.A. as a “covert operation” which would allow secret operations to be conducted without the central government of Yemen’s approval. In Somalia, after months of official U.S. denials, it was also confirmed that drone attacks against al-Queda and al Shaabab forces have been launched from neighboring Kenya; expanding Obama’s Ghost Wars to continental Africa and the birthplace of his Muslim father.
The success of Obama’s new counterinsurgency strategy will be heavily dependent on America retooling its intelligence operations. The CIA’s failure to anticipate the Taliban’s comeback, the explosive Shi’a-Sunni divide in Iraq, Iran’s nuclear program and al-Queda’s rapid expansion in Yemen are just a few examples of the agency’s inability to grasp the region’s changing dynamics; they underscore the level of ignorance informing America’s foreign policy blunders in Southern Eurasia’s “Islamic Ark of Instability.” Under the new “Unconventional Warfare Task Force Execute Order” signed in September 2009 by General David Petraeus (then CENTCOM Commander) intelligence Special Operations are now being conducted by the U.S. military, private contractors, foreign businesspeople, academics and other “non-traditional” assets. These Execute Orders for reconnaissance missions, the identification of militants, creating “situational awareness” reports and intelligence gathering on strategic targets reflect the military’s desire to lessen its dependency on the C.I.A. General Petraeus’s message to Washington’s was clear; America can no longer prosecute wars like Iraq and Afghanistan or quell insurgencies in nations whose history, culture religions, movements and leaders we know nothing about.
Indeed President Obama’s adoption of the counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy has been largely influenced by General Petraeus, now serving as Commander in Afghanistan. Lionized as the “American Caesar,” Petraeus authored the new U.S. Army/Marine Corp Counterinsurgency Manuel in 2007 and spearheaded the 2008 troop surge in Iraq. He is the chief architect of U.S. counterinsurgency strategy in the region. Following the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq it was Petraeus who led his own rear-guard insurgency of Army generals against President Bush and President Obama to transform CENTCOM from a conventional to a counterinsurgency (COIN) centered force. Former Afghanistan Commander Stanley McChrystal, Former Iraq Commander Ray Ordierno, Iraq’s new Commander Lloyd Austin and Australian military specialist David Kilcullen whose book “The Accidental Guerrilla” articulated counterinsurgency warfare principles are all apostles of Petraeus’s (COIN) school. His disciples held press conferences, published books, engaged in media leaks and went behind the backs of their superiors in Iraq to implement their counterinsurgency strategies. McChrystal’s interview in Rolling Stone magazine which blasted President Obama and the State Department reflected the frustration driving the “General’s Revolt” and their push to re-order military priorities to pursue their counterinsurgency doctrine. Despite McChrystal’s firing for his insubordinate remarks the general’s public relations campaign succeeded in pressuring President Obama to surge an additional 50,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan.
The politics of the “General’s Revolt” also has profound implications for the future. The Iraq and Afghanistan wars demonstrated that effective counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy require significant military involvement in political assessments, negotiations with insurgent forces, reconstruction projects and other nation building components. Thus far the extension of the military’s power into the President and the State Department’s political domain has created confusion, infighting and the lack of a coherency in both wars. Whether General Petreaus can craft a couunterinsurgency strategy that degrades the Taliban’s forces enough to negotiate a political settlement in Afghanistan remains to be seen. Irrespective of the outcome in Afghanistan the strategic shift to a long-term regional counterinsurgency strategy is moving forward.
In many ways Pax Americana is confronting its “British Moment.” As England learned after World War I the burden of maintaining empire is a costly and bloody enterprise. Great Britain took control of most of the Middle East following the breakup of the Ottoman Empire in 1918. Wracked by economic crisis and public weariness with Great Britain’s overseas ventures Winston Churchill withdrew most of England’s troops from Palestine, Syria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia in 1922; cutting the cost of maintaining England’s overseas deployed forces by 75 percent. Instead, Churchill expanded England’s intelligence operations, destabilized countries, assassinated Arab leaders, organized coups in Iran and Iraq, installed pliant regimes, sponsored proxy forces and conjured up oil pipeline routes. President Obama’s Ghost Wars bear all the markings of Britain’s failed global project that ended after World War II. Ironically, the same Middle Eastern and Central Asian nations that Britain literally created by drawing lines on maps to dismember the Ottoman Empire irrespective of ethnicity, culture, language and religion are erupting anew. Fully cognizant of England’s failed fifty year struggle to subdue Afghanistan in order to secure its imperial writ in India, Obama is maneuvering to avoid meeting his Waterloo in Kabul on the Central Asian steppes. With the unleashing of President Obama’s Ghost Wars the U.S. is now fully immersed in the three-dimensional geo-political chess match known as the “Great Game.” However, if history serves as a guide, the next decisive moves may not come from Iran, Russia, China or the United States but the people of Central Asia and the Middle East whose stake in the game makes them far more than sacrificial pawns.
Iraq’s “Shi’a House” (Al-Bayt Al-Shi’i) is in a state of political turmoil. After enduring 1300 years of subjugation before their ascent to power in 2005, Iraq’s Shi’a are on the brink of losing their governing majority. In March’s parliamentary elections the Shi’a split their 60 percent voting majority between Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law (SOL) list and the “Islamists” Iraq National Alliance (INA), allowing Ayad Allawi’s “Iraqqiya’ slate of Sunni parties and secular Shi’a to score a narrow victory. Since the elections the Shi’a have compounded their leadership crisis by failing to convert the 159 seats its two factions won into a governing majority of the 325 seat parliament. The Iraq National Alliance’s refusal to form a majority bloc with State of Law unless al-Maliki resigns as Prime Minister has fractured the Shi’a governing coalition. With the specter of political stalemate looming over Baghdad discontent with al-Maliki’s government is growing. Mounting tension between Kurds and Arabs over the status of Kirkuk, June’s “Electricity Riots” and a spate of terrorist attacks by Salafists forces is destabilizing the country. Coming on the eve of America’s drawdown to 50,000 “support troops” in August the Iraqi government’s leadership crisis is creating a perilous situation on the ground. Against this backdrop Iran has dramatically stepped up its intervention in Iraq to fill the power vacuum it helped to create. Tehran is now transitioning to a post-U.S. occupation end game strategy—the transformation of Iraq into an Iranian proxy state.
Since America’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 Iran’s strategy called for waging a proxy war using Shiite and Sunni military and political assets to prevent the consolidation of a hostile pro-American government in Baghdad. American troops in Iraq posed an existential threat to the survival of Iran’s clerical elite and its principal client state–Syria. In league with Damascus and working through various surrogate forces Iran sought to bleed U.S. armed forces on the battlefield; inflicting sustained casualties over time to frustrate America’s goal of establishing a permanent U.S. military presence on its border. But it was Abu Musab Zarqawi’s transformation of the Sunni insurgency against the U.S. into a civil war against the Shi’a that ultimately lanced America’s Iraq project. With the scheduled withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Iraq in 2011, Iran has all but won the proxy war. However, as the current political deadlock over forming a new government suggests, establishing a pro-Iranian proxy state in Iraq will be a difficult and complex enterprise.
In June Tehran replaced its political point man Qod’s Force Commander Qassim Suleimani with the powerful Iranian parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani and sacked Ambassador Hassan Kazemi-Qomi in favor of former Qod’s Force foreign operations commander Hassan Danafor. Iran’s diplomatic offensive has three central goals in brokering a new Iraqi power sharing arrangement: First to prevent Ayad Allawi (Iraqiyya) and Nouri al-Maliki (SOL) from forming a new coalition government; second to reposition Shi’a political assets to control critical areas of Iraq’s new government and third to prevent the outbreak of a Shi’a-Sunni sectarian war. The key to Iran’s short-term success is removing Nouri al-Maliki as Prime Minister and co-opting Ayad Allawi in a leadership role that minimizes his ability to threaten Iran’s strategic interests. For all these reasons Iran is leaning toward supporting a new coalition government between Iraqiyya and the INA led by its two main Islamists parties—Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi forces and Ammar al-Hakim’s Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI).
With Iraq’s governing crisis entering its fifth month the emergence of an Allawi-Maliki governing coalition is increasingly unlikely but not impossible. While an Iraqiyya-SOL government would not be fatal to Iran’s design to become Iraq’s default power it would constitute a real setback. Allawi and Maliki would control parliament with a majority of 180 seats and have maximum political leverage to name the Prime Minister, President, Speaker of Parliament and heads of the powerful “sovereign ministries.” But talks between Allawi and al-Maliki have failed to make progress. Allawi insists that as the winner of the parliamentary elections Iraqiyya has the right to form the new government. Nouri al-Maliki has argued that Allawi cannot form a majority coalition thus he should be allowed to form a new government with the INA—a cynical argument given that the INA’s Moqtada al-Sada has adamantly refused to support him as Prime Minister. Moreover al-Maliki’s failed power play to steal the election has poisoned the well of reconciliation between Iraqiyya and the State of Law list. Al-Maliki’s demand for an election recount to nullify Iraqiyya list candidates failed to change the election results. Similarly, his directive to Ahmed Chalabi’s Commission for Justice and Accountability to purge 500 Iraqiyya candidates under de-Baathification laws was overturned by Iraqi courts. Not only is al-Maliki looked upon with distain and suspicion by Allawi and his Sunni partners, he is equally despised by his Shi’a and Kurdish brethren.
Since being named as a compromise Prime Minister to replace Ibrahim al-Jafarri in 2006 al Maliki has emerged as a self-serving strongman with an appetite for tyranny. His decision to take the Dawa Party out of the Shi’a governing alliance in the 2009 provincial elections and form the State of Law list created a major crack in the foundation of the Shi’a House. Determined to consolidate his own power, he sought to wrest control over Iraq’s military from Shi’a militias, opposed ISCI proposals to create a Shi’a autonomous region and opportunistically embraced secularism as the fount of Iraqi nationalism. At the insistence of the U.S. and to diminish his Shi’a rivals he directed a series of Iraqi army’s attacks against Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi army and ISCI Badr militia in Basra and across southern Iraq. Resentful of Kurdish regional autonomy and consonant with his mission to preside over a ‘unitary Iraqi state” in 2008 al Maliki dispatched 3000 Iraqi soldiers to drive Kurdish pesh merga forces out of Mosul and the predominantly Kurdish border town of Khanaqin. As a result of the confrontations Kurdish Regional Government Prime Minister Massoud Barzanni and al-Maliki did not speak for over a year. It is al-Maliki’s selfish quest for power that could lead him to cut a deal that substantially diminishes both Shi’a and Iran’s influence. Therefore it is not surprising that Tehran is edging toward supporting an INA-Iraqiyya governing coalition.
Iran’s opening to Iraqiyya began in April when Iraqiyya sent messages to Iran stating “Iraq’s territory will not be used by the Americans to attack Iran.” Iran then agreed to receive a delegation from Iraqiyya and in July the resurrected Moqtada al-Sadr convened a meeting with Ayad Allawi in Damascus hosted by Syrian President Assad. After the meeting al-Sadr said Iraqiyya was “ready to make concessions to put an end to Iraq’s political crisis. Given Iraqiyya’s strong election showing Iran and its INA supporters have conceded that attempting to cut Allawi and his Sunni list out of power could renew sectarian war. Iran’s problem is how to maneuver Allawi out of the Prime Minister’s post or to strip the premier’s portfolio of some of its powers.
As Prime Minister Allawi would be Commander-in-Chief of Iraq’s armed forces and appoint the Minister of Interior and Defense which also control the intelligence services. It is the concentration of the coercive instruments of state power in the hands of Ayad Allawi that the Shi’a and Iran fear most. Since Allawi first formed the Iraqi National Accord in exile in 1990 he was the consensus choice of the CIA and Britain’s M-16 intelligence community to replace Saddam Hussien. An ex-Baathist officer with extensive ties to key military and intelligence figures Allawi argued that organizing a coup to topple Hussien would allow the Baathist bureaucracy to maintain control in Iraq and eliminate Iranian-backed Shi’a Islamists from seizing the portals of state power—which is precisely what happened. As Iraq’s interim government Prime Minister in 2004-05 Allawi maintained former Baathists military and intelligence officers in high level defense and security positions until he was swept out of office in Iraq’s 2005 elections. Allawi’s ability to unite the Sunni’s major political parties and former Baathists under Iraqiyya’s banner remains the source of his political power.
What happens next in Iraq will likely be a replay of the four-month power struggle after the 2005 elections that culminated in Ibrahim Jaafari narrowly winning the Prime Minister’s post. However, sectarian bloodshed, Iraq’s faltering economy and charges that Jaafari was bent on consolidating Shi’a control at the expense of the Sunni and Kurds eventually created a political firestorm that made his selection as Prime Minister untenable. Today’s prolonged post-election power struggle, widespread dissatisfaction with Nouri al-Maliki’s government and his own dictatorial actions are fueling a similar consensus among the Shi’a, Sunni and Kurds that he step down as Prime Minister. Thus far Iran has been content to let the leadership crisis fester in the hope that an “Iraqi consensus” emerges to dump al-Maliki. An inter-Shi’a war to remove al-Maliki would further divide “The Shi’a House” and make it much more difficult to bring wavering members of the Dawa Party back into the Shi’a fold.
While there are many contentious issues involving an alliance between the INA and Irraqiyya, Iran’s primary concern is who will control the military, internal security and intelligence forces. It’s worth noting that in 2005 the most pro-Iranian party–the Islam Supreme Council of Iraq– had the votes to place Abdel al Mahdi in the Prime Minister’s post. Instead they dumped Jafaari and agreed to seat al-Maliki to placate Moqtada al-Sadr and gain control of the Ministry of Interior, the Ministry of Defense and the intelligence services. These “sovereign ministries” were critical to the Shi’a victory in the sectarian war with the Sunni and provided Iran with strategic depth inside Iraq’s military and security establishment.
It remains to seen whether Iran can maneuver al-Maliki out of the Prime Minister’s post and strike a deal with Ayad Allawi that leaves Iraq’s armed forces, security and intelligence arms under Shi’a control. What is clear is that Iran’s ability to shape the outcome of the power struggle is substantial. The withdrawal of U.S. troops has greatly diminished Washington’s clout on the ground in Iraq as was evidenced by cool reception Vice-President Biden received in July from all the contending factions. Iran has also been helped by the Kurd’s decision at this juncture not to further complicate matters by using its 43 parliamentary seats to play kingmaker. The Kurds will present thier list of demands once a potential governing coalition emerges. That said, Iran has multiple players and options to orchestrate its post-U.S. occupation strategy.
To be sure Iraq’s “Shi’a House” is not a monolithic group, nor do they march in lockstep with Iran. But Tehran’s supple strategy of providing aid and support to all the Shi’a factions without isolating or relying on any one faction gives Iran great flexibility on the ground. Iran was well served by Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi army directly confronting U.S. forces in Southern Iraq and providing the muscle for the Shi’a’s deadly sectarian battles with the Sunni. Despite their differences with Tehran, both Shi’a Prime Ministers—Jafaari and al-Maliki of the Dawa Party were also heavily dependent on Iranian largesse. And the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq has been instrumental in extending Iran’s influence over Iraq’s clerical establishment and its pious Shi’a Muslim community. Qom slowly but surely seeks to displace Najaf as the global center of Shi’a scholarship and jurisprudence while containing Ayatollah Sistani’s political clout within Iraq.
On March 8 Kyrgyzstan’s “Second Tulip Revolution” toppled the dictatorship of President Kermanbek Bakiyev after a two-day rising that was sparked by electricity price increases and the arrests of opposition leaders. Unlike the Rose and Orange “revolutions” of Georgia and Ukraine that were directed against Russian domination, Kyrgyzstan’s “Second Tulip Revolution” enjoyed Moscow’s strong support. Veteran opposition leader Roza Otunbayeva announced that a new provisional government had taken control of Kyrgyzstan and promised to lead the nation to a new era of constitutional reform and democracy. One day later (March 9) Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin recognized Ms. Otunbayeva’s government, offered aid to the new regime and transferred troops to the capital city of Bishkek to protect Russian soldiers and families at Kant air base. Russia’s immediate recognition of the new regime stunned the United States and sent a strong signal to Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and China that any interference in Kyrgyzstan would be frowned upon in Moscow. The sudden turn of events in Kyrgyzstan underscores Russia’s determination to reassert its hegemony over Central Asia, the Caucuses and its “Near Abroad.” With the electoral victory of Ukraine’s pro-Russian president Victor Yanukovich in February and the Georgian secessionist wars that returned South Ossetia and Abkhazia to Russia’s sphere of influence, the Kremlin is flexing its muscle and rebuilding great power nationalism. The overthrow of Baktiyev’s regime has also shaken up Central Asia’s other dictators, disrupted the United States logistical buildup for its summer offensive in Kandahar and left China with a potential civil war on its border. Indeed, the Second Tulip Revolution has touched off a dangerous round of contention in the “Tournament of Shadows”–the “Great Game” of military and political rivalry between the United States, Russia, China, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and NATO over control of Central Asia and its vast energy resources.
Ironically the Kyrgyz rising occurred while President Obama was in Prague to sign the New START Treaty with President Medvedev. Obama was briefed on the revolt and the temporary suspension of U.S. operations at Kyrgyzstan’s Manas airbase–the central transit point to airlift American soldiers and supplies to Afghanistan. Taking refuge at his family compound in southern Kyrgyzstan the deposed Bakiyev refused to resign the presidency or accept safe passage out of the country. Instead he called on the United Nations to send peace keeping forces to prevent the country from splintering into a civil war—a civil war he now seeks to provoke. The Second Tulip Revolution is now entering a decisive phase to consolidate power. Roza Otunbayeva’s coalition is weak but slowly gaining control of the army, border guards and police forces in Bishkek, Osh and Jalalabad. Her most formidable obstacle to restoring authority is placing former President Baktiyev under arrest or forcing him into exile. While Baktiyev’s return to power is highly unlikely his presence in Kyrgyzstan has the potential to inflame longstanding sectional divisions between southern and northern Kyrgyz and between its Uzbek minority (15% of population) the Kyrgyz majority. As the co-leader of Kyrgyzstan’s 2005 Tulip Revolution that brought Baktiyev to power, Otunbayeva knows her only hope to stabilize the new provisional government is to undertake sweeping democratic reforms. To that end Otunbayeva has set a six-month deadline to amend the constitution, transfer more power from the presidency to the parliament, increase the authority of the provinces, end nepotism and bring transparency to the government’s contracting process. In throwing its weight behind Otunbayeva’s coalition, Russia is undertaking a risky enterprise of underwriting a democratic revolution that far exceeds the freedoms it grants its own citizens and its other client states in Central Asia.
The Kyrgyz rising presented Russia with its best opportunity to finally gain the leverage it needs to force the closing the U.S. air base at Manas—one of its strategic objectives in driving American influence out of Central Asia. In 2009 Russia negotiated a deal with Bakiyev to close Manas in exchange for $150 million in aid and a $2 billion loan. But months later Bakiyev reversed his decision on Manas when the United States increased its rent from $17 million to $62 million along with $150 million in other concessions. Russia was infuriated at Bakiyev. With Roza Otunbayeva’s ascendancy to power Putin and Medvedev now have a trusted ally leading Kyrgyzstan. In the midst of the takeover in Bishkek Otunbayeva’s first phone call was to Vladimir Putin. Two days later she dispatched a delegation to Moscow Friday for talks with senior Russian officials headed by Almaz Atambayev, her first deputy minister. A fluent speaker of English and Russian, Otunbayeva attended Moscow State University in the 1970’s before climbing up the ladder of the old Soviet Communist Party. Having served as Kyrgyzstan’s foreign minister and ambassador to the United States and the United Kingdom, Otunbayeva is a serious political force in her own right. Just two days after the provisional government took power in Kyrgyzstan, Otunbayeva stated that the terms of the U.S. Manas airbase lease would be reviewed and possibly amended. It wasn’t until Monday March 12 that Otunbayeva assured U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake that her government would honor the lease agreement for the next year. However the lease that expires in 2014 must be renewed annually, therefore Kyrgyzstan can revoke the agreement before 2014. It is doubtful that the Kyrgyz government will cancel the Manas agreement in the short run. The new government desperately needs the revenue generated by the lucrative Manas lease. It is also in Russia’s interests that the United States militarily cripples the Taliban in Afghanistan to the greatest extent possible before scheduled U.S. troop withdrawals begin in 2011. Russia wants to insure that the Taliban does not come to power on its southern perimeter and ignite a wave of Islamic extremism amongst its 20 million Muslims. The March 31 terrorist bombing last week in Dagestan that killed twelve people at a Russian security facility was a stark reminder that the potential for Muslim extremists attacks from Chechnya to Moscow are highly destabilizing to Russia’s authoritarian powers.
For Russia and the United States the stakes of what happens next in Kyrgyzstan are high. Kyrgyzstan’s Second Tulip Revolution is a warning to both countries of the dangers of supporting dictators against the legitimate aspirations of the people. Kyrgyzstan has been a pawn in the ongoing power struggle over Central Asia between the U.S. and Russia and between competing Central Asian nations for the past two decades. More than any other Central Asian nation Kyrgyzstan has attempted to build a more democratic and independent nation. It was the first Central Asian nation in 1991 to elect a non-communist president (Askar Akayev) in the post-Soviet era, the first to have multi-party democratic elections in 1995, and the first Central Asian nation to enter the World Trade Organization in 1998 to liberalize its economy. Those democratic efforts were systematically undermined by Russia by cutting off all funding to Kyrgyzstan when it gained independence. For the United States Kyrgyzstan has been nothing more than an air supply base to support its war in Afghanistan and a forward military outpost to project power on Russia and China’s doorstep. Threatened by Kyrgyzstan’s turn to the West, neighboring Kazahkstan cut off oil and gas shipments to Bishkek in 2000. Uzbekistan supported a rebellion of the Uzbek minority in Southern Kyrgyzstan that pushed the country to the brink of civil war. And China relentlessly pressured the Kyrgyz government to crack down on its minority Uighur Muslim minority that it claimed was supporting Chinese Uighur insurgents in Xinjaing Province.
Despite the efforts of the all the countries that have sought to trample on Kyrgyzstan’s sovereignty in their struggle for supremacy in energy rich Central Asia, the Kyrgyz people have continued to rebel against foreign domination. Homegrown dictators have fared even worse. For the moment, Roza Utunbayeva and Kyrgyzstan’s new leadership are tilting toward Moscow. Likewise, Russia has moved decisively to back the new regime in hopes of regaining control of its former republic to blunt U.S. interests in Central Asia. Utunbayeva and Putin may have grabbed the Kyrgyzstan tiger by the tail. But history suggests holding on to it is quite another matter. We have not heard the last from the people of Kyrgyzstan. There will be more to come in Central Asia’s “Tournament of Shadows.”