Military Dominance in Mideast Proven a Costly Myth

WASHINGTON, Mar 5 (IPS) — The arguments for maintaining a major U.S. combat force in Iraq at least through 2011, escalating U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan and assuming a confrontational stance toward Iran appear to assume that the United States remains the dominant military power in the region.

But the pattern of recent history and current developments in the region has not supported that assumption. Not only has the United States been unable to prevail over stubborn nationalist and sectarian forces determined to resist U.S. influence, but it has not been able to use its military supremacy to wage successful coercive diplomacy against Iran.

Furthermore, even the ability of the United States to maintain troops in Iraq and Afghanistan turns out to be dependent on regimes which are by no means aligned with the United States.

Six years ago, after the United States had removed the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq, the U.S. appeared to be militarily dominant in the region. Apart from its nearly 200,000 troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States had surrounded Iran with a network of airbases scattered across the region from the Persian Gulf sheikdoms through Iraq and Afghanistan to the Central Asian republics of Kyrgystan and Uzbekistan, along with aircraft on U.S. ships in the Persian Gulf.

Since 2003, however, events in the region have dealt a series of blows to the assumption that the U.S. military presence in general and ground forces in particular confer real power in the region. The first blow was the U.S. failure to subdue the Sunni insurgency in Iraq. By mid-2005, U.S. commanders in Iraq were admitting publicly that the U.S. military occupation was generating more resistance than it was eliminating.

The next blow was the Sunni-Shi’a civil war in Baghdad in 2006, which U.S. troops were unable to prevent or stop, even after the Bush “surge” of additional troops. The “cleansing” of Sunni neighbourhoods in Baghdad by Shi’a militias with the tacit support of the government ended only after a large swath of Sunni neighbourhoods in the capital had been taken over. That fact contradicts the later boast by Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, that “coalition forces” had “broken the cycle of sectarian violence in Iraq”.

The decision by Sunni insurgents to cooperate with the U.S. military in 2006 and 2007 was not the result of U.S. military prowess but of their defeat at the hands of Shi’a militias and the realisation that the Sunnis could not oppose three enemies (the U.S., the Shi’a militias and al Qaeda) simultaneously.

It also enabled the Shi’a government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, which had close ties to Iran, to consolidate its power and to achieve a crucial degree of independence from the United States.

The George W. Bush administration and the U.S. military command continued to assume that it would be able to keep its Iraqi bases indefinitely. In mid-2007, Defence Secretary Robert Gates invoked the Korean model — a decades-long garrisoning of tens of thousands of U.S. troops — as the plan for Iraq.

But in July 2008, the al-Maliki government began demanding that all U.S. troops leave the country by the end of 2010. After initially refusing to believe that the troop withdrawal demand was serious, the Bush administration was forced eventually to agree to withdraw all U.S. troops by the end of 2011.

The evolution of Iraqi politics belies the popular narrative that Gen. David Petraeus miraculously rescued the U.S. war from a bad strategy and ultimately prevailed over U.S. “enemies,” including Iran

In its conflict with Iran over its nuclear programme, the Bush administration tried to intimidate Tehran by seizing Iranians in Iraq and wielding indirectly the threat of attack against its nuclear facilities. But coercive diplomacy did not work, largely because Iran could credibly threaten to respond to a U.S. or Israeli attack with unconventional attacks against U.S. bases and troops — and possibly even warships — in the Persian Gulf region.

Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, where the United States had appeared to be in control from 2001 to 2005, the Taliban and other insurgent groups have grown rapidly since then and become the de facto government in large parts of the Pashtun region of the country. The U.S. military presence has been unable to slow the rise of the insurgents in those rural areas.

The most recent blow to the image of U.S. military dominance in the region has been the revelation that the United States lacks a reliable access route for supply of its troops in Afghanistan. The U.S. military has long relied on the route through the Khyber Pass in Pakistan to transport about 80 percent of all supplies for Afghanistan.

But in 2008, allies of the Taliban began disrupting the U.S. logistics route through the Khyber Pass so effectively that it could not longer be counted on to supply U.S. forces. That meant that United States had to find another access route for supplying its troops in Afghanistan.

David Petraeus, the new CENTCOM commander, traveled to Central Asia to secure promises of a new route into Afghanistan from Russian ports overland to Kazakhstan and then through Uzbekistan to northern Afghanistan.

But this alternative scheme would rely on Russian cooperation, giving a rival for power in Central and Southwest Asia a veto power over U.S. military presence in the region. The Kyrgyz president announced during a trip to Moscow in early February that he was ending the agreement on U.S. use of the air base at Manas. That was a signal that Russia would cooperate with the U.S. military only insofar as it was consistent with Russian dominance in Central Asia.

Relying on Uzbekistan for transit of NATO supplies for Afghanistan was another highly tenuous feature of the Petraeus plan. The Karimov regime, notorious for its abuse of human rights, faces an Islamist insurgency that could well disrupt supply routes through the country.

A much shorter and far more secure route into Afghanistan would be from the Iranian port of Chabahar through the Western Afghan city of Heart to the Ring Highway which serves all major Afghan cities. NATO’s top commander in Afghanistan said on Feb. 3 that NATO would “not oppose” bilateral deals with Iran for supplying troops through that country.

Significantly, the Pentagon has made contingency plans for the use of the Iranian route, according to one well-informed former U.S. official. That suggests that the Russian-Central Asian route was regarded as far from certain.

On the other hand, the U.S. military is not likely to regard reliance on its regional rival for power in the Middle East as a solid basis for its military presence in Afghanistan.

Obama administration officials are still talking about Middle East policy as though the U.S. military presence has conferred decisive influence over developments in the region. However, the events of the past six years have shown that to be a costly myth. They have underlined a truth that few in Washington find palatable: geography and local socio-political dynamics have trumped U.S. military power — and are very likely continue to do so in the future.

Gareth Porter is an independent investigative journalist and historian and winner of the 2012 Gellhorn Prize for Journalism. His latest book, with John Kiriakou, is The CIA Insider’s Guide to the Iran Crisis: From CIA Coup to the Brink of War. Read other articles by Gareth.

11 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. bozh said on March 6th, 2009 at 11:37am #

    a question is cropping in my brain, Will the planners [whoever they may be? does anyone know?] give up the occupation of iraq, afgh’n, palestine, or even pak’n?

    will the war planners flinch back from any difficulties anent continuance of the occupations and throwing missiles on houses?
    not likely, huh? aren’t they quite comfortable and well paid and with faces to save.

    as they say, the soldiers volunteered for, among things, also for combat bombings, and missilings.

    so what’s a losing a few thousand more of the uneducated/dumb amers to the ruling class?
    we are now PlanetUSA. natch, people must die for the acquisition of it. natch, planners knew that!?. thnx

  2. danny ray said on March 6th, 2009 at 3:34pm #

    The real problem with the wars in Iraq and the Stan is the same as with any war where the politicians retain absolute control over the fighting force. The militaries hands are tied. No where can the US military bring enough force to bear to finish the fight without some weak kneed Politian screaming “you could hurt someone doing things like that” . No one in power understands the abiding factor of use of military force, and that is the Army is supposed to kill people and break things. You win a war by killing enough people and breaking enough things that the other side says it’s not worth it anymore. You cannot win a war by being nice to the other side. I am NOT saying we need reprisals but if the bad guys hide in a church the church needs to be knocked down. I was in the sand box when the Shia started clearing the Sunni out of Bagdad, we knew where their leader was and could have killed him in a min but the brass and national command authority said that it was too risky we might have hurt some of the people with him. so we let things get to a point that we can’t d any thing about. If you hang out with a mad dog don’t think it a surprise when a 500 pounder falls thru your roof.

    And while we are on the subject the other reason we are not winning ( I believe we are but I will not argue the point) is that we have lost the Information war. We cannot print a body count. ( I can tell you we have killed a damn site less than a million) And every time we drop on a cluster of the bastards they shout it was a wedding. Every time we engage they run away and hide in some civilaian farmers and we are not allowed to go get them.

  3. danny ray said on March 6th, 2009 at 3:49pm #

    War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things. The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth war is much worse. The person who has nothing for which he is willing to fight, nothing which is more important than his own personal safety, is a miserable creature and has no chance of being free unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself.
    John Stuart Mill

  4. bozh said on March 6th, 2009 at 4:28pm #

    rayo, stuart mills may have said that. but has he foud such a person that is the question?

    and he says, does he, that war is not the worst thing; there are some minor occurrences that are worse than a war.
    but did he name a war, any war of his choice, that was better that 1,2, 3 … people [how many did stuart discover?] who thought that “nothing is worth war” .
    was stuart considered a smart person? from that quote he appears of quite low intelligence.
    btw, does stuart quote a person who actually uttered that nothing is worth war and having written/said that, this constitutes a graver act than a war; which one, of aggression or defence?
    how about the trojan war? was it worse to let paris have helen the whore than to get the whore back by waging a war for her?
    mind you, i do not know that she was a whore; maybe, she was a virgin but for my purpose virgin or whore will do. thnx, rayo, that was amusing; keep it up!
    you can better that quote by quoting papa benedicto, hitler, falwell, bush, sharon, mcarthur, petraeus, hillary, et al.
    but whatever you do, don’t you quote me; i’ll do that.

  5. danny ray said on March 6th, 2009 at 4:32pm #

    No worries about that my friend.

  6. danny ray said on March 6th, 2009 at 4:37pm #

    Sorry bozh, Maybe the full Quote will help.

    But war, in a good cause, is not the greatest evil which a nation can suffer. War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things: the decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks nothing is worth a war, is worse. When a people are used as mere human instruments for firing cannon or thrusting bayonets, in the service and for the selfish purposes of a master, such war degrades a people. A war to protect other human beings against tyrannical injustice – a war to give victory to their own ideas of right and good, and which is their own war, carried on for an honest purpose by their free choice – is often the means of their regeneration. A man who has nothing which he is willing to fight for, nothing which he cares more about than he does about his personal safety, is a miserable creature who has no chance of being free, unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself. As long as justice and injustice have not terminated their ever-renewing fight for ascendancy in the affairs of mankind, human beings must be willing, when need is, to do battle for the one against the other.

  7. Barry said on March 7th, 2009 at 7:40am #

    I WISH the military’s hands were tied. To the extent that they are tied – good. The US is NOT the ‘good guy.’ This is not a cowboy movie. There are no ‘bad guys’ hiding in churches. They are not hiding at all – it’s their country. The best thing the US could do now in Afghanistan is build roads, build schools, set up cell phone service, complete an electricity grid, set up clinics, and buy everything that nascent Afghani industries produce. And draw down the troops to zero asap. And go home.

  8. bozh said on March 7th, 2009 at 8:13am #

    hi rayo, thnx for full quote,
    i am still at sea about even with the full quote. i expected you’d respond and if you had been silly i wld have wanted to slap you across your cheeky cheeks.

    stuart is overgeneralizing; generalizations cannot be proven wrong or right.
    i still say one has to defend self when attacked and even kill if one sees [{in}correctly] that one is going to lose one’s life. thnx

  9. danny ray said on March 7th, 2009 at 9:04am #

    I live in fear of you bozh 🙂
    Barry, we do build roads, and Muj blows them up. we do build schools and Muj disfigures little girls who dare go to them, we do work on the electric grid, and guess what? muj considers it an honor to shut it down. we do build clinics and as soon as we leave muj shows up and kills the staff and any patients there are tortured. If some gilzai starts a factory they are extorted by Muj until they have to close down and God forbid that, some Tajik or worse Hindu or Christian try to set a factory up. Then it’s a bloodbath.
    Muj is not the freedom fighter you seem to think he is, he is a theocratic asshole who thinks its ok to kill children for a cause, or to kill his wife if she objects to anything he does or to kill a woman for adultery because six guys from a village down the road held her down and raped her. Or what about killing your little girl because she did not want to marry a 40 year old man. Barry if you think these are the fucking good guys you are out of your fucking mind. This may not be a cowboy movie but we are there to save a people from a bunch of savages. I know you hate America so do a lot of people but if you think The stand was a paradise before we got there you got a warped perspective.

  10. bozh said on March 7th, 2009 at 9:36am #

    you are cheeky,
    by dwelling on ripples and not on tsunamis.
    aggression is by far worse crime; causing other tsunamis, waves, and ripples.
    natch, it is preferable for s’mone who approbates s’mbody’s crimes to dwell on victims faults, cruelty, etc.

    yet even islamic shamanism is better than the judaic and christians.
    islam does not call for destruction of human specie while christianity and judaism do.
    ok, islam treats their women much worse than other two shamanistic cults.
    but the crimes against islamic land by judeo-christian lands/empiers are much greater than vice-versa.
    tx for your cheekiness.

  11. Yanaar said on March 7th, 2009 at 9:37am #

    C’mon, these are economic/oil wars. They’ll go on as long as the world is oil dependent. Focus on energy alternatives… that’s the best way to defeat these insane wars.