Friday, October 2, 2009

The Middle East Wrap

You'll have to accept my apologies for not writing much lately. I'll try to make up for it today by covering just about everything worth covering in the Middle East (and on Monday I'll try to update the rest of the world).

IRAN: Iran's secret nuclear facility has been exposed by intel; Iran's attempts to minimize political losses by admitting it publicly and agreeing to talks worked better than I had anticipated. Israel is currently pulling their hair out over the issue: previously, they had been mulling an airstrike on the known above-ground Iranian facility. The second, underground one has likely ruled that option out. And, as usual, Israel is not ready to depend on Western negotiations and sanctions to solve its problems.

Iran also scored a big win in getting a 2-week "deadline" for an IAEA inspection of the facility, which should allow Iran enough time to clean it up of anything obviously bomb-related (bombs require much higher-level enrichment, for example) and be ready with smiles and open doors for the IAEA inspectors. After the Iraq debacle, the West is going to be hard-pressed to listen to a US or UK insist that it has good intel about WMD operations in a Middle Eastern country without more neutral parties willing to corroborate the story. Iran is likely to manoeuvre its way out of this with limited backlash, frustrating just about everyone (Diplomacy, they say, is a bitch).

Whether that means Iran is significantly closer to the manufacture of an atom bomb is anyone's guess from outside of classified intelligence, but a declassified British report gives them a few years, where the US published a few years ago that such activities had halted in 2005. Such a disagreement in opinion is not surprising, but it does mean that public policymaking will be marred by second-guessing.

Edit: New UN report says that Iran has the "data" to make a nuclear weapon (which is not actually all that difficult, but is a significant declaration).

AFGHANISTAN: McChrystal continues to press the point of getting more troops in Afghanistan, and Obama has continued to leave the issue on the backburner, insisting on a strategic review before going ahead with the decision. As much as it frustrates me to see little action, it's probably the right move: this is key point where Obama has to decide whether to turn Afghanistan into a major hell-raising back-breaking tax-spending mess, or a defeat. Waiting on a decision is easier than reversing one (it is very hard to declare defeat without a changing of the guard--see LBJ and Nixon), but every moment of wait erodes support, as well.

I am, personally, highly torn on the decision. While I don't think there is a "Domino" style theory to be applied here, I do think surrendering Afghanistan will put Pakistan at great risk, which will be a nightmare for India, as well as the US. They do call Afghanistan the "Graveyard of Empires," but the stakes are even higher now. Will the now-well-trained, well-funded, and very spiteful Taliban continue to foster al-Qaeda to strike at the US? The likelihood of retribution the size of 2001 will be very low if NATO walks out of Afghanistan with its tail between its legs. On the other hand, Afghanistan seems more hopeless to me than ever, in particular because NATO does not have a legitimate "good guy" government to support. NATO has resigned to supporting Karzai if he stays in power, which is looking all the more likely, if for no other reason than inertia. Given clear fraud, will his win be any more legitimate than that of Mr. Ahmedinejad in Iran? Afghanis are not dumb people, and they will know and understand, especially if they voted against him. In a normal, clean election, the losing side of the electorate can say, "well, he is not who I wanted, but he is who the majority of the country wanted." If that is not something that's believed, then the bitterness of loss becomes a force for rebellion and resistance. And do you know who's the best source for such opposition? Yeah, you guessed it.

(...if you did not guess it, I am alluding here to The Taliban).

PAKISTAN: Apparently Meshud is dead, which is pretty good news for them. (If you don't know, Meshud just recently took over as head of the Pakistani Taliban, after burning a lot of bridges to do so) Without his strong arm to keep the factions (that he exacerbated) in line, might the Pakistani Taliban begin to fracture?

Swat seems to be returning to normal, but the military has not yet moved on to Waziristan, as expected. This is almost certainly due to a hasty and significant quieting of activity from the Pakistani Taliban after the Swat operation. This was likely a strategic move, designed to give the Taliban in Pakistan time to regroup and resupply from the north, all the while avoiding giving the Pakistani military the necessary public support to act.

ISRAEL/OPT: As usual, a rather hopeless-looking mess. Obama's tripatriate talks fizzled before they were even lit. Settlements continue to be built in the West Bank, and Israel has hit some tunnels and weapons facilities with airstrikes after themselves being hit by rockets. But such activity is too normal to even seriously get international attention anymore. I expect that peace talks will not resume in earnest until the next Israeli election, if then.

IRAQ: Civilian casualty numbers continue to fluctuate, though they're lower than last year. The US is taking almost zero hits, meaning that the war/occupation in Iraq is effectively over. The Arab-Kurdish split continues to grow, though, and chaos allows al-Qaeda to operate in Kiruk and Mosul even to this day. But the Iraqi Army continues to grow in size and skill; when it is powerful enough, it will become an effective bargaining tool against the Kurds, but their most-favored-minority status by the US in particular may prompt them to call victim with some gusto before giving up their bids for autonomy, power, territory, and oil.

OBAMA (in general): He is (hopefully) finding that his personality is not enough to solve the Middle East's problems, and that some serious realpolitik must be played to convince other leaders/countries to act in ways favorable to the US. After failures of overture with Iran, Russia (how many "resets" have we had since January? Seriously!?), Pakistan, and the European partners that we so desperately hoped would love us again after ushering in the new president, we're going to have to buckle down and play the game of strongmen that we apparently so very much hate ourselves for playing.
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