As the U.S. military departs Iraq, it’s worthwhile to consider just how wrong the Americans got it both there and in Afghanistan. By misreading the political and historical realities, they tried − and failed − to turn both into modern nation-states.
The last few months have not been kind to the war being waged by the United States in Afghanistan and Iraq. On the one hand, President Barack Obama has announced that all U.S. troops will leave Iraq by the end of 2011, but both American and Iraqi military commanders maintain that this timetable is not realistic. Acts of violence between Shi'ites and Sunnis continue and multiply; dozens of civilians are killed each week in suicide attacks that are no longer reported by media outlets; and almost four months after the elections, a government has yet to assemble in Baghdad - despite the fact that the Americans were supposed to hand over security responsibility to Iraqi forces at the end of August, and remain in the country only in the capacity of advisers.
Obama focused his energies on victory in Afghanistan, and reinforced American troops in that country. It turns out, however, that Taliban forces are getting stronger, and American casualties in that country reached record levels last month. Clearly, neither troops from America, nor those of President Hamid Karzai, are in control of most areas of the country.
The dismissal of Gen. Stanley McChrystal bears witness to America's strategic failure. The U.S. finds itself supporting Karzai, whose electoral victory was undoubtedly the product of mass fraud, whose regime is corrupt and who conducts negotiations with the Taliban. Nobody is under the illusion that the parliamentary elections due to be staged in Afghanistan this month will provide stability and legitimacy to the existing regime. Even those who believed that the U.S. was justified in toppling the Taliban regime after the September 11 attacks, and in ousting Saddam Hussein's government, are compelled to admit that after the two military campaigns - which, of course, illustrated America's military power - Washington has utterly failed to create an alternative political reality.
In both cases, this is a double failure. First of all, it is rooted in the naive, quasi-messianic belief of the Bush administration that after the fall of the Taliban and Saddam's removal, it would be possible to create democratic governments in their respective countries. This view overlooked the fact that the establishment of democracy is a prolonged process that cannot be imposed by coercion at gunpoint, on societies whose political traditions lack either basic civil society infrastructures or an institutional framework capable of fashioning and upholding a democratic system.
Elections can be held but, as proven in different ways in Iraq and Afghanistan, the results simply pass on structural problems to a different level. It is clear to all observers today that whatever the future holds in store for these two countries after the Americans' departure, democracy will not take shape there.
But the Americans' most serious failure has received insufficient attention. Their working assumption regarding Afghanistan and Iraq ignored the basic facts that not only do both countries lack a reasonable chance of developing democratic processes, but also that both are far from being coherent political entities, in the modern sense. Within their current borders, Iraq and Afghanistan are products of Western imperialism that imposed political unity and boundaries on regions where political consolidation had not arisen as a result of local or national developments.
With its present boundaries, Iraq is a consequence of British imperial policy at the end of World War I, when the United Kingdom and France divided between themselves parts of the dismantled Ottoman Empire. Britain put together three Ottoman districts, and created the new political entity of Iraq, which had never before existed in this form. The Basra district is primarily Shi'ite Arab; the Baghdad district has a Sunni Arab majority; and the Mosul district is primarily Kurdish. These three parts were united into one country, and the British gave the reins of power over it to the Hashemite dynasty, whose roots are in the Arabian Peninsula.
It very quickly became evident that the only way to govern this ethnic-religious mosaic was by force. Saddam's regime was merely the last of a string of cruelly repressive Iraqi governments. Since the 1930s, Iraqi history has been an ongoing roster of revolts staged by the Kurds and other minorities. From the Hashemite days through Saddam, all the hegemonic Arab Sunni regimes brutally suppressed not only revolts staged by Kurds, but also horrifically massacred the Assyrian Christian minority.
Elections held as a result of the American occupation created a partisan political reality founded on ethnic identities. The Shi'ite majority, which had been repressed politically since Iraq's establishment, suddenly found itself in positions of power, with a parliamentary majority; its policy has been designed to use all means to guarantee its own hegemony. In the north, the Kurdish minority succeeded in seizing the historic opportunity that had unfolded, and established de facto autonomy in most areas where it is a majority. Sometimes this process entailed the eviction of Sunni Arab settlers who had been brought to the region in Saddam's day. The question of control in the mixed city of Kirkuk, which has a large Turkmen presence, remains unresolved.
Elections did not create a multi-party democracy in Iraq. Instead, they fostered separate ethno-religious blocs. With its various components, the country is not exactly coming apart, but the difficulties in establishing a government after the elections - and the extreme measure of autonomy enjoyed by the Kurds - raise serious questions about the country's ability to survive as a coherent political entity. What is clear is that Iraq is not a nation-state in the modern meaning of the term; certainly it is not an Arab state, in terms of the conventional Arab national narrative.
The Great Game
Afghanistan's borders were set in the 19th century as a result of a series of military and diplomatic maneuvers undertaken by Russia in the north, and by Britain, ruler of India, in the south. As part of what was called the Great Game, the two powers whittled away the borders of various central Asian kingdoms and dynasties; what is today called Afghanistan is what remained after this nibbling was completed.
Afghanistan's borders were arbitrarily determined by two powers that paid no heed to historical, linguistic or ethnic connections. Even the strange finger that juts up in north-eastern Afghanistan has its roots in a British-Russian decision to create a buffer between Russian regions in the north and British India's borders in the south; the buffer's purpose was to prevent the establishment of a tension-fraught border between Russia and Britain.
Unsurprisingly, there is no Afghan language. The two main spoken languages in the country are a Persian dialect called Dari and Pashto, used by the country's largest ethnic group, the Pashtuns. Over the last two centuries, more or less, the Pashtun people have ruled Afghanistan. The Afghan monarchy that was overturned in 1973, the communist elite, the Taliban, President Karzai - all have been Pashtuns.
Demographic estimates, however, indicate that the Pashtuns constitute only about 40 percent of the Afghani population. The remainder is comprised of a number of ethnic groups: Tajiks (25 percent ), Uzbeks (10 percent ), Hazaras (8 percent ) and other, smaller groups live more or less in contiguous regions. It is thus hard to identify an Afghani people. The communists were the first to try to establish a modern, united Afghanistan, but even the massive Soviet military intervention did not overcome the resistance put up by determined tribal forces.
In the West, the campaign against the Taliban was perceived as a struggle against Islamic extremism, but to a large extent this was a fight between the Uzbek and Tajik minorities against the Pashtun Taliban; these minorities made up the Northern Alliance that helped the Americans remove the Taliban in 2001. Tajik and Uzbek commanders allied with the Americans. After the defeat of the Taliban, the Americans tried to create an all-Afghan coalition, but this attempt failed. Relying on massive electoral fraud, Karzai prevailed in the last elections, defeating his Tajik rival Abdullah Abdullah. With the assistance of Pashtun tribal support, he then proceeded to remove virtually all Tajik and Uzbek elements from his government.
The Taliban's resurgence is occurring in Pashtun regions (it has no presence in other areas ). Significantly, the resurgence is centered in the region of Kandahar, the historic capital of the Pashtun dynasties. The fact that Karzai is now negotiating with the Taliban is also no surprise: In Afghanistan's tribal culture, this is perceived as a discussion between two Pashtun factions. How will the Tajik and Uzbek leaderships, veterans of the Northern Alliance, respond to this possible Taliban-Karzai reconciliation? That is a difficult question to answer, especially since these two Afghani minorities are influenced by trends in the two nearby "mother" countries, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
That some of the minorities are Shi'ite creates structural tension between them and the Sunni Pashtun Taliban, who are Sunni Muslims. In the meantime, Shi'ite Iran is surely troubled by the strengthening of Sunni extremism on its border (by the same token, Tehran was pleased by America's anti-Taliban campaign in Afghanistan in 2001 ).
In both Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. has invested tens of billions of dollars in the training of local military and police forces, yet in both cases these enormous investments have created militias that serve sectarian ethno-religious groups and are far from coalescing as national armies. The Iraqi army's loyalty to the government depends on the disempowerment of the Sunni minority; whether a viable government will take root in Iraq remains an open question.
In Iraq and Afghanistan an unexpected paradox has arisen during the processes of accelerated attempts at democratization: When freedom of political organization initially arises in multicultural and multi-religious societies, after the fall of repressive regimes, the national-ethnic-religious element emerges as the dominant force. This occurred in Iraq and Afghanistan, and it is also the process that brought about the dismantling of Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia, in the wake of democratization processes in all three.
American ideology, which frequently lacks historical awareness, views religious and ethnic differences exclusively through the limited prism of American pluralism. It is disposed to minimize the import of such differences. The Americans also erred when they assumed that Iraq and Afghanistan are cohesive, modern nation-states, rather than the byproducts of imperialistic policy that designated arbitrary borders and threw into one cauldron religious-national groups that lacked any common identity. It is no accident that the only way Iraqi unity was preserved was via a series of dictatorial regimes. For its part, Afghanistan remained a loose confederation of local tribes, devoid of a modern political apparatus. Ironically, the Americans are failing in Afghanistan today precisely where the Soviets stumbled two decades ago, in the attempt to transform the country into a modern nation-state.
The roots of the U.S. failure in both Iraq and Afghanistan can be found in the Americans' inability to grasp that the world cannot be engineered in the image of their own society, particularly in the case of societies that were never able to form a modern political structure. In such cases, not only is the creation of democracy not on the agenda: The very survival of the political entity remains in doubt.