Small Wars Journal

The Middle East’s Outlook and America’s Evolving Security Conundrum

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Editor's Note: Cameron Graham provides us with a quick tour of the instability in the Middle East.  As he says, we may get a peek at what is in Pandora's Box there over the coming months.  Policy choices, if poorly made and including those by actors the U.S. does not control, threaten to unleash wars that if started in any corner of the region could quickly spread across borders.  These are dangerous times.

The year 2011 saw many major events and shifts in the Middle East. In a region that holds such high geostrategic importance, which has served as a hotbed for anti-American and anti-Western sentiment, and host of multiple recent United States military campaigns, Washington and the American people are desperate for good news from the Middle East indicating stabilization and hope for peace.  And 2011 has given us that, so it would seem. 

With the killing of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, the Arab Spring movements that have overthrown dictators, the closing of the American military chapter in Iraq, and a possible end in sight in Afghanistan, a glimmer of hope in the conflict-ridden Middle East emerges, so it would seem.  With the 2012 Presidential elections nearing, and a public outcry to fix the problems within its own borders, primarily the ailing economy, Washington is looking to close this decade-long chapter in American history that has been dominated by the Middle East.  But is this really the time to turn away from the Middle East?  Is America’s security outlook in the Middle East improving or is the stage setting for a worsening situation?

The right-on-time withdrawal of American forces in Iraq has left a shaky Iraqi government, that internal radical Sunni and Shia faction’s alike look to exploit; as well as its Shia neighbor to the east, Iran.  Security and the establishment of a legitimate government in Afghanistan are making slow gains as Washington eyes the exits. The Arab Spring is proving to be a portal for radical Islamist parties and sects to come into power in a volatile region.  And to tie it all together, Iran is increasingly asserting itself as a regional hegemonic power, supporting any and all radical anti-Western groups, and steaming ahead to gaining a nuclear weapon.  

When taken into strategic context the reality of the situation is that things are more likely staging to get much worse before improving in the long run.  The United States is facing a rapidly evolving security situation in the Middle East, that on the surface appears to be a transition for the better, a shift toward freedom and democracy and away from tyranny, but underneath the surface it is more like a tectonic plate shifting and readying to unleash a series of earthquakes throughout the region.  

Iraq— The Iraqi government was well on its way to establishing its roots as a sustainable, fully-functioning government prior to the withdrawal of the U.S. military in December 2011, and Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) were proving capable.  The worry now is how this Iraqi government will fare addressing, both individually and collectively, the competing pressures from external and internal forces, and rising sectarian tensions. 

Early signs are not boding well for a stable Iraq. Iraqi President Nuri al Maliki has made moves to consolidate power and is arguably moving Iraq away from the democratic institutions that were established under Washington’s tutelage.  Iraq’s Shia-led government issued an arrest warrant against its Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi just one day after the U.S. officially ended its military mission, citing his ties to terrorist activities, which is sure to raise sectarian tensions as it could be seen as the beginning of a Shia purge of non-Shia in the government.  Many experts also wonder if this was done under pressure from Iran, who has been positioning itself since the overthrow of Saddam to assert its influence from within the new Iraqi government through political and diplomatic encroachment, and counter American influence and power through covert military action, including the support of insurgent forces.   

The Iraqi government is also facing immediate pressure from internal radical factions like Muqtada al Sadr and his right-wing, pro-Iranian Shia faction, seeking greater power and influence, and the Sunni al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), who has also wasted no time to prove that they still have a stake in the game, launching coordinated bombings on Shiite targets in Baghdad on December 22, 2011.  Al Qaeda, who usually is responsible for the more coordinated, high profile attacks, is seeking to re-ignite sectarian violence and ultimately seeking the downfall of the secular, Western-inspired democratic Iraqi government. 

However, AQI announced that these attacks were to battle Iranian encroachment into Iraq, fearing the rise of an institutionally Shia government that is essentially under the control of Tehran.  Although seeking to incite sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shia in Iraq has been a primary purpose behind its activity in Iraq, AQI has not traditionally targeted this Iranian presence in Iraq.   While the U.S. military was still in Iraq, radical Shia and Sunni elements shared a common enemy and goals of seeking to expel the United States from Iraq, and to see to it that that Iraqi government stood up by Washington would fail.  With the U.S. military out and an unstable Iraqi government left behind, these competing forces now enter a new phase and emerge more in an open conflict to fill this widening void. 

While it is certainly praiseworthy that the war in Iraq has finally come to an end, our departure could prove to be opening the floodgates for internal and external corruption that could ultimately undo the gains we lost nearly 4,500 American servicemen and women to achieve.  Iraq will have to forge its own future, and identity, but in the process will it emerge more friend or foe to Washington?   Time will only tell, but the next year will certainly be a huge test for the Iraqi government.

Afghanistan—Afghanistan is still a work in progress, yet a work that no foreign nation has been able to complete.  Eleven years into it, the American people and politicians are becoming increasingly interested in ending the war; or at the very least, significantly scaling back involvement.  With the killing of Osama bin Laden and U.S. withdrawal from Iraq in 2011, not to mention the dire economy at home, the American people want to believe that the time is right to finally end the war in Afghanistan.  But are we truly ready, or perhaps more importantly, are the Afghan government and security forces ready for us to leave?

Washington’s current plan is to have all surge troops out of Afghanistan by September 2012, just before the 2012 Presidential elections, and are tentatively planned to wind down combat operations and hand over security to Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) by the end of 2014, with some less volatile areas being handed over now.  However, the plan for handover to the ANSF is only tentative, and the Obama Administration is also considering handing over security and scaling back combat operations by as early as the end of 2012.

Commander’s assessments indicate that despite increased offensive operations by Taliban insurgents in 2010-11, vast gains are being made in establishing security and providing room for the Afghan government to truly establish legitimacy, but gains in progress don’t equate to present victory.  This is a critical juncture in the war as gains must be secured and expanded to allow the Afghan government the space and time to truly take root and establish a functioning and legitimate government from top to bottom, locally and nationally.  

Although handing over security does not equate withdrawal, and certain areas in Afghanistan are certainly ready for handover, a rushed timetable to handover security in more volatile area’s like Southern and Eastern Afghanistan, and ultimately a premature withdrawal before the ANSF are properly trained and ready to take the reins could have the effect of undoing all gains made thus far. This could ultimately spiral the country back into chaos, and possibly hand it back to radical groups like the Taliban and once again provide a safe haven to al Qaeda, leaving Afghanistan back at square one.  

Although the American public and politicians are eager to call an end to a seemingly endless war, it is imperative that security gains and the government we helped establish are properly nourished and maintained until the Afghan government is ready to assume full power.  The progress made, and benchmarks met thus far indicate that the light can be seen at the end of the tunnel, but Washington and the American people need to remain patient to see this through, or else concede defeat.  At this stage in war, the strategic gains far outweigh the political and operational risks.

Arab Spring—As the Arab Spring uprisings emerged in countries like Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and Syria, there was much promise that the Middle East was in the early stages of a democratic awakening.  The people spoke, and protested; resistances were formed, and eventually dictators started to fall—first Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, then Muhammar Gadhafi in Libya—but then the question arose of who would fill these voids.  

Many of these uprisings were unorganized and lacked a unified opposition movement that presented a clear alternative.  The singular focus of the uprisings was the immediate overthrow of the dictators in power without a clear vision for a way ahead.  In Egypt and Libya, which succeeded in overthrowing their dictatorial governments, a power vacuum has opened presenting opportunity to any and all elements hoping for power.   As this reality sets in to observers in Washington, we now have to wonder if this will end up being similar to the Iranian Revolution in 1979 that overthrew the Shah and replaced it with the ruthless, and greatly anti-American, theocratic Islamic Republic under Ayatollah Khomeini. 

The security outlook in these countries is anything but certain as anti-Western Islamist political factions are rushing in to fill the power vacuums created by the protests.  As we saw with election of the radical Hamas to power in 2006, free elections and the will of the people do not always yield a government that is friendly to the United States or its interests in the region.  And as we saw with the Iranian Revolution, governments swept into power under popular support do not guarantee to yield free societies.  

Perhaps the most strategically important country engulfed in the Arab Spring is Syria, as the overthrow of Assad’s Ba’athist regime in Syria could take out one of Iran’s strongest allies in the region, eliminate a key military supporter of Hezbollah, as well as establish a potential pathway to a more pro-Western, pro-Israeli government in a strategically vital region.  With Syria’s military crackdown that has reportedly killed thousands and counting, Washington and the U.N. should have enough reason to support a however limited military intervention.  However, Syria’s military is more robust and capable of defending itself, and is sure to find much support from Iran, who is likely to do anything and everything to preserve the current regime. 

With diplomatic efforts to curtail Damascus’ brutal crackdown stalling, few options are left short of military intervention, whether that be overt or covert, and Washington is surely reluctant to become militarily involved in yet another country in the Middle East as it attempts to wind down its military missions there.  However, military intervention in this case is difficult to justify without fully supporting a policy of regime change, as was the case with Libya.  Therefore, as the situation seemingly worsens, international pressure mounts, and options run out, Washington is sure to be strongly evaluating its Syria policy and determining what its ultimate goals are in carrying out its policy.   Another military intervention may just be unavoidable, and if this is the case, we can only hope Washington is also looking to what would come after—who would Washington support to replace Assad’s regime—and not waiting until after comes.

 Iran—One key linchpin to all of the issues discussed above, and the single greatest threat to American interests in the Middle East is the Islamic Republic of Iran.  Tehran has increasingly pursued every angle, both covertly and overtly, to further its strategic quest of Middle Eastern hegemony and is getting closer and closer to obtaining nuclear weapons, which it will most assuredly use in the very least as a strategic tool of deterrence against international reaction to its methods.       

Iran has proven that although it is a Shia theocracy, it is willing to support radical Islamists from all sects, Sunni or Shia, as proxies in its defiance of American involvement in the Middle East and its quest for hegemonic status.  Military commanders in both Iraq and Afghanistan have claimed Iran has been supporting insurgent groups in both theaters, including the Taliban in Afghanistan, who Iran staunchly opposed before 9/11. Experts have also cited that Iran has not resisted aiding al Qaeda in some instances. 

The Islamic Republic of Iran was declared by the U.S. State Department to be the "most active state sponsor of terrorism," and in 2007 Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), its militaries elite unit, was added to the official list of foreign terrorist organizations.  The IRGC was even indicted this year in an unusually direct plot to assassinate the Saudi Arabian Ambassador to the United States on U.S. soil.  Although the IRGC was attempting to utilize a Mexican cartel member to serve as its assassin, the evidence presented directly linked the IRGC to the plot. The willingness of the IRGC to coordinate assassination operations on U.S. soil indicates a major shift in Iran’s policy to more aggressive tactics. 

In November 2008, the U.N. nuclear watchdog released its estimate stating “credible” evidence suggests “Iran has carried out activities relevant to the development of a nuclear device.”  U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta declared that despite diplomatic efforts, Iran is within a year or less of obtaining nuclear weapons.

The U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq is essentially a double-edged sword for Iran.  While Tehran is sure to be celebrating the departure of U.S. Forces from a burgeoning Iraq that it seeks to influence into being its puppet state, Tehran has also relied on, and fed, the insurgency in Iraq to distract and preoccupy Washington as it bought time to develop its nuclear program.   With Washington less tied up in the region militarily, Tehran could perceive a greater threat as it pushes forward in its nuclear drive, and could possibly seek to create new distractions to delay international resistance.   To this end, Tehran could potentially increase its support to the Taliban-led insurgency in Afghanistan, further bogging down the U.S. there; or, as has been occurring, could continue to conduct naval exercises in the Persian Gulf and threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz.

While in Washington the military option is still on the table to stop Iran’s nuclear quest, it remains an absolute last option, an option few would recommend at all.  An all out war with Iran would engulf the region into conflict and would ultimately dwarf the scale of combat operations required to take out Saddam Hussein in Iraq.  However, with intelligence agencies in the U.S. and Israel assessing that Tehran will have a nuke within a year or two, and diplomacy having little effect, few options remain.

In an effort to persuade Tehran to halt its nuclear program, Washington and other Western nations have stepped up its sanctions efforts against Iran, which do appear to be taking effect, but could illicit increased aggression from Tehran.  Washington, as well as Great Britain and Canada, have pressed to expand the realm of sanctions on Iran from strictly targeting the import of dual-use technology for its nuclear and ballistic missile programs, to targeting the heart of Tehran’s economy—its oil.

On December 31, 2011 President Obama signed into law the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act, including Section 1245 implementing unilateral sanctions against any foreign entities dealing with the Central Bank of Iran or importing Iranian oil.  With roughly 80 percent of Tehran’s export revenue generated from oil, it is no wonder that Tehran has threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz over these newest sanctions.  However, being one to two years away from developing a nuclear weapon, Tehran is likely to weather the economic storm created by these sanctions until it has nuclear weapons, at which point it would have much more power to pressure the West to back off these sanctions.

 With tensions between the West and Iran billowing, and a nuclear clock increasing likelihood of conflict with each tick down to zero the entire Middle East is one spark away from igniting into another, and much wider-ranging war.  Even if Washington is unwilling to act to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, Israel is not known to sit idly by as its enemies develop nuclear weapons, as was the case with Israel’s bombing of Iraq’s Osirak reactor in 1981 and a Syrian nuclear facility in 2007.

The Middle East has presented a particularly challenging security dilemma to the United States over the past decade, consuming America’s resources, costing thousands of American lives, and dominating politician’s attention.  As the 2012 Presidential elections near, and the public demand to tackle the deteriorating economy, the American people and politicians are looking to turn the gaze away from the Middle East.   To this end, Washington and the American people are desperate for good news from the Middle East indicating stabilization and hope for peace.  In the past year, the Middle East has seen in fact some substantial changes indicating that the exit door is finally opening.  While the United States looks to become less openly and directly involved in the Middle East, and as much as we would like to read the current events and past years events as progress toward this end, the unfortunate reality is that the United States and the West are likely looking at greater involvement and possibly a wider ranging conflict, and not by choice but out of necessity.  

With a rapidly deteriorating security situation and possibly crumbling government in Iraq; a continuing war in Afghanistan where the end is in sight, but not necessarily victory; an Arab Spring with an uncertain future that is opening the door to radical elements; a situation in Syria that is rapidly deteriorating; and an increasingly hostile and power hungry Iran approaching red lines that demand military intervention as a last resort from the West or Israel to stop its nuclear program, the future in the Middle East is far from bright.  As such, the American people are not likely to see a reduction in the United States’ presence here any time soon.  Pandora’s Box in the Middle East, unfortunately, could just now be cracking open. 

About the Author(s)

Cameron Graham is serving as a Military Intelligence officer in the United States Army, and is currently preparing to deploy to Afghanistan.  He earned his Master’s degree in Defense and Strategic Studies from Missouri State University and his Bachelor’s degree in Political Science from Baylor University.