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America’s West Asia myopia continues

Barack Obama’s plan to form a coalition to tackle ISIS sounds more like George W Bush’s flawed ‘War on Terror’ writes Viju Cherian.

ht view Updated: Sep 11, 2014 22:49 IST
Viju Cherian

US President Barack Obama’s strategy, which he unveiled on Wednesday, against the Islamic State (ISIS), had the stench of a stale dish. Only a week ago when he was asked about the US’ strategy on ISIS, Obama said: “We don’t have a strategy yet.” He was criticised for this response and Wednesday’s speech was expected to minimise that damage. The US president’s plan involves attacking the ISIS in Iraq and Syria, increasing assistance and training for all forces fighting ISIS (except the Bashar al-Assad government), cutting off the funding and recruitment channels for the terror group and continuing humanitarian assistance to those affected.

Obama has done the right thing — though late in the day — in deciding to pursue the ISIS “wherever they are”, but his strategy leaves many questions unanswered. There is no clarity on the specific roles of the US’ coalition partners. There is no stipulated timeframe— experts estimate will take two to three years to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the ISIS.

After the 9/11 attacks, Washington was quick to respond, first by invading Afghanistan and later Iraq. As The New York Times’ Carlotta Gall in The Wrong Enemy: America in Afghanistan, 2001-2014 writes: “…by going to war in 2001, the United States was walking into the Islamists’ trap. It was just what al Qaeda wanted: for Afghanistan to serve again as a battleground for Muslim fighters against a superpower”. Is the US repeating the same mistake and walking into an ISIS trap?

While speaking about sending troops to the region, Obama said: “…American forces will not have a combat mission — we will not get dragged into another ground war in Iraq.” The usage of the word “dragged” gives the impression that in 2003 the US was forced to invade Iraq. This is not true.

The US invaded Iraq in search of fictitious weapons of mass destruction and left an ineffective ‘democratic’ government, headed by Nouri al-Maliki. Not only did Maliki favour Shias but he also cracked down on protests and alienated the Sunnis. Chelsea Manning, former US army intelligence analyst, recently said the US did nothing to stop the “brutal crackdown against political dissidents by the Iraqi Ministry of Interior and federal police”. This prepared a fertile ground for al Qaeda to recruit and build its network in Iraq.

Nothing explains Obama’s dilemma better than the crisis in Syria. Since pro-democracy protests broke out in 2011, the US has been trying to overthrow the Bashar al-Assad government. The US and its allies in the region have been aiding various rebel groups and the Central Intelligence Agency has been running training camps in Jordan for the Free Syrian Army, which is fighting against Assad. If ISIS bases are attacked in Syria, Washington will be indirectly helping Damascus, thereby strengthening Assad. It would be interesting to see how Obama plans to weaken the ISIS in Syria and at the same time not give Assad an advantage.

The plan to train and aid rebels is a myopic one — and Obama should know it. In July, the Pentagon said that it was difficult to identify ‘moderate rebels’ and train them against Assad. The rebels are an amorphous group of fighters, many of whom are pro-al Qaeda. Obama’s idea of picking the best among the worst is similar to America’s perception of the ‘moderate’ Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

After the hasty retreat from Iraq and setting a deadline for pulling out of Afghanistan, Obama had shown an obdurate reluctance to intervene in foreign conflicts. Obama, especially in the second term, has focused on internal matters, leaving foreign policy to his secretary of state, John Kerry. Obama’s foreign policy arc has been so limited that suddenly Sarah Palin’s “they’re our next door neighbours” comment on Russia looks brighter.

Obama’s speech came on the eve of the 13th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks and if the US is at the drawing board, chalking out plans after more than a decade in the region, one would at least expect Washington not to repeat past mistakes. However, Obama’s move to aid rebels sounds more like his predecessor George W Bush’s ‘War on Terror’. And that’s not good news.