Saturday, 8 August 2015

The Taliban Attacks on Kabul: Saudi Arabia and Iran's Proxy War Spreads.

The wave of deadly attacks on the Afghan capital Kabul underlines the fact that the US has not withdrawn from Afghanistan on the one hand while its continued commitment to "Afghanistanisation" is undercut by the other main fact about the Taliban: it is bankrolled by key regional partners of the US.

35 people have been killed and hundreds wounded in one of deadliest surges of Taliban suicide bombings since the US claimed to have brought the war to an end in 2014. The targets are US trained Afghan security personnel. Insurgents also attempted to storm US Special Operations Base known as Camp Integrity.

The Historical Background: The Cold War Legacy.

The 'War in Afghanistan', a title detached from having any sort of historical name or connection to the West in the same way the Soviet-Afghan War (1979-1989) evidently had, was commonly regarded to have been part of President George Bush's 'War on Terror' following the terror attacks on September 11 2001).

The war lasted even longer than the Soviet war and is thought to have ended in 2014. However, long after Al Qaida were believed to have been vanquished in Afghanistan, the war continued. Critics such as President Carter's National Security Zbigniew Brzezinski have stated that thereafter the US should have withdrawn.

Western critics of the War in Afghanistan such as Chomsky regard the war in Afghanistan squarely as a form of 'Western Imperialism' because they tend to want to believe that all the world's evils stem from the West. The reason is understandable because, if understood as such, then terrorist threats would not exist.

Paradoxically, this worldview tends to have an implicit disregard for the capability of those living in Muslim lands to react to the depredations of global power politics without embracing pyschotic death cults. Even so, there is little doubt that cynical power politics has played a role in creating the jihadist threat.

The bloodshed would have gone on with or without Western involvement which ultimately could not achieve much apart from adding to the killing, antagonising Pashtuns and killing those civilians by the testing out of drone technology while targeting Taliban and Al Qaida militants in the 'Af-Pak' border regions.

The US bears some responsibility for the rise of jihadism in having backed the mujahadeen in the 1980s as a proxy force against the Soviet Union. However, it is a myth that Carter's administration-in particular Zbigniew Brzezinski- single-handedly destabilised a happy secular state in 1979 by arming jihadists.

Afghan rural areas were already in a state of full scale insurrection against the PDPA regime in Kabul after the Saur Revolution of 1978. Its Stalinist style assault on the Islamic religion, village ulemas and through brutal and clumsy collectivisation projects generated a jihad in reaction against Kabul.

Following in the footsteps of the Soviet Union by invading Afghanistan and trying to create a client state after the 2001 9/11 attacks was the height of folly. But the Taliban was lethal and murderous because significantly backed by Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, the old Cold War allies of the West.

Both these states have their own foreign policy goals that exist independently of anything the west might try to influence them into doing. The vast majority of the finance for the mujahadeen came from Saudi Arabia and support came even from its enemies, most obviously the radical Muslim Brotherhood.

The big criticism of the US, voiced by 'liberal interventionists' was that after the Cold War ended, that it just walked away and left a war-torn chaotic state that bred jihadists who then turned their attention from the atheist Soviet regime to the Godless materialist West and thus spawned Al Qaida and provided 'the base'.

However, it was a mistake and an oversimplification to believe that Al Qaida and the Taliban were ever one and the same. The Taliban were a native Pashtun movement and, Jason Burke has pointed out, often hostile to the 'Arab-Afghans' in their midst. This is why the West's Afghanistan War was largely futile.

There was no way the West would be able to create a stable democracy through invading and occupying Afghanistan while contending regional powers, including Western allies, had foreign policies that contradicted and conflicted with its own grand designs, especially Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

The Developing New Geopolitical Landscape: Hot Wars Ahead.

As with Syria, fast becoming a new war-torn land as Afghanistan became over a longer time span between 1979 and 2001, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are still known backers of the Taliban as a proxy counter force to Iranian influence. This is one reason the KSA has invested in radical madrassas in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The Western war effort between 2001 and 2014, when the NATO and US combat mission officially came to an end, was fought for a number of contradictory rationales and for reasons never publicly made plain to the publics of the various democracies who made 'nation building' the stated purpose.

While the trend in foreign policy thinking was variously concerned with 'democracy promotion' and 'humanitarian intervention' and the 'war on terror', the underlying ambition was to draw Afghanistan into a regional coalition of states that would expand Western power in Central Asia.

Central to this was the New Silk Route Initiative, as it was termed by Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, a grand project which would remake Afghanistan as an economic hub connecting post-Soviet states with South Asia and India through  new roads and rail and the construction of the TAPI pipeline.

Though never solely about the interests of US multinational corporations, as alleged by cruder conspiracy theorists who saw the Afghanistan War as wholly about a Halliburton coveted pipeline, Lutz Kleveman* made plain as far back as 2002 that Afghan development ministers claimed it as a key Western interest.

In fact, the nuclear deal of July 2015 was aimed at by the Obama administration through a strategy of sanctions and blocking Iranian energy exports in the Greater Middle East. The construction of the TAPI pipeline was believed to be one way of preventing the export east of Iran's gas to Pakistan via the IPI.

In 2012 Victoria Nuland, infamous for her botched attempt to steer the course of the Ukrainian uprising against Yanukovych in early 2014 by overthrowing him and casting caution to the win-"Fuck the EU"-was advocating the benefits of the TAPI pipeline as a vital part of sanctioning Iran for its nuclear program.

Washington still supports vigorously the TAPI pipeline as a means to unite Pakistan and India in an economic community of interest. Saudi Arabia and Qatar, however, are implacably opposed to any move that could bring Central Asia gas southwards to ports such as Gwadar and through IPI as well.

Pakistan faces constant electricity blackouts as its population burgeons and energy demand grows, so it has leaned towards Iran along with Afghanistan. Fearing Shia influence, Saudi Arabia has supported the Taliban in its effort to resist Kabul and to prevent it coming to peace with the government.

It stands to reason that this necessarily thwarts the designs the West had for the New Silk Route Initiative. For the Taliban are most active and effective in Helmland, the region through which the TAPI pipeline would run and which the majority of British soldiers died in defending after 2008.

Western forces remain in Afghanistan to protect the Kabul government against the Taliban and to retain a stake in developing Afghanistan's $3 trillion in mineral deposits, including valuable rare earths used in manufacturing high tech products. Yet other powers are vying for influence over corrupt politicians.

As Iran eyes mining concessions in Afghanistan and closer commercial ties with India and China, Saudi Arabia has every interest in backing the Taliban as a spoiler and to threaten Pakistan with whom relations have chilled as a result of its closer relations with Iran and refusal to join it in military action in Yemen.

Across the Greater Middle East, from Syria to Yemen and Afghanistan, a great proxy conflict between Saudi Arabia and its Gulf rival Iran is developing. Obama's nuclear deal was intended as one further step in extricating the US from the Middle East but Saudi Arabia has every interest in preventing that.

Enter ISIS. Re-Enter the US. 

There are indications the US is already re-escalating the war that officially finished in 2014 but which curiously continued throughout 2015. The dramatic spread of ISIS from out of Syria and into Iraq, Sinai in Egypt, in 2015, into Yemen, Libya and Afghanistan threatens to draw Washington into a new 'War on Terror II'.

In July 2015, Washington scaled up the number of air strikes in Afghanistan against both the Taliban and ISIS, even though the Taliban, far from providing a haven or support for ISIS, has actually fought it and killed ISIS jihadists. Some commentators hint that the US secretly allowed ISIS in to help fight the Taliban.

That is hardly surprising as former Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, has intimated in his opinion that ISIS could not have entered Afghanistan 'without a foreign hand, without foreign backing' . It is said that ISIS is to be used as a Western 'asset' to defeat the Taliban just as it is used to try to overthrow Assad in Syria.

In reality ISIS is positioning itself ready to exploit another proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia just as warlords and Al Qaida did in war-torn Afghanistan back in the 1990s. In that sense, it is following the success it has already attained in becoming a 'third force' between the Shia Houthis and Saudi backed forces in Yemen.

What all lands where ISIS have a presence have in common is that they have become proxy battlegrounds between Shi'ite forces and Sunni militants. While the US has attempted to use diplomacy to bring Iran out of the isolation it imposed on it since 1979 with the nuclear deal, the Saudis are implacably hostile to this move.

Saudi Arabia has tired of the low global oil prices which deprive it of the revenues it needs to fund projects to divert the discontent of huge numbers of underemployed Saudi youths from being turned on the monarchy. Both it and Israel are hostile to sanctions being removed and Iran's oil and gas competing with it in the region.

With sanctions remaining on Iran for a nuclear threat constantly bigged up by PM Netanyahu into a looming threat of messianic proportions, Israel had time to secure the Eastern Mediterranean by expanding the navy and providing the necessary security environment for its gas reserves to be tapped and piped within the region.

Netanyahu was in Cyprus boosting the project to pipe Israel's Leviathan gas westwards along with its own gas via Greece, a scheme supported by the EU powers from Italy to Germany as a way of diversifying supplies and reducing dependency on Russia.

Netanyahu also claimed that Hezbollah's reported plots to kill Israelis in the EU made it a 'threat to Europe', one which is convenient in getting EU states to continue bilateral military ties and potentially in launching a Third Lebanon War against Hezbollah that would strike it while weak and spread thinly from Syria to Yemen.

Concerned that Hezbollah could be used by Iran to hamper Israeli drilling in the Eastern Mediterranean through use of its Yakont rockets or, in future on tankers exporting gas, Netanyahu could well decide to pre-empt any possibility of that by attacking southern Lebanon and tilting the balance towards Sunni militants in Syria.

The cumulative effect of these Israeli and Saudi policies could be to allow ISIS to spread and surge within Syria and Iraq, not least as Hezbollah would be weakened further and as Turkey has committed itself to taking out Kurdish PKK forces and so potentially degrading the war effort on the ground against Assad.

Neither Israel nor Saudi Arabia wanted the US to withdraw from Iraq in 2011 as Obama tried to 'Pivot towards Asia' and extricate Washington from entanglements in the Greater Middle East. Both are hostile to Obama's strategy of engaging with Iran so as to shore up a Shia influenced Iraqi state against ISIS

Israel is so well fortified it need not actually fear ISIS attacks on its own territory while Saudi Arabia fears blowback from ISIS in equal proportion to the threat of Shia minorities within the kingdom rising up in collusion with those in neighbouring states such as they did in Bahrain in 2012 and in Yemen after the Arab Spring.

What Yemen has in common with Afghanistan, apart from ISIS becoming a presence, is that both are becoming more like Syria: in fact Syria is descending into the sort of carnage Afghanistan witnessed in the 1990s, except that in both lands the capital cities remain in the hands and under the control of the government.

What is clear is that Saudi-Iranian rivalry in Syria and Iraq is helping to spread war across into Yemen and to Afghanistan in unpredictable ways that could become disastrous if a Republican administration led by critics of Obama's 'weakness' decides to decisively align with the Saudis and Israel as Senator John McCain demands. 

Republicans have veered between blaming Obama's deals with Iran for making Saudi Arabia so insecure that it had to intervene militarily in Yemen while,at the same time, praising Saudi Arabia for doing so even while US generals themselves proclaimed it was a really 'bad idea' as the Shia Houthis had kept ISIS and AQ at bay'.

Republicans oppose any lifting of sanctions on Iran to get its oil and gas flowing not just because of a paranoia about Iran's nuclear threat but because wants to align for ideological reasons with Israel and its energy strategy while developing US reserves and freeing up US shale oil for global export to please the oil lobby.

Republicans have argued that if Iran gets to export its oil, then there is no reason why the US should not export, not only to benefit the domestic oil industry but to shore up what it regards as long standing alliances in the Middle East that came into being in the late 1970s at the height of the Cold War with the Soviet Union.

This is why they have an interest in wrecking Obama's nuclear deal in Congress and why Republican contenders are positioning themselves to reverse Obama's foreign policy if they win the US elections in 2016. But they may well end up drawing the US back into Iraq, further into Syria and deeper into Yemen and Afghanistan.

Far from embracing Obama's more cautious realpolitik, though his administrations has vastly expanded the security state and the promotions of drone warfare across the ungoverned spaces of the globe, the Republicans seem wedded to Saudia Arabia through the presence of influential lobby groups in Washington.

Should the Republicans win in 2016, the possibility of a more aggressive White House would spell a closer realignment with Riyadh and a foreign policy which has led to a disastrous attempt to bankroll Sunni militants and only caused blowback into the kingdom in the form of ISIS suicide attacks and targeted assassinations.

Obama's drone strikes in Afghanistan and Yemen have proved sufficient to kill and 'unintentionally' terrorise civilians to the extent of acting to push legions of the impoverished and angry into joining either Al Qaida or, from 2014 onwards, into the more successful global terror franchise of ISIS in lands ravaged by climate change.

Republicans have rounded on Obama for having reduced drone strikes on Yemen because budget cuts have meant redirecting drones towards Syria and Iraq. Critics have demanded that the "moderate" rebels in Syria should have been given supplied with weapons, a policy that would have allowed them to fall into the hands of ISIS.

While most of the Republican positions could be considered political grandstanding in the run up to a US election, in which Obama and the Democrats are to be lambasted for foreign policy humiliations, they also reflect deep fears of the decline of the US as a superpower felt not by themselves but parts of the electorate.

As the US becomes overstretched and with limited relative resources compared to the increased intensity and magnitude of the conflicts spreading across the Greater Middle East, the impulse to act 'decisively' may well lead a new US president to act recklessly as George Bush II in promoting full US combat operations once more.

In Syria, the choice is between ISIS and Assad and the Kurds but even the Obama administration has backtracked from the suggestions coming from more hawkish Democrats, such as former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton that the Syrian rebels ought to have been armed, a policy that in effect would have benefited ISIS.

In fact, the speed and scale of the growth of ISIS across very many lands other than Syria demonstrate the error of thinking that had the Syrian Sunni rebels been armed then ISIS would not have gained power. From the outset, the uprising against Assad had a sectarian dimension exploited by regional powers for their own ends.

A problem that the US faces is that it has a culture deeply permeated with the idea that there are definite solutions to the world's conflicts and dangers that require only willpower and courage to overcome evil. The conflicts in the Middle East show that this is not the case and that there are, in reality, only a choice of lesser evils.

The Threat to Oil, Saudi Arabia and the Global Economy.

If Yemen descends into the chaos that immersed Somalia in the 1990s, when US special forces intervened, the fall out could be far more devastating if the conflict started to spread across into Saudi Arabia with its huge oil reserves that are a crucial part of the developed world's energy supply from the US to the EU and Asia.

Ultimately, the ambition of ISIS is to position itself in lands wracked by Shia-Sunni sectarian enmities so as to exterminate the Tehran backed heretics and agents, capture Sunni militant movement and draw in the US and Western powers as part of an apocalyptic end-time battle between the soldiers of God and all earthly 'evil'.

ISIS strategists may be fanatical and bloodthirsty but they have long calculated the the ultimate way to defeat and destroy both the regional powers they detest-both Saudi Arabia and Iran-and then the West is to menace and threaten the world economy by being in a position to target oil producing zones and oil supply routes.

The suicide bombing by ISIS of a Saudi mosque was deliberately intended to pull Saudi Arabia in further as 150,000 troops have amassed on the border. The Western Powers, especially Britain, have used ISIS's presence in Yemen and the Houthi insurgency backed by Iran to stress their commitment to backing the Saudis

British Foreign Minister Hammond has condemned the Houthi militias for firing a few Scud missiles at Saudi Arabia while remaining silent about the civilian casualties and the use of munitions banned by international law such as cluster bombs dropped by the Saudi air force. Britain supplied 'precision guided weapons'

It is said that the foreign policy of engaging with Iran through the nuclear deal is part of a divide and rule strategy by the Western powers,to get the Shia dominated government in Baghdad to prevent ISIS attacking the oil producing regions of central and southern Iraq while it 'balances' Iran by supporting the Saudis in Yemen.

The aim of the Western strategy of creating an "equilibrium of antagonisms" as former MI6 officer Alistair Crooke calls it, is to allow the US to downscale military commitment in the Greater Middle East and shift it towards Asia where China is regarded as a new economic superpower poised to translate it into military rivalry.

The US nuclear deal was welcomed by Beijing as it promises to open up a new supply of oil to an energy hungry China and Obama the administration regards energy diversification for the developed world as vital given how unstable Saudi Arabia has become. Even so, the US is locked in a 'lethal embrace' with Saudi Arabia.

The US economy has become ever more militarised despite the end of the Cold War. Drone warfare to deal with irregular warrior groups in failed states and the 'terror threat' to America became a huge high tech growth industry during the 2000s that has created a surveillance state and what Nick Turse calls 'the new face of empire'.

Both ISIS and Al Qaida are cited as threats to global oil tanker routes in regions close to strategic chokepoints from the Straits of Gibraltar to the Horn of Africa and the Red Sea and Suez Canal which runs by the Sinai Peninsula where ISIS has been part of a full scale insurrection against Cairo since the coup of 2013.

For the US, the dual threat of the Houthis in Yemen and both Al Qaida and ISIS bother there and in Somalia and Egypt poses a direct threat to the security of oil supplies that threatens to pull Egypt into intervention. Yet, as elsewhere, it was the Egyptian military coup supported by Saudi Arabia that helped ISIS to gain ground.

ISIS interposes itself where there regional and global power contests, often concerned with controlling energy supply routes, take place as Sunni jihadists are as often regarded as assets on the strategic chessboard by contending powers when they have not been regarded as threats.

It is not inconceivable Riyadh is less concerned about donations to fund ISIS from shady privatesources where it stands to benefit, not least in the past in Syria but also in Afghanistan where from 1979 onwards it was able to export jihadi militants out of the kingdom and to support geopolitical goals.

Bizarrely, this might explain why in face of ISIS gaining ground in Afghanistan, the Taliban, a radical Sunni militant group, has indicated it could align with Iran should Kabul persist in expressing support for Saudi operations in Yemen, For Riyadh, ISIS attacks on Iran would be a useful diversion to the east and sweet revenge.

The Taliban, of course, first has to ensure it remains in the global media and regarded as a player in Afghan politics so the suicide attacks on Kabul serve the purpose of advertising it as a force that either the Saudis or Iran should vie for influence over if they want to extend their power political reach in that war ravaged land.

When faced with this bleak, complex and increasingly dangerous geopolitical landscape in the Greater Middle East, it is frankly chilling to consider that the next president of the US, still the most powerful man on earth could be none other than the businessman huckster and populist showman Donald Trump.

First appeared: What all these conflicts have in common, apart from the fact the Western Powers have attempted to use military force to liberate

* See Lutz Kleveman, The New Great Game: Blood and Oil in Central Asia.

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