Soft Power and No Plan for Iran

Anyone who remembers the Vietnam War might be having hot flashes of déjà vu today. We are again engaged in a grand campaign to "win the hearts and minds" of an implacable foe in a place where we do not understand the language, the religion, the culture, or the opportunity costs. The macro-strategy is "nation building," a policy that explicitly admits, unlike Vietnam, that there are no "kinetic," or military, solutions to the Afghan insurgency.

So strategy begins with an oxymoron: 100,000 troops deployed to secure, police, and train -- not to kill and break things. The assumptions here are twofold: that Afghan troops or cops will serve for reasons other than pay, and that NATO troops are best used as secular missionaries -- teachers and social workers first, warriors only as necessary. Put aside for a moment the practical difficulties of such tactics. The purpose of this nation-building is to convince a semiliterate peasantry coming off years of theocracy that a corrupt central government in Kabul, and a bevy of naïve NATO philanthropists, has the best interests of the locals at heart.

It gets worse.

Flawed premises are a stone's throw from false assumptions. Spokesmen from Kabul, through Brussels, and on to Washington argue that a little (or a lot, depending on who is counting) of nation-building might drive a wedge between the "people" and the Taliban/al-Qaeda axis -- an axis underwritten by powerful shadow sponsors with deep pockets. Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, and Pakistan are just some of the players behind the scrim. These are states that NATO is unable or unwilling to confront for their support for Islamist incitement, insurgency, and terrorism in the Mid-East, South Asia, and elsewhere.

Nation-builders earnestly argue that the Taliban and al-Qaeda are "foreign" radicals not native to Afghanistan; fair enough, yet it is still only a half-truth. The Taliban, literally religious "students," are mostly native to Pastunistan, a tribal area of six million souls that includes parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Arab sponsors are indeed foreigners, but compared to whom? Surely Pashtun fellaheen have more in common with native mullahs and Arabian imams than they do with Americans and Europeans. NATO and the elites in Kabul are playing on the slippery slope, and the radical coalition of Islamists is the home team with the high ground.

Reasons for not confronting Arab and Persian sponsor states are clear enough: fears about energy, debt, and nuclear proliferation. Western politicians are reluctant to put their pecuniary or kilowatt excesses in play. Arabia owns many of the mortgages on Western furnaces and sovereign debts; Sunni Pakistan, another erstwhile "ally," remains a safe haven for serial nuclear proliferation and serial terror. Recall the recent Mumbai massacre.

Nonetheless, wishful thinkers on both sides of the allied political spectrum insist that they know the minds of illiterate tribesmen in Afghanistan, most of whom live under the Taliban thumb. The reliability of opinion polls in places where we can't drive a Hummer, much less take a political pulse, is more than a little suspect. However, there are many other polls in the Ummah (community of Muslim nations) that put the lie to the myth of moderation among Muslims.

Recent opinion surveys taken by the Pew Global Attitudes Project in the Arab/Muslim world indicate that terror groups and their tactics (jihad) have enjoyed significant support in many countries for years. These figures would surely be higher still if countries like Saudi Arabia, the Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia, Yemen, Libya, and Iran were included in the polling. Anti-Jewish (not anti-Israeli) sentiment consistently comes in at 90-plus percent in the Arab world. Selective as they are, the Pew surveys clearly show that support for Islamism is hardly a "fringe" phenomenon in the Muslim world.

Beliefs of Muslims in general, and Arabs and Persians in particular, are guideposts to a larger question of opportunity costs, questions that four successive American administrations have been unwilling to confront. If the "war choice" in Iraq was a diversion from the "war of necessity" in Afghanistan, how is the war in Afghanistan not a distraction from the sufficient threat from Iran? The Tehran menace is not simple nuclear proliferation; the entire Levant is slipping its strategic moorings under the fog of a banal debate about micro tactics, like "soft power," in South Asia.

Exhibit one is Turkey, a NATO member state. Ankara is distancing itself from Israel and mending fences with Arab and Persian neighbors. Visa restrictions have been lifted among Turkey, Syria, and Iran. More ominous is the recent purge and persecution of military Kamalists (secular Turks) by the ruling religious party of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan.

Exhibit two would be Iraq, where the Shiite majority, using democratic elections and Persian financing, could become the permanent majority and make Iraq the second Shia state, forging another link in a theocratic Islamist crescent.

Exhibit three would be the unholy trinity on the flanks of Israel itself: Hezb'allah (in Lebanon) to the north, Hamas (in Gaza) to the south, and Fatah (on the West Bank) to the east. All three terror groups are now supported by Persian and Arab donors. Shiite and Sunni activists make common cause when it comes to the elimination of Israel. 

Exhibit four would be the Persian nuclear program, where every day that passes lowers the threshold for a strategic war that would make Iraq and Afghanistan irrelevant overnight. Persians have taken the point and picked up the gauntlet of Muslim militancy after fifty years of Arab incompetence.

Picture now yet another war where Israel and Iran are involved in an aerial exchange, while Israeli borders are besieged by Islamist irregulars on three sides. NATO forces could not be easily redeployed without tedious international dithering, assuming the West supports Israel at all. Geography, space, and time are not IDF allies. The risk of another Holocaust is the most obvious opportunity cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan sideshows.

The renaissance of theocratic militancy within Islam worldwide is a rapidly escalating peril to believers and infidels alike. The subway bombings in Moscow on 29 March again underline the global scope of the problem. The nexus of the threat is political, yet the varied instruments are lethal. Religion is the burkha for an ideology that seeks to use and then curtail democratic processes, eliminate secularism, and ultimately replace democracies with a kind of utopian monoculture. Surely such totalitarian schemes must fail; the damage they do in the interim is the danger.

The most immediate existential threat comes from Iran. A recent Department of Defense memo addressed to the National Security Council expresses alarm that the Obama administration has no contingency plan should sanctions against Tehran fail. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates claims that the "the United Sates does not have an effective long-range policy for dealing with Iran's steady progress toward nuclear capability." According to the 17 April NY Times report, unnamed White House officials have dismissed the "wake up call" from DOD.

National security analysts have been looking at the evolution of "modern" Islamic irredentism for fifty years now. As the recent correspondence between DOD and the NSC suggests, experts remain reluctant to clarify the threat or prioritize the targets therein. Riflemen refer to such navel-gazers as "poges," military slang for useful idiots -- unwitting apologists who campaign vigorously for flaccid or ambiguous policies that put deployed allied soldiers, partners like Israel, and true democracy in harm's way.

The author is a Vietnam veteran and former intelligence officer. Blogs at Anacostia Angst and Jenkins Hill.
Anyone who remembers the Vietnam War might be having hot flashes of déjà vu today. We are again engaged in a grand campaign to "win the hearts and minds" of an implacable foe in a place where we do not understand the language, the religion, the culture, or the opportunity costs. The macro-strategy is "nation building," a policy that explicitly admits, unlike Vietnam, that there are no "kinetic," or military, solutions to the Afghan insurgency.

So strategy begins with an oxymoron: 100,000 troops deployed to secure, police, and train -- not to kill and break things. The assumptions here are twofold: that Afghan troops or cops will serve for reasons other than pay, and that NATO troops are best used as secular missionaries -- teachers and social workers first, warriors only as necessary. Put aside for a moment the practical difficulties of such tactics. The purpose of this nation-building is to convince a semiliterate peasantry coming off years of theocracy that a corrupt central government in Kabul, and a bevy of naïve NATO philanthropists, has the best interests of the locals at heart.

It gets worse.

Flawed premises are a stone's throw from false assumptions. Spokesmen from Kabul, through Brussels, and on to Washington argue that a little (or a lot, depending on who is counting) of nation-building might drive a wedge between the "people" and the Taliban/al-Qaeda axis -- an axis underwritten by powerful shadow sponsors with deep pockets. Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, and Pakistan are just some of the players behind the scrim. These are states that NATO is unable or unwilling to confront for their support for Islamist incitement, insurgency, and terrorism in the Mid-East, South Asia, and elsewhere.

Nation-builders earnestly argue that the Taliban and al-Qaeda are "foreign" radicals not native to Afghanistan; fair enough, yet it is still only a half-truth. The Taliban, literally religious "students," are mostly native to Pastunistan, a tribal area of six million souls that includes parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Arab sponsors are indeed foreigners, but compared to whom? Surely Pashtun fellaheen have more in common with native mullahs and Arabian imams than they do with Americans and Europeans. NATO and the elites in Kabul are playing on the slippery slope, and the radical coalition of Islamists is the home team with the high ground.

Reasons for not confronting Arab and Persian sponsor states are clear enough: fears about energy, debt, and nuclear proliferation. Western politicians are reluctant to put their pecuniary or kilowatt excesses in play. Arabia owns many of the mortgages on Western furnaces and sovereign debts; Sunni Pakistan, another erstwhile "ally," remains a safe haven for serial nuclear proliferation and serial terror. Recall the recent Mumbai massacre.

Nonetheless, wishful thinkers on both sides of the allied political spectrum insist that they know the minds of illiterate tribesmen in Afghanistan, most of whom live under the Taliban thumb. The reliability of opinion polls in places where we can't drive a Hummer, much less take a political pulse, is more than a little suspect. However, there are many other polls in the Ummah (community of Muslim nations) that put the lie to the myth of moderation among Muslims.

Recent opinion surveys taken by the Pew Global Attitudes Project in the Arab/Muslim world indicate that terror groups and their tactics (jihad) have enjoyed significant support in many countries for years. These figures would surely be higher still if countries like Saudi Arabia, the Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia, Yemen, Libya, and Iran were included in the polling. Anti-Jewish (not anti-Israeli) sentiment consistently comes in at 90-plus percent in the Arab world. Selective as they are, the Pew surveys clearly show that support for Islamism is hardly a "fringe" phenomenon in the Muslim world.

Beliefs of Muslims in general, and Arabs and Persians in particular, are guideposts to a larger question of opportunity costs, questions that four successive American administrations have been unwilling to confront. If the "war choice" in Iraq was a diversion from the "war of necessity" in Afghanistan, how is the war in Afghanistan not a distraction from the sufficient threat from Iran? The Tehran menace is not simple nuclear proliferation; the entire Levant is slipping its strategic moorings under the fog of a banal debate about micro tactics, like "soft power," in South Asia.

Exhibit one is Turkey, a NATO member state. Ankara is distancing itself from Israel and mending fences with Arab and Persian neighbors. Visa restrictions have been lifted among Turkey, Syria, and Iran. More ominous is the recent purge and persecution of military Kamalists (secular Turks) by the ruling religious party of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan.

Exhibit two would be Iraq, where the Shiite majority, using democratic elections and Persian financing, could become the permanent majority and make Iraq the second Shia state, forging another link in a theocratic Islamist crescent.

Exhibit three would be the unholy trinity on the flanks of Israel itself: Hezb'allah (in Lebanon) to the north, Hamas (in Gaza) to the south, and Fatah (on the West Bank) to the east. All three terror groups are now supported by Persian and Arab donors. Shiite and Sunni activists make common cause when it comes to the elimination of Israel. 

Exhibit four would be the Persian nuclear program, where every day that passes lowers the threshold for a strategic war that would make Iraq and Afghanistan irrelevant overnight. Persians have taken the point and picked up the gauntlet of Muslim militancy after fifty years of Arab incompetence.

Picture now yet another war where Israel and Iran are involved in an aerial exchange, while Israeli borders are besieged by Islamist irregulars on three sides. NATO forces could not be easily redeployed without tedious international dithering, assuming the West supports Israel at all. Geography, space, and time are not IDF allies. The risk of another Holocaust is the most obvious opportunity cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan sideshows.

The renaissance of theocratic militancy within Islam worldwide is a rapidly escalating peril to believers and infidels alike. The subway bombings in Moscow on 29 March again underline the global scope of the problem. The nexus of the threat is political, yet the varied instruments are lethal. Religion is the burkha for an ideology that seeks to use and then curtail democratic processes, eliminate secularism, and ultimately replace democracies with a kind of utopian monoculture. Surely such totalitarian schemes must fail; the damage they do in the interim is the danger.

The most immediate existential threat comes from Iran. A recent Department of Defense memo addressed to the National Security Council expresses alarm that the Obama administration has no contingency plan should sanctions against Tehran fail. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates claims that the "the United Sates does not have an effective long-range policy for dealing with Iran's steady progress toward nuclear capability." According to the 17 April NY Times report, unnamed White House officials have dismissed the "wake up call" from DOD.

National security analysts have been looking at the evolution of "modern" Islamic irredentism for fifty years now. As the recent correspondence between DOD and the NSC suggests, experts remain reluctant to clarify the threat or prioritize the targets therein. Riflemen refer to such navel-gazers as "poges," military slang for useful idiots -- unwitting apologists who campaign vigorously for flaccid or ambiguous policies that put deployed allied soldiers, partners like Israel, and true democracy in harm's way.

The author is a Vietnam veteran and former intelligence officer. Blogs at Anacostia Angst and Jenkins Hill.