Jan 22, 2018

The Forever War

The Forever War is a great novel by Joe Haldeman, but it's also what several national security professionals have come to call either the US war in Afghanistan, or the "war on terror" in general. And for good reason: the US went to war with the Taleban on October 7 2001, almost seventeen years ago as I write this. Depending on which casualty estimates you want, tens to hundreds of thousands of people have been killed. President Trump has escalated the war, increasing air strikes and sending in more troops. With no clear strategy, there's no end in sight.

The other forever war is in the Middle East proper, and it's been going on a lot longer than the War on Terror. Now that US foreign secretary, oligarch Rex Tillerson seemed to commit US forces indefinitely to Syria, it seems like it would be a good idea to look back on how long the US has been fighting in the Middle East.


A century ago, the Middle East, with the exception of what is now Iran, was ruled by the Ottoman Empire. The Empire took the side of the Central Powers in World War I, and collapsed at the end of the war. The Allies had made contradictory promises to the Arab and Jewish subjects of the Empire during the war, and eventuallu decided to take over the Empire's territories in the Middle East as colonial protectorates. Eventually these protectorates gained their independence, leading to the map of the Middle East that we know today.

As British and French influence declined, the Americans stepped in. Saudi Arabia actively cultivated ties with the United States, and during World War II, the Americans came to believe that Saudi oil was of vital strategic importance. There has been a US military presence in Saudi Arabia ever since.

During the Cold War, the Middle East was a battleground for US and Soviet interests, with the Americans supporting Saudi Arabia, Israel and the Shah of Iran, and the Soviets backing Arab socialism in Egypt, Iraq and Syria. Neither side prevailed: Israel was never destroyed but didn't rout its opponents, and the incredibly bloody Iran-Iraq war ended indecisively. No one state or superpower could control the region.

In 1990, with the Cold War coming to a close, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein invaded the tiny neighboring emirate of Kuwait. A US-led alliance kicked him out the next year, with coalition ground forces crossing the Saudi border on February 24. The poorly led and motivated Iraqi conscript forces were swept aside with ease, and Kuwait was restored.

Saddam, however, stayed in power. To stop him from oppressing Iraq's Shi'ite and Kurd minorities, no-fly zones were set up in north and south Iraq, monitored by US, British and French aircraft, the French later withdrawing. These no-fly zones were enforced until the 2003 invasion of Iraq, accompanied by cruise missile strikes in 1993 and 1996, and a sustained four-day bombing campaign in 1998.

So by the time the Americans invaded Iraq in 2003, the US military had been operating in Iraq non-stop for twelve years already. As we know, the US-led invasion of 2003 led to the death of Saddam Hussein and the collapse of the Iraqi state, ushering in a thoroughly unstable situation where a US-supported regime is faced with a massive insurgency. Militarily, the invasion was a success; the decision to destroy the Iraqi state without any kind of realistic nation-building strategy to replace it was a disaster. American combat troops stayed in the country until 2011, when they declared "mission accomplished" and withdrew, marking 20 years of continuous operations in Iraq. The insurgency simply continued as before.

2011 was also the year of the Arab Spring: regimes were overthrown in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen, protests crushed with Saudi help in Bahrain, and Libya collapsed into civil war. Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad tried to suppress protests with force, triggering the Syrian civil war. A Sunni extremist group calling itself the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant took advantage of the US withdrawal from Iraq to launch a full-scale offensive on the Iraqi government, and also became a participant in the Syrian Civil War. The Americans are intervening in the still-ongoing Syrian Civil War, along with the Russians and the Turks, and returned to Iraq in 2014. Meanwhile, a civil war also broke out in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia is carrying out air strikes to support one side. And I haven't even mentioned Israel's continuing occupation of Palestine and its ongoing violence.

So from the 1991 Gulf war to several wars still being fought in 2018, the Middle East is nearing a full thirty years of war.


To put all this into some kind of context, I see two major developments. First, obviously, the Arab spring exposed the unusustainability of the Cold War order. Arab socialism had atrophied into venal despotism, and with money and military aid no longer pouring in from competing superpowers, the edifices began to collapse.

Secondly, the US destruction of Iraq shattered the geopolitical balance of the Middle East. In the short term, it created the power vacuum in which ISIS was born. In the longer term, the region will be looking for a new power balance. Iran is expanding its influence, but its capabilities are being massively overhyped. Iran is not an expansionist power outside the fever dreams of American islamophobes.

Saudi Arabia, however, is taking a very different approach, which Wikipedia is already calling the Iran-Saudi Arabia proxy conflict. The Saudi intervention in Yemen and the diplomatic offensive on Qatar are the most visible tips of this iceberg, but the Saudis' growing rapprochement with Israel and their bizarre orb ceremonies with Egypt and Trump certainly make it look like Saudi Arabia intends to flex its muscles. This is the essential background to the war drums being beaten against Iran in so many places today.

In the longer run, what we're seeing is the realignment of the Middle East from a superpower battleground to an area under a US quasicolonial hegemony. The extent of the conflicts, and the number of the dead, will depend on how far the US and its allies push their advantage. A war on Iran would be the ultimate exercise in remaking the whole Middle East, which is the only actual rationale of such a war. It's particularly absurd that such a pivotal time in the history of the region is being presided over by Donald Trump, a true idiot in the classical sense: completely ignorant and seemingly unable to hold a foreign policy opinion for as long as a week, but given to random, blustering fits of childish rage. It verges on impossible to decipher whether the US actually has some kind of strategy for the Middle East, let alone what it could be. Simply because he is president, Trump's idiocy and unpredictability make every global crisis more dangerous.

In retrospect, it's difficult to overstate how catastrophically bad the US decision to invade Iraq and Afghanistan without a proper exit strategy was. There's a ton of strategic literature by various American thinkers and pundits penned after Vietnam on how the US must never again be drawn into such a quagmire again, but it was all a waste of time, because American combat troops have been in Afghanistan for twice as long as they ever spent in Vietnam, and they show no signs of getting out. Whether in Afghanistan, Iraq or Syria, there are no signs that the Americans have any kind of credible strategy for resolving the conflicts they have become involved in, let alone the ones they started.

The only thing that seems certain is that the forever war shows no signs of ending.

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