Any shifts in policy in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Guantanamo will not be determined by campaign promises but by the situation on the ground.
Just when the lengthy transition to January 20 was beginning to pall, President-elect Barack Obama has provided evidence that he is already in the process of implementing key campaign promises. Withdrawal from Iraq, for instance.
An agreement between the U.S. and Iraq to end the U.S. occupation by 2011 was cleared by the Iraqi Parliament this week. The title of the Agreement is self explanatory: the Agreement of the Withdrawal of United States Forces from Iraq and the Organisation of their Activities during their Temporary Presence in Iraq.
Such an agreement was in the works for 11 months but could not be signed because of major differences among the parties concerned. Remember, an agreed time-table for withdrawal was anathema to George Bush and British Premier Gordon Brown, as was the trial of U.S. troop-members guilty of human rights violations in Iraq. Iraqi groups were opposed to the idea of the agreement being put for a national referendum.
So, negotiations have been on a roller-coaster ride. It required some continuity to bring them to a conclusion. The President-elect provided this by retaining Robert Gates as his Secretary of Defence. The obstacles in the way of an agreement during the Bush Presidency seemed insurmountable because almost every clause was subject to “condition prevailing at the time.” With great suppleness, and without causing raised eyebrows, Mr. Obama has used Mr. Gates’ continuation in the Pentagon (Mr. Bush’s choice who found favour with Mr. Obama, too) to remove the obstacles. Quite unobtrusively, a tectonic shift in U.S. foreign policy is under way. This could well be a clue to the Obama style in the conduct of policy.
The irony, of course, is that now that a U.S. withdrawal is in the works, sectarian factions inside Iraq will hatch secret plots around the issue of U.S. withdrawal. Publicly, of course, they all have to be seen to be celebrating an American departure.
Major countries surrounding Iraq – Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia – will not be so subtle in opposing a precipitate U.S. departure. Each one of them has its own preferred script on withdrawal. Ankara’s Achilles heel is northern Iraq, which is a geographical extension of southwest Turkey. The no-fly zone imposed over this Kurdish part of Iraq since Operation Desert Storm facilitated Turkish businessmen investing in the region. The new Assembly building in Arbil and the airport at Suleimaniyeh are some of the major constructions in Turkish hands.
In recent years, with growing uncertainties about Iraq’s future, the area has become the epicentre of anti-Ankara Kurdish militancy under the group called PKK. Turkey now has at least three distinct reasons to be in control of developments in northern Iraq: avert Kurdish militancy striking roots; protect large business interests developed in the region over the past decade, and prevent the massive oil reserves of Kirkuk falling into hostile hands.
Turkey has appointed a special envoy, Murat Ozcelik, to shuttle among Baghdad, Washington and Ankara with a specific focus on northern Iraq. “Turkish troops would move in,” a senior journalist told this writer in Ankara, “should there be a vacuum or even the slightest hint of an independent Kurdistan.” Mr. Obama will have to work out arrangements between the Turkish Army and the U.S., bilaterally or within the framework of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, so that feathers are not ruffled in Ankara.
Saudi anxieties are even more profound. As it is, the ruling elite in Riyadh is nervous over the departure from the White House of its best friend ever – George W. Bush. For this elite, the shift from Saddam Hussein to Ayatollah Ali Sistani amounts to the “hopelessly bad” becoming worse.
It is not just the prospect of Iraq coming under the dominance of its 70 per cent Shia population that unnerves Riyadh but this population being contiguous with the oil-rich and Shia-dominated parts of Saudi Arabia. Not just this. Over 80 per cent of Bahrain, and parts of Kuwait, are Shia.
It must be clarified, however, that the Sunnis of what the Americans describe as the “Sunni triangle” in Iraq are, in their faith, different from Saudi Wahabism. Theirs is a tragedy of complete status reversal. Saddam Hussein’s Baathist rule was overwhelmingly Sunni. But it did not touch Wahabism with a barge pole. The Saudi rulers are pragmatic. They would like to adjust to the new realities. The problem for them will be a Shia resurgence in the oil-bearing areas inviting a massive backlash from the powerful Wahabi clergy who can tolerate any kind of Sunni but not Shia “apostasy.”
All these have the potential to become explosive issues when in public focus. They are obscured from view while attention is riveted on the U.S. occupation. Above all else, the Saudis will keep a steady gaze on how U.S. withdrawal from Iraq affects Iran. Much to the chagrin of the Saudis, the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq served Iran’s strategic ends.
A softer touch in the conduct of foreign affairs is expected from the new White House, which will be neck-deep in its own domestic economic agenda. This could well imply a let “bygones-be-bygones” policy towards Iran. In other words, a preference for “constructive engagement” to manage Tehran’s nuclear ambitions and, down the line, to involve Iran in regional security. Tehran would like this “engagement” to be under way for it to be recognised as a dominant Gulf power before giving up its unspecified pressure on the Americans in Iraq. Though Tehran and Muqtada Sadr do not see eye to eye (he sees himself as an Arab Shia as opposed to the Ajami or Irani Shia), he has access to Iranian help because Muqtada’s Mehdi Army does have the potential to keep Americans pinned down in sectarian battles or in direct conflict.
More trained than the Mehdi Army is the Al-Badr army, which takes instructions from Abdel Aziz al Hakim, the most powerful influence on the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. During the eight-year Iraq-Iran war, Al-Badr received professional training in Iran. This entire Shia establishment, (Muqtada is something of a maverick in this framework) looks up to Ayatollah Sistani with his headquarters in the holy city of Najaf. Incidentally, none of this is totally unfamiliar turf for Mr. Obama. During his visit to Iraq during the campaign he held discussions with a range of leaders including Ayatollah Sistani.
Not only does Iran have its fingers on these levers in Iraq, it has other sensitive pressure points in its ken. It has long borders with Afghanistan and Balochistan. Most of the supplies to NATO and U.S. troops in Afghanistan pass through Balochistan. Strategically located as Iran is, Tehran would like to see an arrangement shaping up that recognises its regional importance before it reverts to a purely cooperative role with the Americans.
Once the Saudis (and even the Turks) see the balance of power in the Gulf shifting decidedly in favour of Iran, they will show the White House the keys to vaults upon vaults of liquid assets. It will not be easy for a country in the grip of a major economic crisis to spurn these. Therefore, shifts in policy in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Guantanamo will not be determined by campaign promises but by the actual situation on the ground.
6 months ago