You know the saying: Not doing anything is still doing something… Well that sort of sums up the America’s foreign policy in the Middle East at the moment. This approach is creating opportunities. Russia, the Taliban, the Islamic State, President Assad, Israel, Iran and more are all using this passivity to create their own agendas and action plans.
TO HEAR Vladimir Putin, Russia has become the leader of a new global war on terrorism. By contrast Barack Obama seems wearier by the day with the wars in the Muslim world that America has been fighting for more than a decade. On September 30th Russian jets went into action to support Bashar al-Assad’s beleaguered troops. It is setting up an intelligence-sharing network with Iraq and Iran. The Russian Orthodox church talks of holy war. Mr Putin’s claim to be fighting Islamic State (IS) is questionable at best. The evidence of Russia’s first day of bombing is that it attacked other Sunni rebels, including some supported by America. Even if this is little more than political theatre, Russia is making its biggest move in the Middle East, hitherto America’s domain, since the Soviet Union was evicted in the 1970s.
In Afghanistan, meanwhile, America’s campaign against the Taliban has suffered a blow. On September 28th Taliban rebels captured the northern town of Kunduz—the first provincial capital to fall to them since they were evicted from power in 2001. Afghan troops retook the centre three days later. But even if they establish full control, the attack was a humiliation.
Having seen the mess that George W. Bush made of his “war on terror”, especially in Iraq, Mr Obama is understandably wary. American intervention can indeed make a bad situation worse, as odious leaders are replaced by chaos and endless war saps America’s strength and standing. But America’s absence can make things even more grim. At some point, extremism will fester and force the superpower to intervene anyway.
That is the story in the Middle East. In Iraq Mr Obama withdrew troops in 2011. In Syria he did not act to stop Mr Assad from wholesale killing, even after he used poison gas. But when IS jihadists emerged from the chaos, declared a caliphate in swathes of Iraq and Syria, and began to cut off the heads of their Western prisoners, Mr Obama felt obliged to step back in—desultorily. In Afghanistan Mr Obama is making the same mistake of premature withdrawal. As NATO’s combat operations wound down into a mission to “train, advise and assist”, Mr Obama promised that the last American troops would leave Afghanistan by the end of 2016. The date had no bearing on conditions in Afghanistan but everything to do with when Mr Obama leaves the White House.
What can Mr Obama do? In Afghanistan, rather than pull out the 9,800 remaining American troops, he should reinforce them and make clear that he puts no date on their withdrawal. The rules of engagement must expand so that NATO forces can back Afghan ones. Attack aircraft should support them as needed, not just in extremis. He needs to knock heads together in Kabul, where the “unity” government forged last year between President Ashraf Ghani and his rival, Abdullah Abdullah, is dysfunctional enough to lack a defence minister. This was Mr Obama’s “good war”: he risks losing it.
In Syria Mr Obama’s dithering means his options continually grow harder and riskier. Mr Putin is unabashedly defending a tyrant and deepening the region’s Sunni-Shia divide. America must hold the line that Mr Assad will not remain in power, and set out a vision for what should follow. It needs to do more to protect the mainly Sunni population: create protected havens; impose no-fly zones to stop Mr Assad’s barrel-bombs; and promote a moderate Sunni force. That may well mean staring down Russian jets.
As a judoka, Mr Putin knows the art of exploiting an opponent’s weakness: when America steps back, he pushes forward. Yet being an opportunist does not equip him to fix Syria. And the more he tries to save Mr Assad the more damage he will cause in Syria and the region—and the greater the risk that his moment of bravado will turn to hubris. Given the enduring strength of America, there is much that it can still do to contain the spreading disorder—if only Mr Obama had a bit more of Mr Putin’s taste for daring.
THE capture of Kunduz by Taliban fighters in the small hours of September 28th, just a day before the first anniversary of Ashraf Ghani’s presidential inauguration, was both a major propaganda victory for the insurgency and a nasty shock for Mr Ghani’s troubled government. Kunduz, a northern provincial capital and Afghanistan’s sixth biggest city, with a population of more than 300,000 and a thriving trade (legal and illegal) with Tajikistan, is the most important town to have fallen to the insurgents since the overthrow of the Taliban government in 2001. Even if, as seems likely, the Taliban do not hold Kunduz for long, the scars will remain.
The government still controls the airport. And less than 24 hours after the Taliban’s white-coloured flags started flying in the centre of the city, a counter-attack was under way, with reinforcements arriving by air and road, including special forces from Kabul, the capital, to the south. At least one air strike on a Taliban outpost was carried by the American-led support mission that remains in the country, killing around 20 fighters, it was claimed. But winkling out 500 or so insurgents within the city will not be easy should they decide to make a stand. Although many civilians have fled, reports claim that locals are being used as human shields. If true it will be hard to deploy artillery and air power.
Even if Afghan forces regain control of the city, embarrassing questions will still be asked about what happened and why. Ever since the start of this year’s fighting season in April, Kunduz has been in a state of semi-siege. Now only a few weeks of the fighting season are left before a harsh winter kicks in. The Taliban’s new leader, Mullah Akhtar Mansour, presumably desired a victory in order to consolidate his grip on a movement that is divided and reeling from the announcement in July that its founder, Mullah Omar, had been dead for two years. Some “spectacular” put on by the Taliban was not hard to predict. Yet the government appeared to have made little attempt either to reinforce Kunduz’s defences or carry out offensive operations against Taliban fighters gathering around it. That now looks like a major failure of intelligence and military co-ordination.
The militants’ three-pronged attack on Kunduz—from the south, south-west and north-east—choked off the road to the airport. It also severed the southbound road from Kunduz to both Kabul and to the economic hub of Mazar-i Sharif to the west (near the border with Uzbekistan). The attack seems to have been a concerted effort by militants from across Kunduz province, probably aided by insurgents from neighbouring Takhar and Baghlan provinces. An unusually large influx of foreign fighters has recently boosted the Taliban in the north. Some are from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a jihadist group that has pledged allegiance to Islamic State (IS), the jihadist group controling parts of Iraq and Syria. Others might be militants pushed across the border from Pakistan’s North Waziristan by the Pakistani army’s intensified campaign against militants there.
The Taliban’s success in Kunduz will strengthen the arguments of American military advisers trying to persuade a reluctant White House to halt or slow its plans to pull pretty much all American forces out of Afghanistan by the end of next year. American trainers say that Afghan forces have been steadily improving since they took over responsibility for Afghanistan’s security from NATO troops in 2014. But they still require help with aerial surveillance, logistics, close air support and medical evacuation. According to Pentagon figures released in July, about 4,700 Afghan soldiers and policemen had been killed in combat and 7,800 wounded in 2015, an increase of three-fifths over a year earlier. Afghan soldiers complain of poor equipment and lack of air support.
Critically, efforts to rebuild the Afghan air force by using robust Russian helicopter transports and gunships have foundered because Western sanctions on Russia have stalled the supply of spare parts. Small American MD-530 scout helicopters were rushed into service this year. But they have neither the range nor the firepower to be of much use, say frustrated Afghan air force officers.
General John Campbell, the commander of the 9,800 American forces that make up the bulk of the 12,300-odd NATO “train, advise and assist” mission to Afghanistan has presented options for next year and beyond: they range from about 8,000 American forces remaining down to a few hundred charged solely with protecting the American embassy in Kabul. Both he and the embattled Mr Ghani are using a growing number of recruits to IS in Afghanistan to add weight to their arguments for the largest possible force. In July General Campbell said that while he had previously described the threat from IS as “nascent”, he now regarded it as “operationally emergent”. As for Mr Ghani, he is under further pressure to show results from his big political gamble of improving relations with Pakistan, home to much of the Taliban’s senior leadership. When the Taliban put the embryonic peace negotiations on indefinite hold after the revelation of Mullah Omar’s death, it placed the onus on Mr Ghani to find another way of showing Afghans that he can keep them safe.
The situation is not helped by the supposed national unity government still being gridlocked by squabbling over posts. No defence minister or attorney-general has yet been appointed. A quarter of the 34 provincial governors have yet to be appointed, and many of those who have, while less corrupt than some of their predecessors, are politically inexperienced. The rising level of violence and a deteriorating economy has led people to leave the country in growing numbers. Afghans now make up the second-largest group of migrants and refugees arriving in Europe, for instance. What happened in Kunduz can only add to the sense of insecurity.