There is a firestorm ahead in the Middle East for which neither the US government nor the US public is prepared. They seem scarcely aware how close it is on the horizon or how ferocious it will be. The US government (and therefore almost inevitably the US public) is deluding itself massively about its capacity to handle the situation in terms of its stated objectives. The storm will go from Iraq to Afghanistan to Pakistan to Israel/Palestine, and in the classic expression "it will spread like wildfire."
Let us start with Iraq. The United States has signed a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with Iraq, which went into effect on July 1. It provided for turning over internal security to the Iraqi government and, in theory, essentially restricting US forces to their bases and to some limited role in training Iraqi troops. Some of the wording of this agreement is ambiguous. Deliberately so, since that was the only way both sides would sign it.
Even the first months of operation show how poorly this agreement is operating. The Iraqi forces have been interpreting it very strictly, formally forbidding both joint patrols and also any unilateral US military actions without prior detailed clearance with the government. It has gotten to the point that Iraqi forces are stopping US forces from passing checkpoints with supplies during daytime hours.
The US forces have been chafing. They have tried to interpret the clause guaranteeing them the right of self-defense far more loosely than the Iraqi forces want. They are pointing to the upturn in violence in Iraq and therefore implicitly to the incapacity of Iraqi forces to guarantee order.
The general commanding the US forces, Ray Odierno, is obviously extremely unhappy and is patently scheming to find excuses to reestablish a direct US role. Recently, he met with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of Iraq and President Masoud Barzani of the Kurdish Regional Government. Odierno sought to persuade them to permit tripartite (Iraqi/Kurdish/American) joint patrols in Mosul and other areas of northern Iraq, in order to prevent or minimize violence. They politely agreed to consider his proposal. Unfortunately for Odierno, his plan would require a formal revision of the SOFA agreement.
Originally, there was supposed to be a referendum in the beginning of July on popular approval of the SOFA agreement. The United States was afraid of losing the vote, which would have meant that all US forces would have had to be out of Iraq by Dec. 31, 2010, one full year earlier than the theoretical date in the SOFA agreement.
The United States thought it was very clever in persuading al-Maliki to postpone this referendum to January 2010. Now it will be held in conjunction with the national elections. In the national elections, everyone will be seeking to obtain votes. No one is going to be campaigning in favor of a "yes" vote on the referendum. Lest this be in any doubt, al-Maliki is submitting a project to the Iraqi parliament that will permit a simple majority of "no" votes to annul the agreement. There will be a majority of "no" votes. There may even be an overwhelming majority of "no" votes. Odierno should be packing his bags now. I’ll bet he still has the illusion that he can avoid the onset of the firestorm. He can’t.
What will happen next? At the present, but this may change between now and January, it looks like al-Maliki will win the election. He will do this by becoming the number one champion of Iraqi nationalism. He will make deals with all and sundry on this basis. Iraqi nationalism at the moment doesn’t have much to do with Iran or Saudi Arabia or Israel or Russia. It means first of all liberating Iraq from the last vestiges of US colonial rule, which is how almost all Iraqis define what they have been living under since 2003.
Will there be internal violence in Iraq? Probably, though possibly less than Odierno and others expect. But so what? Iraqi "liberation"? which is what the entire Middle East will interpret a "no" vote on the referendum to be — will immediately have a great impact on Afghanistan. There people will say, if the Iraqis can do it, so can we.
Of course, the situation in Afghanistan is different, very different, from that of Iraq. But look at what is going on now with the elections in Afghanistan. We have a government put into power to contain and destroy the Taliban. The Taliban have turned out to be more tenacious and militarily effective than any one seemed ever to anticipate. Even the tough US commander there, Stanley McChrystal, has recognized that. The US military is now talking of "succeeding" in perhaps a decade. Soldiers who think they have a decade to win a war against insurgents have clearly not been reading military history.
Notice the Afghan politicians themselves. Three leading candidates for the presidency, including President Hamid Karzai, debated on television the current internal war. They agreed on one thing. There must be some kind of political negotiations with the Taliban. They differed on the details. The US (and NATO) forces are there ostensibly to destroy the Taliban. And the leading Afghan politicians are debating how to come to political terms with them. There is a serious disjuncture here of appreciation of realities, or perhaps of political objectives.
The polls — for what they are worth — are showing that the majority of Afghans want the NATO forces to leave and the majority of US voters want the same thing. Now look ahead to January 2010, when the Iraqis vote the United States out of Iraq. Remember that, before the Taliban came to power, the country was the site of fierce and ruthless fighting among competing warlords, each with different ethnic bases, to control the country.
The United States was actually relieved when the Pakistani-backed Taliban took power. Order at last. There turned out to be a minor problem. The Taliban were serious about sharia and friendly to the emergent al-Qaeda. So, after 9/11, the United States, with west European approval and United Nations sanction, invaded. The Taliban were ousted from power — for a little while.
What will happen now? The Afghans will probably revert to the nasty continuing inter-ethnic wars of the warlords, with the Taliban just one more faction. The US public’s tolerance for that war will evaporate entirely. All the internal factions and many of the neighbors (Russia, Iran, India, and Pakistan) will remain to fight over the pieces.
And then stage three — Pakistan. Pakistan is another complicated situation. But none of the players there trust the United States. And the polls there show that the Pakistani public thinks that the greatest danger to Pakistan is the United States, and that by an overwhelming vote. The traditional enemy, India, is far behind the United States in the polls. When Afghanistan crumbles into a full- fledged civil war, the Pakistani army will be very busy supporting the Taliban. They cannot support the Taliban in Afghanistan while fighting them in Pakistan. They will no longer be able to accept US drones bombing in Pakistan.
So then comes stage four of the firestorm — Israel/Palestine. The Arab world will observe the collapse of US projects in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. The US project in Israel/Palestine is a peace deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians. The Israelis are not going to budge an inch. But neither now, and especially after the rest of the firestorm, are the Palestinians. The one consequence will be the enormous pressure that other Arab states will put upon Fatah and Hamas to join forces. This will be over Mahmoud Abbas’s dead body — which might literally be the case.
The whole Obama program will have gone up in flames. And the Republicans will make hay with it. They will call US defeat in the Middle East "betrayal" and it is obvious now that there is a large group inside the United States very receptive to such a theme.
One either anticipates firestorms and does something useful, or one gets swept up in them.
Immanuel Wallerstein, Senior Research Scholar at Yale University, is the author of The Decline of American Power: The US in a Chaotic World (New Press).