Historians a century from now will probably still be trying to explain how the United States got itself bogged down in southwest Asia, engaged in a fruitless effort to construct stable and more-or-less democratic orders there. They may understand the process, perhaps, but they will still wonder why the United States failed to learn from the costly and painful experience of great powers like Great Britain and the Soviet Union that came to grief there.
We learned yesterday that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spent part of her weekend making phone calls to Pakistani President Asif Zardari and opposition leader Nawaz Sharif, in an effort to head off a looming showdown. The immediate crisis seems to have been defused when Zardari backed down and reappointed the former chief justice to the country's Supreme Court, but there is no reason to be optimistic over the longer term. In other words, the top American diplomat has been busy trying to manage the internal politics of a country of some 178 million people that is riddled with corruption and conflict, even though Americans have scant understanding of Pakistan's internal dynamics, little credibility with its key groups, an abysmal public image there, and few, if any, levers to pull. It is hard to think of another job for which the U.S. foreign policy establishment is less well-suited, yet we now find ourselves trying to do social engineering in Pakistan.
And if I'm reading the tea leaves right, we are probably going to get in deeper in the months ahead.
How did we get into this mess? Answer: one step at a time. Revisiting the origins of this sorry situation reminds us that great powers usually walk into debacles with their eyes wide open. Wide open, but still blind.
Mind you, I'm no expert on the politics of southwest Asia, and I don't consider myself an authority on U.S. policy there. So feel free to take the following summary with a few grains of salt. But with that caveat in mind, here's my reconstruction of the steps that led us to where we are today, and the main lesson we ought to draw from them.
Step 1 was the U.S. decision to back the Afghan mujahidin following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. This step made sense at the time, given the U.S. goal of containing and eventually toppling the Soviet regime. However, the policy also involved pouring lots of money into Pakistan, which fueled corruption. Washington also turned a mostly blind eye towards Pakistan's nuclear program, because its cooperation was essential to the war against the Soviet occupation. Saudi Arabia backed the American effort with money and people (with our encouragement), and used this opportunity to fund religious schools and spread Wahhabi doctrines. As a result, the Afghan war became the crucible in which al Qaeda and other forms of jihadi terrorism were forged.
Step 2 was the policy of "dual containment," first enunciated by Martin Indyk (who was then a special assistant to President Bill Clinton) in a speech to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (which Indyk helped found) in 1993. This policy committed the United States to containing both Iraq and Iran, even though both countries were hostile to one another, and it required the United States to keep significant air and ground forces in Saudi Arabia. According to both Kenneth Pollock and Trita Parsi, "dual containment" was mostly intended to reassure Israel about a possible threat from Iran, thereby facilitating Israeli concessions during the Oslo peace process. Unfortunately, not only did we mismanage the peace process, but the U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia became one of Osama bin Laden's main grievances and helped inspire his decision to go after American forces in the region and to attack the U.S. homeland on September 11, 2001.
Step 3 was the decision to invade Afghanistan and topple the Taliban in the wake of al Qaeda's attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. We obviously could not permit our homeland to be attacked with impunity and we certainly had ample reason to track down Bin Laden and his henchmen and bring them all to justice. But the Bush administration muffed the job. The Bush administration also committed the United States to the construction of a new Afghani political order, a challenging task which it clearly was not up to, and which maybe no U.S. administration could have accomplished.
Step 4 was the Bush administration's decision to invade Iraq in March 2003, which reduced the resources and attention devoted to Afghanistan, allowed Bin Laden to remain at large, and enabled the Taliban to reemerge as a major actor. At the same time, our post-9/11 embrace of President Pervez Musharraf’s dictatorial regime made us increasingly complicit in Pakistan’s internal affairs, at a moment when its political system was beginning to unravel again.
Lastly, Step 5: The apparent tactical success of the "surge" in Iraq and the 2008 Presidential election combined to put southwest Asia back on the front burner. The idea that "the surge worked" convinced many people that a similar approach would work in Afghanistan, even though the surge has failed to produce the all-important political reconciliation essential to genuine success in Iraq, and even though the circumstances in Afghanistan are fundamentally different from Iraq. Barack Obama, of course, took a hawkish line on Afghanistan during the campaign, mainly because doing so enabled him to criticize the Bush administration's handling of Iraq while still appearing strong on national security. Unfortunately, it also committed the new president to a foolish course of action.
The lesson is clear: we have gradually waded into the southwest Asian "Big Muddy" not as the result of a coherent strategic plan, but rather through a set of reactive and essentially tactical decisions extending back several decades. Apart from the invasion of Iraq, which was an obvious blunder, each of these other decisions might be defensible on its own. Taken together, however, they add up to a costly strategic misstep. And things could get much worse if we are not careful.
What we need to do at this critical juncture is to stop, take a deep breath, and ask the bedrock question that underpins any grand strategy: what are our vital interests in this part of the world? As I've suggested before, our interests in southwest Asia are minimal, and they are not likely to be furthered by a large-scale and protracted U.S. military presence. Specifically, we don't want terrorists using this territory to organize attacks on U.S. soil, and we want whoever is governing Pakistan to keep its small nuclear arsenal under lock and key. As Leslie Gelb convincingly argued in a recent op-ed, achieving those two goals does not require extensive social engineering in either country. Wading deeper into Afghanistan and Pakistan is a fool's errand, and one that Obama will one day regret.
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Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.