John Howell Sr. Column 1/21/2014

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Ignorance of world history, religion evident in U.S. policy in Middle East

Friday’s suicide attack on a Kabul restaurant that killed 21 people, including 13 westerners, underscored the deterioration of the expedition this country began there in 2001.

U. S. Special Forces were on the ground in Afghanistan by late 2001. The United States then had most of the world’s support as it pursued the terrorists responsible for the attacks that had rained down on New York and Washington. The troops who arrived in Afghanistan were welcomed even by Afghans grown tired of Taliban rule.

Thirteen years later, westerners there are increasingly squeezed between insurgents who want to kill them and the government of Prime Minister Hamid Karzai that wants them gone.

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What happened in the interim to turn us in Afghan eyes from liberators to despised occupiers?
First, we failed to consider Afghanistan’s history. The country has never appreciated foreign occupiers on its mountainous soil. Not for the long term. They wore out the British in the 19th Century, the Russians in the 20th Century, among others in the long Afghan history of isolation and tribalism. Now it looks like the U. S. will be the unappreciated occupier of the 21st Century.
Striking a balance between the general welcome U. S. troops first received from Afghans in 2001 and that long history of resentment for foreign occupiers might have allowed us three years to get done there and then go home. Anything longer than three years thoroughly wore our welcome out, as we see now after 13 years.

But instead, this country in 2003 launched an invasion of Iraq, launched in response to — what? the threat of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction? The existence of that threat was based on intelligence that was either faulty or manufactured, but off we went, with enough force to topple the government of Saddam Hussein but not enough to hold in check the Sunni and Shia factions that soon turned on each other in a civil war that has ebbed and flowed since.

We were told that we were going to bring democracy to Iraq. It sounded lofty, but we failed — then and now — to appreciate what an all-pervasive role this Sunni/Shia conflict plays between Muslims throughout the world. Saddam Hussein had been able to keep Iraq together as a country because his version of totalitarian rule was so ruthless that he was able to force peace between them. Once he was removed, the fragile, Shake-and-Bake Iraqi democracy that we manufactured for them could not hold itself in check. The Shia majority exploits the Sunni minority that responds by aligning with Al Qaeda and ongoing terrorist attacks.

(Another factor this country failed to appreciate was that then Sunni-dominated Iraq under Hussein held Shia-Iran in check. Since the U. S. sidelined Iraq with its 2003 invasion, Iran has grown increasingly provocative in its role as a regional power broker.)

The Sunni/Shia division underlies every other hot spot that involves Muslims, including Syria where the current civil war increasingly becomes a proxy war for Iran and Sunni-majority Saudi Arabia, and others.

This country has now paid a high price in blood and coin for its expeditionary wars of the 21st Century. How much higher  has been the price because we lack a basic understanding of the intricacies of world history and world religion?