‘Peace’ in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Yemen

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By Anthony H. Cordesman

In fairness, peace almost always consists of a pause in the fighting that becomes a prelude to war. Taking modern Europe as an example, the Napoleonic wars were punctuated by failed peace attempts, and then led to the rise of Germany and a whole new series of wars with Austria, Denmark, and France. The repressive peace settlements following Europe’s upheavals in 1848 set the stage for decades of new rounds of conflict and revolution. World War I led to World War II, and then led to the Cold War and now to the Ukraine.



Nevertheless, the current U.S. efforts to support peace negotiations in Afghanistan and the Middle East seem remarkably weak even by historical standards. In the case of Afghanistan, “peace” is being negotiated without even the same cosmetic level of local government participation that occurred in Vietnam. It is being negotiated when there is no political stability to build upon, and no apparent prospect that the coming election can bring real unity or effective leadership.

Afghanistan is still deeply divided along tribal and ethic lines, lacks effective governance, and has a dismal economy that cannot meet popular needs. The Afghan security forces only survive because of outside aid and U.S. airpower in direct support of Afghan ground forces. The Afghan government seems to be slowly losing what is being called a stalemate even with that support.

Media reporting on the current U.S.-led peace effort is shallow to the point of being vacuous, but the very lack of meaningful reporting—and official U.S. statements—is a warning. So far, the descriptions of the peace the U.S. is attempting to broker do not describe the terms of a peace in any detail. They do not mention any form of settlement that would mix the Taliban and existing government, limit the arms and forces on either side, or involve any form of U.S. security guarantees if the Taliban resumes the fight. There are no clear pledges of continued U.S. military and civil aid. Instead, the U.S. now seems to be committed to unilateral force cuts before any form of peace settlement actually occurs. In fact, the real U.S. peace plan seems to be to negotiate a cosmetic peace to provide an excuse for the U.S. to leave.

The real-world situation does not seem all that different in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen. The U.S. may well blunder into a new war with Iran, but all four countries where the U.S. already has some form of military involvement present most of the same real-world challenges to any serious form of peace and stability as Afghanistan.  

In the case of Iraq, the nation is supposedly at peace after a victory against ISIS. In actual practice, the Iraqi government is deeply divided, weak, incapable of effective governance, and possibly even more corrupt than the government in Afghanistan. ISIS is becoming steadily more resurgent as a terrorist movement, and Iraq already is the scene of a growing struggle for influence between the U.S. and Iran.

The ethnic divisions between Iraqi Arabs, Kurds, and minorities – and the sectarian divisions between its Sunnis and Shi’ites – are compounded by growing regional divisions and a long history of tribalism. The economy is a hopeless mess that fails to meet popular needs in spite of the nation’s oil “wealth.” Serious economic reform efforts, and aid needed to rebuild and restructure Iraq’s economy, are lacking. Its swollen civil service and state sectors of the economy are critical problems. Even if a new form of civil war never occurs, Iraq is still hemorrhaging from within. It is true that this is not the result of any U.S. peace plan, but it is to a major degree the result of the fact the U.S. has (and has had) no plan at all.

In the case of Syria, much of the nation is no longer involved in active fighting. Most of the population is now under the Assad regime’s control. However, the U.S. supported Kurdish-Arab faction in the East presents the problem that it is seen as hostile by both Assad and Turkey, has no clear support from Iraq, and is as likely to be abandoned by the U.S. over time as the government of Afghanistan. The U.S. already seems to have cut support for the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria. Russia and the Assad regime are already fighting a war against the Islamist rebels in Idlib in spite of claimed ceasefires – opening up the spectacle of some broader fighting involving Turkey. As for ISIS, as in Iraq, it is all too resurgent and active.

Once again, the government is ineffective and corrupt, and the economy is a seemingly hopeless mess. In Syria’s case, however, there is no major oil or gas money or clear source of outside aid, for the part of the country under Assad’ s control. Worse, repression has become the substitute for a rule of law.

Iran and Russia are the dominant outside powers in Syria, but the whole structure of Assad and outside power sits above a largely Sunni and hostile populace, and millions of outsider refugees have no clear reason to return. Peace and ceasefire negotiations continue, but there is no apparent path towards any form of real stability, and repression is breeding its own violent response. As for U.S. policy and influence, what U.S. policy and influence?

Libya has returned to an active state of civil war, although peace and ceasefire efforts still continue. Libya’s divided governments, crippled and divided petroleum sector, and lack of any stable form of alternative economic development interact with major tribal and factional divisions, and some elements of extremism. If any given faction “wins,” that victory seems most likely to be temporary at best, and only sustainable through a level of repression no current faction seems likely to be able to enforce. Libya’s oil wealth was largely wasted before the fall of Qaddafi, and there is no clear indication that any faction has a credible plan for using it wisely in the future. As for U.S. policy and influence? Once again, what U.S. policy and influence?

Yemen was a virtual basket case long before the fall of Saleh and the start of its civil war, and it is the scene of the region’s worst demographic crisis. All of the countries in the region suffer from massive population increases. Their population has increased by more than five times since 1950, and the region is largely arid or a desert. Yemen, however, has even less water and arable soil than its neighbors, little real petroleum wealth, and a massive national drug problem. Its youth bulge of young men and women seeking jobs have even fewer options for employment and its structural economic problems are so great that attempts at meaningful development plans are more cosmetic than real.

Iran has added a new dimension to Yemen’s long standing tribal, ethnic, regional, and sectarian divisions. At the same time, Saudi Arabia and the UAE no longer seem to be able to cooperate effectively in the war, the Houthi have never shown how they could unite or govern, and a host of smaller violent movements – some with ties to Al Qaida and ISIS – are active in other parts of the country. The U.S. seems to have sharply limited its support of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, but the full U.S. role remains unclear. While peace negotiations continue, it seems nearly certain than any settlement or ceasefire would be innocuously superficial at best and fail almost as soon as it began.

As for Somalia, it may well be even more of a failed state than Yemen, but it lacks Yemen’s strategic importance. Like the Sudans, it is a tragedy, but one that can be largely ignored.

The practical issue for the U.S. is what it now can do about this mix of problems. In every case, a real peace and self-sustaining stability seem to be far more of a hope than a probability. Even if peace negotiations do appear to have success, the real aftermath is likely to be years of further tension, fighting, and turmoil.

Accordingly, the best answer may be strategic triage. The only country involved in which the U.S. has clear and vital strategic interests is Iraq. Its position relative to Iran, its impact on world oil supplies, and the tangible threat of some new revival of truly international Islamic extremism and terrorism, all make it a serious U.S. strategic interest.

This would justify strengthened and long-term U.S. efforts to help Iraq develop effective governance, move towards economic development, and develop the capability to provide internal security and defend. Such efforts would, however, require serious U.S. efforts to help Iraq develop effective governance, to organize some form of international aid effort with both the resources and conditionality to be effective. The U.S. would also have to provide enough train and assist and military aid to counter Iran. These efforts are properly planned and resourced today, although the security effort is at least partly effective.

Syria is a different story. The U.S. will not risk much by letting Assad, Russia, Iran, and Turkey deal with the mess they are now involved in. However, the cost of securing the Kurdish-Arab enclave in the northeast may well be worth the relatively limited price now involved. It would act as a counterbalance to Assad, Russia, Iran, and Turkey. It would, help secure Iraq, help limit ISIS, help contain Iran and indirectly help secure Israel and the Arab Gulf states, and be a springboard if any real options opened up in the rest of Syria.

Afghanistan is not yet a lost cause, but it soon may be. The U.S. peace efforts and planned withdrawals may well be enough to undermine its weak government and its coming election my leave the country a divided mess. “Could have” and “should have” may well now be irrelevant. Moreover, confronting Iran, Russia, Pakistan, and China with the problem may well serve U.S. strategic interests better than any effort to continue.

If the U.S. does stay in Afghanistan, merely prolonging the agony is not the answer. The US. must be willing to provide security guarantees for a peace. It must also be willing to provide the airpower, and train and assist aid necessary to fully develop Afghan forces for years to come if peace is not possible. With or without peace, staying means the U.S. must provide conditional economic aid and support in creating effective governance and an economy that meets the basic needs of the Afghan people. Staying means doing more and demanding more from a new Afghan government that credibly offers some real hope. It does not mean doing less and praying that hope will triumph over experience.

As for strategic triage in Libya, limited U.S diplomatic and aid effort seems justified, but Libya should be Europe’s problem. Not every burden needs to be shared. The U.S. should be open and clear about this, however, and leave Europe with no options. Even the best outcome will require years of future effort and the U.S. should leave no doubts that it will only play a support role at best.

Finally, the U.S. does have an interest in keeping Yemen from coming under the kind of Iranian influence that could seriously threaten Saudi Arabia and the Arab Gulf states, or give Iran meaningful naval-missile-air presence in the Red Sea or Bab el Mandeb. The U.S. does not, however, have a strategic interest in leading or dominating the funding of the required level of nation building – if that is even possible. The U.S. should again make this clear to both Yemen and other nations. The U.S. should stop implying levels of commitment and effort it will not provide, and it should actively pressure other states to act. The world is filled with hard choices, and failing to make them openly and honestly, can only encourage failed states to keep failing, and other states to fail to act.

Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy