The collapse of Bush’s foreign policy
By Juan Cole
From Turkey to Iraq to Pakistan, the mounting chaos proves the White House is just winging it.
Oct. 24, 2007 | The Bush administration once imagined that its presence in Afghanistan and Iraq would be anchored by friendly neighbors, Turkey to the west and Pakistan to the east. Last week, as the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan continued to deteriorate, the anchors themselves also came loose.
On Sunday, just days after the Turkish Parliament authorized an invasion of Iraqi Kurdistan, Kurdish guerrillas ambushed and killed 17 Turkish soldiers inside Turkey. In Karachi, Pakistan, a massive bomb nearly killed U.S.-backed Benazir Bhutto, who was supposed to help stabilize the country. The Bush administration’s entire Middle East policy is coming undone — if it even has a policy left, other than just sticking its fingers in the multiple, and multiplying, holes in the dike.
In Iraq, the Kurds of the north are the United States’ most reliable allies. In addition to the 5.5 million Kurds in Iraq, however, persons speaking dialects of Kurdish constitute around 11 million of neighboring Turkey’s 70 million citizens. There are another 4 million Kurds next door in Iran, and up to 2 million in Syria. All three of Iraq’s northern neighbors fear that Kurdish nationalism, which has been fostered by the U.S. occupation of Iraq, could tear them apart. Opposition to that nationalism could provide a platform for an alliance of Syria, Turkey and Iran — a nightmare for the Bush administration. Washington had hoped to isolate Syria, an ally of both Iran and of Hezbollah in Lebanon. That’s not how it is turning out.
Even after Turkey declined to sign on to the Iraq war, then U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz praised it in April 2003 as a dependable ally and secularizing model for the Muslim world. Since then, however, Washington’s relationship with Ankara has turned increasingly sour over U.S. favoritism toward the Kurds.
The Turkish Parliament late last week passed a resolution permitting the military to make incursions into Iraq in order to chase down guerrillas operating on both sides of the border. Syria’s Bashar al-Assad piled on, appearing to support the Turkish move, though under pressure from Baghdad he denied he had urged an invasion. Iran also fears Kurdish terrorism and has shelled Kurdish villages in Iraq in reprisal for guerrilla attacks in Iranian Kurdistan. Perhaps as a quid pro quo for Syrian support against the Kurds, Turkey offered this weekend to broker an agreement between Syria and Lebanon. Bush’s partiality to the Kurds has provided Damascus an opening for newly warm relations with Ankara.
On Sunday, guerrillas of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) ambushed a Turkish military convoy, killing 17 soldiers. The Turkish military counterattacked, killing 32 persons it said were guerrillas. In Istanbul on Sunday, a thousand demonstrators came out to denounce the PKK. In the two weeks prior to Sunday, the PKK had killed 28 Turkish soldiers. The mustachioed president of Turkey, Abdullah Gul, a member of the Islamist-leaning AK Party, vowed that his country would “pay any price” to protect itself. The new tensions have roiled the world petroleum markets, hurt the Turkish economy, and further destabilized an already violent Iraq.
The Iraqi leadership, already presiding over a failed state, agonized at being caught in the crossfire. The Iraqi president, the avuncular Kurd Jalal Talabani, hypocritically condemned al-Assad for urging a foreign military invasion of an Arab country, even though he himself had supported the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Massoud Barzani, the pudgy turbaned leader of the Kurdistan Regional Authority, warned that his government would defend its citizens and not sit idly by if Turkish troops rolled through Kurdish cities in Iraq. On Sunday, the Iraqi Parliament, having been unable to agree on virtually any internal issue or enact any benchmark legislation, promptly passed a resolution condemning the Turkish Parliament.
The ratcheting up of tensions between Turkey and the Kurdistan Regional Authority threatens to throw the last relatively quiet and prosperous corner of Iraq into turmoil. The turmoil is likely only beginning. The Iraqi Kurds are seeking to incorporate the oil-rich province of Kirkuk into their confederacy, and there is strong popular support for seceding from Iraq altogether. Turkish officials have repeatedly said that either move would set off a Turkish invasion.
As usual, the Bush administration has reacted to these predictable problems in a purely ad hoc manner. There is no evidence that anyone in the administration has crafted a policy for dealing with tensions between Ankara and America’s Kurdish allies. The U.S. State Department has designated the PKK a terrorist group, but the PKK is given safe harbor by the Kurdistan Regional Authority of northern Iraq. What will Bush do about having wound up as the de facto protector of a radical peasant guerrilla group that is attacking the troops of a NATO ally? If the United States acts against the PKK, it risks alienating the Iraqi Kurds, whose pro-American peshmerga fighters perform security duties and enlist as troops in the new Iraqi army. If Bush does not restrain the PKK, then he is playing Mullah Omar to its al-Qaida and “harboring” terrorists, which he trumpeted six years ago as grounds for war.
Meanwhile, to the east, another supposed bulwark against terror is wobbling. The Bush administration had lovingly brokered the deal whereby Bhutto was allowed to return to Pakistan by military dictator Pervez Musharraf. Musharraf lacks grassroots support and has been shaken by powerful challenges from the country’s supreme court, by his brutal crackdown on Muslim militants at the Red Mosque last summer, and by his continued inability to subdue the tribal forces and al-Qaida remnants in Waziristan and other rugged provinces along the Afghan border.
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