Risk of 'Blowbacks' in Iraq

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In
the spy business, "blowback" is a term used to describe
unintended negative consequences of actions taken by intelligence
agencies to advance national interests. The phrase was allegedly
coined by spooks at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to refer
to an agent, an operative or an operation that turned on its creator.

Indeed,
given prior US support of the Islamic insurgency in Afghanistan
during the Cold War and purportedly also of Osama bin Laden, it
could be argued that the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack was
the most prominent contemporary example of blowback, since some
contend that this US backing actually helped build Bin Laden and
Al-Qaeda as a geopolitical force.

Officials
in the administrations that provided US assistance to the Islamic
guerillas fighting Soviet troops in Afghanistan justified their
policies by arguing that they helped force the Soviets out of that
country and played a crucial role in the process that led to the
collapse of the Soviet Union and eventually to the end of the Cold
War.

Negative
outcomes

In
any case, only few analysts had foreseen that the anti-communist
jihadists that were allied with the Americans during the Cold War
would turn on their promoters and form the most violent anti-American
force in the world today. Is it possible that 10 years from now
as Americans would recall the US military in Iraq, the ousting of
Saddam Hussein from power, and the first multiparty elections in
that country in 50 years, they would be once again pondering the
negative outcomes of the another US policy that was supposed to
rid Iraq of an evil dictator, to establish a democracy in Mesopotamia
that would serve as a shining model to the entire Middle East, and
in the process advance US national interests and promote its values
of liberty and freedom?

In
retrospect, one didn’t have to be an expert on the Middle East and
Islam to imagine that arming a multi-national coalition of Islamic
extremists in Afghanistan during the 1980s, well after the destruction
of the US Marine barracks in Beirut or the hijacking of TWA Flight
847, would eventually lead to the emergence of a powerful legion
of terrorists and their brutal campaign against the US and its allies
among Arabs and Muslims worldwide.

After
all, these jihadists were committed to an uncompromising agenda
against everything that the West represents, including democracy,
secularism and women’s rights. In fact, the jihadists’ triumph over
the powerful Soviet infidels only helped strengthen their resolve
to challenge the American non-believers and their allies in the
Middle East. The Islamic warriors didn’t perceive their victory
in Afghanistan as a successful chapter in America’s struggle against
communism or as a step on the road to American-style democracy.

In
their eyes, the eviction of the Russians from Afghanistan was on
one level, another phase in the never ending tribal and ethnic wars
in the country and on another level, another sign that political
Islam was on the march. Similarly, the members of the Arab-Shiite
majority in Iraq have celebrated the fall of Saddam Hussein and
their expected victory in Sunday’s election not as highlights in
the neo-conservative-type narrative in which America leads the way
in spreading liberty in the Middle East and around the world and
a democratic Iraq would join the camp of freedom-loving nations
that share US interests and values.

For
the Shiites, who were repressed by the ruling Arab Sunni minority
since the creation of Iraq by the British, the fall of Saddam and
their electoral victory marks their assertion to power as an ethnic
and religious group that has been marginalised and despised not
only by Saddam and his Baath party, but also by other Arab-Sunni
and pro-American regimes in the region.

From
that perspective, American policy has helped make Iraq safe, not
for liberal democracy and individual rights, but for religious and
ethnic identity – strengthening the Shiites and the Kurds while
radicalising the Sunnis.

Moreover,
even the most moderate elements in the Shiite leadership, reflecting
the prevailing views in their community, are bound to adopt policies
that would formalise their religion’s influence on public and private
life, weakening protection for the rights of women and minorities.

Similarly,
the empowerment of Iraq’s Shiite majority would encourage the spread
of Iranian influence in Iraq and the region. It is a development
that would energise Shiite groups in the Persian Gulf and the Levant
most of whom, not unlike the Hizbollah in Lebanon, espouse a religious
and political agenda that is antithetical to US values and interests.

Engine
for change

So
one doesn’t have to be a student of Shiite history to expect the
rise to power of a government in Baghdad that would become an engine
for change in the region in a way that would not necessarily accord
with US goals, including growing influence of Iran and radical Shiite
movements in the region, not to mention the possibility of civil
war in a disintegrating Iraq that would lead to intervention of
the neighbouring countries.

Even
under the best case scenario – let us call it ‘Blowback Lite’,
Americans should expect the rise to power of a Shiite regime that
would be not be inclined to support US policy. And the only way
to ensure that that blowback would, indeed, remain lite, American
troops would have to remain in Iraq for many years to come.

February
4, 2005

Leon
Hadar [send him mail] is
Washington correspondent for the Business
Times of Singapore
. Reprinted with permission of the author.

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