The failed state narrative has now been abandoned, and the US has decided to shrug off the practice of regime change as well. Following its exit from Afghanistan — leaving behind debris of corruption, economic ruins, a weakling administration, and above all a disgruntled security force, not to speak of the chaotic withdrawal — an impression is built that the US has lost the power to dictate its terms and conditions to the world.
For too long, the US has been accused in the Middle East of playing role in support of repressive and corrupt monarchies, defending exploitative practices of oil manufacturing and multinational companies, promoting a secular and materialistic lifestyle, seeking prejudicial use of the United Nations Security Council, fortifying and bankrolling militaristic and expansionist agenda of Israel, tolerating destabilisation efforts against protests, challenging pro-western regimes and staging periodic military interventions.
It is not just Afghanistan that has painted the US in the dark shadows. A spectrum of failure defines the US penchant to build the world on its image. More often than not, its military deployment followed a diabolic pattern of killing, mayhem, and disorder. The popular revolts of 2011 and the protests of 2019 and 2020 have effectively changed the leaders of Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen, Sudan, Algeria, and Iraq but without altering the political and economic structures feeding on Islamic militancy and repressive and illiberal governance structure.
These accusations reverberated in the results of the recent Iraqi parliamentary elections.
“We never got the democracy we were promised, and were instead left with a grossly incompetent, highly corrupt and hyper-violent monster masquerading as a democracy and traumatising a generation,” commented Iraqi Middle East counterterrorism and security scholar Tallha Abdulrazaq.
Such is the level of trust in the electoral process that Abdulrazaq has voted for only once in his life in Iraq. That was in the first election held in 2005 after the 2003 US invasion. “I have not voted in another Iraqi election since,” said Abdulrazaq.
The situation in Afghanistan and Iraq has raised questions on the US policy in the Middle East. Now that the policy of military intervention has ceased to bear results, what policy options does the US have to remain relevant and influential in the Middle East?
To the former US National Security Council and State Department official, Martin Indyk, the US should pursue a policy that aims “to shape an American-supported regional order in which the United States is no longer the dominant player, even as it remains the most influential.” Mr Indyk further writes in an essay, “Across the region, people are crying out for accountable governments” but, he laments, “the United States cannot hope to meet those demands even if it cannot ignore them, either.” He further argues that in this subdued role, the US support for Sunni Muslims and Israel should continue as core policies.
A shift to this new policy probably began with Joe Biden’s coming into office focusing on Asia rather than the Middle East. As the US loosened its grip on the security of its regional partner, especially in the Pacific Gulf, it resulted in the lifting of the Saudi-UAE-Egyptian-led economic and diplomatic boycott of Qatar. In a similar feat, the movement to recognise Israel was initiated to give the regional players space to make political decisions. Taking a cue from the reduced US dominance, even China and Russia have also sent a message that the Middle East needs to get its acts together.
The question, however, is: how does the US plan to align with the autocratic and illiberal democracies?
The life cycle of the US relationship with its allies hit a snag with its stop being beneficial to the former. The Pakistan-US relation has gone through the same pattern. Pakistan has been abandoned as soon as it stops being beneficial to the US. Rarely had the US left a country united and protected in its wake. Pakistan had to pay a hefty price in joining hands with it on the war against terrorism. The birth of TTP was in reaction to that alliance. The havoc that Pakistan faced from 2007 to 2014, culminating in the cold-blooded murder of innocent children at the Army Public School Peshawar, is the price we paid to expect that Afghanistan would be rescued from its misfortune of political debacle. However, after two decades of interference and presence, that country is deeper into malice than what it was on the eve of 9/11.
The situation in the Middle East is getting grim as people are anxiously waiting to break the jinx of lousy governance by any means. Mr Abdulrazaq has explained this aptly in his Al Jazeera op-ed. Pointing to the 600 Iraqi protesters killed by the security forces, he writes, “Protesters are adopting novel means of keeping their identities away from the prying eyes of security forces and powerful Shia militias. Unless they shoot down…internet-providing satellites, they will never be able to silence our hopes for democracy and accountability again. That is our dream.”
So far, there has been a minimal actual change in US behaviour. However, there is a window of opportunity in recognising the Taliban and giving them a chance to integrate into the international order after adjusting to the principles and ethos defined by the United Nations. It would be a real sign of a change of hearts and a breather to the Middle East embroiled in war forever.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 25th, 2021.
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