December 30, 202:
Information Clearing House
East Eye" -
America has just had its Suez Crisis,"
commented a member of the Iranian delegation at the
nuclear talks in Vienna about the fall of
Afghanistan to the Taliban, "but it has yet to
It's not just the fall of Kabul.
In 2021, President Joe Biden truly reaped a
bitter harvest from the strategic foreign policy
errors of four of his predecessors. As he was the
vice president for one of them,
Barack Obama, he has trouble seeing this as
well. The seeds of each of the major global conflict
zones post - Afghanistan, Ukraine, Taiwan, and Iran
were planted long ago.
What unravelled this year was no less than three
decades of bungled US global governance.
Each US president in the post-Soviet period
shared the belief that he had the file to himself.
It was not something to be shared at the UN Security
Council. He was the commander-in-chief of the
largest, best-equipped and most mobile armed force
in the world, one that could stage over the horizon
attacks with devastating accuracy. The US president
military bases in 80 different countries. He
also had the biggest pocket,
the world's reserve currency, so, ergo, he could
now set the rules.
What could possibly go wrong?
With that belief came two assumptions that proved
to be fatally flawed: that the US monopoly on the
use of force would last forever - it ended with
Russia's intervention in Syria - and that the
US could continue to enforce a "rules-based" world
order - so long as it continued to make the rules. Biden
has quietly buried both assumptions by admitting
that great powers will be forced
to "manage" their competition to avoid conflict
that no one can win.
But hang on a moment. There is something not
quite right here.
The cause and effect theory
Major conflicts, which have the
potential to produce tank battles not seen since
World War II, like Ukraine, do not just happen.
There is cause and effect. The cause was the
unilateral but at the time uncontroversial decision
expand Nato eastwards in the 1990s, abandoning
the model of a largely demilitarised and
missile-free Eastern Europe
that had been discussed with president Mikhail Gorbachev
a decade earlier.
This was done to give new meaning to Nato, a
military pact whose purpose died when its enemy did.
Complete rubbish was talked about Nato "cementing"
democracy in Eastern Europe by guaranteeing its
independence from Moscow. But remember the mood at
the time. It was
triumphalist. Not only was capitalism the only
economic system left, but its neo-liberal brand was
the only brand worth promoting.
For a brief moment, Moscow became an eastern gold
rush, a Klondike for venture capitalists, Ikea,
Carrefour, Irish pubs, and bible bashers. The
Russians, meanwhile, were obsessed with designer
labels, not politics.
The Americans in Moscow - at the time - did not
bother much about what their hosts thought or did.
Russia became irrelevant on the international stage.
US advisers boasted about writing the decrees the
Russian president Boris Yeltsin issued. And Yeltsin
returned the favour by handing over the designs of
the latest Russian tank and the
wiring diagram of bugs placed by the KGB in the
concrete foundation of an extension being built in
the US embassy.
For Russian nationalists, this was nothing less
than an act of treason. But doors were open so wide
to the West that literally everything that was not
nailed down flew through them -
nuclear scientists, missile engineers, the cream
of the KGB, and suitcases full of cash. Where do you
the Russians who settled in Highgate in North
London, or the Hamptons on Long Island, or Cyprus,
or Israel got their money from?
For a time, even the word "West" dropped out of
Russian political vocabulary because the new
Russians thought they had just joined it.
Ukraine, the West's victim
The first US ambassador to the newly created
Russian Federation, Robert
Strauss, spent more time defending what happened
in the Kremlin than the White House. Western
embassies became spokesmen for a Russia they thought
they now owned.
Strauss downplayed the first reports of
the rise of the Russian mafia state, as a mere
bagatelle. "This is what Chicago was like in the
20s," he told me. This was followed by inanities
about the green shoots of democracy and the time it
took to mow an English lawn. As if he knew.
Bill Clinton and Tony Blair were similarly blasť
about what they did in Russia.
The Russian army was "a joke". When the Russians
sent their armoured columns into Grozny in
December 1994, the West thought it could be stopped
by small bands of determined Chechens; their pilots
had only three hours flying time each month: their
frigates sailed in pairs - one to patrol, the second
to tow back the first one when it broke down; their
And so Nato pushed eastwards.
No one at the time bought the argument that all
Nato would do was to push the line of confrontation
pleas to negotiate a security architecture for
Eastern Europe fell on deaf ears. They are not
falling on deaf ears now, with 90,000
Russian troops massed on Ukraine's borders.
The victim of this gross act of western stupidity
was Ukraine, which for at least the first decade
after the fall of the Soviets had survived intact
and largely in peace. Civil wars raged all around
it, but Ukraine itself maintained its political and
social unity despite being comprised of very
different communities. With the exception of Western
Ukraine, which never forgot that it had been
captured by the Bolsheviks from the crumbling
Austro-Hungarian empire, Russian and Ukrainian
speakers lived in peace.
Now it is divided forever, scared by a civil war
from which it will never recover. Ukraine will never
regain its lost unity, and for that, Brussels is as
much to thank as the bully boys from Moscow.
The new cold war
Then there is China. Pivoting eastwards surely
did not mean ending one Cold War and starting a new
one with China, but that too is inexorably
happening. Biden cannot decide whether to calm
President Xi down or confront him, but doing each in
sequence will not work.
To get a measure of what mainland China feels
when British warships
sail through the Taiwan Strait, how would
Britain react if Chinese warships appeared in the
Irish Sea and sailed between Scotland and Northern
The game of "managing" competition has human
consequences as devastating as the superpower
triumphalism of the 1990s, and those can be observed
in Afghanistan today. The Afghanistan of the ousted
Ashraf Ghani truly was a Potemkin village, a
facade of independent statehood.
300,000 troops and soldiers on its government's
books did not exist.
"Ghost soldiers" were added to official lists so
that generals would pocket their wages,
Afghanistanís former finance minister Khalid
the BBC. The black hole of the former corrupt
regime's finances was an open secret long before
Biden set a date for withdrawal.
A report for the US special inspector general for
warned in 2016: "Neither the United States nor
its Afghan allies know how many Afghan soldiers and
police actually exist, how many are in fact
available for duty, or, by extension, the true
nature of their operational capabilities."
Now that the tap of US income has been turned
off, Afghanistan is
on the verge of a nationwide famine. But,
incredibly, the US is
blaming this situation on the Taliban. It
withholds money on the grounds of human rights,
the night-time revenge killings on former state
employees, or the suppression of education for
Much of the Afghan central bank's $10bn in assets
overseas, including $1.3bn in gold reserves in
New York. The US Treasury is using this money as
a lever to pressure the Taliban on women's
rights and the rule of law. It has granted
a licence to the US government and its partners
to facilitate humanitarian aid and it gave Western
Union permission to resume processing personal
remittances from migrants overseas.
But the US does not hold itself to account for
having nurtured a state that cannot function without
the money that it is now withholding. The US has
direct responsibility for the famine that is now
taking place in Afghanistan. To withhold money from
the Taliban because they took power militarily,
rather than negotiate their re-entry with other
Afghan warlords, also wears somewhat thin.
The Taliban walked into Kabul with barely a shot
fired because everything crumbled before them. The
speed of the collapse of Afghan forces blindsided
everybody - even Pakistanís Inter-Services
Intelligence (ISI), who are accused by India and
western governments of running the Haqqani network
of the Taliban. The only country that really knew
what was happening was Iran, because officers of the
Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) were with
the Taliban as they walked in, according to Iranian
sources close to the IRGC.
Even the ISI were blindsided by the speed of this
collapse. An informed source told me in Islamabad:
"We had expected the NDS
[National Directorate of Security] to put up a fight
in Mazar-i-Sharif, Herat, Kandahar and Kunduz. That
would have produced a stalemate and the possibility
for negotiation a more inclusive government."
But we are where we are. "There were some
improvements in the last 20 years. There was a
middle class in Kabul, women's education. But if you
want to lose everything, this is the way to do it.
The Taliban will go hardline if the place runs out
of money. If you want to protect the liberal
elements, you have to make Afghanistan stable."
The Pakistani source listed 10 jihadi groups, as
opposed to the one jihadi group, al-Qaeda, that was
around in 2001. And the ISI do not know what
happened to the arms the Americans left behind.
"We simply don't know in whose hands they have
ended up," he said. When they pressed the Taliban on
forming an inclusive government, the Taliban shot
back at them: "Do you have an inclusive government?
Do you have a government that includes the PML-N?
What do you think it would be like in Pakistan if
you had to reconcile groups of fighters who had
killed each otherís sons and cousins?"
Starved of funds, there is only one way for the
breakaway groups to go - into the hands of the
jihadists. He ended his analysis with the following
thought: is it really in the US interest to
stabilise Afghanistan? If they let the money
through, it would mean supporting the very axis of
China, Russia and Pakistan that they were now
determined to push back. The faltering talks in
Vienna, the crisis on Ukraine's border, renewed
tension and military posturing in Taiwan, are all
part of the same story.
Washington would do well to look at the map of
the world and think before it makes its next move. A
long period of reflection is needed. Thus far it has
obtained the dubious distinction of getting every
conflict it has engaged with in this century wrong.
The chance of a global conflict involving real
armies and real arms has never been higher and the
tripwire to using weapons of mass destruction has
never been strung tighter. Nor have all the world's
military powers been better armed, able and willing
to start their own inventions.
Biden should bear this in mind.
It is now in the US' strategic interest to
staunch any more bloodletting in the battlefields it
created this century. That means the US should come
to a deal with Iran by lifting the sanctions it
imposed on Tehran since the 2015 JCPOA. If it wants
to balance the growing Chinese and Russian influence
in the Middle East, that is the surest way to do it.
Iran is not going to give up its missiles any
more than Israel is going to ground its air force.
But a deal in Vienna could be a precursor to
regional Gulf security negotiations. The Emiratis,
Qataris, Omanis and Kuwaitis are all ready for it.
If Washington wants to apply rules, let it do so
first with its allies, who have extraordinary
impunity for their brutal actions.
If Washington is the champion of human rights it
claims to be, start with Saudi Arabia or Egypt. If
it is the enforcer of international law, let's see
Washington make Israel pay a price for its continued
settlement policy, which makes a mockery of UN
Security Council resolutions, and the US' own policy
for a resolution to the Palestinian conflict.
The Abraham Accords were devised to establish
Israel as America's declared and open regional
surrogate. Had Donald Trump secured a second term,
such a policy would have been a disaster for US
strategic interests in the Middle East. Already
Israel thinks it has a veto on US decision making in
the region. With this policy fully in place, it
would have been in charge of it, which would have
meant permanent conflict created by a military power
that always strikes first.
Israel acts with ruthless logic. It will use any
opportunity to expand its borders until a
Palestinian state becomes an impossibility. It
probably has already succeeded in that aim. However,
this is not US policy. But this expansion continues,
almost week in, week out, because no one in
Washington will lift a finger to stop it. Doing
nothing about armed lynch mobs of settlers attacking
unarmed Palestinian villagers in the West Bank is
the same as agreeing to them.
If you want to be a champion of rules, apply
those rules to yourself first.
This is the only way to regain lost global
authority. The US has entered a new era where it can
no longer change regimes by force of arms or
sanctions. It has discovered the uselessness of
force. It should drop the stick and start handing
out bucket loads of carrots. It should get on with
the urgent task of deconfliction.
After the damage done this century by conflicts
ordered, created and backed by US presidents -
Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya - that is not
only a responsibility but a duty.
Another US strategic mistake would be its, and
Western Europe's, last.
David Hearst is co-founder and
editor-in-chief of Middle East Eye. He is a
commentator and speaker on the region and
analyst on Saudi Arabia. He was The Guardian's
foreign leader writer, and was correspondent in
Russia, Europe, and Belfast. He joined the
Guardian from The Scotsman, where he was
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