Many Americans wonder why the US military has such a dismal record of failure in its wars in Moslem territories. Do we not have the most modern forces in the world? How can a force armed with fighter-bombers, B1s, night-vision goggles, helicopter gunships, heavy armor, and advanced remotely-piloted vehicles lose routinely to lightly-armed goatherds?
Journalistic old-hands in the regions, men who have spent decades following the wars and the complex and shifting alliances, say quietly that the cause is American ignorance of both the lands and the people. Virtually no one in the United States has any notion of the region, they say, though all seem to have strong opinions. Policy thus rests on self-assurance buttressed by factual vacuum.
Journalism being what it is today, reporters cannot say openly that the US, from the White House to the Pentagon to the public, is (as an acquaintance of mine put it inelegantly) “pig ignorant,” and that, with reference to Afghanis, the average citizen “couldn’t find his ass with a flashlight and both hands to grope with.” Coverage is often utter nonsense, they say, but no one notices.
Perhaps a few examples of the sorts of misunderstandings prevalent among commentators would be of use:
It is well known that Paul Bremer, the virtual viceroy of Bagdad after the city’s fall in Gulf I, disbanded the Iraqi army. Less known is that he replaced Mohammed al Aksa, the chief of intelligence, with Abdul dhar es Salaam, a known Sufi extremistwith ties to Iranian intelligence. In fact he seemed to be on its payroll: The man had palatial residences, widely suspected of having been paid for by Tehran, in Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s home town, in Bangui in the Kurdish north, as well as in the ritzy Sulawesi suburbs of Fallujah (the latter dwelling destroyed by American shell-fire in the siege).
Bremer apparently didn’t know any of this, though it was a commonplace in journalistic hangouts. Dhar es Salaam was instrumental in stirring up resistance to Coalition forces trying to pacify the country—while on the American payroll.
As everyone knows, General David Petraeus saved the situation, or at least bought time, by playing off the Awali and Litani sects against each other with the help of Muqtada al Sadr. He did this by simply paying the irregulars of both sides to join the loyalist militias. This was eminently practical, though not lasting.
The Petraean tactics which proved so successful in Iraq, pacifying the provinces of Anbar, Shakti, and particularly the suburbs of Sudra, a notorious Shia stronghold, failed utterly in the barren mountains of Afghanistan’s Anterior Zygopophysis range, through which runs the famous Khyber Pass.
Why? A spokesman for the US command in Kabul attempted to pin the blame on Iran in what has become a standard tactic for diverting attention from failure. Extremist groups outside of Afghanistan were responsible, he said: “outside agitators” so to speak. Allegedly, fanatics of the Falafel Brotherhood were crossing the Afghan-Tajic border with weaponry supplied by Tehran. This view drew support from the later Bush administration and came to be accepted in Congress.
It was nonsense, like so much of what is written about the wars.
Those more familiar with the region responded that the “Afghans” and “Tajiks” were in fact pastoralists dominated by tribal, not national loyalties, and looked not to the central government in Kabul, but to their own leaders, Ahmed Shah Massoud and Sala al-Din for guidance. (Or Akhmed Shah Massoud: The guttural is transliterated in various ways.) These men were essentially rebranded Mamelukes, having been raised in or around the Janissary madrassas (Koranic schools) of Kandahar before the Russian invasion of1976. Warlords at heart, they were suspected by US intelligence of being interested chiefly in extending their rule beyond the Chagras River into the rich opium lands of the Bekaa Valley. They had no connection to Iran.
This is the small change of chitchat in press bars of the region (yes, there are bars, Islam or no, usually in international hotels.) Why do Congress and the American public know nothing of it? How does one explain this to an American populace that does not know whether Oman borders or Catarrh or Djibouti? A public that has been taught to blame Iran for everything?
Journalists who have worked in Washington might add, “How many Congressmen know any of this?” These are not trick questions, like “How many minarets does the mosque of Ahmet Beit Agron have?” or “Name the first four Caliphs.” They are facts known even in the bazaars of Damascus.
It is important to understand the motivations of the regional powers. In the news—I almost want to write “news”—and in comments-sections following stories about the Mideast, one gets the impression that the ferocious to-the-last-man resistance to Coalition forces besieging Fallujah sprang from Islamic hatred of the West. In part, yes. But how many know that Fallujah is the site of the tombs of the Harappa dynasty, who ruled during the Abbasid Caliphate, and is perhaps the fourth-holiest site in Islam?
The West, being an almost entirely secular society, does not grasp the importance to a profoundly religious people of things sacred to them. The twelfth-century defeat by the Harrappans of the invading Bandarlog tribes under the Golden Khan, Suleiman I of Akkad, bears in Islamic tradition something resembling the victory of the Jewish Maccabees in the Second Century BCE.
I mention these things not because I think the details of complex historical periods are in themselves particularly important, but to make the point that in aggregate they shape tribal loyalties in the region. These in turn affect national governments. When the Israelis shifted their nuclear storage facilities from Dimona in the Negev to Rafa—a change which, mysteriously, doesn’t show on Google Earth—it had nothing to do with fear of (nonexistent) long-range Iranian missiles, though this was how it was reported by CBS. Rather it was the increasing number of Alawites among the Bedouin tribesmen and their considerable experience with explosives acquired during their decades-long undeclared war against the Druze of Lebanon. While they could not possibly have defeated Israeli security forces, a determined suicide attack might briefly have breached defenses, causing an international uproar and hysterical headlines. (“Israeli Nukes Susceptible to Terrorist Theft, New York in Danger.”) The Israelis do not like to have attention called to their nuclear weapons. So they moved them.
The inability of Americans, in and out of Congress, to tell nonsense from truth, the tendency to simplify baffling complexity into slogans, makes US policy easily shoved in directions favored by special interests. Make no mistake: The ignorance is real. A Congressman I once spoke with told me of going to Thailand on a junket with a fellow member of the legislature who constantly referred to the country as “Taiwan.” The Mideast is far more contorted in its politics. Our “leaders” need to learn to know when they are being gulled, to distinguish fact from twaddle. They cannot, and neither can the public. There will be a price.