Iraq’s tipping point? Invasion prevented Syria-like civil war, says Blair

Iraq(2)Iraq would have been engulfed in a civil war like that in Syria if Britain had not invaded it, Tony Blair has claimed.

The Arab Spring – the wave of pro-democracy uprisings – would have spread to Iraq had Saddam Hussein not been toppled by force, triggering a conflict like that in Syria, the former Prime Minister said. ….Last year saw the highest levels of violence in the country since 2007, and around half a million people have died since the 2003 invasion due to war, according to an academic study published last year.

But Mr Blair said: “Supposing you had left Saddam in place, I think it is reasonably arguable, surely, that you would have had the so-called Arab Spring come to Iraq,” The Daily Telegraph reports.

“If it had come to Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Syria, it was going to come to Iraq and you would be facing what you’re facing in Syria now in Iraq.”

He added: “In the end what we know now, and we can see this very clearly by the way from Libya, is that when you remove the dictatorship, that is the beginning, not the end.”

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USIP

Iraqis fully appreciate the consequence that April 30 holds this year. Elections are the only vestige of hope the Americans left behind in Iraq, says Dr. Saleh Mutlaq (left), the chairman of the Al Arabia Coalition and deputy prime minister of Iraq.

“Just as Russia today plays an enormous and frightening role in determining Ukraine’s future, so, too, do we increasingly feel the heavy breath of a powerful neighbor, Iran, in so many of the daily events of Iraq, he writes for Foreign Policy’s Democracy Lab:

Since the American invasion, the international community has thought of Iraq in terms of three major groups: the Shiites, who share a sect of Islam with Iranians; the Kurds, who make no secret of their desire for greater autonomy; and the Sunnis, who are blamed by the current constitution for most of the sins of Iraq’s history over the past half-century. ….. This simplistic understanding of Iraq cedes too much power to the modern agents of sectarianism while giving short shrift to the idea of national unity, which the vast majority of Iraqis still share.

For more than a year, Iraqis have also been taking to the streets, compelled by the strong and growing belief that the sectarian policies of the current government have marginalized Sunnis to benefit the more extreme elements of Maliki’s electoral base. Government jobs are given disproportionately to Shiites, especially in the security services. Meanwhile, many Sunnis have been unjustly subjected to “de-Baathification” procedures, labeled as terrorists, and imprisoned without the due process of law. ….

I asked political leaders in Washington to consider attaching conditions on their sale of Apache helicopters and Hellfire missiles to Maliki’s military. Many Iraqis are rightfully concerned that these weapons will used against Maliki’s perceived opponents and political rivals rather than al Qaeda. For this, Maliki’s channel accuses me of treason. …..

Portraying a group of citizens as terrorists is a sectarian policy, and Washington needs to be more careful than it has been in recent years about accepting such characterizations as fact. The unconditional transfer of weapons to Maliki’s security forces implies that the United States endorses his increasingly heavy-handed policies. But the most important message Washington can send (assuming, of course, that its powers-that-be care about the fate of Iraqi democracy), is that the outcome of this election is not pre-ordained. …..

April 30 could well be a tipping point for Iraq. If the will of the people is again denied — as it was four years ago at Iran’s insistence and without objection from the United States — I fear civil war in Iraq will be inevitable. If millions see their ballots fail, bullets may become the only remaining option for those frustrated by democracy’s failure.

RTWT

Afghan elections ‘vindicate investments and sacrifices’, suggest waning Karzai influence

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After enduring Taliban attacks and security clampdowns, Afghans reveled Sunday in the apparent success of the weekend’s presidential election, as officials offered solid indications that the vote far exceeded expectations, The New York Times reports:

Two senior officials from the Independent Election Commission said the authorities supervising the collection of ballots in tallying centers had counted between seven million and 7.5 million total ballots, indicating that about 60 percent of the 12 million eligible voters had taken part in the election. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because results will not be released for weeks.

“This has been the best and most incident-free election in Afghanistan’s modern history and it could set the precedent for a historic, peaceful transition of power in Afghanistan,” said Mohammad Fahim Sadeq, head of the Afghanistan National Participation Organization, an observer group.

Former World Bank executive Ashraf Ghani and opposition leader Abdullah Abdullah appeared to be the two front-runners in Afghanistan’s presidential election, sidelining a candidate viewed as President Hamid Karzai’s favorite, according to partial results tallied by news organizations and one candidate, The Wall Street Journal reports:

A victory for Mr. Abdullah or Mr. Ghani could significantly reduce the influence of Mr. Karzai, who has ruled Afghanistan since the 2001 U.S. invasion. Both candidates say they will sign the bilateral security agreement, which is needed to maintain American aid and a limited U.S. military presence in Afghanistan once the international coalition’s current mandate expires in December. Mr. Karzai has infuriated Washington by refusing to complete the deal.

Graeme Smith, a Kabul-based analyst at the International Crisis Group, said he expected the election to end in a cordial runoff.

“All of the candidates have a deep vested interest in the stability of the Afghan state,” he said. “Though they may rock the boat, they won’t capsize it.”

“I am genuinely encouraged,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a defense analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington who recently visited Kabul. “The high turnout, modest levels of violence, and good performance of the Afghan army and police are all genuine good-news stories,” he said by e-mail yesterday.

The election was a repudiation of the Taliban. Violence in the run-up to the voting backfired, notes Zalmay Khalilzad, the US Ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq and the United Nations.

“Each attack aimed at discouraging participation seemed to encourage even more people to register. Taliban efforts to intimidate communities at the local level also failed,” he writes for The National Interest. “Even in Pashtun areas in the east and south, turnout was high. With their cause and methods rejected, the armed opposition will undertake needed soul searching,” says Khalilzad, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy:

Afghan electoral institutions performed well. More so than in previous years, the international community operated largely in a supporting role as Afghans took the lead in conducting elections. Although there were reports of ballot shortages in some polling stations, voting, from an administrative standpoint, went remarkably smoothly. …………..Afghan security institutions were effective. Though some stations remained closed for security reasons, Taliban efforts to disrupt voting produced no major security incidents across the country. Afghans’ confidence in security institutions has increased, portending, perhaps, a new level of trust that could suppress the insurgency.

The National Democratic Institute today underlined the need for observers to follow the tallying and complaints process to help ensure the integrity of the April 5 presidential and provincial elections:

Since the margins among the contestants may be slim and a small number of votes may affect the outcome, it is critical that observers follow the tallying and complaints process closely, NDI said. In a preliminary statement, NDI said a final assessment be made only after the electoral institutions had completed their activities.

NDI fielded an observer delegation of 101 Afghan staff members who visited 327 polling stations in 26 provinces. Many of them helped prepare 46,000 candidate and political party polling agents in the lead-up to the elections.

The Independent Election Commission of Afghanistan said ballot counting had begun after voting was extended by an hour.

“Out of 7 million, around 35 percent of them were Afghan women, a great signal to practice democracy,” IEC Chairman Ahmad Yusuf Nuristani said yesterday in Kabul, adding that the turnout was more than twice that of the 2009 elections.

The fact that the election wasn’t disrupted by violence — only 3 percent of polling stations closed for security reasons — isn’t a guarantee the rest of the electoral process will be smooth, said Martine van Bijlert of the Afghan Analysts Network.

“There are still credible reports of fraud from the areas that are difficult to monitor and from where news travels slowly,” said Van Bijlert, co-director of the nonprofit policy group based in Kabul. “And we might still see a very contested count.”

But so far, the election vindicates the large investments and sacrifices of the United States and its allies in Afghanistan,” Khalilzad asserts:

The Afghan people rose to the occasion, creating an environment of hope and expectation. This presents the country, particularly the new President, with an opportunity to build on the positive achievements of the last 12 years. By resisting the temptation for a winner-take-all approach and including the losing candidates and/or their supporters, the new administration can build a national consensus behind the reforms necessary to advance peace building, economic development, the rule of law, and anti-corruption efforts.

Is Afghanistan ready for April 5th election?

“Is Afghanistan Ready for the April 5th Elections?” (AUDIO)  was today the subject of an on-the-record conference call with David S. Sedney, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia (2009-2013), and Hamid Arsalan, Program Officer for the Middle East and North Africa at the National Endowment for Democracy. Robert Zarate, Policy Director of the Foreign Policy Initiative, moderated the discussion between speakers and reporters.

With only several hours until polls open across Afghanistan for this historic election, the panelists focused on key issues facing the fledgling democracy, including:

  • What’s at stake for the United States in seeing a successful Afghan presidential election
  • The Afghan election process and timeline
  • How Afghan forces are dealing with potential security threats to presidential candidates, voters and journalists
  • The future of the U.S.- Afghanistan Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA)
  • Relations among the United States, Afghanistan, and Afghanistan’s NeighborsTo listen to audio from today’s Afghanistan discussion, visit FPI’s website.

Afghanistan: grounds for optimism?

Civil society has begun to blossom in many parts of Afghanistan after decades of repression and near-constant war, Reuters reports:

Bearded men pump their fists in the air during election rallies, others dance in dusty fields at political gatherings while volunteers serve lunch and tea. Millions of Afghans watch the candidates’ heated debates on television.

One key accelerator of civic participation has been the National Solidarity Program. To get funding for village projects under the program, tens of thousands of villages were required to elect local councils to decide how the money would be spent, and many women now serve as leaders of these councils. The flawed parliamentary and presidential elections in 2009 also showed many young Afghans what can happen if they are not engaged — and they seem grittily determined to flaunt Taliban violence and vote.

“From the western perspective, it’s a gloomy picture: 12 years of investment of blood and treasure has not produced the corresponding result,” says Davood Moradian, director of the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies. “But the other perspective, held by many Afghans, is that...by every single indicator our achievement is unparalleled with any part of our history,” he tells The Financial Times:

At Kabul University, Abdul Waheed Wafa, who heads the institution’s Afghanistan Centre, shows off the smart new electronic document archiving facility at the heart of a campus where young men and women mix in a way impossible under the Taliban. Mr Wafa, a former journalist, is a realist who has reported on the country’s extreme violence but also feels there have been positive changes that have made Afghanistan a “different nation” socially. “It used to take me 10 hours to travel to my village, with a lot of dust,” he says. “Now my cousin there is sending me Facebook updates every two minutes.” 

Although the Taliban have threatened to derail this election, the Afghan government, security forces, electoral officials—and, most important, the Afghan people—are showing themselves determined not to let that happen, analyst James Dobbins writes for The Wall Street Journal (HT:FPI). “The U.S. will stand with them on April 5, as they determine their country’s future course, and we will continue to stand with a sovereign and united Afghanistan.”

Still, the departure of key observers such as the National Democratic Institute election following recent Taliban attacks is a worrying development, Al-Jazeera reports:

Hassan Wafaey, a political analyst and researcher, said the role of international observers is crucial as it can make or break the legitimacy of the next government in the eyes of Afghan people. This is, after all, a population that almost expects corruption and fraud as a matter of course.

The Free and Fair Election Forum of Afghanistan, a civil society organisation promoting democracy, found that 25 percent of those surveyed think these elections will be fair. And that poll was done before the current eruption of anti-election violence.

“The role of international observers will be very important in the upcoming elections because of the experience with corruption in previous elections,” said Wafaey, who works with several civil society groups.

Some analysts also fear Karzai’s strong patronage system may corrupt the outcome, VOA reports.

“The commission is appointed by Karzai, so not only is he appointing the Independent Election Commission that runs the elections, and therefore is responsible to him, he is appointing the people who will determine if there’s any irregularities, and as a result it’s hard to have a lot of confidence in the electoral system,” noted Peter Galbraith, former UN deputy special representative for Afghanistan.

Andrew Wilder of the Unites States Institute of Peace says some of the leading candidates have already been talking about post-vote consensus building. “I think they understand better anyone what’s at stake here, and that there is probably going to be a need for some kind of government of national unity where some of the candidates who lost are accommodated by the winners.”

Over the years, outgoing President Hamid Karzai has been criticized for his failure to fight corruption and stem the Taliban insurgency, but he also is seen as a leader who could bring unity to the country’s many ethnic groups and factions, VOA reports.

khalilzad“He has not put people in jail because they disagreed with him,” said former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad. “Freedom of expression has been respected.”

“In my judgment, he inherited a very difficult situation,” said Khalilzad, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy, “and Afghanistan has come a long way during his period.”

“But there have been weaknesses,” he said. “Rule of law remains relatively weak, and security institutions are not as strong as they should be, although they have made enormous progress every day in the way they respond.”

Afghans over the past thirty years have seen monarchy, communism, anarchy, and theocracy, and in the past decade they have embraced democracy as a system of governance, note Hamid Arsalan, a Program Officer for the Middle East and North Africa Program at the National Endowment for Democracy, and Scott Smith, the director of Afghanistan and Central Asia programs at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP).

A peaceful and democratic transfer of power-which has never happened in Afghanistan-would be a huge boost to the confidence of this young democracy, they write for Foreign Policy:

A campaign among candidates that highlights differences without being overly divisive would demonstrate a cohesive political class eager to solve Afghanistan’s problems. A decently-run election would provide a new government in Kabul with the legitimacy it needs to sign the BSA, reset its relationship with its international partners, particularly the United States, and get down to the business of governing. 

Jandad Spinghar, executive director of the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan (FEFA) says it’s essential that the losing candidates accept defeat.

“Politically, the international community and Afghan civil society together should play a kind of role to try and convince these candidates that they should reach an agreement on some general principle where they accept the final result.”

If the experience in Iraq offers any single, unambiguous lesson, it is the folly of just walking away, analyst Kimberly Kagan writes for the Hoover Institution’s Strategika. “The U.S. must not repeat this mistake in Afghanistan. Isolation and disengagement have severely damaged American credibility and security, as can be seen most dramatically in Ukraine today.”

Egypt: crackdown on Brotherhood enters new phase

Egypts-Abdul-Fatah-al-Sisi-672x372Egypt is now experiencing violence akin to that of its darkest periods, according to two leading analysts. But compared to previous eras, there is a fundamental difference in the state’s way of dealing with the Brotherhood, the Carnegie Endowment’s Nathan J. Brown and Michele Dunnewrite for Foreign Affairs:

Under Nasser — as well as Sadat and Mubarak — repression was the job of security agencies and special courts. The judiciary sometimes acted as a brake on the government’s most authoritarian impulses. Now, all the instruments of the Egyptian state seem fully on board. Whereas Nasser had to go to the trouble of setting up kangaroo courts, today there is no need. The regular judiciary has led most of the recent crackdown on the Brotherhood, from the Minya convictions to other trials of Brotherhood leaders. Meanwhile, the state media, the religious establishment, civil service, and educational institutions have all joined in the effort. Some political parties and most of the private media have even signed on too, apparently of their own free will.

“As a result, the institutions of the Egyptian state that used to command respect because they were seen as being above the political fray — the judiciary as well as the army — now seem to be very willing participants in the repression,” say Browne and Dunne, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy.

Some observers believe the regime’s repression of non-violent Islamists is paving the way for a resurgence of jihadist terrorism.

“Many Egyptians believe that many young people are going to join the forces of terrorism in the near future. As long as there is no open way for political participation, the substitute will be violence,” Cairo political analyst and journalist Mohamed Abdella tells VOA.

EgyptfragmentingReport-COVERIf there is a lesson to be learned from the past three volatile years, it is the negative impact of repressive politics on the capabilities of individuals to articulate political agendas that respond to citizens’ concerns, according to Fragmenting Under Pressure: Egypt’s Islamists Since Morsi’s Ouster, a new report from the Center for American Progress. 

“While some of this expertise exists within Egypt—for example, in universities and civil society—the crackdown makes the realization of its potential impossible,” the authors argue. “The recent detention of journalists and political activists of varying ideological stripes are examples of the type of draconian measures that are shrinking Egypt’s political space.”

Shadi Hamid, an expert at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center, said autocrats such as Egypt’s military ruler, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, have been emboldened. “They think they can get away with more than ever,” Hamid said. “And this is tied to a growing sense of weakness under the Obama administration, whether it’s fair or unfair.”

In Egypt, Sisi believes he is fighting an existential threat with the Muslim Brotherhood. In Washington, American officials disagree over whether core American interests are at stake, and the autocrats know it.

“There is a calculation there,” Hamid said. “They know that they want it more than we do.”

According to human rights analyst Bahay Eldin Hasan, even Prime Minister Hazem El-Beblawi admitted that the state “is run by the security bodies, who control the presidency, cabinet, media and judiciary.”

The path away from the current  impasse is political reconciliation, in which the authorities agree to release detainees, drop the terrorism designation, and reintegrate the Brotherhood into political life in exchange for a pledge from the group of nonviolence and its acceptance that Morsi will not be restored as president, Brown and Dunne write for Foreign Affairs:

It will eventually have to happen if Egypt is to reach some sort of political consensus along the lines of Tunisia’s, which is its best hope for stability. There are simply too many Islamists and non-Islamists (nationalists, liberals, leftists) for any one side to dominate. The other option is continued violence and instability. RTWT

What sort of president will Sisi make? asks Neville Teller, who writes the blog “A Mid-East Journal”:

He often appears alongside images of the late presidents Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat. Some commentators suggest that he will take one or other of these predecessors as his model. He certainly followed both by pursuing the “political track” within the Egyptian military, and in particular the infantry – the corps which produced both Nasser and Sadat….But he has already indicated considerable pragmatism by cooperating with Israel in combating the jihadist terrorism current rampant in Sinai, fostered by the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, and threatening both Egypt’s nascent régime and Israel’s security.

And it is on counter-terrorism, according to Professor Robert Springborg, an expert on the Egyptian political scene, that al-Sisi’s pre-presidential campaign has concentrated so far – both in Sinai, and much closer to home. In pursuit of this policy, he has outlawed the Muslim Brotherhood within Egypt and maintains a ruthless crackdown on its activists and supporters….

Meanwhile the economic crisis intensifies, reflected in government debt, rising unemployment, poverty, inflation, power outages, and an absence of tourists. “For all of this,” writes Professor Springborg, “Field Marshal Sisi has avoided any direct blame, skilfully shuffling that off onto Prime Minister Hazem Beblawi and his hapless cabinet, which resigned on 24 February.”

Springborg believes al-Sisi wants to project a presidential image of a new, “believing” Nasser (Nasser was somewhat of a secularist), although the profound changes since the 1950s within and beyond Egypt make his aim a near impossibility. ….

 Sadat did not agree with Nasser’s distrust of Islamic influence on government and opposed his socialist inclinations. He succeeded in instituting a “corrective revolution” which purged the government, political and security establishments of the most ardent Nasserists. In addition Sadat actually encouraged the emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood, which had been suppressed by Nasser. He gave them “considerable cultural and ideological autonomy” (as author Gilles Keppel has it) in exchange for political support, little realizing the viper he was clutching to his bosom. In this, at least, al-Sisi utterly rejects the Sadat approach.

In 2006, Abdul Fattah al-Sisi was sent to the US Army War College to study for a master’s degree. In a research paper he warned that democracy in the Middle East was “not necessarily going to evolve upon a Western template”. He argued that “democracy, as a secular entity, is unlikely to be favourably received by the vast majority of Middle Easterners, who are devout followers of the Islamic faith”.

RTWT