Small Wars

This Week at War: The Middle East’s Cold War Heats Up

What the four-stars are reading -- a weekly column from Small Wars Journal.


Are Saudi Arabia and Iran at war in Yemen?

Has a proxy war broken out in Yemen? The Los Angeles Times has reported that 100 Shiite rebels are dead and 100,000 refugees are on the move in the Saada region of northwestern Yemen after the Sunni-dominated government attacked rebel positions with tanks, artillery, and air strikes. According to The Economist, the rebels retaliated with volleys of Katyusha rockets. The current round of fighting, now in its second week, is the sixth uprising in this area since 2004.

What raises the profile of this development are accusations of foreign intervention in the conflict. The Yemeni government has accused Iran of providing funding and weapons to the Shiite rebels. Iran’s news media has in turn reported that Saudi Arabia’s military forces have joined in the fighting. The Saudi government acknowledges consultations with Yemen but denies any direct participation by its forces.

Evidence of foreign intervention in the conflict is sparse. But Yemen’s foreign minister was at least concerned enough to summon Iran’s ambassador his office. Meanwhile the Saudi and Yemeni defense ministries have stepped up consultations. According to The Economist, Iran’s Arabic language news service has been reporting the latest round of fighting, including Saudi Arabia’s support of the Yemeni government.

Even if the actual foreign material support in Yemen’s civil strife is minimal, the conflict is probably the newest front in a broadening proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Lebanon is one front. Iranian attempts to gain influence over Shiite populations in eastern Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and the Persian Gulf is another. Some factions in Iran may feel obligated to support what they believe are oppressed Shiite minorities around the mostly Sunni Middle East. In the case of the rebellion in Yemen, some nervous officials in Riyadh may see an Iranian plan to achieve control over the Red Sea shipping lane.

Now there is another dimension to Saudi-Iranian competition. Despite having the largest crude oil reserves on the planet, the Saudi government recently announced plans to build a nuclear power plant. Even though it will take many years for Saudi Arabia to build up the necessary proficiency in nuclear engineering, Saudi policymakers must view the establishment of nuclear expertise as an essential strategic hedge.

A nuclear arms race and proxy wars were two prominent features of the Cold War competition between the United States and the Soviet Union. We should not be surprised to see that pattern of behavior repeat itself with Saudi Arabia and Iran. Compared with Saudi Arabia, Iran has a large head start. The Saudis will have to rely on their friends for protection while they try to catch up.

The autumn of Afghan discontent

August has been as cruel to President Barack Obama‘s policy for Afghanistan as it has for his health-care reform plans. As autumn arrives, it is likely that an increasing number of Americans, most crucially members of Obama’s Democratic base, will conclude that the U.S. military strategy in Afghanistan is unrealistic and not worthy of increased support. This bad news for the administration will negate what could be one bit of hopeful news, the possibility that Afghanistan’s presidential election will actually be accepted as legitimate.

The best outcome to the first round of Afghanistan’s presidential vote is no outcome at all and a second-round runoff. Although it is too early to draw firm conclusions, it appears today that incumbent Hamid Karzai will not receive more than 50 percent of the votes. If this turns out to be the case, Afghan election officials will get "a mulligan," another chance in the run-off election to demonstrate that the election process is reasonably clean. Should Karzai win the first round in a landslide, his government would have about as much legitimacy as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has in neighboring Iran. And should Karzai barely crawl over 50 percent, the accusations of fraud by opposition candidate Abdullah Abdullah and others would sting. Thus, for the sake of legitimacy, a runoff vote is the best possible outcome.

And while Afghanistan’s presidential election drags into October, this autumn will bring heightened debate about the wisdom of the U.S. military strategy. Gen. Stanley McChrystal‘s report on the situation in Afghanistan, which Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen has already described as "serious and deteriorating," is due in September. Although Defense Secretary Robert Gates has already banned any mention of additional troops from McChrystal’s report, such a requirement will be the obvious conclusion.

When Gates ordered McChrystal to prepare a detailed study of the Afghan situation, Gates was thinking like the former intelligence analyst he is. Perhaps he should have been thinking more like a litigator, whose first rule is "never ask a question you don’t already know the answer to." Vice President Joe Biden, national security advisor James L. Jones, and Gates himself have opposed additional U.S. troop increases in Afghanistan. Resistance to Obama’s Afghan policy among Democrats is increasing. The arrival of McChrystal’s report will amplify Obama’s political problems and force Gates and his colleagues to either defend or recant their positions.

Domestic political pressure has created an additional problem for the Afghan campaign. To gain short-term support for the current strategy, Gates and Mullen have agreed to a 12– to 18-month deadline to show results (in May, I discussed Gates’ impatience for results). The Taliban, knowing this self-imposed deadline, can now conserve their forces and regulate the pace of their operations in order to deny the coalition the appearance of progress as the deadline approaches. Coalition and Afghan forces have been unable to seize the initiative over the Taliban because the Taliban have been able to avoid contact with coalition forces when they choose. In theory, a prolonged population-centered counterinsurgency campaign would erode this Taliban advantage. But U.S. officials have indicated that they lack the patience to execute this strategy.

After McChrystal’s report arrives, Obama will have to either reject the judgment of his field commander (and assume full responsibility for the consequences) or go for another troop increase (which may not yield any military benefit) and risk further alienating his supporters.

There is another choice — to change the goals of the mission in Afghanistan. Might Obama opt to climb down from his commitment to Afghanistan just months after unveiling his policy? Such a choice is hardly appealing, but may soon become the least worst option.

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