By Luis Durani*
2016 will be a pivotal year for the US as it chooses a new president. It is an election year with no incumbent running. With candidates on both sides vying for the highest office in the land, major challenges exist for the next president of the US. One of the more turbulent areas the next president will have to deal with is foreign policy.
With global affairs being tempestuous and capricious, the next president will have many challenges abroad to confront especially in the Middle East and North Africa.
The US campaign against ISIS began with airstrikes in 2014. Despite the coalition air campaign against them, ISIS still managed to increase their territorial holdings in Syria and Iraq. As they acquired more territories, they managed to increase and build a steady flow of revenue from the oil wells they captured. They expanded their recruiting campaign by going global and becoming social media savvy. They have further escalated their operations by going after targets abroad such at the attacks in Paris as well as the downing of a Russian airliner in Egypt. ISIS feeds on anarchy and anywhere instability erupts, the group moves in. Aside from originating in the chaotic regions of Syria and Iraq, ISIS has managed to get its tentacles into other anarchical war zones such as Libya, Egypt, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Pakistan, India, Nigeria, and the North Caucasus.
While defeating ISIS has become a complicated matter due to the regional and international web of involvement, the issue goes beyond defeating a terror organization. In order to prevent playing a game of whack a mole with terror organizations, the next president needs to tackle the root of the issue that led to the rise of ISIS. The invasion of Iraq was a major catalyst behind the regional battle for influence. The regional tug of war between Iran and Saudi Arabia that emerged after the fall of Iraq has helped further enflame the issue. With Sunnis being ostracized in Iraq during the tenure of Prime Minister Maliki, ISIS became the outlet for their frustrations as well as a means to security.
The next president not only has to be able to defeat and contain ISIS but also has to be able to reduce the tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Defeating ISIS will not be an easy feat, sending in ground troops can lead to a potential quagmire while airstrikes so far have only managed to slow but not stop the group . It will require diplomatic finesse in order to put together an international coalition of troops, mainly comprised of regional nations, to lead the fight against ISIS. Simultaneously, the question of Assad poses a further complication for any coalition . Defusing the Saudi-Iranian tension will help remove the possibility of another ISIS-like group rearing its head again. This may be the one of the most difficult and complex military/diplomatic agenda the next president will face.
The longest war in US history continues to go largely ignored by the media for the past 15 years. This war will span over 3 different presidencies before it might end. While the initial intervention can be justifiably argued due to the 9/11 attacks, the continuation and execution of the campaign has sparked a different debate.
Aside from removing a misogynistic regime that supported a terror organization, the US also decided to partake in nation building. The goal was to remake this war-torn nation into a vibrant democracy. But the whole campaign was born in original sin. The US inst alled warlords instead of technocrats. It was these same warlords that led the brutal massacre of Afghans during the civil war that erupted after the withdrawal of the Soviets. With corruption and other crimes taking place under the auspices of the Afghan government, the Afghan people lost hope. They began to look to the insurgency as an alternative government to provide them with security and justice. While the US became focused on Iraq, the Taliban built on the American diversion to create a momentum that is allowing them to win today. President Obama decided to prematurely imitate an Iraqi-style surge, which led to no real perturbations to the Taliban movement. With a raging insurgency, ISIS managed to establish a foothold in the country. As the deadline passed for the US withdrawal, President Obama has decided to retain a small contingent of US troops to ensure the survivability of the Afghan government.
The next president will have to come to terms with the somber reality that an ideal withdrawal and resolution will not happen. He/she will need to decide either to stay the course and further waste money into a black hole that will end the same whether there is a withdrawal now or later. The only element that has changed in the political calculus is the presence of ISIS. If a negotiated peace between the Taliban and the Afghan government is not formulated, which it most likely won’t, the US needs to make a pseudo-peace deal with the Taliban and work with both the Afghan government and Taliban to eliminate the threat of ISIS. While the Taliban may be a short-term regional nuisance, ISIS is a long-term strategic threat to the US globally. Time and momentum are on the side of the Taliban, so it might not hurt for channels to be opened with the group on defeating ISIS.
On the border with Afghanistan, Pakistan represents the ultimate balancing act for US foreign policy. The fragile country possesses both nuclear warheads and radical fundamentalist groups. Pakistan’s alliance with the US is shaky at best. Despite a strong alliance during the Cold War especially during both nations’ covert war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, the relationship went somewhat sour shortly after. The relationship was renewed once again after 9/11 but was circumstantial at best. To the chagrin of the Pakistanis, the newly installed Afghan government of Karzai was much friendlier to India, Pakistan’s mortal enemy. As the US became entangled in Iraq, the Pakistanis renewed their covert alliance with the Afghan Taliban to help secure an allied government on their northern border. The control of Islamic fundamentalist organizations to carry out the Pakistani foreign policy objectives in Afghanistan, India and other places has metastasized into a whirlwind of trouble for them. At one point, their native insurgents came within miles of taking over the capital and perhaps the nuclear arms. Pakistan has been in a low-level civil war ever since. While the US has larger threats, it has to watch the developments in Pakistan closely because the situation can become the primary concern for the US overnight.
Syria represents a Great Game within a Great Game. It is the battleground for two proxy wars; a regional war between the Saudis and Iranians as well as the emerging global competition between the US and Russia. Ever since the protests against Assad’s government in 2011, the country has descended into civil war. In the wake of this bloodshed, ISIS used the chance to expand its territories and establish a foothold in both Syria and Iraq. Now the conflict has foreign militaries that include the US, EU, Russia, Iran, Turkey, the Gulf States, the Kurds and others. The situation is a powder keg that can explode at any moment into a larger regional conflict. The next president has to find a way to wade through the turbulent seas of the Syrian conflict. Despite what the next president decides to do in Syria, ISIS will force them to be actively involved in the battle. The future of Syria is bleak at best.
President Obama and Secretary Clinton’s intervention in the Libyan civil war to remove Gaddafi has proven unwise to say the least. The once quiet North African nation has been in turmoil ever since. Despite the lack of media coverage, Libya has descended into civil war with a tribal twist. In the wake of the anarchical state that Libya has become, ISIS has expanded its tentacles and created a stronghold in the North African nation. This strategic location allows ISIS a pivotal base at the southern gate of Europe as well as access to another oil-rich country. The next US president has to decide on whether to get involved in a civil conflict that was mostly instigated by its initial intervention or try to limit any type of involvement to solely eliminating ISIS.
Yemen represents another venue in the continuing proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran for regional supremacy. While Iranian troops have been bogged down in Syria, Yemen has become Saudi Arabia’s quagmire. Yemen has long been simmering with tribal and sectarian conflicts. The Cold War witnessed the nation bifurcating along US/Soviet lines while reunification in the early 1990s helped to temporarily heal the divide. The long authoritarian rule of Saleh came to an end when the Arab Spring swept the region. Shortly thereafter, the country devolved into civil discord. When the Iranian-backed Shiite Houthi rebels appeared to be ascending into power, the Saudis decided to intervene and restore their allies back into power. Saudi Arabia could not afford to have an Iranian-allied nation on its southern border. The Saudi intervention has turned into a quagmire. In the midst of the civil strife, Al Qaeda found havens in the mountain region of the country. But now Al Qaeda has been eclipsed by ISIS. With Saudi Arabia bogged down in its own imbroglio and ISIS at its border, the entire US strategic calculus for the Middle East can fundamentally change if ISIS creates upheaval in the Saudi kingdom itself and establishes a foothold there.
Ever since the early 1990s, Somalia has been a failed anarchical state. Different factions have been vying for power but to no avail. The US has stayed clear of the region since its failed 1993 intervention in an incident that became renowned as Black Hawk Down. But since 9/11 and the rise of the Al-Qaeda affiliated terrorist organization Al Shabaab, the region once again has popped onto the US radar. To make matters worse, the group began piracy operations, which eventually culminated in an international effort to stop their raids. Despite not posing the direst threat against US interest at the moment relative to other issues, the organization has been successful in recruiting Somalis from the West especially the US. In addition, ISIS has begun a campaign to have the Al Shabaab turn against Al Qaeda and join its ranks. The next president will need to ensure that not only Al Shabaab is isolated but also find a way to help the provisional Somali government establish authority over the entire country. If that happens, then Horn of Africa will not be a potential breeding ground and emanating source for terrorism.
About the author:
*Luis Durani is currently employed in the oil and gas industry. He previously worked in the nuclear energy industry. He has a M.A. in international affairs with a focus on Chinese foreign policy and the South China Sea, MBA, M.S. in nuclear engineering, B.S. in mechanical engineering and B.A. in political science. He is also author of “Afghanistan: It’s No Nebraska – How to do Deal with a Tribal State” and “China and the South China Sea: The Emergence of the Huaqing Doctrine.” Follow him for other articles on Instagram: @Luis_Durani
This article was published by Modern Diplomacy.