Just as the White House claims that it has finally turned the corner in what it defines as the "central front" in the war on terror—Iraq—it has found itself desperately trying to contain new crises in the war’s "periphery," stretching east to Pakistan, west to Turkey, and south to the Horn of Africa.
Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf’s latest "coup d’etat" two weeks ago, combined with the continuing threat of a Turkish invasion of Iraqi Kurdistan and the looming probability of war between Eritrea and U.S.-backed Ethiopia, have added to the growing impression that Washington has become hostage to forces and personalities far beyond its control and understanding.
The fact that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was reduced to making eleventh-hour telephone appeals to heads of state to heed Washington’s wishes—in Turkey’s case not to invade Kurdistan; in Musharraf’s, not to declare a state of emergency—has only underlined just how impotent and unprepared the world’s sole superpower appears to have become.
Worse, if they turn out badly, these crises could deal devastating setbacks to Washington’s hopes of bolstering "moderate" forces against its perceived enemies, be they Sunni jihadists or the allegedly Tehran-led "axis" of Syria, Hezbollah, and Hamas.
The latest events come amid a lack of concrete progress on the Israel-Palestinian peace process, the ongoing political impasse in Lebanon, and still-mounting tensions between Iran and the United States.
To some veteran observers, the current rash of crises recalls the situation in 1979-1980, when the Islamic Revolution in Iran, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, an Islamist uprising in Saudi Arabia, the execution by Pakistan’s military regime of former President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, and the bloody, superpower-fueled Ogaden War between Somalia and Ethiopia formed what was then called the "arc of crisis" that persuaded President Jimmy Carter to launch a major build-up in Washington’s military presence from the Red Sea to the Gulf.
But "[t]he situation we face today is much more difficult," one former senior State Department official told the Inter Press Service last week. "Back then, we didn’t have 200,000 U.S. troops fighting on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan; nor did we have the anti-Americanism that now pervades the entire region. And, frankly, to deal with all this, we don’t even have the regional expertise in the government that we had in 1979."
Of the three new crises, the situation along the border between Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan most directly threatens the administration’s efforts to stabilize Iraq.
Senior U.S. officials are hoping that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s visit here last Monday, during which Bush promised to boost its intelligence cooperation with Ankara in its fight against Iraq-based Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) guerrillas, will give him enough political capital back home to ward off calls by hawkish military commanders and opposition parties for crossing the border in force, at least until the winter snows trap the PKK in its bases in the Qandil mountains.
The stakes are very high, indeed. Most analysts believe that a major Turkish incursion, if it occurs, will likely spur resistance by the peshmerga—Iraqi Kurdish militias—on which Washington depends both to keep northern Iraq secure and stable and to provide the most reliable recruits for Iraq’s new, U.S.-trained army.
At the same time, Turkey is a "moderate" predominantly Muslim nation and a close NATO ally that not only contributes troops to NATO’s peacekeeping operation in Afghanistan, but also provides access to Incirlik Air Base on which the U.S. military relies heavily for re-supplying its forces in Iraq.
In other words, Washington can ill afford a major clash between Turkey and Kurdish forces in Kurdistan, lest it risk losing an ally whose help is considered virtually indispensable to stabilizing Iraq.
But Erdogan’s delegation left Washington last week clearly dissatisfied with Bush’s new commitments, and, as the Turks have warned, another lethal PKK raid, such as the one that took the lives of 20 soldiers last month, could force his hand.
While fending off a Turkish invasion is critical to U.S. efforts in Iraq, the stakes raised by Musharraf’s declaration of a state of emergency in Pakistan—which, according to most terrorism experts here, has been the true "central front" in the anti-terror struggle since al-Qaida and the Taliban were pushed out of Afghanistan and into the frontier areas of its eastern neighbor in late 2001—are higher yet.
Washington, which has provided Musharraf and his military with some $15 billion in official and covert aid over the past six years to encourage their cooperation in Afghanistan and the larger war on terror, has become increasingly disillusioned with their performance over the past year.
Not only has Musharraf resisted U.S. pressure that he share power with his "moderate" civilian opposition, notably former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, in a process that has now been, at best, delayed by his assumption of emergency powers. H e and his fellow officers have also effectively permitted, if not encouraged, Pakistan’s own militant Islamist forces to expand their control over the frontier regions where, according to a recent U.S. intelligence estimate, senior al-Qaida leaders have largely reconstituted their central-command network, and the Taliban has gained both a safe haven and an endless supply of recruits.
"Now we have the worst of all possible worlds," noted the chairman of a key congressional foreign affairs committee, Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-NY) last Wednesday.
"Our ally is an isolated and deeply resented leader who is less popular with his own people than Osama bin Laden, who instead of arresting the terrorists who pose an existential threat to his regime, if not to the country, is arresting the very people with whom he could have worked to generate the political support necessary to rid Pakistan of extremists."
Unable to prevent to Musharraf’s coup, the administration, including George W. Bush himself, is now pressing hard on Musharraf to comply as soon as possible with his previous pledges to resign as army chief and permit free elections that would presumably result in Bhutto’s election as prime minister.
But, even if he does, it remains unclear whether the damage can be undone. Any remaining confidence in Musharraf in Washington, let alone in Pakistan, has evaporated. Washington has reportedly begun discreetly contacting other generals about the possibility of replacing him, a move that itself carries risks of greater instability and hence opportunities for radical Islamists to advance their position in the Muslim world’s only nuclear state.
Compared to both Kurdistan and Pakistan, events in the Horn of Africa appear very remote indeed. But, in a stark warning issued by the International Crisis Group (ICG) this week, that front in Washington’s war on terror—where Ethiopia has acted as Washington’s regional enforcer—has also come under increasingly urgent threat.
Ethiopia and Eritrea, which Washington recently threatened to declare a state sponsor of international terrorism, have engaged in a military build-up of "alarming proportions" along the same border where they fought a bloody war from 1998 to 2000, according to the ICG.
Both Ethiopia and the Bush administration have been infuriated by Eritrea’s alleged support for Somalia’s Islamic Courts Union, which was ousted from power in Mogadishu and other parts of Somalia by an invasion of Addis Ababa’s powerful, U.S.-backed military 11 months ago. The Ethiopians have since been bogged down in an increasingly bloody occupation that many analysts have compared to the U.S. occupation of Iraq.
Absent urgent international, and especially U.S., efforts to stop it, war could break out there "within weeks," according to ICG president Gareth Evans. "There will be no easy military solution if that happens. We are looking at a protracted conflict on Eritrean soil, destabilization of Ethiopia, and a horrible new humanitarian crisis."
Jim Lobe is the Washington bureau chief of the Inter Press Service and a contributor to IRC’s Right Web (http://rightweb.irc-online.org/).