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Despite Iraq Withdrawal, Greater Mideast Not Looking Good

 

Inter Press Service

While President Barack Obama Monday touted the continuing U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq as a key marker in the success of his regional policies, the latest news from the Greater Middle East, as well as a new public opinion survey, is far less encouraging.

Not only was July the deadliest month for U.S. troops in Afghanistan since the Taliban's ouster from power in late 2001, but the worst flooding in the critical frontier region of Afghanistan and neighbouring Pakistan in 80 years threatens to undo what progress the central government in Islamabad has had over the past year in regaining control of the area from the Pakistani Taliban and laying the groundwork for a U.S.-backed development plan.

At the same time, Obama has failed to persuade Iran to curb its nuclear programme despite his success in getting Russia and China to support a new round of sanctions at the U.N. Security Council and the European Union (EU) and other allies to impose much-stronger measures against Tehran.

Similarly, he has yet to make any discernible progress on resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – a top foreign policy priority from the first days of his administration.

On the contrary, his failure in that respect – manifested, in particular, by Israel's defiance of his demands to stop all settlement activity in the occupied territories, including East Jerusalem – has, in the view of many experts, inflicted serious damage on his credibility throughout the region.

Even in Iraq, where he will have reduced the U.S. military presence from some 144,000 when he took office to 50,000 by the end of this month, the situation hardly looks promising.

Nearly five months after parliamentary elections there and despite pressure by the recent visits of top U.S. officials, including Vice President Joseph Biden and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen, Iraqi political leaders have proved unable to form a new government.

The protracted impasse has clearly stoked political and ethnic tensions that have in turn translated into a worrisome increase in violence. While the U.S. military has insisted that the monthly death toll is half of what it was one year ago, the Associated Press, which has independently tracked government statistics for several years, reported 535 killings last month, the deadliest month in two years.

If political paralysis, increased violence, an already-weak economy made yet weaker by a lack of investment and electricity, and growing concerns about fate on the on the part of Iraq's more powerful neighbours persist, Obama may be forced to reconsider his commitment – which he repeated Monday in a speech to the convention of the Disabled American Veterans – to withdraw the last U.S. troops from the country by the end of next year.

In any event, a new Gallup/USA Today poll released Monday suggested that U.S. voters are losing confidence in Obama's handling of both the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.

Despite the fact that the Iraq withdrawal is taking place on schedule, only 41 percent of respondents said they approved of his performance there, the lowest percentage since he took office in January 2009.

His ratings on Afghanistan policy were even worse; only one-third of respondents voiced their approval, although a majority of 57 percent said they favoured a gradual withdrawal from that conflict. Obama has pledged to begin drawing down the nearly 100,000 U.S. troops deployed there currently in July next year.

"We will continue to face huge challenges in Afghanistan," Obama said in his speech to the veterans. "But it's important that the American people know that we are making progress, and we are focused on goals that are clear and achievable."

In recent days, senior administration officials have sought to reduce expectations for what Washington can achieve in Afghanistan. In a televised interview last Thursday, Biden declared that the U.S. did not intend to "nation-build" in Afghanistan, but only to defeat al Qaeda.

"We are in Afghanistan for one express purpose: &the al Qaeda that exists in those mountains between Afghanistan and Pakistan," he said.

In an interview on another network news show Sunday, Obama took much the same line. "What we're looking to do is difficult, very difficult, but it's a fairly modest goal, which is, don't allow terrorists to operate from this region; don't allow them to create big training camps and to plan attacks against the U.S. homeland with impunity."

Both statements followed a vote in the House of Representatives last week in which 102 Democrats opposed a bill to finance the war, which is currently costing the U.S. Treasury about 100 billion dollars a year. That was 70 more than voted against a similar measure last year and constituted nearly half of all Democrats in the lower chamber.

Wary of both the mounting death toll and the decline in public and Democratic support for the war, the administration appears to have decided to alter its strategy in Afghanistan from one based on classic counterinsurgency principles – to win the "hearts and minds" of Afghans by, among other things, protecting the population and providing it with better governance and public services – to counterterrorism, where the emphasis will be placed more on capturing or killing Taliban commanders while wooing local tribes and Taliban foot-soldiers with cash and other incentives.

The administration also appears increasingly open to possible power-sharing negotiations with the Taliban, as has been advocated by Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

Meanwhile, however, the situation across the border in Pakistan is spurring growing concern in light of last weekend's record flooding that has killed at least 1,500 people, displaced more than one million others, and devastated areas around the country's northwestern border with Afghanistan, including the Swat Valley.

With prodding from the Obama administration, the area was retaken by the Pakistani army from the Pakistani Taliban after bitter fighting last year. Islamabad's reconstruction efforts have been widely criticised as slow and ineffective, fuelling anti-government sentiment in a key strategic region and possibly boosting the militants' standing with the population.

Now, much of the government's efforts – along with the infrastructure – have been washed away, and the army, which has for the last year been focused on regaining and retaining control of the region, is now being diverted to rescue and recovery operations.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Congress approved a five-year, 7.5-billion-dollar aid package for Pakistan, much of which is to be spent in the border areas affected by the flooding.

Jim Lobe is the Washington bureau chief of the Inter Press Service and a contributor to IPS Right Web (http://www.rightweb.irc-online.org/). He blogs at http://www.lobelog.com/.

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