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Afghanistan and beyond: US foreign policy challenges in 2014

During an interview with NBC News, soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division based at FOB Torkham, Afghanistan, came under a rocket attack and moved swiftly to cover.

NEWS ANALYSIS

ISTANBUL-- A rocket exploded in the jagged, rocky hills just outside the American outpost at Torkham Gate, the gap in the mountains of the historic Khybar Pass that separates Afghanistan from Pakistan. It was a bad shot. Rockets fired by the Taliban generally aren’t guided.

Soldiers rushed to a shelter when the rocket detonated, but didn’t launch a mission to chase down the militants who’d fired at the base. They didn’t scour the Khybar Pass. They didn’t kick down doors in the nearby villages, or use metal detectors in Afghan homes and on suspected militants to find hidden weapons. American soldiers have been doing all these things in Afghanistan for years. But as we saw during this incident on Thanksgiving, things have changed.

Technically, American troops in Afghanistan are trainers now. They’re supposed to advise and assist the Afghan security forces. For the Taliban, it’s quite a change. Now, they fight U.S. troops who generally don’t fight back.

This year — 2014 — will be critical for the future of both Afghanistan and America’s longest war. U.S. forces will be entering into a strange limbo-period as they scale down from about 50 thousand in Afghanistan to a residual force of a few thousand. There may end up being no residual force at all if Washington and Kabul fail to agree to a bilateral security agreement. 

And it’s anyone’s guess how this transition will go. Afghanistan could return to civil war as it did when the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989. U.S. troops could become targets as they drawdown and increasingly have to fight a hardened adversary by remote control.

Sitting in that bunker over Thanksgiving, I wondered what would have happened if that rocket had exploded in the center of the base. What if a few dozen American soldiers had been killed? What would they have died for? Who are they fighting now, and why, and how? Who wants to be the last soldier to die in a war where Americans are not supposed to be fighting, but where the enemy is still fighting them?

The U.S. exit strategy from Afghanistan will be tested in 2014, but this won’t be only challenge to U.S. foreign policy. Not even close.

Middle East – Islamists vs Authoritarians
The Arab Spring, which briefly turned into an Islamic Summer, has now settled into an Authoritarian Winter. In Egypt, the military threw out the country’s democratically elected president Mohammed Morsi and has now taken a zero tolerance policy against his party, the Muslim Brotherhood, labeling it a terrorist group. The Brotherhood’s leaders, along with journalists and political activists, are increasingly harassed and arrested.  Former president Hosni Mubarak is out of prison, although he still faces charges. Morsi is behind bars. Many Egyptians support the military’s coup, saying they asked the army to get rid of Morsi, claiming he was an Islamic extremist who was driving the country to isolation and economic ruin.

The transition from authoritarian state to Islamic rule, and then back to authoritarianism is not going peacefully. Muslim radicals, believing they were robbed of power – that Allah Himself was robbed of power — have begun attacks, so far limited to the Egyptian army and police. This low level insurgency could grow next year. Tourists already avoid Egypt. An uptick in violence next year would only hurt the economy further and create more frustration and discontent in the most populous Arab nation. Egypt was the region’s hope, the country that would bring democracy and a fresh start. Instead, there’s deep discontentment on the banks of the Nile that seems likely to worsen in 2014.

SANA via EPA

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, Syria, 23 December 2013.

In Turkey, the moderate Islamic government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan will also face major challenges.  Erdogan, who successfully pushed aside Turkey’s military and oversaw huge economic development over the last decade, is increasingly criticized for being both authoritarian and an Islamist. He suffered a setback last summer when Istanbul erupted in three weeks of protests ostensibly over government plans to destroy a park, but which quickly turned into a street movement against him. Now Erdogan faces accusations of corruption in his party. Turkey will hold a series of elections starting in 2014. The balance of power could be shifting away from Erdogan, long seen as a rock of stability and a hero for Middle East Islamists. 

Erdogan was an ally of ousted Egyptian President Morsi, and was furious with Washington for acquiescing with only mild criticism when the Egyptian military locked Morsi in prison. Turkish secularists said Erdogan and Morsi shared a goal creating a new Middle East led by a network of Muslim Brotherhood friendly governments from Algeria to the Arabian Gulf. If that was in fact was their goal, the window of opportunity to realize it may have closed.

In Syria, President Bashar Assad seems to have pulled off the impossible, or at least the improbable. His government was widely accused of having used chemical weapons to murder more than a thousand civilians — in addition to killing hundreds a week with conventional weapons — yet many nations secretly hope Assad will prevail against rebels increasingly led by Islamic radicals. 

Many governments are quick to condemn Assad, but a dwindling number of them would celebrate a rebel victory in Damascus. The appeal of Arab strongmen, some might say their false promise of stability, appears to be growing in Syria, too. After three years of Arab Spring unrest, an increasing number of people seem to be believing the old claim tyrants have made in the Middle East for millennia: that power in the hands of the few is the only safeguard against mob rule or the “justice” of religious zealots.

The longer Syria bleeds, the more instability there will be in Iraq and Lebanon. The same Sunni-Shiite war that rages across Syria also burns in its neighbors. If Syria quiets down, the others will too.  But the worse Syria gets, the more bombs will explode in Baghdad and Beirut.

Russia/Iran
Russia and Iran are the wildcards of 2014. 

Iran and the United States shocked many by announcing a deal to reduce economic sanctions on Tehran in exchange for steps to slow its nuclear program. Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu says Iran is just buying time. Is it? If relations improve between Iran and the United States it would be the biggest rapprochement between adversaries in decades. If, on the other hand, Iran is stalling and makes advances toward developing a nuclear weapon in 2014, it would chill diplomatic initiatives for years to come, harm American prestige and tempt Israel into taking military action.

Russia will be on the world’s stage in 2014 starting with the winter Olympics, which Moscow decided to hold in Sochi — just a few hundred miles from Chechnya and Dagestan, traditional hotbeds of anti-Russian Islamic extremism. Militants are already launching a bombing campaign to discredit the games. Will these be yet another Olympics marred by terrorism?

Russia certainly doesn’t want them to be. As they were for China in 2008, the Olympics are a political statement for Russia, a return to prominence after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Putin believes Russia is back, and he may be right. But if events in the Ukraine are any indication so far, the revival of the great Russian Bear may not be so welcome by its neighbors.