Over the past nine years, America has been committed to a global campaign against terrorism, specifically launching operations in Afghanistan and Iraq to dismantle the Al Qaeda terrorist network in the former and to disarm the latter of weapons of mass destruction. Over time, the two objectives became subsumed in a more ambitious undertaking to reshape the future of the two countries and the region by extension. While the desire to rebuild a nation and democratize the region reflects America's best intentions, the lack of foresight as to the associated commitments and challenges has only produced reversals for American interests in the region. By toppling the Taliban and Baathist regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq, respectively, America unintentionally enhanced the security and profile of the region's aspiring hegemon, Iran. More pointedly, by failing to understand the "terrain" of Islam, the United States missed an opportunity to pit its divergent extremist strains against each other instead of American interests.
Unprepared From The Outset
When the Islamic extremist threat emerged in 1979, America was unprepared. In that year, Shi'ite fundamentalists under Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini overthrew the American-backed Shah in Iran and Sunni fundamentalists seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, nearly overthrowing the American-allied monarchy there as well. The two events heralded the re-emergence of Islamic consciousness as a revolutionary force in the region and a serious threat to the status quo of secular regimes pursuing various pan-Arabic and nationalist foreign policies.
The United States missed the significance of the two events as its prevailing geopolitical concern in the region was the Soviet Union, which had been interfering in Afghanistan affairs throughout the year and ended up invading the country by the year's end. Instead of devoting attention to the emergence of Islamic fundamentalism, America focused on bolstering its deterrent in the region.
As well documented in "The Global War On Terrorism: An Assessment" a comprehensive 2008 CSBA monograph cataloguing the threat, Khomeinist Shiite and Salafi-Jihadi Sunni groups strive to impose their brand of sharia--Islamic law--on the world, and represent the twin branches of the radical Islamic threat today. Both strains seek to eliminate Western influence in the region, to overthrow apostate (e.g. secular) regimes in the Muslim world, and to create an Islamic “caliphate” ruling over all current and former Muslim lands, including Israel. The ultimate objective for both is to bring all of humanity under the respective umbrella of their version of Islamic justice.
The monograph's only shortcoming -- its date. Published in 2008, the analysis represents the belated attempt to understand the threat. The corresponding capabilities and strategies called for in the monograph were designed to combat a threat after it had struck the United States. Moreover, the analysis depicted the threat as essentially monolithic, while years of systematic coverage may have demonstrated how each strain of Islamic extremism are diametrically opposed. The ferocity of Shiite-Sunni hatred was on graphic display in Iraq from 2006 to 2007.
After Sunni extremists bombed the Shi'ite Askari Mosque in Samarra in February 2006, many observers were convinced Iraq was descending into civil war. While American leadership downplayed this state of affairs and academics debated the issue, casting Iraq during this period as a civil war, the Spanish Civil War from 1936 to 1939 in particular, is instructive. Nominally a conflict between Spanish democratic and fascist forces, the war became the arena for great-power competition, as outside governments intervened overtly and covertly on behalf of like-minded interests. In a similar fashion, foreign operatives and fighters , primarily from Iran and Saudi Arabia, poured into Iraq on behalf of their embattled Shi'ite and Sunni co-religionists. As already noted, these two countries respectively constituted the principal sources of Khomeinist Shia and Jihadi Sunni radicalism.
America eventually stabilized Iraq by conducting vigorous diplomatic outreach, surging forces, and capitalizing on moderate Sunni revulsion with extremist Sunni governance in the Anbar province. Having invaded Iraq, the United States was obligated to quell the conflict; exploiting sectarian divisions within a country resulting from circumstances engendered by its own intervention was not an option.
What if the United States had possessed requisite knowledge of Islamic extremism a decade early when the Shi'ite-Sunni fissure threatened to erupt between countries? Could the United States have taken advantage of these more opportune circumstances?
When Two Extremisms Go To War
In the summer of 1998, Afghanistan and Iran almost went to war. While the pretext would have been the murder of ten Iranian diplomats following the Taliban capture of Mazar-i-Sharif during its campaign to win control of Afghanistan, the ultimate reason would have been their irreconciliable sectarian foundations.
The Afghan Taliban had succeeded in securing control of Afghanistan by then, but could only receive diplomatic recognition from its two Sunni patrons, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, as well as the United Arab Emirates. Iran, vehemently opposed to Taliban control of Afghanistan, had supported the opposition Northern Alliance.
In response to the incident, Iran deployed over 200,000 troops, including elements of the Revolutionary Guards, to the border.
Mediation under the auspices of the United Nations eventually defused the crisis as American attention to Afghanistan was limited to retaliatory cruise missile strikes in response to Al Qaeda attacks on U.S. embassies in two African capitals. According to available open source information, the United States did not undertake any substantive activities to influence the crisis.
As a counterfactual, the consequences of an Islamic interstate sectarian war between Afghanistan and Iran could have been substantial.
If Iran prevailed, Afghanistan would have probably returned to a state of anarchy. Moreover, the country might have become more vulnerable to encroachments by neighboring states eager to capitalize on tribal ties. Iranian success would probably bolster the reputation of its military, but a victory would not dramatically alter the regional balance of power in its favor. Indeed, the triumph of the Shi'ite regime over a Sunni regime might have spurred Sunni balancing across the region—a similar dynamic has played out in the present day as well as Sunni majority regimes warily observe the growing strength of Shi'ite Iran.
The odds of the Afghan Taliban prevailing decisively over Iranian forces were essentially prohibitive, but if the group had succeeded, the defeat might have incited radical elements within the Iranian regime opposed to then President Mohammad Khatami's reformist agenda and outreach to the West. (As has been the case numerous times throughout Afghan history, indigenous forces usually win by simply not losing and stalemating the invading force, such as Great Britain and the Soviet Union before 1998 and the United States after 2001.) While Revolutionary Guard forces would have certainly taken a lead in the war, irreconciliables would have contended the war had been insufficiently supported. The result could have been a more militant revolutionary regime in control of Iran. At the same time, the Afghan success might have spurred discontented ethnic minorities in Iran to revolt against the Iranian Persian governing elite. Either way, the result could have been an Iran coping with internal upheaval.
Finally, a Sunni Afghan-Shi'ite Iranian war might have sparked a wider regional war as Saudi Arabia might have led a coalition of Sunni countries against Iran, which would have then probably compelled Syria to enter the war and commit forces to its side. Moreover, Hezbollah and Hamas, Iran's surrogates in Lebanon and Palestine, would have probably unleashed terrorist campaigns in their neighborhoods, unless the two groups' adherents felt more compelled to fight at the front on behalf of their Iranian benefactor. Striking at Israeli targets might have spurred sectarian adversaries to temporarily unite instead against the Jewish state, but implacable religious fundamentalism inevitably leads one to lash out at the heretic with the same vehemence applied to the infidel. (Again this dynamic played out in Iraq as radical Sunnis led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi placed equal priority on striking the Shi'ite community.)
How Iraq and various Persian Gulf states (where Sunni minority elites governed Shi'ite majority populations) would have behaved would have dictated the eventual scope of this war. If these countries decided to enter the war against the Shi'ite coalition, the decision might have sparked Shi'ite uprisings that would have been eagerly abetted by Iranian intelligence.
The result could have been a massive and bloody regional sectarian war between and within multiple countries.
On September 11, 2001, nearly 3,000 Americans perished because the United States failed to fully appreciate the threat posed by Sunni fundamentalists opposed to America's presence in the Middle East and to Western civilizations in general. More pointedly, the United States failed to fully understand the nature of Islamic extremism and the threat it posed to the country. Thousands of American servicemembers have died, thousands more have been injured, and nearly a trillion dollar in American treasure has been spent in the subsequently noble, but ultimately calamitous, attempt to cultivate a more enlightened future for the Greater Middle East.
While the prospect of millions dying in a war is tragic, so has the experience of the United States been in the internecine conflicts of a region beset with tribal and sectarian divisions.
Acknowledged—speculating in hindsight whether the United States could have helped engineer a “massive and bloody regional sectarian war” in order to avoid its current fate can rightfully be condemned as contrary to American values.
But contrary to American interests...
Instead of asking "why do they hate us?", we could have ensured these two scorpions in a bottle directed their hatred at each other.
In memory of fallen American citizens and servicemembers on and since September 11, 2001.
(The above essay is admittedly provocative in its choice of a counterfactual, but it does not advocate instigating conflict. Instead, the essay is submitted to remind decision-makers to apply the full scope of available diplomatic and intelligence resources to fully understanding and influencing the course of external forces and events, before those forces and events unduly influence American commitments. By doing so, American leadership will husband the nation's strength for truly vital interests. Finally, the above essay is not meant to depict "The Global War on Terrorism: An Assessment" in a derogatory light; the monograph provides a substantial foundation for any student of the Islamic extremist threat. Indeed, American security could have been enhanced if such insights had been compiled before 9/11.)
2) Robert C. Martinage, "The Global War on Terrorism: An Assessment" 02/23/2008 Center For Strategic and Budgetary Assessments
3) Cardinal Richelieu, Wikipedia
4) Thirty Years' War, Wikipedia
5) John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt, "The Real Analogy for Iraq" 08/24/2007 UPI, RAND
6) Vali Nasr "When the Shiites Rise" 07/08//2006 Foreign Affairs