WASHINGTON - Just as the White House claims 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 on the war's periphery
stretching east to Pakistan, west to Turkey and south to the Horn of Africa.
Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf's latest "coup" last weekend,
combined with the continuing threat of a Turkish invasion of Iraqi Kurdistan
and the looming probability of war
between US-backed Ethiopia and Eritrea, have added to the growing impression
that Washington has ever more become hostage to forces and personalities far
beyond its control or understanding.
The fact that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was reduced to making urgent
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 events turn out badly, these crises could deal devastating setbacks
to Washington's hopes of bolstering "moderate" forces against its perceived
enemies, be they Sunni jihadis 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 US.
For some veteran observers, the current rash of crises recalls the situation of
1979-80 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 "the situation we face today is much more difficult," one former senior
State Department official told Inter Press Service this week. "Back then, we
didn't have 200,000 US 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
Senior US officials are hoping that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's
visit to Washington on Monday, during which President George W 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 to cross 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. Most analysts believe that a major Turkish incursion,
if it occurs, will likely spur resistance by Iraqi Kurdish militias, the peshmerga,
on which Washington depends both to keep northern Iraq secure and stable and to
provide the most reliable recruits for Iraq's new, US-trained army.
At the same time, Turkey is a "moderate" predominantly Muslim nation and a
close North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) ally, which not only
contributes troops to NATO's peacekeeping operation in Afghanistan, but also
provides access to Incirlik air base on which the US military relies heavily
for resupplying 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 this 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
While fending off a Turkish invasion is critical to US efforts in Iraq, the
stakes raised by Musharraf's declaration of a state of emergency in Pakistan -
which, according to most terrorism experts in Washington, has been the true
"central front" in the anti-terror struggle since al-Qaeda 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 US$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.
The US-inspired plan that Musharraf share power with his "moderate" civilian
opposition, notably former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, appears to be in
tatters following the declaration of emergency powers.
On Friday, Pakistani police confined Bhutto to her house in Islamabad and
arrested thousands of her supporters who had planned to stage a mass rally
And in the frontier tribal regions on the border with Afghanistan, Musharraf,
despite sending in troops, has been unable to enforce the government's writ.
According to a recent US intelligence estimate, senior al-Qaeda leaders have
largely reconstituted their central-command network here and the Taliban have
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, Gary Ackerman, on 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 Musharraf's coup, the administration, including Bush himself,
is now pressing him hard 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 Musharraf does this - as he promised again on Thursay, saying that
polls would be held before mid-February - it remains unclear whether the damage
can be undone. Any remaining confidence in Musharraf in Washington, let alone
in Pakistan, is evaporating. 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. 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
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 that was ousted from power
in Mogadishu and other parts of the country by an invasion of Addis Ababa's
powerful, US-backed military 11 months ago. The Ethiopians have since been
bogged down in an increasingly bloody occupation that many analysts have
compared to the US occupation of Iraq.
Absent urgent international, and especially US, efforts to stop it, war could
break out "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