TCSDaily | 1.5.09*
By Alan W. Dowd

In geopolitics, as in life, things are seldom as bad or good, easy or hard, as they appear at close range. The incoming Obama administration should keep this in mind as it takes the helm of America’s ship of state. A swath of Asia stretching from Pakistan and Afghanistan west to Iran and Iraq will likely require the most attention.

With some 4,800 American troops dead, eight times that number wounded, and the region still shaken by aftershocks of America’s full-scale intervention after September 11, it is hard to say that things are good in Southwest Asia. But it is fair to say they are headed in a better direction than they were eight years ago.

It pays to recall that on Inauguration Day 2001, Afghanistan was under the rule of the medieval Taliban, which had ceded vast stretches of its land to al Qaeda. At once a state within a state and a stateless actor, al Qaeda was using Afghanistan as a launching pad for its global guerilla war against America. Its henchmen struck U.S. targets in Africa, the Arabian peninsula and finally America’s homeland. It was the bloodiest, most daring, most spectacular attack on American territory since 1941.

It was also al Qaeda’s high-water mark, thanks to the U.S. military’s global counteroffensive—what American troops call their “away game.” The result of this campaign of campaigns has been the transformation of al Qaeda from a terror superpower able to strike America virtually at will into a disjointed organization barely able to produce a videotape to rally the faithful.

To be sure, al Qaeda and its partners still lash out in Afghanistan, still survive in the dark corners of Pakistan, still threaten these fragile countries, still plot the unthinkable for America. But they no longer prey on American cities. And in the harsh calculus of this war, it is better for American troops to fight and die “over there,” as the old battle anthem goes, than for American civilians to be threatened or evaporated here at home. Every sailor, soldier, airman and Marine I know would agree. Some of their parents, peers and spouses may not accept or understand it, but perhaps their children and grandchildren will.

Because of their sacrifice, Afghanistan is ruled by a true democrat committed to defeating those who once deformed Kabul and maimed Manhattan.  

Iraq, too, is ruled by the people’s will. Saddam Hussein no longer menaces his neighbors or plots revenge against America. And make no mistake: that’s what he was doing. As Charles Duelfer concluded in his dispassionate postwar report, the Iraqi dictator was planning to reconstitute his WMD arsenal as soon as the UN lost interest. He had even established agreements with numerous non-Iraqi firms to enable him to build or buy “technologies for Iraq’s WMD-related conventional arms, and/or dual-use goods programs.” Toward that end, the report revealed, “the Iraqi Intelligence Service maintained throughout 1991 to 2003 a set of undeclared covert laboratories to research and test various chemicals and poisons, primarily for intelligence operations.” Plus, Duelfer concluded that Iraq “was planning to produce several [chemical weapon] agents, including sulfur mustard, nitrogen mustard, and sarin.”

And that’s why America went to war in March 2003. For good or ill, September 11 changed the very DNA of U.S. national-security policy. “Any administration in such a crisis,” as historian John Lewis Gaddis concludes in Surprise, Security and the American Experience, “would have had to rethink what it thought it knew about security and hence strategy.” Was deterrence any longer possible? Was containment viable? Was giving repeat-offenders like Saddam Hussein the benefit of the doubt responsible?

This is perhaps the most fundamental way that September 11 is linked to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq: The latter did not plan or hatch the former, but the former taught Washington a lesson about the danger of failing to confront threats before they are fully formed. In the same manner, the appeasement of Hitler at Munich at once had nothing and everything to do with how America responded to Stalin and his successors.   

Washington was unprepared for Iraq’s postwar war, and that proved costly. But by every measure—casualty figures, security, political reconciliation, regional and religious cooperation, economic growth, Iraqi public opinion—Iraq has turned the corner. In fact, it has turned several corners.

Pakistan, far from turning the corner, seems to be marching in place. In fact, it is arguably behaving the same way it did a decade ago. It pays to recall that Pakistani intelligence helped spawn the Taliban in the 1990s. Today, Pakistani intelligence is reported to have provided support to Lashkar-e-Taiba, the terrorist group involved in the Mumbai siege. NATO’s Afghanistan supply arteries have been attacked inside Pakistan. And perhaps most troubling for Washington, especially in the context of the war on terror, Pakistan is a safe haven for al Qaeda and Taliban remnants.

Pakistan’s stubborn refusal to administer its laughably misnamed “Federally Administered Tribal Areas” or open those areas to international intervention confirms what many of us have suspected for years: Islamabad is either unable to prod its military into uprooting the enemy or unwilling to give its military that order. Neither alternative is comforting.

Governments like Afghanistan’s and Iraq’s—governments that strive to control what happens inside their borders but are too weak to overcome our common enemies—deserve our help. Governments like Pakistan’s—governments that play games with sovereignty, claiming they are too weak to control their territories in one breath but then invoking their sovereign and inviolable borders the next—don’t.

Finally, Iran is more dangerous today than it was eight years ago, partly because of America’s intervention and continued presence on its borders. Yet it is also more vulnerable and its activities less opaque, again partly because of America’s pressure and presence.

A year ago, a National Intelligence Estimate on Iran poured cold water on claims that Iran was racing to build a nuclear bomb, concluding that Iran’s nuclear-bomb program went dormant in 2003. But today, we know better. The IAEA reports that Iran has produced enough enriched uranium to build a bomb. Tehran can claim its centrifuges are only for peaceful purposes, but that simply is not credible for a country sitting on top of 256 years’ worth of oil—and under the sway of leaders who promise to wipe their neighbors off the face of the earth.

If history is any guide, Iran’s nuclear program is as dormant as North Korea’s was in the 1990s.  Wresting nukes from the mullahs will prove just as difficult and far more dangerous given the pressure points Iran is willing to push—to deadly effect—in Iraq. Indeed, the Iranian regime arms and trains terrorists who have killed American troops in Iraq. Yet proxy war is nothing new for Tehran. It has bankrolled Hezbollah for decades, suicide-bombed American peacekeepers, fomented wars in Lebanon, and bled Israel.

In short, Iran’s blood-soaked past is what makes so many of its neighbors anxious about its nuclear-armed future.  

So Pakistan is still a nuclear basket case and Iran is trying to join the club. That’s the bad news. The good news is that al Qaeda is far weaker than on Inauguration Day 2001—a shell of its former self—and Iraq and Afghanistan are no longer America’s enemies, no longer trafficking in terror, no longer international pariahs, no longer part of the problem.

Even so, all four of these countries are broken, to varying degrees. But contrary to the self-styled wise men, these countries are not broken because the United States has intervened. Rather, the United States intervened because these countries were broken.

Consider Foreign Policy’s Globalization Index, where Pakistan and Iran languish in the bottom 10. Iraq and Afghanistan don’t even make it into the rankings.  Likewise, on the Fraser Institute’s Economic FreedomIndex, Iran is ranked 80th and Pakistan is 104th out of 141 countries. Again, Iraq and Afghanistan aren’t even ranked. It’s worth noting that the 2001 index painted the same picture, with both Pakistan and Iran floundering in the cellar of the rankings, and Iraq and Afghanistan too bad to be ranked.

On Foreign Policy’s Failed States Index—where the likes of Somalia and Sudan rank at the top by being the worst—Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq are in the bottom ten. Iran is in the bottom 50. On Inauguration Day 2001—when not one American soldier or Marine was deployed within their unstable borders—the brittle Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, the theocratic police state of the mullahs in Iran, the Taliban’s ultra-theocratic police state in Afghanistan and the terminally bankrupt, duplicitous military dictatorship of Gen. Musharraf’s Pakistan were all considered failed or failing states.

But today, two of these countries are on the long road to recovery. The other two have yet to hit rock bottom.

*This article was also featured on USAToday's website.