Making Maliki and Karzai: How Washington Produced Unhelpful Allies in the Middle East

U.S. President Barack Obama and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad (Wikimedia Commons)

U.S. President Barack Obama and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad (Wikimedia Commons)

There is an emerging theme in foreign policy circles that America’s allies in the governments of Iraq and Afghanistan are to blame for recent U.S. counterinsurgency failures. If only Washington had better local strategic partners, the argument goes, Afghanistan would not be in perpetual crisis and Sunni militants crusading for the militant group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) would not have been able to overrun shockingly large areas of Iraq. In a superficial sense this is true, but it is not helpful. These accounts miss the fundamental point that figures like Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Afghan President Hamid Karzai behave as they have partly in response to incentives created by American military intervention and, as always, their local political realities. Arguing that bumbling allies caused America’s current predicaments in Iraq and Afghanistan does not absolve Washington of blame. Instead, any discussion of either country’s ongoing plight must acknowledge that the United States itself played a role in making these allies such unfortunate strategic partners in the first place.

In part, the current situation is the result of significant incentives the United States has unintentionally created through its lengthy military interventions in the Middle East. All allies have important overlapping interests (otherwise they wouldn’t be allies) as well as important divergent interests (after all, this is international politics). The particular problem with asymmetric alliances, where one partner controls an overwhelming majority of resources, is that the smaller ally—like Maliki’s Iraq and Karzai’s Afghanistan—does not fear for its immediate survival because a much larger power, such as the United States, is committed to its success. With their survival principally guaranteed (an overlapping interest), small allies can then focus on areas of interest that diverge from those of their large allies. Maliki can propagate sectarian policies, and Karzai can extend patronage networks. The United States, meanwhile, continues to focus on thwarting insurgents and terrorists—much to the benefit of Karzai and Maliki, but not requiring much sacrifice on their part.

Interventions are difficult policy problems. While allies naturally have some divergent and some convergent interests, it is quite problematic if their primary security objectives differ. Pakistan made this lesson painful clear to the United States in the process of working “together” in Afghanistan. Mismatched objectives between allies create inefficiencies at best, and stalemate or quagmire at worst. In asymmetric alliances with foreign military interventions, this effect is exacerbated because small allies feel empowered to pursue divergent interests by the security provided by the intervening ally. With their security guaranteed for the moment by a foreign power, actors like Maliki or Karzai instead focus on issues the United States will not take care of on their behalf, such as sectarian interests. Foreign interventions by powerful states provide incentives for local allies to freeload for their own security, and to focus on positions not shared with their allies. Over time, this behavior becomes routine and the sectarian divisions or patronage networks that brought these actors to prominence become institutionalized in government.

As famed political scientist Charles Tilly once observed, “War made the state, and the state made war.” External threats solidify states by creating the opportunity for a central authority to raise both bureaucracies and armies united under a single, national flag. An internal “us” is constructed to oppose an external “them.” But foreign military intervention corrupts this state-making process. Because local groups operate under the assumption that external threats will be largely dealt with by foreign allies, leaders such as Maliki can focus on internal threats. Under this model, war made the state and the state made civil war.

Furthermore, it is important to recall that, from the outset, Maliki and Karzai were attractive to American policymakers because of their ties to critical local groups and elites in their respective countries. Yet, once in office, most American policymakers expected that they would set aside these affiliations in the spirit of inclusiveness or adherence to the rule of law and work to undermine the very groups that brought them to prominence. This, however, does not seem like a reasonable expectation. It rests on the faulty assumption that an individual could rise to political power through one set of rules and networks but subsequently rule through other, non-existent systems that weaken the sources of influence that brought that individual to power. Actors that are good at a particular game will not willingly switch to an unfamiliar one they are likely to lose.

The expectations that Karzai or Maliki would come to power under specific political circumstances and then create a more moderate system according to models proposed by the United States also presupposes that these individuals could effect such a degree of reform. They are figures embedded in large organizations operating inside a society in which competing interests and groups vie for better political positioning. The focus of much of the analysis on Maliki and the current crisis in Iraq laments his lack of willingness to include Sunnis in the political process. This is a fair criticism, but there are undoubtedly capacity issues within the structure of domestic Iraqi politics that limited the feasibility of comprehensive Sunni inclusiveness.

Therefore, American backing indirectly provided Maliki with incentives to act against American interests. This is a structural consequence of U.S. military intervention in the Middle East, and it speaks to the political complexity of military intervention as a diplomatic tool. Maliki and Karzai certainly deserve a good deal of blame for the current instability in both Iraq and Afghanistan, but policymakers and commentators alike cannot ignore the fact that many of the incentives for their bad behavior were created by American foreign policy. Washington itself has produced its most unhelpful allies. In the immediate sense Iraq’s current disaster may be Maliki’s fault, but it is our strategic failure.


Barbara Elias

Barbara Elias is an Assistant Professor of Government at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. Previously, she served as Director of the Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Taliban Project at the National Security Archive at The George Washington University. Dr. Elias earned a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Pennsylvania in 2013, and her scholarship on the Taliban has been featured in Foreign Affairs.

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