American Foreign Policy and Regional and Local Conflicts in the “War on Terror”

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Mark N. Katz

Senior Fellow

There are many regional and local conflicts that are linked to the “War on Terror.” As argued in the thirteenth article in this series, resolving these conflicts would help reduce the scope and intensity of that war, but doing so has proven extremely difficult up to now. This, of course, does not mean that the United States and its allies should stop trying to resolve these regional and local conflicts. Although the prospects of success may be low, the benefits of doing so could be great.

Articles 14-17 in this series talked about the linkages of four specific problem situations to the “War on Terror:” Israel/Palestine, Iran, Yemen and Pakistan. These four are not only highly important, but illustrate diverse set of problems that will require diverse solutions to resolve or ameliorate. But after failing to do so up to now, can the United States and its allies actually succeed in de-linking any of these from the “War on Terror,” or at least reducing their linkage to it in the future?

It seems safe to assume that U.S. policies that have not succeeded in the past are not likely to succeed in the future. Resolving the problems posed by Israel/Palestine, Iran, Yemen and Pakistan and reducing their linkage to the “War on Terror” will thus require different policies. What might such policies be? Each of these problems will be examined in turn.


As the fourteenth article in this series noted, the United States and its allies have been trying unsuccessfully for decades to broker a negotiated settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Especially after Hamas took over Gaza following Israel’s unilateral withdrawal, Israel has sought a settlement allowing it to maintain both a security and a settler presence in the West Bank as well as retaining control of the movement of people and goods into and out of Gaza. These conditions, however, are unacceptable to Palestinians. They regard their acceptance of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza — rather than in all of Palestine — as a tremendous concession to Israel (indeed, too great a concession for Hamas). What makes compromise especially difficult is that the arena of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is so very small. Each side is convinced not only that it is in the right and thus should not have to make concessions, but also that making concessions to the other would put its own survival at risk. Under these circumstances, it is hardly surprising that any attempt by outside parties to broker a negotiated settlement has not succeeded.

What may be needed to break this impasse is a settlement similar to those achieved in Bosnia and Kosovo, involving the deployment of multinational forces under the direction of the UN Security Council on the territory of an internationally recognized Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. Specifically, such a settlement should include the following elements:

• The complete withdrawal of Israeli security forces from the West Bank;

• An end to Israeli control over the movement of people and goods between the West Bank and Gaza on the one hand and countries besides Israel on the other (including an end to the Israeli blockade of Gaza);

• The deployment of peacekeeping forces from each of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (and possibly other countries) under a unified command, primarily along the borders that the West Bank and Gaza share with Israel;

• A case-fire between Israel and the Palestinian governing authorities in the West Bank and Gaza;

• Enforcement of the cease-fire to be undertaken by the peacekeeping forces (and not Israeli or Palestinian forces;

• The general international recognition of both an elected Palestinian government and of Israel;

• The withdrawal of all Israeli settlers from the West Bank in exchange for a renunciation by the Palestinians of any “right of return” to Israel;

• The establishment of normal trade relations between Israel and Palestine.

Whether a settlement such as the one outlined here could actually be achieved, of course, is highly doubtful. There would be strong objections to it from both Israel and its supporters on the one hand and from the Palestinians and their supporters on the other. Yet, while neither side would achieve its maximal goals, a settlement such as this would be more advantageous to both sides than the continuation of the present volatile situation. The Palestinians would likely prefer to have no outside forces in their territory, but a UN Security Council-sponsored peace-keeping presence would surely be preferable to continued Israeli occupation. Similarly, Israel would benefit from a settlement that would bring about an end to the many burdensome costs — human, financial and diplomatic — of continued occupation of the West Bank and isolation of the Gaza Strip, as well as from the enhanced international acceptance that agreeing to such a settlement would offer and that Israel craves. Finally, the United States and its allies in the “War on Terror” would benefit if a settlement such as the one outlined here could defuse the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, reduce the Palestinian cause as a recruiting tool for al-Qaeda and other jihadists, and thus finally de-link the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from the “War on Terror.”


The United States and many of its allies have unsuccessfully sought for many years to get Iran to accept limits on its nuclear research program (in order to make sure Tehran does not acquire nuclear weapons) and to halt its support for radical Islamist movements elsewhere such as Hezbollah and Hamas. The United States in particular has attempted to achieve these goals through a policy of containment and increasing sanctions. Although these policies have not succeeded in changing Iran’s behavior, the United States and others continue to pursue them partly because attempts to engage Tehran (either by others or on rare occasions by Washington) have also failed. Thus, the Obama administration attempted to improve relations with Tehran shortly after it came into office. But when this did not work, it pursued an intensified sanctions regime against Iran. Yet, while the Obama administration has been much more successful at gaining cooperation on sanctions from other countries than the Bush administration was, it has so far made no progress on altering Iran’s behavior either on the nuclear or any other issue. Despite this, the Obama administration appears likely to continue trying to further intensify sanctions against Iran.

In the fifteenth article in this series, though, it was noted,

Just as the U.S. withdrawal from Indochina intensified the Sino-Soviet competition, the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan may well serve to intensify the competition between Iran on the one hand and al-Qaeda, the Taliban, other Sunni radical groups, and perhaps even some Shia radical groups on the other. There is no guarantee, of course, that this will happen. But with the United States withdrawing from these two countries and appearing to become weaker, it is more likely that radical Islamic actors will focus more and more on their internecine struggle for leadership of the transnational Islamic radical movement.

If Iran’s rivalry with Sunni radical movements becomes strong enough that Tehran feels increasingly threatened by them, it may well seek to tamp down its rivalry with the United States — just as both China and the USSR did after their rivalry heated up during the Cold War. Iran is clearly nowhere near doing this yet, but Washington ought to be on the alert for this possibility, despite current Iranian-American differences over the nuclear and Iran’s support for Hezbollah, Hamas and similar groups. The U.S. government may well hope that, if Iran feels sufficiently threatened by Sunni radicals to turn to Washington for help, it can and will meet American demands on these other issues. Single-mindedly pressing Iran on the nuclear issue with increased sanctions and other forms of containment, however, may only serve to delay Iranian recognition that the United States is not its primary opponent and that Tehran can turn to Washington in the face of a common radical Sunni threat. Nor should it be forgotten in Washington (as it certainly has not been in Tehran) that China’s possession of nuclear weapons and differences with the United States over Taiwan did not stand in the way of Sino-American cooperation against the common Soviet threat that began in the early 1970s. Even Iranian possession of nuclear weapons, then, is not necessarily an obstacle to Iranian-American cooperation, especially against a common radical Sunni threat.


Even if the Israeli-Palestinian, Iraqi, Afghan and Iranian problems could successfully be resolved, Yemen would remain a serious concern, afflicted as it is with conflict, poverty, illiteracy and weak government. Unfortunately, the opposite proposition — that if these problems elsewhere cannot successfully be resolved, the Yemeni one still could be — probably does not hold true. And with its large, growing population as well as its location next to Saudi Arabia and other petroleum-producing Gulf countries, Yemen’s problems could easily spill over and negatively affect both its neighbors and all who depend on them for oil and gas supplies.

What can be done to ameliorate conditions in Yemen, weaken al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and de-link Yemen from the War on Terror? One thing that the United States should definitely not do is to intervene militarily in Yemen in response to AQAP’s (usually unsuccessful) attacks outside Yemen. Unlike the Houthis or the southern secessionist movement, AQAP really does not have a large following inside Yemen. Indeed, many Yemenis describe it as a Saudi opposition movement that was driven out of the kingdom and has taken advantage of Yemen’s internal weakness to find refuge among certain tribes at odds with the government. Instead of fearing U.S. intervention, AQAP would like nothing better than to provoke it. Yemen’s rugged terrain would not only prove as difficult for American forces as Afghanistan’s, but foreign intervention could also be expected to inflame Yemeni nationalist sentiment, discredit the Yemeni government either for allowing foreign intervention or for being unable to prevent it, and perhaps even result in far more recruits for AQAP than it has been able to attract so far.

What the United States and its allies should do instead is to promote internal Yemeni conflict resolution between the Saleh government on the one hand and its main opponents — the Houthis, the southern secessionists and various tribal forces — on the other. Although the Yemenis have fought among themselves on numerous occasions over the past half century, they have also engaged in some remarkable internal conflict-resolution efforts. The 1962 revolution that overthrew North Yemen’s king and established a “republic” led to a civil war between republican and monarchist forces that dragged on until 1970. The conflict was brought to an end, though, by a conflict-resolution process that integrated the royalists (with the exception of the royal family itself) into the republic. Similarly, the 1990 unification of Marxist South Yemen with non-Marxist North Yemen was the result of an elaborate negotiating process between the two governments resulting in a detailed set of agreements over how they would integrate. This latter effort, unfortunately, broke down in 1993, led to an abortive attempt to re-establish southern independence in 1994, and ended with reinforced unification on an authoritarian basis thereafter. The unsatisfactory nature of this outcome, though, eventually resulted both in a revival of the southern secessionist movement and in the success of AQAP in attracting recruits among southerners.

The United States and its allies should encourage Yemenis to do again what they did before. Successful conflict resolution, however, may require them not only to discreetly engage in talks with the Houthis, the secessionists and the tribes, but also to be less supportive of the Saleh government — if only because the more external support Saleh receives, the less incentive he has to negotiate with his internal opponents. Nor should Washington accept at face value the Saleh governments’ claims that the Houthis are backed by Iran and that the southern secessionists and AQAP are one and the same. Its doing so is reminiscent of how, during the Cold War, authoritarian regimes allied to the United States often branded all their internal opponents as Marxist in order to dampen American ardor for democratic reform. But as the United States learned painfully back then, vigorous authoritarian rulers can often maintain order for years or even decades, but then completely lose control and be overthrown when they become old and infirm. Recalling this phenomenon, Saleh’s efforts to be declared “president for life” (announced in January 2011) do not bode well for the future of Yemen. By contrast, while a federal democracy in Yemen would undoubtedly be quite messy (just as in Iraq), this form of government could be more effective at preserving unity through granting powerful actors (such as the Houthis, the southern secessionists and the tribes) both local autonomy and sufficient influence at the national level to give them an interest in preserving a unified Yemen. And, just as in Iraq, accommodating various powerful local groups could serve to isolate and undercut al-Qaeda elements in Yemen.


Although Pakistan has provided vital support for the U.S.-led intervention in Afghanistan through allowing matériel to transit from its Indian Ocean ports across Pakistani territory into Afghanistan, Islamabad remains primarily focused on its decades-old rivalry with India. Thus, Pakistan has continued to support not only jihadist groups primarily concerned with “liberating” Indian-controlled Kashmir, but also to tolerate and even support the Taliban and its allies in order to prevent the growth of Indian influence in Afghanistan. The United States has tried long and hard to persuade Pakistan to abandon this policy of supporting jihadist groups (particularly the Taliban) but it has only met with limited success. This is partly because what military efforts Pakistan has made to crack down on jihadists in the region bordering Afghanistan have met with fierce resistance and have been highly unpopular with the Pakistani public. Furthermore, the American military’s strong logistical dependence on Pakistan provides Islamabad with sufficient leverage to not have to cooperate with the United States on this matter. The Obama administration’s announcement that American troops would be withdrawn from Afghanistan between mid-2011 and the end of 2014 has only increased Islamabad’s ability to ignore American demands and to instead work with the Taliban in order to prevent India from gaining influence in Afghanistan.

Clearly, the United States has failed to de-link Pakistan from the “War on Terror.” Nor does it appear likely to do so with its current policies. Indeed, the relationship between Pakistan and the “War on Terror” is fundamentally different than that of other any other local or regional problem linked to it. Possessing a population larger than that of Russia, as well as an arsenal of nuclear weapons, Pakistan is an aspiring great power. Indeed, many Pakistanis consider their country to already be one. Islamabad’s policy of protecting or even supporting jihadist groups such as al-Qaeda, the Taliban and Lashkar-e-Taiba is part and parcel of its ambitions to spread its own influence and limit that of its rival India. It should not be surprising, then, that American efforts to persuade Pakistan to jettison this policy have failed.

For Pakistan to continue aiding and abetting these jihadist organizations, however, is highly detrimental to the interests of America, the American-sponsored government in Afghanistan, India, Russia and many other countries. So if the United States cannot persuade Pakistan to stop doing this, perhaps it needs to adopt a policy of imposing costs on Pakistan until it abandons a policy that harms others. The United States, of course, is unlikely to adopt this approach so long as it remains dependent on supply lines through Pakistan in support of the large American troop presence in Afghanistan. However, once this presence has been greatly reduced or even eliminated, American dependence on Pakistan will cease. This will allow the United States far greater freedom to pursue a strategy of containment vis-à-vis Pakistan for supporting jihadists.

What would a containment strategy directed at Pakistan look like? At a minimum, the United States could supply arms to Afghan forces willing to resist the return to power of the Pakistani-backed Taliban. This could be done via the recently established Northern Distribution Network (both air and land routes to Afghanistan that run through Russia and Central Asia). Since the governments of Russia and some of the Central Asian republics very much fear that the return of the Taliban to power in Afghanistan would have a highly adverse impact on them, they could well be expected to contribute to such an effort. India might well contribute to it too. Fearing that both Pakistan and a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan might support radical Sunni opposition forces inside Iran, even Tehran might join in this containment effort. After all, Iran cooperated with Russia in aiding the Northern Alliance resistance against the Taliban, from the time it seized power in 1996 until 9/11. Just as the United States and both its international as well as non-Pushtun partners have encountered fierce resistance in the Pushtun-dominated regions of southern Afghanistan, the Pushtun-dominated Taliban may well encounter stiff resistance from non-Pushtun forces in northern Afghanistan backed by the United States and others in resisting the return of the Taliban’s misrule, which they well remember.

A more Machiavellian American foreign policy would seek to undercut the relationship between the Pakistani security forces and the Pushtuns through taking up the Pushtun nationalist cause. Arguing that the division of the Pushtuns between Afghanistan and Pakistan was the artificial creation of nineteenth century British imperialism, the United States might propose that the Pushtuns of both southern Afghanistan and northern Pakistan be allowed to vote in referendums on whether they wished to secede from the state they are now in and become part of an independent Pushtunistan. Pakistan would virulently oppose any such initiative. American support for it, then, could be expected to result in Pushtun nationalists (including many in the Taliban) seeing Pakistan as their primary opponent, rather than the United States. And just as Moscow’s enormous nuclear arsenal did not serve to protect the USSR from the rising tide of non-Russian nationalism in the Gorbachev era, Islamabad’s much smaller nuclear arsenal will not protect it against Pushtun (and perhaps other non-Punjabi) nationalism. (The non-Pushtuns of northern Afghanistan, of course, might not like this initiative at first either. They however, might be open to the idea that they would be better off if the Pushtuns did secede, since this group is highly likely to perpetually try to regain dominance over an Afghanistan retaining its present borders.)

This may seem like a harsh policy. But, since engaging Pakistan for many years has only helped it to aid jihadist forces targeting other countries, containing Pakistan would at least force Islamabad to understand that it faces serious costs for continuing this policy. And containing Pakistan might hasten the day when Islamabad is forced to face reality. Since it can neither force nor persuade India to give up Kashmir, Pakistan’s only hope for a prosperous, stable future is to end all efforts to regain it (even if it does not give up its claim); pursue friendly relations with its increasingly richer and more powerful neighbor in order to advance its own economic development; build a strong democracy in Pakistan itself; and limit its concern about Muslims in India to urging New Delhi to live up to India’s own democratic ideals by protecting their rights and assuring them equal opportunity. If Pakistan did this, it would not only de-link itself from the “War on Terror;” it might also make the most important single contribution to ending it.


It is, of course, not clear how well the changes in American foreign policy proposed here would actually work. It is even less clear that American foreign policy toward the four problems discussed here can actually change significantly — at least, in the short run. Yet, even if the United States did adopt the policies proposed here and all of them were successful, the “War on Terror” still would not end. There are plenty of other regional and local conflicts remaining to feed it: Chechnya and other Muslim nationalisms in Russia; Uighur nationalism in Xinjiang (China’s northwestern province); the Moro rebellion in the southern Philippines (which has actually been going on, to a greater or lesser extent, since the late nineteenth century); the clash between Muslims and Buddhists in southern Thailand; Kashmir and the status of Muslims generally in India; Lebanon’s seemingly eternal confessional clashes; the collapsed state of Somalia; the status of Muslims in Europe and more. In addition, there is the problem of so many predominantly Muslim countries being ruled by authoritarian regimes (whether pro- or anti-American) that do not permit democratic reform or even allow democratic opposition. This drives many of those seeking change into the ranks of seemingly more powerful non-democratic, radical Islamist opposition movements.

The United States cannot resolve all these problems. Indeed, Washington may not be able to resolve any of them, including the four discussed here. The “War on Terror,” then, is likely to continue after the United States withdraws from Iraq and Afghanistan. The next article in this series will, therefore, examine the likelihood of different future scenarios for the “War on Terror.”

Mark N. Katz is a Visiting Senior Fellow at the Middle East Policy Council and a Professor of Government at George Mason University. Links to many of his publications can be found on his website:

To read more articles in this series, click here.

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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