Re-Shaping Maps and Minds

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People in Pakistan have fallen prey to the Indian-propagated canard that we are next on the US hit-list. Force-multiplied by irresponsible rhetoric of some of our  “fire and brimstone” leaders, this apprehension has become deep-rooted through the broad spectrum of the population. Having been “sanctioned” against intermittently  over the years for various reasons, more like a rap on the knuckles of an errant child. we have never been on any US “terminate-with-extreme-prejudice” list. All roads lead to Damascus as the mostly likely contender for that dubious “honour”, so why this sudden death-wish?  Only a few months ago USA and UK hailed Syria’s backing of Resolution 1441 against Iraq, in a macabre turnaround will the next UN Resolution be Syria-specific? In the meantime Syria has categorically dismissed suggestions of Iraq-type UN inspections. The Coalition declared the war in iraq to be officially “over”, portents are that unless Jay Garner (Lt Gen Retd, US Army) can tap-dance his way through a myriad number of emerging problems of various-kind, the US may become stuck in a peace quagmire.

Re-building Iraq cannot draw on the Afghan experience, who will do it, and barring the cash on the barrel  for oil, where will the rest of the money come from? This, when not counting Iraq’s estimated debt of over US$ 300 billion?  The US and UK are calling the shots at the moment, the European Union (EU) and Iraq’s Arab neighbors will want to have some say in both the economic and political future of Iraq, using the UN as their stalking horse to get a piece of the action. For the sake of the Coalition’s credibility, UN Chief Inspector Hans Blix has some unfinished business, where indeed are the Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)?  A few days post-Saddam have shown up the various (and vicious) divisions in Iraqi society in full public glare, particularly among the Shia and Sunni communities, the Kurds remaining distinctly apart, their nationalist ambitions in any case viewed with suspicion not only by fellow Iraqis but also by the adjoining Turks, Iranians and Syrians alike. “The exiles”, except for Iran-based Shia clerics, have not been exactly received with open arms. The Pentagon front-runner Ahmed Chilabi, (and a personal friend of US Vice President Richard Cheney,) returning home after 45 years is already controversial, the subject of vociferous street protests in many cities. US Marines had to open fire directly in Mosul into the mob  violently shouting down a newly appointed (by the US) “Governor”. For the moment a weak and divided Iraq will be ruled by “guided” democracy, a strong, unified country very much a distant hope in the future. Some incidents notwithstanding, coalition have leaned over backwards to be seen as “liberators ” rather than “occupiers”. There are not enough Coalition troops on the ground for law and order functions, a major success story has been joint patrols including partially (and hurriedly) “cleared” former Iraqi’ police. Such Iraqi participation will give confidence to the populace. Some of the law-enforcers may become “catchers in the rye”, targeted by the public for their Saddam-era excesses. Too early to predict how the general population will ultimately view the US, Iraqis are not inclined to being ruled by those imposed upon them. The search for Saddam Hussain, his sons and close associates, i.e. if alive, must be intensified, however the “hot pursuit into Syria” idea has to be re-thought. A major success has been the US Special Forces capture (with US Marines help) of Barzan al Tikriti, Saddam’s half brother and brutal Interior Minister of the 80s, earlier another half-brother was held.  Accounting for all of the regime’s leaders has to be brought to a swift and successful closure, otherwise the war will be judged to be only “partially” successful, a la Afghanistan sans Osama Bin Laden and Mullah Omar.

The Middle East has not yet been re-shaped by the war on Iraq, what happens in the near future will be the harbinger of things to come. Mohammed al Zubeidi claimed being elected “Mayor” of Baghdad, by over 300 religious and community leaders. Notwithstanding acceptability by the cynical Baghdadis, his legitimacy has already been denied by spokesman of the US Armed Forces, other “pretenders” are likely to appear. In signs of normalcy, restaurants and bakeries are opening up, fresh fruit and vegetables are freely available in the markets, even supplies from adjacent countries are trickling in. With “combat operations” announced as being over,  it will free troops to protect banks, government buildings, shops and private homes etc. The first priority of the law enforcement agencies will be  to put a dead stop to the free-for-all looting, the worst case was the ransacking  of priceless antique treasures comprising almost 170000 items from the Baghdad Museum. Mesopotamia was the virtual cradle of civilization, the widespread looting has shown Baghdad to be the same “city of thieves” notorious  through the ages.

Egyptian President Hosni Mobarak stated that Afghanistan created one “Osama Bin Laden”, Iraq will create a 100 Osamas and many more terrorist groups, multiplying terrorist attacks. This is contrary to the belief of the virulent extreme among US conservatives that Iraq will act as a deterrent for other terrorists with intent to harm the US, a  potent symbol after Afghanistan of US intention to go after proclaimed terrorist States “in the words of Richard Armitage. “one by one” The truth lies somewhere in-between, the war in Iraq may instigate some terrorism, US ability and will to wage war quickly (shown on primetime TV for visual and psychological effect) will deter others. US presence or influence in the region will never deter violent extremists or suicide bombers.  Mounting casualties at the hands of terrorists may certainly act as an incentive for US Armed Forces to leave Iraq itself sooner rather than later.  With US Forces already in some strength in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain etc, more bases can accommodate increased forces on a permanent basis, a deterrent to both terrorism and adventurism.

The war may have unleashed some dormant forces in the region, de-stabilizing prime US allies like Egypt and Jordan. it is too early to expect a re-adjustment in the Middle-East. Escalation of the Syrian situation into war, will certainly force-multiply the complications, but a major re-shaping of the map is not yet on the cards. Demographics is working against the old order in the region, governments must be sensitive to the demands by the growing youth population for greater  human rights. Most regimes in the region are to an extent repressive, the so-called “democracies” much more so than the monarchies. Having tried a variety of ideologies, i.e. socialism, nationalism, etc,  the return back to tradition and religion by some countries is not surprising. There could be an unwanted but extensive re-shaping of the minds, the ensuing breakdown of the social fabric may return governance back to the tribal level, eroding the very concept of nationhood.

Pakistan is on a fault line dividing the Middle East from South Asia and Central Asia.  What an irony that a country founded on Islam, a religion that at its inception had no concept of priesthood, now seems hostage to a vocal extremist minority because a faulty electoral process has given them an inordinate voice. Theocrats who espouse extremism are nothing without support from  the in-built moderation of  Islam’s ” great silent majority”.  Anyone in the west doing his homework on Pakistan will know that this nation is the real battleground for the hearts and minds of Muslims all over the world. The minority viewpoint has no business espousing thetoric which is out of sync with the mass population of the country. Our survival lies in containing the nuisance value of our extremists who use religion for narrow, selfish political purposes.

Mr. Ikram Sehgal is Publisher and Managing Editor of Defence Journal (Pakistan).

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