Understanding the bigger picture
As the concentration of Pakistan and the world was focused on the Karachi airport attack, alarming questions were raised once again. Some of these are concerning the next phase of the campaign against extremists. In essence the query relates to the future direction of the campaign against terror, now that its tentacles are spread all over the landscape without respect of the nation-state confines.
Tragically, whenever the subject of extremism is discussed in Pakistan, it’s in the context of Afghanistan and India. However, the issue of extremism has a wider context. Just look at what took place in northern and western Iraq this week when a number of cities were lost to the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS or ISIL), an offshoot of AQ. To deal with extremism in Pakistan obviously the local and regional dynamics and lessons would have to be kept in mind. Equally important is to keep in perspective the emerging western strategies.
When dealing with any complicated issue, it is critical to look at the emerging patterns and trends first, not the outcomes, and then develop their strategic implications. The current atmosphere of fast moving change, and the breaking news and elections cycles, forces institutions and individuals to deal with the short-term, and extra efforts have to be devoted to long-term thinking about what is taking shape.
So let’s start with the bigger picture. Three particular interrelated sequential phenomena have combined to create a highly combustible situation in the Middle East and beyond. One of them is obviously the wider campaign against extremism, which has now morphed with Arab Spring related uprisings. The third tangent is the growing tensions between US and Russia, and China and US, which has created circumstances resembling the global power tussles of the past.
In case of Syria, a new differentiation has emerged; moderates and extremists. Moderates in Syria are those sunni liberal fighters that want Assad government to go and have the backing of key Gulf states, including the west.
PoliTact has previously presented in this space the debate on the various causes that produced each of these variables. The reasons and the future direction of these factors are up for much discussion, and are interpreted differently in various regions of the world. Similarly, international media sources and various centres of intellectual thinking, often present a checkered understanding of the progress of the war against terror. It is by no means over and actually just beginning to take off. It is now truly taking the form of non-state actors versus state actors frame.
Many of the western supported governments are at the front end of this assault by non-state actors. What took place in Iraq this week is a prime example of the predicament. In the aftermath of the US withdrawal, Iraq has remained mired in escalating sectarian tensions and wider rifts between Iran and Sunni Arab states.
In case of Syria, a new differentiation has emerged; moderates and extremists. Moderates in Syria are those sunni liberal fighters that want Assad government to go and have the backing of key Gulf states, including the west. Extremists in Syria are of two types; sunni extremists are the AQ inspired groups while shi’a extremists constitute Hezbollah, which has the backing of Iran and Syria.
One of the most important lessons of Syria is that Assad regime would not have survived without the urban warfare skills of Hezbollah and technical advice from Iranian Quds force. Furthermore, Russian influence in the security council also played a key part in holding off foreign military intervention in Syria.
In the south Asian region, sunni non-state actors (Afghan Taliban and TTP) are also on the assault in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. In the aftermath of the US/NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014, the country is the most vulnerable of the three. With all the differences, Afghanistan’s situation is peculiarly similar to that of Iraq, where Iraqi US trained forces either abandoned or were overrun by ISIS. This has raised the prospect of US air strikes or direct Iranian involvement in Iraq to stop the advance of sunni extremist forces.
The critical differentiating factor in Iraq has now come to be the air power, and future Afghan resistance to Taliban will also have to rely heavily on this. A point also emphasised by the Afghan presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani at a talk recently hosted by the Atlantic Council via Skype.
The critical differentiating factor in Iraq has now come to be the air power, and future Afghan resistance to Taliban will also have to rely heavily on this. A point also emphasised by the Afghan presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani at a talk recently hosted by the Atlantic Council via Skype
In a similar discussion organised by the Atlantic Council and the Centre for American Progress with Afghan presidential candidate Dr Abdullah Abdullah on June 12, PoliTact raised a comparison between the present situation of Iraq and the future of Afghanistan. Dr Abdullah stated that Afghanistan is different than Iraq because the people have rejected Taliban and their ideology. Moreover, he added the lesson of Iraq is that sectarian policies will not work in any place. Lastly, he made an important point that to prevent an Iraq like dilemma, the legitimacy of the government and its policies, rule of law, and provision of services to the masses, are equally important.
The lack of governance and corruption are perhaps the main causes behind what triggered the Arab Awakening. These symptoms are amply visible in Pakistan as well. While the majority does not agree with the agenda of extremists, the secular governments of these regions have failed to deliver benefit to the people, and now stand at the precipice of either collapse or vying for status quo.
This is occurring at a time when the west is looking for partners to continue to fight against extremists, as it retrenches to deal with more strategic state adversaries, such as China and Russia. Meanwhile as the economies of these terror inflicted states crumble, they need western support to fight, as they aspire for stabilisation that is not attainable.
This has created a highly tumultuous environment for the states in question. They can hardly gain credibility when they continue to fail to deliver to the masses and appear to be western lackeys. This in turn reinforces the message of the extremists and thus creates a vicious cycle. Just as the west is ‘moving on’ in the campaign against terror, the associates of AQ are resurging. This does not bode well for the weak states that are balancing western pressure to tackle extremism and provide services for the masses at the same time. Economic prosperity only follows peace, while war and peace do not exist simultaneously.