Western arms and Islamic terrorism: An endless spiral

BY SAEED NAQVI

“Udhar rakeeb, idhar hum bulaye jaat hain
Ki daana daal ke murghe laraye jaate hain”

(I am invited, so is my enemy – at the same time. Sprinkle some grain in the middle: and the scene is set for an almighty cockfight)

It would be bad form to describe Saudi kings as fools, but the temptation is vastly enhanced by the brazenness with which the Americans dive into Saudi coffers at will and wink at each other.

It turns out that there is a competition on between the Trump administration and its predecessor, the Obama team, as to who made greater fool of the Saudis.

Last month, Trump and his cohorts, after their revelries in Riyadh, announced they had concluded a $110 billion arms deal with their Saudi allies.

Promptly came a rejoinder from a Clinton adviser, Bruce Riedel, now a specialist at Brookings, that President Obama sold the Saudis $112 billion in weapons in 2012 is a single deal negotiated by Defence Secretary, Bob Gates. He then furnished incontrovertible proof that Trump was bragging about a Saudi arms wishlist but no real deals had been concluded.

Riedel’s other argument is a real clincher: “You will know the Trump deal is real when Israel begins to ask for a package to keep the Israeli Defence Forces’ qualitative edge preserved.”

What seems to be on its way are a billion dollars worth of munitions to help the Saudi Air Force to continue its nearly two year old bombardment of the Arab world’s poorest country – Yemen.

It will take the Saudis millennia to build a civilization like the one they are destroying in Yemen.

And in this destruction, the US is as enthusiastic a participant as the Saudis will ever have. In the vanguard of the US supporters of the Saudi war machine is Republican Senator, John McCain. Thumping the table he told Al Jazeera, “We are in a war.” Then he clarified, “The Saudis are in a war in Yemen and they need weapons.” So Americans must provide (sell) these weapons to the embattled Saudis.

Even though Riedel described the Trump’s arms deal with Riyadh as “fake news”, Trump continues to cast himself as a great salesman.

The last time Trump overplayed his salesmanship was with South Korea. After aggravating tensions with Kim Jong-un in North Korea, he proceeded to be a defender of South Korean interests by promising the state of the art missile defence system. Before his altruism could sink in, he flourished a billion dollar bill for Seoul to pay. The South Koreans promptly voted an anti American President in Seoul. But it would still be premature to cast Trump as a latter day Willy Loman in The Death of a Salesman. Just look at the masterly double dealing he is attempting in Qatar.

Creating confusion, Trump’s patented style of diplomacy (and salesmanship), is on show in Qatar yet again.

After having blessed Saudi king Salman’s so called Sunni Armed Front, Trump watched the Saudi-Qatari falling out with both anger and glee. (Saudi-Qatar antipathy is historic and requires separate treatment)

Since Trump imagined he had swung a huge arms deal with the Saudis (since debunked), he felt obliged to call the recalcitrant Qatar names. He called it “a high level sponsor of terrorism.”

While he was spewing his anti Qatar expletives, his Defence Secretary, James Mattis was signing a $12 billion arms deal with his Qatari counterpart, Khalid Al Attiyah. The scene is being set for a perfect cockfight, as my opening couplet suggests. Egg the Saudi on to break with Qatar, promptly dispatch Mattis to Doha to squeeze yet another deal with the nervous Qataris. This would prompt Saudis come running for more arms – and so on.

I have always maintained that Americans, protected by the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans, will continue to enhance their dependence on what Eisenhower called the military industrial complex.

Retaliatory consequences of their arms sales in the form of increased terrorism will be borne by Europe which has land and Mediterranean Sea links with areas in West Asia most affected by the post 9/11 wars. Manchester and London Bridge are only the most recent manifestations of terrorism as revenge.

When I told a senior French official in Paris recently that terrorism in Europe would be unstoppable so long as Saudis have the money to buy US, French, and British arms, he shrugged his shoulders. “When US arms giants Lockheed Martin and Raytheon sign mega deals with the oil rich GCC, our governments come under pressure from our arms industry which says – please don’t let us fall behind in the global competition.” It is an endless spiral.

Is “revenge” terrorism in the West different from terrorism elsewhere? For instance, 150 members of Afghan police, army and foreigners were killed by suicide bombers outside the German Embassy in Kabul soon after the Manchester attack. The dynamic here is different. Afghan collaborators with a 16 year old US occupation of Afghanistan are under attack from Taliban, falling back on Afghan nationalism.

What is common in Islamic terror everywhere is the technique: suicide bombing.

This genre was patented by Wahabi, Takfiri thought and will continue until the West lays the blame where it belongs. No Iranian or Hezbollah or indeed Shia militant has yet been found to be a suicide bomber.

(Saeed Naqvi is a senior Indian journalist, television commentator, interviewer, and a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. Mr. Naqvi is also a mentor and a guest blogger with Canary Trap)

Fair is foul and foul is fair in Syria

BY SAEED NAQVI

Like Henry Kissinger, New York Times columnist, Thomas L Friedman, belongs to a growing tribe of strategists who insist that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has been overshadowed, indeed overwhelmed, by a much bigger, Shia-Sunni faultline.

Even though Osama bin Laden, the 9/11 hijackers, Wahabism, Salafism, are all traced to Saudi Arabia, the US, Israel and the West in general have developed a high comfort level with Saudi Arabia regardless. In this framework, the West has placed the Shia world in opposition to it.

Was it always like this? Consider this recent historical perspective.

“As we approach the season of the Nobel Peace Prize, I would like to nominate the spiritual leader of Iraq’s Shiites, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, for this year’s medal.” The recommendation came from NYT ace columnist, Friedman. For emphasis, he added: “I’m serious.”

This was in 2005. Friedman, was “in” with George W. Bush. In ecstatic pieces for the world’s most powerful newspaper, the NYT, he repeatedly described the occupation of Iraq as history’s greatest effort at democratization.

Americans had come against Saddam Hussain, a tough Baathist and atheist by belief and a manufacturer of weapons of mass destruction. Remember Saddam invoked “Allah” for political mobilization only after the 1992 operation Desert Storm. He had Allah o Akbar inscribed on an otherwise secular emblem as an afterthought.

The eclipse of Saddam brought great relief to Shias in the South – around the holy cities of Najaf, Karbala and oil rich enclaves neighbouring Basra. For the first time the world realized that Shias were an overwhelming majority in all of Iraq.

A triangular situation had emerged – the occupying Americans, Sunni (plus Kurdish) minority and the Shia majority. The Shias, led by Ayatollah Sistani, played a straight political hand. Once occupation had taken place, he encouraged the occupiers against his tormentor, Saddam Hussain.

That is when Friedman was moved to write:

“If some kind of democracy takes root here (Iraq), it will also be due in large measure to the instincts and directives of the dominant Iraqi Shiite communal leader, Ayatollah Sistani.”

“It was Sistani who insisted that the elections not be postponed in the face of the Baathist-fascist insurgency. And it was Sistani who ordered Shiites not to retaliate for the Sunni Baathist and Jihadist attempts to drag them into civil war by attacking Shiite mosques and massacring Shiite civilians.”

Friedman proceeded to compare the Ayatollah with other icons who helped bring democracy to their respective countries – Nelson Mandela and Mikhail Gorbachev. The quality of democracy that obtains in Russia, Iraq and South must be left for Friedman to applaud.

Rightly or wrongly, Friedman extrapolated from his experience in Iraq. This is at a variance from the fraud Bush’s Defence Secretary, Dick Cheney sought to perpetrate on April 9, 2003, when he had the marines pull down Saddam Hussain’s statue at Firdous square and attributed the event to a popular uprising.

Friedman zigzagged along shifting convictions, until by August 2015, he began to show the first signs of tolerating something so totally different from Sistani as to take one’s breath away. In a conversation with Barack Obama he appeared to be nodding agreement on a kind of positive ambiguity about the ISIS.

Sudden and exponential growth of the Islamic State was something of a mystery. It is in the nature of the post colonial media that the views of Developing country elites particularly in the Arab world (except allies like Saudi Arabia, other GCC countries and Jordan) never get reflected in the media. How did the elites in Iraq, Oman, Yemen, Syria, Egypt, Iran and other Muslim countries view the IS phenomenon. Without exception, they described it as an American, French, British, Saudi, Qatari and Turkish cooperative effort. I know first hand. Ask the ambassadors in New Delhi.

If this is what they thought, why were they silent? They were not silent, but their protestations were ignored by the global networks. So hopelessly one sided is the global media, that even shining stars of independent journalism like Seymour Hersh and Robert Fisk are killed by a simple trick of being ignored.

Writing on Donald Trump’s proposed visit to the centres of semitic religions, Riyadh, the Vatican and Jerusalem, Fisk satirically speculates: “Trump will be able to ask Netanyahu for help against the IS without – presumably – realizing that Israel bombs only the Syrian army and the Shia Hezbollah in Syria but has never – ever – bombed IS in Syria. In fact, the Israelis have given medical aid to fighters from Jabhat al Nusra which is part of Al Qaeda which attacked the US on 9/11.”

By universal consent, Fisk is among the most knowledgeable journalist who has lived in West Asia for decades. But the Imperial Information order keeps him outside the ken.

Truth however has a way of surfacing. Let us revert to Friedman’s interview with Obama. Friedman asked Obama why he delayed taking action against the IS when it was in its nascent stages?

Obama replies: “That we did not just start taking a bunch of airstrikes all across Iraq as soon as the IS came in was because that would have taken the pressure off Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al Maliki.”

In other words, by the US President’s own admission, the IS at that stage worked as an asset to apply pressure on Maliki who was in bad adour with the US because he had refused to sign the Status of Forces Agreement with the US ironically on the advice of exactly the person Friedman was recommending for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2005 – Sistani.

Lo and behold, in his recent column, Friedman is advising Trump to give up the pretense of fighting IS – because that is not in the US (and presumably Israel’s) national interest.

He wants “Trump to be Trump – utterly cynical and unpredictable. ISIS right now is the biggest threat to Iran, Hezbollah, Russia and pro-Shiite Iranian militias.”

“In Syria” Friedman recommends, “Trump should let ISIS be Assad’s, Iran’s Hezbollah’s and Russia’s headache.” In other words, let the IS be a Western asset.

A recent cartoon with a most succinct message shows one Saudi ask another: “We finance wars all around us, when shall we bomb the Jewish state?” “When it becomes Shia.”

(Saeed Naqvi is a senior Indian journalist, television commentator, interviewer, and a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. Mr. Naqvi is also a mentor and a guest blogger with Canary Trap)

Is global establishment in for surprise in France too?

BY SAEED NAQVI

Accustomed either to isolation or global dominance, the US has in recent years been playing a third role. Ever since its power diminished following the 2008 meltdown, it finds itself running around to block political forces which are ascendant everywhere almost independent of its authority.

Brexit happened despite the US. The country itself has a President it did not want. And now, the weight of its establishment is behind the centrist banker, Emmanuel Macron in France. But will that suffice to keep the ultranationalist Marine Le Pen at bay? The falcon cannot see the falconer.

Electoral eruptions are taking place everywhere almost in defiance of American will. In some instances it is difficult to fathom what possible interest the US might have had in a certain outcome until the truth suddenly leaps out of the thicket, in sharp silhouette.

Why, for instances, would the CIA exert every muscle to support the Right Wing Guillermo Lasso in Ecuador, a country of 16 million people? In the event, a rank Leftist with a menacing name, Lenin Moreno, won.

World Affairs these days are sometimes like a game of billiards. That roughly is the effect of Lenin Moreno’s victory in Quito. The consequence of this outcome is that Julian Assange, who controls the nightmare called Wikileaks, now cannot be dispatched to Sweden for trial. He can live for the next few years in the comfort of the Ecuador Embassy in London. That clearly is an affront to the US establishment.

Worse maybe on its way in Mexico, Monroe doctrine or no Monroe doctrine. Come the 2018 elections, President Enrique Nieto will by all accounts be hit for a six, to be replaced by Leftist Lopez Obrador, if not something more radical. “Building the wall” rhetoric is not the only humiliation that has registered with the Mexican electorate.

So, scramble CIA; reversal in Mexico has to be averted at all costs just as one has to be speeded up in Venezuela.

You may sail the world’s most powerful Armada to threaten Kim Jong-un, but every school boy in Seoul knows that US troops in Panmunjom and at nearby Okinawa Island would be exposed to even hand carried ordnance in the unlikely event of hostilities.

Then why all this bluster on the part of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Vice President Mike Pence and President Trump himself? The US has patronized many corrupt regimes in Seoul, but the disgrace in which President Park Geun-hye had to leave office has left South Koreans shattered. Is the US influence with the regime that comes in after May 9 elections about to plummet?

Is all this muscle flexing, then mixing hot and cold (Trump says he would meet Kim Jong-un), designed to somehow psyche Korean voting intentions. South Korea is not exempt from anti Americanism. An outcome conditioned by this factor will clearly be advantageous to China and Russia.

The global establishment is on sixes and sevens on which way the cookie might crumble in France. At the outset Macron seemed a clever idea, responding to the universal quest for something new, different from the established parties. But as the date of elections approaches, the idea begins to look too clever by half.

A 39-year-old, married to a grandmother, branches out with his own party, En Marche, or March Ahead has considerable novelty attached to it. But on close scrutiny he is a Rothschild banker, a former member of the most unpopular Francois Hollande government. Establishment to the core. Old wine in new bottle. Le Pen tattooed him with punches on that count in the TV debate the other night.

Suddenly imagination transports me to that Dumbo Loft under the Brooklyn Bridge on the evening of November 8. Hillary Clinton was the front runner. It was an impressive assembly of World bankers, State Department officials, artists, journalists, friends Saeed Raza and Nusrat Durrani from Lucknow (to underscore my parochialism), all eager to celebrate a Clinton victory. But we all know what happened. (for the rest of the drama read my November 10, blog.)

Does Macron’s fate on election day resemble Clinton’s. American establishment shows traces of Joseph McCarthy in its DNA at the sight of anything resembling the classical left. Comfort level with a Bertolt Brecht and Arthur Miller is confined to Broadway shows. Little wonder, Bernie Sanders was grounded by the Democratic Establishment when he was miles ahead in the race.

In the French campaign, the communist Jean-Luc Melenchon surged with lightening speed, but French public were witness to his brilliant presentation only towards the end of the campaign. Imagine where he might have been had a viscerally anti Left media placed the spotlight on him earlier. Even so, he got 20 percent of the first round votes as against Le Pen’s 21 and Macron’s 23 percent.

All sorts of calculations are afoot: if 90 percent of Le Pen’s supporter turned out but only 65 of Macron’s were mobilized, she would win.

The trophy for prescience on the US elections clearly belonged to the film maker Michael Moore:

“This election is only about who gets who out to vote, who gets the most rabid supporters, the mind of candidate who gets people out of bed at 5.00 am on Election Day.”

Moore added: “So many people have given up on the system because the system has given up on them. They know it is all bullshit: politics, politicians, elections. People want to tear down establishments.” And Macron sadly, is “the” establishment in very thin disguise.

In an insightful piece, Ross Douthat wrote in the New York Times, that Le Pen has with great deliberation distanced herself from the anti Semitism of her father Jean-Marie Le Pen. This brings her closer to the middle.

According to Douthat, “Nobody seriously doubts Le Pen’s competence, her command of policy, her ability to serve as President without turning the office into a Reality – TV thunderdrome.” Trump’s inability to master his own turbulent emotions is not an issue with his Gallic counterpart.

In the US, the media (except Fox News) threw its total weight behind Clinton. It had egg on its face. The French media, likewise, is supporting Macron to the hilt. In our perverse times, is that not a good omen for Le Pen?

(Saeed Naqvi is a senior Indian journalist, television commentator, interviewer, and a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. Mr. Naqvi is also a mentor and a guest blogger with Canary Trap)

Will Trump era provide respite to those with destroyed countries?

BY SAEED NAQVI

The procession of breast beating “liberals” doesn’t seem to end, not since Donald Trump eclipsed their most shining star – Hillary Clinton.

True, Hillary would be graceful at the Inaugural Ball.
Favours to none, to all
she smiles extends.
Oft she rejects but
never once offends.

Melania would be a novice by comparison. But here we are talking about aesthetics and class? Why then pull out John Stuart Mill to measure the order just ushered in.

The argument that Hillary would have made a better President because she knew every nook and corner of Washington, White House and Foggy Bottom is precisely why she lost. It set her up as the Establishment which was remote from the people who found solace in a person who did not even look like a politician.

On the “Liberal” yardstick, both falter.

Two images of Hillary are etched on my mind. I had just returned from Syria in early 2012.  I wrote a paper for the Observer Research Foundation explaining why Bashar al Assad was nowhere near falling.

In fact, regime change was simply not possible by cross border terrorism supporting Muslim Brotherhood and Al Qaeda inspired restiveness in places like Hama, Homs and Daraa all being amplified by the Western media as a full blown civil war. This was in 2011-12.

I can never forget some frames. Hillary Clinton comes into focus, repeatedly, with an imperious wave of the hand: “Get out of the way Assad” and “Stop butchering your own people”.

The second image of Hillary concerns Libya. Anybody with even an elementary knowledge of ground realities in Libya knew how the British and other Western intelligence had with great diligence stoked an insurgency. The matter had been discussed in British Parliament. Prime Minister David Cameron had a series of skirmishes with his army chief Gen. David Richard on the Libyan misadventure.

Americans entered the Libyan drama late, but, being Americans, they chose to take the credit. A front page cartoon in a European newspaper shows a fire in the distance. In the foreground is Uncle Sam, looking like a butler, waiting outside a garden umbrella where some European grandees are sipping campari. One of them snaps his fingers: “go put out that fire”.

That is when Hillary embarked on the mission. The indelible image she left on my mind was a split TV screen. One half of the screen is Qaddafi being sodomized by a knife; on the other is a triumphant Hillary shrugging her shoulders: “I came; I saw and he died.” Never will there be a more macabre play on “Vini, Vidi, Vici”.

Where is the great “liberal” spirit seering through all of this?

Why then are the “liberals” everywhere beating their breasts at her defeat? Do they see Trump as “illiberal” by comparison?

The two images of Hillary’s involvement with Syria and Libya would probably be justified by falling back on the classical Wilsonian approach. After the victory in the First World War, neither Britain, France or other allies quite envisioned the peace settlement the way Wilson did. After armistice, Woodrow Wilson began to draft in his mind a plan for a “just democracy throughout the world”. For democracy and freedom to be secure in the United States, the sapling will have to be nurtured everywhere. Like these moral values, wealth too would accompany good governance and enterprise as part of God’s plan.

Liberal ideals would spread gradually almost by imitation. It can be argued that the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was also, in large part, by imitation. But in both, Syria and Libya, the Liberal argument would have to be contrived, that it was important to defeat the two tyrants who were brutalizing their own people. Woodrow Wilson envisioned the expansion of the Liberal ideal by example and gentle persuasion. He never envisaged a post World War II American pre eminence on a scale where Judge, jury, executioner and the dispenser of information would all be one and the same.

Now consider the casualty figures in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen – a total of over a million dead and 15 million displaced. The wars begun by George W Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice and Paul Wolfowitz were continued by Barack Obama. He simply could not dismount. What liberal ideal is involved in these unspeakable horrors?

Remember Obama had promised to shut Guantanamo Bay as soon as he entered the Oval office. Every time he tried, he found himself glaring at an intelligence file for Eyes Only. An unnerved Obama backed away.

That is the kind of turf the Intelligence Community is obstinately holding onto in its continuing battle with the Trump White House.

That the establishment, media and the intelligence community are out to embarrass Trump on the legitimacy of his election is not without its irony. George W Bush too had stolen the 2001 election in Florida. But there is a difference. The establishment was on his side then.

The American liberals we learnt to revere in our school was Clarence Darrow, Ed Murrow and writers like Arthur Miller with their gaze of irony on the American Dream.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, globalization was marketed as unbridled capitalism, breeding crony capitalism everywhere. The world has flinched from that world order. Brexit and Trump are a consequence. We are transiting from one world order to the other. Millions will view the transition with hope. Liberals should have these multitudes in their ken too.

(Saeed Naqvi is a senior Indian journalist, television commentator, interviewer, and a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. Mr. Naqvi is also a mentor and a guest blogger with Canary Trap)

Head in cashless sand, as global events pass India by

BY SAEED NAQVI

While New Delhi is busy with the demonetisation upheaval, it may find itself paces too slow in coping with the new strategic dynamic engulfing the region.

Neither Kabul nor New Delhi can be sanguine about the high level meeting in Moscow on Afghanistan to which China and Pakistan were invited. This follows Moscow’s declaration that it does not consider Taliban as the enemy. In fact Afghan Taliban can be allies against Al Qaeda and the Islamic States.

A piqued Ahmad Shekib Mostaghni, spokesman for the Afghan Foreign Ministry, said “even if such talks are organized with goodwill, they cannot yield substantial results because there is no one from the Afghan side to brief the participants about the latest ground realities.”

New Delhi, preoccupied otherwise, has not reacted to the Moscow meet. Apparently, the Russians took the Indian Foreign office into confidence that “it was only about the internal situation in Afghanistan”. Russians are concerned about the rise of the Islamic State in Afghanistan, a diplomatic source said.

Does New Delhi accept Moscow’s anxieties about ISIS in Afghanistan? And does it go along with Moscow and Beijing’s evaluation that Taliban are possible allies against the more infectious ISIS? But Washington has invested blood and treasure fighting the Taliban for 14 years. Is New Delhi at a trijunction?

In diplomacy, friendly gestures come with disguised ambiguity. With the Trump Presidency, a new chapter may be opening in US-Moscow relations. In preparation for this phase, Moscow would like to retain some pressure points to determine the pace of new equations. Kabul maybe one such pressure point.

Should Trump turn upon Tehran over the nuclear deal, there is something in the Afghan cauldron for Iran to stir too.

So, the New Year begins with many new events to juggle with. Of the scattered scratches on my mind that 2016 leaves behind, the deepest one was etched in New York. At my friend’s DUMBO loft in Brooklyn on the night of November 8, an assortment of friends from every walk of life, left champagne bottles uncorked because the ground from under their feet moved when Hillary Clinton lost.

If you make Bernie Sanders impossible, I said then, you make Trump inevitable.

American exceptionalism notwithstanding, the popular mood globally across liberal democracies was the same – a disgust with establishments foisted on them by globalization and crony capitalism.

The assault on the establishment has come from the Left as well as the Right. Establishments, like the skilled matador, have deflected the people to the Right. This is their preferred fallback position. Hence, No to Bernie Sanders. Yes, to Trump. And now they are beating their breasts!

Well, let it be recorded, the American establishment did try to write itself into the script too. Clinton, after all, was nothing if not the establishment. Yes, people think I am untrustworthy. Yes, they think I am dishonest. Yes, I goofed in Benghazi…..but still vote for me because Russians have hacked into my email. Bill Clinton went one better. Did I not tell you, he said to an interviewer, that Boris Yeltsin was a much better President than Putin.

Who knows the new Trump team from Forbes Who’s Who may reassert an old motto: the Business of America is Business. This encourages one to conclude that Trump would like to restore America as the land of unvarnished capitalism minus the hegemonic distortions, one which has made the US the world’s most hated nation even in influential enclaves of Europe.

Whatever else Trump may achieve, will he ever succeed in weaning away the Occupy Wall Street youth Bernie Sanders had mobilized? If not, he will begin to look like a semi finalist until the next elections in 2020.

Establishments may be able to channelize popular preference away from the Left, once or twice, but they cannot make a habit of it.

Ultimately, all speculations will be tempered by a Realpolitik, like the one opening up to India’s north. Countermoves will come as soon as Trump finds his feet in the White House. As he surveys the scene from the Oval office, he will notice, a new bounce in the Russian tread in Islamabad, Beijing, Damascus, Ankara, Manila, Kuala Lampur. To be counted among Putin’s possible friends could well be French Presidential candidate, Francois Fillon who defeated Nicolas Sarkozy in recent Republican party elections. Trump has already held out his hand to Putin. How firmly will he clasp it? And will the clasp last over Afghanistan too? Will New Delhi have respite from the unfolding demonetisation drama to attend to all of this?

(Saeed Naqvi is a senior Indian journalist, television commentator, interviewer, and a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. Mr. Naqvi is also a mentor and a guest blogger with Canary Trap)

The New Cold War: American Jihadis vs Russian Jihadis

BY RSN SINGH

A strategically revolutionary statement has been ascribed to a high ranking Russian foreign ministry official, Zamir Kabulov, that his country’s interests are same as Taliban (Afghan Taliban) in fighting Islamic State terror. Kabulov is considered to wield formidable influence in fashioning Russian policy on Afghanistan and Pakistan. Much to the disconcertment of India and Afghanistan, in the recently concluded Heart of Asia Conference, Kabulov came to defence of Pakistan on its role on terror. This was echoed by one Alexander Mantyskly in the upper house of Russian Parliament.

This development has in effect the potential to bring together Russia and Pakistan in enduring strategic alignment. Indications in this regard are getting increasingly pronounced. Joint military exercises in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan’s purchase of MI-35 helicopters, intention to purchase Su-35 fighters, visit of the three Pakistan Service Chiefs and intense confabulations on strategic issues, economic cooperation and connectivity — being some of them. This strategic approach if persisted with will also strategically impel Iran in the same direction. It will be a very tough call for India’s foreign policy establishment in case Russia-Taliban partnership materializes. It is a classic case of geopolitical flux overtaking foreign policy. The geopolitical flux can be best explained from the current chapter of recent capture of Aleppo city by government forces in Syria as beginning.

The rebel forces in Syria have lost the strategic town of Aleppo after months of bitter fighting with government forces. It is a watershed moment for Assad who not very long ago seemed beleaguered and considered a spent force. In fact, western countries had written his regime’s obituary. Aleppo in North West Syria is the most populous city and also country’s financial centre. The government now has significant writ as it has gained control of major cities in the west and the Mediterranean coast line. It is a major victory for Russia-Iran-Assad combine. Though the Islamic State was not much of a factor in the Aleppo battle, there were other rebel outfits, some two dozen, which included affiliates of Al Qaeda. In the case of Syria the largest is Jabhat Fatah al Sham which till very recently was known as Al-Nusra. Even the Islamic State (IS) is a reincarnation of Al-Qaeda in Iraq.

The groups engaged in war in Syria are motivated by different political, territorial and jihadi considerations. Some of these groups cooperate, and there are others who have inimical relations and clash when their interests collide. Aleppo, is one such area which was beset by Islamic State in the east and Syrian Kurdish groups in the North West. Both are hostile to each other and have clashed endemically. But both are equally hostile to anti- Assad rebels like Al-Fatah. The Kurds are motivated by territorial considerations hence Turkey opposes not only Assad but Kurds as well. Turkey is increasingly getting disquieted with the Islamic State.

Most groups engaged in conflict in Syria are being leveraged by some or other external power. It is beyond debate or rather is well documented that the US or NATO has leveraged several affiliates of Al Qaeda in different conflicts. The latest being Al-Nusra (now Jabhat Fatah al Sham) in Syria. Allegedly the Islamic State has been covertly supported and financed by US, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Nevertheless, Erdogan after July coup seems to have lost his desire to join European Union and is visibly tilted towards Moscow and Iran.

Strategic detractors or even some independent analysts are of the view that the Islamic State is part of long standing US project to territorially re-engineer Iraq and Syria in a manner that there is a Sunni Islamic Caliphate; an Arab Shia Republic and a Republic of Kurdistan. Syria happens to be the heartland of Arab culture.

In 2014, the Iranian newspaper Tehran Times carried a front page story allegedly saying that the Islamic State is a US ploy to destabilize the region and protect Israel. The story ascribed to Snowden leaks, described the Islamic State as a joint US, British and Israeli effort to ‘’create a terrorist organization, capable of centralizing all extremist actions across the world. ‘’ As per a New York based consultancy, Soufan Group report of Dec 2015, an estimated 27000 foreign jihadis from 86 countries had traveled to join the Islamic State. The Tehran Times story is far from corroborated, but it is certainly not bereft of geopolitical sense. It is increasingly becoming clear that the US not only created the Islamic State but was also responsible for resurrection of Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Further the US encouraged Erdogan to establish his own Caliphate so that the Islamic State could get a route to supply oil in world market. It may be mentioned that at its peak the Islamic State controlled 60 percent and 10 percent of Syria’s and Iraq’s oil production respectively.

The US led coalition had uncontested sway in influencing the civil war in Syria till Russia made an emphatic bid in September 2015 to reclaim its strategic space in West Asia, much to the chagrin of US, Israel and Saudi Arabia, amongst others. Israel and Saudi Arabia are perceived to be the biggest potential beneficiaries of the envisaged redrawing of the geopolitical map of West Asia by the US under Obama. The political umbilical of Obama administration with Saudi monarchy is hardly a secret. The link extended to Hillary Clinton as well, and in the process the Wahabis took advantage of the dependence. On this account India was surely a victim of Clinton’s acquiescence of Wahabis, specially from the likes of Zakir Naik. As far as Israel is concerned it was benefited in the sense that its worst enemies Syria and Iran were circumscribed and incapacitated to cause much harm. Speculations about links between Israel and Islamic State have never attenuated.

The Russian intervention apart from salvaging Assad from what seemed to be a hopeless situation gave a huge strategic boost to Iran. It became very clear that the targeting of Islamic State was only a ruse for the US coalition to debilitate government forces in Syria thus facilitating onslaught by the rebels. Since Aug 2014 the coalition has conducted more than 10000 air strikes, but till very late the Islamic State remained relatively unhurt and intact. It is only when the Russians forced their way through and began to genuinely target the Islamic State territory that it began to shrink and the cadres were in disarray. Consequently the Islamic State having suffered major territorial reverses changed its strategy and began to disperse. Instructions are being issued by the top Islamic State leadership urging volunteers not to travel to Syria and operate in autonomous mode in their respective countries.

As per US National Counter Terrorism Centre the Islamic State is now operational in 18 countries in the world including Afghanistan and Pakistan. There are also’’ aspiring branches’’ in Mali, Egypt, Somalia, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Philippines. In this year i.e. the Islamic State has carried out attacks in Turkey, Indonesia, Belgium, US and Bangladesh. There can therefore be no final or eventual victory over Islamic State just as Al-Qaeda continues to survive even after suffering US or NATO might all these years. They possibly cannot be snuffed by force because they are ideologically driven, and transcend ethnicity and nations.

What impacts India is the spread of Islamic State in South Asia. James Comey former FBI chief had warned that if the Islamic State wins and gets entrenched attacks on the West will increase, particularly Western Europe. The US, he said, will also suffer but minimally. Probably, by design then the Islamic State was diverted to South Asia!

The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) maintains that all attacks in Afghanistan in the recent times were the handiwork of LeT, JeM, Haqqani network, Hizb-e- Islami, and Islamic State. The US, but curiously maintains strategic ambivalence over JeM and LeT and drums only Haqqani network. There is little doubt that the US has allowed LeT to flourish knowing fully well that the organization has global ambitions and consequent to Operation Enduring Freedom most of the Al Qaeda cadres had joined the LeT. Is it that Hafiz Saeed and Maulana Masood Azhar is coordinating Islamic State operations in Afghanistan at the behest of CIA and ISI?

As per the Director of National Intelligence, Afghanistan the Islamic State established its Khorasan branch in South Asia in Jan 2015 comprising disaffected members of Afghan Taliban and TTP. There are reports to suggest that the basic structure of Khorasan was assembled in Peshawar under the watchful eyes of ISI and then pushed into Nangarahar region of Afghanistan. Thousands of TTP cadres who joined Vilayat Khorasan were sent to Syria in 2014 and subsequently FATA born Hafiz Saeed Khan was made the chief. The Vilayat Khorasan has a brigade strength and in Afghanistan it is alluded as the’ ISI brigade.’

The attack on Shias in Afghanistan and Pakistan is probably being engineered to exacerbate the Shia-Sunni divide. Both, the Islamic State or its regional version Vilayat Khorasan are frantically recruiting for the ongoing internecine war in the core of the Islamic World. The Shia-Sunni conflict for dominance is witnessing a feverish pitch in South Asia. Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRG) has been recruiting Hazaras in Afghanistan and Pakistan to fight alongside Assad forces on promises Iran’s residence permit and monthly salary of $500. It has formed two brigades from Shia recruits i.e. Fatemiyon Brigade and Zeinabiyoun Brigade. The recruitment of Shia Muslims is fueling sectarian attacks by the Islamic State. The spillover of Syrian conflict has been on India as well. 30,000 Shia Muslims volunteered to fight to protect Shiite shrines in Syria from Islamic State.

The US continues to lean heavily on Pakistan’s ISI for success of its geopolitical project in the region which is essentially an extension of West Asia. Does the US with the support of Pakistan aim to restrict Russia in Central Asia?

The military-intelligence establishment in Pakistan, historically adept at playing double game, is hedging its chances between US and Russia. The US operations in Abbottabad to kill Osama bin Laden in 2011 was the catalyst. For Pakistan the interests of China in this Great Game is also a critical factor. For the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) to enjoy sustainability, stability in the region is the main imperative.

This author has been told by several Balochis that the Islamic State or Lashkar Khorasan operatives are operating out of the barracks of Frontier Corps. The Khorasan militants have been let loose on Balochis to kill their struggle through the jihadi means of Islam.

As far as India is concerned notwithstanding its posturing, the US has a soft corner for LeT and JeM. It is also a fact the jihadi leaders have different strongholds in different parts of Pakistan and the region. The jihadi industry is an amalgamation of these. Probably at the behest of the Americans these outfits have entered into a partnership with Islamic State or Vilayat Khorasan. So the waving of Islamic flags in Kashmir Valley is not incidental and part of the larger phenomenon or design.

In the ultimate analysis India is getting increasingly entrapped in a new Cold War in the region i.e. American jihadis versus Russian jihadis—an ironical departure from the Islam versus Communism narrative staged in the battlefields of Afghanistan in the 80s, between Soviet forces and US funded and Pakistan trained jihadis.

(RSN Singh is a former military intelligence officer who later served in the Research & Analysis Wing. The author of two books: Asian Strategic and Military Perspective and Military Factor in Pakistan, he is also a Guest Blogger with Canary Trap. The opinions expressed by the author and those providing comments are theirs alone, and do not reflect the opinions of Canary Trap or any employee thereof)