G. Parthasarathy’s essay

Reshaping the Islamic world — The new American agenda

G. Parthasarathy

Angered at countries that fund individuals and organisations promoting fundamentalism and religious extremism, that threaten the stability of pluralistic societies across the globe, the US seems determined to reassess its past priorities and policies in the Islamic world, in general, and the Middle East and Persian Gulf, in particular, says G. Parthasarathy.

EVEN as New Delhi appears to be obsessed with its Islamabad centred concerns, the US seems determined to reassess its past priorities and policies in the Islamic world, in general, and the Middle East and Persian Gulf, in particular. The State Department’s Richard Hass had asserted last month that the growing gulf between the regimes and citizens of many Islamic countries increasingly limited the ability of these regimes to “provide assistance to, or even to acquiesce in American efforts combat terrorism or address the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction”. Hass argued that: “Greater democracy in Muslim majority countries is good for the people who live there. But it is also good for the United States.” The US Secretary of State, Gen Colin Powell, has now made out the case that an American success in Iraq would “fundamentally reshape” the Middle East and Persian Gulf.

The extent of the American determination to leave no stone unturned to “reshape” even its own former allies, including Saudi Arabia, was mentioned to me during a rather interesting exchange I had with a distinguished former CIA official. I was made aware of the depth of the American feeling after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, when this former official said that the US now regards itself as being in the midst of the “Fourth World War”. The first two World Wars were won militarily and the Third World War, against the Soviet Union, was won without a single bullet being fired on the adversary.

The “Fourth World War”, I was told, would involve taking the fight to the “enemy’s territory” and signalling to countries that harbour terrorists that “their sovereignty is at risk”. More importantly, I was told the US is particularly angry at countries that use “so called charities” to fund individuals and organisations promoting fundamentalism and religious extremism, that threaten the stability of pluralistic societies across the globe.

While all this was certainly not the official position of the Bush Administration, it did signal a determination in influential circles in Washington to even take on erstwhile allies who are now having their ordinary citizens fingerprinted, photographed and registered in the US.

An American-led war against Iraq now appears inevitable. Iraq’s immediate neighbours are now lining up behind the Americans. Turkey is getting its bases readied and Qatar, Oman, Kuwait, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates have all made their support for the Americans very clear. There have been unpublicised contacts between American and Iranian officials in Europe and the Americans are said to have been reassured that Iran will not play the spoilsport in the US war on Iraq. In any case, Iran has for long maintained contacts in Iraq with those opposed to the Government of President Saddam Hussein. It is only a question of time before Saudi Arabia and Egypt quietly fall in line with American imperatives.

While France and Germany appear to be resolutely opposed to any precipitous American military action in Iraq, the European Union is clearly split, with important countries like Spain and Italy endorsing the Anglo-American approach. The days ahead are going to be crucial for American efforts to obtain a fig leaf of legitimacy for military action, from the Security Council. While the US has been restraining the Kurds and Turkey from seeking any territorial advantages in cities like Kirkuk and elsewhere, from the emerging situation, it remains to be seen if the Americans will remain steadfast in preserving the unity and territorial integrity of Iraq. They did not set a particularly welcome example in Kosovo.

The “Woolsey Plan” (named after former CIA Director James Woolsey) envisaged the trifurcation of Saudi Arabia, with the oil-rich Shia-dominated province of Ihsa becoming a virtual US protectorate. While control of oil resources has been an important factor behind American policies in the Persian Gulf, there are two main driving forces behind present policies. The first is to ensure that weapons of mass destruction do not reach the wrong hands. Second, those who promote and finance Wahabi fundamentalism across the world are reined in and, if necessary, eliminated.

Americans make no secret of their frustration in getting Saudi Arabia to ensure that its so-called charities such as the Rabita and Motamar are banned from indulging in the export of Wahabi fundamentalism. The Washington-based Bangaldeshi writer Jamal Hasan recently wrote about how the Saudis went to the extent of preventing Bangladeshi nationals from undertaking Haj pilgrimages and in endeavouring to economically and politically isolate our eastern neighbour, till it renounced the provision in its Constitution about Bangladesh being a “Secular Republic”. Hasan observes that: “The Saudis wanted to see all the non-Arab Muslim majority countries detach themselves from secularism and other `infidel’ political ideologies and join the Arab hegemonistic Islamist camp”. Even today, virtually every Islamic fundamentalist and terrorist organisation, ranging from the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen in Pakistan to the Jamaat-e-Islami in Bangladesh, are known to receive funds and support from Saudi Arabia.

Pakistan is not going to remain immune from the American drive to end funding and support for armed, Islamic fundamentalist groups in the long run. It is not without significance that the soft-spoken American Ambassador in Islamabad, Ms Nancy Powell, has asked Pakistan to cease remaining a `platform’ for global terrorism. Gen Pervez Musharraf has warned that Pakistan itself would be a target, after the Americans address their present priorities in the Persian Gulf.

The Taliban and the Al Qaeda have now joined hands with the favourite protégé of the ISI in Afghanistan, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, to attack American troops and their Afghan allies in the Hamid Karzai Government. These attacks will be intensified once the American war in Iraq intensifies and the predominant focus of American military attention shifts from Afghanistan to the Persian Gulf.

Washington Post recently reported how Gen Musharraf continues to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds. Earlier restrictions placed temporarily on such jehadi outfits as the Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Jaish-e- Mohammad have been removed. Even as Gen Musharraf swears by his commitment to the war against terrorism and seeks membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation in meetings with the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, the Lashkar openly collects funds across Pakistan for “Jehad in Afghanistan, Chechnya, Bosnia and Kashmir”.

New Delhi will have to adopt a pragmatic and measured approach in dealing with coming events to our west. In fashioning our approach to coming events, we will have to be clear in our minds that the US alone has the power to compel countries funding and supporting Wahabi extremism and promoting terrorist violence in our neighbourhood to change course.

There is naturally concern about the impending American attack on a friendly and secular country like Iraq. A prolonged conflict in Iraq, marked by heavy civilian casualties, could have a profoundly destabilising impact, both internationally and in our entire neighbourhood. Many independent military observers expect the conflict to last around six weeks. It would be a tragedy if heavy civilian casualties mark the conflict. The Americans would hardly be in a position to claim victory, if this were to happen.


G. Parthasarathy is a former career diplomat and has been Indian High Commissioner to Pakistan. He is a prolific writer and well-known foreign policy analyst.  The above article was published in HINDU BUSINESS LINE on Friday, Feb 14, 2003


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