In 2005, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice laid down a policy line that began in war-ravaged Iraq, and then crept through the Middle East, crossed the Nile and into north African Arab states till it floundered at some indeterminate point in the Sahara: America would not any longer “pursue stability at the expense of democracy”. America would promote “the democratic aspirations of all the peoples”. Citizens honoured by the prospect of democracy did not miss the use of “all”.
By 2005, Saddam Hussein was no longer news. The question had shifted from what to why, particularly since the stated war objective, Iraq’s alleged nuclear capability, was so evidently a fiction. The answer proffered was democracy. As dominoes began to tremble, military-backed dynasties that had survived in the name of stability were shaken to their roots in pivotal nations like Syria, Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. By the time Barack Obama was settled in office, stability had disappeared, as prophesied, but democracy seemed a reluctant arrival.
The Bush-Rice thesis for republican freedoms contained a volatile contradiction. So far, generals had justified coups in the name of stability. But Bush used war as the midwife of democracy. A sharp dissonance between ends and means can become much more than an academic debate. New, unpredictable and often counterproductive forces arise when nationalism has been subverted and an expanding vacuum searches for ideology. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 generated militias whose agenda expanded far beyond the grand objectives of their initial sponsors, with consequences that are still in dangerous play. America’s 21st century war in Iraq emptied the country of political and institutional structures, seeded a struggle for regional power, and provoked a geopolitical Sunni-Shia confrontation that had nothing to do with Washington’s intentions.
Moreover, these conflicts were largely conducted through surrogates that were never functionally obedient to those who used them. The extremist Sunni militia, ISIS, or the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham [Syria], is a good example. It began as ISIL [Levant, instead of Syria]. It does not recognise existing borders, and its immediate purpose is to rule over a swathe of Sunni-majority territory in Syria and the wedge between Iraq’s Kurdish north and Shia-majority middle and south, which can become a base for the holy war begun by “Sheikh Osama bin Laden”. It believes that Al Qaeda has diluted its commitment to such a war.
The impact has been dramatic. For the first time since 1979, when the Iranian revolution overturned the regional status quo, America and Iran could be on the same side of a battlefield. Iran’s President Hasssan Rouhani has, indeed, begun to taunt Obama. Iran was ready to consider cooperation, he said, “Any time the Americans start to take action against terrorist groups” [by which he means ISIS]. Obama can hardly fiddle while Iraq burns. His present response is to send 300 military advisors, and open an air assault against ISIS. Britain, America’s ally-in-chief, has reopened its mission in Tehran and sent its elite SAS to Baghdad. Iran is already there. Major General Qassem Suleimani, head of Iran’s crack Quds Force, along with at least 67 advisors, has been given charge of a much-required reorganisation of Iraqi forces before the counteroffensive towards Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, from ISIS. That would not necessarily mean the end of conflict. Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, the pre-eminent Shia cleric, has urged his brethren to prepare for a decisive war against Sunni militias.
The mirrors of history are reflecting a wry smile. A common enemy is forcing America and Iran to restore, perhaps grudgingly, a framework that was shattered in 1979. Obama was so focused on getting his troops home to a war-weary America that he lost sight of the radical embryo he was leaving behind. In September 2011 he declared that “The tide of war is receding”. It was merely recuperating. In August last year he thought that “Al Qaeda is on its heels, (it) has been decimated”.
Only to be replaced by a more dangerous successor. Obama laughed away the ISIS in January this year, noting that you don’t become a basketball star simply by wearing a Lakers’ uniform. Obama forgot the meaning of Al Qaeda: the base. This base produces radials, which can be ideological, inspirational, and deadly.
It is tragic that innocent Indian workers, driven by poverty from Punjab and Himachal to a region they cannot comprehend, have become hostage when they belong to neither side. Mosul, inevitably, will be attacked from the ground and the air. This intensifies the pressure on Delhi to get them back home, as quickly as feasible. This is not going to be easy, for Mosul is not in the control of any recognised, or perhaps even recognisable, authority.
There is a larger danger. The ripple effects of this toxic war will move inexorably towards South Asia via toxic streams through Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is time to recognise enemies with clarity, and choose friends with wisdom.