India is well equipped to handle the geo-political situation.
Current happenings in West Asia and in Afghanistan nearer home strongly suggest that the old lines of geo-political divide clearly in evidence during the Cold War years and before are once again overtaking the region. The missile attack recently carried out by the United States in collaboration with UK and France on Syria’s chemical weapon facilities located off Damascus has further deepened the divide between the US-led West on the one hand and the Russian camp on the other. What is accentuating this friction is the fact of differing alignments within the Muslim world with Islamic radicals of Taliban-Al Qaeda combine and ISIS being pitted against the US-led West, a major stream of pro-US Islamists represented by the Saudi-led Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) being antipathetic towards the former Communist bloc and the violent Shia-Sunni contradiction showing up presently in the virulent hostility between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
The outbreak of the US-led “war on terror” following 9/11, which, in effect, was a direct fight between Islamic radicals and the West and the outcome of the 2011 Arab Spring that saw the pro-West Islamists of Muslim Brotherhood ousting the dictatorial regime of Hosni Mubarak are relevant to an examination of how the Cold War legacy is impacting the Muslim world in general and West Asia in particular. The civil war in Syria and the disturbed scene in Afghanistan are both linked with common threads of religio-political antagonism towards the US-led West and use of faith-based militancy as an instrument of combat. On the other hand, it has to be recalled that when the cleric Hasan al Banna formed Muslim Brotherhood in Syria and Egypt in 1928, he was setting the agenda of ousting pro-Left and secular Arab dictatorships of Hafez Assad, Nasser and Saddam Hussain and establishing an Islamic dispensation that would consider “Quran as the best Constitution”, but would “live in competition, not conflict” with the West.
Banna’s admirer Maulana Abul Ala Maudoodi founded Jamaat-e-Islami at Lahore in 1940 and extended it to Indonesia to take on President Sukarno who ran a pro-Soviet dictatorship. The US-led West supported both Muslim Brotherhood and the Jamaat-e-Islami. A telling evidence of binding between the two is there in the fact that after Syed Qutb was hanged by Nasser, Qutb’s colleague Syed Ramadan was taken by Maudoodi under his wings and kept at the Islamic Centre in Geneva with the blessings of the West. In Pakistan the Jamaat went on to become the anchor of Nizam-e-Mustafa propounded by General Ziaul Haq and lead—along with the Saudi-funded Lashkar-e-Tayyaba—the Afghan jihad against the Soviet army. In the anti-Soviet armed campaign, Osama bin Laden also received funds from Saudi Arabia because 9/11 that signalled the rise of Islamic radicals under his Al Qaeda was still some years away on the horizon.
The “war on terror” has since produced two strong epicentres of Islamic “revivalists”—ISIS in Iraq-Syria and Taliban-Al Qaeda combine in Afghanistan—that had been targeted by the US. This has cut open the divide in the Muslim world between the radicals, who carry the legacy of the Wahhabi jihad conducted by leading ulema in the 19th century against the Western encroachment on Muslim lands and the pro-West Muslim militants of Muslim Brotherhood and the Jamaat-e-Islami, who surfaced in the 20th century and who have been enjoying the patronage of OIC chaired by Saudi Arabia. The Cold War divide is clearly playing up in the Muslim world. Afghanistan is once again proving to be the geographical pivot of history as it is getting a competitive attention from China and Russia against the assertion of Donald Trump that US military presence will be there as long as it takes to eliminate the menace of the Taliban-Al Qaeda axis. The Cold War alignments are getting re-established in Syria as the US-led West is totally opposed to Basher Assad, son of the old adversary Hafez Assad, and wants the Islamists waging a civil war to succeed in ousting him. Russia’s Vladimir Putin has pledged support to Assad and expectedly condemned the US missile attack in strong terms. On the side, Islamic radicals of ISIS want to grab power in opposition to US and Russia is not too bothered about them. In Egypt, the Arab Spring saw Muslim Brotherhood snatching power from Hosni Mubarak, much to the satisfaction of US.
The geo-politics of West Asia is also affected by the historic Shia-Sunni divide presently reflected in the Iran-Saudi animosity on the one hand and the antipathy of Shia fundamentalism towards the US on the other. Iran’s empathy for the Assad regime in Syria—Assad is an Alwite belonging to a Shia sect—and its hostility towards Israel, a known ally of the US, are not difficult to understand. President Trump has finally announced suspension of the US-Iran nuclear deal because among other reasons his consistent dislike of Islamic extremists whether they are Wahhabis of the Sunni world or the Shia fundamentalists guided by Ayatollahs, affects his decisions. He also knows that Iran had no problem with fraternising with Communist China or Russia because of its innate hostility towards the US-led West.
It is in the fitness of things that India continues to have dealings with Iran, Israel and Saudi Arabia, steering clear of the internal contradictions in the Muslim world and standing by the sound policy of bilateralism based on common economic and security objectives. We have rightly shed the ideological baggage of “non-alignment” after the end of the Cold War and in keeping with our strategic interests reshaped our relationship with US, developed direct contacts with Israel and retained our special bilateral dealings with Russia. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has put India’s Pak policy on a totally unambiguous footing and achieved total Indo-US convergence on a clear condemnation of Pakistan for providing safe havens to Islamic terrorists across the spectrum from Al Qaeda to LeT. India’s firm policy of not having talks with Pakistan, unless that country ends cross-border terrorism against India has added to the standing of this country in the world community. On the whole, India is well equipped to handle the geo-political situation impacted by the reappearance of Cold War divisions.
D.C. Pathak is a former Director Intelligence Bureau