Français   |  

Subscribe to the whole site

Home > English > Website archives > Rainbow of Crisis > Destabilizing the Islamic World

The UNITED STATES in the ’Arc of Crisis’

Destabilizing the Islamic World

Friday 4 January 2008, by Gabriel Kolko

Communism’s virtual disappearance caused the geopolitical and strategic factors that produced alliances and coalitions after 1947 to decline and lose their justifications everywhere, but new ones have been more difficult to make. The situation in the entire Islamic world is too unstable, the outcome of the changes that are occurring within it unknowable. But America’s war in Afghanistan further destabilized Pakistan and weakened the ruling family in Saudi Arabia, making the longer term consequences of the conflict there pale in importance. Any upheavals in either of these two crucial nations are likely to bring to power men essentially sympathetic to one or another brand of Islamic fundamentalism. To win the war militarily but lose it politically would be a disaster for the United States, one it is very likely going to have to confront soon.

There are a number of ways Pakistan could be shaken to its core, and Washington was aware of these dangers but it decided to play a very dangerous game with high risks, and now there is a strong chance it will see the worst case realized. Some of these issues are very old, involving Pakistan’s fundamental interests in seeing a friendly regime rule its northern neighbor, and will continue in the future regardless of whether or not General Pervez Musharraf continues to rule. Until the fighting was resolved Pakistan had a great deal more leverage in dealing with the U.S., but the moment it ended it lost most of it. Pakistani public sentiment was from the inception hostile to Musharraf’s alliance with America. In mid-October 2001, public opinion was 87 percent opposed to the U.S. attacks and nearly two-thirds were pro-Taliban. Thousands of Pakistani men—Pashtuns—have gone to Afghanistan in recent years to fight for the Taliban. Pakistan is and was a politically fragile partner of whatever the U.S. chooses to label its relationship, and to base its strategy in the region on it was folly, for the worst of all world’s is to destabilize it, leading to Islamic fundamentalists taking power—for the nation to be "Talibanised," as one former Pakistani senior official put it.

But no one could predict the sequence of events that brought India and Pakistan at the end of 2001 to the awesome brink of their fourth war since 1947, yet now each possesses nuclear weapons. In October 2001 Pakistan-supported Kashmiri terrorists assaulted the parliament in Indian-controlled Srinagar in Kashmir and killed thirty-eight people. Then on December 13 they attacked India’s parliament in Delhi itself, resulting in fourteen deaths. Both India and Pakistan readied their nuclear bombs while intensive fighting with conventional weapons erupted along the cease-fire line in Kashmir, a line which was established in this largely Muslim province in 1948 and gives India about two-thirds of the disputed territory. This unforeseen event was a windfall for India, which chose to attempt finally to resolve the principal dispute that has produced a guerrilla war which has caused at least 33,000 deaths and blighted relations between the two states for over a half-century. Its military mobilization was the largest in its history and it showed no readiness to back away from war—politically, indeed, the Indian government could not do so easily without Pakistan making significant concessions.

The frightening Pakistan-India confrontation revealed that the U.S.’ actions have destabilized the entire precarious South Asian geopolitical balance, and this is of far greater consequence over the longer term than what happens in Afghanistan. Pakistan has lost what it terms "strategic depth" in Afghanistan, leaving it more than ever vulnerable to Indian demands that Pakistan end its claims on Indian-controlled Kashmir and cease supporting guerrillas there.

Washington officials sought to court both Pakistan and India, and the Indians correctly pointed out that the Taliban regime and al-Qaeda trained many of the separatist guerrillas in Indian-held Kashmir; over half of those killed there since 2000 are of foreign nationality—mainly Pakistanis but also Arabs, some of whom gained experience while fighting Soviet troops. Pakistan became the principal source of support for these guerrillas after 1990; it calls them freedom fighters, but many are Islamic extremists recruited by pro-Taliban Islamic groups in Pakistan and now largely controlled by a branch of Pakistan’s intelligence. No one, Mushareef made it clear in his ostensible peace overture to India at the beginning of this year, would be handed over to foreign authorities, including those involved in the attack on India’s parliament. But he closed training camps for Kashmir guerrillas in Pakistan at the beginning of this year to placate India, outlawed five "extremist" organizations supporting them, detained over 1,400 people, and said he would impose controls over the Islamic schools which are the hotbed from which the Taliban emerged. These organizations trained at least 5,000 men and they are likely to go underground, becoming potentially even more dangerous. That they represent a relatively small minority is less consequential than their determination. India is interested in deeds, not words, and certainly did not demobilize the vast armies it stationed on Pakistan’s borders. By breaking with Islamic extremists, as India and Washington demands he do as part of the war on terrorism, Mushareef also risks undermining his Kashmir policy and the support of the military.

Mushareef simply cannot afford to turn the Islamicists and their allies in the military against him, and in January of this year, even when on the brink of war with India over Kashmir, he stated he would not cut Pakistani aid to those indigenous Kashmiris fighting India’s control of the disputed province. He wished to prevent another war with India but he also vaguely declared that Pakistan was as committed to the Kashmir cause as ever. Whether he has the power or will to end support to the Pakistan-based terrorists who are India’s principal foes in Kashmir is still an open question. There is an independent dynamic in Kashmir and too many unpredictable factors to assume that the contentious problems there will be settled soon.

These questions may be answered by time this book appears in print, but if not they will remain enduring and reemerge sooner or later. Meanwhile there will be acute, frightening tension between two nations that have often fought each other. What the crisis does confirm, regardless of any short-term settlements that may be reached, is that any dispute between nuclear powers can threaten the peace and stability of entire regions, and that as more nations acquire these weapons the world will become even more dangerous—and hence rational political solutions, compromises, and arms control become more imperative. Whether or not this occurs is another matter entirely.

Pakistan was much more important than India to the U.S. only as long as it fought in Afghanistan, but its tradition of coups—which is how General Musharraf came to power in October 1999—makes it all the more unstable and worrisome to the Bush Administration. But it sought to reassure India, which rightly believed that the U.S. had tilted to Pakistan. The U.S. now confronts a geopolitical dilemma in South Asia that it cannot solve.

Its relations with India and the Kashmir question are of primordial importance to Pakistan, and the control over its nuclear arsenal of twenty to fifty warheads and the missiles to deliver them is linked to it. It also has a very great security interest in seeing a friendly Afghanistan on its long northern border—which means Pashtuns must control it. The Northern Alliance has few Pashtuns in its ranks and its quick military triumph in the cities during the first weeks of the war was due wholly to the support of American air power, just as aviation was quickly effective only because the Alliance’s troops forced the Taliban to concentrate their soldiers. The Bush Administration was unwilling to send large numbers of soldiers or risk the casualties that fighting in cities entails, and so Pakistan’s interests in having Pashtuns play an important role in the future were ignored. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld has admitted that this "cooperative effort" was decisive and that the Alliance played the role of proxies for American ground forces; in addition to air power they supplied the it with food, money to buy warlords’ fealties, and munitions. One by-product was that a great many Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders—including bin Laden himself—were able to bargain or buy their escapes from their pragmatic Afghan opponents, thereby depriving the U.S. of the total elimination of its enemies which was one of its principal war aims. Much to the U.S.’ dismay, some captured senior Taliban military as well as civil officials were almost immediately allowed to go free. The U.S. did not want Alliance forces to enter Kabul, but it knew that there was not the slightest reason to assume that the warlords comprising it would obey America. But the Alliance openly detests Pakistan, which created and backed the Taliban and allowed it to keep its embassy open long after the war began. Among the first actions of the new regime in Kabul was to send its foreign minister to Delhi

Pakistan’s security interests have now been imperiled and its enemies are again on its borders; Afghanistan is very likely to be Pakistan’s fractious, unstable neighbor. Mushareef not only lost his gamble there, he lost it very badly. "A strategic debacle," a "quagmire," is how senior Pakistanis described the situation at the end of last November even before the crisis with India erupted. If the remnants of the Taliban or Pashtuns fight whatever government emerges in the north then Pakistan will be under great pressure to get involved in some way, ranging from opening its borders to supplying the regime’s opponents. It has done so in the past, often.

Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal falling into the hands of Islamic extremists is a possibility, however remote, and it will exist as long a significant part of the military and intelligence—estimates run between 25 and 30 percent—are strong Islamicists. This risk is also inherent in the proliferation of nuclear weapons, whatever the country, and while the Pakistanis assure everyone that they have firm control over their bombs they also briefly detained several of their leading nuclear scientists who are Islamic fundamentalists and friendly to the Taliban. The situation in South Asia is much more dangerous than ever before, but that is the way the world has become in the 21st century.

Pakistan’s instability is very much linked to the power its intelligence service (ISI) amassed while working as the CIA’s conduit to the mujahedeen in the 1980s. Dismissing the head of the agency at the beginning of October 2001 was a gesture only; most of its members are hostile to the U.S. war because the political turmoil which followed the Soviet defeat there was the reason the Pashtun-based Taliban came to power in 1996 with the ISI’s help. Pakistan fears, with ample justification, that the Americans will abandon the region once they win militarily, as they did in 1989, and that it will again have to confront a political vacuum and chaos to the north. The Pashtuns—along with the three million Afghan refugees—are the most important ethnic group within Pakistan along the long border with Afghanistan, and this and ISI connivance explains not only why the Taliban received a considerable traffic of food and vital materials from Pakistan during October and November of 2001 but why Washington fears the ISI is helping el-Qaeda and Taliban fighters to escape now that the regime has been defeated. Some estimates claim that as many as 2,000 of them crossed into Pakistan by the beginning of 2002. The entire region on both sides is essentially a Pashtun domain and some thousands of them—perhaps more—crossed the border to join the Taliban before they were defeated. Now that the Taliban has lost, at least in the cities, Musharraf confronts opposition from these people, and it will add to his worries or even threaten his rule. Musharraf may purge some Islamic hard-liners, and even attempt to establish relations with whatever powers exist in Afghanistan, but the basic geopolitical shift against Pakistan’s historic interests since the fall of last year, first in Afghanistan but then in Kashmir and in its relations with India, is a reality that will haunt—and undermine—his government gravely. Pakistan cannot militarily confront tension along both its northern and southern borders at the same time. There are many in the intelligence service and military who regard the outcome of his policies as a disaster.

The ISI continues to be crucial in Pakistani politics and General Musharraf would not have come to power in a coup in October 1999 without the help of the ISI head, whom he fired in October 2001. And, more than ever, the crisis in relations with India means that he needs as wide a base of support as possible, including the Islamic groups as well as secular democrats. Should Musharraf be replaced one way or another, then who or what will follow him is an open question, but it might include, in whole or part, the small but very militant Islamic fundamentalists. That nuclear weapons would fall in their hands is speculation, but it is much more likely this way than any other—and that would greatly increase the dangers in South Asia. But either way, should Musharraf be overthrown because he has been too close to the U.S. then Pakistan would be far more hostile to America’s role and interests in the region.

Unfortunately for Musharraf, the U.S. was neither in a position or mood to help him install friends of Pakistan in Kabul when the war ended. Musharraf and the ISI very much wanted the bombing to be of very short duration lest the Pakistani’s population’s sympathies with the Taliban continued to intensify with its suffering. The U.S. did not press Pakistan for the optimum use of its bases for fear of creating a potentially destabilizing public backlash, but it did get three bases in isolated Baluchistan from which several thousand of its special forces operate; instead, it relied upon aircraft carriers as much as possible. There were important protests but the regime could cope with them. When the Northern Alliance’s won in Afghanistan, Pashtuns received temporary and symbolic posts only—which means a very likely return of the instability that wracked the nation for over a decade. The Alliance comprises a disparate, fractious united front of warlords from various ethnic minorities for whom, to quote Donald Rumsfeld, fighting "is a way of life." Some have switched sides—often—in return for money or promises. Fighting between them began as soon as the Taliban was defeated in most of the country. Without a durable political agreement that produces stability, Alliance military successes pose formidable risks that American officials are well aware of, and such an agreement has eluded the ethnically deeply divided nation for over a decade. It was the chaos that the Alliance’s factions produced after 1990, especially in the cities, "which gave rise," to quote Colin Powell, "to the Taliban."

This is a major reason, once the war was largely won militarily, that Washington has sought to avoid any major role in resolving Afghanistan’s internecine factional strife—"nation-building" as it is called. It has assigned the United Nations complete responsibility for attempting to establish a coalition government. Politically it knows the cause is likely to be lost—indeed, that Russia and Iran may become the key players in determining events there, even if Pakistan disapproves of ethnic groups hostile to it taking regional or national power. Political disorder, even chaos, is more than likely to be the eventual outcome of its devastating bombing on behalf of the Northern Alliance’s ground forces. The other reason for its non-involvement is that war there was wholly in response to the September 11 events—the U.S. wanted to maintain its credibility, which required a war in which revenge was its principal goal. Its political and military priorities remain elsewhere. In a word, the U.S. will be militarily successful but fail politically.

With good cause, the Pakistanis regard the Alliance as agents of Russia and Iran who will allow the return of anarchy and atrocities, as they did in the early 1990s. The Northern Alliance, with equally valid reasons, considers the Taliban as a Pakistani creation, and the one thing that unites it is its hatred of Pakistan and its efforts to create a puppet regime on its border.

The U.S. tried to do the best it could with what it has. Politically it has made no progress in finding political or ethnic elements with whom Pakistan can live, and at the same time it badly needed the few bases the Pakistanis gave them and whatever intelligence the ISI provided. The ISI gave far less information than the Pentagon desired or needed, and it was accused of being pro-Taliban. Militarily the U.S. greatly aided the Northern Alliance, over which it had very little, if any, control, because it did not find options to it, despite its intensive efforts to do so. The U.S.’ unwillingness to put significant numbers of ground troops in the country before the Alliance’s disparate components entered and took charge of the major cities strained America’s relations with Pakistan as never before—perhaps to the breaking point. Politically, the Alliance is anathema in most of the country, and likely to drive at least some Pashtuns who dislike the Taliban to make common cause with what is left of them. "I think he’s got one of the toughest jobs in the world right now," Rumsfeld summed up Musharraf ’s position in mid-November. Musharraf could not or did not stop many Taliban and their Arab fighters from crossing to safety into Pakistan, and when the crisis with India began in mid-December he withdrew the 60,000 regular troops sent to the border region at the U.S.’ request to prevent their doing so—leaving only paramilitary forces. But although his position at home was weakened, only time will tell if Pakistan has been destabilized fatally. If it is, then America’s problems will become far greater—and much more dangerous—and it may very well be preoccupied with the fragile region for much longer than it expected or intended.

What was a tactical victory in Afghanistan will then become a strategic debacle in South Asia.

In this context, Iran has begun to play a growing and opportunistic role as the game of nations is now being played for higher stakes. It has given more arms to Shia factions within the fractious Northern Alliance, as well as money to buy them from Russia—which is mixing politics and business. Iran detested the Taliban Sunni fanaticism as an Islamic deviation, and came close to war with it in 1998 when the Taliban murdered ten Iranian diplomats, but it also greatly fears a pro-American government along its borders. American officials accused it at the beginning of 2002 of aiding Alliance factions that are hostile to the U.S. and aiding al-Qaeda fighters to escape its dragnet. At the same time, Iran is seeking to exploit America’s predicaments by getting Washington to lift sanctions it has imposed, including on constructing pipelines across it—the most logical, cheapest route. How it plays out this heady, cynical game depends on many elements, not the least are Iran’s real options and whether remnants of the Taliban survive the American onslaught.

Washington’s precarious relations with Pakistan are matched by its problems with Saudi Arabia, which, as I explained in the preceding chapter, has become a much more unstable country due to various factors, of which America’s role in the region is one of the most important. Both nations are crucial, and were one, much less both, destabilized then the geopolitical and military problems confronting the U.S. would be far greater. Indeed, they very likely would be insurmountable, although the Bush Administration refused to admit that the U.S.’ earlier involvement in Afghanistan had created such grave risks. The danger is that the U.S. will improvise a response to crises in either nation that are in part or wholly of its own making, and the form its actions might take is quite unpredictable.

Bin Laden probably has a greater influence and financial contacts in Saudi Arabia than in any other country. In part this is due to fact that the Saudis were so crucial in supplying money and men during the CIA-led war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, but instability in the internal political and social structure makes bin Laden’s appeals resonate among younger, better educated men—precisely the kind who flew the planes on September 11. Many consider him a heroic figure and a dedicated Muslim. The Saudis did not fully cooperate in 1996 in the U.S.’ attempt to catch the perpetrators of the bombing which killed nineteen American servicemen, they failed to help the FBI and CIA to the extent they asked regarding the nineteen men who hijacked planes on September 11, all of whom had Saudi passports, and they have not clamped down on al-Qaeda’s and bin Laden’s extensive financial assets. They have arrested some bin Laden supporters but none linked to the September 11 events.

Saudi Arabia’s rulers have not staked their own futures on the U.S. war in Afghanistan, which has led them to agree with some of the demands that American officials have presented but essentially they have been disingenuous with everyone and tried to keep both the Americans and irate Saudis at bay. After prominent Muslim clerics in mid-October urged Muslims to wage a jihad against Americans within the kingdom, and came close to identifying the royal family as apostates, the regime declared its unequivocal opposition to spreading the war to any other Arab country, namely Iraq, and even declared it will side with them. American officials claimed they were utilizing its ultramodern Saudi bases essentially as they desired, but other than using its command and coordination equipment, American planes have not flown from there to bomb Afghanistan. The Saudis have also declared publicly they will not allow the bases to be used in a renewed full-scale war against Iraq, even in self-defense. The exact facts will be known in due course, because it is quite possible that Saudi disclaimers are for their public’s consumption only, but meanwhile Saudi public opinion, especially among the better-educated who dislike the regime for a variety of reasons, is very hostile to the war in Afghanistan and to the U.S. in general. One prominent Saudi political commentator in late October declared that the U.S. "doesn’t realize that if the government cooperates more they will jeopardize their own security." But Washington knows full well that its alliance with the Saudis will work only if Iraq invades the region again, which it certainly will not, but meantime it does not want to test already hostile Saudi public opinion. At best, the Saudi regime is a reluctant, uncooperative ally, and Washington’s repeated declarations that it is very satisfied with it masks a much more complex reality. It is aware of the risks if the regime is replaced; its war in Afghanistan has raised the geopolitical ante greatly, and its possible losses.

"Saudi Arabia is a pivotal country and our presence in the Gulf is strategically vital to us," as one American official succinctly put it. Afghanistan has made the position of the royal dynasty, already precarious, that much more unstable. Can they weave through the incredibly complicated factors at home and abroad—in Israel especially—to survive? We shall see, and it is not a matter of months but of years, and the regime’s future will be dependent on resolving or containing the accumulation of problems it faces—many of them are not of America’s making but collectively they interact to create a highly inflammable mixture. Were Saudi Arabia also destabilized then the U.S.’ would confront challenges of very great magnitude, both in the region and its petroleum supply.

It is a fact that the war in Afghanistan has weakened the regimes in both Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, perhaps fatally, and the longer the war and its politically unstable aftermath takes then the greater the risks—especially to Pakistan. These potential dangers far exceed in strategic and economic importance the issues that were involved in finding bin Laden or removing the Taliban from power.

This an excerpt form Kolko’s 2002 book Another Century of War (New Press