Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Western - Islamic Confrontation Scorecard

Now that a full decade of frontal military confrontation between the West and Islam has passed with no sight of any resolution of the disagrement or, sadly, even of much improvement in mutual understanding, a moment of contemplation of that which we have wrought and its implications is long overdue.

Great attention is paid by all participants in the global confrontation between the West and Islam to the tactical details of which side may be winning the battle of the day, but the really important question of where this confrontation is taking the world seldom gets the attention it deserves. That, at least, is how it seems to me, sitting in the U.S. Perhaps Islamic thinkers and actors take a longer-range perspective, and, if so, comment on that would be most welcome. Deep thinking about the point of all the carnage is, in the U.S. at least, all too scarce.

Now that we are a decade into the depths of a confrontation that perhaps was in some sense unavoidable but should never have been so mismanaged as to descend to the level of Fallujah 2004, Somalia 2007, Lebanon 2006, or Gaza 2008-9—much less the oft-threatened nuclear attack on Iran, we humans desperately need to take a deep breath and contemplate our position and the direction that our behavior is propelling us in.


Iraq. Even if one were to take a narrow U.S. perspective and argue that progress has been made in Iraq because American deaths are down and troop withdrawals are looming on the horizon, in truth the current state of affairs in Iraq does not constitute progress because the soldiers and the violence are merely being transferred to the much more dangerous Afghan front. Shifting the location but continuing the violence is not progress.

Afghanistan. The American invasion of Afghanistan, often justified as a war to protect Afghan women, is (eight years later) turning out so badly that major Afghan women's rights leaders are saying they would rather fight alone for justice than do so with American "help." And Afghanistan is metastasizing into Pakistan, thus sucking in both India and Iran.

Note, for example, this assessment of a recent terrorist attack in Peshawar from the Pak Institute for Peace Studies:

Experts believe that the involvement of a foreign hand in the said attack could not be ruled out since the use of remote-controlled car bombs is not the modus operandi of the TTP and Al Qaeda which mainly rely on suicide attack.

Whether this is taken as evidence of foreign (Indian?) involvement or simply as evidence of Pakistani perceptions, it still serves to intensify regional intentions. (For a sobering checklist of South Asian conflict zones, see "Armed Conflicts in South Asia: Overview and New Dimensions" by Khuram Iqbal & Safdar Sial.)

Pakistan. Within Pakistan, for the past month the conflict has been killing an astonishing several hundred people a week, as combat heats up in one area as soon as it cools off in another--from Swat to Bajaur to Malakand to Waziristan and all coming against the ominous background of constant political violence in Karachi, undermining any argument that progress is being made. Signs of the improvement in local level governance that would seem the minimal requirement for making such progress are hard to discern.

The summary report on a recent Pakistani conference of journalists found, for example, that:

when participating journalists were asked about the leading causes of extremism in Pakistan in a survey during the workshop, a consensus appeared to have been formed on poor governance, flawed government policies, non-delivery of basic needs to the society, political exploitation and misuse of the religious narrative by the extremist elements as the leading cause of extremism in the society.

Iran. However one views the Iranian front, it is hard to see any progress. From the perspective of the Iranian people, the behavior of the regime this summer evokes memories of the worst oppression of the Shah and, in the 1930s, his father. If one's goal is Iranian power projection, the existential threat being posed by Israel should be more than enough reason to lie awake at night. If one accepts Israeli propaganda about a coming Iranian threat, Iran's steady growth in power gives little reason for joy. And if one sees Israeli propaganda as a cynical effort to distract attention from its anti-Palestinian campaign by tricking Washington into an unnecessary war with Iran, despite the almost certainly disastrous consequences for all, then there is definitely no reason for joy.

The smaller fronts. The problems on “minor” (no insult to the endangered inhabitants is intended) fronts such as Somalia and Gaza remain completely unresolved. The retreat of the U.S. proxy Ethiopian intervention force left Somalia much worse off than before their arrival, having spread destruction and further radicalized and factionalized Somali politics. Israel’s attack on Gaza in December 2008 only taught Hamas the lesson that offering to compromise will get it nowhere. Worse, new “minor” fronts, most obviously in Yemen and Baluchistan (which ominously involves Iran) but perhaps also Xinjiang and Uzbekistan, continue to open.

Entanglement with other issues. Moreover, the longer the confrontation with Islamic societies continues, the greater is the risk of its entanglement with other international political disagreements. Israeli arming of Georgia, thus encouraging their rash adventure in Ossetia and thus aggravating Russian-American relations, is one case that has already occurred. The links to Russia, however, go far beyond just Georgia, as dangerous as that pocket crisis seemed for a while.

Other links, whose significance is a dark cloud on the horizon, go through former Soviet Central Asia, where the combination of left-over Soviet-style dictatorships and domestic political grievances create a combustible mixture that the Taliban can hardly be expected to overlook forever. Russian Central Asian specialist Sanobar Shermatova provides details.

The confrontation with Islam also provides all manner of enticements for a Moscow that surely recalls the days when it was a major Mideast player. First, the booming narcotics trade out of Afghanistan is becoming and, more to the point, is beginning to be perceived in Moscow, as a threat to Russian national security. Second, nuclear threats against Iran make it hard for Moscow to resist selling Iran the world-class defensive missiles that Iran would so happily pay for. Third, Israel’s hard-line attitude toward Syria fairly begs for a renewed policy of Russian military support to Syria. It might well be good for the world were Moscow to play a more proactive Mideast role, but to the degree that Moscow’s participation takes the form of providing military support to the side Washington opposes, it risks complicating the situation—as in the Cold War days—by adding a layer of big power competition to an already near incomprehensible political morass.


The above considerations all point to the conclusion that a decade of vicious war that has caused the death of countless tens of thousands of innocent civilians and wrecked several societies has left the world worse off than it was at the start. Moslems have hardly made any progress in gaining a sympathetic ear for what they understandably perceive as unjust treatment at the hands of Western governments. The security of all in the Mideast, including Israelis, has declined: multinational conflicts threaten to engulf the region around Afghanistan, the region around Iran, and the region around Israel-Palestine. The U.S. has suffered a major strategic defeat: having both lost its aura of moral superiority and demonstrated the uselessness of all its military superiority for actually creating secure, stable, friendly societies in the region—is less secure than it was on 9/11.

It thus seems time to move a bit less quickly, to insult less, to surge less, to shoot less, to scrutinize more carefully the motives of so-called friends, to give so-called enemies a bit more benefit of the doubt. It seems time to think a bit more about the long-range implications of our actions.

Government cannot do this: it simply cannot effectively self-police. It cannot effectively question its own assumptions and motives; it cannot sponsor its own reform. Even now in the post-Bush era, the media remains a hopeless captive of its own self-imposed taboos. The population is in denial; we can expect no Vietnam War-style anti-war movement; no pre-Civil War-style moral crusade (then against slavery, now against reliance on war to solve problems). Whether or not academia can provide the combination of analysis of fundamentals plus leadership to guide American society toward a solution remains to be seen. No other candidate to do the job is even visible on the horizon.

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