Wednesday, October 22, 2014

India’s Iraq Problem

NEW DELHI – Iraq seems to be falling apart, with the rapid advance of the militant Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) threatening to lead to the country’s division into Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish entities, while blurring its border with its turbulent western neighbor. Moreover, the tumult is now threatening to spread to two more nearby countries, Afghanistan and Pakistan, which already are facing myriad internal challenges. For India, the message is clear: its national security interests are at risk.

After almost four decades of war, Afghanistan is, once again, teetering on the edge of a precipice. Just last week, following allegations of massive fraud during the country’s recent presidential election, thousands of protesters marched on the presidential palace. Given that the aggrieved candidate’s constituency comprises mainly ethnic Tajiks, the events have revived Afghanistan’s deep-seated ethnic tensions.

Pakistan’s internal struggles – from inter-communal conflict to relentless terrorist activity – are well known. In fact, the country recently experienced a major terrorist attack, which not only led to more than 29 deaths, but also rendered Karachi’s international airport – the country’s largest – dysfunctional for nearly 12 hours. Just a couple of weeks later, gunmen fired at a Pakistan International Airlines plane as it was landing in the northern city of Peshawar, killing one passenger and injuring three crew members.

Poorly considered American interventions, especially the invasion of Iraq in 2003, have exacerbated the region’s myriad animosities and security challenges. Far from bringing peace to Iraq, the military campaign – carried out on the pretense of eliminating weapons of mass destruction – fueled more violence. Unable to stabilize itself, Iraq – which initially demanded that the United States withdraw all of its troops – has been requesting renewed American involvement. Will Afghanistan, too, soon be asking the US to return should the Taliban stage an ISIS-like surge?

Iraq’s struggle as a unified state is nothing new. It began almost exactly a century ago, when the United Kingdom and France created a new map of the Middle East via the Sykes-Picot Agreement. The Pakistani journalist Yasser Latif Hamdani has emphasized the imprudence of the British-French approach, which entailed drawing borders that roped in diverse peoples – the consequences of which are starkly apparent in countries like Iraq and Pakistan.

In this context, as Richard Haass recently pointed out, “the potential for prolonged political-religious wars within and across boundaries, involving both local and foreign forces and militias and governments, is great.” Indeed, the region is “unraveling by the hour.”

The momentum is now with ISIS – an Islamist organization even more extreme than Al Qaeda. Though ISIS has often been characterized as a Sunni organization, it is important to note, as Ali Khan Mahmudabad has observed, that the group’s ideology closely resembles that of the radical seventh-century Kharijite sect, which also felt embolden to denounce, and then kill, other Muslims as nonbelievers.

In any case, the Iraqi army is a defeated force. According to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, almost one-quarter of Iraq’s combatant battalions no longer have an “order of battle,” with their equipment lost and their soldiers having abandoned their posts. Similarly, US officials say that more than one-third of Iraqi army divisions are “combat ineffective.”

It is no surprise, therefore, that Iraq has lost control over its border crossings with Syria. In fact, the Iraqi government could even begin to lose its grip on its frontier with Jordan in the not-too-distant future, allowing an entirely new set of destabilizing forces to wreak havoc on its territory. An Iraqi commander recently summed up the challenge: “We don’t have enough intelligence information; we don’t have good air coverage; we are battling very well-trained groups that have good experience in street fights, that are moving fast between cities and villages.”

The question now is whether the Middle East as we know it will remain intact for much longer. After World War I, the British field marshal Archibald Wavell presciently observed that, “After ‘the war to end war,’” the victors “seem to have been pretty successful in Paris at making a ‘Peace to end Peace.’” He foresaw what now seems obvious: the imposition of artificial arrangements in the Middle East would only engender conflict.

For India, this uncertainty amounts to a serious security challenge, requiring that it transcend the role of silent spectator. After all, India itself is one of the world’s largest Muslim countries, with some 177 million Muslims, both Sunni and Shia. With the forces destabilizing the Middle East unconfined by national borders, India simply cannot risk having the growing Sunni-Shia civil war spread to its population.

The region needs a new security paradigm. For its own sake, and the sake of its neighbors, India must take an active role in creating it, and soon.

Indeed, given China’s growing influence in Pakistan and Afghanistan, this act of diplomatic creation could prove to be a key test of how China views its relations with India. The Chinese can decide to cooperate with India and others to forge a new structure of peace for the greater Middle East or, instead, to use the growing risks that India and its neighbors face to pursue small tactical advantages. India’s relationship with China may depend on this choice for many years to come.

Read more from "The Middle East Meltdown"

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  1. Commentedj. von Hettlingen

    It's unclear what Mr. Jaswant Singh is trying to say with his piece "India's Iraq problem"! It is true that "Iraq seems to be falling apart", but it is not the case with India! While Iraq's border with "with its turbulent western neighbor" - Syria - blurs, it is not true that "the tumult is now threatening to spread to two more nearby countries, Afghanistan and Pakistan".
    The AfPak region has long been a hotbed of Islamic extremism. Yet America's "war on terror" had killed several key figures of Al-Qaeda and its affiliates. Many of their fighters had left for Iraq during the US-led invasion in 2003. A new group "Al-Qaeda in Iraq" was formed and its militants fought in Syria, when the civil war broke out. They returned to Iraq recently under the banner of ISIS .
    Mr. Singh says: "For India, the message is clear: its national security interests are at risk". He describes the insecurity in Afghanistan, as no new government been formed, due to electoral fraud and ethnic strife. The new president should sign the Bilateral Security Agreement with the US, in order to prevent Afghanistan from relapsing into insurgency. Mr. Singh fears also that Pakistan, India's arch rival is once again embroiled in combating home-grown terrorism, after the brazen attacks on Karachi International Airport.
    It's true that the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which "created a new map of the Middle East" has now being rejected by ISIS, which has declared its own caliphate. Pashtun nationalists in Pakistan may be trying to erase the Radcliffe Line, which was announced in 1947 to mark the boundaries between India and Pakistan. But they are far from setting up their own "Pashtunistan".
    That "Iraq has lost control over its border crossings with Syria" had much Nouri al-Maliki's incompetence and sectarian policies to thank for. Although India's armed forces leave a lot to be desired, but they must have a better morale than Iraq's. Just because India has "177 million Muslims, both Sunni and Shia", doesn't necessarily mean that it would face similtar sectarian strife. Indeed, the Muslim population will be a litmus test for India's ability to forge a peaceful coexistence.
    Finally Mr. Singh believes the "region needs a new security paradigm" and urges India to "take an active role in creating it". As China exerts influence on Afghanistan and Pakistan, he thinks Beijing's policies there could reveal "how China views its relations with India".
    Mr. Singh seems to see India being marginalised in its relationship with China. On the one hand, it welcomes China "to cooperate with India and others to forge a new structure of peace for the greater Middle East". On the other hand they fear that China may just focus on realpolitik and "pursue small tactical advantages".

  2. Commentedhari naidu

    There is a strategic paradigm shift in-the-making right now in ME. Invoking failed strategic policies, from GWB era, cannot deal with ISIS and its declared intentions - literally ending current diverse state of Iraq and forging a new Caliphate with Syria.

    Dr. Hass is not a guru on ME politics or its future. He's a former Policy Planning Director of State Department under GWB. Nor is past imperial history of any relevance today!a.

    President XI (PRC) has called on India to expand SAARC to include Iran and PRC with a view to forging a strategic rebalance in the subcontinent and Himalayas. Afghanistan will reinforce new thinking in the region after US military retreat. Jaswant is incapable of supporting it. Principally because, at his age, he's intuitively not prepared to think out of the box. Old Indian politicians are prisoners of US hegemonic power; Dr. Singh was a disaster when it came to foreign policy initiatives in the region.

    Peter Wong is right and honest that Islamic terrorism has no favourites - India or China.

  3. CommentedPeter Wong

    “The Chinese can decide to cooperate with India and others to forge a new structure of peace for the greater Middle East or, instead, to use the growing risks that India and its neighbors face to pursue small tactical advantages”

    India and China share a common cause to address the problems in the ME. It is in the best interest of both countries to work on a unified and sustainable solution to fight terrorism from extremist groups within the Muslim community. Both countries share borders with Pakistan, have experience attacks across these borders, have Muslim communities within their country and cannot escape the fact that they “will” be involved in increased attacks in their own land as the Iraqi situation deteriorates.

    According to an article in the Times of India last year, China approached New Delhi to initiate dialogue on Afghanistan and India’s response was a lukewarm “why now?”

    The attacks by terrorists in the Xinjiang region have prompted China to reach out to India for assistance and cooperation; I believe it’s India’s turn to reach back and accept their offer.

  4. Commentedhari naidu

    “…Iraq is now a failed state, and as countries across the Middle East fracture along ethno-sectarian lines, America is likely to emerge as one of the biggest losers of the new Sunni-Shiite holy war, with allies collapsing and radicals plotting another 9/11.” ak@dragomanpartners.comak (see WP today).

    Iran will emerge as the winner from the Sunni-Shiite holy war. How it finally unfolds depends on whether ISIS turns its fire power on Saudi’s or not. Recall al Queda was formed in Saudi Kingdom and finally armed by Saudi’s to defeat Soviet Union occupation of Afghanistan – with CIA trained Taliban.

    India has a long term strategic interest in a peaceful Middle East, including supply of oil. Jaswant is mimicking western-oriented commentators on ISIS, including China. He doesn’t even admit that like al Queda, ISIS was originally a CIA equipped militia in Syrian civil war.

    China has no national interest in disintegration of Iraq or rest of the Middle East. It’s invoking Panchila with India and Burma (60th Anniversary celebrations in People’s Hall) to found a new strategic balance in subcontinent. Jaswant has apparently not read the speech of his own Vice-President Hamid Ansari at the 60th anniversary of Panchila celebrations in Being. People’s Daily put it on its front page.

    It’d be disastrous for India if Modi/PM was to follow Jaswant’s strategic advise.