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Paper No. 1042                                                  02/07/2004

Guest Column-by Gaurang Bhatt

There is a seething cauldron of witches brew stretching from Saudi Arabia, Iraq to Afghanistan and Pakistan with no resolution in sight for the foreseeable future and with cataclysmic implications for the rest of the world. 

AFGHANISTAN: This has never been a truly unified country and has never had a central government capable of projecting power or offering services. It is a country of diverse tribal conglomerates with affiliation and loyalties to local warlords and Islam. Abysmal levels of literacy combined with almost total lack of infrastructure and connectivity and ethnic and tribal factionalism, have led to local independence and self-sufficiency with no concept of nationhood or common polity. The relentless internecine warfare is a proof of that and has led to levels of devastation, which require enormous investment of capital and manpower by foreigners to give it a semblance of a civil society. The donor fatigue of Western powers, their unwillingness to subject their troops to risk of life and limb and the Pakistani interference are likely to make warlordism and opium production persistent and ineradicable evils. Fortunately for America, the Taliban and Al Qaeda factions are poorly organized, equipped and financed, so the stalemate is likely to continue for a long time until the time of disintegration of Pakistan. The lack of funds and terrorist attacks on NGOs and relief workers will prevent reconstruction. The rural Afghan has not been dependent on any government subsidies or services and thus it will be impossible to wean him from his local dependency on the warlords and mullahs. The elections are likely to be postponed again or will be a sham because of failure of voter registration and lack of credible contesting candidates. The final disintegration like in all cases of this crisis will depend on the will of America to tolerate casualties and its wallet for giving aid by deficit financing, till its electorate tires of this bottomless pit of foreign expenditures resulting in privation at home. 

IRAQ: It is a different case altogether. There the population has been dependent on the government for important subsidies due to the controlling tyranny of Saddam, compounded by American sanctions and the UN oil for food program. The chaos resulting from the US invasion has left the population in a destitute state and made quite a few willing to collaborate with the occupying power, strictly out of financial necessity.This is why large numbers are willing to be recruited into the police and armed forces. The Shiite religious establishment through funds and moral authority have created moderate to extremist opposition in the Ayatollah Sistani and Sadr supporters. The minority Sunnis deprived of their previous power have created their own insurgency. The worried Kurds desiring independence but afraid of Turkish reprisals and the loss of Kirkuk oil revenues constitute another faction with unpredictable loyalties. The difference from Afghanistan is that a sophisticated terrorist group with a clear agenda and planning foresight, is definitely trying to prevent the enlistment of desperate Iraqis in the army, police and security forces and possibly even planting their own operatives in the security forces to be moles and fifth columnists to create more chaos after the June 30 deadline. None in their right minds believe that the new Iraqi government is anything but a puppet without popular support. Its legitimacy is questionable and its safety and survival are once again at the mercy of American troops, whose commitment is constrained by the domestic tolerance for casualties and deficit spending. The calculated attacks on oil pipelines reveal a premeditated crippling strategy by the opposition insurgency. 

SAUDI ARABIA: The attack on westerners and key oil and defense personnel clearly prove that the insurgency in Saudi Arabia is coordinated with the one in Iraq. The flawed policy of the Saudi Royals of supporting Wahabbi fundamentalism to divert attention from their corrupt kleptocracy and profligate non-Islamic excesses, has led to a large mass of poorly educated Islamists with no marketable skills, and an unwillingness to do dirty mundane work, which is carried out by foreign workers. The rising population due to high birthrates and the falling oil revenues has reduced the per capita income of Saudi Arabia by nearly 75% and thus hampered the royal family from providing the goodies to silence a disaffected population. This inexorable and relentless impoverishment of the population with the fanatic theocratic education and unwillingness to work in this life, while hoping for the bliss of unlimited virgins in paradise, fuels the enlistment to the ranks of supporters of Osama. A certain foresight by the current American administration saw this, but miscalculated in Iraq. It is only a matter of time before Saudi Arabia explodes. America is best prepared to insulate itself from this coming shortage of oil. Japan, Europe, China and India are the most vulnerable and this is why these countries are seeking accommodation with Iran and Russia. This is also why America is trying to manipulate Venezuela, pacify Mexico and consolidating its relationship with West Africa and Central Asia. The combination of lack of education and marketable skills with a falling income and fanatic religious proclivities cannot be combated by military might, especially if we continue to alienate Muslims by blind support of atrocious Israeli policies, while being dependent on vulnerable oil supplies. 

PAKISTAN: It is a disaster waiting to happen. The current policies of Musharraf have alienated the tribal and Pashtun belt. Baluchistan is seething with discontent. The accommodation with the MQM in Sindh is causing fissiparous tendencies amongst disenfranchised and marginalized Sindhis. Musharraf himself a Mohajir, is not the most popular leader with the dominant Punjabis. The MQM is allied with America and may even be getting financial support. The recent resignation of the federal prime minister who is from Baluchistan and the costly military assaults against the tribes in the FATA will fuel further unrest in the two northern provinces. Add to this, the constant warfare between the followers of the Saudi financed Wahabbi Sunnis with the Shias and the instability of Pakistan becomes critical. Its nuclear technology peddlers and the mortal fear of America of nuclear assets falling into the hands of Islamic extremists make it a case of extreme worry. I am sure that smarter persons than I am in the American power elite, have contingency plans to handle the plausible scenario. Pakistan is one state where the government does little to provide any benefits to its citizens and the combination of illiteracy, fanaticism and poverty leave no hope of economic salvation for its masses. The concentration of power with the military and a lack of civil society or institutions leave its nuclear assets in the hands of trigger- happy extremists. The misadventure of Musharraf in Kargil and the deposition of the elected Sharif government are examples of the psychology and mayhem that prevails. The transfer of nuclear weapons to terrorists is highly likely with its unraveling. 

IMPLICATIONS: The American approach to combat the possible disastrous scenario, because of its waning economic power has been aggressively militaristic. It seeks to weaponize space and have the capability of devastating retaliation at short notice. Its inability to tolerate casualties for domestic political reasons is a chink in its armor, but that may change and become acceptable, if the domestic lifestyle of its citizens is in serious jeopardy. Europe has chosen the path of accommodation so far, but the future burden of its social safety net and inability to stomach non-white non-Christian immigration, may turn it to belligerency. It has the technological superiority to project power. For the present its accommodative stance with Iran has prevented condemnation in the Security Council. This is an advantage that the smart Mullahs have exploited to the hilt. Japan has also taken a similar stance after the American imposed pacifism in its constitution. There is however, a rising tide of Japanese militarism and a cry for re-arming, which may be further fanned by North Korea’s nukes and the rising nationalistic belligerence of China. For the present it has made deals with Iran and is trying to finance an oil and gas pipeline from the Russian Far East. China has wooed Kazakhstan and accommodated with Russia to ensure reliable energy supplies. It is also aggressively arming itself in case it has to use military might. Unfortunately both China and India have not yet faced the reality that there is little hope or possibility for them to achieve the affluence of the West or Japan in view of the rising shortage of energy, global warming and the massive increase in pollution likely to occur if all their citizens have cars. A sane policy of higher taxes on gasoline and cars, with better and more cost effective public transportation would be their best option. It is a credit to the BJP that they made India a nuclear power though America barred the door. India is also arming but if there is a real war for scarce natural resources, it is unlikely that it could garner the prize, when competing with the developed countries. This is why it is continuing good relations with Iran, the Gulf States and Russia. Ultimately nations pay whatever price they have to for survival but a farsighted policy of limiting oil usage for cars would seem to be a sane alternative by using the price filter without causing excessive deprivation or stagnation. It would put some restraint on the rich but has great utilitarian value. It is generally foolhardy to try and predict the future, but the denizens of Canada, Norway and Russia seem to be the most secure in their lifestyles and the values of their currencies.   

(The author is a retired neurophysician and an occasional writer. The views expressed are his own. Email-  .)