By Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain
March 15, 2017
For over two decades now the world’s geopolitics and geostrategic affairs have been largely held hostage by the confrontation of the violent and radical strain of Islam, with the rest of the world. The adoption of violent extremism by this strain, to spread its influence and extend its hold, has created universal abhorrence towards it. Unfortunately, it has also progressively led to the labelling of one and a half billion other followers of Islam as supporters of this ideology. Through this millennium the attempts to neutralize the radical and violent Islamic strain have witnessed different approaches. Mostly these harped on targeting those involved in violence. There were rare attempts to make the entire Islamic community the object of the ire against violent extremism. However, with the passage of time and increasing threats from violent extremism the counter measures to contain its spread are becoming more generically aimed at the entire followers of Islam. This is evident from the actions being undertaken by the Trump Administration and the general transformation of post-Cold War ideologies of Europe to greater isolationist and right wing belief.
If any attempt has to be made to assess the future course of events a few imperatives of the past must be known. The root causes for today’s confrontation lie in a complex set of confrontations of the past. These will also dictate the discourse towards the future.
It is obvious that Islam is in ferment, uneasy with itself. The discomfort comes from its spread beyond the shores of the original land where it took birth and shape. Faiths adapt to situations and to people, settling into comfort positions, especially if there is no ecclesiastical authority to force issues as per a single order. Islam’s spread was rapid and its adaptation to regional and local environment gave it acceptance. There was also confrontation, as there inevitably is when a faith attempts to expand its scope and ambit of reach. For almost ten centuries it thrived by absorbing what came at it socially and ideologically, also dominating the ideological narratives but learning to adjust. However, a counter movement is as much inevitable in such a situation. It came in the 19th Century; that is the time when the attempt to recapture the original faith commenced; an unnatural campaign and confrontational in mode. Regress is not what faiths are designed for but it was regress that the counter movement sought. Later, the 20th Century saw a series of geopolitical events; the two World Wars and the Cold War effectively bottled up the ambitions of the regressive and radical stream within Islam. Its political strength emerged once the importance of energy increased in 1973 and money came into the hands of nations which looked towards recapturing the importance of the Arabised form of Islam. The attempt and tendency to keep Islam emotionally rooted to the region of the Arabian Desert has been strong; even though very large segments of followers of the faith reside in faraway lands in Asia, Europe and Africa.
Today’s confrontation of and within Islam has manifold dimensions. First is the battle between the major sects of Islam; the Shia and the Sunni. Second is the conflict between the radical strain with most others within Islam; a sort of extremists versus moderates contest. Third is the virtual state of war between those who do not follow the faith but rather advocate aggressive targeting of Islam, and Islam’s followers; a civilisational confrontation seen in Muslim versus non-Muslim terms. Between these three trends Islam is being squeezed as never before. It helps in demonizing the faith on one hand and blurring the contours in ways which makes decipherment of any direction that Islam is actually moving in, extremely difficult. The regional dynamics appear clearer but the moment the issues are trans-regional and more universal it becomes extremely difficult to analyze events and predict any movement towards the future.
The broad regions into which one can divide the dynamics of the Islamic faith in the modern world are as follows:-
• The Americas
• Western Europe
• Turkey and West Asia
• Af-Pak and South Asia
• South East Asia
This essay examines the first three in some detail and peripherally analyzes the emerging environment in Af-Pak, South and South East Asia. It does not examine Africa although it needs to be remembered that Islam has a large presence in Africa and African Muslims form a significant part of the vulnerable segments of Muslims who are being subjected to the influence of radical Islam.
The US and West Europe have been considered the natural adversaries of those who advocate and seek a more puritanical form of Islam. It is the larger Western Christian Capitalist system and the strides that it has made which irks the radical Islamic strain.
It was the US which had thus far handled it adroitly. Confrontation with Islam primarily in the military dimension was kept far from the shores of the mainland in an attempt to wither it down, prevent expansion and disallow it strategic space. Of course no one would classify the US involvement in unwinnable conflict situations in Afghanistan and Iraq as the most pragmatic of policies. Afghanistan helped to contain but Iraq only added to the fire leading to an adverse situation; setting up more adversaries than before and giving them opportunity to resist US hard power. Internally, even after a tumultuous event such as 9/11 the US managed the fallout rather well with internal security tightened but yet not as obtrusive as to cause dismay and divisiveness.
Coming to the context of the current times, ISIS (Daesh) has followed a two track strategy to limit US options. It has made direct military confrontation in West Asia cost prohibitive for the US, betting on the fatigue of the US public. The US has opted to adopt a strategy of military confrontation through its proxies, the Iraqi Army and the Syrian rebels. Both have complex set ups with the Iraqi Army remaining unsure of its own Shia Sunni integration problems. The Free Syrian Army has as allies groups such as Al Nusra which are essentially Al Qaeda surrogates. This makes battle lines unclear and fuzzy and the only ones thriving in these incongruities remain the radicals.
The second track of Daesh strategy has been the planning and execution of terror attacks of different kinds on US homeland; the aim is to enhance the antipathy against followers of Islam in the US, bring schisms in an otherwise progressive society, force the adoption of draconian laws and thus allow the standoff to drift into US civil society in the form of a problem even with immigrants and term workers. The old values of US soft power, based upon its self-interests no doubt but also adhering to larger interests of the democratic and secular world, now appear to be waning. This is a phenomenon which may well see the US either much more isolationist and therefore unable to influence and steer the course of international affairs; or more confrontationist to protect its interests in other areas. As the original exponent of globalization the current US stance militates against it. The US international stature slightly diluted will continue its long standing policy against Iran and could seek a renegotiation of the 15 Jul 2015 Iran Nuclear Deal. This will upset many equations if it does. At the same time US ability to effectively intervene in disputes in West Asia has also been adversely affected.
An interesting dynamic among the fallouts of the emerging situation in West Asia is the inability of the US, Iran and Iraq to be on the same page. Iran and Iraq are both Shia majority nations but with Iraq having thrown its lot with the US and given the long-term antipathy between the US and Iran, it is difficult to visualize this alignment moving towards anything positive.
The trend of clubbing West Europe with the US in terms of interests and strategy appears to be diluting. With regard to the strategy towards handling radical Islamic extremism the first factor which needs to be taken into account is the relative ease with which the radicals have been able to target West European cities employing a slew of methods; lone wolf, organized attacks with external linkages and similar ones with internal moorings. The wars in Syria and Iraq and the general unstable conditions in North Africa, from the Maghreb to Egypt, are producing a mass of human migration towards Europe. There are major problems of integration of immigrants making the dynamics of politics decidedly right wing. This is aided by the run of terrorist related incidents. Put together, this is going to ensure that commonality of economic and security interests of West European nations is no longer going to be easy to collectively manage. This is having an impact on the future course, in two areas. First, electoral politics all over Europe and more specifically West Europe are veering decidedly towards the ideology of the Right. Secondly, the already tottering concept of collective security, economics and governance so boldly put together by Europe is going to be hugely challenged with no guarantee of its eventual survival.
Turkey and West Asia
Much of what happens in West Asia and Turkey will have a profound effect on the rest of the world. The complexities are just too intricate but to make any sense of them, the broad areas which need to be examined are:-
• Turkey’s Proclivity towards Islamism and its Effect.
• The Situation in Syria and Iraq and Future of Daesh
• Saudi Arabia’s Situation Post Waning US Support
• Iran and the Shia Alignment
Turkey’s Proclivity for Islamism and its Effect
There is no doubt Turkey is geo-strategically one of the most important nations. Apart from being the land bridge between Asia and Europe it has in many other ways been the link between the West and the East. For a century it has related itself to Europeanism keeping itself tightly away from West Asian politics. It was NATO’s frontline state during the Cold War, continues to be a part of it but for all its European links has not been able to gain entry to the exclusive European Union. It could not keep itself away from the rising influence of Islamism the one idea Mustafa Kemal abhorred; he who gave the Islamic world the perfect secular Islamic model.
Turkey today is torn between Gulcenism, the ideology of Fethullah Gulcen, the cleric who lives in the US and promotes a syncretic Islam, much like Mustafa Kemal, on one hand. On the other hand is the counter revolution against secular Islam under President Recep Taiyyip Erdogan, the Turkish strongman of over a decade and a onetime partner of Gulcen who believes in a soft form of Islamism. Erdoganism is of course being incorrectly projected by many. It does promote a less progressive Islam but does not promote violence as a means to secure Islam’s interests. The failed coup of 2016 was a defining moment in Turkey’s future as much as it’s deteriorating relationship with Russia in the geopolitics of the region. It wishes to promote cooperation with Russia to defeat Daesh and also prevent the Kurds from playing a major role in that. The Turkish Kurds (PKK) have been fighting a long lasting insurgency against the Turkish government in the eastern and southern regions. Erdoganism promotes a soft Sunni radical line and clashes with the Shiaite line of Iran and other players who seek a Shia dominance of the crucial region of the Levant.
The Situation in Syria and Iraq : Future of Daesh. On the battles raging for the cities of Mosul in Northern Iraq and for Raqqa and Aleppo in Syria depend the future of Daesh and the other unrelated radical groups such as Al Nusra and the Free Syrian Army. Militarily they will be defeated sooner than later, with the strong Russian commitment. Yet, there is conflict of interests with Turkey battling Daesh and promoting the Free Syrian Army.
The common perception that Daesh minus its funding from oil and taxes may lose its sting does not take into account the professionalism of its networks, its capability of outreach and the influence it can garner. It had the advantage of territory for the last three years but perhaps has anticipated and developed its capabilities to exist dispersed. Al Qaida has similarly been building networks and perhaps is now emerging to a higher level of capability. While its operations will continue in East, North and West Africa, the real area of Daesh concentration appears to be North Western Afghanistan. Terror strikes in Pakistan on Sufi and Shia shrines send home the larger message of its intent to keep its radical followers motivated.
The other scenario is the feasibility of Daesh morphing into smaller groups and attempting to establish control in some of the areas neighbouring Syria and Iraq where military control is not of the magnitude currently present against it in the current main battle lines. Jordan and the Sinai bear significance in such an option and should be under surveillance.
The world will not see the end of Daesh with its impending defeat in North Iraq or Syria; these will be symbolic defeats. The real defeats have to be of the minds which control and motivate the idea of a violent and extremist Caliphate. The demise of Daesh in Syria and Iraq may give an impetus to Al Qaida which has by and large been out of the cross wires for some time.
Saudi Arabia’s Situation, Post Waning US Support
The other developing narrative is that of Saudi Arabia. With a compulsive commitment from the Royal Court towards the clergy to promote Wahhabi ideology Saudi Arabia finds itself the target in a complex strategic environment. The radical elements perceive the Saudis not doing enough for the Wahhabi cause. The Saudis appear determined to live up to their commitment and yet project a moderate face. The other Saudi compulsion is to prevent the rising influence of Shia Iran. With its own importance diluted in US eyes due to reduced US energy dependence, Saudi Arabia is seeking an independent trajectory in securing its strategic interests. It has to somehow find an exit strategy to withdraw from Yemen where it is embroiled in an unwinnable war against the Shia Houthis who remain proxies of Iran. Economically already weakened the Saudis are on a two-pronged strategy which could well alter the strategic environment of West Asia. Firstly it is going to professionalize the local Saudi population and project a face of reason and openness. Secondly it has also embarked on an ambitious program of outreach into South East Asia to both promote its brand of Islam and economic cooperation for its future needs. The proximity to Israel that it has established gives it much greater acceptance in western circles but the depth of the relationship is yet to be tested.
Iran and the Shia Sunni Conflict
Since the radical and violent strain of Islam is essentially Sunni, Iran with its Shia population is assumed to be comparatively less radical. It’s a truism that the Shia sect does not have universal ambitions about creation of a caliphate. However, Iran as the core Shia state and with the revolution of 1979 having given it a renewed vigour was perceived to have ambitions to become the unofficial flag bearer of Islam. The Shia Sunni standoff has since then taken a more volatile turn. The containment of Iranian ambitions was due to the US-Saudi link up as it suited their common strategic interests. With the rising Sunni Wahhabi tide turning against the US and the West it was not an automatic choice for the US to switch to supporting the Shia strain, which displays no ambitions of spreading ideology through violent extremist practices. This was more due to the US-Iran inability to bring any convergence of interests. The Shia Sunni conflict is reflected in the political environment through the Iran-Saudi clash of interests and is one of the enduring conflicts of West Asia which has no solution. While both may have no real intent to see a conventional show of arms it is the hybrid variety of conflict which will continue as a part of the political ambitions of both countries to be the dominant force in Islam. The change of leadership in the US appears to be looking at placing greater pressure on Iran on the issue of its nuclear program. With Russia and Iran in alliance in Syria review of the Iran Nuclear Deal is highly unlikely.
Another consideration which cannot be far from focus, remains the Shia Sunni conflict in Iraq which has yet to fully stabilize. A victory for Iraq’s Army opens up the potential for return to such a conflict unless post Daesh configuration takes into account the Sunni minority’s position. The Iraqi Army comprises mainly Shia elements whose attitude towards the Sunni(s) has never been completely friendly.
Areas of the New Great Game –South West Asia, South Asia and Central Asia
The situation in Afghanistan is well known. The Taliban remains unconquered and unrepentant. The US presence is now at a little less than 10,000 troops and it is mainly the Afghan National Army (ANA) which is in battle against the Taliban. The Taliban continues to receive support from Pakistan and the Saudis both of which are also allies of the US. With negotiations unproductive the military situation can take a turn only if there is a major realignment. That seems likely only if there is a US surge under the military oriented US top leadership or if Daesh makes a serious effort in establishing itself. After all, the original Jihad of the late 20th Century did commence from Afghanistan. Since then the region has gone from bad to worse. At the core centre of it is Pakistan’s ambitious plan of retaining its influence and power in Afghanistan to extend its imaginary strategic depth, a notion it has spin doctored for long. It also employs radical Islam as a strategic asset to influence and calibrate the situation in J&K.
Pakistan’s strategy of battling the radicals for its internal security and promoting them for garnering influence on both flanks is dichotomous and can only spell disaster. The Trump Administration is expected to overcome the initial hiccups of targeting one of its oldest strategic partners and potentially look at it as the core centre from where radicalism emanates. With indicators of some serious action to control the activities of the strategic friendly assets (read LeT and JeM), the upcoming national elections of 2018 and a supposedly more pragmatic Army Chief in place, can Pakistan change its outlook.
The real threat to South Asia appears to be emerging from Daesh. The Daesh’s Khorasan province, called Islamic State - Khorasan (IS-K) is led by a core of former Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan commanders from Orakzai and Khyber Agencies of Pakistan; the majority of mid-level commanders are former Taliban from Nangarhar, with the rank and file a mixture of local Afghans, Pakistanis, and foreign jihadists mostly from Central Asia. The recruitment strategy in these areas is face-to-face outreach, education and preaching (Dawah), and intelligence gathering—the same tactics the Islamic State used to expand into northern Syria from 2012 onward and that IS-K deployed during its first six months in Nangarhar. The danger lies in the claims of Daesh in its operations in Kabul, Sindh and Lahore. This coupled with actions in Bangladesh and confirmed Daesh assisted modules in Northern and Central India spells the challenges in the region which comprises 500 million Muslims. It may sound flippant to treat Daesh threats in India with lesser emphasis than elsewhere in the world. However, the resisting approach of Indian Muslims towards the faith being apparently thrust upon them spells a positive turn.
Central Asia’s vulnerability lies in the temptation for Daesh and its surrogates to find solace in targeting some of the weak structures and governments in the region. With resources of gas in abundance and emerging trade and energy corridors there is ample scope for money which these groups will need aplenty to establish themselves and spread and control their networks. The narcotics and illicit arms trade also offers opportunities. This apparently worries Russia no end; it is concerned about the effect on its 11 percent Muslim population in Chechnya and Dagestan. The desire of Russia to join with Pakistan and China on managing the Afghan conflict emerges from this perception.
China, a nation usually not considered in the issues relating to radical extremism appears to be now realizing the threats to its interests. Its own 18 million population of Muslim Uyghur in Xinjiang is more restive than many minority Muslim populations elsewhere. China appears to feel that the threats can be managed through hard power internally and prevention of external linkages and influence. However, this is dangerous in a networked world.
The last aspect on South Asia relates to Bangladesh and its concern about the threat of the Rohingyas in Myanmar with the potential of the conflict, involving the 1.1 million strong Muslim communities, becoming the latest ethnic group to provide cannon fodder for worldwide Jihad. The ethnic group which has found its members being forced into Thailand, Indonesia, Bangladesh and even parts of India, has reportedly formed its first terrorist entity in the form of Harakah al Yakin with its origins apparently in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.
South East (SE) Asia
For far too long have security experts tended to ignore SE Asia’s large Muslim population in the scheme of things for promotion of amity and goodwill to resolve the inter faith problems of the world. The physical distance of the region from the land mass of the Arab desert where Islam is emotionally rooted tends to lead to ignorance of the SE Asian factor. The huge populations of Indonesia and Malaysia as also the sprinkling of Islamic people in other countries as minorities, makes the region strategically important. The Straits of Malacca with transit of 70 percent of the world’s container traffic and China’s huge energy traffic makes the region and the population even more strategically important. While terror related to radical extremism has been present in security threats ever since the turn of the millennium it does not appear to have yet crossed a threshold level. It has been largely thanks to some effective cooperation, in terms of intelligence sharing and counter-radicalization programs, between Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. Saudi interests have been rising in this region and this is natural given Saudi Arabian search for greater economic cooperation in the future after its economy appeared to flag. The flow of finances must not adversely affect the cultural nature of Islam which has acquired a very regional character here. This is what SE Asia has to guard against.