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Cold War and Islamist Spectres Reawaken: 2014’s Geopolitical Outlook Has Turned Decidedly Stormy


By Swagato Ganguly

September 5, 2014

The Cold War climaxed with the dissolution of the Soviet Union and collapse of the communist bloc in 1991. And al-Qaida’s assault on the US mainland on 11 September 2001 was bookended by the shooting of its chief inspirer, Osama bin Laden, by American commandos in Pakistan a decade later. Or so it was thought. If the events of 1991 and 2011 were seen to have definitively ended two major threats to world peace, the last couple of months have destroyed such complacency.

We could be back to the future. Or more accurately, escalating crises since Malaysian airliner MH17 was brought down by pro-Russian rebels over Ukraine and Islamic State (IS) rebels beheaded American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff suggest we are hurtling forward to the past.

A visage from the past rose Wednesday when Ayman al-Zawahiri, leader of al-Qaida after bin Laden’s demise, resurfaced in a 55-minute video where he announced the formation of al-Qaida’s Indian branch. With IS making headway in the Middle East and threatening to spread its wings in South Asia, the original terror franchise will not leave it without competition.

The West now agrees with the Ukraine’s assessment that Russian military forces have entered the country to aid pro-Russian separatists. In response President Obama has promised to defend NATO signatories in the region. NATO is currently meeting in Wales and is expected to deploy thousands of troops to frontline east European member states such as Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. The NATO charter obligates member nations to defend any one of them under attack.

While Obama has said NATO must send an “unmistakable” message of support to Ukraine, the latter differs from Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia in that it has not yet been admitted to NATO. Ukraine is now keen to enter NATO for obvious reasons but it has missed the bus. If reports about Russian incursions into Ukraine are correct, then given NATO alliance obligations its entry into Ukraine can spark a shooting war with Russia. But Obama is too cautious for this and Europeans even more so.

A world war is not about to break out in the Donetsk region as it did a century ago in Sarajevo. But if President Putin doesn’t back down in Ukraine despite Western sanctions on Russia – and he shows no signs of doing so – a Cold War-like chill is very much on the cards. This is bad news for both India and the world.

Meanwhile, storm clouds are gathering over Iraq. After the James Foley beheading Obama said America didn’t have a strategy on IS. However, when IS announced the second beheading of an American journalist through a video circulated on the Internet it was met by answering psychological warfare from the Americans. Obama now says the US goal is to degrade and destroy IS.

It’s interesting to parse the ambivalence in Obama’s responses. While a US bombing campaign had already commenced against IS following the latter’s stunning military defeats of the Iraqi army and Kurdish Peshmerga – accompanied by evidence of appalling war crimes against opposing fighters and minorities – what Obama’s first response meant was that America didn’t have a strategy on IS in Syria, as opposed to IS in Iraq. But this amounts to a half-strategy, because the campaign against IS won’t succeed unless IS in Syria are targeted as well.

In practice, the US itself has contributed a great deal to the rise of IS. America destroyed the functioning state of Iraq and effectively dismantled the Iraqi army – the new force raised from scratch proved inadequate to the task of defending Iraq. Moreover the Americans have been persuaded by their Israeli and Saudi allies to back the fight against President Assad in Syria, thus creating even more space for IS.

Nevertheless, the US still holds more cards in Iraq and Syria than it does in Ukraine. IS advances can easily be stalled by the use of air power. IS could respond by melding among urban populations and following Mao’s guerrilla strategy of becoming like a “fish in water”. But here IS’s trademark brutality will make it stand out. They will be more like sharks in water which will turn locals against them.

This is essentially what Assad has done in Syria. Large sections of the population now see him as the lesser evil and this has enabled him, against expectations, to fight IS to a stalemate. In its search for political allies in the region against IS the US should in fact align with Assad even at the expense of looking silly.

What would help even more is a grand strategic rapprochement with Iran. Iran and the US could then work together to stabilise not only Iraq but also Afghanistan, where Islamist forces will look to exploit the vacuum left by US withdrawal. It’s the best hope that exists to pop the Islamist genie back in the bottle.

New Delhi had better hope this effort succeeds. At home, it’s time to stop conjuring up mythical beasts such as ‘love jihad’ for the sake of winning elections. The real jihad is elsewhere and it threatens us all, religious or political affiliation notwithstanding.