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Posted in: United States, Global Security, Asia
Calling Islamic extremism’s bluff
By [unknown placeholder $article.author$]
2 Feb. 2007 - 11:13:04 PM

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PRESIDENT George Bush may have finally got something right. “Generation struggle” was the warning he deployed in his state of the union address. But his policies may ensure that the west’s “epic battle” with Islamic extremism could last far longer than the Cold War. Communism as an ideology was failing by the time the Berlin Wall came down, whereas Islamic fervour in general, and jihadism in particular, are in the ascendancy in the Muslim world.

The west eventually took control of the narrative in the Cold War. Particularly to the suppressed nations of eastern Europe, the West stood for freedom and success; Moscow for authoritarianism and failure.

In the so-called “long war” that has followed the 9/11 abominations, the west has literally lost the plot. The narrative is still dictated by that Scarlet Pimpernel of fanatical ideologues, Osama bin Laden.

The West has been reactive, on the back foot, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan. So how can it take the initiative again?

The Iraq invasion was a brilliant military operation. The occupation has become a fiasco imposing Armageddon on the Iraqis. The recent decision to send a surge of extra American troops is doomed to reinforce failure. The west is now fighting, and losing, a two-front war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Recent US air attacks in Somalia, which missed the targeted al-Qaeda leaders, risk inciting a third major jihadist front, in the Horn of Africa. Next the whole of north Africa, the soft underbelly of Europe, could become an active war zone.

The grandest folly is to attack Iran, despite its provocation of Israel and its alleged nuclear ties with North Korea. This would unite all Muslims against the US and its allies, even the much-touted silent majority of moderates.

And the US neo-conservatives may have been right, too: Iraq could still be the key to resolving the Middle East crisis. A post-Saddam pro-western stable democracy would have vindicated the neo-con philosophy. But Iraq is a murderous quagmire which could soon prompt a regional war. This would largely be portrayed as the fault of the west. It isn’t. Iraq and the Middle East is a shambles because of the region’s corrupt and inept politicians.

Coalition troops are now bystanders in a civil war. Best get them all out of harm’s way. Gordon Brown may be the UK prime minister sooner than expected. His first priority is to get British troops out of Iraq pronto, despite Washington’s displeasure.

There is a slight chance that Iraqi politicians might then get their act together. But almost inevitably it will also ratchet up Syrian and Iranian meddling in a country teetering on a wholesale sectarian cleansing and de facto partition.

The Saudis and other fragile Sunni regimes will aid the Iraqi Sunni rump. The historical fault line of Sunni-Shiite loathing will be ripped open.

Iran could emerge as a regional superpower, not least in Iraq and Lebanon, but this will fuel the Sunni vs Shiite inferno. If western troops are removed from all the conflict zones, Islamic anger will turn in on itself.

This may seem a doomsday scenario, but it may be the only way to transform Iraq’s cosmic cock-up into a success, at least for the west. Andrew Sullivan, a columnist on the London Sunday Times, has suggested that this is “not a ‘divide and conquer’ strategy so much as ‘a divide and get out of the way’ strategy.”

Al-Qaeda’s immediate targets were always fellow Sunnis, notably in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, who were not attuned to Bin Laden’s extremist version of Wahhabist doctrine. So there was always internecine Sunni struggle. And the rise of Hezbollah’s leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, created a new Shiite hero for many Sunnis. Nasrallah perhaps eclipsed even Bin Laden because he “defeated” Israel.

Despite the complex cross-cutting allegiances and disputes in the Muslim world, Iraq demonstrates that the visceral levels of fanatical hatred possess those Sunnis who regard Shiites as heretics and traitors to Allah. Historians like to point out the parallels with the gory feuds between Protestants and Catholics, which were at their most intense 500 years ago.

Then the powerful Islamic military thrusts into the European heartland took advantage of the fratricide between, and within, Christian kingdoms. Could this strategy now be reciprocated?

Islamic extremists kill more Muslims than westerners. Prompt US departure from Iraq will almost certainly accelerate the Iraqi civil war, though paradoxically it is the only way to bestow real legitimacy on the elected Baghdad government. And Iraq’s role as recruiting sergeant for jihadists worldwide would decline.

Tehran may well take even further advantage of Iraq’s tragedy, by installing ayatollahs in Baghdad. Iran is now so dangerous because it perceives, correctly, that Washington is completely hobbled by Iraq.

The tables could be turned by giving Iran the nightmare that is Iraq. You can bet that Tehran will be far less adventurous in the region when it has to control, rather than foment, turmoil in its next-door neighbour.

Remove coalition troops, and even the most paranoid Islamic extremist should see that the clash of civilisations is not essentially about the Judaeo-Christian west, but the pathologies of the Muslim world.

So long as the enemy is the West, it is a religious war. As soon as it’s patently an intra-Islamic struggle, it becomes more a question of modernisation, governance, education, female empowerment, and not faith.

The secularised West can never win a war of religion, but it can triumph in a battle of good governance, both political and economic.

And, yes, leaving Islam to fight out its own war will further disrupt the oil supply. But Bush’s state of the union address was also aimed at weaning voters off their oil addiction.

In this green perspective, quitting Iraq could help save the planet and wind down this needlessly prolonged “war on terror”.


This article was originally published in "Business Day"

Dr Moorcraft is the director of the Centre for Foreign Policy Analysis, London .
The Website of the CFPA is www.cffpa.com

(c) 2007 Dr Paul Moorcraft


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