By Ali Imran
More than 13 years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Middle East is confronted with an apocalyptic specter as implications of Afghanistan and Iraq wars, internal sectarian conflicts, al Qaeda and ISIS terror across borders, and unabated sufferings of the Palestinians have plunged the broader region into a bloody chaos.
The latest US intelligence revelation says around 20,000 foreign fighters have flocked to join ISIS in Iraq and Syria from around the world including Europe and America as the West faces new homegrown and international terror threats.
A spate of shocking incidents across continents from massacre of Peshawar school children, to attacks on Paris streets, to Boko Haram’s abduction of young Nigerian girls, and ISIS’ gruesome killing of a Jordanian pilot and American journalists manifest the morphing nature of militancy.
Clearly, the world has faltered terribly in containing the terrorist threat. It is not difficult to see that a dangerous fuel mix of unbridled use of military prowess and retaliatory terrorist bombings on civilians as seen in Afghanistan and Iraq, cover-up rhetoric by states perpetrating terror on occupied people, powerful states’ use of proxies in other countries and biased media portrayals of Muslims have obscured the real perspective of the fight against terror.
To the disadvantage of seven billion inhabitants of the world, this upsurge of chaos and confusion has eclipsed the direly needed focus on addressing underlying causes of radicalisation.
While militants operating in different parts of the world invoke various reasons to justify their unjustifiable acts, some core reasons behind post-9/11 rise of militancy could be broadly understood as stemming from absence of democratic governance, denial of basic rights in Muslim countries, Western capitals’ tendency to buy fear-based policies, the United Nations’ inability to enforce resolutions to the longstanding political disputes and inconclusive follow-up to costly wars and counterinsurgency operations that leave spaces for militants to return.
Failure to govern effectively factors commonly into fuelling militancy in the Muslim world. By exploiting political alienation and a deepening sense of injustice among people, militant groups impose their parochial interpretation of Islam on the vulnerable populations as witnessed in Afghanistan and tribal areas of Pakistan. With virtually no or very limited access to education and health and devoid of economic hope, young people in these ungoverned areas are a fodder for militant operations. In many instances militant organisations like Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan and ISIS hire fighters on regular payments. In the 1990s, emergence of ideologically driven al Qaeda was a deadly repercussion of failure of governance. Osama bin Laden and his accomplices thrived in ungoverned places of Sudan and Afghanistan.
Then there is the long history of the denial of democratic rights to the people. The strongman dictatorial rules, tolerated by the US-led West and the rich Arab countries over the past many decades in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Egypt have thwarted political evolution of the Arab societies. The widespread frustration of people has been heightened in the age of the electronic media – which in the words of Pakistani writer Zulfikar Ghose has produced a “worldwide democracy” in a way that empowers each individual. Experts including former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan believe the ISIS is a direct result of Nouri al-Maliki’s deliberate rejection of pluralism and disenfranchisement of the Sunni population. Syria’s Bashar al-Assad has further facilitated the ISIS militancy by butchering his own people.
The international community has also erred gravely in not sustaining a comprehensive counterterrorism response it displayed in the immediate aftermath of the al Qaeda-inflicted 9/11 attacks. George W Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq and its unforeseen ramifications in the form of Abu Ghraib torture, Iraqi sectarian bloodshed and widespread militancy played havoc with innocent lives. As the Bush administration short-changed, diversion of attention and resources coupled with Kabul’s short-sighted political alienation of the majority population Pashtuns saw a fierce growth of the Afghan Taliban insurgency.
Through military surge, NATO on some occasions used disproportionate military fire and also employed controversial US drones to quell the Taliban insurgency and al Qaeda-linked militants in Afghanistan in Pakistani tribal areas, resulting in civilian deaths. Many conflict-hit areas have never seen the impact of development projects – an opportunity for militant outfits to grow.
Meanwhile, terror attacks in Spain and Britain, the terror groups ability to hatch plots targeting the United States, Guantanamo tales of torture, hate crimes against Muslims, racial profiling and Danish caricatures of Islam’s holiest figures led to a climate of political and societal antagonism and alarmism. The French reaction to the brutal killing of Charlie Hebdo staff has fallen far short of what would have been expected of a secular democratic society. The discriminatory Parisian imposition of conformity on its minority immigrant Muslim population goes against the inclusive spirit of liberty, equality fraternity.
Probably the most critical and longstanding reason that incites militancy lies in political disputes including the Palestinian question and the Jammu and Kashmir conflict between India and Pakistan. Militant groups have long used the festering disputes in their narratives as lightning rods to recruit fighters in their ranks.
US Secretary of State John Kerry in an October 16, 2014 address at the State Department drew attention to this reality.
“We have to stop and think about that in the context of this challenge that we face today. I think that it is more critical than ever that we be fighting for peace, and I think it is more necessary than ever. As I went around and met with people in the course of our discussions about the ISIL coalition, the truth is we – there wasn’t a leader I met with in the region who didn’t raise with me spontaneously the need to try to get peace between Israel and the Palestinians, because it was a cause of recruitment and of street anger and agitation that they felt – and I see a lot of heads nodding – they had to respond to. And people need to understand the connection of that. And it has something to do with humiliation and denial and absence of dignity.”
A few years ago, Robert Pape, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, found in an exhaustive study that after the Afghan and Iraq wars, it was occupation of lands, and not Islam, that was behind dramatic jump in suicide bombings — from 300 between 1980 and 2003 to 1,800 from 2004 to 2009.
Similarly, the research found that after Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon in 2000 the Lebanese suicide terrorist attacks against Israel ended. During the last decade when Israel withdrew militarily from Gaza and portions of the West Bank, suicide attacks ratcheted down 90 percent.
In South Asia, nuclear powers India and Pakistan face a standoff over the Kashmir dispute, as New Delhi refuses to honor the UN-pledged right to self-determination and address long-running issues including mass graves and indiscriminate imposition of highly discriminatory laws against people living under occupation of more than 500,000 security forces.
Another reason for turmoil is the failure of both the rich Arab and Western countries to help the developing countries with nation building. Once a conflict is over or an insurgency is defeated, the international community loses its interest and fails to follow up the military work with economic development that may stave off their sliding back into chaos. Two historical examples stand out with instructive lessons when post-conflict international support led to economic stability. The United States supported rebuilding of Europe with Marshal Plan and Germany was able to quickly rebound after the Second World War, the biggest catastrophe that annihilated 72 million lives. Similarly, Western powers, world financial institutions, and people of Bosnia and Serbia have helped rebuild their countries after the 1990s conflict.
Contrastingly, the West and Arab countries displayed a cut and run approach to Afghanistan at the end of Soviet occupation in 1990s, effectively handing over the country to forces of anarchy that ultimately turned the country into an al Qaeda safe haven.
The evolving consequences of collective international failure in addressing radicalisation and fragility of the fragmenting political moment clearly demand a coordinated trouble-shooting approach, preferably under the UN auspices.
For the Islamic world the job is clear: political forces, civil societies, and the youth have to form a formidable opposition to the militant narrative and demonstrate leadership in reclaiming the real spirit of Islam through an inclusive democratic rule, madrassa reforms, sectarian harmony and law enforcement against militant outfits.
Meanwhile, the democratically advanced Western societies cannot afford to repeat abandonment of the Middle East in the interconnected world. As woefully taught by Iraq, retreat from the Middle East without stability and prolonging the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not an option. By the same token, the world can only ignore Kashmir at its own peril, which, according to a Council on Foreign Relations report, has existential implications for both India and Pakistan.
President Barack Obama’s recent statements underscoring that the US is not at war with Islam and that extremism is not confined to any particular faith but has been practiced by bands of close-minded interpreters of all major faiths mark a welcome bridge-building step. So is Secretary Kerry’s emphasis that there is no room for Islamophobia. That display of intellectual honesty is crucial if the world is to extinguish embers that ignite bushfires, and not just keep going after the flickers. If reactionary counterterrorism tactics are not replaced by an enlightened strategy for peaceful coexistence, the world will lose an opportunity that the current political moment, however conflict-ridden, holds out for all leaders to address root causes of militancy and terror.
This piece first appeared in Pakistan Today on February 14, 2015