And the western vantage point
The variance in western interpretation of what is occurring on the ground and the lack of indigenous analysis has led to an imperfect comprehension of the present status of the campaign against extremism. Furthermore, the dependence on western economic assistance has further diluted the approach of the nations being consumed by terrorism. The often disingenuous and weak political leadership of the regions impacted by extremism, adopted policies that exasperated the problem. In turn, these leaders had to face western accusation of either lacking the will or the capability to counter terrorism. While the capability can be enhanced, the will is a difficult topic to deal with.
While it is very easy to start allocating the blame for the mistakes and question the motives of different actors, the real challenge is to figure out where to go from here. The pragmatic western think-tanks and thought centres now readily admit to the missteps identified in the previous article; the elimination of extremist leadership is not having a huge impact, extremism is spreading to new lands and is cross-pollinating with Arab Spring, including religious, ethnic, and global tussles. Furthermore, the lack of clear victors means the political reconciliation process in Afghanistan and Pakistan, is mired with many challenges and contradictions. Similarly, the current events of Iraq perhaps demonstrate what can be expected from the Afghan draw down. In this regard, the examples of Syria and Egypt provide interesting models and will be explored more in the following articles. (These trends and what they mean will be discussed in the following articles.)
This predicament has led western think tanks, such as International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) and Atlantic Council, to conduct a serious review of the present status and to understand the future of Middle East, North Africa, and AfPak. The Foreign Policy magazine gathered 100 most influential global thinkers to point out the new trends and what they mean.
At the same time, the western economic pressures have equated in to low tolerance for costly future military interventions. NATO is being forced to not only formulate fresh approaches to deal with the ground situation, but also at the same time redefine its interests. The emerging western strategies are indicative of their key worries. On the other hand, their regional allies are, once again, ill prepared for what the next stage of the campaign could mean for them.
Obviously, extremism in the core Islamic regions is not the only concern for Europe and America to contend with. There is a growing sense it’s China that poses the real future challenge and extremists may serve as a distracter from that threat. Pivoting to Asia, managing the rise of China and resurgence of Russia, maintaining an edge in developing game changing defense and business ideas and technologies, all have become equally pressing priorities.
How the West prepares for these threats and challenges involves dealing with the diverging European interests for the first time. As witnessed in the case of Afghanistan and the Middle East, there is a difference of approach between the European powers of Germany and France, and the Scandinavian nations, UK, and US on the other. It’s the Scandinavian nations of Sweden, Norway, and Denmark that are spearheading the outreach for the benefits of continued US-European economic and security integration.
Of course, one does not have to look very far to understand why this is the case. The assertiveness of Russia has the Europeans worried. This is amply at display in the case of Ukraine, where apparently the Russians are pressuring the government from deciding in favor of joining the EU. And then there is the growing economic prowess of China to contend with. France and Germany do not necessarily share the fears from Russia and China, as the others do. When it comes to imploding regions inflicted by the war on terror, France and Germany do not necessarily agree on the approaches to address them. Nonetheless, China, Russia, US, and other European powers, are all uneasy about the risks posed by the extremists. The activities of homegrown radicals are on the rise in the Chinese and Russian regions of Xingjian, Dagestan and Chechnya.
As Arab Spring spreads, the global powers have evaluated what a fall of a particular regime may mean for them on a case-by-case basis. So when it came to Syria, Russians were unwilling to make the mistake they apparently made in the case of Libya by allowing the no-fly zone and foreign intervention. When it comes to the Islamic Maghreb, it is France that has taken the lead in places like Mali and Central African Republic. This does not mean that US has retreated but it has essentially relegated the responsibility to the European power with most interests at stake, and has shifted to providing logistical support and capabilities that the Europeans otherwise lack.
On April 29th last year, the UK based think tank dealing with defense and security affairs, Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), presented a ‘Return to East of Suez’ policy brief. The paper suggests that Britain is considering placing its land, sea, and air forces across the Middle East, for touch and go type operations, which increasingly look likely due to the fragile situation of the Arab Spring impacted region.
The report suggests that Arab awakening, the situation of Iran and Syria, has made the Middle East volatile and Britain had to prepare policy options on how to respond. The potential policy shift is presented as a prudent attempt to place military assets around the region, for a number of explosive scenarios in the Middle East. According to the report, the potential missions could be in support of the American and European operations, but could be taken independently as well. And, it goes on to ease European worries that Britain is looking to operate outside of European security arrangement.
In June 2013, Putin declared that Russia would maintain a permanent naval presence in the area. “This is a strategically important region and we have tasks to carry out there to provide for the national security of the Russian Federation,” he had stated. Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, this was the first time Russia made such a move. While Russia evacuated its naval base in the Syrian port city of Tartus last year, it is negotiating with Egypt to establish a base there and to provide other military assistance. Iraq is having similar defense related negotiations with the Russians.
The situation appears to be moving towards establishment of spheres of influence for respective western powers, obviously not the first time in history. In the larger framework, as US pivots to the Pacific, UK may be pivoting towards the Middle East. Whether this is a coordinated move is not known yet, nonetheless, further reaction from other global powers is likely. Moreover, as the ties of US have deteriorated with the Sunni Islamic world, there is a worry that China and Russia will attempt to exploit, and the western détente with Iran has a lot to do with this as well.
The preparation being undertaken by these global powers are reflective of the real trends and risks they see unfolding in the core Islamic regions, the direction of which will be reviewed in the next piece. Irrespective of the causes that produced 9/11, the threat posed by extremists has not diminished. As the campaign against terror enters a new phase, the West and its allies are economically exhausted. In the AfPak region the mood has shifted towards reconciliation but the radicals want peace on their terms. In the Middle East, the dynamics is much more complex.
Arif Ansar is chief analyst at PoliTact, a Washington-based futurist advisory firm (www.PoliTact.com). He can be reached at: [email protected], and on Twitter at: @ArifAnsar.