“Hell” Must be Where Extremism Mushrooms

Looking at the tepid global reaction to the massacre of the civilians in Gaza, one wonders whether the conscience of the international community is half asleep or is suffering from something called sympathy fatigue.  Hundreds of civilian casualties, incessantly escalating human misery, and with no end in the Israeli military action in sight, even God seems to have abandoned them.  At the same time, it should be said unequivocally that Hamas’ indiscriminate firing of missiles on Israeli cities is a repulsive act.  One U.N. official involved in rescue attempts stated that Gaza has turned into hell.  That, alas, seems to be the fate of Muslims in many places. 


The U.S. turned Iraq into hell between 2005 and 2006; Pakistan is steadily edging toward becoming a hellish place in the post-9/11 era; and Afghanistan is heading in that direction.  In the Horn of Africa, a similar situation prevails.


In the post-9/11 era, the militarily powerful nations have taken it upon themselves to set the “rules of engagement” for wars or war-like violence in Muslim lands, while the extremists are letting loose violence and mayhem from their side.  Iraq had its killing fields between 2005 and 2007, and Afghanistan’s most “fertile” killing fields started in the late 1970s, when the Soviet Union invaded it with a view to incorporating it into the Soviet empire.  Those killing fields continue to multiply in the first decade of the 21st Century.  Lebanon’s killing fields come alive periodically, and–in view of its highly explosive internal dynamics–that country seems at the precipice of witnessing them on a regular basis.  Gaza’s killing fields are getting bloodier by the hour.  


The chief victims of this bloody phenomenon are the ordinary people, whose main aspirations is are to have productive careers, raise families, and live happily.  But happiness is increasingly becoming a rare commodity.


Here is the essence of the problem in many Muslim countries:  The U.S. has decided to wage violence in the name of that awful phrase “global war on terrorism,” which is as meaningless as the “war on poverty.”  Terrorism, like poverty, has been around forever, and no use of military power alone will eradicate it from the face of the earth.  Awful concepts like “regime change,” “preemptive war,” and the “war of choice” were applied to Muslim countries.  George W. Bush’s warning, “either you are with us or with the terrorists,” was also largely aimed at Muslim countries. 


The United States encountered something called the “Iraqi quagmire,” and almost lost its war in that country until the Sunni Muslims came to its rescue.  The same group (Sons of Iraq) is still crucial for the durability of peace and continued success of America’s “surge” strategy.  A strategy, which was aimed at clearing the hostile territory, by holding it, stationing security forces, and by rebuilding civilian authority and economic development.  But that is just one precondition; the other being a systematic inclusion of Sunni Muslims in the governance of Iraq.  Iraq remains a work in progress.  It is likely to return to its instability of 2005-2007, if the Sunnis do not become an important part of its ruling circles.


Israel has adopted the same approach–letting loose its military fury–in the name of establishing its “credible deterrence” among Arab nations, especially since it was humiliated by the Hezbollah in the “war” of July-August 2006.  Purely on a force-on-force basis, Israel did not lose that war.  Its mistake was that it established very precise goals of eradicating Hezbollah and having its own captive soldiers released.  When those objectives were not achieved and Israel stopped bombing Southern Lebanon, both the Western and the Arab media declared it the “loser” of that war.  To Israel’s bitter resentment, the Hezbollah not only survived, but became an inordinately popular organization in the Arab streets, as well as in Lebanon.  As such, it also challenged the governing authority of the U.S.-backed government of Premier Fouad Siniora.  Siniora has remained a weak head of the government in Lebanon primarily, if not solely, because Washington supports him.  Consequently, the legitimacy of the government in Lebanon remains shaky, at best. 


It has been a long-established fact that no outside power can institute its credibility inside a country through the use of military force or through occupation alone.  That is a universal principle. 

Syria learned that lesson at the end of many years of occupying Lebanon.  The U.S. has also learned that bitter reality after remaining an occupying power in Iraq for the past eight years.  It is likely to face the same fate in Afghanistan.  Israel refuses to learn that lesson as it invades Gaza and remains an occupying power of Palestine.  The gloomiest fact of that occupation is that the mounting toll of Palestinians will create new generations of even more enduring–and even more radical-minded–resistance to Israel than Hezbollah and Hamas have thus far demonstrated.


Unlike the historical accord between the U.S. military and the Sons of Iraq, no basis of rapprochement has been established between Israel and the Palestinians.  The Oslo Peace Accords of the early 1990s are long dead and buried.  Israel does not want to trade land for peace, and the Palestinians are much too divided to offer the Jewish state a great deal of confidence that they are ready to live in peace with their Jewish counterparts. 


Israel played a crucial role, if not in the creation of Hamas, then in definitely enhancing the presence and clout of that organization in the occupied territory many years ago.  As an Israeli historian at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Zeev Sternell, stated, “Israel thought that it was a smart ploy to push the Islamists against the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO).”  Today, Hamas is the governing authority in Gaza.  Ironically, Israel’s stated objective of waging a war against Gaza is to weaken, if not eliminate, Hamas. 


However, no matter how badly the military conflict damages Hamas, it is likely to emerge as the most popular organization within the occupied Palestine as well as in the rest of the Muslim world.  According to a news dispatch from Egypt, “As the war in Gaza burned though its 14th day, Arab governments have felt their legitimacy challenged with an uncommon virulence.”  It adds, “With each passing day, and each Palestinian death, the popularity of Hamas and other radical movements has ratcheted higher on the Arab street, while the standing of Arab leaders has suffered.”


The frustrations of the Arab masses stem from a reason that is larger than the occupation of Palestine, even though the mounting suffering of the Palestinians is also adding further fuel to those frustrations.  The chief reason for the Arab frustrations is the presence of authoritarian rule, which lingers on like an eternal curse over their existence.  From their point of view, their collective suffering will not end unless the United States stops supporting the status quo in their countries.  From the U.S. side, that authoritarian rule-based status quo is preferred over the alternative–the return of Islamist rule.  Two examples continue to haunt the U.S. decisionmakers–the Islamist-dominated rule in Iraq and the successful emergence of Hamas as the ruling entity after the elections of January 2006.  The Arab autocrats in Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia suffer from the same fear.  The emergence of Hamas as the governing body over Palestine did not end their internal turbulence. 

The plight of the Palestinians was worsened when, after a bitter fight between Hamas and Fatah in June 2007, the latter took over the West bank, while Hamas maintained its political control of Gaza.  However, Hamas was unable to make a breakthrough regarding reaching a peace an agreement with Israel. 


Egypt did bring about a ceasefire between Hamas and Israel in June 2008.  That agreement ended early last November.  The fact that Hamas was describing that agreement as tahdiya (a period of calm, which is temporary), as opposed to hudna (truce, which is concrete and lasting) underscored the fact that it was only a tactical maneuver.  The leaders of Hamas were adamant about describing on Al-Jazeera a tahdiya as “a tactic in conflict management and a phase in the framework of the resistance [meaning all forms of struggle].” The Israelis were not willing to fall for that ploy.  That so-called tahdiya ended early last November.  The escalating violence between the two sides since then has led to the Israeli military invasion of Gaza.


The systematic destruction of the already feeble institutional infrastructures and mounting human misery has already transformed Gaza into a hellish place.  Even though Hamas challenged Israel, and even though Hamas is also largely responsible for the breakdown of the tahdiya, the fact that Israel has been wreaking major havoc and is responsible for mounting civilian deaths in Gaza, Hamas’ popularity is most likely to escalate.  


In a perverse way, similar conditions prevail in Afghanistan.  The Western occupation forces are attempting to strengthen the authority of the government of President Hamid Karzai, whom most Pushtoon regard as a puppet of the United States.  The legitimacy of the Karzai government is a shrinking commodity.  Historically speaking, the occupiers of Afghanistan–from Alexander the Great to the Soviet Union–have faced nothing but bloody battles and resulting defeat.  The Taliban–who are primarily Pushtoon–know that fact only too well.  They also know that history is on their side, as long as they do not let up on the use of violence.  The United States cannot afford to lose in Afghanistan, and the Taliban refuse to seek a rapprochement with the Karzai government.  In the process, Afghanistan has become a hellish place.


No single actor is more responsible in Pakistan’s emergence as a highly unstable country than Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and General Zia ul-Huq.  The former started the process of Islamization of that country, and the latter took it to the extreme.  The practice of using an extremist interpretation of Sunni Islam, which was intensified under Zia’s rule, was continued under the rule of General Pervez Musharraf, but with a different twist. 


Zia was forthright about his commitment to the extremist interpretation of Sunni Islam and used it unabashedly to maintain himself in power.  Musharraf, on the contrary, was duplicitous and cunning.  He presented the face of moderation toward the American interlocutor, while sustaining his alliance with the Islamists inside his country, especially in Baluchistan and in the border areas between Pakistan and Afghanistan.


The extremist Islamist forces had a clear sense that Musharraf was creating a façade of suppressing or containing them.  They understood that game and played along until they decided to take on the Army, after the massacre at the Lal Masjid (red mosque) on July 13, 2007.  That bloody event marked the beginning of the end of the Musharraf regime.  But when he was forced out of office and democracy returned to Pakistan, it was a feeble government while extremist forces were very much on the offensive.


The continued escalated pace of violence–which resulted in the assassination of Benazir Bhutto on December 27, 2007, and an assassination attempt on the life of Prime Minister Yusuf Reza Gilani on September 3, 2008–numerous suicide attacks and the resultant deaths of civilians as well as military personnel, leave little doubt about the march of Pakistan toward further instability.


As the United States gets ready to enlarge the presence of its troops in Afghanistan, the biggest question is whether the Surge strategy can be successfully implemented in Afghanistan.  Even if one were to be optimistic about such prospects, it should be kept in mind that stability and security of Afghanistan has been intrinsically linked to the security and stability of Pakistan since the 1980s.  The United States has known that fact.  But, under the administration of President Barack Obama, it might not remember, at its own peril.


In summarizing the overall situation in many Muslim countries, what is needed in Gaza, for starters, is a reinstatement of indirect negotiations between the parties, with Egypt serving, once again, as an intermediary.  After that, the only alternative for the Obama administration will be to plunge itself into endless rounds of negotiations, first with Hamas and Fatah, and then by bringing all Arab and Israeli contenders to the negotiating table. 


Even under the heap of mounting bitterness, the Palestinians know that the United States is the only actor that can exercise its influence on Israel.  This is not about putting pressure on the Jewish state.  Israelis know better than anyone else that there is no way they can resolve the conflict with the Palestinians by resorting to military force alone.   However, there is no denial of the significant role of an intermediary.  And only the U.S. can play that role, largely because Israel trusts the U.S., and also because it is a major recipient of U.S. military and economic assistance.  Besides, the Obama administration does not carry the same baggage of high partisanship that the Bush administration demonstrated toward Israel.


In South Asia, there is an urgent need for the application of a new “surge” strategy.  Such a strategy must treat Pakistan and Afghanistan as two sides of the same coin and it should be multi-dimensional.  Its features include massive economic assistance, revision of educational curricula, building of civilian infrastructure, implementation of civil-military relations that assign supremacy of civilian authority, eradication of the opium trade culture, and elimination of the proliferation of small arms from both Pakistan and Afghanistan. 


The chief tactic to escalate the feeling of security in the Pakistani ruling circles (of which the Pakistan Army is the most important part) is to ensure that India has minimal diplomatic presence in Afghanistan.  Any heightened Indian diplomatic presence in Afghanistan–which is the current reality on the ground–will motivate Pakistan to destabilize Afghanistan, fearing collusion between Afghanistan and India, whose purpose it is to destabilize Pakistan.  A general suspicion is that Pakistan’s highly secretive intelligence service, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), sponsored the terrorist attack on the Indian embassy in Afghanistan in July 2008. 


The most unfortunate part of the current reality is that both Pakistan and Afghanistan have become fertile places for the mushrooming of extremism.  The deteriorating quality of life in those countries–as is also the case in occupied Palestine–is definitely adding further momentum for the growth of that phenomenon.  No simple solution that comprises only the use of military force will work.  In the pre-surge days, Iraq was the primary example of that fact.  It was only through the multidimensional application of the surge strategy that Iraq is making steady progress toward political stability.  That reality becomes a powerful argument for the implementation of the aforementioned multidimensional strategy in Afghanistan.


There is some reason to be optimistic, however, that the United States will develop a sophisticated understanding of the significance of Pakistan in the coming days.  According to a recent New York Times dispatch, the outgoing Bush administration has handed over to the Obama transition team a lengthy report on Afghanistan and Pakistan.  That report concluded, “that in the end, the United States has far more at stake in preventing Pakistan’s collapse than it does in stabilizing Afghanistan or Iraq.”