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West Asia crucial for our long-term energy security: Talmiz Ahmad

July 07, 2014 14:32 IST

Talmiz Ahmad is a former Indian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE.

In an interview with Aditi Phadnis, he says the disequilibrium in Iraq will continue to prevail. Ahmad also says there are indications that the US is now anxious to avoid intervening militarily in West Asia, and that this is the appropriate moment for Asia to assume responsibility for its own security. Edited excerpts:

What is the genesis of the conflict in Iraq?

Iraq has suffered instability and violence for nearly 35 years. However, it is the US-led intervention of 2003 that is primarily responsible for the current disorder. You will recall that the US assault upon Iraq was justified on the basis that it had weapons of mass destruction or WMD that threatened regional and even global security, though most observers in the region at that time were quite sceptical.

We now have a better idea of what US motivations were: the neo-cons, then the dominant influence in the US administration, saw in the events of 9/11 the opportunity to re-shape West Asia in ways that would suit the US, but primarily Israeli, interests by removing from the region a hostile presence. Beyond regime change, they were anxious to have in Iraq a leadership that would be in thrall to the US and provide a solid base to sustain long-term US interests.

The neo-cons' plans failed since the Iraqis would not accept foreign occupation. However, as the insurgency in Iraq became robust and widespread, the institutions holding that beleaguered country together were systematically dismantled by the occupation forces: the army was disbanded, while governance was crippled by prohibiting the employment of anyone with a Baathist connection, which included most officials and professionals in the country.

But, the most pernicious initiative was to proclaim that the US intervention had been aimed at empowering the Shia; thus the virus of sectarianism was deliberately injected into the country. A country with a strong sense of nationhood and powerful secular values was now doomed to be at war with itself.

Many thought the US intervention -- and its subsequent exit -- from the country meant a chapter was over and now that their fate was in Iraqi hands, the Iraqis themselves would be able to find solutions that were seen as just and fair by everyone. And yet, that has not happened. What are the reasons?

The fault-lines the US occupation exacerbated in Iraq will not be bridged for a long time, particularly when the broken state has spawned tribal warlords with their own militia; jihadi zealots, many of them of foreign origin, and low-quality political leaders, many exiles unfamiliar with the country, intent on serving only their short-term self-interests.

Much of the blame for the current malaise should be placed at the doors of Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki, who has ruled the country for eight years. He has had several opportunities to be a statesman who could unify the country by accommodating the country's diverse communities. In 2006, the Sunni communities in Anbar province set up a number of militia under the banner of Sahwa (Awakening) and successfully fought the jihadis, then calling themselves the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI).

 

They were assured many of them would be inducted into Iraq's cross-sectarian professional army. However, Al-Maliki feared that such an army could one day rise against him: so he purged the army of its Sunni and Kurdish officers and soldiers, and his regime in a narrow Shia base. The Iraqi army now mainly consists of only Shia element that is poorly trained and led, and entirely dependent on private Shia militias, while many of the alienated Sunnis support the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria as part of an anti-Maliki coalition.

Is disequilibrium likely to be a permanent state of play in Iraq?

Given the background of external and internal conflict continuously for 35 years, it is not surprising that Iraq now presents a picture of acute instability. Most of infrastructure remains in bad shape, including its oil and gas sector. It has experienced poor governance and rampant corruption over the last 10 years. Its armed forces are in shambles, while national unity has been replaced by fierce sectarian and ethnic divides. In this scenario, disequilibrium will continue to prevail in the polity for the foreseeable future.

However, this could change: a broad-based government would encourage several Sunni groups, who believe in a united, non-sectarian Iraq, and do not accept the extremist doctrines and conduct of the jihadis, to oppose the ISIS ideologically and on the battlefield, and recover for their country its sense of nationhood and destiny.

What are the possibilities of the conflict escalating and what other ramifications could it have on the region?

Three aspects of the Iraq scenario will have important regional implications. First, there is the burgeoning sectarian divide. Its origins lie in Saudi concerns relating to what it sees as increasing Iranian influence in the region, embracing Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, with possible impact on the Shia communities in the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council as well. The sectarian and strategic competition between the two Islamic giants is the principal source of instability and uncertainty in the region.

Second, we have the jihadi threat, which also has a strong anti-Shia bias. ISIS has made it clear that its interests are not country-specific, but embrace all of West Asia and beyond. Well-funded, well-armed, highly motivated and flush with recent military successes, ISIS could even seek to compete with Al-Qaeda for the leadership of the global jihadi movement. It will thus, be a major source of regional instability in coming years.

Third, we have Kurdish aspirations for a sovereign state of their own. Since the Kurds are also spread over Turkey, Syria and Iran, the emergence of a sovereign Kurdish state in Iraq will have implications for the stability of the entire region.

For India, what are the best- and worst-case scenarios: given that India has a Shia as well as a Sunni population; and is dependent on imported oil?

I do not believe the sectarian divide in the Gulf will have any serious impact on community relations in India. Again, in the short- to medium-term, there will not be any difficulties for India regarding energy supplies since Iraq will be able to maintain production in the south, and other sources of supply would also be available. But, this is not the time to be sanguine since the overall situation is fraught with great peril for our interests.

West Asia is crucial for India's long-term energy security, its commercial interests and the welfare of its seven million-strong community. For nearly 200 years, the security of this region has been the responsibility of imperialist powers: first Britain, and later the US, who exercised hegemonic authority, including military force, to maintain their interests.

However, there are indications that the US is now anxious to avoid intervening militarily in West Asia and is likely to favour more robust diplomatic efforts to address regional issues. Its engagement with Iran and its reluctance to intervene militarily in Syria are pointers in this direction. Given that they have a long-term interest in West Asian security, this situation provides an opportunity for the principal Asian countries - China, Japan, Korea and India - to take the initiative to promote collectively a new regional security paradigm that would encourage dialogue and confidence-building measures among the contending regional players - Iran and Saudi Arabia.

This is the appropriate moment for Asia to assume responsibility for its own security.

Image: Gunmen celebrate near a vehicle belonging to Iraqi security forces in the northern Iraq city of Mosul Photographs: Reuters

Aditi Phadnis in New Delhi
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