After Iraq: who is next?
Date: Tuesday, April 08 @ 00:47:10 UTC
Topic: King Bush
Dr Maqsudul Hasan Nuri, www.jang.com.pk
Since the last few months, speculations say that US may turn its guns on other targets -- 'considered undesirable' or 'problematic' -- after Iraq. Of course, some of the fears seem inflated, but given the juggernaut of the US military machine and its fervid ideological rhetoric these threats cannot be lightly dismissed. After all, the current US-led war against Iraq, despite unprecedented international outcry, has not deterred it from aggression, which, it seems, will not terminate until 'regime change' is achieved. The US 'game plan' in the view of some influential neo-conservatives and Christian Right advisers is to change the strategic map of the Middle East. Israel's interests form the pivot and its pre-eminence needs to be 'ensured' by effectively dealing with 'errant' governments, who object or formed part of the 'rejectionist front' in the ME peace process.
US Secretary Colin Powell Powell's warning to Syria a week back and admonishment to Iran ring some alarm bells. Speaking at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld blamed Iran for sending hundreds of Shi'ite fighters based in Iran to Iraq "complicating" US war plans. Previously the US has charged Iran for supporting Hizbollah in Palestine and Syria, and desiring nuclear weapons.
Iran is torn between two difficult options presented by active reformists and ideological conservatives. It is following a policy of discretion and 'active neutrality'. It appears to be rooting for an outcome that would mean early exit of Saddam Hussein, but also not an easy military 'walkover' for the US. In fact, the more the US gets mired in the Iraq conflict, the less it will have incentives to threaten Iran's immediate neighbours. It condemns the US led war yet bears no sympathy towards Saddam, with whom Iran fought an eight-year-old bloody war. Any 'lodgement' of US troops is perceived as encirclement of Iran and new threats of political and economic blackmail.
Likewise Syrian President Bashar al-Assad remarked that if Syria was on the US hit list as the next target, 'the possibility is always there' for other Arab countries too. Syria is the only Arab country as a member of the UN Security Council and has been strongly critical of US military invasion of Iraq. It has been under cloud for supporting Palestinian fighters in Palestine and Hizbollah militia in Syria. As a vociferous supporter of Saddam Hussein in the current war, unlike his father in the 1991 Gulf war, Bashar al-Assad has bitterly accused both the US and Britain of 'illegal invasion' and of 'perpetuating crime against humanity.' However, it is heavily dependent on the Iraqi oil. It has Baa'th linkages with its counterpart in Iraq, though with some degree of rivalry. It will feel hemmed in by pro-US governments, including Israel if Iraq falls. Lately, the US has charged it with supplying some night equipment for fighting the Iraqis, which the latter has strenuously denied.
In the meantime, the Israeli Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz warned Syria about the might and the force of Israel in all areas, including the military. This was in response to a statement last week by the Syrian leader in a Lebanese daily, Al-Safir that "as long as Israel exists, the threat against Israel will exist for the Syrian state."
The US warnings to these two countries and implicitly to others at this juncture have varied motives. First, they would like to intimidate Iraq's neighbours and other Arab or Muslim counties to 'fall in line' and abstain from extending support to Iraq. Besides, they need scapegoats for the recent embarrassment caused by military setbacks against stiff Iraqi opposition. Third, they have to act 'macho' in front of their public or else their war support will dwindle and pose problems for coming elections.
According some analysts North Korea, Yemen, Sudan, Libya, and some say, Pakistan, could may well be on the list. In case Saddam is defeated and ousted, the scenario may change, with the US getting emboldened to launch fresh pre-emptive action against some recalcitrant' regimes. But should it be otherwise, it would avoid getting stuck into unknown quagmires.
However this strategy faces some inherent problems. Iran over the years, despite anti-US rhetoric has made some pragmatic adjustments with Arab neighbours and tempered its ideological rhetoric. It is no sympathiser to Saddam, though it remains critical of US offensive and its negative impact on the region. It faces immediate economic burden of 60,000 refugees and a protracted war could bring even greater numbers.
Pakistan is touted as another likely target. However some caveats are in order. For one, it is a de facto nuclear power with its strategic assets under firm control and well dispersed. On the contrary, Iraq and Iran are incipient nuclear powers and Iraq has had a long running dispute with the US and indulging in 'strategic defiance.'
North Korea, albeit nuclear and defiant, is less vulnerable due to its location in East Asia with US forces closely stationed in Japan and South Korea. Pakistan on the other hand, is presently cooperating as a 'frontline' ally of the US and extending assistance to the US in its war on international terrorism. The Musharraf regime is a tight ally for the last 18 months, and Pakistan has handed over to the US nearly 500 terrorists linked to al-Qaeda/Taliban. Besides, its population, disciplined armed forces are other assets, which create disincentives for any pre-emptive strike. Moreover, unlike Iraq, Pakistan has avoided 'strategic defiance,' and is strongly dependent on US economic and military aid. Again, it is not as internationally isolated as Iraq.
The recent US sanctions against the Kahuta Research Laboratories for alleged nuclear support to North Korea are cause for concern. US wants Pakistan to possibly fall in line, says Dr A H Nayyar of the SDPI. In fact, President Musharraf, while addressing businessmen on 18 January in Karachi himself conceded that "we could be next (target) and we would have to stave off on our own." Khalid Mahmud, a research analyst at the IRS, observes that the main factor feeding the theory of Pakistan as the likely target are combination of possession of WMDs and rising Islamic fundamentalism. Continuing he observes that from the beginning the 'Islamic bomb' posed a threat to Israel.
However, should US find that Pakistan is reneging on its commitments on terrorism, or its government is unstable and risks falling into the hands of Islamic fundamentalists, it may choose to 'defang' Pakistan either by itself or through its enemies.
In order to avoid this, Pakistan needs to reduce its economic dependence upon US, diversify ties with other countries, including Russia, East Asia, and take foolproof measures to safeguard its strategic assets. At the same time, it should put curbs on issuing of irresponsible and flippant statements on nuclear matters by individuals or certain politicians. Needless to say that it should continue to eliminate terrorism from within and across its borders, if any, and, last but not least, seriously try to normalise relations with India. For a moderate, progressive Islamic Pakistan is an insurance of survival.
Catharsis of public anger and shock against the US-led attack against suffering Iraqi public is but natural for Pakistanis and others in the Islamic world. However, these anti-US sentiments should not take rabid overtones and be exploited by certain religious groups/parties for partisan ends. For this will further soil Pakistan's image. Governments have to be leaders in public education and not be held hostage to public feelings. Calls for Jihad will only lead to further vicious cycle of revenge and retribution from the West, singling out the Muslims as confirmed 'terrorists.'
It needs no reminding that Saddam is a tyrannical and megalomaniac despot. By invading his neighbours, gassing Kurds, repressing minorities, diverting funds on military and intelligence and security apparatus for his survival, he does not endear himself to many. Policy of 'strategic defiance' seems bordering on foolhardiness and living in a world of illusions. This is however no apologia for the brazen and unabashed US military assault on Iraq in contravention of international law for ulterior motives. US policies of pre-emption, if pursued in future, cannot ensure that the new governments in the ME, whether Islamist or democratic will be more friendly towards it. It is like treading into an unknown, dark terrain. In short, future US pre-emption strategy will depend how the US emerges from the current Iraq war: triumphant or tragically mauled.
Dr Maqsudul Hasan Nuri is Senior Research Fellow of the Islamabad Policy Research Institute.