When the Ottoman Empire crumbled after World War 1, Europe took control of West Asia and redefined the boundaries. The British diplomat Sir Mark Sykes and the Frenchman Francois Picot drew lines on the sands of Arabia and conjured up Iraq and Jordan; boundaries between Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Kuwait were defined by the British; the frontiers between the Muslims and Christians by the French in Syria-Lebanon and the Russians defined borders between Armenia and Soviet Azerbaijan. But the European control over the region, and elsewhere, crumbled after the end of World War 2. The Americans wasted no time in being successors to the Europeans, especially Britain. President Theodore Roosevelt met the Saudi monarch King Abdul Aziz aboard USS Quincy in the Suez Canal in May 1945 and the two worked out a treaty of blood and oil that has strengthened with time, though it seems to be under some strain at present.
The Great Game that began in the 19th century continues today. The players may be different with the Russians temporarily confined to the bench and the Chinese present in strength in Pakistan, where the US has fundamental problems with its ally. China has a growing presence in Afghanistan, which the US seeks to vacate with as much honour intact as possible. In Iran the Chinese have considerable economic and geo-strategic interests but the US is absent. Afghanistan is where the next massive resource war for its huge and vital mineral deposits worth a trillion dollars will be fought.
Further afield, the quest to control and then conform the Arab world to their governance systems based on nationalism and democracy continues as earlier attempts of the Europeans and then the Americans failed. This was partly because the religious factor has remained strong and organisations like the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies remained intact in the Arab world, and partly because Cold War compulsions of dominance required that dictators and monarchs were acceptable if they were my dictators and monarchs. The incongruities and inconsistencies of that time have only magnified with time. Life was generally wonderful and the world under control till 9/11 exploded many delusions. Strategies had to be reworked and forces realigned. According to some, the world was seen as having a ‘functioning core’ integrating into the world of globalisation that included India, China, Japan, Russia, the EU, North America, and a few others. The rest of the world — the entire Islamic world, Africa, parts of Latin America and Central Asia — was seen as a ‘non-integrating gap’, disconnected from the rest of the world and unstable. This had to be rectified to ensure lasting peace.
This disconnect could be cured through deconstruction and reconstruction of some countries. It was William Pfaff who disclosed in the July 4, 2005, issue of The American Conservative that, “A new Bureau of Reconstruction and Stabilisation in the State Department is charged with organising the reconstruction of countries where the United States has deemed it necessary to intervene in order to make them into market democracies. The bureau has 25 countries under surveillance as possible candidates for Defence Department deconstruction and State Department reconstruction. The bureau’s director is recruiting ‘rapid-reaction forces’ of official, non-governmental, and corporate business specialists. He hopes to develop the capacity for three full-scale, simultaneous reconstruction operations in different countries.”
The point is not whether this is feasible or serious but that such schemes are actually being thought about and worked at. Add to this the policy of regionalism enunciated by Condoleezza Rice. In January 2006, she spoke of promoting democracy and greater US engagement in the emerging power centres in Asia, Africa, South America and West Asia but spared “good partners like Pakistan and Jordan”, neither of which were democracies. The gaps between intentions and practice, and between the dilemmas and achievements, continue.
The US foreign policy of ‘transformational diplomacy’ began trying to transform nation-States into US clones. Post-conflict multinational reconstruction and stability teams consisting of lawyers, engineers and economists were deployed. Arab analysts pointed out some years ago out that US embassy officials began to monitor development projects sponsored and funded by US aid agencies. Soon there were whispers that American directives to local government agencies on purely sovereign concerns were becoming more frequent.
Attempts to encourage an Arab Spring in Egypt and Libya threaten to go awry with the Muslim Brotherhood and its variations taking control of the Egyptian Parliament. Libya remains unsettled with a strong Islamic content in its protests; Iraq is a country in ruins with sectarian violence and suspicions; and we have the rather incongruous situation where the Arab League, a body that has monarchs and dictators as members, has been advising Syria to accept democratic practices. The Saudis have pulled out of the Arab League delegation yet they want outside intervention. Amid all this profound talk of liberation, attainment of demands and democracy, Kurds, the world’s largest minority (27-36 million) spread over four countries don’t have a nation of their own, and they are not even allowed to protest peacefully or, like the Baloch, fight their lonely and bloody battle.
The entire region from Morocco to Pakistan is likely to remain unsettled and prone to upheavals — hopefully peaceful but most likely violent — in the decades ahead. Closer home, the Great Game will be played in the unstable fields of Ayatollahs’ Iran, a Talibanised Afghanistan, whose leaders have their own world view, and a Sunni radicalised nuclearised Pakistan. The main contestants will be China and the US and our strategic planners may have to start planning for an uncertain future.
Vikram Sood is former Secretary, Research & Analysis Wing
The views expressed by the author are personal