Remember the roaring eighties when the spirit of jihad in Afghanistan was young and the state of Pakistan was playing the frontline role in eliminating communism from the world’s final war zone? Remember the elaborate justifications that accompanied our central strategic role and alliance with the US and the monarchs of the Middle East?
Well, those exciting times haven’t quite returned but we are about to partially relive them after jumping right into what looks like another military venture of a global scale. Then it was about fighting the Russians. Now it is about fighting the Iranians. The alliance combination is the same – Riyadh-Washington. Only the target has changed.
The summit in Riyadh took the gloves off as far as strategic animosity is concerned. The Saudis have taken the lead in preparing for the possibility of delivering the knockout punch to the Iranians in a fight that has raged in different shapes on different continents under different garbs for centuries.
The Iranians are not exactly sitting still playing by the rules of good behaviour too; they are investing heavily in creating a counter-situation for the Saudis and their Arab and non-Arab allies in which the cost of taking on Iran will be raised to an unacceptable level. And that will only happen when the sectarian divide becomes the dividing line across the Arab world that will sink the internal stability of most of the anti-Iran states. Tehran has enough sectarian and military ammunition to throw at the Saudis in case the war starts in earnest.
This fault-line that threatens global peace would not have resembled the eighties (the second phase of the cold war that really began after the grinding end of the Second World War) if it were not for the joining of the ranks on one side of the divide by Trump’s United States of America. After all, the animosity between Riyadh and Iran isn’t really news. It has been part of known public discourse and statements (the latest by the king of Saudi Arabia, who described Iran as the spearhead of global terror). It has also been part of secret talks and negotiations, some of which came out through the Wikileaks and were read by all and sundry. However, in recent years what held back global manifestation of this raging regional rivalry was the absence of Washington from the centre of this longstanding and simmering enmity. The arrival of Trump has changed this, and catalysed this regional rivalry into a full-fledged global battle.
The Riyadh summit did not explicitly target Iran, but the intent of its core participants was fairly obvious. Much of the might of the summit’s powerful members and their friends in Washington will be deployed to isolate Iran, reducing the country’s influence across the world starting from the Middle East by taking the sting out of its potential to cause the sectarian balance to shift against the Arab world’s ruling elite.
The Trump Administration is more than happy to use foreign policy as a way to detract attention from its horrible internal problems, and create a pretence of having a ‘vision’ to make America ‘great again’. If in the process the US military-industrial complex gets a boost through deals worth billions of dollars from rich countries getting ready for the final countdown, why not? How else will the Trump Administration bring ‘jobs back to the United States’?
But most amazingly, like the fifties and the eighties, we have landed ourselves in the middle of all of this using the old card of frontline status and our obligation to ‘save the world’. Of course, the explanation for joining the ranks of an alliance which calls itself a partnership between the Arab-Islamic world and the US is that we will be part of the good-spirited and most-urgent global front against terrorism.
In reality, this claim is absurd. A country whose armed forces are stretched thin across its own land in the fight against terror is not exactly placed in a happy situation to contribute much to a global effort against a much broader phenomenon of beyond-borders terrorism. The flimsiness of the official justification for becoming a player on a stage that is fast becoming a global battle between the Arab and the Ajam is a continuation of how we have historically lied to ourselves every time we stumbled into someone else’s fire.
Joining Seato and Cento was no different from joining the Afghan jihad, which in itself was no different from Musharraf’s decision to commit the country to Bush’s misguided war that opened the doors for Washington to attack Muslim countries at will. In all three cases, we stuck to the misleading mantra of ‘saving the world’ or its other and equally misleading manifestations such as the claim that the world ‘cannot win without us.’
We are at it again – the only difference being the relative modesty that we have exhibited in making these claims public. However, by signing on the Riyadh declaration, we have actually committed ourselves to the same kind of strategic haze that accompanied each multilateral alliance whose stated aim was totally different from its actual goals: the cold war was about fighting the Russians; the jihad in Afghanistan was about defeating the Russians; the war against terror turned out to be Washington’s way of turning the world upside down and changing global maps.
The Riyadh declaration makes similar lofty claims: “The close partnership between the leaders of Arab and Islamic countries and the US leader to confront extremism, terrorism, achieving peace, stability and development, on regional as well as international stages.
“The leaders agreed upon means to enhance cooperation and measurements taken to consolidate relations and joint action and they vowed to continue close coordination between the Arab and Islamic countries, on one hand, and the US, on the other hand, towards issues of mutual interest to bolster partnership among them and to share experience, in the domain of development.
“For its part, the United States of America welcomed the willingness of Arab and Islamic countries, in promoting ways of cooperation to unify opinions and stances towards various issues, topped by doubling jointly exerted efforts to combat extremism and terrorism.”
This could well have come from any cold-war archive. Or a summit meeting organised during the George W Bush era.
So here we are then, right on the verge of repeating our past by committing ourselves to other countries’ goals, without realising the costs involved in the process. Field Marshal Ayub Khan did not ask anyone before becoming a tool in the kit of the Western alliance systems; General Ziaul Haq held no referendum on joining Washington’s battleground against Moscow; General Musharraf did not even properly read the paper of demands from Washington after 9/11 before signing up for the job of client leader; General Raheel Sharif spoke to no one when deciding to land the country in the middle of a Middle Eastern and Gulf war.
In each instance in the past, the stated aims of the alliances Pakistan joined were different from their actual goals. In each instance, Pakistan paid a high – and long term – price for the short-sightedness of those at the helm. In each instance, our country lost while others won. It is difficult to imagine how it is going to be different this time around. Unless we still believe the poppycock of Raheel Sharif playing the mediator between Tehran and Riyadh, we should brace for exceptionally dangerous times ahead.
The writer is former executive editor of The News and a senior journalist with Geo TV.