Arab Spring, Arab Revolt and the Imperial Interests

The most useful thing about a principle is that it can always be sacrificed to expediency.
W. Somerset Maugham

Depending on who writes the future history, the year 2011 could be remembered for the so-called Arab Spring. This movement triggered protests that threatened to change the political landscape of the Middle East. Dictators felled like ninepins, as crowds pressed for greater political rights and better economic conditions. One ‘usurper’ managed to escape, one was caught and is facing trial, and one returned after recuperating from superficial wounds. One longstanding ‘strongman’ was lynched by bloodthirsty rebels, while making a last stand and another one is still struggling to control the situation in his country.

It is interesting to recall that an Arab Revolt during the last century had brought about a major change in the Middle East. Arab lands were divided into a number of nation states to suit the interests of the superpowers, including their oil supplies. Sensing the imminent demise of the Ottoman Empire during the First World War, France and Great Britain, connived to carve up Turkey’s Arab provinces, into their respective spheres of influence within the framework of the secret Sykes–Picot Agreement (16 May 1916). This was in contravention to the understanding given to Sharif Hussein of Makkah by Henry Mcmohan, the British High Commissioner in Cairo. McMohan’s agent extraordinary, T.E. Lawrence had been able to muster the support of tribes loyal to Sharif to lead a successful insurgency against the Turks. Sharif had been falsely promised complete sovereignty over the Arab lands after the Turks departed. Simultaneously the British were also working towards the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. In a letter dated 2 November 1917 the British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour to Baron Rothschild a leader of the British Jewish community, for transmission to the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland, let it be known: “His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object.” It magnanimously added “it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.” The British Prime Minister Lloyd George had already ordered General Allenby to deliver Palestine as a Christmas present to the nation in December 1917. Palestine under the British mandate and the creation of the state of Israel is now history.

As we witness new history in the making, we should not forget past history. The interests of the great powers do not exactly match the revolutionary fervour in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. It merely gives them the necessary domestic traction and international support to diplomatically, physically and most importantly economically intercede, in these lands. Libya is a case in point. NATO warplanes were not only used to enforce the No Fly Zone around Libya, they physically pursued and targeted the fleeing Gadhaffi. Libya is oil rich and the western benefactors of the Transitional Revolutionary Council expect windfall contracts from the grateful former rebels. On the other hand, the heavy handed manner in which political unrest was quashed in Bahrain was largely ignored because this small island state near the western shores of the Persian Gulf is home to the US Fifth Fleet.

Can the ISI really help the US talk with the Haqqanis?

Among one of ISI’s most prized possessions is a piece of the defunct Berlin Wall. This craggy concrete piece, no larger than a stone that boys hurl against occupation forces in Kashmir and Palestine, was presented by the CIA in grateful appreciation for the fatal blow that ISI delivered to demolish communism. That era of mutual cooperation and respect between the two intelligence agencies is now a thing of the past. In the murky underworld of intelligence, as in international relations there are no permanent friends or enemies, only permanent interests.

Over the past few years the Americans have demonized ISI for playing a double game in Afghanistan. The ISI has been blamed for supporting the Haqqani network – A Taliban group with alleged sanctuaries in North Waziristan. This ‘psy ops’ theme has been played so aggressively that the entire world now takes it for gospel truth. It therefore came as no surprise that the Haqqanis were instantly blamed for the deadly September 13 attack on the American embassy in Kabul. The former US Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen went a step further and declared the Haqqanis, as the “veritable arm of the ISI.” The assassination of Burhanuddin Rabbani, former president and chairman of High Peace Council, a week later, was also blamed on the Haqqanis. Naturally the Pakistani government rejected the American allegations as unfair and unwarranted. Accusations by Afghan high officials and the Indo-Afghan security agreement only served to heighten Pakistani concerns.

During her recent visit to Pakistan, the American Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was in combative mood. She wanted her Pakistani interlocutors to understand that as the US wound up military operations in Afghanistan, they would simultaneously Fight, Talk and Build. The last element in the proposed strategy amounts to building up the local Afghan forces to replace the NATO and ISAF. As far as Clinton was concerned, she thought Pakistan had the capacity “to encourage, to push, to squeeze” the Haqqanis into peace talks. Pakistanis, who would much rather that the Americans stopped fighting and withdraw post haste, reluctantly agreed to help, wondering all the time, if such talks, if these ever took place would succeed. As a quid pro quo, Clinton told the House Foreign Affairs Committee Congress, that aid to Pakistan should not be stopped for its so-called misdemeanors in Afghanistan.

The American policy in Afghanistan is quite similar to the one they adopted in Vietnam. Towards the fag end, as the Americans bombed neighboring Laos and Cambodia and fought running battles against the Viet Cong, they simultaneously engaged in Paris peace talks. The fight and talk strategy did not succeed then, one wonders if it will now.

Stop Press. It is being alleged that the attack on a NATO bus in Kabul last Sunday, that left 17 people killed was the handiwork of the Haqqanis. So far the ISI has not been officially blamed!