Washington: The scorching pace with which the jihadists of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria have overrun Iraq, the arc of instability from the Middle East is slowly stretching all the way to India’s borders.
In many ways, the situation is symptomatic of the larger Shia-Sunni conflict that underpins all Muslim politics of the Middle East with Iran and Saudi Arabia as the two rival patrons. The rapid breaking down of Iraq as a country shows the “contained” phase of this rivalry may be over.
The ISIS, which grew in strength after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, is Sunni with a clear goal of establishing a caliphate in the heart of the Middle East. It has never been short of weapons, men or money – Saudi Wahabis and Gulf donors have kept their purse strings open. And now the ISIS has reportedly looted more than $425 million from Mosul’s central bank and unknown amounts of gold bullion, making it the richest terrorist organisation in the world.
Apart from foreign jihadis, it has co-opted disgruntled Iraqi Sunni tribes who oppose Iraq’s Shia government. Many of these Sunni tribesmen were armed and trained by the Americans as part of the 2007-08 “surge” to buy their support for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. But no sooner had the American troops left, the tribes turned on the Iraqi government.
It has spawned Islamist militancy across swathes of land untouched by it before. But there is still no real recognition in Washington of why the Islamic world is tearing itself apart and what might be done to bring a finer balance between the Shias and Sunnis.
India, which has the second largest Shia population, is affected in three critical ways by what’s unfolding: it has 10,000 workers in Iraq alone and hundreds of thousands more in other Arab countries, it imports 25 million tonnes of oil from Iraq every year and finally the presence of Pakistani jihadists in the ranks of Syrian and Iraqi militants brings the conflict and Wahabi Islamist ideology closer to India.
Reports say that 40 Indian construction workers have been kidnapped in Mosul amid violence in northern Iraq. Indian nurses in Tikrit have sent an SOS to Prime Minister Narendra Modi for rescue. In the fog of war, the fate of Indian citizens hangs in the balance. The brutality of ISIS shouldn’t be underestimated even as Indian envoys negotiate for the workers’ safe return.
India must also consider the fact that Pakistani militants and possibly retired soldiers are fighting in Syria and Iraq after Saudi Arabia turned to Islamabad for help following Washington’s refusal to get actively involved in the Syrian conflict. Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Pakistan Taliban commanders have bragged about sending hundreds of fighters and trainers since last year.
The role of the Pakistan civilian government and military is more dubious. Saudi Arabia has leaned on Islamabad in more ways than one to supply arms, including anti-aircraft missiles (Anza) and anti-tank rockets to Syrian rebels and small arms to ISIS. This year alone, Saudi royal family members made five visits to Pakistan culminating with the visit of Saudi crown prince, Salman bin Abdul Aziz to Islamabad.
With American blessings, the Saudis reportedly passed on $1.5 billion to the Pakistan army to finance the operations. Knowledgeable Pakistani analysts say that retired soldiers have gone to the region to train Sunni militias. They point to a common thread between the sudden ascendance of ISIS and the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan in the 1990s, which was trained and armed by the Pakistan military and intelligence.
Pakistan army reportedly refused to send serving officers to the region to train Sunni militias—something that the US and Saudis had asked for—to avoid getting on the wrong side of international law. Saudis and Qataris then began recruiting directly in Pakistan. According to one account, the hyperactive Hamid Gul, a former ISI chief and a fundamentalist, is helping send mercenaries.
Whether it officially admits or not Pakistan has taken sides in the Shia-Sunni rivalry that is now bubbling dangerously in the Middle East. It is in the Saudi camp for obvious reasons even though 20 percent of Pakistani Muslims are Shia. The slaughter of Shias in Pakistan, which has been going on for nearly two years and barely rattles the establishment, is part of Pakistan’s Saudi-fication.
Iran on the other side is contemplating its own interests while watching the deepening sectarian lines in the sand in the Middle East and South Asia. With the buffer of Iraq now gone, Saudi Arabia and Iran are now staring at each other closer. So far, Iran has shown restraint amid the slow thaw with the United States. President Obama may find the political courage to break decades-old US policy and execute a real rapprochement with Tehran but the hawks in Washington will use every trick in the bag to prevent it.
What is for certain is that neither of the two US wars that Obama promised to end—Iraq and Afghanistan—is really ending. Instead the threat of a bigger conflict has become more real.
Indian strategy for the short term has to focus on the safety of its citizens but in the long run, it must find a way to bend this arc of instability away from its borders.