No long-term plan in Middle East
Reports of the Islamic State’s apparent retreat from the previously held-swathes in Syria, Iraq, and Libya have to be treated with caution. The terror entity is down, but not out. The history of the Middle East region is littered with the tactical, unidimensional and short-term interventions by the West, which is consistently marked by the stark absence of a post-immediate-task plan, after securing the immediate objective.
Libya is a classic case of the Western short-termism – the US-led coalition bombed the Libyan Army to virtual annihilation that ultimately led to the macabre end of the poster boy of Western rage, Muammar Gaddafi. This task achieved, the West conveniently walked away, leaving an inexplicable power vacuum that allowed the subsequent cauldron of bloodshed and chaos, that rages till date.
In a rare and candid moment, President Obama referred to Libya as the “worst mistake” of his tenure and went on to explain the same, “Probably failing to plan for the day after what I think was the right thing to do in intervening in Libya”.
This statement and sentiment is perfectly applicable and extendable for having sub-contracted the limited war on the Soviet Union to the Afghan Mujahidin’s and Pakistan in the 80’s and the utter disinterest and absence of a post-Soviet-occupation plan. It could be used for the utter mismanagement of Iraq post achieving the singular objective of removing Saddam Hussein and ensuring the subsequent vivisection of country and sectarianism, or, for attempting and nearly achieving the same in Syria with a view to dislodging the anti-West, Bashar-Al Assad government.
Whether it was the blustering shock-and-awe tactics of Bush or the more discreet drone assassination tactics of Obama, Western interventions invariably leave behind catastrophic black holes of chaos and violent resentment. The residual destruction, repression, and humiliation that follows a sudden withdrawal or absence of a “Plan B”, by the intervening Western forces have surely contributed to the creation and relevance of an IS-like organisation and ideology. The obvious military and economic advantage in favor of the Western forces has traditionally allowed a certain prodigal and profligate approach that has not necessitated the thinking-through of scenarios, beyond the immediacy of tasks.
Intrinsically, long-term plans entail going beyond the narrow prism of the West’s immediate agenda and investing in the honest rehabilitation, reconstruction and resettlement of the disarrayed humanity in the conflict zones. The absence of a long-term plan has almost always led to cancerous strains of backlash religiosity and terror that are ironically and invariably aimed at the West – sentiments in Libya, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan are all reflective of the narrative. Forces like IS, Al Qaida or Taliban are borne of and thrive on, such instabilities and forgetfulness of the West.
Asymmetric nature of the war-on-terror makes it impossible to defeat terror organisations like the IS in the conventional sense – the ideology is territory agnostic as shown by Omar Mateen who was responsible for 49 deaths in the recent, Orlando shootout. Similarly, even for the retreating IS, the ability to conduct the suicide bombings like the one in Baghdad on May 17, which left 100 people dead, can be done with brazen impunity.
Sirte is the last remaining stronghold of the retreating Libyan-IS affiliate, Ramadi in Iraq and the historical city of Palmyra in Syria have already been seized back from the IS, and the battle for Raqqa (de facto IS capital in Syria) is nearly over – but all is not well for the advancing armies, either. The Russian-Asaad-Iran-Iraq combine and its affiliated militias are one bloc. The other is the West supported anti-Assad “moderate” Syrian militia forces, the Kurds have their own turf agenda, while the Turks have a perennial animosity with the Kurd Peshmerga – all in all, while the anti-IS blocs are gnawing at the IS infrastructure individually from various directions, an eerie foreboding of a post-IS scenario, looms large with no subsequent plans, in place. Such a future scenario is the very reason for the existence of regressive forces like the IS of today, and the situation could yet again regress into a veritable free for all, as earlier. In the Middle East, future plans aside, a cohesive and joint coalition against IS itself, is a stillborn casualty.
Toppling incumbent dictators and working power structures is reasonably straight forward – handling the aftermath requires delicate understanding of perceptions, segregations, mind sets, and characters of the surviving populace. The brutally held equilibrium of the dictators gives way to animalistic sense of redemption and revenge unless the country is hand-held and guided through the aftermath of “freedom”. Sometimes, a heavy hand to reign in the unruly and fiercely feudal societal structures from running amok is required – this means retaining physical feet-on-street and not an immediate withdrawal. The region is rife with sectarianism, emotional injuries that have festered with time, sense of betrayals and unfulfilled vendettas that play out, as they do on the streets of Benghazi, Mosul, and Kandahar.
Often the local narrative is beyond the common comprehension of the Western sensibilities and the Western media plays a partisan role in oversimplifying what is historically complex and full of intrigues e.g. Samuel P. Huntington’s “Clash of Civilization” is a convenient and inadequate Western metaphor for explaining the rage. The spin of “humanitarian intervention” economises with the truth and offers a plausible exit option on the accomplishment of a part-goal. Given its genealogical role, the West needs a more long-term and holistic approach which envisages such post-operation scenarios and not just tactical “hits” – the conflict zones of Middle East are an explosive tinderbox if dumped and forgotten, midway.
The past is a mirror to the future, but people are literally taught to forget the history of umpteen mid-course bail-outs and consistent absence of long-term plans, till then all the euphoric noises of a retreating IS has a dangerously familiar ring to it.
Lt Gen Bhopinder Singh (Retd) is the Former Lieutenant Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands and Puducherry. The views expressed are strictly personal.