The ‘Pharaoh’ is laughing: all hell is breaking loose

Bush’s neo-cons believed that America could now do just as it pleased. And however Washington chose to intervene anywhere around the world, invasion included, it would be for the latter’s own good. How times have changed!

(Daily Times, 19 June 2014)

The ‘Pharaoh’ is having the last laugh. I mean, Hosni Mubarak, the disgraced former president of Egypt. He has a lot to laugh about.

Nominally in detention, he actually now lives in comfortable retirement in a military hospital, well looked after by the many field marshals and generals whom he promoted and patronized over three decades and who now control Egypt. And those who brought about his downfall languish in jail, Islamist and secular alike. 

And then there is the issue of Iraq too. When President George Bush was bracing to invade Iraq, Mubarak had publicly warned against it, saying that if Iraq was invaded, “all hell will break loose”.

Well, the old man, whom many called the Pharaoh, was right.  Yours truly was among those who were wrong on this issue, but of that at another time. Mubarak had opposed the invasion not out of sympathy for the people of Iraq or Saddam Hussain, nor even as a friend of America. But knowing the Middle East well, he feared for the long-term consequences of a Western invasion.

All hell has indeed broken loose in Iraq. What is happening in Iraq now is closer to fiction than fact. The Al-Qaeda offshoot, Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which seeks to create an Islamic caliphate straddling both Iraq and Syria, has suddenly gained a large swathe of territory north of Baghdad with a speed that matches, even surpasses, the sweep of the American army against Saddam’s forces.

The Iraqi government forces, 270,000-strong, equipped by the Americans with over 300 tanks, close to 4,000 Armored Fighting Vehicles, 49 Self Propelled Guns, Apache helicopters and much more, couldn’t stop a ragtag force of a couple of thousand Jihadis with black banners from seizing Mosul, the second largest city. Thirty thousand Iraqi troops fled the city leaving behind large stockpiles of arms, some shedding their uniforms as they ran!

What the hell is going on? For a start, ISIS is an inspired, fearless and battle-hardened military force. Its fighters are operating in Sunni territory, whose inhabitants view them as liberators, in spite of their extremism and religious fanaticism, because Sunnis have been effectively disenfranchised by the Shi’a-led government of prime minister, Nouri Al-Maliki. 

Recall that the senior-most Sunni member of the Iraqi government, Vice President Tariq Al-Hashimi, fled Baghdad in 2012 after being accused of murder. He was later sentenced to death in absentia. Maliki is now in the 9th year of his unfolding “reign” and looks poised for many more.

The Iraqi army is a force divided against itself. The Shi’a personnel (mostly from the south) based in Sunni areas feel isolated and threatened, while the Sunni officers and men feel alienated from the government.

The invasion of Iraq must rank as the most stupid military adventure that any major power has launched anywhere in modern history. Quite apart from the fact that it was based on a fib, that of Saddam’s alleged weapons of mass destruction, it has had the result of turning America’s enemy’s enemy into its enemy’s friend (turning Iraq, a long-time enemy and counterweight to Iran, into its ally). It also transformed a secular, stable, if dictatorial, Middle Eastern country into a volatile, unstable and quasi-theocratic state.

And at what cost to America? Nearly five thousand US troops killed, 32,223 wounded, and billions of dollars down the drain.  How many billions exactly?  We will never know, but a Brown University report estimates the total cost to date of the Iraq War as being close to $1 trillion, with the Department of Defense’s direct spending on Iraq totaling at least $757.8 billion.

And we will now have the bizarre spectacle of the US joining Iran in strengthening the Al Maliki regime against the ISIS threat, while trying to bring down Iran’s Syrian ally, President Bashar Al-Assad, a goal Washington shares with ISIS. At the same time, the US remains totally committed to nuclear-armed Israel to prevent Iran from ever reaching military parity with Israel. Too complicated? Yes. Makes sense? No.

Many in the West jumped up and down with triumphalism after the implosion of the Soviet Union. Francis Fukuyama even declared the “end of history,” whatever that meant. Bush’s neo-cons believed that America could now do just as it pleased. And however Washington chose to intervene anywhere around the world, invasion included, it would be for the latter’s own good!

Stalin once said about President Josip Broz Tito of Yugoslavia that he would only have to lift his little finger and Tito would be no more.  Tito ruled long enough to see Stalin denounced in his own country. In the manner of Stalin, the American neo-cons believed that in this “post-history” era, all America had to do was to inflict “shock and awe” on another country with its stealth bombers and cruise missiles for that country to do its bidding and transform itself in America’s image. Saddam is probably rolling in his grave from laughter.

To his credit, Barack Obama is more realistic and has a better sense of history. Remember the fine speeches the American president gave to cheering Muslim university students in Cairo, Jakarta and Istanbul early in his presidency? If only speeches, interspersed with Islamic greetings, sufficed!  They don’t.  

As I write, America’s “eternal ally” Israel has let its troops run amok in the occupied West Bank because three young Israelis have not returned home from a hike. They have arrested hundreds of Palestinians, including the speaker of parliament.

Robert Fisk, a well-known writer on the Middle East now based in Lebanon, thinks that the recent events in both Syria and Iraq threaten the political map of the Middle East drawn by European powers. 

He quotes Walid Jumblatt, the Lebanese Druze leader, as telling him that “Sykes-Picot is dead”. The reference is to Mark Sykes, British traveler and politician, and François Picot, a French diplomat, who sliced and carved ancient lands, obliterated and redrew timeless frontiers, and cut and slashed age-old trade routes in the Middle East to suit the economic and political interests of the Anglo-French colonial powers after the First World War.

How times have changed! All hell is breaking loose.

by Razi Azmi


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9 Responses to The ‘Pharaoh’ is laughing: all hell is breaking loose

  1. Tony says:

    Hi Razi. This time (unusually) I agree with almost everyth8ing you say….As far as it goes. Sure the Americans were wrong to topple Hussein in the way they did, certainly the British and the French carving up the middle east has caused as many problems as it solved. But with the collapse of the decaying Ottoman empire, what was the alternative?

    Had the Colonialists simply walked away at the end of WW1 and let the Arabs sort out the mess by themselves, what would have happened? An outbreak of peace and sober debate about who rules what? I think not. On the one hand the British are accused of deserting the Indian subcontinent and leaving the natives to sort it out with appalling consequences. On the other hand the British and French in the middle east are accused of trying to hold on to influence and sort out stable nation states in the middle east with appalling consequences. Is there a pattern emerging here?

    • Razi Azmi says:

      Tony, I see a pattern emerging and a pattern broken. The latter first: you have for the first time failed to point to the Sunni-Shi’a schism as the root cause of this and all problems affecting the Muslim countries. As for the pattern emerging, it is, as some of my friends correctly point out, that I am now more critical of US and western policies.

      As to the British departure from India, you leave out of the reckoning 200 years of British “divide and rule” policies. They exacerbated Hindu-Muslim differences, especially after the 1857 revolt, by such political tools as Separate Electorates and the Partition of Bengal (1905). If you are not prepared to accept historian Stanley Wolpert’s damning indictment of Britain, then I can certainly do no better.

      As to the Anglo-French takeover and handling of the Middle East, well, well, well! Who invited them there, after all? You know very well, Tony, that lands were partitioned and countries created so that both Britain and France would get a satisfactory share of the Middle Eastern pie. And before they left, they offered a share of the pie to the Jews as well, not just to the Palestinian Jews, but to the Jews of the whole world, including those that had for generations lived in Europe, including UK and France. And, of course, both the take-over of, and departure from, the Middle East was effected without any consultation with the local people or traditional rulers.

  2. pradeep kalra says:

    One has to agree with Razi Azmi that all hell has broken loose. The world can thank Bush for that. I had never believed that America will not learn from its mistake of acting as the saviour of the planet and thinking it could do anything by virtue of its superpower status. We are living in a very unsafe world, and on my part I pray that life gets a bit easy and peaceful for all of us, and that people responsible for this come to their senses. The amount of money spent on the adventures could have been spent elsewhere for the good of people who are suffering.

  3. Tony says:

    Razi, I know I’m not going to convince Wolpert’s most ardent fan to reconsider his views but here is what one (Indian) reviewer said of Wolpert’s thesis that everything was Mountbatten’s fault. “There were profound disagreements over whether to leave a united India or protect Muslims from the perceived tyranny of Hindu-majority rule. Till 1940 these tensions were still manageable but after the Muslim League’s Pakistan resolution, the scope for compromise shrank with each passing day.

    The near-confederal arrangement proposed by the Cabinet Mission in 1946 could have been a way out but Nehru couldn’t countenance the idea of provinces being all-important—he was too starry-eyed about Soviet-style centralised planning. Finally, after the Direct Action bloodbath of 1946, there was such a trust deficit between Hindus and Muslims that no united arrangement seemed worthwhile. Wolpert’s suggestion that a united, independent Bengal would have prevented the tragedy in the east ignores cruel ground realities.

    To blame Mountbatten for the denouement is a self-comforting way of evading the harsh fact that Partition was the only realistic alternative to a united India being engulfed in permanent civil war. Let’s face it, India hasn’t done too badly after surgery. ”
    This is from a review of “Shameful flight” a book which for me was at best, tendentious. Of course no one comes out of the way the British left India looking good.

    But it is over half a century since India and Pakistan were left to sort things out, They have had two or three wars and still hate each other. How long are the colonial powers to be held to account for the history of awful governments in Pakistan?
    How long are the British and French to be blamed for the Middle eastern mess?. Look at Vietnam – for three centuries it was misgoverned by the French, The Americans dropped more bombs on the poor North Vietnamese than were dropped by all sides in WW2. How is Vietnam doing now? They are getting on with the job of rebuilding their country and if they aren’t currently more prosperous than Pakistanis, they soon will be. Some countries get on with the job of rebuilding themselves after a bad start. Some countries don’t. It is instructive to examine the difference between the two groups – to ask “what are the factors which determine whether of not a country can pull itself out of the shit”.

    One of those factors surely has to be the ability to look to the future rather than to dwell constantly on the past.

    • Razi Azmi says:

      Tony, would you deny that the British colonial rulers exacerbated Hindu-Muslim differences to consolidate and perpetuate their rule in India? Wasn’t “divide-and-rule” public policy?

      I don’t know what you mean by “dwelling on the past”. Writing history, analysing the past? In any case, it wasn’t I who went back to the origin of the Sunni-Shi’a schism of over a millennium ago to explain the hostage-taking by Malian Islamists at an Algerian gas refinery last year?

      All countries are different. Algeria, China, Pakistan and Vietnam are different from one another in every respect except that they are inhabited by human beings. Vietnam is an ethnically homogenous country while Pakistan is extremely diverse with many times the population of Vietnam. Pakistan lay at the farthest reach of the Indian Empire, consisting of the frontier “badlands” which even the British found nearly impossible to administer (like Afghanistan). For the first 25 years of its history, Pakistan consisted of two parts, physically separated by a 1,000 miles of another country with which it had serious territorial and other disputes.

      Pakistan commenced life from scratch, scrambling to put together the instruments of statehood while dealing with millions of refugees and trying to stem the bloodshed set in motion by Mr Mountbatten’s totally unjustified haste in effecting partition.

      Thankfully, Pakistani and Indian leaders did not choose to treat people like slaves and sacrifice millions of them for the sake of ideology or material progress in the manner that China, Vietnam and, before them, Russia have done.

  4. Tony says:

    “Vietnam is an ethnically homogenous country ” This is not just wrong. It betrays a complete indifference to indisputable facts.

    “Pakistan commenced life from scratch” Nth Vietnam was devastated by a relentless bombing campaign. The civil war which followed the American departure further damaged the surviving infrastructure. Compare the Vietnamese rail network before and after peace finally arrived with the Pakistani rail network which was intact at independence. The Vietnamese have rebuilt “from scratch” whilst Pakistan’s infrastructure is decaying slowly. Blaming Mountbatten’s action almost 70 years ago for the chaos that is Pakistan today is like saying global warming is caused by Tony Abbot’s intransigence. The post colonial era has taught us a lot about why some nations succeed and, more importantly, why some nations fail. To claim the failure of Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq etc to successfully adapt to the modern world, is all the fault of external sources will not help. Until Pakistan can take a good hard look at its shortcomings and stop blaming the British, there is no possibility of it ever joining the modern world. It is doomed to be left behind while India, Vietnam, Indonesia and Thailand prosper.

    • Razi Azmi says:

      Tony, I am afraid I am being dragged down a path I wouldn’t take and made to sound like an apologist for Pakistan and Muslims. Unfortunately, arguments in short bursts acquire a dynamic of their own. I have a feeling that, under your relentless castigation of Islam, Muslims, Arabs and Pakistan, I have said things that may have somewhat misrepresented my views.

      I would like to close this discussion with a few clarifications (but consider it only fair to give you the right of reply, albeit a short one):
      • When I said Vietnam is a homogenous country, I meant relative to Pakistan. And I say this with the practical knowledge that comes from living in Pakistan and travelling in Vietnam from the Mekong Delta in the south to the Chinese border in the north. Of course, no country in the world, even the tiniest, is fully homogenous.
      • If Pakistan is full of corruption, which it is, so are India, China, Vietnam and Ukraine, to name a few.
      • If Pakistan has had a few coups, Thailand and some Central American countries had many times more. Thailand is not an economic or political success story.
      • Both India and China have really made economic strides in the last few decades. There is nothing to guarantee, unless you really believe that Muslims are genetically disposed to be incompetent, that Pakistan will forever be struggling to find its bearings.
      • If the railway network in Pakistan has crumbled, so it has in most of Africa and parts of the USA. Pakistan has built some fine highways including South Asia’s only motorway.
      • In your list of success stories you mention Indonesia. Perhaps you forgot that it is the world’s largest Muslim country with more Muslims inside its borders than in all of the Middle East. You might have added Bangladesh, another Muslim country, as one whose socio-economic success is now well recognised internationally.
      • If Thailand is a success story, what’s wrong with admiring the astounding leap of Dubai from a desert backwater to one of the world’s leading destinations?
      • There are many examples of failures of state-building and economic stagnation and not all are Muslim. Ethiopia immediately comes to mind, as do Congo, Rwanda, Liberia, the Philippines and many more.
      • Finally, I would like to draw your kind attention to the plight of the unfortunate Rohingya Muslims of Burma, suffering the worst kind of persecution by the Buddhists of that country. They are almost certainly now the world’s most persecuted minority. The world watches and moans, but does nothing to ameliorate their plight.

  5. Tony says:

    I don’t believe I ever said that coups and corruption are unique to Islamic states. They are common to all badly run states. What I would say is that a disproportionate number of badly run states are to be found in the “arc of instability” which covers most of the Islamic world. I do not believe that Muslims are “genetically disposed to be incompetent”. What I would say is that for the Arab world (and possibly most other Islamic nations) the transition from a tribal society to a nation state has proved much harder than it was for the Europeans. Tribal loyalties have been exacerbated by the Sunni Shia conflict and by the rise in the last few decades of a fundamentalist virus which has affected so many Moslems. The impact of the West and its ideas has had a devastating impact throughout the world. Civilisations were destroyed (The Incas) and in some cases became extinct (The People of Tierra del Fuego). In every continent the impact of the west was fatal. It is only in the Islamic world that a society existed which was strong enough to fight against the “poison” of Western thought. It is a fight which Islam cannot win any more than the catholic church could win its fight with Gallileo.

    At the heart of the problems in the Islamic world is the threat of secularism. The mullahs have seen what has happened to Christianity and understand that to tolerate secularist ideologies is death to their faith. The rise of fundamentalism is the solution for Islam. Until modern antibiotics were invented one of the few treatments for syphilis was arsenic. The poison sometimes killed the syphilis but sometimes the cure also harmed poor syphilitic. Islamic fundamentalism is Islam’s arsenic.

    • Razi Azmi says:

      Tony, you began your series of comments by saying “Hi Razi, this time (unusually) I agree with almost everyth8ing you say”. It is now my turn to say: “Tony, this time I agree with almost everything you say!”

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