Power Politics in Southwest Asia

March 2010 IJWP

Intro­duc­tion to March 2010 IJWP

We can better understand the War on Terror and the role of Western military forces in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan by learning the history of the politics in the region. Southwest Asia is marked by many weak state governments and competition for control of them by more powerful neighbors, international superpowers, and non-state actors that include religious jihadists and independence movements. In the September 2009 issue of IJWP we discussed anarchy in unsecured territories, with an emphasis on Africa. Southwest Asia suffers from many of the same political dynamics: (1) state borders that were created by past political conquest, either by expansion by indigenous rulers or conquest by colonial masters, (2) the collapse of European colonialism and the rise of the bi-polar world of the Cold War that had rewarded dictatorial allies, (3) the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of hopes around the world for self-rule, and (4) new contests for state power based on self-determination movements, regional hegemons, and non-state religious and ideological actors.


This issue’s first article by Rathnam Indurthy and Muhammad Haque is on the “The Kashmir Conflict.” It is followed by a substantial comment by Nasreen Akhtar from Pakistan, and then a rejoinder by Indurthy. This dialogue will help the reader get an understanding of the nature of the problem viewed from several perspectives.

The story of Kashmir and its seeming intractable solution is a product of this history. With a predominately Muslim population since the fourteenth century, the territory was acquired by Sikh rulers in the early nineteenth century and then became a relatively autonomous nation allied with the British Indian Empire later in the nineteenth century. Upon the end of colonialism and the partition of India in 1947, Kashmir wanted independence, but India and Pakistan both had designs on it. The small nation was unable to prevent the occupation of Pakistan and India, whose troops have controlled the country along a line of control (LoC). So it is now essentially two countries, Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK) and Indian Occupied Kashmir (IOK) divided in a manner not unlike North and South Korea.

Thus, for nearly 200 years, Kashmir has been under the rule of conquerors. Even when it was “independent” it consisted of a predominately Muslim population under the rule of a Sikh military man, who literally purchased the country (and its people) from the British.

After the occupation of Kashmir by Indian and Pakistani soldiers, appeals were made to the United Nations. The United Nations recommended a plebiscite, where the people of Kashmir would vote on their own future. However, neither India nor Pakistan seem happy with the idea of  Kashmir’s independence and they are both powerful enough to prevent it from happening. Pakistan would like to see a plebiscite in which the Muslim majority  would side with Pakistan, or at least establish secular Muslim rule. India fears, with good reason, that a Muslim regime would not afford equal status or protection to non-Muslim minorities. India, on the other land, lays its claim on the fact that it had controlled the land earlier and had a legal right to it, even though it had nothing to do with self-determination of the general populace. This is not something Pakistan can accept, for if you look back in history nearly all empires have expanded and contracted based on coercive and oppressive power. That standoff over Kashmir eventually escalated to a nuclear weapons standoff as India and Pakistan competed to defend their interests.

The challenges faced by Kashmir represent many of the challenges faced by other small states in the world today. First, there are conflicting claims of ownership based on histories that had relatively little to do with freedom and self-determination. Secondly, in the absence of regional or global powers, small states, which are hardly ever homogeneous, become battlegrounds of ethnic, political, and religious rivalry over political power. Thus we have witnessed ethnic cleansing and genocide from Bosnia, to Cambodia, to Rwanda as a selfish strategy to avoid sharing political power with other groups. It is no coincidence that jihadists and other non-state actors arise when those in control of states marginalize, oppress, or exterminate large population groups.

None of these problems can be resolved by focusing on past claims and treaties. Rather, to move forward peacefully, political systems must reflect equal justice of all before the law, protection of minorities, and the separation of politics from culture and economy as much as possible. All people dwelling on a territory want to associate, worship, and produce goods and services to live. Our world must develop ways for this to happen, so long as people do not harm others. The United Nations’ recommendations for a plebiscite, or simple calls for “self-determination of peoples” or “democracy” are too superficial to create such conditions. Thus intra-state and regional conflicts characterize our current world.

Many less-developed states are challenged to adequately police themselves, even if the larger powers leave them alone. Palestine, for example, has been unable to control the infiltration of jihadists from Syria, Lebanon and elsewhere who have designs on making Palestine a base for attacks on Israel, or even Egypt. Such non-state actors in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan and elsewhere are often stronger than local police who often are coerced into turning a blind eye or even cooperation with them.

Religious regimes like Iran use political power to impose official thought and behavior of citizens. Many general social rules, like those expressed in the Ten Commandments, e.g., “thou shall not kill,” or “thou shall not steal,” are nearly universally accepted and adopted by both religious and secular governments as necessary to create equal justice and protect the rights of the innocent. Such traditional rules are often supported by modern empirical sociological studies. However, a plethora of minor religious rules are often used to distinguish the faithful followers of a particular group from the unfaithful or infidels. Such rules, in all their variety—from kosher food, to foot washing before prayer—should be allowed by all states so that believers can express their faith. However, these particular rules should  not be enforced or paid for by a state, because the state then becomes a party to oppression, discrimination, and unequal protection. Even the United States, with its history of separation of church and state, has failed to see these principles applied in its occupation of Iraq and attempted to create some form of Islamic government.

Wars over political power become especially fierce when they are couched in the language of eternal life, and the attainment of eternal life is based on particular, rather than general social rules. This was the basis of the rhetoric behind the Crusades and the inquisitions in Christendom in the Middle Ages, and remains very much the rhetoric in much of the world today, including Southwest Asia. However, as Barbara Ann Flanagan argued in our December 2009 issue, when it comes to actual political decisions, the leaders of a professed religious state, like Iran, make their actual decision more on the basis of calculations of power and regime survival than on religious laws.

The article on “Israel’s Response to a Nuclear Iran,” by Alon Ben-Meir, is a look at another nuclear flashpoint. This is the ongoing division and violence over the formation of the Jewish State. This conflict is rooted in the post-World War II land dispute in another British-held territory, Palestine.

In 1947, one month after the Partition of India, the UN Security Council recommended the partition of Palestine into two states under the administration of the United Nations. This was ratified by the UN General Assembly on November 29 as Resolution 181, giving legitimacy to Israel. The Resolution called upon Britain to evacuate a seaport and sufficient land to support substantial Jewish migration, by February 1948. Worried about possible damage to Anglo-Arab relations, Britain refused to cooperate with the UN, denying the UN access to Palestine during the interim period (a requirement of the partition decision) before the end of the British Mandate. In May 1948 after the last British forces left, and the Jewish Agency, formed by the Haganah and led by David Ben-Gurion, declared the creation of the State of Israel in accordance with the 1947 UN Partition plan. Both U.S. President Harry S. Truman and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin immediately recognized the new state.

Arab League members Egypt, TransJordan, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq rejected the UN partition decision and declared war, claiming the right of self-determination for the Arabs of Palestine over the whole of Palestine. Additional Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia and Sudan sent forces to support the Arab invasion. They met unexpected stiff resistance because Czechoslovakia, encouraged by Stalin, exported arms to the Haganah. After Israel was resupplied, the UN forced Israel to halt its advance to Cairo and Damascus. In March 1949 a permanent ceasefire went into effect and Israel’s interim borders, later known as the Green Line, were established. Neither the UN nor the US did anything to promote stability.

The formation of a Jewish State stimulated an estimated 711,000 Palestinians to flee Israeli-controlled territory between 1947 and 1949. After the ceasefire, Britain released over 2,000 Jewish prisoners and recognized the state of Israel. On May 11, 1949, Israel was admitted to the United Nations. Hostility of Arabs toward the Jews increased, as many believed the Jews had stolen Palestinian land. The backlash led nearly the entire Jewish population residing in the Arab world, about 850,000 people, to leave their homes in Arab countries.

Since the 1949 ceasefire, there were two more wars, in 1967 and 1973. After 1967, Jordan rejected taking back the West Bank and Arafat’s intent to destroy Israel precluded development of  a West Bank state committed to peace. Without the presence of the great powers, a virtually unsolvable problem has been created. Hamas, with the assistance of Iran and Syria, is dedicated to the acquisition of weapons that will make the small state of Israel unlivable. This forces Israel to adopt harsh deterrent policies that impact so dreadfully on the innocent population in Gaza. Israel maintains strong defense forces and today claims nuclear capability. This, in turn, concerns its Arab neighbors and is one of the reasons the Iranians want to build nuclear weapons and rockets aimed at Israel.

Our senior editor Morton Kaplan is pessimistic about Israel’s ability to stop the development of Iranian nuclear weapons, writing:

The article on “Iran’s Nuclear Program and Israel’s Options” is very well done. But there are some problems that have no solution. Israel cannot eliminate the Iranian bomb as it did that of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. The United States could, but it cannot afford to do so because the Arab masses would rise up against their own governments when the enormous civilian casualties became clear. Many Arabs still believe the Jews were behind 9/11, and they will never believe that the United States would take action against Iran with good cause. Any overthrown governments would likely join the nuclear chase.
The Russians and the Chinese will not go along with the US. I would favor a declaration by the United States that if an Iranian nuclear weapon goes off against any other state, whether by design or accidentally, it will obliterate Iran as a warning to other rogue states. Within this framework we can make offers to Iran of the kind proposed in this article that it is unlikely to accept. And perhaps if we can hold off a holocaust long enough, the Iranian regime will change its pursuit of nuclear weapons. But I began writing in The World & I some six years ago that nuclear destruction in the Middle East is the least unlikely alternative.
In the meantime, the Israeli policy on the settlements is not helpful. But then the Palestine Authority has no credibility. It cannot keep its radio stations clear of messages to kill Jews and its schools clear of textbooks with similar messages. It cannot, even with Israeli help, control the radicals. I think that Israel, the Palestinian territories, and Iran are likely to be wastelands in ten to twenty years.

Kaplan later observed that in Northern Ireland influential powers in the region were able to enforce an agreement that will continue political stabilization there, but there are no such agreements among international powers in the Middle East.

Are the states of the twenty-first century doomed to fall under the control of the world’s elite or powerful conquerors, or can they achieve some form of democracy with protection of minority rights as international ideals profess? Political transformation in Northern Ireland, South Korea, Taiwan, South Africa, and the Czech Republic give us hope that we do not have to live with some unacceptable power stalemate, neocolonialism, or anarchy, yet when we are immersed in the exchange of rhetoric over past wrongs, without forgiveness and tolerance, solutions are hard to find.

Gordon L. Anderson
Editor-in-Chief


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