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Exit the Improbable Survivor

EXIT THE IMPROBABLE SURVIVOR

If Izzet Ibrahim Khalil Duri, longtime deputy to Saddam Hussein and leader of the Naqshband Army in Iraq, has really been slain today, it marks the end of a long, improbable and even astounding career.

There was no reason to presume that Izzet Ibrahim would long outlive his longtime patron Saddam Hussein. A nearly illiterate loyalist from an impoverished background—his father, Ibrahim Khalil, had sold ice blocks in Iraq’s Salahuddin Province—with no power base of his own, it was Izzet’s sheer reliability—with no power base of his own, Izzet’s position banked heavily on Saddam—that had recommended him to become a top henchman of the Baathist dictator for forty years. For a backward rube from rural central Iraq, clientele with Saddam was a road to social and economic promotion.

Sick and frail by the time the United States conquered Iraq in 2003, Izzet was the most wanted man in Iraq—beating, for a time, even the infamous Al-Qaeda in Iraq (IS) founder Abu Musab Zarqawi—for the vast majority of the war, beating even Al-Qaeda ideologues and Baath veterans. How did he survive? The record suggests a far cleverer, more versatile character than could ever have been expected from the bony, red-mustached officer seen in a stiff salute.

Strangely in a country where the Baath came to infiltrate everything from the most rudimentary profession to the most committed ideologue, Izzet had not been a registered member of the party, strictly speaking: certainly he shares none of the party titles enjoyed by other longtime regime leaders, such as Taha Ramadan, Khairi-Sabahi Ahmed and Chemical Ali Majid. Apparently Saddam was confident enough that his client and henchman would not waver that he never bothered. Izzet’s position was, instead, vice-chairman of the Revolutionary Command Council, a body subordinate to the Baath. It was a post he held for over thirty years; on the way he survived his daughter’s failed marriage with Saddam’s thuggish son, Uday, whose divorce does not seem to have dented Izzet’s own stakes. While he cannot be plausibly exempted from the collective crimes of the regime, Izzet oddly appears in very few of the recorded Baath abuses—in which high-ranked henchmen like Chemical Ali, Taha Ramadan, Hussein Kamel and others regularly featured. The likeliest explanation is that, like defence minister Sultan Hashim and Adnan Tulfah, Izzet played the “sympathetic foil” role in the regime: unlike Sultan and Adnan, however, both respected soldiers whose careers had progressed on their professional merits, Izzet had been a longtime and unquestioning officer for Saddam.

Izzet and Ramadan had assisted Saddam in his gradual takeover of the Baath Party under the military dictator, Ahmed Bakar, under whose regime the civilian wing of the Baath—bolstered with strongarm militias from which Saddam himself had come—marginalized the Baathists in the army, led by Salih Ammash and Hardan Abdul-Ghaffar, both eventually purged before Saddam formally seized power in 1979. As Saddam’s deputy Izzet oversaw the rise of several paramilitaries loyal to the regime. Saddam liked to play soldier—for a man who never joined the army, the Baathist dictator always swaggered about in fatigues—and he promoted several of his colleagues, including Izzet, to the rank of commanders, much to the chagrin of career soldiers.

Izzet’s principal role during the 1980s war with Iran was in the Kurdish north, where he had longtime contacts, particularly among the Naqshbandi Sufi brotherhood. The Baath regime was a secular one, but as has only occasionally been noted Izzet—both conservative and, apparently, terribly traditionalist—was one of its few openly pietistic figures. Izzet also owned substantial holdings in the north that had been formally appropriated by the regime, and he often leveraged these into influence. Quietly, this influence appears to have increased to the extent that Izzet managed to find a haven after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Consequently, Izzet was one of the very few regime members who opposed the massacre of the Kurds by 1988—an objection that temporarily saw him sidelined in the late 1980s in favour of Saddam’s kinsman, the callous Chemical Ali—though he wasn’t above threatening a repeat of the massacre in 1991, when the Kurds threatened to and did break away.

That was in the wake of the swift, devastating 1990-91 war with the United States over Kuwait. Just hours before Iraq invaded and conquered Kuwait, Izzet had in fact hammered out an agreement, with a genial handshake flung in for effect, with the Kuwaiti royalist Saad Sabah in Jeddah. It is unclear whether this was a calculated ruse on Izzet’s part or if he had simply not been informed, but in any case the invasion backfired spectacularly, playing right into the hands of a hawkish Washington establishment and triggering one of the most one-sided wars in history that drove Iraq out and led to a decade of sanctions, poverty, aerial siege and misery that crippled ordinary Iraqis even as Saddam and his henchmen railed anti-imperialist slogans from the comfort of their largely unaffected palaces.

In an effort to capitalize on growing outrage in the Muslim world at the invasion and to monitor an increased religiosity among its citizens, the Baath regime adopted a more Islamic overtone in the 1990s. Ever the pietistic Sufi, Izzet led this effort, leveraging his political connections into a controversial fast-tracked certificate from shaikhs in the north and chairing an Islamic Congress at Baghdad in 1993. It has generally been suspected that the regime’s appeals to pietism were a cynical exploitation—which may or mayn’t hold—but in Izzet’s case, he had long been both a practicing Muslim and a superstitious conservative character. A botched attempt on his life at Karbala in 1998 further seems to have convinced Izzet that Allah had protected him for a purpose.

With that background, it is perhaps unsurprising that Izzet quickly found refuge during the 2003 conquest of Iraq, where his zone command in the north quickly melted against persistent aerial bombardment. Nonetheless, as a septuagenarian stricken with illness and a price on his scalp, it is remarkable that Izzet survived as long as he did. The brutal regime had been hated even by most insurgents, and Izzet had been a longtime accomplice. It appears that Izzet had a far more reliable power base than had been expected, perhaps as the foil to the brutal Chemical Ali and other lieutenants of the regime. It was also one of the more important bridges between the secularists and Islamists whose relationship so confounded analysts of the insurgency.

The younger, harder Baathists were led mainly by Khairi-Sabahi Ahmed, who spent the war in Damascus on the sufferance of the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad. The Syrian and Iraqi regimes, though both Baathists, had long been enemies, and Izzet’s hatred and suspicion as an old-school Sunni nationalist of the Iranians with whom the Syrians were linked meant he kept his distance. This itself led to a split in the regime loyalist ranks, with Izzet’s base in north-central Iraq and Sabahi’s across the border in Syria; they coordinated as did most insurgents at that point, but were distinct. By 2004-05, the abuses of the counterinsurgency, epitomized by the siege of Fallujah but also by the brutality of the security services, had led to increased animosity against the occupation. Sufi leaders such as Abdullah Mustafa, the Irbil leader of the Naqshbandi Army, and Abdul-Rahim Qadiri, leader of the Qadiri order in Karkuk, announced jihad against the occupation. Particularly in northern and central Iraq, Izzet’s Naqshbandis enjoyed far more currency than the discredited and suspected Baathists in Syria.

How exactly Izzet survived and led the insurgency will probably not be publicly known for years. Around the former regime stronghold of Takrit, his former bodyguards Basim Intu and Qasim Intu, and his nephew Abdul-Rahman Ibrahim, were suspected, as of 2005, of financing the insurgency. Periodically proclaimed dead only to reappear in a murky 2013 clip, he relied largely on the support of field officers such as the powerful field commander Abdul-Baqi Saadoun, who by 2014 had become enough of a threat that Izzet sacked him. Though the explosive, controversial and unabashedly sectarian Al-Qaeda in Iraq (later IS) were an outsized outlier among the rebel ranks, often fighting with other rebels and flinging accusations of heresy or treachery, by 2014 Iraq’s mainstream Sunni Arab opposition had become desperate enough that, in a fit of what intelligence expert Malcolm Nance pithily termed “swallowing antifreeze”, they supported a massive IS offensive led by Adnan Najam and Tarkhan Umar that seized Mosul and spread from there. Their leader, Abu Dua Baghdadi, announced himself caliph in the summer of 2014 and drew an influx of recruits attracted by the slogans IS espoused and by its sudden burst of momentum.

The Naqshbandis’ relations with IS were ambiguous; they supported its conquest of 2014, yet by 2015 its open sadism and millenarian nihilism—often openly flouting the same Islamic principles it so stridently screeched—forced Izzet to publicly distance the Naqshbandis from their allies. It was one of the last moves, if reports are to be believed, that the grizzled old campaigner ever made. In Apr 2015 the offensive against the rebels reportedly slew Izzet, ending at long last an unexpectedly resilient, resourceful and violent career that varied from a loyalist henchman in a brutal totalitarian regime to a wily insurgent leader, and, once relieved of the shadow of his longtime master, an unlikely survivor.

Ibrahim Moiz, 2015

Note: Citations to follow InshaAllah

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The sectarian gulf in the Persian Gulf, and the United States

Note: I have yet to update the citations, they will follow shortly InshaAllah.

2015 Copyright etc

Ibrahim Moiz
The rapid rise of the fanatical Islamic State in 2014 to control a broad, oil-rich region in the heart of the north-central Jazira has provoked serious shifts. A weakened Iraqi regime largely propped up by Iran and the United States has seen a change of face, with the suave Haider Abadi replacing his divisive predecessor Nouri Maliki, even as many Maliki-age policies continue unabated. Iraqi Kurdistan, practically independent, has expanded to engulf its prize of Kirkuk, the oil-rich northern town long coveted by Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen. An effort to reconcile publicly with Iran, long a sparring partner who shares a number of common enemies, by the United States has come just as a number of fiercely anti-Iran Iraqi Sunnis have gathered under the Islamic State’s banner.
This last development has been especially surprising considering the short-lived but much-publicized American thaw with sections of the predominantly Sunni Iraqi insurgents in 2006-08, which has been credited with marginalizing Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia—the Islamic State’s previous title. Even Sunni Arab leaders “vetted” by the United States, including longtime Iraqi deputy leader Tariq Hashimi—hounded into a Turkish exile as soon as the Americans officially withdrew from Iraq in 2011—and Riyad Asaad, the founder and former commander of the Free Syria Army, have publicly claimed that the Islamic State, despite its well-known fanaticism and moral absolutism, is a better option than having to live under a purportedly sectarian, Iranian-controlled Iraqi state. In return, conservative American hawks like John McCain have asserted that the 2011 American withdrawal exposed the Sunnis to a vindictive Shia regime.
McCain’s line of reasoning is typical of the mentality that marked American beltway talk in 2007-08, when the much-celebrated but highly dubious general David Petraeus successfully called for a “surge” that was mildly successful in the short term but hailed by a virtual industry of sycophantic hangers-on in the press as a roaring success that rescued the American occupation from the brink of failure. The logic behind the “surge” tried to reconcile both leftist critiques of the war and rightist support by arguing that, while the rightists had been correct to remove Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime, they handled the subsequent occupation badly and alienated Iraqis partly because of insufficient troop levels, an argument that had been posed prior to the war by ostensible critic, the army’s deputy leader Eric Shinseki. The invocation of Shinseki and the idea that Iraqis wanted the Americans to stay—also pushed by largely unrepresentative Iraqi puppets whose very positions depended on American support and who thereby had a very clear but undeclared vested interest in their stance—convinced liberals that the surge was the correct path, and its myth endured so long that it was subsequently transferred, completely unsuccessfully, to Afghanistan.
McCain and other hawks argue that the Americans did not sufficiently guard against Iranian intrigue to assure the Sunni Arabs, who then went over to join the Islamic State. There is some truth here, but highly manipulated and selective. It is certainly true that Iranian influence in the Iraqi government, particularly epitomized by the utterly callous Badr Corps that dominated the interior ministry, was a bane for most Sunni Arabs. But the idea that American surges could somehow help amend the situation is also highly questionable. History shows not that America was a safeguard versus sectarianism in the Iraqi regime, but to the contrary that the Americans pioneered and fostered sectarianism, under the guise of counterinsurgency, as much as Iran.

Rewind to 2003. When the American army, abetted significantly by the British army, invaded Iraq, law and order broke down completely. This was particularly exacerbated by the ignorant, stubborn American viceroy Paul Bremer III, a Bush lackey who immediately fired the entire half-a-million-man Iraqi army in a provocative move that saw the insurgency arise. Over the next year Bremer outsourced security and military operations to a number of callous and unaccountable mercenary conglomerates like Blackwater, who operated far more thuggishly than the official army and were widely resented. Meanwhile, the blanket privatization of Iraq’s long-state-dominated economy saw infrastructure collapse. By the time he scurried out of Iraq in the summer of 2004, Bremer had managed to alienate nearly everybody both in Iraq and large segments of the United States regime.
Initially dismissed as Baathist “deadenders” by the hawkish American defence minister Donald Rumsfeld, the insurgency was actually dominated by a mishmash of mostly but not exclusively Sunnis, many of them sidelined by the occupation, many of them former army men and many of them Islamists of various stripes from both within and without Iraq. By late 2003 the public focus had shifted from the shrinking Baath role to the founder of what would become the Islamic State, a shadowy Jordanian militant named Abu Musab Nazzal-Zarqawi. A lifelong troublemaker who had taken advantage of Jordanian ruler Abdallah II’s amnesty in 1999 to travel to Afghanistan, Nazzal had in fact been turned down by Al-Qaeda’s leadership, which suspected him as a Jordanian mole and were also unsympathetic to his virulent hatred of Shias. Like many conservative Sunnis, Osama bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri considered Shias a deviant misguided sect, but they did not share Nazzal’s fanatical hatred of Shias; they had contacts with Iran like Mustafa Hamid, for instance, and their primary focus was to attack the United States. By contrast, Nazzal’s ideology focused overwhelmingly on purging what he considered a cowardly, treacherous fifth column from the Muslim world.
Banished to the western Afghan town of Herat, Nazzal escaped after a brief struggle when the United States invaded, and—apparently via Iran, ironically—entered northern Iraq, where a small but ferocious Islamist Kurd militia called Ansar-ul-Islam, which had cordial informal relations with Al-Qaeda but no operational coordination, was fighting on the eastern border against the secular Kurd parties that had set up an autonomous, pro-Western region there. Though Ansar-ul-Islam welcomed support, they—even more so than Al-Qaeda—had cordial relations by necessity if nothing else with an Iranian state just across the border, and fairly soon Nazzal and a coterie of like-minded militants had formed a separate militia that was virtually unknown outside their small circle.
More than anything, it was media coverage and official American policy that sent this tiny militia catapulting into stardom. In his Feb 2003 address to the United Nations Security Council, American state minister Colin Powell erroneously marked out Abu Musab Nazzal as the missing link between Iraq’s Baath regime and Al-Qaeda, neither of which had actually accepted Nazzal at the time. Nonetheless, Nazzal’s profile shot up as a result and he soon displayed a talent for headline-seizing stunts that has carried on to his successors in the current Islamic State. A series of bombs in Baghdad, one of which killed the capable ambassador United Nations ambassador Sergio Vieiro, late in the 2003 summer were claimed by Nazzal. In 2004, Nazzal abducted an American journalist, Nicholas Berg, in Mosul—nothing new in itself, except that Nazzal gruesomely decapitated him on tape in another trademark of the Islamic State. The American army and the media, thirsty for an identifiable and sinister enemy, quickly latched onto Nazzal as their target.
Throughout 2004 and 2005, a dizzying number of captured Iraqi insurgents—ranging from Ansar-ul-Islam and Ansar-ul-Sunnah to Islamic Army of Iraq and Army of Muhammad (may Allah bestow peace and blessings on His prophet)—were captured and publicly identified by the occupation as “lieutenants of Zarqawi”. For the occupation and its shaky client regime, the attribution to Zarqawi aimed at both Iraqi and American audiences: firstly, it could discredit the entire Iraqi insurgency as a product of foreign sectarian fanatics, and secondly, it could point to the apparent domination of brutal fanatics as a sign that Iraq was, no matter the existence of “weapons of mass destructions”, now a major arena in the “war on terror”.
Many insurgents would themselves express surprise and even doubt at the apparent preponderance of Zarqawi. A Baathist leader, Majid Qaoud, scoffed, “Does it not occur to you that he might be a convenient invention? The embodiment of evil, one of those things of which the Americans are so fond?” Qaoud, a sheikh from the insurgent hotbed of Rimadi, declared, “Neither I nor my relatives have ever seen this al-Zarqawi fellow.” Even years later, Sahwa leaders—Sunni tribesmen who switched sides—would pose the question to their new American patrons, though in more discreet, roundabout matter. As late as 2005, the Shia dissident leader Muqtada Sadr proclaimed that Zarqawi was an American fiction designed to sow roots in the insurgency.

There is no evidence to credence these claims, but it is certainly true that nearly every move the Americans made in the early years of the insurgency benefited Abu Musab Nazzal, and that the idea of the murderous Jordanian leader’s domination of . Even as they cracked down on separate Islamists and tribesmen in Mosul, Rimadi, Fallujah and Samarra, the Americans officially claimed that the majority of their targets were Zarqawi’s men.
In the summer of 2004, the situation was especially stark. A broad coalition of insurgents seized the town of Fallujah; their official leaders were Abdullah Jannabi, Zafar Ubaidi and Omar Hadid: Abdullah and Zafar were local Islamic preachers while Hadid shared a strikingly similar background—petty criminal turned born-again Muslim and influential Islamist commander—but no concrete links of any sort with Abu Musab Nazzal-Zarqawi. There was an important supporter of Nazzal—Omar Jumaa, a severe ideologue who had helped found the tiny militia—in Fallujah, but this was not unusual in the pell-mell early years of the insurgency, and at any rate an airstrike would take out Jumaa in Sept 2004.
On its own, the American army had few qualms about attacking Fallujah. But they also faced another public crisis further south: the town of Najaf, one of the most important sites for Shias, had been taken over by Muqtada Sadr. While most Shia clerics like Abdul-Aziz Hakim and Ali Sistani had prudently tried not to appear overly sympathetic to the United States that had bombarded their oppressor out of power, Sadr was unusual in that—as a scruffy, angry young man whose apparent courage and dedication inspired hundreds of followers—he was totally opposed to the occupation, and he had an important sympathizer in the regime, national security advisor Mowaffak Rubaie.
In that early stage, too, Sadr expressed solidarity with his “Sunni brothers”—a line he would later withdraw when sectarianism grew rampant—and at least some Sunni insurgents sympathized with him. Unnamed secularists declared in a 2004 interview, “Contrary to what you imagine in the West, there is no fratricide war in Iraq…the young Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr…is, likely ourselves, in favour of the unity of the Iraqi people….We support him from a tactical and a logisticial perspective.” Nor was this an exclusively secularist perspective. Two other notable Sunni Islamists of the ultraorthodox Sunni Salafist school, which is often very suspicious of Shias, Najamuddin Krakar—formerly head of the Ansar-ul-Islam Kurds but then in Norway—and Mahdi Sumaidai, a Mosul Islamic preacher, also avowed their solidarity with Shias who rebelled. The top American commander in Iraq at the time, Ricardo Sanchez, believed, “There is a linkage that may be occurring at the lowest levels between the Sunni and the Shia. We have to work very hard to ensure that it remains at the lowest level.” Quite contrary to official rhetoric that branded America as a bulwark against sectarianism, in 2004 it utterly suited the Americans to drive a wedge between at least the dissident sections of Iraq’s Sunni and Shia communities. Not only was it desirable, at the time the survival of the American enterprise in Iraq depended on it.

The Americans did withstand the 2004 crisis; influential cleric Ali Sistani persuaded Muqtada Sadr to back off from a potentially devastating confrontation, and the army then turned its focus fully on the Sunni-majority insurgency. Fallujah was flattened in the winter of 2004, while the revolts in Rimadi, Mosul and especially Samarra were also forcibly crushed. At the end of 2004, Al-Qaeda’s leadership in South Asia—desperate for a proxy on the ground in the most publicized war versus the Americans—swallowed their pride and accepted Abu Musab Nazzal as their viceroy in Iraq; a major turnaround for the once ragtag outcast, whose militia would henceforth be known as Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia and, posthumously, as Islamic State in Iraq. By 2006 what began as an insurgency had evolved into a vicious sectarian civil war that gave the resourceful, media-savvy American commander David Petraeus a solid casus belle to remain in Iraq in the unlikely role of arbiter. By this time, a solidly pro-Iranian Islamist party, the Daawah party, had come into power, and the pro-American Daawah contender Adel Mahdi-Muntafiqi narrowly beaten by the decidedly more lukewarm Ibrahim Jaafari as the candidate for premier. Sectarianism in the security services, which the Daawah Partys political ally the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraqs military arm the Badr Corps controlled, was rife and sectarian cleansing had begun. In 2006-07, the intrepid American reporter Martin Smith compiled a report for PBS on the militias’ dominance in the Iraqi security services; he gave the Badr commander assigned to interior minister, Bayan Jabr, an especially tough grill. There was also a more sympathetic interview with Jabr’s predecessor Faleh Naqib, who claimed—correctly—that Jabr had overseen the targeting of the security services towards the Sunni population. In essence, the blame for Shia sectarianism was placed entirely on Iran.
But there is a gaping hole in this argument, and that is to ignore entirely the precedent set by the Americans long before Daawah took over. Certainly Bayan Jabr deserves no sympathy; as interior minister he oversaw and whitewashed blatantly sectarian and abusive persecution of Sunnis who, despite his insistence of non-partisanship, were classified and persecuted as “terrorists” with minimal accountability (tellingly, Jabr also cited American conduct in its “war on terror” as a precedent). But he had simply followed, and Iranified, a process that the Americans and their favoured candidate, Falah Naqib—the same man who now accused Jabr—had set in motion in 2004-05.

Naqib, interior minister from mid-2004 to early 2005, belonged to an officially secular party that—unlike the early occupation—incorporated Iraqi, often Sunni Arab, military men who had fled under Saddam Hussein’s rule. The party leader was a secular Shia, formerly Baathist, named Ayad Allawi. Less infamous than his notoriously corrupt and treacherous cousin Ahmed Chalabi—who had charmed the neoconservatives in the American regime as well as the American media into the invasion of Iraq but who also had close ties with their official enemy in Iran’s regime—Allawi, unlike Chalabi, remained an asset to the CIA, who found his claims against Saddam Hussein’s regime less exaggerated than Chalabi’s fanciful, shameless lies. After the utter failure of Chalabi and Paul Bremer had propelled Iraq into disaster, Allawi, with a significant Sunni constituency as well, became the new favourite candidate to lead Iraq and took over as interim premier to succeed Bremer in the summer of 2004.
Importantly, Ayad Allawi’s conscious image was as that of a strongman who could do what was required to return Iraq to stability. In Jul 2004, the premier was widely reported to have personally shot a string of captured prisoners in Baghdad’s Amiriah police station; interior minister Faleh Naqib, also attendant, congratulated Allawi and the local sheriff, Raad Abdullah, ordered his officers not to report the matter. But rather than hurt him, the idea of a tough sheriff appealed to both many Iraqi citizens (the leakers indeed saw Allawi’s action as entirely justified and a positive indication) and, especially, to a flustered American occupation. Iraqis had suffered under the widespread abuse and torture of Paul Bremer and Ricardo Sanchez’s regime, and they would suffer under the same under the pro-Iranian regimes of Ibrahim Jaafari and Nouri Maliki. In between, however, was an oft-overlooked period under Ayad Allawi that connected both of these.
Given a license to kill, Falah Naqib employed his uncle, a thuggish former army commander named Adnan Thabit, as leader of a new homegrown police commando division. Thabit also belonged to the corps of officers who had been imprisoned for attempting to dislodge Saddam Hussein in the 1990s, and apparently he suffered torture and brutality there. This would further translate into his leadership of this gendarmerie.
Officially, the police commandos were portrayed as a positive development: an indigenous unit that, with American support, could retrieve security for Iraqis. David Petraeus, one of the few early American commanders who had tried to coopt Sunni Arabs with mixed success, enthusiastically promoted the commandos, who assisted the American army over the autumn of 2004 in their assaults on Mosul and Samarra. The commandos’ operations occurred under the eye of Jim Coffman, a lieutenant of Petraeus, and a shadowy figure named Jim Steele. A ruthless efficient commander who had headed America’s “drug wars” in Latin America by employing merciless government militias to smash the anti-American guerrillas, Steele’s focus on human intelligence revolved largely around the coercion of information out of captives via cruel methods, including systemic torture.
Jim Steele’s role has since been critiqued extensively in a 2013 documentary, Searching for Steele, produced by Mona Mahmood, from which much of this section stems. At the time, however, the United States regime—whose vicious vice-president Dick Cheney and defence minister Donald Rumsfeld both personally knew and patronized Steele—enthusiastically promoted the programme and enthusiastic press coverage was nearly exclusively effusive—the exception being a journalist named Peter Maas who presented a more balanced, holistic and critical analysis that was largely lost at the time.
From the American army, David Petraeus and Jim Coffman both uttered paeans to the “brotherhood of the close fight” that had grown between the Iraqi commandos and their American handlers. Another shadowy paramilitary long fostered by the CIA, called the Scorpion Unit, also operated with impunity. The Americans could not, after the 2003-04 Abu Ghraib torture scandal, personally torture prisoners: they could, however, watch as Iraqi clients did the dirty work for them and plausibly deny contact later, as at least Petraeus has successfully done. Armed with a conglomerate of admirers such as Tom Ricks, Linda Robinson and his future mistress Paula Broadwell—as well as adoring journalists like Michael Gordon and John Burns of the New York Times, Petraeus would progress to build a self-image as an imaginative commander who could gel with the natives and rescue America from the precipice. What was essentially an outsource of abuse to unaccountable local clients became portrayed as a bond between the Americans and Iraqis.
Though officially non-confessional at the time, and led by token Sunnis like Falah Naqib and Adnan Thabit, the American-backed commandos would lay the ground that would be exploited and enhanced by Iran-backed militias. With the campaign against Muqtada Sadr having reached détente, the commandos’ debut in the autumn of 2004 at Samarra and Mosul was organized exclusively versus Sunnis; like Bayan Jabr, Thabit justified his actions versus “the terrorists”, for whom “all kinds of means” were needed to force out confessions. The neoconservatives in the American regime, always sympathetic to the idea that Arabs understood only force, warmed to a missive related by their counterterrorism czar in Baghdad, Hank Crumpton, entitled “Fight Terror with Terror”, which quoted Thabit as explaining the necessity of impunity for his forces thus: “It is necessary that their forces be feared, as this was what was required in Iraqi society to command respect.”
Indeed, despite its official non-sectarianism, the police commando division focused nearly entirely on Sunni Arabs in a way that would be replicated by the Iran-backed force shortly afterward. There were direct links: one of the most feared Shia sectarian militias, the Wolf Brigade, morphed from a battalion in the commandos and clearly shared the systemic sadism. Even the hardhearted Jim Steele viewed the Wolf Brigade commander, Abu Walid Qurashi, as a thug; Abu Walid would quickly transfer from American-backed fealty to Iranian-backed fealty and he would serve as an especially prominent paramilitary commander under Nouri Maliki before he was captured and executed by Islamic State at Mosul in 2014. Thabits top officer, Rasheed Fulaih, was a close coordinate of the Shia militias and remains an influential officer now leader of an army division in the conflict.
Most striking was an attempt to win “hearts and minds” by giving the triumphant commandos their own special television programme, regularly broadcast in 2004-05; according to a glowing History Channel report (Insurgency and Counterinsurgency), “Terrorists in the Grip of Justice” became Iraq’s most popular programme. A brainchild of Mosul sheriff Ahmed Khalaf, another Sunni Arab with little compunction about crushing other Sunnis, the programme featured blindfolded prisoners from 2004 raids who were forced to confess to crimes they may or may not have committed. An aged captive, wheezing creakily with age and clearly in considerable pain, confessed to the unlikely charge of having killed thirty people. Another prisoner was accused of homosexuality with his purported accomplices on the hallowed grounds of a masjid, an utterly merciless accusation; asked if he had any shame for his crimes, the prisoner seems to have thought the matter over for a few seconds—a confession would destroy his reputation, as well as that of the insurgency that he may or may not have supported, but his captors had him by the throat—before reluctantly answering in the affirmative. More unlikely information would follow; another insurgent commander, a former army officer turned Islamist leader Muayyad Nasiri, publicly confessed to having received support from nearly every conceivable enemy: Iran, Al-Qaeda, Abu Musab Nazzal-Zarqawi, Syria, Baath, most of them almost certainly untrue. It was the sort of forced “justice” that had been rife in Baath-age Iraq and indeed a tactic employed by Saddam Hussein against his opponents: now it was rife, indeed approved, under an apparently democratic regime.

Within months, when the Iran-friendly Shia Daawah Party won an election overwhelmingly boycotted by Sunni Arabs, the process pioneered under Falah Naqib would now go overwhelmingly to Shia militias, particularly in the powerful Badr Corps but also homegrown sectarian vigilantes. To many Iraqi Sunnis, long suspicious of Persian designs both real and imagined, this confirmed American-Iranian collusion. The insurgency took on a more sectarian role increasingly dominated by Abu Musab Nazzal-Zarqawi’s Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, especially because in 2005-06 most of his Islamist competitors had been wiped out by the occupation.
And as bizarre as Sunni suspicions of a joint Iranian-American conspiracy may seem considering the longtime political sabre-rattling between the United States and Iran, on the subject of Iraq they were not far wrong. In Iraq, Iran and the United States may have vied for control. But when it came to Sunni areas in the north and west, it was simply a competition for which country could control the persecution.
By 2006, Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia had enough dominance in the insurgency to spread into the urban centres formerly controlled by other Islamists. AQI’s wanton brutality and their attempt to break the back of a traditional tribal structure that they incorrectly accused of incompatibility with Islamic shariah soon alienated enough Sunni tribesmen for the Americans to find an opening; in 2006-07, Petraeus and his lieutenants, such as John Allen and Jim Kelly, began to entice Anbari sheikhs onto their side long enough to present a case to extend an overwhelmingly unpopular war as the unlikely “saviours” of Sunnis and defenders against nefarious sectarianism. AQI continued, wittingly or otherwise, to play into their hands: in Feb 2006, the AQI commander Haitham Badri bombed the Shia Askari shrine at Samarra, triggering a year of ferocious sectarian warfare that provided the Americans with an ideal casus belle to remain in Iraq. So complete was the myth that ironically, formerly powerful career hawks like the ruthless American defence minister Donald Rumsfeld, now advocating a quick withdrawal, were brushed aside in the urge for this “surge”.
If Abu Musab Nazzal-Zarqawi had been credited for the Sunni insurgency, on the Shia part—rather than indict an increasingly vicious government, both America and Iran found a convenient scapegoat in the hotheaded upstart Muqtada Sadr. Sadr, a largely indigenous dissident leader who received minor and strictly qualified support from Iran, was blamed entirely for the sectarian mess on the Shias’ part; the Americans would, incorrectly, point him out as an Iran plant and the cause of Sunni resentment, pointing to the fact that his militia—increasingly slipping out of his control and into the Iranian sphere—was increasingly resented. Iran, for its part, played up accusations of Sadr, ensuring that the United States would reactively entrench the Daawah-led government of Nouri Maliki and play into its hands; they also cultivated extreme defectors from Sadr’s militia like the Khazali brothers Laith, Qais and Ali, responsible for mass sectarian cleansing against Sunnis. So complete was the deception that in 2008, when the Badr Corps and Maliki regime drove Sadr out of Basra, the Americans officially celebrated what they thought was a blow to Iran’s domination in Iraq. In actual fact, it was quite the opposite.
By 2010, a mixture of American collusion and Sahwa collusion had provided Nouri Maliki’s regime with enough respite to swing fully into the Iranian orbit. In the towns, where Maliki had indirectly overseen a sectarian cleanse to drive Sunnis into Sahwa-controlled tribelands, urban Sahwa commanders like Raad Hassan and Adil Mashhadani were suddenly arrested—in fairness, quite a few of them had unsavoury backgrounds, though no more than their arresters—and in some cases executed. The Americans, now committed to a withdrawal, mounted a few symbolic protests, but it was hardly an unavoidable scenario.
It had, after all, been American intervention that had rescued Maliki from an election he had lost (ironically, against a party now headed by former American client Ayad Allawi and allied with longtime American irritant Muqtada Sadr), and the Americans were still trying to woo the regime into their corner rather than the Iranians. Indignant Sahwa leaders, feeling betrayed, would soon rejoin the insurgency, this time willing to tolerate an Islamic State that had gradually grown more discreet after Abu Musab Nazzal-Zarqawi was slain in 2006, and that under its latest leader—Abu Dua Badri-Baghdadi, who would later declare himself caliph—would focus entirely on non-Sunnis and “apostates” rather than Iraqi Sunni competitors. Opponents of the Islamic State in Iraq—both secularist Kurds and Shia Arabs—would increasingly grow hostile to Sunni Arabs as inevitable “terrorists”, and even now both sets are, backed by both Iran’s military support and American airpower, fulfilling an agenda against Sunni Arabs that serves only to drive them into the Islamic State’s camp. In Syria, meanwhile, the Islamic State followed its Iraqi model—infiltrating and initially supporting the insurgency before, like a parasite, expanding to annex and actively fight it.
These concerning developments make it more necessary than ever to understand and duly learn from history, rather than the self-serving narratives promoted by various sides. Neither sectarian extremism nor polarization are inevitable; both have fairly recent roots. Authoritarianism and brutality, often sanctioned from abroad, have threatened to rip the region asunder. And it is not only Iran but, as this article hopes to show, the United States whose military adventures in Iraq have brought the situation to such a critical point

Blood, coffins and appropriation: the aftermath of the Peshawar attack

“The blood has not dried, nor the children buried, yet people are already using today’s senseless slaughter for their own political endgames.” – Harry Shotton, 16 December 2014

It takes a remarkable sickness of mind to try and appropriate a mass murder for one’s own political ends. And if the reaction by politicians and reporters to the TTP’s mass slaughter in Peshawar—where nearly 150 people in an army-run school, the vast majority of them children, were butchered by six militants—is anything to go by, the world has a remarkably sick elite indeed.
There are a number of varying, sometimes competing and sometimes collaborating, narratives whose ideologues immediately tried to appropriate the massacre.
The first is that of the Pakistan army and intelligence, who were quite frankly caught napping in a security breach so enormous it could spawn its own falseflag conspiracy genre. Yet rather than display any contrition for having permitted six barely disguised militants to swagger into a military-run school, the army and its assorted hangers-on—people like Zaid Hamid, for whom the army can do no wrong, or social media accounts with lame “Khaki” names—sprang to cover the blunder with a clever steam of heady outrage that, while no doubt genuine, also masked the serious security blunder. Even former commanders have not been spared, with Hamid rhetorically wondering what price former army head Ashfaq Kayani—a far sharper leader than incumbent Raheel Sharif by any measurable yardstick—should pay for having postponed this operation. Ironically—already lambasted by his own boss, Pervez Musharraf, and spokesperson Athar Abbas—Kayani has now turned scapegoat for insufficient hawkishness, never mind that his carefully balanced stance between Western pressure and Pakistan’s longtime strategy had never yielded the levels of failure over seven years that have occurred within a year under Raheel.
The drumbeat—optimistically referred to as a “consensus” in the media that has stoked it—has only one aim: war, war, and more war till terrorism (apparently a finite unchanging apparition) is stamped out. Never mind that the army and security failed to nab an obvious assortment of dodgy extremists in heavily manned Peshawar; this was a result of not letting the army go after the terrorists. Never mind, either, that a full-fledged assault against the TTP has been ongoing for six months in Waziristan against a media blackout; this was a result of not letting the army go after the terrorists. Never mind that initially reluctant parties like Jamaat-e-Islami and Tehreek-e-Insaf have had to bear the brunt of the massive refugee swathe that that same unchecked, clumsily planned operation has spawned; this was the result of not letting the army go after the terrorists. The army has, of course, been going after the terrorists unchecked for half a year by now. But spokespeople and hangers-on must keep up a heavy wave of outrage, because if the steam clears they will have been caught, as in the Karachi airport attack this past summer that provoked the operation, with their khaki pants dropped at the ankles.
It is, of course, a fact as the Pakistan army has taken pains to note that TTP leadership, particularly Fazlullah Hayat, has enjoyed a safe haven in eastern Afghanistan, and has tangible links to the Kabul regime’s secret service. But it is cynical to point fingers solely at Kabul. The reason a shaky, corrupt and unpopular Kabul regime imposed on Afghanistan by NATO has survived is the supply route that goes through Pakistan. Surely the first step to stop the TTP’s backers in the Afghan secret service is to shut down that supply line and leave the Kabul regime to the mercy of its people, thereby cutting off the TTP’s backers as well as ending a key rhetorical factor that draws in their recruits? But no. Pakistan can never negotiate with the TTP, no sir, but we can quite happily negotiate with the Americans whose invasion and occupation of our neighbour has spawned and, directly or otherwise, sustained this menace.
But at least the army has done something, half-cock and contradictory though the strategy may be. The same cannot be said of its present cheerleaders in Pakistan’s self-styled “liberal” circles. The same people who, on issues from Afghanistan and Balochistan to Kashmir and India, have never missed an opportunity to castigate the army for harbouring Islamists or being insufficiently committed to foreign interests, have now quite ironically turned into the military’s biggest cheerleaders. “Kill terrorism,” suggests the once-respectable Dawn with a none-too-subtle picture of a noose to drive home the point for the inferentially challenged. On cue, two notorious extremist leaders—Arshad Mahmood, who plotted one of several assassination attempts on then-dictator Pervez Musharraf in 2003, and Aqeel Usman, whose record includes the 2009 attacks on the Sri Lanka cricket team in Lahore and on the army headquarters in Rawalpindi—have been given the ole “phansi”. In this writer’s opinion, executions of convicted serious criminals are in themselves not a particularly troublesome issue, but how exactly does hanging long-captured militants in the wake of an attack to which they have no links solve anything? If it’s to make a point or to intimidate the TTP—Khaki social media claims that a soldier in Peshawar, Abid Zaman, who killed three of the assailants at the school, had suggested it as a “deterrence”—then it’s woefully thought out. TTP has drawn plenty of recruits on the promise of martyrdom for murder: from the army to various militias and, more broadly, Muslims across the world regardless of extremism, martyrdom is a spectacular honour; rather than dealing with their current militants, we’ve handed them two long-inactive martyrs on a plate.
Never mind. Crush terrorism, the opportunists bawl; kick out completely unrelated, blameless Afghan refugees, they scream; shut down madrassas, they howl, or at least reform them. The focus on madrassas is particularly peculiar if unfortunately familiar; these ramshackle seminaries are a makeshift solution, albeit a flawed solution, to a serious societal vacuum largely accentuated by the lack of alternative education, particularly in poor areas. Nor, indeed, do most of them advocate anything near the heinous takfiri ideology adhered to by the TTP’s leadership. But don’t let nuances spoil this rant. Pakistan’s unrepresentative, self-satisfied, hypocritical secularists have never missed an opportunity to stab at any representation of Islam in public and in politics; now, neatly taking the TTP’s own claims to monopolize Islam, they want the Jamaat-e-Islami, the Tehreek-e-Insaf, the Jamaat-e-Ulema. (On a side note, the castigation of Tehreek-e-Insaf, who have finally shut off their unfocused but militarily unobtrusive months-long marches, is especially strange, but it appears to be a staple scapegoat not only for politicians but for journalists from Geo to Dawn to Reuters.) Rarely will they get an opportunity like this. Because no matter outrage they may genuinely feel, that’s what the blood of the Peshawar martyrs is for such vultures: an opportunity.

As psychotic as such viewpoints may be, they can only compete with those who try to justify the Peshawar attack with feeble rejoinders of “But drones…” or “But Pakistan army…”. As unjustifiable as the drone bombardment of the FATA region and the heavy-handed, completely blacked out army assault has been, it is absolutely no justification for what was an unambiguous act of terrorism. To try and justify it by pointing out that the school was a military school is as twisted as justifying dronestrikes on the basis of “militant-aged males” (which, of course, has been done if less so over the past couple of years); it is not a novel phenomenon to the TTP, who attacked a masjid in Rawalpindi five years ago because it was frequented by army officers (several, including commander Bilal Omer, immediately martyred together with plenty of civilians). The vast majority of victims were children, and the entirety of them civilians with no crime. The TTP has, in a stroke of Pentagon-esque plausible denialism, claimed that the attackers were ordered not to kill children—who else did they think would frequent a school?
Even worse is to use genuine grievances as an excuse for this butchery. It may true that Pakistan’s army assault in Waziristan, a traditionally indirectly governed region with a history as a valuable, loyal but autonomous vanguard, is both brutal and hamfisted while producing a shocking refugee crisis that has barely been dealt with (and is utterly ignored by the proponents of that assault). It is also true that the people of FATA and northwestern Pakistan as a whole have suffered enormous brutalities from both army and insurgency in an American-provoked conflict, and that the TTP relies heavily on the propaganda of ejecting what it calls an American client army that has clumsily raided there again and again, in contravention of the understanding laid down at Pakistan’s foundation, since the days of Pervez Musharraf. But the TTP didn’t hit fighting soldiers who could hit back. To “punish” the army, they hit a school full of kids, for which there is absolutely no justification and which as a crime dwarfs even the most vicious assaults on FATA. The solution to the butchery and displacement of civilians in Waziristan is not, has never been and will never be the butchery of civilians in Peshawar or elsewhere in Pakistan.
I won’t waste too much space on this nihilistic, tit-for-tat justification that apparently sees TTP murder as more legitimate than murder by other actors. But it is entirely possibly to argue for the demilitarization of the region without assorting to mealy-mouthed justifications for an unambiguously vicious act of vendetta aimed at innocent children.

More galling than any Pakistani response, no matter how thoughtless or reactive, to the Peshawar massacre is the victim-blaming faux-sympathy that has poured out from governments and been faithfully aped by media worldwide, particularly in the West and in India. They have long wanted Pakistan to crack down not only on the TTP—a genuine security threat—but on their own enemies, most pressingly longtime Islamist militant factions based on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. This site has already drawn some attention to this phenomenon: that when the TTP commit an atrocity, the West and India, as well as their media sycophants, latch onto an opportunity to blame the victim, Pakistan, by instead attacking Pakistani support for entirely unrelated Islamist militias such as the Afghanistan Taliban, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and others. There is, perhaps, a moral argument to be made about the drawbacks of Pakistan support for Muhammad Saeed or Jalaluddin Haqqani, but it has next to nothing to do with the TTP. Saeed, for instance, has been an enthusiastic proponent for the army’s crackdown on the TTP, while Haqqanis, Gul Bahadur, and the majority of the Afghan Taliban enjoy a longtime relationship with Pakistan’s army and populace, both logistically and in some cases ideologically, that indeed limited the TTP’s efforts to mount an anti-Pakistan insurgency in the long-embattled FATA region.
This makes no difference, of course, to Western and Indian analysts. Like Pakistan’s “liberals”, they know an opportunity when they see it, and the TTP insurgency has been one giant opportunity to push their interests. And so an entire phalanx of commentators from government officials to uncritical media lackeys has lined up to convey sneering criticism thinly veiled as concern. Anybody who has examined the news in recent days knows the drill, from Downing Street to Fleet Street and from Wall Street to the White House: what a terrible tragedy in Pakistan; they must educate their children and fight terror after years of spawning it. This is not sympathy or sorrow. This is an attempt to appropriate the victims’ grief and use it against them. The only solution is increased Pakistani enlightenment—because it is, apparently, Pakistani barbarism that is to blame for the massacre of Pakistanis—and increased Western militarism. Especially with an unsuccessful conflict in Afghanistan dying down, some outlets (basically any three-letter acronym in cable media) have even sought to portray the attack as a case for more invasion; the argument goes that because the Pakistani Taliban attacked Pakistan, we must blame their namesakes the Afghan Taliban and can only be stopped by occupying, raiding and attacking Afghanistan awhile longer. Such an approach has, unfortunately, long been a staple in policy—to play off Pakistan and Afghanistan’s lives against one another, with a foreign occupation and bombardment—the root of the problem, both in the Soviet days and now—presented as a necessary referee between them. Whether Pakistani or Afghan, local dynamics are shown as inherently barbaric and can be saved only by well-meaning, earnest foreign intervention from the very powers that spawned the catastrophic conflict in the region.
In a typical remark, Britain’s cautiously neoconservative premier David Cameron put on a clinic in condescenscion disguised as sympathy: “it’s horrifying,” he wrote, presumably horrified, “that children are being killed simply for going to school”—a bald lie, but one that he had to make in order to justify his own army’s involvement in the region as a “civilizing” force against thugs who apparently hate education and can only be bombed out of their ignorance. A particularly sharp reply on social media by one Ayesha Durrani (who I assume, perhaps incorrectly, is the same as another Ayesha Durrani closely associated with a military family) read:
“No Sir, these children were not killed for going to school. They were killed for being children of army officers—army officers who got dragged into your conflict, to fight enemies you and your friends created, to bear the revenge of the adrenaline surges and ego boosts that you and your friends enjoyed for a decade. But Of Course Sir, getting the facts straight does not matter to you, for lives in our part of the world will n will never be as valuable as the ones in your part of the world.”
It is a sentiment shared by many, perhaps (hopefully) most, locals who know the dynamics of the conflict. And it’s a damn shame that, in the flushed aftermath of the atrocity, our media, political and even usually sharper military elite have so gratefully swallowed the British premier’s narrative of education and civilizational conflict between good and evil.

KOBANE, THE KURDS AND THE POLITICS OF PERPETUAL VICTIMHOOD

KOBANE, THE KURDS AND THE POLITICS OF PERPETUAL VICTIMHOOD 

A note: too often the large and fairly diverse population of Kurdistan, flung across Iran, Turkey, Iraq and Syria, is referred to as a homogenous group that shares nothing or little in common with its neighbours. For instance, despite the not insignificant minority of fragmented tribal and Islamist political and militant factions, Kurdistan is nearly always identified and referred to by the politics and political language of its secular nationalist dominators and its diaspora. I find this trend deeply problematic but I have yet to discover another brief term, so to clarify when I refer to “Kurds” as a whole in the following article I refer to the dominant elite who have defined their national movement both in terms of politics and Western media focus, rather than the more diverse people.

PREAMBLE

The twentieth century for the Kurds—the world’s largest stateless ethnic group, an ancient people spread across four countries at the junction between Central Asia and the Middle East—was a horrific one, even more so than for the world at large1. Attacked with poisonous chemical weapons by two of the century’s most domineering leaders, Winston Churchill2 and Saddam Hussein, and attacked on every side by ethnonationalist supremacist Turks, Arabs, and Iranians, the Kurds understandably have adopted a pragmatic, survivalist policy that banks more on ethnic solidarity than abiding alliances with any group—so that during the Cold War, various Kurd guerrillas hedged their bets with both the United States and the Soviet Union, Iraq and Iran, adopting both tribal conservatism and progressive radicalism as ideologies. This earned them a rather unfair reputation for cunning and unreliability by some of their opponents, but the Kurds could just as easily retort by pointing out the number of times their perceived friends had betrayed them, where the United States is usually taken as a case in point.

In the backdrop of near-extermination by ethnonationalists—from Kemalist Turks to Baathist Arabs and, to lesser extents, both royalist and Islamist Iranians—it is understandable for Kurds to take a pragmatic stance, which has been criticized as cynical. Had not Kemalist Turkey, and even its less rigidly nationalist successor of the late twentieth century, adopted a blatantly racist programme towards the Kurds, whom the “great modernizer” of Turkey and his junta viewed as backward shaykhs and aghas unworthy of a modern, forward-looking people?3 (As a yardstick, Tevfik Rusdi, a liberal member of Kemal Ataturk’s ultraracist cabinet, had helpfully pointed out that there was no need for Turkey to exterminate the Kurds as their inherent backwardness would do that by itself). Did not Iraq’s Baath and even their more reconcilable republican predecessors repeatedly made a mockery of their claims of brotherhood with the Kurds, culminating in the infamous slaughter of 1988?4

Even the notion of Muslim camaraderie, long a rare bind between the autonomous Kurds of premodern history and their neighbours5, has become viewed with skepticisim if not outright hostility by more radical modern Kurds though thankfully they remain a fringe6. Considering how both Islamist Iran and Baathist Iraq frequently abused their Islamic universalism and heritage respectively as a tool to crack down on the Kurds during the 1980-88 Gulf Conflict—best summarized by the Islamic “Anfal” title given to Saddam Hussein’s spectacularly unIslamic campaign of extermination in 1988—even religiously observant Kurds, who constitute a majority in Kurdistan itself, have some cause for caution when their neighbours invoke Muslim solidarity.

There was—rightly and understandably in this writer’s opinion—considerable outrage among Muslims and particularly Arabs at the pro-Israel tilt of some Kurds like Dawood Baghistani7, who founded the first pro-Israel paper in Iraq—how could an oppressed people reach out to another oppressor?—and yet in the Muslim world, the twentieth-century plight of the Kurds, perpetrated mostly by Muslims, has yet to be fully realized and condemned in similar vein8. By contrast, since the 1990s most Western observers—both “alternative media” pundits, who appreciated the Kurds’ revolutionary struggle, and establishment figures for whom the Kurds’ plight has presented an easy appropriation to further geopolitical aims such as the attack on Iraq—have recognized the Kurds’ difficulty and continue to sympathetically view the Kurds as regional actors.

VICTIMS NO MORE

Nonetheless, the twenty-first century’s first decade saw the scales tilt dramatically in the favour of the Kurds. The United States’ attack on a mutual enemy, Iraq’s Baathist regime, received the support of the Kurds’ peshmergas9; having already spent the better part of a decade in autonomy, Iraqi Kurdistan now presents the first autonomous region under Kurdish rule since the shortlived Mahabad Republic of the 1940s. Despite a longrunning feud with Iraq’s new regime, the sectarian Shia-dominated Baghdad regime headed formerly by Nouri Maliki and now Haidar Abadi, Kurdistan remained relatively secure and prosperous in Iraq, with its head Massoud Barzani inching it towards autonomy. An intelligent and prudent leader who (like his longtime rival for the Kurds’ leadership, the then-instated Iraqi ruler Jalal Talabani) has sought to mend old rivalries in the region, Massoud oversaw the healing of ties with Turkey’s Islamist regime—to the extent that both cooperated in smuggling Iraq’s Sunni deputy ruler Tariq Hashimi to safety from Maliki’s vindictive clutches in 2012-1310—as well as balancing ties between a number of varying actors, as different as Iran, the Gulf states, America and Israel.

The upshot of this—coupled with the total breakdown of the region’s non-Kurd populations into internecine conflict—is that in relative terms, the Kurds of the 2000s for the most part are no longer the region’s persecuted, feisty underdogs or the betrayed, tragic victims. And yet their spokespeople and supporters, as well as the vast majority of the world’s media, continue to act as if they are. Any story about the Kurds’ suffering, their resilience in the face of danger and their pluck, receives much more attention than does that of their neighbours even when dwarfed in proportion (as if human sympathy is a zero-sum phenomenon), and is often completely swallowed without question by reporters who should know better.

HEDGING BETS

A case in point is July’s siege of the Yazidi minority—a tiny syncretic group that Daash and other hardliners accuse of devil worship—in the mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan. There was absolutely no question that the Daash siege was brutal, or that it was an emergency that required urgent humanitarian assistance11. Instead, it resulted in yet another United States bombardment of Iraq, which gave Daash a brief setback without eradicating that far-too-convenient threat, and which was exploited both by the Kurds’ peshmerga and Shia militias to root out longstanding rivals from the area under the pretext of fighting Daash12.

Once the smoke had cleared, however, it became clear that the initial reports, many of them by Kurdish media outlets, had been wildly exaggerated. The number of Yazidis purportedly crowded and starved on a mountain had been inflated by tens, and some of them had actually been residents, not refugees, of the area. Stories of sexual jihad and genocide by voracious Daash thugs ran riot—many quite unnecessary fabrications, since Daash quite proudly advertise their brutality. In one of the most ludicrous cases, one media outlet that has never been a bastion of integrity reported that Yazidi parents were feeding children blood to survive, or pushing them off the mountain to their deaths as an apparently more dignified route to the afterlife13; there was, unsurprisingly, no corroboration for this spectacularly unlikely claim, but the press ran with it, amid a backdrop of diaspora Kurds wailing that nobody was heeding their suffering even as a very dodgy bombardment was predicated on it14. 

Another case, which has prompted this article, is the current siege of the mostly Kurd-populated Kobane (or Ain-ul-Arab), which apparently to be hurtling towards a Daash triumph after months of conflict. Before discussing the current siege, however, it is necessary to note the background.

This mostly Kurd-populated town, on northern Syria’s border, has been controlled by Salih Moslem’s leftwing Democratic Union with considerable competence for the duration of the Syrian conflict. Moslem’s faction has been closely associated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party of Turkey, which fought a bitter war with Turkey’s then-nationalist regime in the late 1990s. Formerly a radical communist guerrilla, the Workers’ Party head Apo Ocalan underwent something of a transformation in custody, and now advocates a gradualized autonomy for the Kurds that—rather than totally removing the traditional status quo of Kurdish community, such as tribal and religious aspects—seeks instead to accommodate and supplant them in a leftist framework (though himself an atheist, it is notable that Ocalan has in the past tried to woo observant Muslim factions among the Kurds15). The outbreak of conflict in Syria gave Moslem’s Democratic Union faction an opportunity to put Ocalan’s theories into practice, resulting briefly in one of the very few functional secular movements in the current Muslim world.16

It’s understandable that like many of his predecessors, Moslem chose to distance himself from either party—the Damascus regime or its opponents—during Syria’s conflict; he wanted to guard this newfound autonomy (which, a cynic may argue, may have benefited from the conflict’s perpetuation), so long coveted by the Kurds. Despite the claims of both the secular regime and its largely Islamist opponents, there was no guarantee that either would, or could, guarantee Syria’s Kurds their aims of autonomy and self-governance (though several Kurds, such as Mishal Tamo who was tortured to death a few days back by the regime, and Abdullah and Ahmed Kurdy, who form a brigade in the Islam Front, did take sides). So Moslem, the dominant leader of Syria’s Kurds, initially hedged his bets, politely refusing to cooperate either with the regime or the insurgents, except where their interests coincided—such as in the case of Nusra Front, with whom the Kurds fought a series of fierce skirmishes last year in northeastern Syria17.

The rise of Daash, which formally broke away from the insurgency in a whirl of ferocious confrontation over this past 2013-14 winter18, saw the insurgents appeal again to the Kurds; fighting on two fronts, versus both the extremists and the regime, and virtually isolated despite some empty gestures of support abroad, the insurgents badly needed whatever help they could get19. But the Syrian Kurds again opted to hedge their bets, and wait. Indeed, Salih Moslem himself tilted publicly towards the Syrian regime, arguing that Assad—easily the prime villain in a conflict riddled with villains—needed a spot at the negotiations table and repeatedly rebuffing insurgent appeals for unity20. (Moslem’s stance by no means accounts for the entirety of even the leftist Kurds in Syria: less prominent rivals, Abdul-Basit Saida and Nasruddin Ibrahim, have backed the insurgency with some reservation, but their groups are relatively insignificant in size and influence).

It wasn’t until Daash’s stunning conquest along the Iraq-Syria border this summer, which included attacks on both Iraq’s and Syria’s Kurds, that Salih Moslem reconsidered the stance. While Iraq, with its far greater oil supplies and greater accessibility to the United States after a decade of occupation, received immediate assistance, Syria’s Kurds—besieged in their eastern stronghold of Kobane—complained of insufficient attention, with their commander Sipan Himo repeatedly asking for a seat at the United States’ proxy table21. So far, despite a campaign of largely indiscriminate airstrikes with its Gulf clients that has decimated large swathes of the insurgency22, the United States has yet to publicly comply.

This left the frustrated Syrian Kurds in search of other partners. In late summer, they finally assented to the Free Syria Army’s offers of unification, with the respected FS northern commander Abduljabbar Uqaidi, a straightlaced officer who has tried to bridge as many gaps as possible during this conflict, sending reinforcements to Kobane23. But the Free Syria Army, never an especially cogent unit, is incapable of substantial support after attacks on literally every possible front. Now that Kobane is falling, old enmities and suspicions have reignited and the bulk of the Kurds’ ire has been directed not at its indecisive leadership or at the Western regimes it hopes yet to win over, but at a “perfect enemy”—Turkey.

A PERFECT ENEMY

Nearly every player in this conflict has Turkey’s regime, an Islamist-oriented government headed by the ambitious Recep Erdogun and his reliable lieutenant Ahmet Davutoglu, in its gunsights. Erdogun’s authoritarian streak, though wildly overblown home and away, has not helped24, but his foreign policy, a dramatic change from the past (in this writer’s opinion, a change for the much, much better), has been a key issue. Though the Turkish regime of the 2000s has been far more accomodating and open to the Kurds than its predecessors, who as late as 1999 under the “moderate” Bulent Ecevit were quietly massacring Kurds wholesale in the east, its other policies (usually matched, interestingly, by an otherwise conservative Qatar monarchy) have come under fierce criticism from various sides—ranging from the United States and Israel to the royalist Gulf regimes to Iran’s bloc.

In Afghanistan—despite a deployment of non-combat soldiers (the only popular NATO troops there25)—Turkey has been at the forefront of trying to reconcile the Afghan regime with the Taliban insurgency and its Pakistani neighbour26. In Egypt, Turkey opposed the United States and the Gulf regimes, most notably Saudi Arabia, in backing the ousted Islamist president Muhammad Morsi after Abdel-Fattah Sisi’s bloody 2013 coup27. Since 2011, when relations between Hamas and its former patron Iran (which had itself replaced Saudi Arabia in this role during the “war on terror”’s early years28) cooled because of differences over Syria29, Turkey has taken over as Hamas’ sponsor30. This, coupled with the bubbling hostility between Erdogun and Israel’s brutal ruler Benjamin Netanyahu which invariably goes down well in the Muslim world, has alienated Western support; but the fact that Turkey has backed the revolution in Syria against Russian-Iranian client Bashar Assad means that the anti-Western, self-described “anti-imperialist” bloc of Russia and Iran have also attacked the Turkish regime.

Since the Syrian conflict started, Turkey has played a leading role both in militarizing the opposition into an insurgency, as well as shouldering the brunt of refugees from Syria. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have fled to Turkey, which easily holds the world’s biggest Syrian refugee population. Not coincidentally, the Free Syria Army was founded, and rather awkwardly headed, from Turkey by Riyad Asaad, while Islamist leaders also set up stations there31. A porous border saw massive movements to either side—refugees out, arms and militants in. At the United Nation, Turkey argued for a no-fly zone—a far more reasonable check than the blanket American and Gulf bombardment—only for Russia and China to veto it repeatedly, while other countries such as the United States steadily distanced themselves from an insurgency they had once publicly welcomed32. In April a tape caught Turkey’s then-foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu, increasingly anxious to remove Assad, with army vicecommander Yasar Guler, intelligence head Hakan Fidan and diplomat Feridun Hadi, discussing contriving a pretext to attack Syria directly. It was desperate, but given the ignored crimes of the Syrian regime and the near-global deafness to an increasing din hardly unconscionable33.

These developments, which for the most part should be welcomed, have instead become a convenient stick for critics to attack Turkey. Russia and Iran, rather than explaining their unconscionable backing of a vicious regime, have shouted imperialism; the United States and its Gulf clients, seeking to pressure Turkey out of its support for Islamist factions, have shouted treachery (the Intercept’s Murtaza Hussain has an excellent article on a Gulf lobby, particularly from the United Arab Emirates, that has sought to vilify Islamist-supportive regimes such as Qatar and Turkey34).

An open border policy, which let militants in and out of Turkey without discretion, has been redefined as Turkish state support for Daash, even though Daash is one of many armed groups who have exploited it together with some of their stiffest opponents who have been conveniently lumped with them as manic Islamists despite immense ideological, political and operational differences (there are striking parallels between the Daash relationship with the insurgency and Turkey and the TTP relationship with the Taliban insurgency and Pakistan, which I have outlined in a previous article; they are not the only similarities between Syria-Turkey and Afghanistan-Pakistan35). But nobody has cried blue murder quite like Syria’s Kurds and their diaspora.

Drawing on a completely caricature of the Turkish regime as continuing the murderously anti-Kurd policy of its twentieth-century antecedents, this theory selectively redraws Turkey’s role in Syria as a giant conspiracy to wipe out the Kurds. It claims, with no substantiation, that Turkey has spawned Daash as a proxy to remove the leftist Kurd movements in Syria and Turkey (the fact that Daash loathes Turkey to an only slightly lesser extent is usually brushed aside as the politics of shared hatred for the Kurds). Having once attacked Turkey for using the Syrian conflict as an excuse to invade Syria and wipe out the Kurds36, it now blames Turkey for not doing precisely that and for letting Kobane burn by not invading Turkey37.

Western and anti-Western outlets alike have snatched onto this narrative with glee, wagging stern fingers as they put this imagined scenario down to apparent eternal Turkish hatred for the Kurds (the cordial relation between Turkey and regime of Iraqi Kurdistan in recent years is left ignored). Westerners like the United States can play, as they always do, the concerned humanitarians mediating between ancient hatreds; non-Westerners like Russia and Iran can play the anti-imperialist trying to rescue an embattled minority from a vicious NATO affiliate.

The problem is that this narrative, so consistently spun across the airwaves regardless of ideology, also flies in the face of the facts. Turkey’s open border has let not only Daash but militants of every stripe, including secular Kurds, pass; most of these militants, contrary to the “every Muslamist is a terrorist” angle played by Bashar Assad, have exhausted themselves in the thousands of lives fighting Daash for nearly a year38.

Nor did Turkey, however suspect its motives, seek to stamp out the autonomous Syrian Kurds; the majority of the insurgents who unsuccessfully sued repeatedly for collaboration with Salih Moslem had been from the Free Syria Army or Islam Front, both backed by Turkey. And the airstrikes from the United States and its Gulf clients that, to the undisguised glee of the purportedly “anti-imperialist” guardian of Syrian sovereignty Bashar Assad, have wiped out swathes of the insurgency under the pretext of removing Daash and vague “imminent dangers to the homeland”, had been fully supported by the Kurds, even as, like Assad’s airforce, it decimated civilians. There is tremendous hypocrisy to go around regardless of affiliations with regards to international positions on Daash, but for a long-persecuted minority to ignore the massacre between other groups and then cry foul when it spreads their way ranks up there.

Like their eventual unification with Free Syria Army battalions, Salih Moslem’s Kurds in Syria and their counterparts in Turkey—who have now begun a campaign of violence in mostly Kurdish towns in Turkey to express that disapproval39—only started to care about the fire when it threatened them and it was too late; now that that policy has backfired, they and their supporters in the media have excavated an outdated, anti-Kurd Turkish bogey as a perfect scapegoat to blame. Like the majority of the region’s actors who blame the insurgency and its Turkish backers rather than far more glaring problems, this stance is both factually incorrect and, after their silence on the massacre of Syria, morally empty.

  1. Despite the tremendous technological advances the century was the bloodiest in recorded history by furlongs, thanks in no small part to ethnonationalism.
  2. Churchill is arguably the world’s most celebrated war criminal, because he defeated the greater war criminal Adolf Hitler. I originally wrote that Churchill and Saddam were war criminals, but my family freaked out that it may unnecessarily incur the intolerance of some Western security agency (“because they don’t need an excuse to lock you up and don’t risk your life over  such a thing”). So, to respect their wishes, I’ve edited it.
  3. http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/meet-the-monster-turkish-fascism.aspx?pageID=438&n=meet-the-monster-turkish-fascism-2007-01-24
  4. It is ironic that some Iraqi Kurd leaders like the leftist leader Ibrahim Ahmad saw the Baath, initially, as an improvement on its republican predecessors, which—headed by a mixed Arab-Kurd, Sunni-Shia dictator, Abdul-Karim Qasim—they had originally welcomed as an improvement on the Hashemite monarchy. It is also ironic that Saddam Hussein, who represented the Baath’s civilian wing against the military wing represented by Hardan Abdul-Ghaffar and Salih Ammash before he formally took over in 1979, had been viewed well into the 1970s as a dove on the Kurds.
  5. Some modern nationalists have viewed, for instance, the Kurd Ayyubid sultanate, most famously headed by Salahuddin Yusuf b. Ayub b. Shadhi (Saladin) against the Fatimids and the Crusaders, with dislike, because Salahuddin fought as a Muslim mujahid and not as an ethnic Kurd.
  6. Several English-language websites have articles by secular writers, mostly from the diaspora, urging them to break away from Islam, which is, contrary to historical facts, described as being “forced” upon them. Some have viewed it as a faith for Arabs, because the Quran is in the Arabic language; in this regard they mirror Arab supremacists like Muammar Qaddafi and Saddam Hussein. Thankfully, this is only a fringe that unfortunately appears, like so many secular “liberal” movements in the Muslim world, to have an outsized proportion in the English language media.
  7. Baghistani, an Iraqi Kurd who faced threats after launching his magazine in the late 2000s, has conversely been portrayed as a bold visionary by the Israeli press.
  8. The fact that dyed-in-the-wool neoconservative writers such as Kenan Makiya have emphasized this point does not reduce its merit. Broadly speaking, thinly-veiled anti-Arab commentators have emphasized the fact that Arabs tend to focus more on the suffering of, say, Palestinians and more recently Iraqis, than on similar circumstances such as Kurds and Kashmiris. But this appears to have to do less with the implied Arab supremacism and more to do with knowledge; as Afghanistan, Bosnia and Chechnya show, Arab volunteers have flocked—for better or worse—in huge numbers to fight for Muslims in non-Arab arenas when they have been made aware of it. The case of the Kurds seems to be more an issue of suspicion and perhaps guilt, because of Arab leaders’ complicity.
  9. This was viewed as betrayal by many Iraqi Arabs, though Kurds have repeatedly argued that their treatment in Iraq had virtually disenfranchised them anyway. Veteran Kurd leaders Jalal Talabani and Barham Salih were appointed in the largely ceremonial positions of president and deputy prime minister respectively, where despite their flaws as members of an occupation regime they did not show the same wanton vindictiveness that the Arab Shia bloc headed by Nouri Maliki did.
  10. While his guards were under interrogation, Tariq Hashimi absconded during a convenient diplomatic mission to Iraqi Kurdistan, whose leaders had been fed up with the Baghdad regime. From there Hashimi slipped into Turkey, where despite having been sentenced to death and stripped of his title in absentia by Iraq he was pointedly treated with his full honours by the Turkish regime.
  11. Not, of course, an immediate priority of cynical geopolitical planners.
  12. http://uk.reuters.com/article/2014/09/09/uk-iraq-security-consequences-idUKKBN0H40BC20140909
  13. http://news.sky.com/story/1317709/parents-giving-thirsty-children-blood-to-drink
  14. A number of websites such as Rudaw and EKurd howled their victimhood from the rooftops.
  15. In the 1980s, Ocalan not unreasonably argued that the secular Turkish state had crushed not only Kurds but also religiously observant Muslims, an argument that would undoubtedly broaden his base. The rise of an Islamist party in mainstream Turkish politics would threaten such recruits, though their actual influence is unclear.
  16. http://carnegieendowment.org/syriaincrisis/?fa=55650
  17. For instance, http://vvanwilgenburg.blogspot.ca/2013/09/ahrar-founder-killed-by-pkk-in-yarobiya.html
  18. This fascinating and vicious conflict deserves another article on its own, but this is an example. Aleppo saw some of the most bitter confrontations and a bout of assassination by either side, particularly Daash: https://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?id=388059191265234&story_fbid=612941155443702
  19. http://www.islamweb.net/emainpage/articles/191938/syria-opposition-says-armed-kurds-hostile
  20. http://english.alarabiya.net/articles/2012/06/19/221535.html. http://carnegieendowment.org/syriaincrisis/?fa=54367. The insurgents partly shared the blame for this, quickly balking at any idea of federalism, but on balance their appeals were rebuffed and, indeed, over time the Syrian Kurd leaders gravitated towards Bashar Assad, whose own non-Kurd victims were largely ignored.
  21. https://fr-ca.facebook.com/france24.debat/posts/10152513976549454
  22. The assault on Hama and Idlib, strongholds of the insurgency with minimal IS presence, is a case in point.
  23. http://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/menasource/kurdish-arab-rebel-alliance-may-be-key-to-obama-s-syrian-strategy. Abduljabbar Uqaidi has lashed out at what he sees as hypocritical foreign politics, as well as stoutly backed factions different as conservative Islamist Nusra Front and liberal secular Democratic Union.
  24. Examples include the reshuffle of Turkey’s system and successfully campaigning to become president after two terms as prime minister, as well as media crackdowns. These pale in comparison to neighbours (as well as some of Erdogun’s predecessors), but still show a worrisome trend.
  25. http://fmso.leavenworth.army.mil/documents/Turkeys-role.pdf
  26. http://www.cnn.com/2010/WORLD/meast/12/25/turkey.afghanistan.taliban/
  27. http://news.yahoo.com/turkey-pm-erdogan-slams-egypts-illegitimate-tyrant-sisi-130905463.html
  28. See Hamas: The Islamic Resistance Movement by Beverley Milton-Edwards and Stephen Farrell, 2010. I don’t have a copy at hand, but it describes Hamas’ shift towards Iran after the United States’ pressure forced Saudi Arabia to cut its support, a move that was seen by some analysts as counterproductive to Western interests because it brought then-isolated Iran into the fold as a champion of the Palestinian guerrillas.
  29. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/palestinianauthority/10091629/Iran-cuts-Hamas-funding-over-Syria.html Quite pragmatically, Iran and Hezbollah have sought to publicly downplay this rift, because of the longtime support they have enjoyed in the Muslim world by appropriating the Palestinian cause, like the Saudis before them, as paragons of “resistance” against Israel. Israel and the United States, for their part, have regularly conflated Hamas and Hezbollah to exaggerate the first faction’s capability, and to maintain the other, and by extension Iran, as a threat to Israel.
  30. For a satisfyingly livid account by a neoconservative ideologue and researcher, see http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2014/08/04/hamas_s_bffs_turkey_qatar_israel_gaza
  31. For Islamist insurgent offices inside Turkey, see Raja Abdulrahim’s excellent report on the Islamic Front http://www.latimes.com/world/middleeast/la-fg-syria-islamic-front-20140630-story.html
  32. The criminalization of any foreign fighters travelling to Syria, which makes no distinction between Daash and most other factions except a few insignificant militias largely under Gulf and United States control, is an example.
  33. The leak resulted in a Youtube ban in Turkey, another worrying step. For my part, I see the action as entirely defensible in the circumstances. The world, quite frankly, has failed Syrians and if Turkey want to pick up the slack, on them.
  34. https://firstlook.org/theintercept/2014/09/25/uae-qatar-camstoll-group/
  35. This article I wrote half a year back expounds some more on the Afghanistan-Pakistan situation, in my experience the only conflict subject to as quite much cynical misinformation by purportedly respectable outlets as this Syria-Iraq conflict. layyin1137.wordpress.com/2014/04/12/when-the-story-gets-in-the-way-of-facts-afghanistan-pakistan-and-the-ahmed-rashid-syndrome/
  36. http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2014/06/zaman-syria-kurds-rojava-ypg-muslim-pyd-pkk-turkey-isis.html
  37. http://roarmag.org/2014/10/kobani-isis-kurdish-resistance/; http://www.post-gazette.com/news/world/2014/10/08/Kurdish-protests-roiling-Turkey/stories/201410080092
  38. To read an Iranian or Russian article, even self-styled “anti-imperialists” like Russian mouthpiece Michel Chossudovsky and most of Russia Today, on the “terrorists” is strikingly similar to reading a far-right American article about Muslim insurgents, hardly surprising in Russia’s case but cynical from an officially revolutionary Islamist Iran. In one article on Fars News, this writer counted the word terrorist seven times in eight sentences; in another, nine times in ten. Please note that this article I wrote last year is far too polite to such pseudo-antiimperialists; at the time I had yet to realize the extent of either Global Research, Russia Today, or Boiling Frogs’ fanatical contrarianism, so that any faction that fights against a non-Western ruler is treated with the same contempt that the “mainstream media” they excoriate does towards its opponents. https://layyin1137.wordpress.com/2013/12/19/smoke-mirrors-and-the-antiwar-movement/
  39. http://www.todayszaman.com/mobile_detailHeadline.action?newsId=360959

Difficult and delicate: a few thoughts on the North Waziristan operation

I haven’t posted here awhile, mainly because of work and study commitments. Given the Pakistan army’s attack yesterday on its Federally Administrated Tribal Areas, however, I thought I’d jot down a few thoughts. I don’t normally write off-the-cuff posts like this without citation or arrangement, but this seems important and it IS a blog

1) This appears to have been basically inevitable at one level. Not only did the TTP launch a rather horrendous assault on Karachi’s airport last week, but the militants that claimed responsibility were Uzbek and Central Asian Turks who have been earmarked as a major threat by Pakistan’s most powerful and reliable partner, China. Given this, it was inevitable that these militants–a collection of Central Asian Islamist groups, most notoriously the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan under Usman Ghazi, who have sheltered in Pakistan for the past decade or so–would be attacked. The unwelcome attention also drew attention from other, more Pakistan-friendly Islamist commanders in North Waziristan, Gul Bahadur and Sirajuddin Haqqani, who have not only cooperated closely with the Pakistan army and intelligence but also fear unwelcome attention that both draws from their anti-US jihad in Afghanistan and their autonomy.

2) It is also fairly clear, or should be, that the eradication of the TTP is not, as the group and its supporters have declared, an American war but very much a Pakistani concern. Though the arrival of the TTP in 2007 was boosted by American-pushed military attacks in a sensitive tribal region, since then the group itself has only ever pursued its stated goal of jihad rhetorically; though its leaders repeatedly claim to be fighting against the occupation of Afghanistan, the group itself has exclusively attacked mostly fellow Muslim Pakistanis. Not only did the Afghan Taliban and even Al-Qaeda distance themselves from the TTP’s strategy and tactics respectively, but the Mehsud tribesmen under Khalid Sajna–among the group’s most accomplished commanders–also split away. Though Sajna’s differences with the hardline TTP leader Fazlullah Hayat and his Mehsud lieutenant Sheharyar Shahbaz seem to rise more from personal ambition than necessarily ideology, the TTP’s core local support has stemmed from the Mehsuds. There is also increasing evidence, echoed by Sajna’s supporter Raees Tariq (no matter how cynically, considering his own long history with the TTP), that Fazlullah is heavily funded by the Afghan intelligence agency, which contrasts sharply with the TTP’s rhetoric about liberating Afghanistn.

3) That said, it is absolutely ridiculous to pretend, as some “more loyal than the army chief” keyboard soldiers have done, that a war between the Pakistan army and a Pakistan-based group is black-and-white. As ludicrous it is to pretend that eradicating the TTP is an American concern, not a Pakistani one, it is equally ridiculous to assert that those leaders, such as Tehreek-e-Insaf head Imran Khan and Jamaat-e-Islami emir Sirajul-Haq, are somehow sympathetic to the TTP because they have concerns about the fallout of a difficult operation. Too many self-proclaimed army loyalists are acting like a multifaceted, complex and difficult conflict is simply black-and-white, as that JI, PTI and others who raise valid concerns are traitors. Dissent is healthy, particularly in a conflict where every Pakistani, including the army, should want to limit unnecessary casualties to the bare minimum.

There is also a world of difference between registering valid concerns and caveats over the possible fallout of a tricky operation, as JI and PTI have done–and “opposing the army”–which is ironically what some of the loudest cheerleaders, such as pseudoliberals Nadeem Paracha, Umar Cheema, Omar Quraishi, and Abdul-Majeed Abid, have spent years and built careers doing. It’s odd to see these pseudoliberals settle into a marriage of convenience with pro-army analysts and even with ultra-conservative Islamists like Lashkar-e-Taiba head Muhammad Saeed; hopefully they can keep it up when the army turns against Balochistan’s separatists, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.

4) This operation will be pointless, or at least left unfinished, as long as the NATO supply routes from Karachi remains intact. This has been the lifeline of NATO’s occupation of Afghanistan, among whose top beneficiaries is the Afghan secret service to which the TTP and other anti-Pakistan groups have been linked. The main reason that Fazlullah Hayat retains so much influence as a TTP hardliner is his enormous supply of cash and the strategic depth he can garner from the Afghan secret service. It’s pointless to argue for the elimination of the TTP and yet keep the occupation of Afghanistan–whose people deserve far better than a superficial, corrupt and brutal puppet regime–open; this is, both in terms of their propagation and resources, the TTP’s main lifeline. Again, I wouldn’t hold my breath.

5) Broadly speaking–regardless of whether one agrees with their strategy–the Pakistan army command has been impressively willing to put their “skin in the game” in recent times. It’s been well-circulated over the past couple of days that Khalid Rabbani, Peshawar corps commander, has also sent his son to the front. I have not yet seen confirmation of this, but it wouldn’t be unusual. The Karachi airport attack was personally countered by corps commander Sajjad Ghani, in a risky but daring performance; other commanders such as Haroon Aslam and Tariq Khan have personally led their troops in dozens of engagements. Masood Aslam, formerly Peshawar corps commander, lost his only son Hashim, also a soldier, in a 2009 Rawalpindi masjid attack, which also killed the high-ranked commander Bilal Omer, whom witnesses described as personally tackling the suicide bomber. Other commanders assassinated or slain in combat during the past decade include Sanaullah Niazi, Mushtaq Baig, Faisal Alvi, Haroon-ul-Islam, Anwarul-Haq Ramday, Mujahid Mirani, Safwat Ghayur, Usman Ali, and Waseem Aamer; the list is by no means exhaustive. Just as it is possible to disagree with JI and PTI without calling them “TTP sympathizers”, it is also possible to recognize without agreeing to their plans that the Pakistan army are not, as the TTP claim, “Western sellouts”, and have often displayed extraordinary leadership in this conflict.

6) The prominent Rawalpindi politician Sheikh Rasheed has called this a miniature military rule, with which I agree. Army head Raheel Sharif had been earmarked as a client of the prime minister Nawaz Sharif, but if anything it appears that Raheel wears the Sharif pants. As often happens in tense times and with a blatantly incompetent regime, the army’s popularity has also increased in recent months, but its own interests should prevent it from trying to seize power. As Ashfaq Kayani’s tenure showed, a quietly influential army behind the scenes is far better than a Pervez Musharraf-style military regime, which may yield short-term benefits but in the long run hurts both civic politics and military cohesion.

7) According to the army spokesperson Asim Bajwa–hardly a neutral source, of course–the Pakistan army and local government has done its best to minimize innocent casualties and to support displaced refugees. The very legitimate humanitarian concerns aside, this is to be fervently hoped for anyway, because the last thing Pakistan needs is the alienation of its frontier population, most of whom have been upstanding citizens but who would naturally resent a heavy-handed assault.

8) Interestingly, NATO’s client regime in Afghanistan has tried to portray itself as the saviour of the frontier people here; the Afghan journalist Bilal Sarwary, largely sympathetic to the occupation, posted a picture on social media of what he claimed were Pakistani refugees in Khost, which Pakistani analyst Arif Rafiq subsequently showed was a 2011 picture in northern Pakistan. It should be noted–and commended–that the Khost provincial governor, Abdul-Jabbar Fahimi, has accepted several hundreds of refugees, which underscores the historical bond between Afghans and Pakistanis. But it is interesting that an occupation-sympathetic journalist would feel the need to dig up fabricated photographs to prove this point; as NATO finally withdraws from Afghanistan, it appears that the pro-occupation press is whirring into overdrive.

The politicization of information

(NOTE: This was a rebuttal I wrote to the patently misinformed and, I suspect, disingenuous article written by one Zmarak Yousefzai on Foreign Policy. I sent it to several other news outlets under a pen name, but unfortunately none saw fit to print it. There is also a very fine rebuttal by Zia Pacha Khan here http://pachanation.wordpress.com/2014/02/07/myths-and-more-myths-the-elusive-quest-for-peace-in-afghanistan-and-pakistan/comment-page-1/#comment-10. As I argued in my previous post here https://layyin1137.wordpress.com/2014/04/12/when-the-story-gets-in-the-way-of-facts-afghanistan-pakistan-and-the-ahmed-rashid-syndrome/ , the Afghanistan conflict and its media coverage have been based off as much misinformation as the American/British/Australian invasion of 2003, and disingenuously and hypocritically presented as a “necessary” invasion)

The politicization of information in the Afghanistan conflict

Ibrahim Moiz (copyright etc, rights reserved)

17/1/2014

A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, and nowhere are the stakes for dangerous things higher than in the explosive field of international relations. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the now notorious run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, where bits of intelligence information, technically factual on their own, were wildly decontextualized and shaped to form a deliberately deceptive, contrived justification for the invasion, based on Saddam Hussein’s brutal record and his alleged, but now disproven, stock of weapons of mass destruction. This disinformation is not uncommon in wartime; most if not all modern wars involve some level of disinformation on all sides, usually to dehumanize the enemy and rationalize to an otherwise peaceable population the necessity of a bloody, costly war.

The American-headed NATO war in Afghanistan, now the longest in American history and, in this writer’s humble opinion, at least as criminally wasteful adventure as Iraq, generally received a warmer reception than did the obviously contrived Iraq venture. For one thing, it came in the aftermath of a terrible attack on New York by an extremist militant network hosted by a backward and repressive regime in Afghanistan. Nobody was going to question, in the wake of so shocking a tragedy, the wisdom or validity of this war, even though—as we now know—a number of the Taliban’s top command, including Mohammed Omar’s closest aide Abdul-Wakil Muttawakil and foreign officials Abdul-Jalil Akhtar, Abdul-Salam Zaeef and Mohammad Abdul-Kabir, had urged for Osama bin Laden’s extradition. Neither Omar’s second-in-command, Abdul-Ghani Baradar, or his predecessor Mohammad Rabbani had been in favour of Osama’s comfortable haven in Afghanistan, which had helped cause such alienation on the international stage.

The Taliban—even Omar, who felt that releasing the Saudi militant would cause him to lose face and a rare ally in a world that had long since denounced his government—had long tired of Al-Qaeda, whose presence had helped ostracize them; as Milton Bearden, the former CIA officer who supported the Afghan mujahedine in their 1980s fight against the Soviets, explained to almost no media reception just three weeks into the Afghan invasion, “We never heard what they were trying to say…We had no common language; ours was ‘Give bin Laden up’. They were saying, ‘Do something to help us give him up.’” For an impoverished (and inept) regime constantly at war with the Northern Alliance and in desperate need of any friends, it was hardly an unreasonable attitude. But Taliban offers of negotiation never made it to America’s public, which—like a wounded animal—were ready to lash out any which way. George Bush needed to be seen to act, no matter that his then lauded boldness would lead to a catastrophic series of events and the deaths of thousands and thousands of Americans and non-Americans alike. The Taliban’s unconscionable humans rights violations, and their destruction of the ancient Buddhist statues in Bamiyan, were added to spice up the narrative.

More and more justifications were piled on to portray what was definitely a “war of choice” into a “war of necessity”, so much so that even an Iraq-disillusioned American public accepted the claims of liberal hawks like Barack Obama that Afghanistan, unlike Iraq, belonged to the latter category. There can, for instance, be no excuse for the Taliban’s cruelty towards minorities and women, but it could be pointed out that it was largely not the result of active malice but of a primitive wartime worldview of a generation whose entire lives had been steeped in war; even the notorious Taliban chief of moral police, Qalamuddin (now repatriated into the Afghan government), claimed that his regime would allow women to seek limited job and education opportunities once there was an infrastructure that would guarantee their segregation from men—an outlandish idea, certainly, but one formed in the worldview of a wartime generation who saw the only solution to the rapine and slaughter of the 1980s and 1990s in an ultraconservative, rigid interpretation of shariah. There was also minimal coverage of the equally atrocious, if officially unsanctioned, humans rights abuses of the US’ new partners, the Northern Alliance; it had, after all, been the wanton debauchery of militias under such non-Taliban leaders as Abdul-Rashid Dostum, Gulbadin Hekmatyar, and even the posthumously-eulogized and fairly fashionable Shah Massoud that had given rise to the Taliban movement in the early 1990s. Disinformation can be crippling, but it can be extremely valuable to sustain an otherwise unjustifiable war that now has as few as a sixth of American citizens’ support.

The list of disinformation on both sides, both pro-NATO and pro-Taliban, in this war could fill a book, but for now a quick rebuttal of Zmarak Yousefzai’s article in Foreign Policy (16/1/2014) should do. There is no doubt that there has been disinformation on the pro-Taliban side, but Yousefzai simply sets out a bizarre list of three apparently rife rumours that he then shoots down in classic strawman fashion. Firstly, he claims to debunk the claim that the CIA funded the Taliban in the 1980s, asserting instead that the Taliban fought the CIA-backed mujahedine.

This is, like the most dangerous bits of disinformation, partly true. Many of the Taliban’s rank-and-file, in particular, were enrolled in Pakistan’s controversial Haqqaniah madrassa at some point during the 1980s, often shuttling back and forth across the border, and the warlords they fought in the 1990s included many mujahedine. Yet to entirely separate them, in what I can only uncharitably assume to be a politicized rewrite of history designed to relieve the CIA of the blame, is untrue. Most of the Taliban’s leaders, in particular—Omar, Mohammad Rabbani, Abdul-Ghani Baradar, Ubaidullah Akhound, Abdullah Burjan, Abdul-Razzaq Akhoundzada and the like—were actively involved as relatively low-ranked officers in the anti-Soviet jihad, most of them under the leadership of Younas Khalis, whose son Anwar-ul-Haq Mujahid now fights in Afghanistan against the NATO occupation. Mohammad Rabbani, for instance, served as second-in-command to one mujahid army under an Abdul-Razaq in southern Afghanistan. The very Ahmed Rashid book, Taliban, that Yousefzai cites here has an appendix that includes the Taliban leaders’ anti-Soviet mujahedine factions: the most frequent loyalty was the Khalis mujahedine faction.

Conversely, the groups the Taliban fought during the 1990s included both mujahedine and anti-mujahedine. While anti-Taliban leaders Abdul-Haqq Humayun, Abdul-Rabb Sayyaf and Ismail Khan were indeed prominent mujahedine commanders (Abdul-Haqq, like most of the Taliban leadership, in Khalis’ group), many of them—including Abdul-Rashid Dostum, Abdul-Jabbar Qahraman and Ismatullah Muslim actively fought against the mujahedine in the 1980s on behalf of the communist government. As Antonio Giustozzi points out, the catastrophic civil war that followed the Soviet withdrawal of 1989 was partly fueled by these commanders’ need to continue earning income off warfare off the militias they had founded in the Soviet period. Many prominent mujahedine commanders including Abdul-Salam Racketi, Gul Naqibullah and the infamous Jalaluddin Haqqani actually defected to the Taliban in the mid-1990s, though Racketi and Naqibullah defected back to the opposition camp during the 2001 NATO invasion. So whatever point Yousefzai has tried to make here is entirely contrived and only partially factual. And though he is correct is that the TTP, the Pakistan Taliban, are entirely divorced from the 1980s mujahedine, it should be pointed out that they share very few similarities with the Taliban in Afghanistan except in name: while the Afghan Taliban were raised under and are believed to still rely on covert backroom support from the Pakistan army and intelligence, the TTP have clashed head-on with their Afghan namesakes’ comrades.

A more obvious strawman then emerges when Yousefzai asserts that drone critics claim the Taliban are fighting an anti-drone war; he bases this, no doubt, on the recent deluge of anti-drone sentiment in literature and media alike, and points out that the Taliban existed well before drones. Yet just about every vaguely informed drone critic I have read or seen does not claim at all that the Taliban are a response to drone strikes: they claim, instead, that the Taliban purport to fight foreign occupation, and that drone strikes are one of the aggravating factors that provoke locals to join the Taliban. A study by RAND scholars that he cites is entirely against the grain of most evidence, and in any case is no more reliable than official accounts of who killed who and who did what; as Jeremy Scahill among others discovered, the official account is extremely unreliable and should not be taken at face value.

Yousefzai here offers the most inaccurate and yet most common fallacy yet; without warning, he switches from the Afghan Taliban to their Pakistani namesakes (Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, or TTP), and claims—rightly—that the Pakistani Taliban have targeted mainly local fellow Muslims or local minorities and displaced millions. This is true, but it bears no relevance to the Afghan Taliban who had hitherto been the subject of the article. To conflate them based on a shared name is as ridiculous as conflating the Republic of Ireland with the Republic of Iran. And yet it has been the most common fallacy in media coverage.

The Afghan Taliban were raised on official support, and probably still partly rely on private support from elements, from the Pakistani establishment; the TTP exclusively attacks the same Pakistani establishment. While the Afghan Taliban presents a frontal threat to the NATO-backed regime in Afghanistan, the TTP—as journalist Imtiaz Gul noted in The Most Dangerous Place—has almost exclusively targeted fellow Pakistanis; when asked to justify the killing of fellow Pakistanis in purported retaliation for an American occupation of Afghanistan, TTP leaders claimed that it would be more productive to kill fellow Muslims—so that everybody involved, killer and victim, would reach heaven as martyrs—rather than the American soldiers they were purporting to oppose. Gul’s appendices, which contain a valuable list and sketches of prominent leaders in the FATA region, also show how different most Pakistan Talibs’ backgrounds are from their Afghan namesakes.

The Afghan Taliban, in order to maintain its popular appearance in the border regions as a well-meant local insurgency, has repeatedly distanced itself from the TTP’s attacks on Pakistanis, though it avoids cutting ties outright. Even the infamous and successful one-legged Afghan Taliban commander, Daadullah Lang, who pioneered the use of civilian attacks before his death in 2007, was unceremoniously booted out of the Taliban a year before his death, according to Afghan Taliban Abdul-Jalil Akhtar, because his explosive statements and brutal actions were seen as depriving the Taliban of much-needed local sympathy. The Afghan Taliban are unlikely, thanks to an abysmal governing record and a far better capacity for fighting than ruling, to ever rule Afghanistan even if they do drive out NATO, certainly not without integrating into a decent political unit. But in wartime they have time and again proven remarkably versatile.

Even those FATA leaders such as Gul Bahadur and Nazeer Ahmed who opposed the Pakistan Taliban have been collectively branded “Taliban” because of their ties with the Afghan insurgency, with no distinction, thereby justifying attacks on them in the name of stamping out terrorism. When Nazeer, a partner of Pakistani forces in the FATA region who had long since severed ties with the TTP, was killed by a drone strike a year ago, he was posthumously declared a “Taliban commander” in many media outlets, in order to justify the strike against a local moderate who may have opposed the NATO occupation in Pakistan but certainly had nothing to do with terrorism. To foreign troops and civilians alike they may all seem similar: barbarous, perhaps, and certainly outlandish, yet the political reality is that these distinctions exist, and for pragmatic if no other purposes, need to be made.

Given the vast, destructive and indeed self-flagellating repercussions of politicized disinformation, why would thinktanks and pundits in Washington and elsewhere continue to peddle thinly veiled disinformation as fact and publish it in influential journals like Foreign Policy? The reason, as in no doubt the case on the other side, is pure propaganda and serves to perpetuate an otherwise costly and unjustifiable war. Since the vicious attack on Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai in 2012, ordered by now-Pakistan Taliban leader Fazlullah Hayat, the media has time and again blamed the Taliban with no distinction between the two distinct Talib groups. This has, unwittingly or not, blamed the Afghan Taliban, NATO’s enemies in Afghanistan, for the attack instead of the Pakistan Taliban, and served subtly to justify the continuation of the war against the “Taliban”—no distinction and no explanation, because the war in Afghanistan has very little to do with the Pakistan Taliban except as a valuable propaganda tool. That disinformation wheeled out in the name of “myth-busting” can so easily penetrate the collective conscious is an indication that the media, in particularly but not exclusively American media, still has not learned the lessons of Iraq.

When the story gets in the way of facts: Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Ahmed Rashid syndrome

When the story gets in the way of facts: Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Ahmed Rashid syndrome

Ibrahim Moiz (Copyright, rights reserved etc)

12 April 2014

With the American-headed NATO occupation of Afghanistan—a war as unnecessary and now even less popular, at one approver per six Americans1 on the latest count and certainly far worse figures abroad from the United States, than its Iraqi contemporary—drawing down as America’s longest and joint-least successful campaign yet, a misinformation machine is whirring into action to try and ensure that the occupation leaves with some semblance of dignity.

The once-sensible Carlotta Gall, whose once-sensible father Sandy Gall has been an energetic cheerleader of the Afghan occupation for awhile now under the presumably straight-faced excuse of caring for “these people”2, recently penned a wildly presumptuous and factually light article3 regarding the “real enemy” in Afghanistan, Pakistan’s Islamist-dominated and purportedly hostile-to-our-values-whatever-they-be intelligence network, and rounded it off with an emotive appeal to the women’s education that will purportedly be lost to the resurgent Taliban (never mind that even the Afghan Taliban’s default position, as admitted by their more discerning critics, was not anti-women’s education per se, simply anti-women’s education in the absence of “Islamic” infrastructure that could safeguard the women’s “honour” in public partly thanks to the international isolation caused by a loud and blatantly counterproductive feminist campaign in the 1990s that totally ignored the ground situation in Afghanistan and the fact that the Taliban’s Northern Front opponents were as dismissive of women’s education—even if this caveat is indefensible considering the galling treatment of women under the Taliban, the core concerns have still not been addressed under the purportedly more progressive occupation4). Carlotta Gall has done some fine reporting in her time, but this was a blatant attempt to legitimize and apologize for an occupation that though not entirely without positive  side-effects (since some members of NATO, most notably the locally popular Turks who refused to participate in combat against their coreligionists from the start and have remarkably lost only two soldiers in the entire 13-year conflict, which should be a lesson for nearly everybody else in the coalition on conduct5) is overwhelmingly unpopular inside and outside Afghanistan.

 

No single figure exemplifies the exceptional durability of misinformation in Afghanistan than loudly trumpeted celebrity-expert Ahmed Rashid, who has made a career out of analyzing Afghanistan despite being consistently on the wrong side of the facts since the war he urged began in 2001. Assuming that Rashid’s self-styled regard and respect for the Afghan people is genuine, it is to be fervently hoped that he does not turn his regard or respect towards any other unfortunate group since his interventionist recommendations, shallow analyses and shameless arrogance have brought nothing but foreign invasion and occupation upon the same place he claims to admire and yet wants to save “from itself”6.

The only foreign intervention that Rashid opposes, an opposition that would only make sense if there were any prospect of it happening, is that of Pakistan over Afghanistan. There can be no excuse for Pakistan to occupy Afghanistan, of course, but nor has there ever been any inclination to have more than a sympathetic regime in Kabul, both to back up Pakistan’s infamous “strategic depth” doctrine and, more importantly, to develop a natural partnership with the only other country in the region that claims a similarly diverse mix of ethnicities, a similarly Islam-dominated public narrative and a broadly similar culture and history. Largely thanks to Rashid’s exaggeration of Pakistani control over the Afghan Taliban—a group that was largely raised, educated in and sympathetic to Pakistan, yes, but one that time and again would display its political independence from Pakistan in the years leading to its downfall7—the NATO conquerors of Afghanistan, and their then-favoured puppet Rashid’s old friend Hamid Karzai, was able to spin its Taliban rivals during the early years of the occupation into a “Pakistani occupation force”. NATO diplomat and apologist for the occupation Chris Alexander (also enthusiastically endorsed by Rashid as a “perceptive Canadian”) recounts in his The Long Way Back, the “moving” speech that Karzai made early on where he warned Pakistan, a neighbour whose army had not once set foot in Afghanistan except fleetingly in support of the 1980s anti-Soviet jihad and also rightly arranged the refuge of millions of Afghan refugees in Pakistan, not to attempt to conquer Afghanistan in a doomed repetition of its Russian and British predecessors8. Alexander, a politician personally invested in the occupation, unsurprisingly chose to ignore the irony that Karzai was speaking as the figurehead and client of an American-headed invasion that included Russian and British support, and which is now set to meet the fate of its imperial predecessors.

Not that Pakistan’s army and particularly intelligence, with their often ominous vice grip in politics and a hyper-sensitive intolerance for local criticism, do not merit criticism; among Rashid’s few legitimate gripes is the Pakistan intelligence’s mishandling of Humayun Abdul-Haq, the veteran Islamist commander (and a rare Northern Front commander of integrity, enough to oppose the indiscriminate NATO air assault on Afghanistan even when it was aimed at his Taliban rivals)9 whose relative independence and popularity turned the Pakistan intelligence against him and him, in turn, against them. The needless blanket ban that Pakistan gave to Rashid’s often overly simplistic but nonetheless fairly palatable first book, Taliban, may have turned Rashid irreversibly against the state’s army and intelligence; the remainder of his Afghan trilogy, Descent into Chaos and Pakistan on the Brink, were so one-eyed and selectively twisted to vilify the army beyond any reasonable journalistic standard.

Descent into Propaganda

For those who don’t want to waste their time on these books, Rashid basically blames the Pakistan army for not being submissive enough to the heavy-handed American counterpart that arm-twisted it into a self-destructive support of the NATO occupation that flew in the face of its policy and interests, and then cherry-picks facts to whitewash the chequered record of his notoriously crooked and thuggish friends in the nominally left-wing Pakistan People’s Party: he ends up concluding that despite its notorious abuses in the “war on terror”, epitomized in the dungeons of Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay and Bagram, America should apply an even more muscular approach to the Afghanistan war10. In 2008, when Descent into Chaos sold and when the Afghanistan occupation was being popularly portrayed as the “good”, justifiable foil to its obviously contrived Iraq counterpart, these became popular pieces of conventional wisdom and the bedrock of Barack Obama’s now notoriously ruthless, bloody and secretive “Af-Pak” campaign.

As best demonstrated in the run-up to the Iraq invasion, the best misinformation contains elements of technical factual truth selectively picked to paint a more dubious narrative. It was true, for instance, that Iraq had once possessed chemical weapons and invaded neighbouring countries; what was usually left out was that the United States had played a major role in supplying those weapons and encouraged those invasions, first to neutralize the Iranian revolution in 1980 and then to justify the crackdown on Saddam Hussein’s regime in 199011. Without these caveats, an illusion had emerged that Iraq posed a powerful and dangerous threat to the world, and this illusion had helped justify a blatantly aggressive and unjustifiable invasion.

Similarly, certain individual facts in Rashid’s books are true, but selectively picked and twisted to create a narrative that not only describes Pakistan and the Taliban as nefarious bedfellows, which though also vastly exaggerated is still true in terms of the Afghan occupation that both groups have tried to undermine12, but more dangerously America as a well-meaning but clumsy liberator whose main fault is not being aggressive enough in Afghanistan. Now that it has been long-confirmed, though still not often enough remembered, that America turned down repeated conditional but not unreasonable offers from the Taliban to hand over Osama bin Laden in 200113, it is clear that the invasion of Afghanistan was as aggressive, unjustifiable and exploitative of the trauma of 9/11 as its Iraqi successor. Yet Ahmed Rashid, even as he offers a token condemnation of the abuses—epitomized by the sadism in the dungeons of Abu Ghraib, Bagram and Guantanamo Bay14—of the “war on terror” whose Afghan wing he cheered on, draws the bizarre conclusion that America’s mistake was to not be aggressive enough, not only in Afghanistan but also Pakistan. Given the book’s tremendous popularity among policy-making Western elites and reviewers in 2008, it would not be unreasonable to surmise that Barack Obama’s subsequent intensification of the war in Af-Pak—in a campaign characterized by indiscriminate drone warfare and a shroud of secrecy even more effective than the clumsier version espoused by his predecessors—drew considerable inspiration from Ahmed Rashid.

The Sycophant as Analyst

Even for the barely-informed reader, as this writer had been when he first perused Descent into Chaos in 2009, Ahmed Rashid’s blatantly selective chronicle not only of the post-2001 world but of regional history in general was striking. Only a seriously, seriously sycophantic partisan of Hamid Karzai, for instance, would immediately react to the horror of the 9/11 attack by immediately phoning Karzai to congratulate him on imminent American support for the removal of the Taliban, as Rashid blithely recounts in an opening section of the book that is devoted to unceasing flattery of the Afghan president. Not shock, not incredulity, not horror, but glee that his old mate would politically benefit from the deaths of three thousand people15. (Among the first articles on post-invasion Taliban was Rashid’s droolingly titled “How my friend outwitted the mullahs”16 in British paper The Daily Telegraph). And though posthumous elegies towards Benazir Bhutto—another dubious but polished politician who would become the democratic darling of Western commentators at the same time as Karzai—were more understandable considering the recent assassination of Bhutto and her undeniably courageous stance in the final months of her life, the whitewash not only of the “still-beautiful” Bhutto but, more dangerously, of her far less savoury Pakistan’s Peoples Party—a corrupt feudally ensconced political dynasty posturing as a liberal left-wing progressive party—is alarming17.

On the other hand Pakistan’s army and intelligence—which, again, deserve to be critiqued as stringently, but not so one-sidedly against, as their civilian counterparts—is set as the unmistakable villain of the piece, as a convenient scapegoat, along with every mildly Islamist party not in bed with NATO, for every one of the region’s problems. (This precedent in Rashid’s would soon be followed by a wave of American officials, their clients and their court scribes, from Peter Tomsen and Mike Mullen to Christine Fair and Christina Lamb). It is true that Pervez Musharraf* left power at the same time as Descent’s publication having alienated nearly everybody in Pakistan. But it is also true that Musharraf, and the Islamist commanders—Muhammad Aziz, Mahmood Ahmed and Muzaffar Usmani—who launched his coup in 1999 did so, however wrongly, in a wave of popularity across Pakistan after a decade of abuse both by the Pakistan People’s Party and the Muslim League Party of Nawaz Sharif.

It was not the fact that Musharraf was a dictator that would make him unpopular—compared to most dictators, including his predecessors the Western-oriented Ayub Khan and the Islamist Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, Musharraf was a rather liberal character and only an increasingly desperate attempt to maintain power in 2007-08 turned the criticism from his pro-US stance to the dictatorial nature of the regime18—but his publicly perceived obeisance to America’s interests, which would include the immediate sideline of the Islamist commanders and the first full-scale invasion of the traditionally loosely governed FATA borderlands in Pakistan’s history, rather than popularly perceived Pakistani interests. (Though in what can be termed dubious mitigation to Musharraf on this count, there is good evidence, some of it furnished by Rashid, that the Pakistan military was not as beholden to the Americans as it then seemed, and in fact helped the Afghan Taliban resurgence then and still sympathized with in Pakistan in 200219). In other words, the very same stance that Rashid blames Musharraf for—dubious loyalty to the support he pledged America—is precisely the opposite of what actually made the dictator unpopular, which is that “Busharraf” was seen as an “extension of the United States”20.

The reason Rashid concocts this flawed narrative is simple: his own favoured party, the PPP, was also seen as an American puppet—as Musharraf himself is quoted as saying in both Descent and Brink—and therefore to brand American obeisance as the cause of unpopularity would quickly also delegitimize the PPP. Indeed, that class of pro-American sycophants dubiously self-described as “Pakistani liberals” (since they are anything but left-wing or progressive except in their blanket denunciation of any religiosity, which isn’t very liberal either) are the only Pakistanis with any sense or, laughably, integrity in Rashid’s account. And here again we have the meticulously cherry-picked facts to form this narrative.

Do More

It is now well-known that the sprawling Pakistan intelligence service’s political deputy, Ehtisham Zamir, rigged the 2002 elections21, leading to a militarily-backed Islamist Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal provincial government of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa even as many fringe Islamist groups were banned to appease the United States following the escalation of border tensions with India. Such an election, obviously, can have had no legitimacy, and its results should not be taken seriously as a barometer of any actual popularity. Yet Rashid, just moments after describing Ehtisham’s since publicly-admitted role in the rig, claims that the PPP’s relatively respectable quarter of votes were a sign of their popularity22. Again, this is a logical fallacy—the election results should not be taken as a sign of either popularity or lack thereof for any party, not only the Majlis that who won (by the same logic that Rashid applies, it can be argued that Islamists were still the most popular runners because not their entire support can have been rigged). The PPP’s respectable results, therefore, are as unverifiable as the Islamist Majlis’, yet Rashid has the temerity to claim that because they were defeated in a rigged election (as were several other parties), the PPP were really the most legitimate. The election was rigged only against them, by Rashid’s logic, since Musharraf’s regime was so frightened of them (never mind that Musharraf subsequently rescinded corruption charges against Bhutto’s husband and his own successor, Asif Zardari, when facing a severe crisis in 2007—so much for that theory23).

Simultaneously, Rashid drums up his excessive criticism against Pakistan’s army by claiming that—rather than bully Pakistan into abandoning two decades of foreign policy in support of Islamists and into launching a needless invasion of its own borderlands, which was what the United States did in the aftermath of 9/11—the United States was not hard enough on the Pakistanis (this story continues in the Western press to the current day and has turned into an elaborate victim-blaming tale where the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan’s insurgency is not the fanatical overreaction to an American-coerced invasion of FATA—a fact that has been identified by numerous local and foreign experts including Rahimullah Yusufzai, Peter Bergen, Brian Fishman and Michael Scheuer24, and which has very little to do with less extreme military associations with Islamists—but in fact Pakistan’s own fault for catering to popular local Islamist tendencies and not having crushed their Waziristan border tribes punishingly enough.

The dubious proof for this assertion comes not in any facts, figures, or historical events—each of which is studiously ignored by Rashid—but rather by the personal individual regard that American officials of the time—a few of them like commander Tommy Franks, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld closet dictators at heart—had for Musharraf, whose image as a tough leader against Islamist insurrection they liked25. Though political relations can be highly personalized, the constant pressure that America exerted on Pakistan to “do more”—a refrain that has been repeated louder and louder since Ahmed Rashid contrived an excuse for it—and the subsequent civil war in Pakistan’s borderlands, a direct result of American pressure on Pakistan, flies in the face of Rashid’s assertion that, because some of their officials happened to personally like Musharraf, America did not control Pakistan enough. Though Rashid is of course entitled to his personal political ideology, it appears that—as a lifelong opponent of Pakistan’s army who spent his youth trying to agitate a revolt in Balochistan, thereby preceding the likes of the bloodthirsty Tehrik-e-Taliban26—the “regional expert” lets his biases get in the way of facts far too often.

A Little Knowledge…

This is demonstrated in an array of alarmingly shoddy assertions that the excellent Central Asia expert Adeeb Khalid, in reviewing Ahmed Rashid’s work on the area, has described as “mixing arrogance and ignorance in equal measure”27. Some of these are popular myths—such as, among others, the claim that the Hazaras are descendants of the thirteenth-century Mongol conquerors28, when in fact they long predated the Mongol conquests and are among the many Turkic peoples of medieval Central Asia28. Others are simply politically convenient fudged pieces of conventional wisdom disguised as bold truth-telling: the most glaring example, in which Rashid quotes Pakistan founder Muhammad Jinnah’s speech on the non-communal nature of Pakistani citizens under the law as an example that Jinnah was a diehard secularist29 (because, you know, only secularists can have had any tolerance for religious minorities, except for that thousand years of Islamic rule where by and large the vast majority of minorities, with the occasional aberration, flourished under a no-secular antecedent of modern Islamism) and that obviously the evil military-cum-mullahs had hijacked his vision, is a staple myth among the Pakistani pseudo-liberals whom Moeen Cheema has aptly exposed here30 as having no progressive agenda for Pakistan other than the de-Islamization of a Zia-created Islamist straw man.

Jinnah was never a dyed-in-the-wool Islamist, of course, and his references to Islam were always more in spirit rather than letter (as opposed to mainly doctrinaire modern Islamists). But having a British air and British attitudes did not divest him from coming to care deeply about the Islamic nature of Pakistan: in other speeches, he approvingly quoted the example of the Righteous Caliphs and went out of his way to cite the Prophet Muhammad (may Allah bestow peace and blessings on His servant the Prophet) as a role model for Pakistan’s ideology—rather than secular favourite Mughal emperor Akbar, whom Jinnah’s rival Louis Mountbatten originally chose to cite31. As Akbar Ahmed notes, Jinnah may not have begun political life as a particularly Muslim leader per se, but he certainly shifted that way by the end32.

There is also the small matter of historical context. The Pakistan Movement emerged at a time when Muslim states throughout the world were heavily influenced by secular ethnocentric nationalism, largely inspired by the apparent success of Kemal Ataturk in Turkey (more than a few dictators in Muslim states have drawn their inspiration from Ataturk)33. Compared with its contemporaries34, the Pakistan Movement was practically fervent in its appeal to Islam, even if it was in no way as doctrinaire as modern Islamism.

Moreover, the Pakistan Movement drew its numbers not only from the Muslim League and subcontinental Muslims who wanted self-rule, but also significantly from Islamists of the 1920s “Khilafat Movement”, which had agitated for the return of the Ottoman Sultanate after its dissolution. In fact Jinnah and the influential poet Muhammad Iqbal, both of them admirers of the staunchly anti-Ottoman secular Turkish leader Kemal Ataturk for his military and political strength rather than his ideology, had to convince skeptical supporters of the Khilafat Movement to withdraw their hostility for Ataturk, so that even today Pakistan’s officials fondly see Ataturk not as a militantly secular ethnocentric dictator with totalitarian instincts but as somebody who rescued Muslim Turkey from imperial Europe35. (This is one of the gripes that many more extreme Islamists have, since they assume, like the secularist Pakistan “liberals”, that historical whitewashing of Ataturk implies subscription to his ideology and tactics36).

In historical fact, it is true that even had Jinnah and the Pakistan Movement leaders not been explicit Islamists—especially in the rigorist twenty-first century sense—they contained a significant number of Islamist supporters (Ottoman caliphate-revivalist Islamists, no less) in their ranks and advocated a definite Muslim modernism for the state’s ideology37. Ahmed Rashid, in his (probably deliberate, but possibly genuinely ignorant) selective and lazy quote-dropping, assumes that none of this is significant, and tries instead to reassure the reader that Islamism is simply an invention of the evil military-mullah nexus and that it was invented, not simply intensified to an extremely doctrinaire and rigid sense, by Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq. And whatever one’s idea of Islamists, they have, at least, spent decades garnering grassroots support by supplying local social services at a local level in countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Egypt, as opposed to the self-described “liberals”, who have spent the same time carping about mullah-military partnerships and getting kudos from the Western intelligentsia.

Since the Pakistan army and intelligence is responsible for everything the average Western tour guide may not like about Pakistan, Rashid then blatantly seeks to rewrite a history that he has no excuse for not knowing. In characteristic blame-shifting, Rashid’s work skims over the Balochistan separationist conflict, making sure to chronicle each and every Pakistan army abuse, of which there are more than a few, but completely whitewashing the abuses of the thuggish Baloch leadership: Rashid also completely forgets that the bloody Balochistan war of the 1970s was launched by Zulfikar Bhutto, head of the wonderful, enlightened, progressive, secular Pakistan People’s Party, and that ironically it was the Islamist dictator Zia-ul-Haq, however otherwise ruthless and deplorable, who ended the war and began long-overdue development in the long-neglected province38. This bald historical fact, which undermines a significant portion of the argument, is ignored. No, sir, the army is to blame here as well, because Ahmed Rashid says so.  This selective view of history has been, consciously or otherwise, aped by a number of recent experts (mainly affiliated with Washington think-tanks and invested in continued interference in the region) because it provides such an easy excuse to brush aside any and every opposition as that of militarily brainwashed mullah sympathizers. It is against this backdrop that even the most reasonable stances of parties such as Tehreek-e-Insaf, who recognize that you can’t drone extremism out of a community but have to take more measured steps, are viewed as military-mullah proxies and “beardless Taliban” by even the once-reputable Dawn newspaper39.

The Looming, Sinister, Irreconcilable Threat what Wasn’t

Then there is the matter of the country that has made Ahmed Rashid’s name. Under the pretext of caring for the Afghan people and wanting to “save Afghanistan from itself” (an actual quote)40, Rashid also blithely contrives politically convenient tales about the state of the war in Afghanistan. In his world, both Karzai and most of his American counterparts are well-intentioned and well-meaning—their respective failures stem from lack of assertiveness, not from corruption, brutality, malice or—perish the thought—an illegitimate and contrived invasion of an impoverished state. The “psychotic Paks”41, as established, are “the bad guys”. And long, long after the break between the fanatically expansionist Al-Qaeda and the severe but essentially local Islamist Taliban should have been well-known to an “Afghan expert”, Ahmed Rashid leverages his standing among media and government elites to perpetuate the lie that the Taliban were “out to get the West” and could not be reconciled with. This self-fulfilling scenario only bears out as long as NATO occupies Afghanistan.

In describing the Taliban’s resurgence, Rashid paints a barren landscape where fanatical, irreconcilable and by implication obviously aggressive Taliban commanders have cunningly exploited well-meant incompetence and American lack of aggression to claw their way back with Pakistani support. The truth is rather different: it has been the disproportionate intensity of America’s war in Afghanistan, and the corruption of its client government, that has fuelled an insurgency that has received both local Afghan and Pakistani support. Rashid names four commanders—Daadullah Lang, Abdul-Ghani Baradar, Abdul-Razzaq Akhoundzada and Akhtar Usmani—as irreconcilable and violent lieutenants of Mohammad Omar well-known for their commitment to global jihadism42.

The truth, however, is that with the exception of the brutal Daadullah—a close coordinator of Al-Qaeda who was in fact sacked by the Taliban for the alienation that his excessive violence caused among locals in the type of gesture of accountability that America has failed to employ in both Iraq and Afghanistan43—none of these Taliban commanders were, in fact, committed to arbitrary globalist jihadism: the other three had, along with Omar’s secretary Tayyib Agha and fellow Taliban commander Ubaidullah Akhound, agreed to surrender to NATO in 200144 and had only launched the insurgency when it became clear that the NATO-backed Northern Front commanders were abusing defectors and ransoming them off to Guantanamo Bay.

Indeed Abdul-Ghani Baradar, Omar’s second-in-command, had been trying to settle politically with Karzai’s government at the same time as he was leading the insurgency, apparently with Omar’s approval. When Baradar negotiated without the permission of the Taliban’s Pakistan secret service backers in 2010, they arrested him and launched a sharp wave of crackdowns on the Taliban’s leadership45. Not missing a beat, Rashid ignored his earlier error and instead chose to focus on the Pakistan intelligence’s ruthlessness as another sign of insufficient commitment to America, though even then Baradar had wanted nothing to do with America and had gone through Gulf Arab channels while marking the withdrawal of NATO as a precondition to peace.

Another example of an insurgent Islamist commander alienated into insurgency by NATO-backed government excesses is Jalaluddin Haqqani. Western commentators like to remark on Jalaluddin’s close links with Pakistan intelligence as a “fountainhead of jihad”46, which is certainly true enough. But Jalaluddin, who though a staunch Islamist has also been pragmatically nimble in politics throughout his career, has never been irreconcilable either: it is too often conveniently ignored that the Haqqanis only launched their insurgency after Jalaluddin’s initial outreach towards the Karzai regime was rebuffed by US-backed Northern Front thugs: Jalaluddin’s brothers Ibrahim Umari and Khalil-ul-Rahman Ahmed, sent to negotiate a deal in 2001-02, instead received beatings and imprisonment for their pains—to the annoyance of even Karzai, who may be self-serving but also pragmatic enough to realize he could not afford to make such enemies47. This was, contrary to Rashid’s alarmist hype, a completely avoidable conflict.

The War’s Cheerleaders: Very Serious People who know very little about very much

At the time of this post, Ahmed Rashid (like Karzai) seems to have realized, partly anyway, that his warnings of Pakistan-Islamist relations have become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Though he spent the early years of the war painting the Afghan Taliban, for instance, as a complete tool of the Pakistan military establishment, the truth was always more complex: though the Taliban were and remain broadly sympathetic to Pakistan in ideological and strategic matters, they were always somewhat suspicious and tactically independent of Pakistan during their regime, as evidenced numerous times by their refusal to accept Pakistan’s diplomatic, military and intelligence agencies’ tactical advice48. As Gilles Dorronsoro and Antonio Giustozzi, among others, have shown, local Islamist tendencies in Afghanistan, like Pakistan, well predate Pakistan’s “strategic depth” campaign and are rooted in anti-authority movements that are by now ingrained into the local populace and that are only further exacerbated by a foreign occupation49. Despite their ideological affiliations, the Taliban were no more proxies of Pakistan than, say, the Northern Front were first of Iran and Russia and, after 9/11, of NATO.

But the war that Rashid enthusiastically supported thrust the Taliban more firmly into the arms of Pakistan’s intelligence, which was one of the very few friends they had left. The relationship is now so close that the Taliban continue to oppose their namesake, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, when it attacks the Pakistani state, and were even briefly misreported as having killed the TTP’s current head, Fazlullah Hayat, in a skirmish last October, a month before Fazlullah became TTP leader50. This ultimate failure of Rashid’s misinformation may be a cruel blow to his deluded ideology—he has now, at long last, come to realize that foreign military intervention cannot “save Afghanistan from itself”51—but it has come at the needless expense of thousands of lives. The self-defeating and destructive occupation, in spite of Rashid’s protests of love and fascination for Afghanistan, will remain the political legacy of his work.

The intellectual legacy, meanwhile, is a field of ideologically altered retellings of history, extreme by even Rashid’s standards, that take any remotely independent local politics—whether they are Afghan or Pakistani—as being inherently biased and too brainwashed to realize how beneficial foreign military occupation is. With “Very Serious People”, ideologues posing as experts, ensconced in high positions—from hardline neoconservatives like career propagandist Bill Roggio to “liberal hawks” like Christine Fair and Bruce Riedel—continuing to cheerlead the occupation of Afghanistan, the campaign of misinformation about the war has become so ingrained in Western discourse that any objection, even when it comes from fairly Westernized politicians like Imran Khan and even when it comes from Westerners like the five sixths of Americans who now thankfully realize, is seen as inherently flawed and not sophisticated enough to understand the purported intricacies of what typical Very Serious Person Joe Klein laughably called “the most complicated issue imaginable”52.

Even the brutal attack on Malala Yousafzai, who herself seems a we;;-meant person with a good cause (it is hard to over-emphasize how important women’s education is, especially in impoverished parts of the world) but whose loathsome father Ziauddin is a member of the self-described “Pakistan liberal” intelligentsia that once advocated communist interventionism and now advocates Western interventionism, has been shamelessly exploited for political ends: the occupation apologist Christina Lamb, who ghost-wrote Malala’s wildly popular autobiography, took the opportunity to rewrite a considerable amount of Pakistan history and substitute fact for opinion in an attempt to blame every on the evil military-mullah nexus (Tanveer Khadim has written a cracking review53 on it here). And prevalent in the media is an even subtler propaganda method, whereby the identity of the attackers—who came from the Tehrik-e-Taliban, unaffiliated in any practical way and in fact strategically opposed to its Afghan namesake—was described as simply “Taliban”, with the unspoken implication that it was the better-known Taliban, the unrelated Afghan insurgency against NATO, that was to blame and therefore that the NATO occupation was A-OK since it would defeat those women-hating scum.

No Mistakes here, just Pakistani Treachery

However much criticism the Afghan insurgency, its Taliban head and its Pakistani supporters, may deserve, they have at least to some degree learned from their mistakes out of necessity if nothing else: the Quetta shura now has a public accountability office under former Taliban minister Qudratullah Jamal54, while Mohammad Omar has given permission to his lieutenants in the field to apply and interpret sharia more discreetly (and, according to observers, most of them have tended to be more flexible in their application than they were during the Taliban’s notorious stint in power)55. A major reason for the Taliban’s resurgence is also the speed, relative fairness and accessibility with which they can deliver justice, in a way that the multi-million-dollar NATO-backed regime has failed to do so.56

The Taliban—the barbaric, backward enemy—in short, have survived by learning to a considerable degree from their mistakes. This is in marked contrast to most Western policy-makers: there is a reason that renowned regional experts such as Barnett Rubin, Rahimullah Yusufzai, Gilles Dorronsoro and Antonio Giustozzi rarely appear in the media—because the even-handed and objective version of events they explain is politically inconvenient to those who want to justify and perpetuate this conflict, which relies instead on self-justifying and selective accounts from the likes of Bill Roggio, Christina Lamb and, probably most influentially, Ahmed Rashid. Since the Western intelligentsia and its local apologists have been bent on rewriting history to justify an increasingly unpopular and very-much avoidable occupation, they are unable to see their mistakes, let alone learn from them. And that, more than any Pakistani military or Taliban designs could ever have hoped to achieve, is the reason they entered, bungled and have lost this unnecessary war.

 

  1. http://politicalticker.blogs.cnn.com/2013/12/30/cnn-poll-afghanistan-war-most-unpopular-in-u-s-history/
  2. Doris Lessing, http://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/war-against-the-taliban-9781408809051/
  3. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/23/magazine/what-pakistan-knew-about-bin-laden.html
  4. See, among others, Ahmed Rashid’s Taliban (2000, IB Tauris), 107
  5. Karen Kaya, http://fmso.leavenworth.army.mil/documents/Turkeys-role.pdf
  6. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/07/02/AR2006070200689.html
  7. See among others Iftikhar Murshed’s Afghanistan: the Taliban Years, Kamal Matinuddin’s The Taliban Phenomenon: and Riaz Mohammad Khan’s Afghanistan and Pakistan: Conflict, Extremism and Resistance to Modernity. These accounts, written by Pakistan officials (and therefore liable to be taken with some salt) are surprisingly forthright and objective; Murshed, for instance, is exasperated with the Taliban; Matinuddin, a former army commander from the generation of Pakistani soldiers that was beginning to become more pietistic to which Zia-ul-Haq also belonged, is admirably even-handed in his treatment of both the Taliban and the Northern Front; finally, former foreign secretary Mohammad also critically examines the Islamist, or pro-Islamist, tendency in Pakistan, particularly among the military and the rising middle class (one very valid observation he makes is that Pakistanis too often tend to conflate political liberals with anti-religious amoral libertines). Additionally, Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, Abdul-Salam Zaeef, is positively contemptuous of the Pakistani government, though he does spare a more positive impression for interior minister Moinuddin Haider and the Islamist intelligence officers Mahmood Ahmed and Faiz Jilani. The Taliban’s extradition of Kashmiri militants to India in 2000 is another example of Taliban and Pakistani interests diverging.
  8. Chris Alexander, The Long Way Back (2011 Harper Collins)
  9. Gilles Dorronsoro, Revolution Unending (2005 Hurst & Company), 324. It is very easy for pro-Northern Front Western observers to posthumously pay tribute to Abdul-Haq as a possible future leader, but he was as critical, if not more, of heavy-handed Western role in Afghanistan as he was of Pakistani interference, towards which he had initially been lukewarm before the Pakistan intelligence began to heavily favour Gulbadin Hekmatyar.
  10. Rashid does describe the abuses in these prisons, as well as in the oppressive regime of Uzbekistan dictator Islam Karimov, quite well, which makes it even more baffling when he subsequently decides that the answer is an even greater interference.
  11. http://rense.com/general69/41.htm
  12. The Quetta board that oversees the Afghan Taliban is closely linked to the Pakistan secret service, see Thomas Ruttig, 445 in Talibanistan for an example.
  13. These included appeals by Abdul-Wakil Muttawakil, Mohammad Omar’s secretary and aide-de-camp, as well as deputy prime minister Mohammad Abdul-Kabir shortly after the invasion.
  14. See note 10. Apparently no matter how ghastly the occupation, NATO can always redeem itself. I wonder if the same parameter would have applied to the Soviet occupation? William Maley’s The Afghanistan Wars (2002, 2009) while a well-organized read, is so bafflingly selective in describing the atrocities of the Northern Front—which, apart from Hekmatyar, are always apologized for with a caveat or so—and those of the Taliban, which at every stage are shown as proving its irreversible and intransigent extremism. Maley also takes snide swipes at more sensible experts like former CIA officer Milton Bearden who correctly identified the disastrous implications of the Northern Front’s return—its atrocities, by and large, had wrecked Afghanistan in the early 1990s far more than the Pakistani interference he chooses to blame for every hurdle to peace along the way—and never once questions the bloody NATO conquest the same way he would the bloody Soviet occupation.
  15. See the first chapter of Descent into Chaos.
  16. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/afghanistan/1364719/How-my-friend-outwitted-the-mullahs.html
  17. See the last chapter of Descent into Chaos.
  18. http://www.reuters.com/article/2007/08/01/pakistan-politics-survey-idINISL20309720070801
  19. The airlift that Pakistan’s secret service provided fleeing Taliban officers with and the support given by Islamist activists to settle in Quetta are well-documented in Descent into Chaos.
  20. Peter Bergen, The Osama bin Laden I know, page 400.
  21. Descent, also http://www.awaztoday.com/singleprofile/641/General-R-Ehtisham-Zamir.aspx
  22. Ibid.
  23. http://www.nation.com.pk/islamabad/01-May-2013/struck-deal-with-benazir-before-elections-2008-musharraf
  24. http://www.antiwar.com/scheuer/?articleid=12424
  25. Descent.
  26. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/05/world/asia/05rashid.html
  27. Adeeb Khalid, Islam after Communism (2006), 3.
  28. As described erroneously in Taliban.
  29. Revolution Unending, 44. Possible germane to this argument: though Dorronsoro’s work is excellent, I disagree with his sharp distinction between Islamic fundamentalism, traditionalism and Islamism. Most Islamic fundamentalists (a term I don’t like but shall use for brevity’s sake) in my experience are Islamists—though I suppose the royalist fundamentalists of Saudi Arabia are an exception—and despite frequent differences betweenoften quietist traditionalists and Islamists, most Islamists see themselves as traditionalists trying to revive Islamic tradition—to them, the traditionalists are often corrupted or compromised (an exaggerated but not entirely unreasonable claim, as traditionalist Muslim scholars have often been coopted to front for repressive regimes in places like Central Asia).
  30. http://www.thenews.com.pk/Todays-News-9-239634-The-crises-of-a-liberal-ideology
  31. Akbar Salahuddin Ahmed, Jinnah, Pakistan and Islam: The Search for a New Saladin
  32. Ibid.
  33. Egypt from 1955-70, Soviet Central Asia, Baathism, Kurdish/Arab/Pashtun/Baloch/Turkish chauvinism among others. In stark contrast to these militantly secularist politicians, the Pakistan movement—including, by the time of his death, a considerably more Islam-oriented Jinnah—always placed a strong emphasis on Islam, at least as an identity marker. In this way they were not Islamists or secularists per se—they belonged to the camp of twentieth-century Muslim leaders who espoused a more modernist political stance that would be compatible with Islamic values and traditions. Such “Muslim modernists” were often close to Islamists; the founder of the Arab League, Abdul-Rahman Azzam, is an example, and was a friend and longtime collaborator with Muslim Brotherhood founder Hasan Banna. Another example is the first native ruler of Egypt in two millennia, Muhammad Naguib; he had close links with Islamists (under which pretext he was eventually deposed), and his top jurist, Abdul-Razzaq Sanhuri, sought to form a legal system based on Islamic principles with the necessary modifications. These men were not Islamists in the modern political sense, but they were far closer to Islamists than they were to militant secularists like their successors.
  34. Among the many reasons for Afghanistan-Pakistan partnership (regardless of strategic depth, which is a flawed, Pakistan-centric and military-centered doctrine) is that both are the only states in the region with a number of prominent ethnic groups (unlike, for instance, the predominantly Tajik Tajikistan or the predominantly Uzbek Uzbekistan), a vaguely defined and far-reaching Muslim sense of identity, and a largely shared history and culture, particular but not exclusive to the two neighbors’ large Pashtun populations.
  35. Naeem Qureshi, Ottoman Turkey, Ataturk and South Asia
  36. Extremist Islamist militants like the TTP commander Adnan Rasheed are as dogmatic as secularist revisionists like Ahmed Rashid in insisting that Pakistan was a fundamentally secular invention and therefore, in TTO’s propaganda, a sinful state. Both sides totally ignore the extensive religious dimensions of the Pakistan movement, which comprised Muslim separatists, secularists and Islamists in a broad tent.
  37. Akbar Ahmed, Search.
  38. It is rather ironic that the civilian prime minister Bhutto relied on a callous scorched-earth specialist, Tikka Khan, to govern Balochistan, while Islamist dictator Zia-ul-Haq chose the far more prudent Rahimuddin Khan.
  39. Dawn assistant editor Cyril Almeida’s unambiguously titled and fact-free “The man who sold out Pakistan” is a particularly disgraceful piece.
  40. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/07/02/AR2006070200689.html
  41. A quote I’ve always liked from American diplomat Robert Komer from a US cable in the 1965 Pakistan-India campaign, referring to Pakistan’s frenetic hawkishness on the liberation of Kashmir. In 1965, Pakistan’s strategy of attacking India was based on the misled assumption that the oppressed Kashmiris were ready to revolt at anytime; the Kashmiris, as it was, had been somewhat resigned to their oppression and had no idea that a Pakistan army was coming to “liberate” them. The result was a military impasse and a strategic blunder. 1965 was a classical Pakistan campaign in that despite face-saving tactical and individual brilliance and courage, the strategy was hastily and poorly planned.
  42. Descent.
  43. Though low-ranking American soldiers aught with their pants down (in some cases literally) have received token reprimands and punishments, the blatantly lying officials and commanders have gone scot-free for their deception and blatant misconduct in the “war on terror”.
  44. Ruttig, Talibanistan, 439 describes how even hardliners like Ubaidullah Akhound, who had planned the bloody 1998 conquest of Mazar-e-Sharif, and Abdul-Razzaq Akhoundzada, who had led the 1996 conquest of Kabul and executed Mohammad Najibullah and Humayun Abdul-Haq, were prepared to accept the result of the Bonn Accord in 2001 that placed Afghanistan under Hamid Karzai at the fore of Afghanistan’s new regime. In short, even the most experienced and hawkish Taliban leaders were prepared to redconcile, a fact that is rarely appreciated for political reasons.
  45. Ibid.
  46. The name of a book on the Haqqanis by Vahid Brown.
  47. Fountainhead of Jihad, 123.
  48. Note 7.
  49. Such Islamist movements as the Khadam-ul-Furqan (Servants of Providence), Harakat-e-Inqilab (Revolution Movement) predated Pakistan military interference (and indeed had brethren in Pakistan’s jamaats) in the 1970s: most of the “older” generation of mujahedin such as Jalaluddin Haqqani, Gulbeddin Hekmatyar, Burhanuddin Rabbani, Nasrullah Langariar Mansur and others trace their careers back to these roots. Islamist movements were nascent at this time in both Afghanistan and Pakistan and the roots still survive. Dorronsoro’s Revolution offers the best analysis I have seen on them, though Antonio Giustozzi’s Decoding the New Taliban (2011) also does a meticulous job as well.
  50. http://www.dawn.com/news/1048794/ttp-denies-fazlullah-killed-in-clash-with-afghan-taliban-report
  51. Worth another cite. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/07/02/AR2006070200689.html
  52. http://www.nbcnews.com/id/41156096/ns/msnbc-the_ed_show/#.U0m5AvldWW8
  53. http://blogs.tribune.com.pk/story/19497/when-did-malala-become-a-geo-political-and-defence-expert/
  54. I hate citing the loathsome neoconservative propagandist Bill Roggio on anything, but this was the first link I found: http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2010/02/the_talibans_top_lea.php
  55. http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Asia-South-Central/2009/0731/p06s19-wosc.html
  56. Both Talibanistan and Decoding the New Taliban have comprehensive analyses of the local courts that have served to legitimize the Taliban as a fairer and more indigenously rooted political option than an inaccessible, corrupt and foreign-imposed regime.

Collapse and Continuity in the Umayyad and Abbasid Regimes

I have not been able to update this blog nearly as often as I would like, but more importantly I’ve realized that for a site intended to cover sweeping arrays of Muslim history this blog has had a near-exclusive focus on the modern age, with perhaps a reference or two to bygone times. Part of the reason is that most of the work I’m doing right now has to do with current affairs and requires cl:se study of modern events–the conflicts in Afghanistan, Syria, Pakistan, Iraq and Libya, for instance–not leaving much time to sink happily into the realm of the premodern age, which can be slightly addictive once I get into it. Nonetheless, I shall try to address this issue by posting a report I did a few months back as a sample article for a job application: it regards the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphate, the turmoil that bridged them and the continuity that survived: among its consequences was the crystallization of a religious difference between Sunnis and Shias. Along with the good ole Muhammad b. Jarir Tabari, the work of the modern scholar Khalid Yahya Blankinship was particularly useful. Note that Abbasis and Alouis refers to the families of Abbas b. Abdul-Muttalib b. Hashim and Ali b. Abi Talib b. Abdul-Muttalib respectively, may Allah be pleased with them.

Collapse and Continuity in the Umayyad and Abbasid Regimes

Ibrahim Moiz

The collapse of the Umayyad caliphate in the tumultous decade of 740-50 remains one of the most violent and tumultuous periods of upheaval in Islamic history. A state that had stretched and managed to wield a considerably centralized control over a stretching from India to Spain suddenly collapsed in a dizzying series of separate revolts, civil wars and fragmentation that were eventually dominated by the Khurasani-based Abbasid movement, which managed to conquer and impose its authority over most of its predecessors’ domain. The bloody takeover of the Abbasid caliphate and the eradication from its Levantine heartland of the once-powerful Umayyad clan was rooted in long-simmering racial, ethnic and tribal tensions, the overextension of a relentless expansionist state and a skilful exploitation by the Abbasid family of the same dynastic politics that had propped up its predecessor.

In monitoring the bloody two decades centred on the Abbasid triumph of 750, the first of which saw the Umayyad caliphate collapse in a series of mostly spontaneous revolts throughout its provinces and the second of which saw the Abbasids ruthlessly stamp their authority over these revolts to emerge as the Umayyads’ unquestioned successor, it is easy to forget that the Umayyads themselves had come to power mainly through a forcible and usually violent coup that changed the dynamics of rule in the Islamic world forever. The four “righteously guided” caliphs after Prophet Muhammad (may Allah bestow peace and blessings on His prophet and slave and messenger) while never unquestioningly instated, did not base their rule on a familial or dynastic base. Though Abu Bakr Abdullah b. Qahafa and Umar b. Khattab were father-s-in-law of Muhammad while Uthmaan b. Affan and Ali b. Abi Talib were sons-in-law to Muhammad, more relevant to their nomination was their experience, perceived qualities and well-known self-sacrifice in the cause of the early Islamic campaigns than their relation to the Prophet Muhammad, which was not an uncommon feature in the close-knit communities in which Islam was founded; several competing candidates to the caliphate, for instance, were not in-laws or otherwise close relatives of Muhammad, but more relevantly longtime companions in arms.

Though Ali, and more pressingly his relatives and sympathizers, may have felt hard done by at being repeatedly passed over till his eventual, troubled arrival to the fore in 656, he did put aside those slights in the greater interest and contributed significantly to the cordial running of the “rightly guided” caliphate in its remarkably successful first few decades. But the otherwise apparently successful regime of Uthmaan b. Affan, mainly characterized as a well-meaning but malleable leader, was beset by perception of a partiality for his kinsfolk for important posts—even when, as in the case of Uthmaan’s inexperienced but talented nephew, the conqueror of Khurasan Abdullah b. Aamir, they turned out to succeed in those posts. Though the caliph does not seem to have intended to let nepotism creep into his administration, he could not and more importantly was perceived at not stopping his more forceful kin, such as the Syrian governor Muawiah b. Abi Sufian, from setting up familial power bases. After Uthmaan’s assassination in 656 during a reactive revolt, Muawiah thereby managed quite skilfully and unscrupulously to exploit the situation as a cause for bringing justice to the culprits, overthrow Ali in a divisive campaign and establish himself as caliph by 661, bringing to an end what is remembered in fond nostalgia by most Muslims as the age of the “Righteously Guided Caliphs”.

Despite Muawiah b. Abi Sufian’s controversial rise, his undoubted skills as an administrator managed to keep the swiftly expanding Islamic state, now based in his own centre at Damascus, running smoothly; apart from the more extreme Kharijites, a fanatical but relatively powerless fringe who had been a third party in his conflict with Ali b. Abi Talib, the majority of the Muslim populace, including Ali’s son Hasan, reconciled themselves with the caliph in the interest of order after the fractious civil strife. A segment of aggrieved Muslim veterans, including Hasan’s more dynamic brother Husain and the equally ambitious but more calculating Abdullah b. Zubair, only rose in open opposition to Muawiah when in his final years the caliph decided to bypass the traditional avenues of succession and instead unilaterally appoint his unprepossessing son Yazid as heir to the caliphate, while probably ordering the unnecessary assassination of the unassuming but popular Hasan. Unsurprisingly, the already aggrieved parties in Medina objected to Yazid’s rule and what was seen as a dynastic tyranny, and the subsequent conflict resulted, most infamously, in Husain’s martyrdom at Karbala, and over a decade later to Abdullah b. Zubair’s own martyrdom at Makkah in 692, each of them at the hands of an infamously merciless Umayyad commander, Ubaidullah b. Ziad and Hajjaj Thaqafi, apiece.  By 692, the Umayyad caliphate, now under a member of a rival branch of the clan, Abdul-Malik b. Marwan I, had after a generation of division and bloodshed stamped its unquestioned authority over the Islamic world.

These incidents have been well documented, but their significance is often missed. While many historians have wrongly seen these events, and in particular the Karbala massacre, as the culmination of the Sunni-Shia religious divide in Islam, there was in fact no religious difference at all between what are now termed “Sunni” and “Shia” factions. The supporters of Ali were never considered a separate sect, and in fact usually collaborated and had indistinguishable interests from what are now termed “Sunnis”. When Husain, the second imam after Ali in Shia tradition, took up arms at Karbala, he was not fighting to impose his own dynastic rule but rather to oppose the imposition of another dynasty, that of the Umayyads, and open up the field for a number of more qualified candidates than Yazid, which included himself; most accounts, indeed, add that Husain had agreed to lay down arms so long as several criteria, mostly related to justice and among them the abandonment of the dynastic model, were met; quite unnecessarily, they were not, and opened up a division that broadened over the next century into a not only political but religious split. Only after Karbala did the long-dormant grievances of Husain’s family bear a distinctly political note, and that in direct response to the Umayyad dynasty. The plight of the jilted Aloui family would make them a permanent symbol for opposition to Umayyad tyranny, both for what are now often wrongly separated as “Sunni” and “Shia” factions.

In the meantime, however, the Umayyad caliphate was thriving on its own terms. Successive caliphs sent a wave of zealous believers out to oppose the disbelievers and spread the influence of Islam by writ, persuasion or force. The civil strife of 656-92 may have somewhat interrupted the expansion of the Islamic caliphate, but it accelerated anew under the regimes of Abdul-Malik b. Marwan I and his sons. Abdul-Malik himself had come to power following a relatively minor rift in the Umayyad family, when his unscrupulous father Marwan I b. Hakam successfully manipulated the succession from Yazid I’s branch of the family; by his death, Abdul-Malik had managed to entrench the Umayyads as the most powerful family in the world, a seemingly immovable force that had with dizzying speed outstripped its main rival, the Byzantine Empire.

Despite the heady success of the early 700s, however, the Umayyads’ seizure of power and the inherent contradictions that their method of government entailed slowly opened up a number of rifts that would gradually broaden to leave the state on the brink of collapse within a generation. Though Umayyad armies fought under the banner of Islam and the vast majority of laws were more or less in tune with the Islamic law, the bedrock of the Umayyad state was the distinctly secular power of the Umayyad family and its clients. Because the Umayyads rode to power on and applied a system that, though often flexible and not nearly as tyrannical as its successors would claim, partially contradicted certain tenets of the same Islamic principles that it claimed to uphold, there was considerable fuel for resentment to seep in.

The most emphatic example of this phenomenon is presented in the taxation system. Under traditional Islamic law, non-Muslim subjects had to pay, in return for an exemption from Muslim financial and military obligations and protection under the state, a tax called the jizia. But the Umayyads, who found that their coffers took a hit when Muslim conversion in conquered territories cut down the jizia taxes, decided in most cases to change the distinction for an entirely practical, material purpose: now the distinction for the jizia was not between Muslim and non-Muslim but Arab and non-Arab. Non-Arabs who converted to, followed the law of and fought for Islam nonetheless had to pay the jizia taxes that under Islamic principle applied only to non-Muslim subjects; in other words, they bore the burdens of both Muslim and non-Muslim citizens.

It is a mark of the resentment that such laws caused that a conscientious tactful caliph like Umar b. Abdul-Aziz, who ruled for only two years but made a number of sweeping changes that conformed more directly with Islamic sensibility and ideas of justice, is remembered with such admiration in Muslim history, often—quite unfairly to some of his colleagues—as the only good Umayyad. In addition to streamlining the bureaucracy of Umayyad administration and taking a more direct control to undercut corruption in far-flung provinces, Umar—incidentally a rare Umayyad caliph who did not succeed his father, but was instead appointed by his predecessor and cousin Sulaiman b. Abdul-Malik—also reinstated the jizia rules to their original Muslim vs non-Muslim, as opposed to Arab vs non-Arab, purpose and innovated new land tax rules to compensate the treasury. Few of Umar b. Abdul-Aziz’s rules survived his suspicious death in 720, however, and most of the reforms were eventually abandoned.

With the majority of the earliest Muslims having passed away or distanced themselves prudently from politics into lives of study, contemplation and seclusion, the Umayyad state derived its power from the familial, tribal and ethnic bases that had a long history in the Arab world. Accordingly a significant proportion of high posts were awarded to members of the Umayyad family, some of them more competent than others. Among the most famous Umayyad commanders, for instance, was Maslama b. Abdul-Malik, who as the son of a concubine presented no threat to the succession of his brothers during their caliphates and who accordingly could be entrusted with important posts. Maslama’s flamboyance and ambition were not always matched by his chequered record, which contained both some remarkable victories and a couple of disastrous defeats. On one occasion, outshone by the obscure but competent Saeed b. Amr, who repulsed a massive Khazar attack from the Caucasus in 731, Maslama promptly had Saeed replaced for no practical reason.

Though the 740s saw a number of revolts erupt throughout the Umayyad caliphate, the revolt that most directly concerned the caliphate was related to a massive Qaisi-Yamani rift in Syria itself. The controversial regime of the corrupt and amoral Waleed II b. Yazid II (743-44) is usually accredited for the conflict, which erupted in full force when his pietistic cousin Yazid III b. Waleed I led a Yamani-dominated uprising that captured Damascus and killed Waleed, though a Qaisi-dominated faction led by the aged but vigorous Marwan II b. Muhammad soon seized power again. Marwan II, as a harsh but essentially fair ruler, tried to rise above the factionalism that had consumed the caliphate, appointing Yamanis as well as Qaisis to important positions in a gesture of trust, but the breach was by then irreparable; many of the Yamanis revolted, joined by ambitious Umayyad upstarts like Marwan’s great-nephew Sulaiman b. Hisham, aristocrats and while Marwan tried to stamp out the revolts in the Umayyad heartland, revolts in other provinces spiralled out of his control.

Outside the Umayyad family, with its own inevitable factions, came the divisions in the mostly Syrian Arab tribes that formed the backbone of the Umayyad army and administration. The Syrians, known as exceptional cavalry troops, were split along tribal lines into two large and often confusing federations, the Qais and Yaman, a division that either predated the rise of Islam or crystallized in the early years of the Umayyad caliphate. Qaisi-Yamani politics were closely entwined with those of the Umayyad court; some caliphs supported Qaisis in the administration and army, others Yamani; often the arrival of a new caliph would bring a possibly violent purge of officials and officers from the other confederation. This became an increasingly common and fractious scenario in the Umayyad caliphate’s final years, and was a major cause for the feuds between rival positions.

The eastern and western blocs of the caliphate were governed from Kufa and Kairouan respectively by powerful, usually partisan viceroys; the most infamous of these was Hajjaj Thaqafi, who sealed Umayyad dominance in 692 and whose tyranny and disregard for human life was a byword. These viceroys, largely independent in their own right, cultivated their own cadres of officers, mainly from their own tribe and often plucked either from their own families or from obscurity to ensure their loyalty to the viceroy; the viceroy’s lieutenants and appointees themselves would draw mainly on their own family, group or, in cases where they sought to enfranchise the locals of their provinces, freedmen. Often their loyalty to the viceroy and his group outstripped their loyalty to the caliph, so that Qutaiba b. Muslim, an appointee and loyalist of Hajjaj whose conquests in Transoxania were based on his own and his brothers’ leadership, declared a revolt when the new caliph, Sulaiman b. Abdul-Malik, purged Hajjaj’s appointees in 715; to Qutaiba’s dismay, few of his troops backed him up and he was instead killed. This in turn was matched by sometimes undue suspicion on the caliph’s own part; during the same purge, he imprisoned Hajjaj’s nephew, the teenage conqueror of Sind Muhammad b. Qasim, a capable and popular commander cut from a very different cloth to his uncle but who was nonetheless jailed just in case. In the perilous sphere of partisan politics, appointees could rise and fall with dizzying speed.

Cases such as those of Muhallab b. Abi Suffrah, an early commander particularly noted for his integrity in an otherwise tumultuous time of civil war during the Umayyad family’s rise to power, and whose family survived as prominent officers and officials some five centuries in various parts of the Islamic world, were outliers. Most commanders, even those of prominent families, could rise and fall with dizzying speed, particularly in terms of the Qaisi-Yamani faction. During a 721 campaign in the parched desert of Central Asia, for instance, the Umayyad commander Muslim b. Saeed, scion of an established Qaisi frontier family, could not budge the Yamanis in the frontier towns, and had to set out with a depleted army. In the middle of a sapping campaign Muslim received orders from Iraq, where administration for the eastern provinces was based and where a Qaisi administration had just been replaced by a Yamani one, to stand down and surrender his post to the Yamani lieutenant Abdul-Rahman b. Naeem. If illustrative of the abrupt uncertainty that tribal politics brought, this was also an unusually cordial transition: Muslim stood down and Abdul-Rahman arranged an honourable departure. This was an exception to the increasingly partisan, hostile trend of administrative transitions.

This partisan trend continued and intensified in the final decades of the Umayyad caliphate and was a significant contributor to its downfall. By its final years, Umayyad viceroys, governors and officers were regularly imprisoning or torturing their predecessors mainly for factional difference thinly disguised as an attempt to extort illegally hoarded money. Perhaps the most arbitrary and sadistic instance was that of Yusuf b. Umar, a Qaisi viceroy of Kufa who had long coveted his Yamani predecessor Khalid b. Abdullah’s post but upon assuming it showed a nearly psychotic desire to have Khalid tortured. Incessant lobbying for permission on Yusuf’s part, painting his predecessor as an ambitious ingrate, finally moved the caliph Hisham b. Abdul-Malik, who had personally appointed Khalid, to agree to a “restrained” use of torture; Yusuf duly tortured a defiantly stoic Khalid to death, opening up a Qaisi-Yamani rift that quickly intensified into civil war and ensured a permanent mutual hostility between Qaisi and Yamani troops, so that when the Abbasid revolution erupted and stormed west from Khurasan, Yusuf’s relatively respectable brother and successor Yazid b. Umar was hung out to dry by his Yamani colleagues.

Along with the Qaisi-Yamani suspicions that the Umayyads’ tribal power structure exacerbated was a natural competition between established families who had settled on the frontier. While many Arab soldiers and officials mixed easily with and enjoyed a mutual respect with the local populations of their provinces, others, particularly those whose own interests were threatened by up-and-coming promotions, competed fiercely. This was especially true in the cases of those commanders or governors who had been plucked, as several were by viceroys, out of obscurity, and who were easier to undermine than more established families; this was further exacerbated when such swift risers enjoyed mutual respect and sympathy with the “native” populaces and sought to cultivate their own support system from the locals.

A particularly poignant example is presented in the formidable viceroy of the Maghreb, Musa b. Nusair, who governed at the turn of the eighth century. An aged but ambitious and energetic freedman, Musa had been promoted to the post amid some controversy by the governor of Egypt Abdul-Aziz b. Marwan I, brother of the caliph, who wanted to assert his own authority with a mildly defiant act. An excellent commander who swiftly conquered the entirety of North Africa, Musa also gelled well with the Berbers, who had recently been won over from a huge nationalistic revolt by his predecessor Hasan b. Nauman and had secured a number of rights from Hasan, including the abolition of the controversial jizia on non-Arab converts. As well as continuing this prudent policy, Musa integrated Berbers into administration, military and civil posts—most notably his own freedman Tariq b. Ziad, who spearheaded the conquest of Iberia in 711. But this meteoric success provoked the enmity of the established Arab aristocracy, especially the Fihri family, who had led the initial conquest of North Africa. When Musa was recalled by the suspicious incoming caliph Sulaiman as part of the wider purge of officers, the Fihris and other families quickly stamped out the family’s influence, murdering or imprisoning members of the family on flimsy pretexts. The reforms, which had helped bring and integrate vast swathes of Berbers and other non-Arab natives into the Islamic world, were abolished within a few years, and the return of the jizia and a policy of extortionate taxation to benefit a particularly voracious viceroy, Ubaidullah b. Habhab, in the 730s helped provoke another massive revolt in 740-43 that would expel the Umayyads from North Africa.

Another governor and commander who rose from humble origins was the Khurasian campaigner Nasr b. Sayyar—like Musa b. Nusair, a grizzled but vigorous soldier who briefly supervised a sharp improvement  in military, social and financial affairs in the notoriously troublesome province of Khurasan. Nasr had earned terrific popularity among the rank and file as a soldier in the Umayyad army, particularly in the campaigns against the Central Asian Turgash. Nasr also enjoyed far greater popularity with the Khurasani and Arab rank-and-file, partly through and a mixture of boldness in wartime and prudent fairness in peacetime, quietly building up a support base even to the point of openly disobeying and irritating superiors. When the caliph Hisham b. Abdul-Malik promoted Nasr to govern the province, however, his fellow Qaisi, the viceroy Yusuf b. Umar, who already had several supporters lined up for the post, would have none of it; with even more persistence than in the campaign to torture old rivals, Yusuf tried to undermine Nasr, bribing or otherwise inciting lieutenants to undermine the governor’s reputation in the Umayyad court. Though Yusuf’s campaign here failed, Nasr’s misfortune was to govern, quite competently, the Khurasan province at a time when several potent anti-Umayyad movements had already taken root; despite a skilful counterinsurgency strategy to try and play off these revolutionaries against one another and several treatises for reinforcement to Damascus in the 740s, Nasr would be ousted and pursued to his death during the Abbasid revolt of the 740s.

While factionalism played a major role in the downfall of the Umayyad caliphate, the inability to deal with it was exacerbated by the overextension of the Umayyad state. While jihad, military and spiritual, is a fundamental tenet in Islam, the Umayyads continued, even at their most vulnerable moments, to wage expensive campaigns that drained the treasury and spread the army reserves thin. The recruitment of local converts to the Muslim armies had helped sustain the conquests and subsequent administration of the provinces, but the steady disenfranchisement of non-Arab Muslim troops, particularly but not solely on the basis of the jizia discrimination described above, ensured that armies were less coordinated, campaigns steadily less successful and morale increasingly low.

Until recently Western scholarship, epitomized by that master hyperbolist Edward Gibbon, liked to paint the 732 Frankish triumph at Tours over an Umayyad army, killing in the process its commander Abdul-Rahman b. Abdullah, as a seismic turning point that halted a century of Islamic invasion; the resilience of this myth is all the more astonishing for its ridiculous lack of context or factual correctness.  Quite apart from the fact that that particular army had been conducting nothing more ambitious than a large-scale foray for plunder, not a conquest of mainland Europe, it was simply one, and among the least prominent, of a number of the military defeats that Umayyad armies suffered at this time.

More traumatic was the 730 Khazar annihilation of an Umayyad army, killing its commander Jarrah b. Abdullah and surging southwards to briefly threaten the centre of the Islamic world; even better-documented was the disastrous defeat to the Central Asian Turkish Turgash confederation in 731. This rout inspired a wide library of Khurasani poetry and prose lamenting the predominantly Khurasian casualties and taking bitter swipes at the commander, Junaid b. Abdul-Rahman, who was attacked—despite having played a major, successful role in Umayyad forays into India—as being an inexperienced, careless glory hunter from faraway Syria with more regard for his own promotion than the lives of his troops. No other defeat better epitomized the sharp loss of morale and the distrust of disinterested foreign commanders.

Loss of morale in turn led to a wide range of dissident movements, most of which harkened to the ideals of early Islamic history. The most extreme of these movements was the famous anti-authority Kharijite trend, a revolutionary trend as old as the Umayyads’ rise to power that enjoyed considerable traction in the rural tribes of the east Arabian desert; a number of Kharijite revolts would explode across the Islamic world in the Umayyads’ final decade of power, reflecting the power that a revolutionary, radically idealistic movement could have against an unpopular and corrupt regime.

But the Kharijite label, too, must be treated with some caution; in North Africa, particularly Morocco, where in 740-43 a number of self-appointed Berber caliphs led a huge revolt that expelled foreign powers for good from Morocco, the Kharijite label was applied liberally by the Umayyad government to stick to and justify the suppression of any remotely dissident group, unintentionally adding to the Kharijites’ own popularity, especially when a disproportionately violent crackdown alienated those Berbers who had not been inclined towards Kharijism. Among the critics of the government accused of Kharijism was a freedman of the Abbasi family named Ikrima, considered a mainstream enough figure in orthodox Muslim circles to be considered a reliable traditionist. Though the Kharijite movement wielded considerable power in anti-Umayyad North Africa and Khurasan, therefore, it is important not to fall into the trap of using the label too readily. The Kharijites, or nominal Kharijites, who established a short-lived dynasty in modern Morocco, for example, appear to have be far less rigid and more inclusive than the Kharijites of Arabia, whose extremism can be gouged from the thunderous sermon of their leader Abu Hamza Mukhtar b. Auf upon his conquest of Medinah at the height of the Umayyad turmoil: “Whoever fornicates is a disbeliever; whoever doubts it is a disbeliever! Whoever steals is a disbeliever; whoever doubts that he is a disbeliever is also a disbeliever!”

Other purportedly Islamic movements, such as Harith b. Suraij’s “Murjiah” (revivalist) revolt in Khurasan—which earned the controversial distinction of being the first Muslim group to band with a non-Muslim enemy of the Umayyads when they briefly joined the Turgash confederation in 737—and the “Qadiriah” (self-deterministic) movement—which earned such prominent converts as even the caliph Yazid III—soon fizzled out thanks to a perception of heresy as well as the political ineptitude and obviously self-serving moves of their propagators. But they came at a critical time in the early 740s, where the Umayyad state was already engulfed in civil turmoil and its armies thinly spread. By Hisham b. Abdul-Malik’s death in 743, the Syrian corps that constituted the Umayyads’ backbone had been dispatched to Iraq, Iberia and in particular North Africa, where massive numbers, including two huge dispatches under successive governors, were required and were slain in suppressing the Berber Revolt, a task accomplished by a bare whisker. Those drained Syrian troops left in Syria would plunge into the Umayyad family’s own civil war later that year, leaving a once-impregnable state now shockingly vulnerable.

Though no revolt hesitated to refer to Islam when required, less definitively religious revolts also occurred throughout the Umayyad caliphate by ambitious families and tribes. In Khurasan, for instance, the Umayyads’ struggles to deal with the Murjiites and Kharijites were compounded, and exploited, by a Yamani officer called Judayy Kirmani b. Ali, who cited Yamani discontentment with the Qais-tilted bias of the Khurasan administration. In the Maghreb, meanwhile, the hectic conflict of the Berber Revolt was exploited by members of another local dynasty, the Fihris. The unscrupulous governor of Iberia, Abdul-Malik b. Qatan, sought both to free himself of Umayyad dependence and to appease his province’s considerable Berber constituency by refusing to help a desperately embattled Umayyad garrison in North Africa that was surrounded by the Berber Revolt; Abdul-Malik was encouraged by Abdul-Rahman b. Habib, a Fihri officer whose infighting with the Syrian reinforcements had partially exacerbated the situation to begin with.

When the North African branch of the revolt was finally quelled, however—with Berber rule imposed in Morocco and Umayyad authority halved down to the eastern segment of North Africa—Abdul-Malik b. Qatan’s own Berber consistuency rebelled, forcing him to appeal for help; in a grim joke of fate, the commander who arrived, Balj b. Bishar, had led the same garrison that Abdul-Malik had earlier jilted; once the revolt was suppressed, Balj promptly executed Abdul-Malik, leading to another feud between the pair’s tribes that eventually ended with the appointment of a Fihri puppet, Yusuf b. Abdul-Rahman, to rule a province now officially independent of the crumbling Umayyads. So too, by then, was North Africa, overtaken either by various Kharijite rebel groups, or, in the case of the provincial capital Kairouan, usurped by the opportunistic Fihri turncoat Abdul-Rahman b. Habib, who returned to a becalmed North Africa and promptly overthrew its competent governor Hanzala b. Safwan—who, already exhausted after a draining acampaign to rescue Umayyad North Africa, promptly retired in disgust.

But if local dynasties had carved out niches in the Maghreb, the most meaningful, dynamic and ultimately successful revolt came under the banner of another family, the Hashemite family of Prophet Muhammad (may Allah bestow peace and blessings on His prophet). Driven to the fringe, the Aloui family had secured the support, and protection, of another wing of the family descended from Ali b. Abi Talib and Prophet Muhammad’s uncle Abbas b. Abdul Muttalib. With the Umayyad regime increasingly unpopular after the death of Umar b. Abdul-Aziz, both the Abbasids and Alouis had launched a clandestine campaign, largely drawn in response to the Umayyads’ dynastic rule, that claimed not, as their progenitors had done, that the caliphate did not belong to a particular family, but that if any family deserved to lead the Muslim world it was Muhammad’s Hashemite family.

It was a mixture of Islamic sensibility and political pragmatism that had great appeal, particularly in Khurasan, which would provide the pool for most of the next wave of officer and official recruitment over the next few generations. Just as disaffected North Africans had comprised the Berber Revolt in the Maghreb, disaffected Persians and local settler Arabs flocked to the call of the Hashemite cause, along with the contingent of pious Muslims that disapproved of Umayyad rule. Though the Abbasids and Alouis initially cooperated well together, the political nous of the former family far outstripped the latter. While the Alouis had largely assumed that the rule would extend to them, the Abbasid wing of the family discreetly applied the Hashemite rather than Aloui label, which would open up the field for them as well as the family whose interests they had been hitherto represented in a show of solidarity.

The generalissimo and enforcer of the revolt was a charismatic and utterly ruthless Persian named Abu Muslim, a client handpicked from relative obscurity by Abbasid leader Ibrahim b. Muhammad. Abu Muslim skilfully attracted more and more recruits to the Hashemite cause and played off the other factions in Khurasan’s civil turmoil—the Murjiites, Yamanis, Kharijites and Qaisis—against one another before eradicating the remnants and storming west to wipe out the Umayyads and their supporters in a tremendous bloodbath; the entire Umayyad family was systematically slaughtered, with the exception of a handful of refugees that under the remarkable leadership of Abdul-Rahman b. Muawiah, a grandson of Hisham b. Abdul-Malik, fled to Iberia in a hair-raising escapade and established a successful independent dynasty there. The widespread slaughter under Abu Muslim put to shame the Umayyads’ own violent yet far less uncompromising rise to power a century earlier.

As with their predecessors, the Abbasids—despite giving their movement a respectably Islamic-friendly veneer of pietism by removing Arab-discriminatory laws and gradually integrating more sophisticated, Persian-influenced systems of governance into the state—had effectively turned the caliphate into a family venture; the major officials of the state were either drawn from the Abbasid family or from their lieutenants. There was a difference in the makeup of the Abbasids’ appointments, more open and nuanced than those of the Umayyads, but to a large extent it was also superficial; where once positions of prestige had gone to Arabs of either Qaisi or Yamani stock, they now went not only to Arabs but to the cadre of Khurasani officers who had helped launch the revolt. This mixture of pragmatic political contuinity and prudent judgment ensured the survival of the Abbasids; unlike the unquenchably expansionist Umayyads, for instance, very few Abbasid caliphs would launch external military campaigns, and those too only when judged expedient. In most respects, too, Islamic sensibilities under Abbasid stewardship were tactfully better respected than under its predecessors, while research into both Islamic and other studies was encouraged and patronized. Despite these differences, however, continuities also remained: the interests of the ruling family still took precedence, and as in the Umayyad caliphate potential rivals to the Abbasids included the Alouis.

Once the Umayyads were eradicated, the ruthless first two Abbasid caliphs, Saffah Abdullah I and his brother Mansur Abdullah II, turned their sights on the Alouis. Mansur on behalf of the Abbasids had earlier sworn loyalty to a particularly respectable Aloui, Muhammad Nafs-ul-Zakia (Pure Soul) b. Abdullah, but with the Abbasids now ensconced in power that was a trivial detail. Through a mixture of political cunning and murderous persecution sharpened by an overwhelming paranoia, Mansur launched a frighteningly systematic persecution of potential rivals, including his own ominously powerful and ambitious commander-in-chief Abu Muslim, and most prominently the Alouis. The most notorious Umayyad tactics of harassment, persecution or marginalization of the Alouis continued and were initially intensified under the Abbasids’ first decade of rule, which was as violent as had been the last Umayyad decade. Even well-respected Muslim leaders—such as the prominent scholars Abu Hanifa Nauman b. Thabit and Malik b. Anas—who dared criticize the crackdown or voice sympathy for the short-lived 763 final revolt of Nafs-ul-Zakia and his brother, Ibrahim b. Abdullah, were liable for vindictive punishment. Though Mansur’s successors would relax the treatment of the Alouis, even briefly reconciling, old grievances remained and returned with a vengeance whenever either family was in a moment of insecurity; this would eventually crystallize in the Sunni-Shia polarization, which took on an increasingly religious as well as political overtone and continues to the present day.

The bloody transition from the calamitous Umayyad collapse to the forceful Abbasid rise was marked by a contuinity the patterns of patronage that had characterized and been targeted for criticism under the Umayyads. Judicious improvement of Abbasid institutions, legislature and infrastructure, and the marked prosperity of the Abbasid regime at its peak, ensured the continuation of a dynastic and occasionally despotic regime was tolerated. The Abbasids learned through their own chequered rise to power not to repeat the fatal mistakes of the Umayyads; at the core, however, the politics of their regime’s dynastic retained the similar dynamics.

Smoke, Mirrors and the antiwar movement

Smoke, Mirrors and the antiwar movement

Why do antiwar activists use inaccurate and exaggerated information to justify an already valid stand?

By Ibrahim Moiz (copyright and all that)

The decision in both the United States and Britain to abstain from military intervention in Syria should be welcomed. Even those who, like this writer, wish to see the always-unpleasant Baath regime gone and a rebel victory, there is no doubt that a Western intervention could only have, in the short term at the very least, escalated the conflict and heightened the humanitarian crisis; in the long term it is unlikely that a genuinely popular government, almost certain to be of a Sunni Islamist variety, would not last long before it was deposed by a Western-friendly dictator. The brutal coup in Egypt this summer, and the reaction by the West and its regional partners to them, show that in Western eyes the only thing worse than an unfriendly Arab dictator is an Islamist, no matter how legitimately elected.

The double standards of Western governments and press releases in their early denunciations of Bashar Assad were always transparent against an even mildly informed overview. That the rather disarmingly mild-mannered Syrian dictator was painted as a death-glorying sadist and the rebels, who include very nasty elements including the increasingly powerful Al-Qaeda in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), as noble freedom fighters, is simply ridiculous when considering the vast scale of the conflict–with over ninety thousand dead and at least two million refugees, it is not a conflict where either side has had a monopoly on atrocity. And that is why it is even more alarming to see the traditionally considered, nuanced view of the largely left-leaning antiwar movement take an equally blinkered, one-eyed view of the conflict, only pro rather than anti-government, that is startlingly reminiscent of the often bigoted, inaccurate far-right.

Recently no less a number of left-wing luminaries including George Galloway, Jon Steele and Seuman Milne lined up to applaud the pro-Baath Syrian nun, Agnes de la Croix, when she claimed quite improbably that the entirety of the Syrian opposition were without exception “terrorists” (1). Leaving aside the fact that terrorism is a much abused term bandied around to any armed opposition, including the recently deceased Nelson Mandela in the United States until 2008, calling the entire opposition, some 130 hundred thousand strong at a conservative estimate, is as ludicrous as applying the same label to the government’s supporters. Such an appalling humanitarian crisis can not have happened without significant atrocites committed by both sides. If her credibility weren’t already shaky enough, the good nun then went on to cite an example of Bashar Assad’s “merciful”  nature in a vignette where the Syrian president deigned not to execute quite all of the Sunni prisoners captured in an operation–only, apparently, most of them.

While Agnes de la Croix is perfectly entitled to hold her views, however blinkered they may be, it was surprising to see her co-panelists not only unquestioningly accept but reinforce her ludicrous claims. Leftists in the West, particularly those aligned like Galloway, Steele and Milne with the antiwar movement, have usually been able to see beyond the overly simplified narratives espoused by conflicting sides in wartime. Yet here both Milne and Steele applauded and endorsed de la Croix’s ridiculous assertions, while the ever-ebullient Galloway remains a booming supporter of her cause and of the Syrian regime, more for its apparent opposition to Israel and the West than for its actual record.

Those leftists who decided not to join the nun out of reticence at her overly simplified laudation of Assad were derided by many in the antiwar camp as being apologists for Western interventionism. Laughable as this accusation is, it reinforced a misleadingly bipolar view of the Syrian war, of which both views–supporting the Baath government or supporting Western interventionism–appear to delegate the responsibility of the slaughter to only one side, for political rather than humanitarian purposes.

Even Seymour Hersh, the renowned investigate journalist whose critiques are usually extremely instructive, made the rather improbable claim that the August chemical attack in Ghouta was staged by Syrian rebels (and used, apparently, on their own number) to force Western intervention (2). Never mind that the more influential Islamist factions of the Syrian rebels, both extremist and otherwise, are as opposed to Western intervention as the Assad regime and would hardly have resorted to such a measure even if the relatively weak Free Syrian Army had wanted to use it as a tool to force in Western intervention. Hersh’s accusation also sounded alarmingly reminiscent of the Pentagon spokesman Vincent Brooks in 2003, when he claimed that an American airstrike that had killed Iraqi civilians was “an Iraqi missile that went straight up and came back down”.

It is one thing for the antiwar movement to, quite rightly in this writer’s view, critique the extremely hypocritical Western stance in the Middle East. It is quite another to take that same hypocrisy and fashion an opposing narrative that is as one-sided. In the process, left-leaning antiwar activists have found an unlikely partnership with an extremely Islamophobic American far-right–whose never-shy spokesman Sarah Palin blared, “Let Allah sort it out!”, and whose prize media nincompoop Brian Kilmeade took the common Muslim celebratory cry of “Allahu Akbar!” by the Syrian opposition as a sign of radicalism–that sees any sign of Islamic movements as an assertion of the global Creeping Shurriah. And in doing so adopted some of the same far-right mantras they once opposed. The blanket label of the entire opposition as “terrorists” is simply one example.

If this antiwar response to Western interventionism is meant to oppose the possibility of Western imperial interests in the region, it is also fatally self-defeating. As caustic as America and its generally anti-Syrian allies, such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, were at the start of the conflict, their own inclination seems to be reverting back to Bashar Assad’s government rather than the potentially unpredictable Islamists in opposition. As noted critic of Zionism Max Blumenthal noted, it appears that the Zionist wing of Israel–for all their early hostility towards Assad as a partner of their chief opponent Iran–is gravitating itself towards letting the Baathist dictator stay in power; unlike the Islamists, he is a known quantity and has never in any case been particularly aggressive anywhere outside his borders save Lebanon. It is also something of a compromise as Israel’s chief patron, the United States, gravitates closer towards Assad’s chief patrons in Iran. Those antiwar spokespeople, such as the redoubtable Galloway, who see Assad’s Syria as a buffer to Zionist expansionism in the region should probably think again.

The other danger is a rather subtler one. It also involves the blanket label of the entire Syrian opposition as a homogenous breed of radical Islamic jihadists–Salafists is the popular term nowadays, last decade it was Wahhabists–who want to establish the always-dreaded global caliphate. There is certainly a spillover of disturbingly fanatical jihadists, most notably from Al-Qaeda’s Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, into Syria; their conquest last winter of the eastern stronghold of Raqqa is an alarming development. that signifies their growing influence. Yet to assume that all factions in the opposition are as irredentist, fanatical and extreme as ISIL is to fundamentally misunderstand the situation at best, and to turn it into a self-fulfilment at worst. To paint the entire opposition, on political rather than realistic grounds, as radical fundamentalists is to marginalize the more inclusive, open and reconcilible elements among them. The same scenario has taken place time and again over the past twenty years–in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Algeria, Chechnya and Somalia.

Among the more surprising hosts of this viewpoint was the usually-excellent Boiling Frogs blog run by repeatedly-gagged former intelligence agent Sibel Edmonds: in an alarmingly broad-stroked screed last year, contributing writer William Engdahl submitted a wildly swinging attack on, among others, the Syrian opposition, branding them all as hardline Sunnis called “Salafists” and “Wahhabites” whose raison d’etre is to wipe out “moderate Muslim” movements, such as mystical Sufism, in favour of a rigid revivalist hard line. Among his examples of “Salafi terror” was, along with the (Deobandi, not Salafi) Taliban leader Mohammed Omar, Egypt’s only legitimately elected president in history, Mohamed Morsi, who through that same twisted, broad-stroked logic was deposed in Egypt this summer during a bloody coup whose leaders termed any opposition as “terrorists” who deserved to be bloodily eradicated (a line repeated by, among others, the Wahhabi government of Saudi Arabia–so much for that theory) (3). Another website, Global Research, which has long critiqued Western narratives in war zones, published an article by Michael Chossudosky that blamed the rise of death squads in Syria solely on opposition Sunni jihadists, never mind that both Sunni radicals and the same Iran-affiliated Shia extremists who had dominated post-Baathist Iraq have used such tactics. I privately contacted Chossudosky to pursue this rather unlikely claim further but have received no response. (4)

It is the same line toed by, among others, American neoconservatives such as David Frum and Richard Perle, their Muslim apologists like Stephen Schwartz and Zuhdi Nasser, and the brutal dictatorships of Central Asia, who have resorted to branding any dissent as Wahhabism to justify a savage crackdown for the past twenty years. While criticism of Wahhabis and Salafis is certainly not unwarranted–and there are certainly some voluble Wahhabis and Salafis, including Al-Qaeda, who uphold an extremely rigid and exclusive interpretation of Islam and authorize violent persecution of Shia and other minorities–the Muslim Matters website points out (5) that it is a usually politically motivated label, used by foreigners since colonial Britain to brand any native Muslim opposition to imperialism without much regard to accuracy. Hardly a black-and-white measure, in short, of judging radicalism. The killer of the Pakistani governor of Punjab, for instance, was a member of the generally more liberal Sufi persuasion, while the West’s closest Arab partner, Saudi Arabia, is the birthplace of what is broady termed Wahhabism. In Tunisia, meanwhile, Salafist party leader Saleh Bouazizi has condemned violence and refused to cooperate with violent Salafis; a self-described “true Salafist” Marwa, offered her interpretation of a Salafi as any emulator of Prophet Muhammad’s followers, which would put most observant Muslims in the category (6).

The practical dangers of such an approach–as if the detainment of random suspected Wahhabists and co in Guantanamo Bay and similar facilities is not enough–is the marginalization of the more inclusive Islamists and the empowerment of radicals like Al-Qaeda. While critics of intervention, such as the Irish parliamentarian Clare Daly (in an otherwise superb and rousing speech that railed at the Irish media and government’s slobbering reception of the Obamas last spring), have branded the Islamist rebels radicals and defended the Assad regime on the grounds of it being “secular” (7), the secularism of Baathist Syria (and indeed, of most Arab and Muslim regimes, from Central Asia to Egypt) is of a very different sort from the non-partisan, above-sectarianism brand seen in the West. In the Muslim world, where religion tends to be a far more public and encompassing affair than in the West, secular rulers–from the Young Turks to Islam Karimov to the Assads to Saddam Hussein–have sought to impose their usually nationalism-inclined rule not by rising above sectarian differences but by exploiting them.

In Syria, expert Aron Lund points out, where premodern Muslim rule tended broadly to respect its Christian, Druze, Alawite and Shia minorities, the shrewd if decidedly non-religious Hafez Assad rose to power by exploiting sectarian differences to give his Alawite community a vastly disproportionate share of power, occasionally inviting those members of other sects–such as the Sunni Talas family–who did not object to have a share of the pie. In Uzbekistan, meanwhile, the dictatorship of Islam Karimov sponsors puppet state clerics that tow its line and persecutes any dissidence on the grounds of their being “terrorists”. (For the record, too, the Syrian rebel who chewed out an opponent’s heart was not, as Vladimir Putin claimed at the G8 meeting this summer, an Islamist terrorist but a nationalist.) Given this experience, where secular regimes do not oppose but in fact thrive on sectarianism, it is not surprising to find, as Eugene Rogan noted, that Islamists of various stripes, who hail to a somewhat idealized but definitely preferable past, are overwhelmingly popular in the Muslim world. In a fair and free election, Rogan states, “the Islamists would win hands down”. It happened most recently in Egypt, and–because not only Arab nationalist but also Western, Israeli and Gulf Arab states were alarmed–was swiftly crushed.

And it is because of that popularity that Islamists have come to dominate the Syrian opposition; in a free and fair election in Sunni-dominated Syria, it is almost certain that the Islamists would prevail–particularly given the resentment felt against both the Baath government and the extremists. As perceptive observers like David Hearst have noted, “criminalizing Islam”, an indigenous heritage in the region, only alienates potential allies who may not favour an Al-Qaeda-style caliphate, but who favour a nonconfrontational, holistic Islamist trend and almost certainly represents the vast majority of opinion in the Muslim world.

While, in the absence of any conclusive evidence, it is wrong to assume that Islamists have been no more or less involved in atrocities as secular rebels or pro-government forces, to criticize them alone and whitewash the crimes of their competitors before bringing out the ever-convenient and usually meaningless “terrorist” label–as unfortunately too many generally more open-minded leftists have done–is not only hypocritical but also sidelines and discredits the inclusive, more populist Islamists, thereby empowering hardliners like ISIL. Such Islamists include, for instance, Abdul-Qadir Saleh, a reportedly “Salafist” commander of the non-sectarian Sunni Islamist Tawhid Brigade, which cooperated with not only non-Islamists but also  non-Muslim supporters, who was slain last month at Aleppo while ISIL and Jabhat-al-Nusrah factions gained ground on the battlefield. They also include Kurdish and Turkmen brigades who, in rare coordination with the Turkish government, have taken up arms against the Syrian regime. In a recent, wild but hardly atypical example pof hype surrounding allegedly jihadist rebels, the relatively moderate Islamic Front, allied with the much weaker Free Syrian Army and a rival of the more extreme Al-Qaeda affiliates, was wrongly accused  by no less than US State Secretary John Kerry of having annexed an FSA compound last week–when, in fact, it had merely come to help protect its ally against an attack (8). To paint such factions, who at times have fought the extremist Al-Qaeda affiliates as fiercely as they have fought the regime, with the same brush is not only conducive to an extremist takeover of the opposition, but also worryingly symptomatic of the far-right bigotry that the same antiwar left once opposed, and who now–hardline Zionists, neocons and all–are also lining up to rail in favour of violence against the “terrorist” opposition.

The crux of the problem with such lines is that Syria is not a two-sided issue. One does not have to side with the Baath governnment, and its excessive crackdown to what were initially peaceable demonstrations, in order to oppose Western intervention–or, for that matter, to back the Baath’s much-vilified allies, Hezbollah and Iran, who have been so disproportionately attacked in the Western media before that it now appears to be a natural reaction for members of the antiwar left to defend them. Nor does one have to be on the payroll of shady Gulf millionaires, or in cahoots with American neocons and Israeli Zionists, or a sympathizer with Al-Qaeda to oppose the Syrian government. In this conflict, the other side–which, I believe, represents the mainstream of Syrian opinion–that constitute the more mainstream Islamists and the Syrian army defectors, the only factions in the conflict who appear to have been able to look past their ideological disagreements in some form of solidarity, has been utterly drowned out, not only by Baath thugs and fanatical jihadis but by the unlikely accusations of antiwar Western leftists who, in an understandable rush to prevent Western military intervention, have resorted to painting them with the same “Al-Qaeda” “terrorist” stripe as the most extreme rebel factions. It is the sort of mistake that is far too prone to becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy, and it is beneath the usually excellent work of such left-leaning luminaries as George Galloway, Jonathan Cook and Seymour Hersh.

As Jadaliyyah writer Khalid Saghieh asks in an article aptly titled, “Sleeping with the Enemy”, “What makes a sincere leftist discourse slip into becoming a retouched version of the Islamophobic right?” (9) It appears to be an overreaction to the unpleasant possibility of Western intervention in Syria–an admittedly dangerous possibility that, if reports about quiet autumn meetings between the White House and Tehran are true, was vastly exaggerated from the start–and, perhaps in the case of such politicians as Galloway, an understandable but not always warranted reflexive tendency to side with allies of the always disproportionately vilified Iranian regime, who are nominally, if not always factually, anti-Zionist. But spewing far-right generalizations is not likely to help an antiwar movement in the long run; there are enough antiwar justifications without it. Opposing an inevitably clumsy Western military intervention in Syria, where humanitarian assistance is needed far more than an escalation in violence, is justifiable enough on its own merit. There is no need for antiwar activists to transform into far right alarmists to make their case.

Note, 2 December 2014: Not having seen the full extent of BFP and global researchs partisanship and shameless duplicity at the time I wrote this (in Dec 2013), I inaccurately described both as “usually excellent”, which is of course utterly ridiculous and which I have removed. Also, it should be noted that for arguments sake I presented assumption that the regime and rebels may bear equal responsibility, which in actual fact is not true even if one includes IS in the second camp.

Notes

1)

http://louisproyect.org/2013/11/18/a-tale-of-two-conferences/

2)

http://louisproyect.org/2013/12/09/semour-hersh-and-richard-sales-senior-moments/

3)

http://www.boilingfrogspost.com/2012/09/13/dagestan-syria-comes-to-russia/

4)

http://www.globalresearch.ca/the-salvador-option-for-syria-us-nato-sponsored-death-squads-integrate-opposition-forces/31096

5)

http://muslimmatters.org/2007/04/01/the-wahhabi-myth-debunking-the-bogeyman/

6)

http://fr.fondema.nl/media/articles/15-06-12/

7)

http://www.thejournal.ie/clare-daly-obamas-dail-957439-Jun2013/

8)

http://eaworldview.com/2013/12/syria-spotlight-real-story-behind-us-cut-non-lethal-aid-insurgents/

9)

http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/14157/sleeping-with-the-enemy_the-global-left-and-the-no

Smoke, Mirrors and the antiwar movement

Why do antiwar activists use inaccurate and exaggerated information to justify an already valid stand?

By Ibrahim Moiz (copyright and all that)

The decision in both the United States and Britain to abstain from military intervention in Syria should be welcomed. Even those who, like this writer, wish to see the always-unpleasant Baath regime gone and a rebel victory, there is no doubt that a Western intervention could only have, in the short term at the very least, escalated the conflict and heightened the humanitarian crisis; in the long term it is unlikely that a genuinely popular government, almost certain to be of a Sunni Islamist variety, would not last long before it was deposed by a Western-friendly dictator. The brutal coup in Egypt this summer, and the reaction by the West and its regional partners to them, show that in Western eyes the only thing worse than an unfriendly Arab dictator is an Islamist, no matter how legitimately elected.

The double standards of Western governments and press releases in their early denunciations of Bashar Assad were always transparent against an even mildly informed overview. That the rather disarmingly mild-mannered Syrian dictator was painted as a death-glorying sadist and the rebels, who include very nasty elements including the increasingly powerful Al-Qaeda in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), as noble freedom fighters, is simply ridiculous when considering the vast scale of the conflict–with over ninety thousand dead and at least two million refugees, it is not a conflict where either side has had a monopoly on atrocity. And that is why it is even more alarming to see the traditionally considered, nuanced view of the largely left-leaning antiwar movement take an equally blinkered, one-eyed view of the conflict, only pro rather than anti-government, that is startlingly reminiscent of the often bigoted, inaccurate far-right.

Recently no less a number of left-wing luminaries including George Galloway, Jon Steele and Seuman Milne lined up to applaud the pro-Baath Syrian nun, Agnes de la Croix, when she claimed quite improbably that the entirety of the Syrian opposition were without exception “terrorists” (1). Leaving aside the fact that terrorism is a much abused term bandied around to any armed opposition, including the recently deceased Nelson Mandela in the United States until 2008, calling the entire opposition, some 130 hundred thousand strong at a conservative estimate, is as ludicrous as applying the same label to the government’s supporters. Such an appalling humanitarian crisis can not have happened without significant atrocites committed by both sides. If her credibility weren’t already shaky enough, the good nun then went on to cite an example of Bashar Assad’s “merciful”  nature in a vignette where the Syrian president deigned not to execute quite all of the Sunni prisoners captured in an operation–only, apparently, most of them.

While Agnes de la Croix is perfectly entitled to hold her views, however blinkered they may be, it was surprising to see her co-panelists not only unquestioningly accept but reinforce her ludicrous claims. Leftists in the West, particularly those aligned like Galloway, Steele and Milne with the antiwar movement, have usually been able to see beyond the overly simplified narratives espoused by conflicting sides in wartime. Yet here both Milne and Steele applauded and endorsed de la Croix’s ridiculous assertions, while the ever-ebullient Galloway remains a booming supporter of her cause and of the Syrian regime, more for its apparent opposition to Israel and the West than for its actual record.

Those leftists who decided not to join the nun out of reticence at her overly simplified laudation of Assad–such as Jeremy Scahill and Owen Jones, both with admirable records in opposing Western military adventures–were derided by many in the antiwar camp as being apologists for Western interventionism. Laughable as this accusation is, it reinforced a misleadingly bipolar view of the Syrian war, of which both views–supporting the Baath government or supporting Western interventionism–appear to delegate the responsibility of the slaughter to only one side, for political rather than humanitarian purposes.

Even Seymour Hersh, the renowned investigate journalist whose critiques are usually extremely instructive, made the rather improbable claim that the August chemical attack in Ghouta was staged by Syrian rebels (and used, apparently, on their own number) to force Western intervention (2). Never mind that the more influential Islamist factions of the Syrian rebels, both extremist and otherwise, are as opposed to Western intervention as the Assad regime and would hardly have resorted to such a measure even if the relatively weak Free Syrian Army had wanted to use it as a tool to force in Western intervention. Hersh’s accusation also sounded alarmingly reminiscent of the Pentagon spokesman Vincent Brooks in 2003, when he claimed that an American airstrike that had killed Iraqi civilians was “an Iraqi missile that went straight up and came back down”.

It is one thing for the antiwar movement to, quite rightly in this writer’s view, critique the extremely hypocritical Western stance in the Middle East. It is quite another to take that same hypocrisy and fashion an opposing narrative that is as one-sided. In the process, left-leaning antiwar activists have found an unlikely partnership with an extremely Islamophobic American far-right–whose never-shy spokesman Sarah Palin blared, “Let Allah sort it out!”, and whose prize media nincompoop Brian Kilmeade took the common Muslim celebratory cry of “Allahu Akbar!” by the Syrian opposition as a sign of radicalism–that sees any sign of Islamic movements as an assertion of the global Creeping Shurriah. And in doing so adopted some of the same far-right mantras they once opposed. The blanket label of the entire opposition as “terrorists” is simply one example.

If this antiwar response to Western interventionism is meant to oppose the possibility of Western imperial interests in the region, it is also fatally self-defeating. As caustic as America and its generally anti-Syrian allies, such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, were at the start of the conflict, their own inclination seems to be reverting back to Bashar Assad’s government rather than the potentially unpredictable Islamists in opposition. As noted critic of Zionism Max Blumenthal noted, it appears that the Zionist wing of Israel–for all their early hostility towards Assad as a partner of their chief opponent Iran–is gravitating itself towards letting the Baathist dictator stay in power; unlike the Islamists, he is a known quantity and has never in any case been particularly aggressive anywhere outside his borders save Lebanon. It is also something of a compromise as Israel’s chief patron, the United States, gravitates closer towards Assad’s chief patrons in Iran. Those antiwar spokespeople, such as the redoubtable Galloway, who see Assad’s Syria as a buffer to Zionist expansionism in the region should probably think again.

The other danger is a rather subtler one. It also involves the blanket label of the entire Syrian opposition as a homogenous breed of radical Islamic jihadists–Salafists is the popular term nowadays, last decade it was Wahhabists–who want to establish the always-dreaded global caliphate. There is certainly a spillover of disturbingly fanatical jihadists, most notably from Al-Qaeda’s Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, into Syria; their conquest last winter of the eastern stronghold of Raqqa is an alarming development. that signifies their growing influence. Yet to assume that all factions in the opposition are as irredentist, fanatical and extreme as ISIL is to fundamentally misunderstand the situation at best, and to turn it into a self-fulfilment at worst. To paint the entire opposition, on political rather than realistic grounds, as radical fundamentalists is to marginalize the more inclusive, open and reconcilible elements among them. The same scenario has taken place time and again over the past twenty years–in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Algeria, Chechnya and Somalia.

Among the more surprising hosts of this viewpoint was the usually-excellent Boiling Frogs blog run by repeatedly-gagged former intelligence agent Sibel Edmonds: in an alarmingly broad-stroked screed last year, contributing writer William Engdahl submitted a wildly swinging attack on, among others, the Syrian opposition, branding them all as hardline Sunnis called “Salafists” and “Wahhabites” whose raison d’etre is to wipe out “moderate Muslim” movements, such as mystical Sufism, in favour of a rigid revivalist hard line. Among his examples of “Salafi terror” was, along with the (Deobandi, not Salafi) Taliban leader Mohammed Omar, Egypt’s only legitimately elected president in history, Mohamed Morsi, who through that same twisted, broad-stroked logic was deposed in Egypt this summer during a bloody coup whose leaders termed any opposition as “terrorists” who deserved to be bloodily eradicated (a line repeated by, among others, the Wahhabi government of Saudi Arabia–so much for that theory) (3). Another website, Global Research, which has long critiqued Western narratives in war zones, published an article by Michael Chossudosky that blamed the rise of death squads in Syria solely on opposition Sunni jihadists, never mind that both Sunni radicals and the same Iran-affiliated Shia extremists who had dominated post-Baathist Iraq have used such tactics. I privately contacted Chossudosky to pursue this rather unlikely claim further but have received no response. (4)

It is the same line toed by, among others, American neoconservatives such as David Frum and Richard Perle, their Muslim apologists like Stephen Schwartz and Zuhdi Nasser, and the brutal dictatorships of Central Asia, who have resorted to branding any dissent as Wahhabism to justify a savage crackdown for the past twenty years. While criticism of Wahhabis and Salafis is certainly not unwarranted–and there are certainly some voluble Wahhabis and Salafis, including Al-Qaeda, who uphold an extremely rigid and exclusive interpretation of Islam and authorize violent persecution of Shia and other minorities–the Muslim Matters website points out (5) that it is a usually politically motivated label, used by foreigners since colonial Britain to brand any native Muslim opposition to imperialism without much regard to accuracy. Hardly a black-and-white measure, in short, of judging radicalism. The killer of the Pakistani governor of Punjab, for instance, was a member of the generally more liberal Sufi persuasion, while the West’s closest Arab partner, Saudi Arabia, is the birthplace of what is broady termed Wahhabism. In Tunisia, meanwhile, Salafist party leader Saleh Bouazizi has condemned violence and refused to cooperate with violent Salafis; a self-described “true Salafist” Marwa, offered her interpretation of a Salafi as any emulator of Prophet Muhammad’s followers, which would put most observant Muslims in the category (6).

The practical dangers of such an approach–as if the detainment of random suspected Wahhabists and co in Guantanamo Bay and similar facilities is not enough–is the marginalization of the more inclusive Islamists and the empowerment of radicals like Al-Qaeda. While critics of intervention, such as the Irish parliamentarian Clare Daly (in an otherwise superb and rousing speech that railed at the Irish media and government’s slobbering reception of the Obamas last spring), have branded the Islamist rebels radicals and defended the Assad regime on the grounds of it being “secular” (7), the secularism of Baathist Syria (and indeed, of most Arab and Muslim regimes, from Central Asia to Egypt) is of a very different sort from the non-partisan, above-sectarianism brand seen in the West. In the Muslim world, where religion tends to be a far more public and encompassing affair than in the West, secular rulers–from the Young Turks to Islam Karimov to the Assads to Saddam Hussein–have sought to impose their usually nationalism-inclined rule not by rising above sectarian differences but by exploiting them.

In Syria, expert Aron Lund points out, where premodern Muslim rule tended broadly to respect its Christian, Druze, Alawite and Shia minorities, the shrewd if decidedly non-religious Hafez Assad rose to power by exploiting sectarian differences to give his Alawite community a vastly disproportionate share of power, occasionally inviting those members of other sects–such as the Sunni Talas family–who did not object to have a share of the pie. In Uzbekistan, meanwhile, the dictatorship of Islam Karimov sponsors puppet state clerics that tow its line and persecutes any dissidence on the grounds of their being “terrorists”. (For the record, too, the Syrian rebel who chewed out an opponent’s heart was not, as Vladimir Putin claimed at the G8 meeting this summer, an Islamist terrorist but a secular nationalist.) Given this experience, where secular regimes do not oppose but in fact thrive on sectarianism, it is not surprising to find, as Eugene Rogan noted, that Islamists of various stripes, who hail to a somewhat idealized but definitely preferable past, are overwhelmingly popular in the Muslim world. In a fair and free election, Rogan states, “the Islamists would win hands down”. It happened most recently in Egypt, and–because not only Arab nationalist but also Western, Israeli and Gulf Arab states were alarmed–was swiftly crushed.

And it is because of that popularity that Islamists have come to dominate the Syrian opposition; in a free and fair election in Sunni-dominated Syria, it is almost certain that the Islamists would prevail–particularly given the resentment felt against both the Baath government and the rebel hardliners. As the typically perceptive Scahill noted, “criminalizing Islam”, an indigenous heritage in the region, only alienates potential allies who may not favour an Al-Qaeda-style caliphate, but who favour an Islamist trend that is “interested in being left alone” and almost certainly represents the vast majority of opinion in the Muslim world.

While, in absence of any conclusive evidence, it is wrong to automatically assume that Islamists have been no more or less involved in atrocities as secular rebels or pro-government forces, to criticize them alone and whitewash the crimes of their competitors before bringing out the ever-convenient and usually meaningless “terrorist” label–as unfortunately too many generally more open-minded leftists have done–is not only hypocritical but also sidelines and discredits the inclusive, more populist Islamists, thereby empowering hardliners like ISIL. Such Islamists include, for instance, Abdul-Qadir Saleh, a reportedly “Salafist” commander of the non-sectarian Sunni Islamist Tawhid Brigade, which cooperated with not only non-Islamists but also  non-Muslim supporters, who was slain last month at Aleppo while ISIL and Jabhat-al-Nusrah factions gained ground on the battlefield. They also include Kurdish and Turkmen brigades who, in rare coordination with the Turkish government, have taken up arms against the Syrian regime. In a recent, wild but hardly atypical example pof hype surrounding allegedly jihadist rebels, the relatively moderate Islamic Front, allied with the much weaker Free Syrian Army and a rival of the more extreme Al-Qaeda affiliates, was wrongly accused  by no less than US State Secretary John Kerry of having annexed an FSA compound last week–when, in fact, it had merely come to help protect its ally against an attack (8). To paint such factions, who at times have fought the jihadist Al-Qaeda affiliates as fiercely as they have fought the regime, with the same brush is not only conducive to an extremist takeover of the opposition, but also worryingly symptomatic of the far-right bigotry that the same antiwar left once opposed, and who now–hardline Zionists, neocons and all–are also lining up to rail in favour of violence against the “terrorist” opposition.

The crux of the problem with such lines is that Syria is not a two-sided issue. One does not have to side with the Baath governnment, and its excessive crackdown to what were initially peaceable demonstrations, in order to oppose Western intervention–or, for that matter, to back the Baath’s much-vilified allies, Hezbollah and Iran, who have been so disproportionately attacked in the Western media before that it now appears to be a natural reaction for members of the antiwar left to defend them. Nor does one have to be on the patroll of shady Gulf millionaires, or in cahoots with American neocons and Israeli Zionists, or a sympathizer with Al-Qaeda to oppose the Syrian government. In this conflict, the other side–which, I believe, represents the mainstream of Syrian opinion–that constitute the more progressive Islamists and the secular Syrian army defectors, the only factions in the conflict who appear to have been able to look past their ideological disagreements in some form of solidarity, has been utterly drowned out, not only by Baath thugs and fanatical jihadis but by the unlikely accusations of antiwar Western leftists who, in an understandable rush to prevent Western military intervention, have resorted to painting them with the same “Al-Qaeda” “terrorist” stripe as the most extreme rebel factions. It is the sort of mistake that is far too prone to becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy, and it is beneath the usually excellent work of such left-leaning luminaries as George Galloway, Jonathan Cook and Seymour Hersh.

As Jadaliyyah writer Khalid Saghieh asks in an article aptly titled, “Sleeping with the Enemy”, “What makes a sincere leftist discourse slip into becoming a retouched version of the Islamophobic right?” (9) It appears to be an overreaction to the unpleasant possibility of Western intervention in Syria–an admittedly dangerous possibility that, if reports about quiet autumn meetings between the White House and Tehran are true, was vastly exaggerated from the start–and, perhaps in the case of such politicians as Galloway, an understandable but not always warranted reflexive tendency to side with allies of the always disproportionately vilified Iranian regime, who are nominally, if not always factually, anti-Zionist. But spewing far-right generalizations is not likely to help an antiwar movement in the long run; there are enough antiwar justifications without it. Opposing an inevitably clumsy Western military intervention in Syria, where humanitarian assistance is needed far more than an escalation in violence, is justifiable enough on its own merit. There is no need for antiwar activists to transform into far right alarmists to make their case.

Note, 2 December 2014: Not having seen the full extent of BFP and global researchs partisanship and shameless duplicity at the time I wrote this (in Dec 2013), I inaccurately described both as “usually excellent”, which is of course utterly ridiculous and which I have removed. Also, it should be noted that for arguments sake I presented assumption that the regime and rebels may bear equal responsibility, which in actual fact is not true even if one includes IS in the second camp, as was mistakenly done at the time. Note also that evidence, including from the recently exposed anti-rebel Syrian Observatory for human rights, mischaracterized in 2011 as a supporter of the rebels, that I had not been aware of at the time indicates fully that the better-armed regime and particularly its barrel-bombing airforce have been responsible for far, far more massacres and atrocities than the rebels, whose own abuses have been sporadic and minimal by comparison, with the solitary exception of the 2013 coastal assault where minority civilians were harassed and in some cases murdered. Vile as that was, it was an exception and not the rule to the rebels overall conduct, in contrast to the systemic massacre, airstrikes, rape and especially torture prevalent in the regime side.

Notes

1)

http://louisproyect.org/2013/11/18/a-tale-of-two-conferences/

2)

http://louisproyect.org/2013/12/09/semour-hersh-and-richard-sales-senior-moments/

3)

http://www.boilingfrogspost.com/2012/09/13/dagestan-syria-comes-to-russia/

4)

http://www.globalresearch.ca/the-salvador-option-for-syria-us-nato-sponsored-death-squads-integrate-opposition-forces/31096

5)

http://muslimmatters.org/2007/04/01/the-wahhabi-myth-debunking-the-bogeyman/

6)

http://fr.fondema.nl/media/articles/15-06-12/

7)

http://www.thejournal.ie/clare-daly-obamas-dail-957439-Jun2013/

8)

http://eaworldview.com/2013/12/syria-spotlight-real-story-behind-us-cut-non-lethal-aid-insurgents/

9)

http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/14157/sleeping-with-the-enemy_the-global-left-and-the-no

FLYING THE COUP: SYRIA’S TRIPLE-WHAMMY 1949


FLYING THE COUP: SYRIA’S TRIPLE-WHAMMY 1949


Ibrahim Moiz

Military coups have been a major and recurring theme in the developing world over the past century, and the Muslim world has been a case in point. With the breakdown of centralized empires and the rise of fledgling states riddled with corrupt politicians and overly assertive armies, the military coup has been, and remains, a regular feature of politics in the Muslim world since the collapse of the Ottoman Sultanate. FLYING THE COUP takes stock of the long catalogue of coups in the modern Muslim world.

The foundation of Israel and the defeat of the Arab armies had a profound effect on the Arab world, as citizens and soldiers alike turned on their political leadership. Apart from the thousands of displaced Palestinians expelled from their homeland as Israeli founder David Ben-Gurion put forward a policy of eradicating a significant Arab population from the Jewish State, nowhere did the impact of the defeat hit faster and harder than in Syria. Having achieved independence from France just two years earlier, Syria’s next twenty years were characterized by a catalogue of dizzying coups that put paid to the prospects of a civilian-governed state right up till the present day.

Syria had an especial investment in the Arab-Israeli war—which came to be described as “Nakba”, disaster, by Syrian writer Constantine Zureiq in a famous review of the conflict. Historically, Palestine (as well as Jordan and Lebanon) had been districts of the province of Greater Syria, a province that the British were the latest to try and retrieve as recently as the 1930s. While all the Arab states that participated in the 1948 war had ties to the Palestinian cause as their fellow Arabs and, in most cases, fellow Muslims in a holy land sacred to three major faiths, neither Iraq nor Egypt had quite the same cultural and historical closeness that Syria did. The most famous of the irregular militias set up to fight the Zionists, the Arab Liberation Army, was mostly made up of and led by Syrians.

As early as Syria’s official entrance into the conflict, trouble began to brew over the unexpected inefficiency of the campaign. It should not have come as a surprise, in retrospect; the Syrian army was new, largely ill-equipped, and riddled with factions. As soon as it became clear that they would not steamroll the Israeli paramilitaries as had been hoped, the fur began to fly. Nobody quite knew what was going wrong, why it was going wrong, how it could be fixed, and—apparently most pressing—who was to blame.

Early in the war, therefore, experienced commander-in-chief Abdullah Atfah was dismissed for being overconfident in the army’s capability (he bragged, rather incongruously, that Syria had the best army in the region), but his successor, Husni Zaim, was in contrast far too half-hearted and seemed to spend more time cultivating his ties with senior officers than actually commanding the campaign. The defence ministers had an even worse time of it; Ahmed Sharabati, whose links with some Jewish Syrian businessmen were seen as a scandal conflict of interest, resigned on the eve of the war, and his successor, Jamil Mardam, was bombarded with the same accusations: they had, the rumours ran, purposely bought obsolete weaponry from France and pocketed the budget change.

Equally vicious was the sniping match between the civilian government and the army, which felt betrayed by inadequate leadership. Shishakli, for instance, who enhanced his reputation as a tough and hardy commander on the Galilee front, blamed president Shukri Quwwatli for having failed to send reinforcements to maintain the important town of Safad, which fell to the Israelis only shortly after he had captured it. Accusations against the government were echoed by Michel Aflaq, a popular socialist philosopher who had only recently founded the Baath Party, which would eventually achieve infamy in both Iraq and Syria. Aflaq, whose mixture of Arab patriotism and egalitarian socialism would have an enormous impact on regional politics over the next twenty years, brought crowds of protesters to the street. Already neck-deep in controversy, the harrowed government overreacted; interior minister Sabri Asali declared a state of emergency and sent what remained at home of the already strained army into the streets to crush the protests. Naturally, this only turned more people against the government and exacerbated the problem.

As the campaign descended into a definite failure and battered Syrian troops limped home, conspiracy theories began to verge on the bizarre: Muhammad Safa, an army officer, accused the leftist political wing, which included Aflaq’s Baath as well as communist and more moderate socialist parties, of having deliberately undermined the war, and pointed specifically to Akram Hawrani. A socialist who—along with the absent-minded, politically detached writer-cum-politician Abdul-Salam Ujaili—was the only member of Syria’s parliament who honoured his pledge to serve as a volunteer soldier in the war, Hawrani did indeed have a reputation as a serial schemer, and did capitalize on the fallout of the war, but considering the relatively lowly position he held during his short stint as a soldier, it seems highly unlikely that he would have somehow undermined the campaign in any meaningful way.

Ironically given its sinking credibility, the most likely accusation was that of the government, whose most fiery backlash came from Khaled Azm, the prime minister, and a popular young parliamentarian named Munir Ajlani. If there was at any stage a deliberate attempt to undermine the campaign against Israel, rather than just sheer incompetence, it seems likely only to have come from the army top brass. Husni Zaim—the portly, swaggering, cheerful commander-in-chief of the Syrian army—spent the bulk of his campaign in the field strengthening his relations with leading officers and turning them against the government, whom he blamed for the military failures. The campaign, though fiercely fought by most soldiers and officers both in the Syrian army and the militias, was distinguished by a markedly half-hearted and undistinguished command. Adil Arslan, an aristocrat who joined the campaign under Zaim and seems never quite sure what to make of the Syrian commander-in-chief, claimed that in the conflict’s final stages he learned from American ambassador James Kelley, to his astonishment, that Zaim had bent over backwards to accommodate a premature peace agreement, specifically enlisting an army officer named Fawzi Selu—another soldier who seems to have done anything but his actual job—to undertake the mission. And in the short run, nobody benefited more from the fallout of the defeat than did Zaim.

The coup when it came was swift and bloodless. Along with having secured the support of officers such as Adib Shishakli, Fawzi Selu, Sami Hinnawi, Abdel-Hamid Sarraj, and Anwar Bannoud Husni Zaim had also enlisted the support of the fledgling American intelligence agency, the CIA, who feared that President Shukri Quwwatli would tilt Syria towards an alliance with their new rival, the Soviet Union of Communist Russia. Two American agents, Miles Copeland and Stephen Meade, played a leading role. In convincing the Americans that Quwwatli was a threat to their interests, Zaim was among the earliest leaders to anticipate and try to manipulate the Cold War struggle between the United States of America and the Soviet Union to his own benefit.

Unlike several later coups, Zaim’s was not an especially violent one. Whatever his faults, this “pompous, monacled, and ignorant fool”—as Egypt’s critical historian Sami Aburish scaldingly described the dictator in The Last Arab, 2004—was not a vindictive character, and with the army’s most prominent officers on his side and an unpopular civilian leadership posing no major threat, he never went further than imprisonment. Shukri Quwwatli’s most loyal military lieutenant, Suhail Ashi, was not only released along with the deposed president after a brief stint in prison, but also appointed chief of police. Despite his relative leniency, however, Zaim had set a dangerous precedent. The fifteen years between 1945 and 1959 saw no less than forty-seven coups worldwide (Shuja Nawaz, Crossed Swords, 2008); Zaim’s was the first in the Arab world and for Syria in particular marked the first of no less than ten attempted coups before the Assad dynasty finally cemented an iron fist over the state in 1970. The first of those would snuff out Zaim’s short-lived regime.

Husni Zaim did not help his cause by alienating most of those who may have initially sympathized with him. Syria’s politics were dominated by either socialist or Islamist sympathies; Zaim fell into neither camp. Though the dictator was not against socialism per se, he had come to power by harnessing the staunchly anti-socialist sentiments of the United States of America, and had to at least partially toe the line. And to the Islamic bent that still dominated a sizeable wave of Syrian opinion, Zaim was positively and unapologetically offensive.

Zaim was one of a large number of strongmen in the post-colonial world who saw themselves in the role of Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey who had matched military brilliance in Turkey’s war of independence with a deeply secularist, Westernized programme. More than a few soldiers turned would-be reformists fancied themselves in Ataturk’s role as the commander who would frogmarch the country into a modern, Westernized revolution. But none of the wannabe Ataturks had his record and reputation as a warrior-cum-founder to fall back on, and met an immediate resistance.

Zaim’s predecessor, Shukri Quwwatli, had struggled to balance his programme of reform with Muslim sensibilities. Zaim by contrast positively swaggered into the arena; in an early instance of one of the Westernizing autocrat’s first stops, vocally encouraging women to remove their veils and cultivate liberal lifestyles that were certain to raise hackles among more conservative members of the Muslim community. When one of the most prominent Muslim conservatives, Abdul-Hameed Tabba, protested these changes, Zaim invited him to discuss the matter at a hotel, where he promptly called in dancing girls and swigged down whiskey, enjoying the scandalized reaction of the preacher to whom he had quite sensationally made his point.

Any support Zaim may have retained in the military evaporated when he turned over Antun Saadeh, a fiery and controversial socialist-cum-Arabist whose ambitions to annex Lebanon and Syria’s other neighbours to recreate “Greater Syria” found a highly receptive audience among the Syrian army and led to his execution in Lebanon after Zaim’s extradition. And in the public eye, Zaim—who had already offended Arabist sentiment by closing his borders with Iraq and Jordan, both of which he threatened to attack in opposition to the Hashemite monarchy—simultaneously went a step too far when in the summer of 1949, even while rattling sabres at fellow Arab states, he was seen to be making overt negotiations with Israel. The wound of “Nakba”, to which Zaim had made his own contribution, was fresh in Arab minds, and though a ceasefire had been agreed a peace overture, and thereby a recognition of the Israeli state’s legitimacy, was a move of political suicide. With other Arab leaders reluctant to support his stance and Israel’s politicians flushed with victory, the negotiations came to nought, except to effectively alienate the Syrian leader.

The leader of this second coup was Sami Hinnawi, Husni Zaim’s most trusted lieutenant and the army chief, and the cast was mainly the same: Adib Shishakli, quietly fuming over the extradition of Antun Saadeh, played a significant role, while Fawzi Selu and Anwar Bannoud—both regular accomplices in Syria’s early coups—also threw in their lot. So too did Suhail Ashi, the Quwwatli loyalist whom Zaim had rather unwisely appointed police head, and the president’s security commander Abdel-Hamid Sarraj.

The burly, grim-faced Hinnawi, like many army officers, seems to have become quickly disillusioned with Zaim’s leadership and planned to return power to a more mainstream politician. This second coup of 1949 was the bloodiest of the lot; Zaim, who was expecting a newborn child, and his prime minister Muhsin Barazi—a former aide of Shukri Quwwatli—were frogmarched into the Mezze Prison outside Damascus and shot in front of Barazi’s son. Just a week earlier, Hinnawi had brushed off Zaim’s suspicions, claiming that he could not plot against his “leader and friend”, while security head Abdel-Hamid Sarraj had been close to the dictator’s family. While Shishakli triumphantly presented the dictator’s corpse to Antun Saadeh’s widow, Zaim’s infant daughter and young widow were both briefly imprisoned. Whatever the dictator’s faults, and they were considerable, it was a wretched way to go.

Sami Hinnawi, a stolid and unambitious soldier more comfortable in the role of enforcer than ruler, quickly ceded power to Hashim Atasi, a veteran civilian whose political programme was more acceptable to the majority of Syria’s opinion. Atasi, a venerable white-bearded statesman with a reputation for integrity, in many ways represented a return to the pre-coup civilian leadership. In a nod to popular sentiment, Atasi retracted the negotiations with Israel—the ceasefire would remain but negotiations and recognition would not. But he also brought some of the less popular policies of his civilian predecessors.

Like Shukri Quwwatli, Hashim Atasi supported the idea of a merger with Iraq to create a northern Arab superstate that could share its resources. This viewpoint owed much to Atasi’s own origins in the northeastern trading town of Aleppo, which would benefit largely from such a deal. But the idea was controversial, especially among the increasingly relevant army, since Iraq was ruled by the Hashemite monarchy that, particularly among the rising left-wing tide, were portrayed as colonial collaborators with the British, French and Israelis. The Hashemite ruler of Jordan, Abdallah I, was seen as having betrayed his Arab brethren in deference to his own personal ambitions, while his younger brethren in Iraq were equally unpopular and had already called in British support to survive a populist revolt during World War II. Adib Shishakli, increasingly powerful in the army, acted fast to launch the third coup of a tumultuous and tone-setting year. Despite a promising start that had included a newly drafted constitution, the second coup’s regime was even shorter than its predecessor.

This coup was perhaps the least dramatic of the lot, and therefore its effects lingered longest. While Sami Hinnawi was quickly arrested and shipped off to Lebanon—where he would be murdered the next year in retaliation for his execution of Muhsin Barazi—the civilian premier Hashim Atasi was retained to give a semblance of normalcy, which only evaporated when he resigned the next year in protest. By then the army and in particular Shishakli had wrested firm control over Syria’s politics. While he rewarded his longtime lieutenants Anwar Bannoud and Fawzi Selu with the superficial spoils of the coup, Shishakli—whose soldierly straight face masked a deceptively calculating and ambitious political brain that would dominate Syrian politics over the next few years—secured his own survival by staying behind the scenes in what amounted to a second-in-command position. Bannoud replaced Hinnawi as army chief, while Shishakli insisted that Selu, the quintessential crony, hold at varying times the portfolios of prime minister, president and defence minister. This third coup left its marks longest on Syria, whose politics have never quite moved on from the tumultuous triple strike of 1949.