Friday, October 22, 2010

Strange Bedfellows

Within the last week, the US administration has proposed large military aid packages to our “allies” in the terminal “war on terror.” Saudi Arabia will receive $60 billion worth of military aircraft, while Pakistan will receive $2 billion dollars in general military aid.

If anyone still thinks that our military adventure in Iraq, and our persistent efforts to assist in the creation of a stable Afghan state are motivated from a desire to spread democracy, our relationship with Saudi Arabia should shatter that illusion.

Several years ago, I wrote on this blog that the biggest terror threats in the world were to be found in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Pakistan. This was despite the fact that the media focus at that time echoed the US government line; that the greatest threats emanated from Iran and Iraq. The case of Yemen is a special one, and I will not examine that here. Saudi Arabia, however, remains the ideological and financial homeland of Al-Qaeda and its associated worldview. After oil, Saudi Arabia’s next most significant export is Wahhabi Islam. Its internal human rights record is abysmal, and democracy is virtually non-existent. This is a country where you can be executed – by public beheading – for the crime of “sorcery.” Of course, rather than the US supporting a genuine democratic movement in the Peninsula, it continues to support the Royal family, and thus secures preferential treatment with regards to access to oil. Furthermore, despite the US State Department trying to play down the assertion, it is clear that $60 billion worth of aircraft to the Saudis satisfies the desire of both the Kingdom and the US to contain Iran.

This represents a deep and dangerous cynicism. The US is upping the ante in a regional proxy war and simultaneously arming a country where political stability has thus far relied on heavy handed opposition to reform and an extensive police state apparatus.

Political stability in Saudi Arabia depends to a great extent on economic stability; in order for the relatively high per capita income of the Kingdom to be maintained, oil revenues must remain high, and the regime must fulfill its role as a basic instrument of income redistribution. Political reform has progressed at a snail’s pace, and internal security threats from Islamic fundamentalist groups continue to present a challenge to the regime. Providing such a large arms transfer to Saudi Arabia increases the long term threat of both regional and sovereign stability, as the Saudis are likely to use international conflict as an excuse for delaying crucial reforms at home.

Meanwhile, the military aid package for Pakistan similarly can only serve to escalate conflict in South and Central Asia, rather than contain it. The Pakistani regime, and indeed, the fate of Pakistan as a state in general, are at a crossroads. As I have recently written in this blog, the confluence of forces at play in Pakistan at the moment presents an existential crisis. It would seem that the US position is to throw more arms into the fray, and hope that the limping civilian administration in Pakistan can get a hold of things before the center collapses. The war in Afghanistan has become a war in Pakistan, and once again the US position suggests that the only way out is for the Pakistanis to completely eliminate the Taliban and Al-Qaeda affiliated groups, and return to some kind of imagined stability. However, the true crisis in Pakistan isn’t simply Islamic militancy, it is an institutional crisis. I don’t believe that an outright military victory over the Taliban and associated groups can actually be achieved. The fact that elements within Afghanistan’s government are continuously attempting to court the Taliban leadership into some kind of reconciliation process proves that the forces of Fundamental Islam will be part of both countries for the foreseeable forces. Rather than encouraging a de-facto arms race in South Asia, the US should be investing in a future civilian government that can encourage democratic reform and stable civilian governance, with the hope of creating an atmosphere conducive to economic development.

This is the only hope of long term stability. However, cynicism and the belief that military force can achieve positive future outcomes rule the day.

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