Monday, May 02, 2011

45/100: The Start Or The End of War of Civilizations

Today can be anything: Start of a prolonged war of civilizations or the end of it. Let us hope it is the end, as it appears to be. The most important figurehead of Islamic extremism is gone. This may not weaken the Al Queda units across the world in real terms, because of their decentralized nature, but this should rob them of their most recognizable icon and the most effective recruitment tool. This should lead to a thaw in Afghanistan, give Americans the breathing space they need. This should allow other Muslim leaders to emerge in the limelight, hopefully with more moderate voices.

On America's side, this may mean a boost for Obama, which should be good for America and the world. Obama isn't unduly combative, not a war president like his predecessor. He is measured and cerebral - he took great pains to emphasize that America is not at war with Muslims - and he understands the dangers of stoking the flames more than anyone else. While the dancing crowds outside white house and the rather awkward, if unavoidable, way of disposing off Mr Bin Laden's body will enrage the faithful across the world, Obama's support of democratic movements across the Arab world is genuine. As Hillary Clinton mentioned today, these democratic movements do more to undermine Al Queda's bitterness and violence more than American Army ever did: Mr Obama will keep reminding the world that this started with his own version of 'winds of change' speech in Cairo two years ago.

However, despite all the positives, it may still turn ugly. The dangers are real, and if things don't go right from this point on, we may soon be staring at the slippery slope of a different kind of domino effect. All this can start in Pakistan. This is, by common admission, a failed state. It is a failed state if the government housed Bin Laden and denied this for a decade. It is even worse if the government did not know, for such a long time, that the world's most wanted man lived in a large compound within a wealthy locale hundreds of yards from its elite military school. While the American intelligence deserves full credit, it is hard to accept Pakistan as a functioning sovereign state after this incident.

Also, Obama, while declaring how important America's friendship with Pakistan is, said that the American's kept all progress about Mr Bin Laden secret from Pakistani authorities. The US Military helicopters flew low range to avoid detection by Pakistani radars, a supposedly friendly country. The Pakistani government will find it difficult to explain this to its own people, and its relatively secular Military top brass may now be even more defensive in the face of the more radicalized sections of the Military and Intelligence community.

Considering all this, America's next task is not just to win the war in Afghanistan, but to keep Pakistan together. And, this is far more complex than just securing Pakistan's nuclear arsenal, which is what most Americans would want to right away. But a country of Pakistan's size can not be allowed to fail, and the current model of keeping handpicked governments through a system of patronage has proved ineffective (what is a better proof than Obama's visible presence). Successive Pakistani governments played China effectively against America and kept themselves in power, and expropriated most of the aid and resources coming into this country. Surely, such a system is unsustainable: Real change must be brought to Pakistan urgently.

What will determine whether this is the beginning or the end of the war of civilization is what the Americans do with Pakistan now. To take advantage of Obama's absence, the Americans must redouble their engagements in Pakistan now and dismantle the corrupt client state they have helped to build. This is more difficult than tracking and killing Obama: This will require real sincerity, commitment and a change of heart hitherto not seen in foreign policy. It will require a quick re-engagement with India after a forceful clampdown of Pakistan's residual terror infrastructure (which must now be done, to stop potential terrorist outrages that may follow Obama's death) and tangible measures to kick-start the economy. It is eminently possible to create a zone of peace involving India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, and common people in all the three countries, fatigued by continuous war and terrorism, will support that. Indians surely recognize that it is mostly in their interest - they can grow faster and stronger if they can stop fighting Pakistan - and Obama may actually find the Indian government more willing to engage in this process than any time before.

So, to paraphrase Churchill - this is just the end of the beginning. The work actually starts now. The British Administrators created the problem, more than 60 years back, by following a policy of cut-and-run from South Asia. The temptations are strong, but the Americans must stay focused and stay engaged if they have to win the war.

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