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Zone of Crisis: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and Iraq

Launch by Professor the Hon Gareth Evans AC QC, Chancellor of the Australian National University, of Amin Saikal, Zone of Crisis: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and Iraq (I.B. Tauris, London, 2014) ANU, Canberra, Wednesday 22 October 2014

I don’t know if he is claiming oracular status or not, but there can be no disputing Amin Saikal’s knack for timing the release of his books with seminal moments in the history of his subject matter. His ground-breaking analysis of the rise and fall of the Shah’s Iran was published just a few months after the Islamic Revolution that irrevocably altered the course of that country’s history. 

Then in the early 2000s, he turned his attention to Afghanistan, his country of birth, at a time when the Western presence had drawn down after the assault on the Taliban in 2001 and 2002. Not long after his classic work on Modern Afghanistan was published, all hell broke loose and Wester militaries, including Australia’s, rushed back in large numbers to try to prevent, not entirely successfully, the country from descending into irredeemable chaos.

Now we have Amin’s latest contribution, revisiting not only Afghanistan and Iran, but addressing Pakistan and Iraq, and the connections between all of them, offering ideas as to how each country can move forward, and – in interesting contrast to so much of the all- pervasive gloom which infects so much writing about this region, suggests that ongoing chaos is not totally inevitable. The book is as lucidly and accessibly written as all Amin’s work, has already garnered a nice review or two in Europe, and it deserves all the attention it can get.

Its release could hardly be more timely as we once again see the outbreak of large-scale violence, and witness the fragility again of so many states, across West Asia. The speed and degree of muscle with which Da’esh (or ISIL, or ISIS or IS as you prefer)  embarked upon its territorial conquest seems to be unprecedented: no-one, including Amin in this book, predicted that the Syrian civil war would spill over into Iraq in such a spectacular and destructive way four months ago. But what Amin’s book does do is provide sharp insights into the situation that had evolved in Iraq, leaving it so susceptible to this kind of encroachment. And the detail and depth of knowledge that is evident in Amin’s work is in marked contrast to the endless stream of superficial commentary that has been sparked by the rise of Da’esh in Syria and its march across northern Iraq.

A key factor that Amin identifies is the inability or unwillingness of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to govern for all Iraqis or to heal the sectarian wounds that had been cleaved open after the toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003. The marginalisation of the minority Sunni population has resulted in particular in a weak, poorly led defence force – unable to secure the country from threats such as that posed by Da’esh, and a conflicted populace that, in many provinces, was – at least when they were at their most vulnerable -- undecided whether they would be better off under their own national government or their invaders.

In this respect, Amin’s vision for a consociational structure, akin to that which exists in Lebanon, in which the numerical strength of the three major Iraqi  communities – the Shia, Sunni and Kurds – is proportionally represented in the state, without any of the communities having the right of veto, is an attractive one. The likelihood of this vision being realised has been both complicated and enhanced by the events which have occurred between the publishing and launch of the book. On one hand, the presence of Da’esh has deepened the sectarian rifts that were already so evident in Iraq. On the other, the resignation of Nouri al-Maliki in favour of Haider al-Abadi offers some small hope of compromise by the Shia political elite that currently have control in Baghdad.

The beauty of this book is that it is about much more than just Iraq, or any other single country or pair of countries. What has been missing from much of the recent analysis is the ability to place current events in their regional and historical context. The largely untold story until now, and the one that is still to play out over the coming weeks, months and years, is the effect that the present conflicts are having on the dynamic of the entire region.

Nowhere is the more evident than in Afghanistan, a country that is currently at the crossroads as it witnesses the drawdown of US and ISAF forces and the transition  from Hamid Karzai’s administration to the new duumvirate, in an innovative power-sharing agreement, of Ashraf Ghani as President and Abdullah Abdullah as his CEO.

I know both from my years as President of the International Crisis Group and while neither are models of every leadership virtue, they don’t have much to beat in Karzai, with his dithering fecklessness, tolerance for corruption, taste for nepotism, Pashtun parochialism and overweening vanity. Hopefully they can put aside their differences over the conduct and outcome of this year’s election and move the country towards a genuine parliamentary system of government.

Amin and I share the strong belief that one of the biggest mistakes made by the Western policymakers was to opt for a presidential, highly centralised, unitary system of government, rather than a parliamentary one, and a distribution of power that would allow the major regional communities to have a real degree of autonomy in the exercise of their local affairs.

Afghanistan’s  fortunes will  continue to be closely linked with Pakistan’s, for all the reasons of shared history, demography and contemporary governance challenges that Amin so well identifies. Perhaps even more so than in the case of Afghanistan it is hard to shake the sense that Pakistan’s woes, including its Pashtun militancy, sectarian divisions, and weak civil institutions, will continue to exist largely irrespective of what government is in power – whether it be notionally civilian rather than military, or the Pakistan Muslim League rather than Pakistan People’s Party. 

This is not to detract from the achievement inherent in Pakistan’s first successful transition from one democratically elected government to another - consummated with the election as President of Nawaz Sharif at the 2013 federal election. Nevertheless, in the period since then Sharif has shown himself to be largely impotent, as was his predecessor Asif Ali Zardari, to effect change in the face of the military’s stranglehold over key responsibilities, including national security and foreign affairs.  

Once again, Amin’s book does offer some helpful advice as to how to overcome Pakistan’s woes, or at least begin to tackle its malaise. A primary objective must be to curb the influence of the industrial empires that have been established by the all-powerful military. It is also recommended that there be political cooperation between Sharif and the other centre-right force, led by Imran Khan, in an effort to conciliate with the Pakistani Taliban. But the main ingredient, as so often has been the case, is for the military to back away once and for all from its implicit support for Islamist extremism.

Keeping the extremists subdued is also crucial for Iran, where Amin documents the  long-running political battle between the jihadis, or Islamic hardliners, and the ijtihadis, including current President Hassan Rouhani, who advocate a more reformist agenda. The best news for a long time is the election of Rouhani in an apparent rejection of the harder line politics that characterised the Ahmedinejad years.

Of course, Iran is far from out of the woods either at home or abroad. It faces, as the book describes: the “deep incongruity between the ‘sovereignty of god’ and the ‘sovereignty of the people’”.  Domestically, this tension has, in part, contributed to a system of political oppression and economic stagnation that leaves Iran vulnerable to the forces of chaos and instability that are sweeping the region. Abroad, it is manifested through its ongoing patronage of Hezbollah and Hama, which has contributed significantly to Israeli’s paranoia, continuing even since the abatement of the more bellicose leadership rhetoric associated with Ahmedinejad. 

The critical consideration, which Western policymakers need to acknowledge more than they do, is that Iran really does hold the key to peace and stability in much of this whole region. It has shown in the past that it can play an important stabilizing role in Afghanistan. It has a key role to play in Iraq where is retains enormous influence through its links to the Shia political leadership, and can help to repel Da’esh. It can play a moderating role if it chooses with Hezbollah and Hamas neither of whom are irredeemably committed to the destruction of Israel. If only the current nuclear standoff can be settled – and moderates in both Iran and the West have long known the kind of formula that would do so, if only they could sell the necessary compromise to their respective hardliners – real trust and cooperation across many fronts can be quickly developed

As Amin describes it so much of the turmoil that is now afflicting the region is the product of a lethal brew of geopolitics, intra-state tensions and civic mismanagement. What emerges is a pattern of interconnectedness in which “every political decision ripples across the landscape to surrounding nations, with destabilizing effects that often create zones of conflict.”

I can think of no more credible scholar to have articulated this present reality, but at the same point the way forward, than our indefatigable Professor Saikal. We are proud to have Amin and his Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies as indispensable parts of the ANU. His latest book will  reinforce his status as nor only Australia’s, but one of the world’s, foremost experts on the Middle East and South Asia, and  I am delighted to have had the privilege of being asked to launch it.