RECENT and the not so recent events in the Middle East and our region are so confusing that it leaves one in a daze. It is never easy to unravel what goes on in the minds of the powers that be. It becomes even more complicated when one comes face to face with a nascent imperial power. Empires are not born nor are they hatched out of eggs. They rather evolve over time, not pop out of the bottle like a genie. Given the money and fire power of modern technology, it may be possible to capsule the evolution stage to some extent, as the world has seen to its horror over the past few years.
Emergence of an ‘empire’ is one thing; maintaining it quite another. As an erstwhile imperial power, Britain did rather well for itself. In maintaining the British Empire, perhaps the most outstanding feature of imperial tactics was that of “divide and rule”. The name of the game was to size up the opposition and then to engineer fissures in its ranks to weaken it. While the fragmented opposition was up to its neck in internecine quarrels, the imperial power went about its dirty business with comparative ease, unchallenged and uninterrupted. The secret of success was the colonial masters’ strategy of aligning themselves with one or more factions while encouraging them to undermine those that could have been their natural local allies. With the opposition thus at sixes and sevens, they (the Imperialists) could devote all their energies to whatever it is that the imperialists set themselves to do.
As part of the political games that they played in abandon, the British colonialists had specialized in using religious and ethnic divides among their subjects to further their own ends. When they felt threatened by a populace belonging to a certain religious denomination, they used all tactics to widen schisms within the latter’s ranks. They, at times, even went to the extent of engineering brand new sects to further sub-divide the already fissured society. One finds that Muslims were singled out for the third degree during the apex of the colonial era. There is a lesson to be learnt from all this.
This subject has become relevant once again because, according to the best-informed analysts, brand new ‘Virtual Empires’ are in an advanced stage of evolution. As an awe-struck world looks on in dismay, the world’s sole superpower (aided and abetted by its minions) appears to have set its mind on this. There is precious little the small fries at the receiving end can do except to grin and bear it. Though the powers that be – and their Think Tanks no doubt – must surely have worked hard at developing a brand new imperial concept to adapt to the demands of the twenty-first century, in many ways the planners appear to be harking back to age-old strategy and tactics.
As any novice at the game should know, nothing can be more calamitous than plunging into a project and then discovering that the several loose ends, that should have been tied up betimes, are dangling in the air or have suddenly turned into festering sores. Considering that they had experienced British ‘advisers’ at their beck and call, the godfathers and ultimate planners of the ‘virtual empires’ aforementioned do appear to have encountered teething problems of a certain magnitude. From all appearance, it would seem that they have stepped into a mire of sorts, extricating themselves out of which appears to be presenting unanticipated difficulties.
A dispassionate look at the whole jolly circus would indicate that, in their new venture, the new Empire-builders did take British advice to heart at least in so far as the tactic of “divide and rule” is concerned. This tactic was applied, for instance, with varying success in Iraq. The strategy was to play off the Iraqi Muslims belonging to one sect against the Muslims of the other. The Iraqi of the one sect were used in an attempt to overcome the resistance of the other. In the past, the not inconsiderable Iraqi nationalism had proved strong enough to bridge this sectarian schism within their ranks. This was apparently successfully overcome thanks to what can only be described as dubious tactics.
Similar tactics were used in Afghanistan where the ethnic card was played to devastating effect. It may be recalled that the ethnic cleavage between the majority Pakhtuns and the minority Tajiks, Uzbecks and Hazaras had initially been exploited ruthlessly by the Soviet occupiers during the nineteen eighties. The Soviets had sided with the minority ethnic groups in order to isolate the Pakhtuns. Post nine/eleven, the Americans opted for the strategy of extenuating the ethnic divide by siding with the essentially anti-Pakhtun Northern Alliance against the mainly Pakhtun Taliban. It remains to be seen as to how long will this precarious perch sustain them. As history is witness, Afghanistan has never been an easy country to govern from a central authority in Kabul. Real power has always been with the warlords around the countryside. This situation was transformed for a short period during the rule of the Taliban, when Afghanistan briefly exhibited a semblance of a unitary state entity. Now the situation is back to the proverbial ‘square one’.
The world is in for very turbulent and somewhat uncertain times. Here, in the Land of the Pure, our once much-vaunted strategic geopolitical situation is fast becoming a millstone around the nation’s collective neck Meanwhile, all right-thinking people are hoping and praying that the mother ship does not drift into choppy and uncharted waters! The time has apparently come to brace ourselves and at the same time to separate the grain from the chaff. Those that make hay while the (nascent imperial) sun shines had better take a second look at the world around them which may collapse any minute. And let us not forget that when empires – even virtual ones – collapse, they invariably take their quislings down with them.
— The writer is a former ambassador and former assistant secretary general of OIC.