Daesh or the Islamic State is the most extreme form of Salafist Islam, so toxic that it makes the Taliban look mild and Al-Qaeda look like a backward cousin. Al-Qaeda was only an ideology, Daesh is ideology plus geography. Al-Qaeda tried to hijack the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Daesh has managed to create its own emirate.
Daesh has a treasury and oil resources, and a functioning bureaucracy. In the territory it controls it acts very much like a state, although its own preferred term is caliphate, with its leader, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, styling himself as caliph.
Daesh, it is sobering to reflect, has an active presence not only in Iraq and Syria but Libya, the Sinai Peninsula, a small footprint in Afghanistan and adherents, even cells, in a number of European countries with large Muslim populations. The Paris attacks were planned and carried out largely by ‘jihadists’ based in Belgium and France.
It is foolish of Pakistani officials to say that Daesh has no presence in Pakistan. The ‘jihadist’ soil cultivated in Pakistan – and how diligently and with what care it was cultivated – is conducive to the growth of all brands and forms of Salafist extremism. The various lashkars – lashkar-e-this and harkat-e-that – are all mutations from the original trunk of Salafist Islam.
An explanation is in order here. Salafis believe that all those not following the true faith – as defined by them – are apostates worthy of death. Sectarianism and killing on the basis of sect flow from this reading of the faith.
Pakistan as a result of the Afghan ‘jihad’ took out the first franchise on extremist or radical Islam. The CIA chipped in as did the Saudis, turning Pakistan into an experimental garden of ‘jihad’ and our then generals, Gen Zia and his coterie, felt proud about that achievement. When the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union broke up they claimed that the seeds of Soviet dissolution were sown in Afghanistan.
The Americans, their purpose of bleeding the Russians achieved, walked away from Afghanistan, leaving Pakistan to hold the dishes and the used linen.
Pakistan still has no shortage of Salafist warriors who want to turn this into their dream emirate. But they are lying low or are on the run because the army which early on had promoted ‘jihad’ as a tool of strategy has reversed course. The old doctrines have been abandoned, or abandoned to a great extent, as the army seeks to set – for itself and the country – a new direction.
Mercifully, Daesh has also come to Pakistan’s rescue for the baton of extremism, passing from Pakistani hands, is now firmly in Daesh’s possession. Today the flag of extremism flutters over the Islamic State, and it is a bigger threat to the west than Al-Qaeda ever was. Afghanistan which became Al-Qaeda’s principal base was at a distance from Europe. Daesh is on Europe’s doorsteps. It has a stronger European connection than Al-Qaeda ever had.
Daesh, be it remembered, is a direct outcome of America’s Iraq war. Many Daesh leaders are graduates of America’s detention centres in Iraq, most notably Bakuba prison south of Baghdad. Al Baghdadi himself spent time there. Key members of Saddam Hussein’s intelligence apparatus are now in Daesh’s service.
But having sown the wind, the United States is utterly confused about how to deal with the whirlwind. Belatedly it has woken up to the danger of Daesh, as have its European allies including France. But the fight against Daesh is hampered because the west is trying to climb two trees at the same time. It wants to finish Daesh and it also wants Bashar al-Assad to go.
The Paris attacks are focusing minds and helping clear some of this confusion. Slowly, perhaps a bit too slowly, the perception is gaining ground in western minds that the bigger danger is from Daesh. Still there is a long way to go before this perception gels into a true change of heart and a change of policy.
Yoked to the Americans in this confusion are France, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, all more desperate about regime change in Syria than the fight against Daesh. Britain would have joined France in carrying out bombing runs over Syria if the House of Commons had not refused permission. Behind Europe’s refugee crisis is this meddling in Syria. And now the fallout from Syria has been felt in the streets of Paris.
We have to be clear about the present division in the world of Islam. Against Assad, apart from the west, are the Sunni states of Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Backing Assad and holding up his defences are Shia Iran and Shia Hezbollah. Behind them looms the presence of the virtual imam of this constellation: Vladimir Putin. The US stands on one side of this divide, Russia on the other. Let’s not forget that Iran is holding the line in Iraq too. But for its active intervention Daesh would have been at the gates of Baghdad.
So the harsh truth is that the Sunni states are beset by other mirages. Turkey’s Erdogan has lost his way in Syria. The Saudis can’t abide Iran and Hezbollah. The Americans have much the same problem. And they can’t swallow Russia’s role in Syria because it reminds them too much of Ukraine and Crimea. Daesh is the ultimate beneficiary of all this confusion and dithering.
The real bulwark against Daesh is thus neither the west nor the Sunni states. It is the Shia constellation aided by Russia. If Daesh is to be defeated it will be by this constellation, not the ghost militias the Americans are trying to create…a programme which has been an utter fiasco.
The Americans don’t want to fight themselves. They don’t want Assad to survive or Hezbollah to have anything to do with Syria. But they want Daesh to disappear. They want to fight Daesh through proxies. Unfortunately, this is not the Afghan ‘jihad’. There are no Afghans or Pakistanis who can fight for the Americans (on the cheap) in Syria.
After all the bombing runs, Daesh will have to be confronted on the ground. But who will do that? None of the tough talkers have the stomach for boots on the ground. In the Syrian context they are all paper tigers…and the Saudis little better than a hollow drum. Even their petrodollars are not what they used to be.
Who has troops on the ground? Assad and Hezbollah. That’s it. The rest is all talk and flummery. Backing them are Iran and Russia with Putin committing air-power to help Assad.
Daesh now threatens not just Iraq and Syria but Europe and the western way of life. But it won’t be defeated by wishes and hand-wringing. Only the Shia constellation backed by Russia, and not spooked by western meddling, can turn the tide. Can the Europeans and the Americans bring themselves to recognise this?