Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf is on record stating his ambitions to make his country a modern and secular state modeled on the Turkish republic under Kemal Ataturk. Ironically, even as that goal appears mind bogglingly unachievable for Pakistan, recent events will conspire to push Turkey in the direction of Pakistan; into becoming a breeding ground for a new class of Islamic militants. The transition of Turkey into a new front for Saudi interests will follow typical ideological, strategic and political trends.
The age-old rivalry of the House of Saud with Turkey, which saw the overthrown of the Ottoman Empire from the lands of what is now Saudi territory, helps create enough energy and urgency for the latest Saudi enterprise. It is no mere coincidence that the Saudis need a functioning Sunni army to counter the likely expansionism of Iran, a matter that they simply cannot risk leaving to the putative next president of the United States, Democratic Senator Barrack Obama.
The House of Saud, in its bargain with the Wahhabi establishment, needs to use its fabulous oil wealth to further Islamic – and more pointedly Wahhabi – causes. That is why it bankrolled Pakistan’s military and intelligence services in fighting their war in Afghanistan against the Russians, and it is precisely why it needs to create a large fighting force to contain Iran.
Neither the timing nor the direction of these events can be considered fortuitous. America has in effect sold Turkey’s Kemalist generals down the river, in favor of keeping the avowedly-Islamic Justice and Development Party in power. The fact that Turkey’s modern military represents the exact opposite vision of Islamic rule, compared with the feudal Saudi clan, represents the key flash point here, a particular grievance given the largely Sunni nature of Turkey’s Muslim population.
Evaluating the possible – in my view likely – descent of Turkey towards the Pakistani morass can only be done by first looking briefly at the major factors that led to the latter’s maladroit evolution. From there, we can look at the social and demographic factors that will compel Turkey into the Islamist fold, in turn creating a new front for the coming civilizational war.
How Pakistan was sold on the cheap
Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the first leader of Pakistan when it was founded as a secular republic with a Muslim majority in 1947, envisaged Pakistan as a rapidly modernizing, Western-friendly country that would value education and engineering over feudalism and farming. In the first few years, this was indeed the direction that the country took. With the death of Jinnah in 1948 and the assumption of military power at the behest of the Americans, always chary of potential communist infiltration, Pakistan soon emerged as a two-tier state, with an elite that disdained the machinations of democracy, instead viewing itself as capable of setting the country on an elevated path.
To stay in power, the middle-class men who constituted Pakistan’s top army brass needed the wealth and support of feudal lords and businessmen, thus entrenching a social schism in the economic structure. Middle-class Pakistanis without the benefit of being in the army were consigned to more mundane existences, with the pretence of democracy holding them in place.
The emergence of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto from a landed Shi’ite clan changed the equation somewhat for here were wealthy, non-Punjabi lords of the soil who commanded mass adulation for their embrace of socialist principles and upholding secular values (by and large). The fact that Bhutto succeeded Field Marshall Ayub Khan proved to be both his making and undoing. While being a dictator and anti-democratic, Ayub did make the correct economic choices for Pakistan, as well as embracing its most important strategic relationship, namely a long-term friendship with China that even today serves as the bedrock of its geopolitical standing.
After the 1965 war with India, Pakistan signed the Tashkent agreement, which proved deeply unpopular within the country, already buffeted by declining prosperity. The split of the charismatic ex-foreign minister Bhutto from the Ayub government was timely and paved the way for the creation of the Pakistan People’s Party, which went on to sweep the general elections in 1970 in Western Pakistan but failed to win any seats in the East.
The resulting crackdown on the East that led to genocide, Indian intervention and finally the creation of Bangladesh also paved the way for Bhutto to become the prime minister of Pakistan.
Taking a cue from the disastrous economic leadership of his bitter foe in India, Indira Gandhi, Bhutto set about nationalizing all of Pakistan’s major industries. His embrace of socialist mores however proved fatal for Pakistan’s economy, leading to increasing dissent – more importantly, the linkage between the country’s wealthy and its military had been broken. Being Shi’ite, Bhutto was never trusted by Arab rulers, least of all those in Saudi Arabia; his embrace of socialism and the Non-Aligned Movement meant that he was considered untrustworthy by the US.
India had just completed its first nuclear test in 1975, even as the Middle Eastern embargo on exporting oil to the West had caused a stunning descent into recession for many developed countries. It was perhaps at this stage that an ideological bargain was struck between the US and Saudi Arabia that paved the way for the removal of Bhutto from power. For his part, Bhutto believed that it was the US that wanted him dead for Pakistan’s avowed intention to possess a nuclear device. He wrote of an alleged warning from US statesman Henry Kissinger (“make a horrible example of you”) as the precursor to his incarceration .
Socialism as always failed to deliver as a substitute for nationalism, thus paving the way for a takeover by religion as the main guiding force of Pakistan. The wily General Zia ul-Haq, who staged a coup against Bhutto in 1977 and declared himself president, in due course set about reestablishing the authority of the military and Pakistan’s elite businessmen. Keeping the restive public from embracing the next demagogue though would prove to be easier said than done, and this is where the embrace of Islam worked to the military’s advantage.
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, and continued losses in the Kashmir “freedom struggle” in the backdrop of a giant sucking sound emanating from the economy all meant that the availability of cannon fodder to fight America’s battles had suddenly increased exponentially. This is what the Saudi-sponsored religious schools and rich mosques helped to propagate in Pakistan. Unable to pay for any education in the face of its collapsing economy and escalating military expenditure, Pakistan in effect outsourced the training of its youth to the Saudis, who in turn turned to the Wahhabi establishment. The corrupt military were perfectly happy as long as they remained in power.
From there on, Pakistan’s descent into a tragicomedy only accelerated. Split between the conflicting and contradictory forces of capitalism and socialism, military rule and democratic charades in the backdrop of an indifferent economy, people took whatever path presented the greatest opportunities in their particular existence. This is from where the steady supply of militants willing to commit suicide for the Wahhabi cause came.
History repeats itself
At first glance, the decision of Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government to arrest last week 86 people (and a further 20 on Wednesday) for an alleged coup plot doesn’t look anything like what happened when Zia arrested Bhutto. For one thing, the tables are turned here in that a democratically elected government has sequestered its military. That is, however, where the differences end.
For a long time now, Turkey’s secular generals have run the country in the image of Kemal’s republic, which embraced modern Islam, secularism and pro-Western behavior. This is well in keeping with the interests of the US and therefore continued for a long time.
More recently though, the generals have become a thorn in the flesh of the Saudi royal family as well as possibly various US interest groups. Their assistance to the talks between Syria and Israel, opposition to any US strike on Iranian nuclear facilities and steadfast repression of Kurds have all put them at odds with either explicit US policy or its interests.
In contrast, key members of the Erdogan government who embrace the traditional Sunni values of Islam face being banned by a military-backed case that could see yet another setback to the Islamist cause in Turkey. That is the likely reason for the current bout of Saudi intervention.
As the price of oil increased rapidly in the past three years, Saudi influence has grown. The rapid decline of the US into a credit crisis has also prompted the need for rich friends in high places, particularly to rescue moribund banks and continue buying bonds issued by bankrupt federal agencies. It now appears that instead of a share of US banks or its corporate that “lesser” Arab rulers may be happy with, Saudi Arabia has been slowly pushing the US to capitulate its Turkish fiefdom.
After stabilizing the Islamist government, the true costs of this bargain for Turkey will become more visible. As the US Army plans to leave Iraq, it will leave in its wake an independence-seeking if not functionally autonomous Kurdistan that embraces territory in the north of Iraq and Iran as well as the eastern part of Turkey. On its western front, Turkey has already been outmaneuvered by Greece on its claims on Cyprus by using the illusory carrot of potential European Union membership.
Turkish nationalism will thus receive two severe blows in the next few years. Coalescing at the center, it is likely that Turks will turn to religion for succor, much as Pakistanis did after the creation of Bangladesh. That they will become cannon fodder in the age-old conflict between Sunni and Shi’ite forces is another matter.
In perhaps less than a decade from now, Saudi Arabia could well control and call on two Wahhabi-inspired armies on either side of Iran, and seek to deal a death blow against the Shi’ites when a convenient excuse presents itself. It is only after Islamic forces consolidate around the Wahhabi establishment that the next phase of the civilizational war against the West will begin.
1. The author has written previous articles on the likely push towards World War III, and Asia’s role in that future conflict. See Playing South Asia’s World War III game Asia Times Online, Nov 17, 2007 and China and India in World War III Asia Times Online, July 26, 2006.
2. If I am assassinated Vikas (1979)by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto