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Asia: Analysis From Washington--No Quick End To Arc Of Instability

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 15 October 1996 (RFE/RL) -- The constantly shifting military balance in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other countries in southwest Asia this week highlights a fundamental fact of life there: no one group in any of these countries is likely to be able to impose its will for long, and no combination of groups in any of them is likely to emerge to bring stability.

But it also calls attention to a second fundamental reality of this region that the leaders of some outside powers seem to have forgotten: no outside power is likely to be able to impose order there either. Moreover, any effort to do so is almost certain to make the situation worse immediately and over the longer term.

Indeed, the level and kind of instability now on view in these countries is less the product of their own histories than it is of the past efforts by outside powers to impose borders, governments and identities on a region that do not correspond to the values of its populations.

That is true in a double sense. First of all, most interventionist efforts have been designed to prop up, to create, or at least not to challenge the existence of a single central regime capable of imposing order on its people.

But in a region where all the countries are so divided on ethnic, religious and other lines, the regimes thus supported are inevitably authoritarian and exclude from political life most of the population. When the outside power supporting them is withdrawn, they collapse, and the national ideal they claimed to represent is further discredited in the population.

But because the idea of the nation, itself a Western import earlier in this century, was so weak already, its discrediting has had a much greater impact here than elsewhere. And that is the second sense in which outside intervention in southwest Asia has produced its own unexpected nemesis.

Because the internal divisions were so great and the idea of the nation so weak, these populations increasingly have looked to the one identity which they could be sure had no Western or other outside contamination: Islam.

And as they have looked to that identity for answers to the political challenges of outside intervention, they have politicized and thus transformed their religious faith in a way that now challenges the world in ways that the older sources of instability in this region did not.

On the one hand, religion, be it Islam or any other faith, makes greater and more radical demands on its adherents than do ethnic or national identities, especially when they transpose its demands from their personal to their political lives.

And on the other, precisely because Islam does not fit exactly into the system of the nation state as developed by West Europeans, it represents a threat not only to the power of the state in any particular country but to the existence of the nation state system as such.

Despite the oft-repeated claims of Harvard's Samuel Huntington and Moscow's Vitaliy Naumkin, these twin threats are not inherent in Islam itself, as the peaceful nature of the most of the Islamic world shows.

Instead, they are a response to efforts by outside powers to intervene in order to purchase stability on the cheap in a region where the outside world has so many interests, economic and geopolitical.

And to the extent that such outside intervention in the name of stability is repeated here or replicated in similar countries elsewhere, the arc of instability that frightens so many around the world will only be intensified and expanded.