What lies in store for West Asia, and generally for relations between major players on the world scene, following the war in Iraq? A response is hard to come by in the avalanche of news reports and commentaries. The very nature and compulsions of daily journalism, especially of live coverage on television, is such that the focus is on individuals and events rather than on trends and processes. And yet, beyond the reporting of the scenes of destruction and jubilation, of looting and despair, the one issue of long-term significance surely relates to the social, political and economic dynamics of societies in the region.
It is precisely this issue that the Mumbai-based Strategic Foresight Group (SFG) addresses in its latest report 'Shifting Sands, Instability in Undefined Asia'. Its conclusions are chilling. All the countries covered in the report — Afghanistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan — have been experiencing negative growth rates for more than a decade. Income disparities between a thinly-layered elite and the rest of the population have widened. So have disparities between regions within each country.
None has managed to broaden the base of its economy. Each continues to be dominated by a single commodity — poppy in the case of Afghanistan, cotton in Pakistan and oil in Saudi Arabia and Iran. The overall result is that the increasingly young population of almost every country faces the prospect of unemployment, compelling it to turn to religious extremism and terrorism for sheer survival.
Adding to its sense of despair is the incapacity of institutions of governance to respond to the needs of civil society whether in terms of participation in decision-making or in terms of delivering public services.
Nowhere has democracy struck deep roots. This state of affairs is by no means uniform. Saudi Arabia and Iran, for example, have provided high quality infrastructure and educational and health facilities. Debate is vibrant in Iran and Pakistan. But overall political space is severely restricted.
On the other hand, both rulers and the ruled resort to religion to seek legitimacy for their policies and actions. This provokes a variety of domestic conflicts between moderates and extremists and between ethnic and sectarian groups.
Against this background, the complications of the American role in the region are awesome. With the exception of Iran, and now Iraq, the populations of the other countries covered in the report are hostile to the US. America's real motives behind the alleged war on terror are deeply suspect. They are regarded to be purely and simply as an assault on Islam and on Muslims world-wide. This adds to the resentment of the local rulers. How long can the latter continue to make common cause with America?
Under these circumstances, the best that can be hoped for, says the report, is that pro-western governments remain in office across the region at least until 2004 and proceed forthwith to undertake political and social reforms and crack down on the drug trade, religious extremists and terrorist outfits. Otherwise, given the dynamics at work in each country, tensions will continue to rise leading by and by to the ouster of the existing set-ups and their replacement by Islamic hard-liners with dire consequences for the region, for the countries in the vicinity and not least, for the West.
Is India prepared for the dangers ahead? The SFG report provides a sound basis to discuss this question threadbare. The discussion thus far has been far too rhetorical.
Neither primary anti-Americanism nor a naive fatalism about American invincibility can provide persuasive answers. Only a cogent understanding of the national interest and a lucid acknowledgement of our capacity to shape the emerging world order can offer a road map for the future.