One of the hazards of writing about regions convulsed by political turmoil is the risk of being overtaken by events. Nowhere is this more true than in West Asia’s “zone of crisis”, where keeping track of developments can be as thankless a task as chasing a moving target. Thinking historically is one way of avoiding this pitfall. For while journalists can be relied on to follow the ebb and flow of current affairs, it is to historians that policymakers must turn to understand the significance of the historical legacies likely to affect the outcome of long-term policies.
This is the message of Amin Saikal’s new book, which tackles the uneven record of democratisation and the struggle against authoritarianism in four West Asian states – Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan – in the post-Cold War era. While some may question the inclusion of Pakistan and possibly Afghanistan as parts of West Asia (the UN lists both countries under South Asia), and others the exclusion of Syria and Saudi Arabia (both integral to the region), the definition of geographical terms is of little interest to Saikal. His focus lies in the factors that connect and divide what he regards as “a continuous geostrategic zone” or “arc of crisis” to explain escalating domestic political volatility and regional tensions.
The chain linking his four countries is clear enough. All are dominated by Muslim majorities with little or no tradition of democracy. All are marked by profound ethnic and sectarian (Sunni-Shia) cleavages; all suffer from dysfunctional governance and the polarising gulf between Islamists and advocates of secularism; and all four have endured foreign interference. This is not to say there are no differences among them. While Iran has made significant advances in the debate over Islam in the construction of a national ideology, Pakistan is still plagued by chronic uncertainty about the issue. And while Iraq and Afghanistan have been victims of direct foreign invasion, Iran and Pakistan have managed to escape this humiliation.
However, the complex role of these factors in heightening tensions across this interconnected landscape has been perilously ignored or misunderstood by policymakers, and Saikal exposes their short-sightedness. Contemptuous of the West’s “democratisation agenda” and its embrace by the West’s local satraps – President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan stands out as emblematic of this type – he calls instead for more attention to be given to improvements in human rights, civil liberties and the rule of law. The West’s “state-building project” is also roundly denounced. The creation of viable states in the region, Saikal argues, rests not on the centralisation of power but on the promotion of national ideologies that are “flexible, pluralistic and all-inclusive” – advice that is sure to haunt the current Iraqi government and its erstwhile sponsors in Barack Obama’s administration.
Unfortunately, Saikal’s insights here are marred by unfortunate proofreading and factual errors. The only map in the book shows the historic Iranian city of Esfahan as “Esrahan”. The family of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan is said to represent the country’s landed elites – it is in fact one of the leading industrial families; Sharif himself is twice referred to as “president”. The Pakistani province of Baluchistan is known not for its coal deposits but its gas reserves. Nonetheless, this is a useful comparative study on a region that lies clearly in the eye of the storm.
Zone of Crisis: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and Iraq
By Amin Saikal
I. B. Tauris, 224pp, £25.00
Published 17 June 2014