ISIS and the Bitter Lake

If you’ve not already seen it, the BBC have a film out on i-Player by the always excellent Adam Curtis, called “Bitter Lake”. In this film Curtis discusses the effects of the West’s Middle Eastern policy, often in pursuit of oil. The film highlights how such policy has frequently become unstuck due to politicians sticking to simplistic explanations, of what are often very complex internal issues within these states. The film in particular focuses on Afghanistan and the various western interventions in this country.

The film is not for the feint hearted and includes many shocking scenes, the sort that the BBC never broadcast and hence why I doubt this film will ever be broadcast on television. For example the aftermath of an assassination “attempt” on Karzai’s convoy (about 25min’s in, which does seem to imply it was just his trigger happy security guards being jumpy rather than anything else). Indeed the film has provoked much controversy, being both praised as brilliant and on the other hand condemned by the very sorts who you’d think it would appeal too.

The film gets its name from the Bitter Lake agreement, where in the twilight weeks of World War II, in one of his last major policy decisions, President Roosevelt met with the Saudi king and they struck a deal through which the US would gain access to Saudi oil and in return the Saudi’s would get a guarantee of security. However, this deal threatened in the long term to undermine everything that Roosevelt had worked towards, and directly led to the events of 9/11.

The religion of Saudi Arabia has, since the 1800’s been not Islam but Wahhabism, an often puritanical, xenophobic and technophobic offshoot of mainstream Sunni Islam. Wahhabism itself grew as a counter to Western Imperialism (notably the Ottoman Empire) and it was both one of the Saudi Kingdom’s key strengths…but also its greatest internal threat. Indeed from time to time the Royal family has literally been forced to turn on the Wahhabists and buried more than a few in holes in the desert.

One solution that the Saudi’s developed was the idea that the best way of dealing with the more troublesome extremists, was to give them a pile of money, which thanks to the oil revenues they now weren’t short off, bundle them off to somewhere like Pakistan to set up a Madrasa and spread the good Wahhabi word. Its a bit like the old Irish policy, in some families, of sending the smart brother to college so he could become an engineer or a doctor, letting the middle ones take up a trade and become plumbers or joiners, while the idiot brother gets bundled off to a seminary. Similarly, in Saudi families, the runt of the litter, the kid who was too dumb to pass high school…and spent his spare time torturing small animals, gets bundled off to some foreign Madrasa where he’s out of sight and out of mind and not making waves for people back home.

And for a time this tactic worked, however the end result has been to create a number of very serious long term problems, notably in that these Wahhabi preachers have now indoctrinated a substantial portion of the Muslim populations in certain countries with teachings that actually contradict traditional Muslim teachings in those countries. There is for example very little tradition in many Muslim countries of women wearing full face veils. Yet many Muslim women in some countries now do so, despite the obvious practical problems it creates, as they are still expected to do the jobs and chore’s they’d long performed without wearing the veil or Burka.

This growth in Wahhabism, was fuelled by Western policies. For example, the man who actually inspired the 9/11 hijackers, was an Egyptian by the name of Sayyid Qutb. This simple school inspector had been radicalised in part thanks to his treatment by the Nasser regime, with whom the US was at the time co-operating on security matters. Nasser represented the opposing force in Islam, of Muslim secularism which sought to exploit the west and copy some of its methods, notably Western technology and industrialisation. However in the process, the Pan-Arabians succeeded in alienating many more conservative Muslims as well as trampling on the traditional systems of tribal loyalties that had held such societies together for Millennia.

For example, in the 1950’s the US helped build a dam in Helmand province of Afghanistan as part of a programme to modernise the country. However the dam forced many off their land. Also for the dam to function, it relied on a system of canals to provide water to farms, which soon became clogged due to lack of maintenance. This causes significant disruption to local tribal life as well as making it difficult for local tribes to farm, as the dam had also raised the salt levels within the water table….until the locals realised that instead they could grow Opium poppies! For decades after, this Opium crop would be a major problem for the West, both due to the drug problems that resulted in the West, but also the funds it would funnel to terrorist groups.

Recently on US TV there was a controversial debate between Bill Maher, Ben Affleck (of all people) and American author Sam Harris. The crux of this debate was a simplistic spinning of the conflicts within the Arab world into a fight between “good” Muslims versus “bad” Muslims, when in fact a more accurate analysis would be Muslims and the rest of the civilised world against Wahhabi extremists. For increasingly, during the 1980’s the Wahhabist’s “exported” from countries like Saudi Arabia were being utilised as a counter to the Pan-Arabism of Nasser, Saddam or the Asad’s, which both the Saudi’s and the US now considered as their enemies and allies of the soviets.

When a pan-Arabian regime took root in Afghanistan, the Americans tried all they could to destabilise it, eventually leading to a Russian invasion. The Saudi’s and the US (under Reagan), then persuaded many Muslim extremists to go off to fight a Jihad against the Russians in the hope that the US could get one back on the sov’s for Vietnam. They even convinced a number of Arab countries to effectively empty their prisons of many violent Jihadi’s, who had been rotting (often on death row) for various attempted rebellion’s, and send them to Afghanistan to fight to soviets….and probably in the very real hope that they’d be killed, thus solving two problems at once. Of those who went to Afghanistan included Al-Qaeda’s number 1 and 2, Bin Laden and Al-Zawahiri, a follower of the aforementioned Sayyid Qutb. It seemed like a good plan…until a number of those Jihadi’s put their CIA training to good use over the skies of New York….15 of the 19 of them being Saudi’s.

And again, it was the simplistic analysis of the problem in both Moscow and Washington that was the problem. Neither understood the complex system of tribal loyalties and long running cultural rivalries. Reagan had an almost megalomaniac obsession with the conflict, even dedicating the inaugural launch of the space shuttle to the Afghan fighters…or comparing the Mujahideen to the founding fathers of the US.

Similarly the Soviet leadership did not initially understand that the reason for the revolt was due to the land reforms that had been imposed on the country and the tribal feuds this had set off. Much of the reason why local tribes fought the soviets had little to do with politics, or religion for that matter, but in defence of tribal claims. And indeed they often used one side or another against one another. For the surest way of getting you’re rival killed was to go to the Soviets and tell them such and such a person was Mujahideen, or visa versa. And many tribal elders would happily switch sides at the drop of a hat if the winds of change suited.

And when the Americans and British came into Helmand province in the 2000’s the locals played the same game, using the coalition forces to settle long standing tribal scores. In part, this was because that the West failed to understand the consequences of putting the likes of Karzai in charge of the country, who presided over a regime that was institutionally corrupt and widely despised. The end result was that both the soviet occupation of the country and the Western one did not have any appropriated outcome. And similarly in Iraq, the West backed a president who alienated the Sunni’s, who promptly threw in their lot with ISIS, who took over half the country, leaving the Americans playing catch up very quickly.

The result is to make something of a mockery of fifty years of western diplomacy and some will take this as a clear sign as to why the West should stay out of Middle East affairs. However one valid criticism would be to accuse Adam Curtis of making the very same mistake that he accuses Western governments of, he relies too much on simplistic explanations and a fairly narrow interpretation of the facts, and quite a lot of hyperbole.

For example, he goes so far as to claim that much of the global trade on stock markets is ultimately a massive ponzi scheme fuelled by Saudi oil money. This is going perhaps a little far. Certainly, a point I would make (as an expert on energy) is that much of the supposed wealth of the West is somewhat imaginary, as its dependant on the availability of cheap fossil fuels which won’t always be available, hence unless we come up with some alternatives there’s going to be some sort of major economic correction. However it would be incorrect to conclude that the stock markets only exist because of petro-dollars (he is aware that they existed long before oil came along?).

Also, one has to be careful in this narrative of blaming the West for everything. After all, nobody made the Taliban become Taliban. The US certainly scored an own goal by helping to train and equip them, but it wouldn’t be fair to blame the West without pointing the finger at other factors closer to home, the Wahhabists, corrupt and oppressive local regimes, ignorance and greed on the part of locals?

Take this Jihadi John character. Certain apologists for ISIS, such as professional moron Russell Brand, have been trying to argue its all the West fault he decided to go to Syria and take to beheading aid workers and journalists, ignoring the fact that clearly he was radicalised long before the security services got near him. Its not as if MI5 put a plane ticket in his hand and a machete in the other? And are we going to blame MI5 for those 3 girls who were groomed online and when missing last month?

But either way this film does raise awkward questions, such as what to do about ISIS. Nobody can doubt that ISIS are a murderous and dangerous perversion. Tales from within ISIS held territories speak of such horrors as mass executions, crucifixions and a regime, run by sex-mad slave drivers, that literally collects not just outrageous taxes, but even taxes paid in blood (and you thought taxes in the UK were tough!). The city of Raqqa (ISIS capital) has seen its population drop by more than half since they took over. Veils for women indeed simply aren’t enough, as in almost monty python-esque style they’ve introduced double veil’s with gloves.

In short its difficult to argue how anything could be better than leaving the likes of ISIS in charge. And the argument that we should just let the Kurds and Shia’s sort out ISIS ignores the likely consequences of that. For example, the Kurds have taken much land and territory in both Syria and neighbouring provinces of Iraq, as have the Shia’s, who are currently advancing on Tikirit….possibly with the assistance of the Iranian Revolutionary guard.

But will these groups give up the land afterwards? The land captured is majority Sunni areas but with large Shia or Kurdish minorities. And it contains in many cases large oil reserves. Suppose they hold onto the land, or indeed start fighting each other over this land? It could mean that the war against ISIS is replaced with a wider internal conflict inside Iraq, or possibly a war between Iraq and Syria with Turkey and Iran backing one side or another.

But of course Western boots on the ground, won’t necessarily work out any better. After all if the plan is to repeat past Western mistakes, it would be merely a case of the West demonstrating one of the proof’s of madness (doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result). Its all well and good, throwing rocks at Western policy, but its possible that a lack of intervention could be as bad, if not worse, than further intervention.

Hence why I’d argue a more effective strategy is to break our addiction to oil. No petro-dollars, no Saudi money to Madrasa’s and ISIS. It also means being careful whose side we pick. Another flash point is the West’s unyielding support for Israel, ignoring Israel ethnic cleansing in the West Bank and its production of WMD’s. Obviously, doing as Netanyahu suggests, would be dangerous, without first tackling Israeli nuclear weapons. To argue that Iran can’t have Nukes, but we’ll let Israel have them is clearly hypocritical.

In short there needs to be an end to Western double standards, backing up one heavily armed oppressive regime (such as the Gulf States), then bombing or isolating another one (such as Saddam’s Iraq or Iran) and ignoring totally the crimes of others (such as Israel). Equally thought the West needs to wake up to the fact that we’re in the mess due to attempts to secure oil reserves. So a programme of reducing the Western addiction to oil is certainly essential.

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2 thoughts on “ISIS and the Bitter Lake

  1. Thanks for this very informative analysis. I shudder at the culpable ignorance of western intervention in hugely complex tribal countries. It may not be all our fault, but we have certainly played a major part in destabilising the region.

    Like

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