The Jihajjis

For centuries Muslims have been making pilgrimage to Mecca. The hajj is an extremely important part of a Muslim’s religious life and it leads to a growth in societal status when one returns. Upon return, those who have successfully made the pilgrimage are accorded the title of Hajji, which denotes an enhanced respect for the person in question. This practice of according enhanced respect to pilgrims has existed for centuries and continues to do so.

However, there today appears to be another method to acquire respect based upon a different type of pilgrimage, that of jihad. While less formalized than the Hajj system of societal ascendancy (no new titles are necessarily bestowed) those leaving for jihad very often do find a newfound respect from their home societies upon return from warfighting. Jihad is very clearly an important element of Islamic tradition, including both its internal and external variants. Internal jihad refers to the attempt to continually improve oneself and external typically refers to efforts to defend or expand (depending on your interpretation of the relevant religious texts) the ummah, or community of believers.

In the 1980s Afghanistan offered prime jihadi real estate. Not only was there an opportunity for jihad, there was also significant funding and state support. Saudi Arabia in particular was known to encourage its militants to go to Afghanistan to fight, partly out of religious duty, but also out of a desire to export religious militants who were worrying the political establishment (especially after the 1979 Grand Mosque Seizure in Mecca). Fighting was “openly celebrated and did not require concealment…many activists understood their work as a form of political and religious solidarity.” On return many jihadis found a newfound respect from their compatriots.

As a side note one could make an argument that jihad is significantly more respected when the jihad takes place in a foreign land. Local efforts and attacks often have very different effects – as returning Saudi (and other) militants found when they attempted to bring the fight back home.

The Arab Spring has provided new opportunities for jihad. Syria, Libya, and maybe Egypt provide opportunities for jihad. There is a lot of material coming out discussing states’ worries that returning jihadis will come back and attempt to pursue jihad in their own countries, but there is another, more subtle, effect as respected jihadis return from their ‘pilgrimages.’ Most of these ‘Jihajjis’ aren’t going to turn towards militancy in their home countries, but they may, as a result of their enhanced societal prestige, be able to influence public opinion and public policy in unexpected ways.

That effect may be much harder to gauge than that of more militant, violent actors, but it could push societies into a mindset more open to fundamentalist interpretations of religious texts and duties.

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Top Reading in Environmental Security News this Week

A little cheerful news to start your week…

          Oil rose to a one-month high as the world responded to growing tensions in the Middle East after Israel’s strikes in Syria this weekend.

          Increased frequency of sand and dust storms in the Gulf have spurred GCC countries to work with the UN Environmental Programme to develop initiatives aimed at preventing soil erosion and degradation.

          Rapid flooding in Nepal is literally reshaping the landscape of the country and threatening the tourism industry there, the single largest sector of the Nepalese economy.

          Rapid acidification in the Arctic Ocean guarantees long-term melting of ice in the North Pole. In addition to irreversibly altering the ecosystem, huge stores of oil and gas could be opened up to development.

Please note that the views expressed in this post are solely those of the author and do not represent the views of the National Defense University, Department of Defense, or US Government

What’s the Deal? Crafting an Agreement on Iran’s Nuclear Program

Ever wondered exactly what an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program would look like? The NESA Center’s Strategic Studies Network (SSN) recently undertook the monumental task of drafting just such an agreement. Hosted at the Ca’Foscari University of Venice from 16 to 17 March, the SSN convened a specialized task force with that goal in mind. The group – consisting of P5+1, EU, GCC, Israeli, and Turkish experts and practitioners – was able to reach a shared understanding on a broad package that included a draft agreement, a phased reciprocal sequencing chart, and a sample of a bilateral “side letter” as a first step toward normalizing relations with Iran. As noted in the introduction to the report:

“Renewed negotiations surrounding Iran’s nuclear program have generated considerable commentary as international concerns about Tehran’s intentions rise and sanctions bite deeper into the country’s economy. The biggest headlines involve the military dimensions of the issue – debates over the relative merits of military action to destroy or delay Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapons capability versus deterrence or containment of a nuclear-armed Iran. Others shift the focus to diplomatic efforts and debate the potential scope of these negotiations – whether they should be narrowly focused on Iran’s nuclear program or encompass a broad set of issues constituting a “grand bargain.” Still others focus on the process of the talks themselves by exploring the effectiveness of particular negotiating tactics.

What is missing from the conversation, however, is an investigation of the substantive configuration of these elements that might constitute a successful and internationally acceptable agreement on Iran’s nuclear program. A thorough examination of how the various policy prescriptions articulated to date might be reflected in authentic negotiations would advance thought leadership in this area beyond theory toward practical application. Moreover, the negotiated settlement that might result from such an endeavor could serve as the cornerstone of a broader effort to normalize the international relations of Iran.”

The full report, which includes the text of the draft agreement, the phased reciprocal sequencing chart, and the sample bilateral “side letter,” can be found here under the Publications section of the SSN website.

Why China Won’t Become a Middle East Power

Ample attention continues to be paid towards Wang Jisi’s argument for a Grand Chinese Strategy – “the March West” – and rightfully so.  The “March West” proposes that China enhances its engagement with Central and South Asia, due to the complexities of East Asian engagement at this moment.  Wang’s proposal is a logical means by which the Chinese can escape the tense diplomatic environment of East Asia and build strong ties with surrounding countries.  The problem with Wang’s proposition is that encourages wild speculation regarding China’s interests throughout Western Asia.

First and foremost, China remains and shall remain centered on its objectives in the Pacific.  East Asia is a crowded neighborhood, full of modern states with strong militaries and economies, but regional supremacy is essential for long-term Chinese aspirations.  China’s relations with its East Asian neighbors (and other Pacific powers – i.e. the United States) are the marquee element of its foreign policy.  Yet, as recent events reveal, China’s plan to rise to preeminence lends towards the creation of hostility, misunderstandings, and unnecessary posturing.  Reaching out to its Western neighbors is a lower-risk operation.

It is without debate that China will seek to retain strong ties with the Central Asian Republics, primarily due to China’s Western Development Policy (a plan to develop its western provinces, namely Xinjiang).  Likewise, given South Asia’s proximity to China and continue strong relations with Pakistan, it is fairly certain that China will do more to engage its South Asian neighbors (it may work the opposite direction by encouraging India to reach out to East Asia).

What it will not do is involve itself heavily in the affairs of the Middle East.  China’s “March West” is being interpreted by some in North America and Europe as an indication of China’s interests in engaging in the Middle East.  Their logic centers on China’s rising energy needs.  Essentially, as the US builds up its domestic energy industry (shale oil/gas) and continues to withdraw its security forces from the region, China will have no choice but to “take” the United States’ place as the underwriter of Middle Eastern energy security. 

This view is wrong and fundamentally misinterprets how foreign policy decisions are crafted within China.  First, the United States is not “withdrawing” from the Middle East.  It certainly is seeking a lower profile in the region, but the past decade of US involvement in the region should be seen as an aberrant outlier, not a rule.  Second, China has not suddenly discovered the Middle East.  It has historic and strong ties to Iran, Syria (Assad’s regime), and Libya (pre-revolution).  The revolutions in Syria and Libya were a strong reminder of how wary they must be with investment in foreign regimes and their ties with Iran continue to be a source of continual diplomatic maneuvering.  China will certainly continue to engage the region and invest in specific projects (it has isolated projects sprinkled throughout the Middle East), but regional engagement will continue to be a secondary objective for Beijing. 

In short, the Middle East is too unstable for Chinese tastes.  It would rather stay in its own neighborhood or continue to develop investments made elsewhere (like in sub-Saharan Africa).  For its energy needs, I would bet that Middle Eastern stockpiles are not nearly as attractive as those found in Russia.  Therefore, expect China to continue to act as it has – seek preeminence in East Asia and invest strongly in its neighbors (i.e. Russia).     

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

As the US pivots East, will the Gulf follow?

At the Manama Dialogues last week Sen. John McCain and Deputy Secretary of State William Burns attempted to answer questions about what role the United States would have in the Middle East as it pursues its “rebalance” toward Asia. While many analysts and commentators will continue to watch the pivot unfold, it is important to note that the US may not be the only country whose attention will be turning East in the next few years.

Saudi Arabia is already beginning to deepen its ties with both Pakistan and India, leading some to make wild accusations of diplomatic backstabbing. Others see greater Saudi engagement with both India and Pakistan as part of its wider efforts to contain Iran. The Saudis are likely eager to weaken India’s reliance on Iranian energy exports and have shown their frustration with plans for a Pakistani-Iranian Gas Pipeline by pursuing improved relations with India.

These strategic concerns only bolster the growing importance of East Asian energy markets for Gulf Countries. The vast majority of Gulf oil already heads to the East (indeed, Saudi Arabia exports 1005 thousand barres per day to China alone), and Asian markets are expected to consume 90% of Gulf oil by 2035. Thus while turmoil and conflict in places like Syria and Egypt will continue to be serious concerns for leaders in the Gulf, it seems inevitable that their focus – like that of their counterparts in the US – will become increasingly fixed on South and East Asia. The question that remains, is whether or not they will pursue compatible strategies for this crucial region? 

Please not that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Iraq on the Brink of War (Again)

Buried beneath the headlines of Egypt’s constitutional crisis and Syria’s potential implosion another flashpoint in the region has quietly been escalating. A standoff in the disputed Iraqi city of Kirkuk between Iraqi army and police forces loyal to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Kurdish Peshmerga forces under the command of Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) President Massoud Barzani has threatened to erupt into a full scale war.

This latest confrontation between Baghdad and the KRG stems from a November incident in the town of Tuz Kharmato approximately 45 miles south of Kirkuk where one person was killed and ten wounded when Iraqi police attempted to arrest a Kurdish businessman accused of smuggling oil. Since then both sides have made provacative statements accusing the other of further escalating the conflict. During the past two days attacks in Kirkuk have resulted in the deaths of 11 people and two bombings in Tuz Kharmato killed five and wounded 24.

In the past, the U.S. military had helped ease tensions in Iraq’s disputed northern territories that separate the semi-autonomous Kurdish region from the rest of Iraq. In 2009, the U.S. set-up a “Combined Security Mechanism” that placed an equal amount of Peshmerga, Iraqi Army, and U.S. soldiers at checkpoints along the green line that marks the border of the disputed territories to prevent miscommunications from turning into confrontations. But Kirkuk in particular was deemed too divisive to adhere to this arrangement, and U.S. troops manned the checkpoints along with local Iraqi police not beholden to either Baghdad or the KRG.

This past July, with U.S. troops long gone from Iraq, Prime Minister Maliki formed a new Tigris Operations Command that placed Kirkuk under the jurisdiction of the Iraqi army for the first time. The KRG responded by unilaterally moving Peshmerga troops to Kirkuk’s northern edge. The U.S. has again tried to help mediate between the two sides by brokering talks led by Lt. General Bob Caslen, commander of what remains of the U.S. military presence in Iraq, known as the Office of Security Cooperation. But in Iraq’s current political climate, Iranian led efforts to diffuse the crisis may now hold more sway with officials in Baghdad and Erbil.

Most analysts view this latest crisis as simply political posturing ahead of provincial elections set to take place in April 2013. Prime Minister Maliki may be seeking to burnish his image as an Iraqi nationalist to appeal to Iraqi Sunnis who view Kurdish incursions into the disputed territories as an affront to Iraqi sovereignty. But even if Iraq manages again to avoid a return to full scale violence, the underlying issue of Kirkuk and the disputed territories is not going away anytime soon. Unfortunately, the announcement today that Iraqi President Jalal Talabani may be in critical condition after suffering a stroke removes one of the leading voices of moderation from the conflict.

The latest events in Kirkuk reveal just how little national reconciliation has taken hold in Iraq almost five years after the U.S. troop surge supposedly provided the Iraqis space to hammer out their toughest political divisions. Until these underlying issues are somehow resolved Iraq will continue to lurch from crisis to crisis teetering on the brink of a return to war.  

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

What do the Gulf Investments in Alternative Energy Mean for Environmental Security?

The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change closed in Doha on Saturday after two weeks of talks aimed at reaching an international agreement to reduce greenhouse gas and carbon emissions. Throughout the conference, Gulf States received glowing press reviews of their investments in alternative energy sources. Indeed, the reported $109 billion that Saudi Arabia is expected to invest in alternative energy next year has the potential to revolutionize the industry, especially considering that total global spending on alternative energy in 2011 was $136 billion.

Altruism, however, is not the sole motivation behind these investments. In the past, Gulf States have not shown that they are particularly sensitive to climate and environmental issues. In addition to heavily subsidizing fuels, they have by and far the highest per-capita carbon emissions in the world – nearly double those of the United States – and have so far refused to pledge any reductions in these emissions.

So why invest in alternative energy sources? One answer might be found in the IEA World Energy Outlook 2012. The report indicates that two key trends have the potential to fundamentally alter the global energy market. The first trend is that demand for oil among OECD countries is set to decrease in the upcoming decade. The second is that as this demand falls, the otherwise rising global demand for oil will be met by increasingly diverse sources of petroleum. Iraqi production is set to at least double by 2015 and it will be joined by new production in the United States as well as the reintroduction of Libyan, and perhaps even Iranian, oil to the market.

Saudi Arabia currently burns about a quarter of its annual oil production to meet rising demand for electricity at home. If it hopes to maintain its key position in setting global oil prices then it will likely have to reserve a larger percentage of its reserves for the global market. So, while the fact that Saudi Arabia plans to get about 30% of its domestic energy from alternative sources is certainly admirable, it will likely do little to stem the global production of greenhouse gases.

These emissions could become a problem for the rest of the Arab world, which the World Bank predicts will suffer extreme economic hardship as a result of climate change. Global warming is also likely to increase water and food scarcity, which some argue could destabilize the entire region.

Of course, it is too soon to say with authority what the ultimate affects of the new Gulf investments in alternative energy will be. Still, it is clear that leaders will have to keep in mind the potential consequences of mismanaging these investments in order to make the most of the opportunity they provide.

Please note that the views expressed in this post do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, Department of Defense, or United States Government.