Manipal, India — If protecting the homeland is among the primary responsibilities of a government, attempting to change the distribution of power within another country may not always be congruent with such an objective.
Given the state of conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization in 1982, there was a compelling case for the Israel Defense Forces to enter Lebanon and take out Palestinian assets that were being deployed against the stability and survival of the state of Israel. However, there was none for attempting to bolster the position of the Maronite Christians vis-à-vis their Shiite opponents. In particular, the leading Maronite Gemayel family was known for the use of methods that could have been developed in a concentration camp.
Since 1982, the flow of covert and other support to the Gemayels from Israel grew to a level that infuriated the Shiites as well as the family's many Maronite critics. By 1987, an isolated -- indeed hated -- PLO was able to secure the backing of key elements among the Shiite factions in Lebanon, despite being overwhelmingly Sunni.
From that time to the present, Israel has enjoyed the distinction of being the only non-Muslim country targeted by militant Shiites -- a group far more virulent and effective, albeit as yet limited in strength and scope, than even Wahabbi extremists such as members of al-Qaida. Over the past two decades, Israel has concentrated its attention and resources on tackling a foe that went into action as a result of its own intervention policy in Lebanon.
Today, U.S. President George W. Bush is in the process of repeating in Iraq, and on a substantially larger scale, the mistake made by Ariel Sharon, then Israel's defense minister, and others in Lebanon in 1982. Conspiracy theorists may ascribe current U.S. policy of backing the Sunnis against the Shiites as due to the less than trivial relationship that exists between the Bush family and the al-Sauds, but the reality may be more prosaic. The policy may have been fashioned through tactical decisions by individual U.S. commanders in the field, unable to judge the effect of their "local" decisions on the overall security of their nation.
Support for a military engaged in conflict is desirable, but when security and foreign policy decisions are effectively transferred to those in uniform, as in Iraq, the United States is in trouble. If the present Shiite-phobic measures in Iraq continue for another year, as seems likely under the Bush administration, the United States will join Israel as the second non-Muslim state to become the focus of Shiite extremists, who have over the years evolved as masters in the creation of terror.
While Wahabbi (Sunni) terrorists become such only after a period -- often years -- of indoctrination, their Shiite counterparts take to the transition from normalcy to extremism effortlessly, helped by a theology that gives primacy to death and suffering. Shiite squads are usually more motivated and therefore more effective than their Wahabbi counterparts. This is the genie that current U.S. policy threatens to release out of the bottle.
The U.S. envoy in Iraq, the al-Saud-friendly Zalmay Khalilzad, set in stone a tilt toward the Sunnis -- including the Wahabbis -- that has been reinforced by U.S. military commanders in Iraq. The commanders have little patience with a largely Shiite Iraqi administration straining to establish sovereignty over a country occupied by an alien military that has refused to surrender control over core areas of government, such as security and mobility.
Judging by the tone and content of the numerous remarks directed against Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and his men, several U.S. lawmakers and generals believe him to be like former Vietnamese politician Nguyen Cao Ky, functioning under U.S. control. The difference is that al-Maliki comes from a political tradition that protected its autonomy even against Saddam Hussein, much less against the U.S. commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, whose men have shown a disregard for Iraqi life that has destroyed local goodwill for U.S. forces in the country. This was born less of prejudice than panic, driven by an overwhelming need to minimize casualties even at the cost of Iraqi blood.
The reality is that a low-intensity conflict mandates the use of tactics that result in a significant loss of military life, as has been demonstrated by the Indian army in Kashmir, a state where the same jihadis that drove out the Soviet forces have been cornered and emasculated by the battering inflicted on them -- at a heavy cost in soldiers' lives -- by the Indian military.
It is self-defeating to use tactics that stress force protection over the destruction of the immediate enemy and of the mindset within the population that fuels the insurgency -- a necessary condition for victory. Every engagement waged by U.S. forces in Iraq creates several times more active enemies than get killed -- a cycle that will end in a U.S. pullout within the next 15 months.
By that time, the country will have become the same festering pool of anger that the West Bank and Gaza are today, the difference being that the bulk of those thus aroused would be Shiite. A few years after the Bush presidency terminates, the first effects of this alienation of the Shiites can be expected to become apparent within the U.S. homeland, as the groups in Iraq begin to target them the way those in Lebanon target Israel.
Had Zalmay Khalilzad and his bosses in Washington shown at least a fraction of the concern for the Shiites in Bahrain or Saudi Arabia as they are showing for the Sunni, and Wahabbi, populations in Iraq -- for example, by seeking a more equal allocation of Saudi oil revenue between Shiites and Sunnis -- the spreading perception that the United States is pursuing an anti-Shiite agenda would not have taken wings the way it now has.
The constant demonization of Iran -- a country where the majority of the population loathes the Khomeinists -- has not helped matters, nor the severe constraints imposed by the U.S. military on Iraqi sovereignty.
What is being witnessed now is a repeat of the 1982 disaster, this time on a much larger scale, and with the United States rather than Israel as the principal target. Civil conflict in the Islamic world is messy. Taking sides in it is injurious to health, a warning that Bush would do well to heed.
-(Professor M.D. Nalapat is vice-chair of the Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO Peace Chair, and professor of geopolitics at Manipal University.)