THE Middle East, including its wider West Asia component stretching from Pakistan to Iraq, is caught in a struggle between forces of change and those of the status quo. The outcome of this struggle is bound to shape the future of the region either as a zone of stability and security or as an arena of perpetual conflict and anxiety in world politics.
Australia has become an active party in this struggle through its close alliance with the United States and consequent involvement in the Iraq and Afghan conflicts and the wider so-called war on terror. The Rudd Government faces a number of challenges if it is to make a constructive contribution to building a peaceful and stable West Asia and Middle East.
The first challenge is Iraq. It is now imperative for the Rudd Government to fulfil its pre-election rejection of the Iraq war. The best way is to withdraw all Australian forces from Iraq, but at the same time promote the processes for a resolution of the Iraqi conflict and contribute substantially to the country's reconstruction.
No viable resolution can be secured as long as foreign troops remain in Iraq. Iraq's neighbours will not find it in their interests to let the conflict go on for much longer. Tehran and Damascus are regional strategic partners, with each having a considerable amount of leverage with various Iraqi Shiite and Sunni communities. They can be expected to do everything possible to bring about a Shiite-Sunni reconciliation, and at the same time to bring Saudi Arabia and its Arab partners on board by agreeing to maintain Iraq's historical identity as Arab and to enlist the co-operation of Turkey by ensuring that the Iraqi Kurds will have no more than limited autonomy. The US wants to retain its geopolitical dominance in the oil-rich Middle East and to reshape the region according to its preferences.
The second challenge is Afghanistan. While there has been bipartisan support for Australia's involvement in Afghanistan and the Rudd Government has now committed Australian troops at least until 2010, Australia's Afghan mission has never been clearly defined in terms of goals and outcomes.
The Australian public has only been told that it is necessary for fighting terrorism in its front line. It must be emphasised that Afghanistan is not, and has never been, Terror Central. Pakistan has worn this mantle.
The Rudd Government needs to review Australia's Afghanistan policy to see in what ways its security and reconstruction involvement can help the Afghan people and serve Australia's interests. Since Australia does not have the capacity for a large military deployment, the Rudd Government should re-prioritise and retarget its assistance, with less emphasis on combat operations but more stress on helping the Afghans. It should also pressure Washington to prompt the Karzai Government to clean up its act and Pakistan to put its house in order. Otherwise, no amount of foreign assistance will bring relief to a great majority of Afghans to rebuild their lives and country.
The third challenge is in relation to Iran. The Howard government maintained good economic ties with the country, but followed Washington's lead in treating the Iranian Islamic regime as a menace, sponsor of international terrorism and supporter of the Iraqi insurgency, with a determination to acquire a military nuclear capability to undermine the security of Israel and jeopardise Western interests in the region. It failed to ascertain whether the regime was any more theocratic or dictatorial than many of the regimes with which Australia maintained friendly relations in the region. It also paid no attention to Tehran's concerns about being surrounded by US forces and constantly threatened with military action, economic sanctions and regime change.
Now that the US National Intelligence Estimate has concluded that Iran halted its nuclear program in 2003, it falls on the Rudd Government to act from an informed position and distance itself from the Bush Administration's narrow geopolitical agenda to pave the way for possible military action against Iran no matter what.
The fourth challenge arises from Pakistan's explosive situation. The Howard government followed the US lead by putting all its eggs in Pervez Musharraf's basket, enabling him to renege on his original promise of returning Pakistan to democracy, to rid the country of Muslim extremism and combat the Taliban and al-Qaeda effectively. Today Musharraf is determined to maintain his military dictatorship at all costs. The Rudd Government must do all it can to increase international pressure on Musharraf to make sure that he runs a fair and free election as scheduled, and then step down as the head of state to allow the new parliament to elect a new president. A democratically elected government will need to revise Pakistan's constitution with a view not to allow the military and its powerful military intelligence to have any constitutional legitimacy to rule the country.
If the Rudd Government succeeds in focusing Australia's policy on these issues, together with a serious recognition of the plight of the Palestinians under occupation, it can play a constructive role in a part of the world where the conditions remain ripe for causing wider tensions and conflicts in global politics. Otherwise, it carries the risk of letting Australia remain tied to Washington's narrow agenda, which has proved to be counterproductive to stemming the tide of Muslim extremism and creating a better and safer world.
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