What is happening in Iraq? It is not just Iraq. It is the region. Does it concern Pakistan? Vitally. What are Pakistan’s options? Effectively none. Why? Pakistan cannot develop policy options in the absence of being able to govern itself. Is doing nothing an option? No. There are regional linkages. There will be knock-on effects, responses and consequences that will critically exacerbate the existential challenges Pakistan already faces. We shall be passive service providers, irrelevant commentators and spectators of our own unfolding fate.

Iraq is a recent state (post WWI) in an ancient land – much like Pakistan. It is essentially a colonial construct that reflects an Ottoman legacy. Its borders are unnatural and designed to deny its people its natural resources. It comprises three former Ottoman provinces: Mosul, Baghdad and Basra. Its people are diverse. The major ethnic divide is between Arabs and Kurds, and the major sectarian divide is between Shia and Sunni. Until the mid-19th century Iraq was considered a Sunni majority country. The Shia-Sunni divide was traditionally much less politically salient than it has become in recent times. Iraq’s major Arab tribes comprise both Shias and Sunnis.

Saddam Hussain was politically secular and non-sectarian. His persecution of the Shia clergy was largely due to two factors: their political influence over the Shia population which had become a majority; and his fear of Iran where the clergy had historical, institutional and family links with the clergy of Najaf, Karbala and other Shia centres in Iraq. These links tempered the Arab nationalism if not the Iraqi nationalism of much of the Iraqi Shia clergy. The Baathist ideology of Saddam was based on Arab socialism and Arab nationalism, which the majority of the secular Shia elite of Iraq more or less willingly subscribed to.

The development and deepening of the Shia-Sunni political fault-line in Iraq was the result of three factors: (i) the intensification of the Kurdish separatist resistance which made Saddam extremely sensitive and intolerant towards any kind of regionalism or communalism within Iraq; (ii) the Iran-Iraq war which called into question the loyalties of some of the most revered Iraqi Shia clerics who either escaped to Iran or were tortured and executed; and (iii) the two US invasions which exploited and exacerbated sectarian tensions and finally destroyed Iraq as a coherent social and political entity.

Arab Sunni hegemony was displaced. But the US invaders and occupiers never prioritised the development of a political consensus for whatever dispensation was to succeed Baathism. They were simply not interested. Instead, they banned the Baath party, disbanded the Iraqi army, dissolved the core of the Iraqi administration, and by and large saw Iraq as a strategic resource bonanza and a battle ground between themselves and Iran. They introduced Al-Qaeda to Iraq.

American whiz kids started writing Iraqi constitutions without knowing what Iraq was. US policymakers believed their false propaganda. Overwhelming force exempted them from having to live in the real Iraq. Overwhelming outrage since 9/11 exempted them from any moral responsibility for the death and destruction they perpetrated.

According to a well-known Johns Hopkins study published in the prestigious medical magazine, Lancet, over a million additional Iraqis deaths occurred in the aftermath of the illegal US invasion and occupation of Iraq. Prior to that, according to UN estimates, over half a million civilian deaths, mostly children, occurred as a result of US and US controlled UN sanctions. US corporate dominance of the Iraqi economy became the principal political measure of Iraqi “democratic and free market development.”

When the US realised it could not compete with Iran for political influence among the Iraqi Shia, it swung towards placating the traumatised Sunnis. It sponsored an awakening in the western al Anbar province which succeeded in reducing the influence of Sunni extremists. At the same time its military surge protected Baghdad. But neither placed any check on the aggrandisements of the Shia-led government which prioritised sectarian grievances and fears over the need to develop a national political front against extremism. Iraq’s fabulous riches became its curse. American stickers proclaimed: kick Iraqi ass and get our gas!

The Maliki government has utterly failed to take an interest in compromise, power-sharing and political reconciliation. It would have been a tough ask anyway. There are, however, Iraqi leaders who are willing to give it a try, including Ayad Allawi, who is a secular nationalist leader of the Iraqia party. Despite being Shia, Allawi has strong Sunni support. He may yet play a role if Iraq is to emerge from its current crisis in one piece.

Maliki’s request for US military support will complicate the situation. The presence of US Special Operations and other forces will require a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) which the Iraqi parliament refused to provide. Air power alone cannot address the situation. Nor can kinetic strategies compensate for inconsistent US policies towards Syria and Iraq. The US opposes Iran in Syria but seeks its cooperation in Iraq.

Iran will never agree to US ‘boots on the ground’ in Iraq. Saudi Arabia and Iran will need to reach some mutual accommodation which their respective political ideologies, historical perceptions, elite interests and power structures appear to render almost impossible. In fact, there is no Iraqi solution to the situation in Iraq today. It has to be a regional solution because both US policies, and the extremist responses they elicit, are essentially regional in their objectives and impact.

But US regional policy is not going to change. It revolves around Israel which eliminates space for longer-term, equity based, and consistent and viable regional policy approaches. The costs include trillions of dollars picked up largely by the American people but not the ‘one percent’ who make US policy. They also include the devastation of entire populations and societies in the region. These costs are accepted by practically the entire range of US and western elite opinion without any serious debate or question. A more brilliant and wicked political system has yet to be devised.

Non-state terrorism is a response to such a system. Whatever terrorism’s causes, it is an unmitigated evil. But so are its roots. Without addressing them, all counter terrorism eventually degenerates into mere terrorism itself. What we are witnessing today in the region is the product of a multi-tiered status quo whose defining characteristic is the permanent generation of war, terrorism and human tragedy which if not checked will culminate in human extinction. Nationally, this status quo comprises criminal governance by traditional and non-traditional power structures which are being increasingly challenged by traditionally excluded classes.

Regionally, it is reflected in historical and unaddressed mistrust between countries as a result of colonial legacies, post-colonial elite sponsored conflicts, and the hegemonic aspirations of some of the larger regional countries. Globally, it is the product of corporate capitalist governance in the US and other western countries, including their foreign and security policies, which (a) co-opt civilian and military national elites of the region, and (b) deploy the entire intellectual, ethical and technology tradition of the west in the service of corporate profits and propaganda.

How do we address such an immense situation? Not by addressing flavour-of-the-month political issues. There have to be local, national, regional and global human rights based movements that challenge the status quo at all levels, and in which the people of Pakistan increasingly participate. We need to do what we can on a sustained basis. What Pakistan can do is to begin to address its own problems which may in time lend it some capacity to play a positive role on the regional or even global stage.

Meanwhile, intellectual curiosity about problems of Iraq, the region and the world is laudable, provided it is leavened by the knowledge that we cannot do anything about them as a country unless we realise what it takes to have a country. We do not have one as yet. We do not look like having one. And our elected and unelected rulers are bored to tears by the merest mention of what they already know and, in our inimitable Pakinglish, are ‘least bothered about’.

The writer is a former envoy to the US and India and head of the UN Mission in Iraq (2004-2007)