Views from Auckland
An ambitious king in ancient India, so the story goes, prayed fervently to the almighty to give him a soldier so powerful that no weapon could destroy him and whenever he raised his right hand over the head of an adversary or enemy, that enemy would instantly turn to a pile of ash and dust.
Pleased with the king’s sincere prayer, the almighty supplied him with a soldier called Bhasmasura, which means ‘the demon of ash’. He was a big and strong brute of a man donning impenetrable armour that would blunt any weapon and let him penetrate enemy ranks like a hot knife through butter. He would then head straight for the enemy king with his right hand raised and upon placing it above the defeated king’s head would reduce him to a pile of ash instantaneously.
And so it went on. The soldier helped the king annex kingdom after vanquished kingdom. The king could not believe his good fortune, now lording over every region he could set his eyes upon. He truly was lord of all he surveyed. Then one day the soldier realised that the king really drew all this power, glory and riches from his own magical super powers. Why should he be subservient to the king, he thought. He wanted to be the king instead of the king.
He tried to reason with the king, asking for a part of the kingdom for himself to rule over. The king of course refused. Needless to say, the negotiations broke down and soon the soldier approached menacingly toward the king, right hand raised. The king reached for his weapons and hurled them at the soldier with all the force and fury he could summon but to no avail. Then fearing the worst, he took to his heels with his soldier of great magical powers in hot pursuit.
The chase went on for several years, as the story goes, and took the duo to the very corners of the world, where in one such corner the king got a brief respite to hide, reflect and contemplate his next move. Having exhausted all options and at the end of his wits and ebbing physical strength and full of regret for asking such a dangerous weapon in the first place, he began to pray to the almighty again….
Modern day demons of ash
Unfortunately for the world today, versions of this parable are still being played out with tragic results. Only the characters have changed. The principles that are at play in the story are very much the same. Change the names and the tale is about us, about our times.
Last month former United States Secretary of State and future presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton quite candidly admitted a fact that the world has long come to believe: that the United States had created the global terror organisation al Qaeda. The US financed and armed the militant organisation in its early days to counter Russia’s occupation of Afghanistan. The militants fought soviet troops with American weaponry until the soviets left – though not least because of them.
In the process the US ended up creating a monster that ultimately turned its guns on American interests not only in the Middle East but even on American soil, culminating in the gruesome 9/11 tragedy when hijacked commercial airplanes took out the twin towers in New York and a section of the Pentagon. Symbolically, the attacks were on America’s financial and military power. Both targets were turned to ash. Well, almost.
The US is continuing on the same tack again, now in Syria. It is financing and arming factions against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), which is really an upgraded version of al Qaeda. As we all know now, ISIS troops now hold sway over large swathes of both Iraq and Syria, having run over the western Iraqi cities of Tikrit and Mosul, and is now proving the toughest adversary to Syrian strongman Bashar al Assad.
It’s not just America
Creating and financing monsters is not America’s monopoly, though. Powers and leaders big and small have indulged in such power games with disastrous consequences personally or for their nations all over their world. Former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi financed militants in the northwestern state of Punjab to embarrass the government in power.
When she was swept back to power in the next election, this militant faction became a headache for her, ultimately having to order a raid on a holy shrine where the militants’ command was holed up, for which she ended up being killed. Her son and successor Rajiv Gandhi did the same in Sri Lanka dallying with, financing and arming the deadly Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and, like his mother, also paid with his life just a few years later.
The common thread between al Qaeda and the Punjab and Sri Lankan separatists is that powerful leaders and governments financed, armed and propped them up for their own ulterior motives. The unintended consequence was identical in all these cases, the protégés turned upon their godfathers causing them and their people incalculable harm, spiraling multiple problems out of control with no one having a clue about how to order the menacing genie back into the bottle.
Last month’s shooting down of the Malaysian Boeing triple seven over eastern Ukraine’s border with Russia is the latest episode in this theme. The Donetsk rebels are clearly funded, financed, armed and morally supported from across the border by Russia. Russia’s motive is clearly to weaken the administration in Ukraine after its widely criticised move over Crimea and the referendum, regarded by most of the world as a sham.
The rebels in Eastern Ukraine clearly are being encouraged to carve out a separate state to further dismember Ukraine with Russia’s not-so-covert help. The Buk missiles allegedly that brought the Malaysian jet down with nearly 300 innocent lives are not a plaything and need sophisticated operations for their deployment, which the rebels clearly do not have the competence and experience for. Russia’s fingerprints are all over the episode though it is trying to blame it all on a western conspiracy plot to discredit it.
The monster that Russia has created in Eastern Ukraine is the latest demon of ash that has claimed its first innocent victim in the form of 298 innocent people from several countries that had nothing whatsoever to do with the conflict.
How will it all end?
The king in our original story prayed once again to the almighty. Full of compassion, the almighty decided to help once again. Disguised as a beautiful woman, the almighty enticed the demon. Smitten by her charms, the demon fell on his knees and implored her to wish anything she wanted in turn for her affections. The woman asked him to pledge that he loved her by placing his right on his own head. Blinded by his infatuation he did likewise and was instantaneously turned to dust.
Unfortunately in the modern world, there is no such silver bullet available to us. But certainly what the world’s powers can do is rein in their overweening ambitions, wind down their power games and stop creating monsters, all for the greater good of the world. Else, they will keep reaping the ill whirlwind of terror.
First appeared in Islands Business magazine, August 2014