Pakistan, India and Afghanistan are battling extremists at different levels and all three of them are 'destined' to play a role in the 'war on terror'
By Hassan Abbas, The News on Sunday, Special Report, December 7, 2008
Naomi Klein, Canadian columnist and author of The Shock Doctrine insightfully says, "Terrorism doesn't just blow up buildings; it blasts every other issue off the political map. The spectre of terrorism - real and exaggerated - has become a shield of impunity, protecting governments around the world from scrutiny for their human rights abuses." South Asia today is a victim of terror in this context. Social injustice, political instability, religious fanaticism and a rising sense of insecurity are the factors pushing South Asians to the brink of a prolonged conflict.
If this diagnosis is accurate, then logically the remedy lies in the rule of law, the empowerment of the ordinary, pluralism and the resolution of the regional conflicts. No change in the Western power corridors alone can usher in a transformation in South Asia, especially Pakistan, Afghanistan and India, if these three states remain poorly governed, distrustful of each other and continue with the policy of marginalisation of their minority communities – ethnic as well as religious. India is better governed than Pakistan and Pakistan has a better track record than Afghanistan but at a regional level the fate of these countries is interlinked. Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have similar issues but for the purpose of this article, I am only focusing on countries which are battling extremists at different levels and are 'destined' to play a role in the 'war on terror'. United States' relations with and stakes in these three states also put them into a unique category of sorts.
The fact that President-elect Barack Obama of the United States has not used the phrase 'war on terror' at least since he won the election on Nov 4 is a hopeful sign. It is encouraging because the 'war' has complicated the South Asian scene immensely in the last eight years or so and a different strategy and perspective is the need of the hour. However, any change in US policy can only have a complimentary effect – as South Asians themselves hold the real key.
Beginning with the case of India, its democratic and pluralistic credentials are well established. In a Hindu majority state, till recently a Muslim was the president of the state and currently a member of the Sikh minority community is the prime minister. However, there are also active insurgencies in its Northeastern part and, according to South Asia Intelligence Review, a mainstream Indian research centre, there are 30 armed insurgent groups operating in that region. India's controversial policies in regard to Jammu and Kashmir, are more well known to Pakistan. Despite sustained economic growth, poverty and inequality are also serious challenges facing India. Last but not the least of its troubles relate to the plight of minorities in India – primarily Christians and Muslims. Attacks on many Christian churches in recent years, orchestrated by Hindu extremist groups, are well recorded and findings of the Sacher Committee report about the social, economic and educational status of Muslims of India speaks volumes about the societal as well as institutional biases against Muslims. Massacres of Muslims in Gujarat a few years ago were reported worldwide. Despite these problems, India is internationally recognised as a rising power and its economic success is acknowledged round the globe. According to a recent US intelligence assessment (NIC's 2025), India's rise as one of the major global economic powers in coming years is a foregone conclusion. Growth rate statistics and infrastructure improvements in India substantiate this view. The fact that the Bush administration went out of its way to sign a treaty for nuclear cooperation, ignoring the concerns of many influential quarters even within the US, show the US deference for India's success.
In this context, the ghastly and deplorable terror attacks in Mumbai jolted India as well as the international community. Besides exposing the failure of its intelligence services and counter-terrorism outfits, it damaged the credibility of Indian politicians in the eyes of the people. More importantly for Pakistan, however, is the Indian consensus that Pakistan has at least something to do with all this. By and large, the international community - and especially the Western states - share Indian suspicions. Interestingly, Pakistan sees this assessment as a mere propaganda. Irrespective of whether any Pakistan based militant group will be found involved in Mumbai attacks, Pakistan must look inwards also to analyse and evaluate why Indians think on these lines.
Without a doubt, Indian media channels jumped to conclusions that were targeting Pakistan even when the details about terrorists were very sketchy and unconfirmed, but likewise mainstream Pakistani media was also unwilling initially to even hypothetically consider that militants from Pakistan can be involved. If Pakistani militants can destroy Islamabad's Marriott hotel and blow themselves up so often in almost all corners of Pakistan, what can possibly stop them from going to India and conducting similar operations. Considering all possibilities dispassionately is no sin.
Indian government had its own limitations, inhibitions and political compulsions to put all the blame on Pakistan right from the word go. Hopefully, wisdom will prevail when India comes out of the shock. Extremism, bigotry and violence know no state boundaries. The fire that is burning in Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan was bound to reach India in some shape or the other. Indian regional policy has its share of failures and transgressions. In the sphere of intelligence wars too, India was not behind other states in the region. However, given that India's democratic institutions are strong, it will likely realise that unresolved conflicts, perennial distrust between neighbours and use of force against one's own people exacerbate differences and increase chances of non-violent reactions.
Pakistan is more or less in a similar bind, though the causes are perhaps more potent and symptoms of malaise are more pronounced. Authoritarianism, feudal mentality of the political elite (with few exceptions) and confusion about the role of religion in state encouraged by the 'defenders of the faith' has engendered an identity crisis in the country that has stilted Pakistan's growth and progress. Ethnic and sectarian confrontations are a by-product of this phenomenon. Rivalry with India and consequent insecurity on the other hand undermined Pakistan's potential significantly. Rather than trying to figure out how to tackle these serious challenges, historically Pakistan's leadership pushed it into regional and global battlefronts in search of security. The consequences are proving to be disastrous. We must not forget that this vicious cycle of instability begins from state's failure to govern and stabilise itself.
Afghanistan's story is not much different, though it went through a longer spell of instability, civil war and violence. Tribalism, besides failure to develop an equitable formula to share power among different ethnic groups and bridge the gap between its urban and rural areas spell the disaster for Afghanistan. Consequently, its leaders looked outwards for strength and resources turning it into a rentier state. Afghan Jihad of the 1980s saved Afghanistan from Soviets but destroyed its social fabric and the US involvement in the country since late 2001 has created more problems. Taliban resurgence is a gift of Western 'nation-building' failure. The solutions there, too, are hidden internally.
This brief analysis about political and security dynamics in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan is geared to make just one basic point – internal solutions in terms of empowerment of the people, equitable rights and instituting accountable and representative governments are crucial to stability, security and development of any state. The ugly face of religious extremism and radicalisation leading to violence in South Asia can only be defeated by these three countries through reconciliation, mutual cooperation and by forgiving each others' past mistakes. United States under Obama presidency can facilitate as well as complement such a transformation by supporting those in this region whose rights have been trampled upon and to whom justice has been denied. That would be a sure way to play a constructive role in stabilising the region.
(Dr. Hassan Abbas is a fellow at the Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. He is the author of Pakistan's Drift into Extremism: Allah, the Army and America's War on Terror and runs a blog Watandost. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)
The Kashmir Connection: A Puzzle - New York Times
The Pakistan Connection - Editorial, New York Times
Mumbai terrorist came from Pakistan, local villagers confirm - Guardian
Revamping Aid to Pakistan Is Expected in Bush Report - New York Times
Conveyor Belt Hacks - Nasim Zehra, Outlook India