Indian peace activist and a freelance journalist J. Sri. Raman thinks so.
South Asian task force against terrorism - is this an idea whose time has come?
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed of Bangladesh seems to think it has. The task force was one of her election promises and, after winning a tidal vote to power, she has opened talks on it with two important visitors, India's External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee and US Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher.
Few, however, can miss a familiar pattern in Dhaka's moves in the matter. Election promises, as a rule, sound more enthusiastic than ensuing action on them. If Prime Minister Hasina is sounding far more cautious about the task force than during the poll campaign, official constraints are not the only obvious reason.
Even more obvious is an ironical fact that militates against formation of such a force by the South Asian countries concerned - India, Pakistan and Bangladesh (with the Himalayan states of Nepal and Bhutan figuring only as occasional havens of terrorists and Sri Lanka harboring a different species of terrorism). The fact is that the three countries cannot agree more on terrorism, but cannot act less together against the threat.
Theoretically, conditions cannot be more congenial for action on the idea. The people have pronounced their verdicts against terrorism in all three countries in unambiguous terms. A notable result of the Pakistan elections to decide on the post-Musharraf dispensation was the rout of religion-based parties with a record of relations with fundamentalists and extremists, especially in the frontier provinces. In Bangladesh, the landslide victory for Hasina and her Awami League (AL) came with a lethal electoral blow to the Jamat-e-Islami (JeI), an ally of Begam Khaleda Zia's Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and an accomplice of terrorist outfits.
The electorate in India won't exactly spring a similar surprise with an anti-terrorist vote, though it has rejected the far right Bharatiya Janta Party's anti-minority take on terrorism in a recent round of state-level elections. In the nearly three months since the terrorist strike in Mumbai, both the ruling Congress Party and the BJP have revealed an unstated bipartisan consensus on according prominence to such threats in their campaigns for the parliamentary elections due by May 2009.
Officially, too, the three countries profess anti-terrorist policies of a similarly high priority. Islamabad has repeatedly been at pains to remind the region and the world that the country's democratic forces are a direct victim of terrorism, having lost Benazir Bhutto in a bomb blast. Dhaka makes a similar claim, with the grenade attack of 2004 on a Hasina rally among the oft-recalled instances of grisly terrorism. As for India, the Mumbai outrage of November 26, 2008, was only the latest in a long series of terrorist attacks on the nation and its successive governments.
The popular and official consensus among the three countries on terrorism, however, has not made coordinated action against it any easier in practice. On paper, India and Pakistan have in place a joint mechanism against terror, set up during the five-year old "peace process" as a response to past instances of extremist violence. Even a joint investigation of the Mumbai case, however, remains an impracticable idea, despite India's "dossier" on the subject made available to Islamabad and Pakistan's detailed response to it.
Domestic opposition would not allow further progress in the direction easily. Online tirades against "traitors" in the Islamabad establishment, who have reported findings of the official investigation about Pakistani links to Mumbai, represent only the tip of an iceberg. Experts on talk shows on Indian television channels compare cooperative investigation of the case with consultations over a house break-in with the burglar himself.
Pakistan's investigators may not have pleased many in the Hasina dispensation by publicizing their finding about the possible involvement in Mumbai of the Harakat-ul-Jehad-al-Islam (HuJI) of Bangladesh. Dhaka, however, has concealed any displeasure over the finding. It has, actually, admitted the possibility. It is a safe bet, though, that this is going to be no prelude to any joint Pakistan-Bangladesh exercise on the issue.
Domestic political compulsions, again, are sure to derail any effort in this direction. The opposition BNP is not going to be a silent spectator of any investigation of India's worst-ever terrorist strike involving Bangladesh. Nor is any Dhaka-Islamabad cooperation in the cards, even as the Hasina regime promises to hasten trials in cases of "war crimes," committed during the Bangladesh war of 1971 by fundamentalist and other forces opposed to a break up of erstwhile Pakistan.
Hasina has, of course, discussed the task force with Mukherjee during his recent visit to Dhaka. Even before details of the proposal could be divulged, Khaleda and her party came out with strong disapproval of any arrangement that would let India use Bangladesh's territory for fighting its own battles. The fear is that the task force may help India counter separatist movements on the border of Bangladesh in the name of fighting terrorism.
In theory again, all the three countries are anti-terror allies of the US. Richard Holbrooke, special US envoy for India and Pakistan, has stressed this in Islamabad and New Delhi, while Boucher has done so in Dhaka. The formulation, however, is extremely unlikely to help the speedy emergence of the proposed force.
Experience has shown the extremely limited extent to which the alliance can be advanced in each of the three countries. Washington has not won the unqualified support of the allies for the main objective of its anti-terror war in the region. Pakistan cannot possibly acquiesce on US drones' attacks on Pashtun areas even if described as part of an all-out offensive against al-Qaeda.
India cannot agree to any proposal for US peacemaking in Kashmir, peddled as a ploy to help Islamabad focus on the al-Qaeda terrain. And we do not quite know whether the Pentagon is really unhappy about a splinter of al-Qaeda shifting from the Pakistan-Afghan border to Bangladesh and surviving as the HuJI.
All told, the time for the task force may not be yet. The time will come only when the people of the three countries prevail over political forces with the stake in perpetuating regional tensions and conflicts. It will come only when South Asia chooses to counter terrorism for its own sake and not in the cause of a superpower as it is popularly perceived.