Friday, March 13, 2009

A Marshall Plan for South Asia?


Although thinking Americans always found the trickle-down theory of wealth (let the rich get richer and enough will trickle down to satisfy the “lower classes”) highly insulting and detrimental to American democracy, the and the rest of the West have always practiced trickle-down toward the developing world.

The revival of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the spread of civil war in tribal Pakistan, and the “canary-in-the-mine” terrorist attack against anyone and everyone within range in Mumbai (not to mention the disastrous rise in the price of grain) together suggest that perhaps conditions are now getting so bad in South Asia that it is time for the West to accept that it must replace the convenient concept of letting drips of Western wealth trickle down to the “developing” (or, today, in some cases—thanks to Western behavior--“declining”) world with a policy of helping them catch up.

Such a “Manhattan Project for the Poor” or “South Asian Marshall Plan” policy of self-discipline and generosity on the part of the West could of course be phrased in moral terms, but my argument rests on security.The West today is spending to defend its interests in enormous sums. The Afghan War has cost the an estimated $184 billion.NATO allies are spending much more, with alone having already spent an estimated $18 billion. The conflict is costing itself $6 billion per year—this for a country whose inability to fund government services for its poverty-striken border regions is one of the primary causes of the war in the first place. According to a Pakistani Ministry of Finance official, “the loss of lives and economic cost imposed by the war is now rising to an unbearable level.” With both the Taliban and intent on expanding the conflict, the costs can only go up. Indeed, British costs are symptomatic, seeing a 50% rise in 2008, to an annual cost of $3.5 billion.

One can only imagine the social stability that could be achieved by using such sums to provide economic security to the people of . One cannot know if this would work, but it is very clear that the alternative—a rising tide of war against all those who protest current conditions—is not working. Rather, it is visibly worsening both local conditions and the security of the West itself. As for local conditions, 60% of FATA’s 3,000,000 residents live below ’s poverty line. And that figure was derived before ’s brutal August military offensive in Bajaur Agency that left several hundred thousand people homeless.

In the words of researcher Ahmed Humayun, who recently returned to the from the region, “Refugees are scattered across NWFP and eastern , desperately seeking shelter in improvised camps with no electricity or running water. Women find it difficult to maintain veiled segregation, a deep affront to conservative tribal sensibilities.” As usual, despite the approach of winter, funds are being channeled to the military rather than the refugees. What impact this will have on future Taliban recruiting can only be imagined. As for Western security, the Mumbia tragedy speaks for itself.

The logic of this argument rests on the assumption that violence comes from resentment, which in turn comes from a degree of injustice that is both significant and visible. Of course, it is most convenient for the lucky (i.e., Westerners) to pretend that those committing violence against the West and its proxies and allies “come out of the blue,” as some thoughtlessly claimed after 9/11. Despite the hard lessons of the last seven years, wishful thinking seems to continue. In an individual case, that could theoretically be true: one individual might choose terror because of mental instability or some personal grievance. But those who self-servingly make this claim have never been able to explain why leaders advocating such violence are finding such an endless supply of recruits willing to give their lives. Until such Westerners can come up with a plausible argument, it seems reasonable to go with the obvious one: they volunteer to die because they are angry and desperate.

Now that we are past that issue, the challenge becomes one of understanding what makes them angry and desperate. In , the answer is a bit complicated (i.e., you have to be aware of several different things at the same time), but it is not really all that hard and is certainly no secret.

Many volumes have already been written about the details and more should be, but those details are not critical. The basic message (whether you, dear reader, happen to be just a taxpayer or a president-elect) is that the following are the components (ALL of which must be considered simultaneously [to the attention-challenged, my apologies, but this is the way the world works; if you don’t like it, go to the mall and let someone else make decisions in Washington]):

1. self-determination for , whose people were cheated out of promised self-determination by Nehru and have been victimized ever since;
2. economic security – rapidly declining throughout the region over the last two years because of the rising price of grain (in great measure as a result of Western desires to use valuable agricultural land to produce biofuels);
3. ethnic nationalism – thanks to the very conscious British colonial decision to split the Pashtun people up, some going to Pakistan and the rest to Afghanistan; (An estimated 7 million Pashtuns live in the FATA, in addition to 28 million in the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) and 15 million in neighboring Afghanistan.)
4. religious nationalism – thanks to colonial British policy, exploitation of Hindu nationalism by politicians, Pakistani military exploitation of Moslem nationalism;
5. poor governance of ’s tribal regions – due to lack of interest by Pakistani regimes in providing good governance and economic security for its Pashtun tribal people that it has nevertheless insisted upon retaining within the Punjabi-dominated Pakistani state.

That’s about it. Those are the basic issues that need to be addressed. Yes, of course, al Qua’ida is in the region, taking advantage of all the above for its own purposes. Indeed, given all the above grievances, how could it resist? South Asia is, despite ’s admirable record of democracy and recent Pakistani steps in that direction, a black hole of injustice that sucks in every troublemaker in the universe.

I intend no disrespect whatsoever to all the admirable people of the region who are clearly aware of the problems and doing everything they can to address them; quite the contrary. I am making the point that the existence of this degree of injustice generates an irresistible gravitational force attracting troublemakers and those willing to put their lives on the line in the struggle for justice. Indeed, precisely in the case of Lashkar-e-toiba, which has helped victims of natural disasters, fought for Kashmiri freedom, and no doubt committed acts of terrorism, it is exceedingly difficult to distinguish the one from the other.

To evaluate the utility of a particular government policy (e.g., a Predator attack by Washington, an army campaign by Pakistan in its tribal regions, an Indian military strike on “terrorist training camps”), ask how it addresses these five basic issues. If it does not address them, then it probably makes the situation worse, i.e., it probably decreases the long-term security of , , , and the West.

How to resolve all these issues may not be obvious or simple, but the first clue lies in the word “simultaneously.” Much could be said about the fluidity of a complex adaptive system. To keep things simple, imagine that each of the above five issues is a balloon; the five balloons are connected and floating; you are standing on those balloons and realize they are all slowly losing air.

Fortunately, you have the ability to pump air into the balloons. All must be pumped up simultaneously because otherwise the whole system will destabilize and you will tip off into the water.Back to reality, a statement condemning attacks on might be coupled with a statement condemning repression of Kashmiri civil liberties and condemning neglect of governance in ’s tribal regions. Backing for the maintenance of the arbitrary international borders that happen to exist might be combined with calls for local autonomy for, say, Kashmiris and Pashtuns. Aid might be offered on a regional basis in a way that required regional cooperation for all the most neglected areas rather than on a state-to-state basis as a reward for kowtowing to whatever arbitrary, short-term policy the donor state happened to have dreamed up.

The bottom line, then, is that the above five issues need to be addressed simultaneously to resolve the problem. It does not matter whether you define “the problem” as injustice for the people of or as terrorist attacks that hurt the West: same problem, same solution. The world has become so small and so aware of injustice that injustice in equals insecurity in the West.

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