Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Terrorism burning South Asia


Officialdom in Bangladesh, for the most part, are denying that the February failed bloody revolt of the border guard militia against its regular army officers had links to the Islamicist terrorists. It is attributed largely to lower compensation for the more traditional border force. But it is certainly true that the December unexpected landslide victory of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has been considered a victory for the country’s secularists by both her followers and the opposition Islamicists. And there has been rumored infiltration of Muslim radicals in the all branches of the armed services. The virtually indefensible Bangladesh riverine borders with neighboring India on four sides with a small handful of varied separatist movements in northeast India, some of them operating with black markets and sanctuaries in Bangladesh and neighboring Burma, presents a crazyquilt of opportunities for violence and loyalties.

But the melodramatic Bombay massacre last November represented a high water mark in sophistication of weapons, organzation and planning, and logistics. The same characteristics were true of the blatant attack on the Sri Lankan cricketers in Pakistan’s second city, Lahore, in early March. All three episiodes failed in their intent to take hostages for a longer seige which would not only have milked world headlines but which would have posed increasing diplomatic problems with transnational implications. As it was, the Bombay events became a new point of continuing friction between the old opponents, New Delhi and Islamabad, because the event originated in Pakistan whatever its local ties.

Furthermore, there has been evidence for decades of “joint operations” among anti-state movements in the area, as throughout the world. For example, Indian authorities — although they have always for political reasons played it down — early in the 25-year-old Tamil Tiger insurgency in Sri Lanka found links and cooperation between that organization and Sikh and Islamicist terrorists operating in India. However, the armaments, the communications and the planning for each of these events suggests something far more than amateurish acts of violence. That they did not suceed further is perhaps in the nature of such armed events which depend on chance as much as timing and organization.

Is there, then, a growing Terrorist International, far beyond the capacities of Al Qaida at its pinaccle on 9/11 and whatever remnant of it remains functioning?

South Asia, with its relatively free and relatvely sophitiscated media, has spawn a new wave of conspiracy theories around this whole subject. It is fed on both the right and the left. Whole websites are devoted to producing all sorts of “evidence” of conspiracy, involving governments and individuals.

These urban legends, in themselves, add to the growing political speculation that Pakistan, in particular, has lost control of its state functions. And there is just enough evidence, certainly, in the tribal reaches along the contested Afhganistan border and in the northern territories bordering disputed Kashmir, the 50-year-old cancer between India and Pakistan, to make such conspiracy theories saleable to the frightened and the gullible and those living in primitive semiliterate societies.

The only good news in all this appears to be a growing appreciation — the awareness was there all the time — among the South Asian leadership that there can be no solutions to regional terrorism without collaboration among the South Asian states and their intelligence and anti-terror operations. Just the fact that Indian External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee publicly says he believes Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari is sincere about ending the menace of terrorism is a significant victory in the blame-games that gon on in the region. One has to assume that the simulateanous visits to New Delhi of both former Pakistan President Gen. Pervez Musharraf [who still has initimate relations with the military] and Hassina [so quickly after the rebellion was supressed] are significant in this regard.

Spokesmen for the Obama Administration, too, have made “a regional approach” to the generally considered worsening situation in Afghanistan a mantra. Sec. of State Hillary Clinton has even gone so far as to publicly suggest that a March meeting on Afghanistan in Brussels — apparently as much as anything else to stir the NATO powers to a larger commitment — might also include Iran. While it is apparently true that Tehran did help in the initiatl U.S. effort after 9/11 to end the sanctuary for Al Qaida, eliminating the Taliban rule in Kabul, given the wide variety of current support by the Iranians to disruptive movements through the Mideast, that seems the height of optimism.

The only bright spot on the South Asian map is the apparent imminent fall of the last Tamil Tiger foothold in Sri Lanka. The Colombo government is holding firm in the face of enormous international pressure to relieve end its current seige and the suffering of the alleged 200,000 refugees now penned up in the 19-square-mile northeast corner of the Island. That there are high civilian casualties seems inevitable, given the Tamil Tigers’ traditional practice of using terrorism, extortion, and civilians as shields. The Sri Lankan government has offered to permit these civilian victims to evacuate on an ad hoc basis but refuses a ceasefire given the fact that the Tigers will not lay down their arms as part of any armistice. It remains to be seen whether, in fact, the Tamils will release these hostages.

Ahead lies the whole post-civil war issue of concessions to the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka which will defuse the ethnic basis of the violence. That has been an impossible constitutional task in the past, and even with a clearcut government victory — and hopefully generosity in its wake by the majority Sinhalese — it would not be easy.

At the same time ethnic-based violence may be ebbing in Sri Lanka, it may be growing in Pakistan. The falling out of the two principal civilian leaders, President Asif Ali Zardari and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, with the suspension of the Punjab state government [representing 60 percent of the country’s population] under Nawaz’ brother, not only jeoparidzes the civilian government’s mandate. The fact that Nawaz’ strength is among his fellow Punjabis and Zardari’s base is primarily among the Sindhis lends new substance to ethnic conflicts already reflected in the border conflict. There the Putshtoon tribes, themselves at each other’s throats literally, have long based whatever sophisticatred anti-Pakistan sentiment underlay their complaints with an appeal to their ethnic identity.

The nihilistic appeal of the Islamofascists to any and all ethnic conflict is fundamental to their ability to inhibit the kind of “nation-building” — reconstruction of a civil society in physical and constitutional terms — in Afghanistan. The fact that they would attack cricketers, star athletes who have an enormous appeal across national, ethnic, religious, and economic lines in all of the South Asia countries, is significant. In fact, the Pakistanis — despite an earlier episode of violence — could have been forgiven for taking less than maximum security measures to protect their visiting Sri Lankan fellow cricketers believing that the game and its enthusiasts were too popular for its heroes to come under attack.

Unfortunately, the ethnic problem is circular. Appeals beyond ethnicity in each of these countries to democracy relies, among other things, on the electoral process, fall flat when candidates in those very elections are likely to make appeals to ethnic identity and loyalty. That will be the case when Afghan President Hamid Karzai goes before the Afghan electorate, probably in April, touting his role as the Pushtoon candidate against underground Taliban Pushtoon opponents. The forthcoming Indian elections will see more regional appeals — many of them to caste and linguistic loyalties — than ever before.

Outside conciliation and mediation has little if any effect on these ethnic conflicts. In fact, the mere hint of an American mediator [ex-President Bill Clinton] for Kashmir just as the Obama Adminsitration took office was enough to cause a diplomatic tempest. India, having lost several battles at the UN over the messy problem more than five decades ago, rules out all international conciliation. It apparently still has not dawned on many in Washington that the aggressive Bush Administration intervention in the Pakistan crisis over the continued bastardized military rule of Musharraf to push a return to civilian government has made a bad situation even worse.

There is little hope among old hands studying the region that Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke, notorious for his strongarm negotiating, is going to find a path toward regional cooperation any time soon. Gen. David Petraeus, now U.S. Central Command chief, hopes to bring some of the successful effort to stem ethnic and religious violence in Iraq to the Afghan scene. But as he has admitted, there is no template that would apply quickly to a far different situation in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, unless the difficult and demanding burden of regional intelligence and cooperation can be undertaken successfully by the local participating governments, the spectre of an enchanced terrorist network grows greater.

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