Wednesday, May 19, 2004

The Shadow of Terror Lengthens

From South Asia Intelligence review

Ajai Sahni
Editor, SAIR; Executive Director, Institute for Conflict Management

The US Coalition's growing troubles in Iraq are bad news for South Asia. Among the primary targets of Islamist extremist terrorism in the region, India has long seen a necessary convergence of its interests with those of the US-led global war against terrorism - though there have been differences over the discriminatory focus of this war, and the evident indulgence extended to Pakistan's continuing support to terrorist groups. The increasing disarray in Iraq creates imminent dangers of an escalation and widening of Islamist terrorist activities in this region, even as it creates possibilities of intensification of violence by terrorist groups deriving their justification from other ideological streams.

The spaces for such a resurgence are created by two factors. The first of these is based on the nature of terrorism as a method; to the extent that it is seen to succeed substantially even against the world's greatest military and economic power in Iraq, it will be estimated to have far greater probabilities of success against the weaker state powers within South Asia. This would be considered to be the case in all theatres, and with respect to movements inspired by the entire spectrum of 'revolutionary' ideologies. The second of these factors relates to the diminished international focus on terrorist movements in this region, as events in Iraq (and, to an extent, West Asia) exhaust the greatest proportion of Western, and particularly US, attention. This creates opportunities and incentives for terrorists and their state sponsors in South Asia to intensify campaigns that had, briefly, been brought under significant pressure as a result of the glare of international publicity and the increased risk of international penalties after 9/11. It is useful to recall that it was the neglect of developments in South Asia - and particularly of the assembly lines of jihad in Pakistan and then Taliban-controlled Afghanistan - that contributed directly to the current mushrooming of global Islamist terrorism and the planning and execution of 9/11. While the armies and infrastructure of terrorism in Afghanistan were substantially eroded by the US-led campaign there, much of these simply shifted across the border into Pakistan, to join forces with a number of like-minded terrorist groups, many of them created and directly supported by covert state agencies in that country. Considerable American pressure on the Musharraf regime had resulted in some cosmetic curbs on these organizations, and a marginal decline in their visible activities. Such trends are now in danger of reversal, as American prestige suffers blow after blow in Iraq.

There is, today, a growing assessment among radical Islamist groups that, while America does have the unquestionable power and technology to blow any country out of existence, it does not have the capacity or comprehension to manage even a mid-sized nation - such as Afghanistan or Iraq - under occupation or surrogate rule. America, moreover, is assessed to have no effective defenses against sustained and determined terrorist campaigns, and is, consequently, perceived to be immensely vulnerable despite its apparent strength. As Iraq emerges as a critical element in the US Presidential Election campaign, America's domestic political vulnerability to terrorist activities in foreign theatres will also be underlined. The events in Iraq, within these calculations, place an absolute limit on how much pressure the US can now exert on rogue states and state sponsors of terrorism, especially where such entities are able to manipulate the instrumentalities of terror within intensities that do not provoke extreme retaliation, or within the confines of 'credible deniability'. The result is that the US is expected to be increasingly cautious in exerting extraordinary pressure on countries such as Pakistan, for instance, to end their covert support to terrorism and the activities of terrorist groups on and from their soil. This will create the opportunities for a consolidation of terrorist forces within such areas.

Iraq has also sounded the death knell of the international consensus against terrorism, once again throwing the entire issue into the realm of moral ambivalence. America's unilateralism and mismanagement have alienated many natural allies in the war against terrorism, and the delusionary constructs under which the US Administration continues to act do not suggest any trends towards increasing executive competence, and consequently, little prospects of greater international participation in the campaign in Iraq. Spain's new Prime Minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, has already issued instructions for the withdrawal of his country's 1,300 troops from Iraq 'as soon as possible'. The US Administration has expressed some expectations that India and Bangladesh would send Forces to Iraq after the 'handover of sovereignty' on June 30, but this is sheer fantasy. No country would send in its Forces to Iraq unless the present administrative and political incoherence is brought to an end. To the extent, however, that American decision-making continues to rely overwhelmingly on paradigmatic constructs and the personal proclivities and biases of individuals within the Administration, rather than on any clear conception of the ground realities in Iraq, no such resolution appears to be in sight.

These factors are superimposed on a South Asia immensely more complex than it was before 9/11. Pakistan alone stands at a crossroads in its history, with its internal contradictions creating increasing stresses, as the Pervez Musharraf regime adopts ideologically incompatible objectives; and as elements within a number of hitherto 'captive' jehadi groups begin to chart out an independent course. Areas of instability in Pakistan currently include the North West Frontier Province, Baluchistan and the Federally Administrative Tribal Areas (FATA), which have long been loosely controlled by the state, but where strong bonds on ethnic and religious lines dominate social and political life. In addition, Sindh, while currently relatively calm, has a history of political and sectarian violence, which could, in situations of rising political uncertainty in Islamabad, revive. Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, and particularly the Northern Areas are denied basic political and human rights, and the Shia population, which constitutes a majority in the region, has been subjected to repeated and genocidal campaigns of repression; there are now increasing signs of political unrest and a potential for violence in this region. The American effort to orchestrate a transition to democracy through a controlled military regime is also fundamentally flawed, and has, in fact, immensely weakened democratic and secular forces in Pakistan, even as it has further entrenched the military-jehadi-feudal combine of revanchist forces in the country. The Kashmir issue, moreover, has been entirely miscast by the US Administration, and ignores the reality that it is essentially a symptom of the larger ideological conflict between an exclusionary Islamist extremist Pakistan and a liberal, democratic and pluralist India.

There is, moreover, an enormous multiplicity of terrorist actors and organizations across South Asia - drawn from diverse ideological streams, including Islamism, ethnic fundamentalism and Left Wing extremism - who will derive great encouragement from America's discomfiture in Iraq. It is, indeed, safe to say that the future of terrorism in the South Asian region will be decided substantially by actors and events outside the region; events in Iraq are impacting directly on the potential, not only for Islamist terrorism, but for all forms of terrorism in South Asia, and on the diminishing potential for the stabilization of both Afghanistan and Pakistan in the foreseeable future.

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