Combating terrorism together: New South Asian Perspectives
By Manzoor Ahmed
The Conference of SAARC Ministers for Interior/Home held in Islamabad, Pakistan last month has not come a day too soon considering the fast-changing
Scenario in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, widely perceived as the Ground Zero of global terrorism.
That Afghanistan and Pakistan, two of the members of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) are battleground and that terrorism and militancy are preoccupations of practically all other members – particularly India, /Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bangladesh – makes the exercise worthwhile.
The recent resignation of the government necessitating calling troops on the streets to ensure security in the Maldives – that experienced terror attack way back in 1985 – denotes the prospects of unrest that could enable terrorists taking refuge in this nation of multiple islands.
Unfortunately, the proceedings were partially overshadowed by the meeting on the sidelines of the conference by the ministers from India and Pakistan, Mr P. Chidambaram and Mr Rahman Malik respectively. But that does not reduce the importance and timeliness of the proceedings.
The Home/Interior Ministers of the SAARC region have called for a comprehensive regional strategy to fight against terrorism. Their third meeting adopted the SAARC Islamabad Statement on Cooperation against Terrorism, which reaffirms the commitment to further strengthen cooperation to fight and eradicate terrorism in all forms and manifestations.
Adopting the Islamabad Statement is indeed a positive move, which has created a new momentum for South Asian states to contribute towards developing a peaceful, secure and prosperous region.
In a statement issued at the end of the meeting, the SAARC home ministers pledged to step up cooperation in real time intelligence sharing and to consider Pakistan’s proposal for the creation of a regional institution on the lines of INTERPOL.
It is worth mentioning that INTERPOL sub-regional bodies in East, West and Southern Africa, for example, have proved effective in strengthening practical cooperation among police chiefs and in building support for the expansion of the organization’s continued communication network beyond capitals.
Pakistan, the host of the meeting, submitted a proposal also for setting up an institute of criminology in the country to keep the security personnel of the member countries abreast of the latest techniques of crime prevention and detection.
This meeting of SAARC home ministers comes at a time when global and regional security landscape is going through a rapid change marked by non-traditional security threats.
Terrorism in South Asia has already reached the post-Westphalian age where no borders really matter to the terrorists. There is no better way than this to underscore the importance of the meting and its deliberations.
South Asia has reached a critical security juncture and needs to consider an effective multi-pronged approach to combat terrorism in the long run.
The science of counter terrorism is also taking a new shape globally. There is a growing awareness in the global policy circles that the war on terrorism must be fought in two fronts, the global and the regional.
The traditional complete-reliance on hard power is no longer a smart match in today’s complex threat pattern where non-state actors are involved.
There are two battlefields now in front of us: one is the operational and the other one is strategic; in the words of Rohan Gunaratna, it is the “battlefield of mind.”
Despite declarations regarding the need for greater collaboration among states on issues related to border security, mutual legal assistance, and law enforcement, this cooperation has been slow to materialize in South Asia.
Before moving forward, however, South Asia must look back and critically analyze why such declarations often ended up with no substantive outcome.
Top of the list is the mutual distrust. If the Afghanistan-Pakistan region is the hotbed of terrorism, the Pakistan-India border has witnessed four wars and innumerable border skirmishes. The border along Jammu and Kashmir has been ‘live’ ever since it was created 62 years ago.
India has for years complained to the world community of the State of Pakistan actively sponsoring terrorism and militancy, of infiltrating not only militants from the portion of Kashmir it controls, but also Afghan Taliban and those from outside of various Arab and Central Asian nationalities.
To counter the Indian charge, Pakistan has raised the bogey of India’s ‘interference’ in Balochistan, although this is not corroborated by anyone in the region or outside, be it the Gulf region next door, the US that is present in a big way in the Gulf and in Afghanistan or even the Chinese, who are allies of Pakistan.
Under these circumstances, South Asia has developed a myopic perception of terrorism; most of the regional states look at terrorism through their very own “national” prism and consider transnational ideological threats almost as non-issue.
It must be acknowledged that radical ideologies play a central role in terrorism. Many of the terror threat that South Asia is facing today emanate from a global movement underpinned by a violent politico-religious ideology. The global radical ideology has regional characteristics and dimensions, and South Asia is no exception.
These radical ideologies set the political goals, (try to) justify the means to attain them, define the ‘enemy’ to fight with, and mobilize support to survive and sustain. All these inputs cumulatively influence the acts of terror.
The best example of this phenomenon today is Pakistan, where not only religious minorities, but also sects within the Muslim community – the Shias, the Ahmediyyas and also the Sufis who espouse non-violence—are targeted daily.
This is also evident from the way women are targeted and girls’ schools are either burnt or closed.
Any in-depth analysis will reveal that the ideological, motivational and propaganda ability of South Asian threat groups are increasing. As we focus exclusively on the surface of terrorism, the roots remain undisturbed and are spreading at a dangerous pace. It has been found that most of the terrorists were enshrined into radical ideology at some point of time.
South Asia‘s security is challenged by socio-economic and politico-religious ideologies. Regionally, the menace of radicalization and terrorism has caused strains in bilateral relationships in South Asia. These created war-like situations and often puts break on regional cooperation. Globally radicalization and terrorism in some South Asian countries have stigmatized them, negatively reflecting on their international image and clout, as well as aid and investment opportunities.
It is true that, some of the terror groups in South Asia are clearly homegrown and indigenous but the contiguous geography, historical grievances (the Kashmir issue), extraterritorial allegiance of some non-state actors (Al Qaida), global rise of extremist ideology (clash between Christian/Jews and Muslims), technological innovations (nuclear weapons), transnational crime (drugs and arms smuggling), malignant border and mismanagement of inter-state relations make it evident that the line between indigenous and transnational terrorism is thin.
No oer region in the world is afflicted with so many deep and diverse problems.
This makes a case where terrorism in South Asia needs to be studied both at indigenous and transnational dimensions. Therefore, counterterrorism strategy of all the regional states in South Asia needs to be refocused on the unfolding developments in the region.
The latest trends in South Asia, specially the 2008 attacks in Mumbai, make it evident that the terror groups have attained capability to carry out complex, large scale and technologically sophisticated terror attacks.
This means South Asian states will have to fight a threat in a complex strategic matrix.
The recent attacks clearly indicate that some South Asian terrorist groups have cross border linkages and mobility and they have developed an independent capacity to plan and prosecute transnational operations. Hostage taking in large numbers and dramatic engagement with the security forces is a comparatively new trend.
The regional ideological and organizational links of extremists require countering through adoption of a regional perspective. This has been absent so far.
Although the SAARC secretariat is currently under-resourced, its existing offices and desks could be more effectively utilized if there were increased political will among SAARC members.
South Asia needs to create a new academic and policy space to converse and to develop such regional perspective through joint, collaborative and multilateral research, interaction, and networking.
Being an economically underdeveloped region, there were enough economic and social compulsions in South Asia to create a stimulus for collective action. However, the deep-seated political conflicts between India and Pakistan, and continuing distrust has delayed regional cooperation in South Asia for a considerable period of time.
Inseparable by geography, South Asian states need to move forward with a better understanding of each other’s concerns.
A common regional perspective will make it possible to innovate and devise a solution. (ends)