South Asia and the war on terror


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WHAT have been the implications of the war on terror for South Asia? And what might one expect in the near future? Any student of conflict in South Asia today has to pay attention to these questions. A new era for thinking on conflict has begun.

To be sure, violent conflict, whether inside or between nations, is not always linked to international forces. In my recent book, I have sought to argue that Hindu-Muslim violence in India is primarily domestic.1 In my view, international factors are not causes of violence; they are at best sparks, to which different cities and towns of India react very differently. In some towns, the civic engagement between Hindus and Muslim – in political parties, business associations, organizations of lawyers, teachers and students, NGOs, trade unions, and so on – is so extensive that sparks get extinguished. Tensions and small clashes do take place, but rioting does not.

In contrast, towns where segregation marks civic life, cities where Hindus and Muslims hardly interact, even small sparks – such as rumours about music before mosques, pigs thrown into mosques, cow slaughter, Hindu boys eloping with Muslim girls or vice versa – can become full-blooded fires, razing homes and businesses, taking human lives and causing destruction all around. Riots in segregated towns do not always need the provocation of a torched train; much smaller triggers have often been responsible for ghastly rioting.

The war on terror is important for this analysis for two reasons. First, terrorists have a vested interest in provoking violence. As a result, more sparks are inevitable and will test India’s civic fabric as well as state reaction more often than in recent times. Second, many of these sparks will also be quite intense, for terrorists do not believe in spreading rumours about pigs, cows and music. They seek viciously to attack buildings or personalities of great significance. Their attempt is to provoke outrage and invite retaliation. If Indian citizens fall in their trap – let us say, if Hindus retaliate against India’s Muslims for crimes that some Muslim extremists or terrorists commit – the likely outcome will not be the end of terrorism, but its worsening, as in Israel and Palestine.

By definition, suicide bombers do not calculate the value of human life, as ordinary mortals do. The odds that a simple-minded retaliation can work as deterrence – as a way to pre-empt further acts of terrorism – go down significantly, if costs as high as losing their own lives are irrelevant to an ever-renewing group of human beings.2 Much more careful thinking about how to attack terror is needed. Such thinking must, among other things, include redesigning intelligence for the new era, cutting off finances and communication links of terrorists and their supporters in a way that does not at the same time violate human rights of a whole group of citizens on religious or ethnic grounds, and, most of all, rebuilding integrated civil societies, which are more likely to see a spark as something to be extinguished, not something to be fanned further. A crude tit-for-tat, as we saw in Gujarat earlier this year, is simply an invitation to terrorists to strike more often and in a more deadly way. If the awesome might of Israel cannot deter terror, it is unlikely that revenge killings by Hindu nationalists can. Visceral retaliation is entirely unsuited to the new times.



Let us now turn to South Asian countries other than India. What has the war of terror done for them? Take Sri Lanka first. The war against terror is beginning to achieve one of its biggest victories on the island of Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka was the first country outside Europe and North America to practice universal franchise democracy – as early as 1931, before India did so in 1947 and before Switzerland in the 1960s. Undermining Sri Lanka’s remarkable democratic achievements, a civil war, one of the most brutal and with more fatalities than in Kashmir, has raged since 1983. That civil war appears to be coming to an end. Sri Lanka’s government has lifted the ban on the Tamil Tigers, and peace talks have been making substantial strides. While, in the end, peace may still elude Sri Lanka, the prospects for peace have never been brighter.

All available evidence suggests that two recent developments have been decisive: a new government committed to peace, and the choking of finances and material supplies to the Tamil Tigers. The latter is beyond doubt a result of the laws against financial and material supplies to terrorism, passed by the western governments. The Tamil Tigers have not been able to receive adequate support from the rich Tamil diaspora in the West, making it hard for them to continue their war with Sri Lanka’s government.

A couple of points about Sri Lanka are of international significance, but not widely noted. First, while suicide bombing as a form of normal politics was born in the Middle East, it was perfected in Sri Lanka by the Tigers. LTTE’s suicide bombs have killed two heads of government in South Asia and a score of cabinet ministers since the 1980s. Moreover, Tamil Tigers are not a Muslim but a Hindu group. Those who far too easily link Islam with terrorism should pay attention. A large part of mainstream opinion, both in the West and in non-Muslim countries, continues to see Islam inextricably linked with terror. That is simply wrong.



If the war against terror has brought long-run peace closer to Sri Lanka, my two other South Asian examples – relating to Kashmir and Afghanistan – show how hard the battle is and how long it might take to realize its principal goals.

In Kashmir, the stakes of the international community are, of course, greater than in Sri Lanka. India and Pakistan are both nuclear weapon states and over 4,000 American soldiers are stationed in Pakistan today. If a war were to break out between India and Pakistan, the odds of a nuclear tit for tat, though small, remain positive. However improbable, a nuclear war scenario must, and will, be closely watched.

Terrorists would ideally want an India-Pakistan war: hence their attacks on India’s Parliament, the Kashmir assembly, Hindu temples. If they manage to attack an important building yet again, something symbolically as important as the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, the threat of an Indo-Pak war would reappear. The key issue really is whether the Pakistan government has fully abandoned its support for terror in Kashmir as an instrument of public policy. Terrorists can operate without government support, but they would be so much weaker if the government did not support them.



In a thoughtful essay, Marin Strmecki, one of the most astute observers of defence matters in Pakistan and Afghanistan and a former advisor to Brzezinski, writes that President Musharraf, as an ally in the war against terror, is ‘vital but profoundly flawed’.3 He is vital, for without his support Washington cannot fully execute its war against Al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and catch the remaining high operatives still hiding in that region. He is profoundly flawed because while he may be against Islamic extremists in Afghanistan and within Pakistan, his Kashmir policy has critically relied on them, and even if he has personally promised to end his support for terror – a commitment he has often made to Washington – he presides over the vast machinery of the ISI. Musharraf’s intentions may well be in question;4 equally important is the role of the ISI as an institution.

Scholars, journalists and observers have repeatedly noted that supporting Islamic terror in Afghanistan and Kashmir has been one of the principal functions of the ISI since the 1980s. The entire organization, which continues to be powerful, was schooled and socialized in that tradition and retains many in high organizational position who still support that cause. The threat to peace emanating from Pakistan is only partly due to popular support for the Islamic cause – Islamic extremists have won a significant proportion of the vote in NWWP and Baluchistan only, not in Sind or Punjab. A more serious threat stems from the Islamic extremist influence in the military and intelligence services and the relative weakness of controls over their behaviour.

What can control their conduct? It seems sensible to argue that a democratic polity is more likely to do so than a military regime, for the latter is committed to Kashmir in a way that civilian politicians, forced to balance all sorts of policy and political goals and constituencies, simply cannot be. Indeed, Pakistan’s military appears to have a vested interest in keeping Kashmir burning, for otherwise its rationale for dominance over the civilian wings of Pakistan’s polity will disappear. A democratic polity, with civilians in control, may not be a sure agent of peace in Kashmir, but the odds that it will be better than a military-dominated polity must be considered significantly greater.



Since a civilian-dominated polity in Pakistan is nowhere close on the political horizon, the crux of the matter is this: Are Musharraf’s support for separatism in Kashmir and his commitment to end Islamic terrorism mutually consistent? What happens in Kashmir will only partly depend on whether New Delhi, or the newly elected state government, behaves better in the valley. Peace in Kashmir will also significantly depend on President Musharraf’s conduct.

Therefore, India needs the US to continue to balance its need for Musharraf’s support – which is inevitable so long as Al Qaeda fighters are still in Pakistan – with criticism of his conduct and pressure on him to keep his promises. If Musharraf did not badly need the US, this would in fact be an impossible balancing act to perform. Luckily for India, Musharraf’s reliance on the US is as great as the US reliance on him. This structure of symbiosis is to be deftly exploited by Indian diplomacy. Without the US to pressure Musharraf, India’s options in Kashmir would be much more limited in this age of terror. A pre-9/11 Musharraf would simply be more reckless.



Let me finally turn to Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, the problem has increasingly come to be defined as nation building, a necessarily long-run enterprise. In his election campaign, President Bush had spoken against nation building outside American borders as a goal of American foreign policy. 9/11 has radically altered all that. Defeating the Taliban was only one part of the battle; now, through its allies in Afghanistan and an international support network, Washington has to make sure that order is restored, the government functions, and rule of law returns to a land which has not known it for over two decades. America is clearly in Afghanistan for the long haul, and it has to think about the key components of Afghan nation building.

Nothing is arguably more important than the internal ethnic tangle of Afghanistan, which remains delicately poised. The most powerful positions in the current government, with the exception of Hamid Karzai, have gone to the ethnic minority group of Tadjiks – to be more precise, to the so-called Panjshiri faction of the Northern Alliance, whose ramshackle armies and local knowledge were used by the US to defeat the Taliban. To appease the largest ethnic group, the Pashtuns, Karzai was imposed on the Northern Alliance. He appears to have no major domestic base of his own. Many parts of the country are ruled neither by him nor by his government, but by the traditional warlords.

The overall situation thus remains fraught with danger, as the attempts at Karzai’s assassination demonstrated. For the extreme scenario still possible, let me yet again turn to Marin Strmecki. ‘If the current political imbalances in Kabul radicalize a large segment of the Pashtuns and if Pakistan’s ISI (using Pashtun disaffection) organizes an opposition movement, civil war would not be far away.’5 This would truly be an awkward situation, were it to come true.



To conclude, I have made four larger points in this essay. First, a mindless and brutal retaliation against India’s Muslims is more likely to strengthen than defeat terrorism. Second, terrorism in South Asia is not confined to Muslims or Islamic radicals; LTTE is a Hindu force. Third, the US is now involved in nation building in Afghanistan, a difficult and long enterprise, in which victory cannot confidently be predicted and a return to civil war in Afghanistan simply cannot be ruled out. Finally, a less than exemplary commitment by Pakistan to terminating its policy of supporting terror in Kashmir is likely to continue to make peace an elusive goal in Kashmir. A civilian-dominated democratic polity in Pakistan, added to an elected government in Kashmir, is a better bet for peace than either alone.



1. Ethhic Conflict and Civic Life: Hindus and Muslims in India, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2002; and Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2002.

2. I develop this argument at length in ‘Nationalism, Ethnic Conflict and Rationality’, Perspectives on Politics, forthcoming in March 2003. Perspectives on Politics is a new journal of the American Political Science Association. March 2003 will be its inaugural issue. Also see the last chapter of Donald Horowitz, The Deadly Ethnic Riot, University of California Press, Berkeley, 2000; and Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2002.

3. National Review, 1 July 2002.

4. For a remarkable recent editorial on this point, see ‘Healing Kashmir’, Washinton Post, 1 December 2002.

5. ISIS journal, 6 August 2002.