By Ajai Sahni
There is more killing, more peace, and a greater fragility in South Asia.
The qualified good news first:
In Sri Lanka, one of the world’s most lethal and pitiless terrorist organizations, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), has been comprehensively defeated, bringing to an end a relentless 33-year long conflict, and 26 years of full scale civil war. On May 20, 2009, the Sri Lanka Army officially declared the end of Eelam War IV after the fall of the garrison town of Paranthan. The top leadership of the LTTE, including its chief Vellupillai Prabhakaran, intelligence chief Pottu Amman and Sea Tigers chief, Soosai, were dead. Defeated remnants of the armed cadres surrendered or sought obscurity among the thousands of the Tamil displaced in refugee camps, while the Diaspora leadership squabbled over succession, eventually to publicly renounce the option of violence.
Had this been a Western victory, there would have been a sense of “unadulterated and righteous triumph”, a quick forgetfulness of all that was done in the darkness of war, and an accelerated effort of reconstruction. In Sri Lanka, however, the peace has been quickly poisoned, first by “a seething and barely concealed outrage” among various international agencies who had been involved in the ‘peace efforts’ in the country; then by a Sinhala triumphalism that sought to deny or at least defer a fair deal to the Tamils; thereafter, by a bitter and polarizing presidential election that saw a face-off between two of the war’s most prominent heroes, President Mahinda Rajapakse, and his victorious Army Chief, General (Retd.) Sarath Fonseka; and finally, by a vicious personalized politics of vendetta that finds General Fonseka arrested and currently in detention under less than credible charges of conspiring to assassinate the President.
There is, of course, little possibility of a resurgence of terrorist violence in the foreseeable future. The LTTE has been entirely decimated but, more significantly, Sri Lankan intelligence penetration of the structures of the organization and its accumulated information resources on the rebel cadres and leadership, are now so complete that any possibility of revival would quickly – and ruthlessly – be crushed. The enduring tragedy of Sri Lanka is that the opportunities of a hard won peace are quickly being frittered away in a blind, polarizing and fractious politics.
Another bitter peace prevails in Nepal, where the Communist Party of Nepal – Maoist (now Unified Communist Party of Nepal – Maoist, UCPN-M) led a decade-long insurgency against what was then the country’s decaying monarchy. A deal between the Seven Party Alliance of democratic parties and the Maoists brought hostilities to an end in April 2006, a Comprehensive Peace Agreement in November 2006, and the abolition of the monarchy and creation of a Republic in 2008. The years of bloody violence, the worst of which, 2002, saw 4,896 fatalities (SATP data), are now in the past, though sporadic violence between various armed groups still resulted in 50 fatalities in 2009, and 12 have already been killed in 2010 (till March 21). Though these numbers are negligible in comparison to the slaughters of the war years, a culture of intransigence and armed intimidation has now become entrenched in the country’s politics, and various political formations have raised armed groupings to secure a privileged position at the negotiating table. As a result, the work of the Constituent Assembly, elected in April 2008, has been stalled, even as an unremitting succession of crises paralyses governance. A worsening political deadlock saw the fall of the UCPN-Maoist led Government on May 4, 2009, even as disruptive protests by the Maoists, and by smaller militant political formations crippled the Administration. There has been much acrimony, and the ruling Communist Party of Nepal – United Marxist-Leninist (CPN-UML)-led Government and the Maoists have, each, repeatedly accused the other of working to subvert the peace process. As the two year deadline of May 28, 2010, for the completion of the Constitution drafting process approaches, with the process barely begun, the Maoists have threatened to take to the streets – if not worse – again if the Constitution is not completed in time. The outlook for Nepal is, evidently, more than uncertain. The political deadlock is, in any event, worsening rapidly, with no single one of the parties demonstrating the sagacity to pull the country out of the political and constitutional logjam, and Maoist belligerence mounting.
Bangladesh is probably the source of the best news in the region in recent times, as it pulls back dramatically from what, just three years ago, had begun to look like the brink. Since the election of the Sheikh Hasina Government in December 2008, with a thumping majority, the country has experienced an abrupt stabilization, as the regime moves strongly to curb the activities of powerful terrorist groupings who had operated under significant state acquiescence, if not direct support, under earlier administrations. This includes Islamist terrorist groups, such as the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami Bangladesh (HuJI-B) as well as subversive political formations such as the Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh, whose leadership is now at serious risk as a result of the Government’s determination to bring the guilty in the war crimes of 1971 to book. At the same time, Dhaka has acted decisively against the many terrorist groupings operating in India’s Northeast, who had found safe haven on Bangladeshi soil for decades. Their camps have been shut down, even as most of their leaders have been quietly handed over to Indian authorities, while others – most prominently including Paresh Baruah, the ‘commander-in-chief’ of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA)– have fled. Prime Minister Hasina has also initiated several measures to address institutional deficits in the security apparatus, including the formation of a 17-member National Committee on Militancy Resistance and Prevention’, and has called for a South Asian Anti-Terrorism Task Force, to curb cross-border terrorism.
But the transition from radicalism to stability in Bangladesh is far from complete. Groups such as HuJI-B and the Pakistani Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) retain a significant presence in the country, though they are currently lying low. The Jamiat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), which was the principal architect of the serial blasts across the country on August 17, 2005, has a substantial surviving presence, despite the execution of its top leadership that was found guilty of the serial bombings, and the arrest of many second-rung leaders. There are at least some signs that, despite the Governments very effective campaign against them, Islamist extremist organizations in the country are regrouping. At least part of the Government’s anti-terrorist campaign, moreover, appears to be misdirected. There were 86 ‘terrorism related’ fatalities in 2009, 80 of them enumerated as ‘terrorists’ (the remaining six were civilians) every one of them purported members of a Left Wing Extremist (LWE) movement of which there is little evidence on the ground, other than the large numbers of alleged militants who are routinely bumped off by the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB). Not a single Islamist terrorist was killed in the country in 2009, though one has already been killed in 2010.
India has been another mixed bag. Total terrorism / insurgency related fatalities have plummeted, from a peak of 5,839 in 2001, to 2,611 in 2008, and further to 2226 in 2009 (SATP data). Through 2009, India experienced no major Islamist terrorist attack outside Jammu & Kashmir (J&K), after the succession of attacks in 2008, culminating in the Mumbai 26/11 outrage, which killed at least 166. While this must bring some relief to the security establishment in the country, there is little ground for complacency. 2010 has already seen a major terrorist attack in Pune, suspected to have been engineered by Pakistan-backed Islamists, and Union Home Minister Chidambaram referred repeatedly to some 13 Islamist terrorist conspiracies that had been thwarted through 2009. Crucially, the steep decline in total fatalities is overwhelmingly the consequence of the precipitate fall in Jammu & Kashmir, where fatalities have dropped from 4,507 in 2001, to 377 in 2009, principally as a consequence, not of any dramatic Indian initiatives or successes, but of Pakistan’s growing internal difficulties and the overwhelming media and international focus on the support regional and international terrorism secures from that country’s establishment and on its soil. While the scale of terrorism exported from Pakistan has certainly been calibrated downward, the reality is that the infrastructure of the anti-India jihad continues to be held in reserve by the Pakistani State. There is also mounting evidence of an escalation of tensions along the Line of Control (LoC) and International Border (IB) in J&K, with Pakistan troops repeatedly firing on Indian Forces, usually to facilitate terrorist infiltration. At least 28 incidents of ceasefire violation were recorded along the LoC in 2009.
Across India’s Northeast, total fatalities in the multiplicity of ethnicity based conflicts dropped from 1,054 in 2008 to 843 in 2009. These trends were further consolidated by Bangladeshi initiatives that divested the major Northeast insurgent groupings of their safe havens in that country, and handed over their leaderships to Indian authorities.
But the Maoist rampage has escalated. SATP data suggest at least 998 killed in 2009, but partial data released by the Government indicates that the total for the year will mount well above the High Intensity Conflict mark of 1,000 fatalities. The Maoists have established a presence in 223 Districts across 20 States, out of a total of 636 Districts in 28 States and seven Union Territories. The situation is not, however, as alarming as this spread may suggest. Home Minister Chidambaram indicated that violence “has been consistently witnessed in about 400 Police Station areas of around 90 Districts in 13 States” (there are over 14,000 Police Stations in the country). More troubling, however is the breakup of data on Maoist-related fatalities, with Security Forces(SF) accounting for as much as 71 per cent of the total of 998 fatalities enumerated by SATP in 2009 (as against 66 per cent of 638 fatalities in 2008), demonstrating the degree to which the Maoists have monopolized the initiative. India’s Maoist troubles threaten to augment, even as the notorious ‘flailing state’ continues to flounder through contradictory and uncertain policy and operational responses.
And now, the unmitigated bad news:
Despite the expanding theatres of palpable, though fragile, peace in South Asia, total fatalities in the region continue in a sustained upward spiral, rising to as much as 31,824, up from 20,242 in 2008, 10,599 in 2007; 8,760 in 2006, and 6,129 in 2005. The terminal stages of the war in Sri Lanka, of course, account for nearly half of this total (15,565).
It is, however, in Pakistan – and in the wider AfPak region (it is no longer possible to divorce developments in Afghanistan from the trajectories of Islamist terrorism in South Asia) – that the heart of an abiding darkness lies. The Afghanistan-Pakistan complex has, for more than a decade now, been the principal source of the global crisis of Islamist terrorism. Over the past years of intense, but conflicting and uncertain, efforts, the situation in both countries has worsened steadily. 2009 was a year of escalating violence and widening disorder across the AfPak region. The ‘surge’ of US troops in Afghanistan in 2010 and the uncertain tactical gains in Marjah notwithstanding, there is little reason to believe that the troubling fundamentals of the region are going to experience any significant change.
In Pakistan, at least 11,585 persons were killed in terrorism-related violence in 2009 (the actual numbers could be significantly higher, since Pakistan denies access to the media and independent monitors in most areas of conflict), a number that comes close to the cumulative fatalities between 2003 and 2008, at 13,485. The 2009 figure represented an increase of 73 per cent over the 2008 fatalities, at 6,715. The 2009 fatalities included 2,307 civilians, 1,011 SF personnel and 8,267 ‘terrorists’ (the last category is arbitrary, since, on most accounts, every person killed by State Forces is simply so labeled, and no independent verification is possible). By March 8, 1,521 people had already been killed in terrorism-related violence in 2010, including 428 civilians, 126 SF personnel and 916 ‘terrorists’.
In Afghanistan, Coalition military fatalities in 2009 were the highest since the commencement of Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001, and, at 520, were higher by more than 76 per cent over the 295 killed in 2008. Coalition losses between 2001 and 2009 totalled 1,567. Coalition fatalities for 2010 had already reached 126 by March 21, suggesting that this could be the bloodiest year yet. Reliable data on Afghan fatalities is unavailable in the open source, and no such data is released by Coalition authorities or the Afghan Government. One unconfirmed source, citing “lowest credible estimates”, however, put Afghan civilian fatalities at 2,014 between January and October 2009, while total civilian fatalities were estimated at 2,118 in 2008; at 1523 in 2007; and 929 in 2006. Anecdotal reportage on continuous Taliban attacks and incessant reports of ‘collateral’ fatalities in Coalition and Afghan National Army (ANA) operations would, however, suggest a far worse and escalating scenario. No authoritative estimate of the total number of militants killed is available.
As could easily have been anticipated, the ‘surge’ of 2009 in Afghanistan has been a clear failure. A second ‘surge’, equally poorly conceptualized, has now been initiated, even as a fresh deadline for a phased ‘exit’ of Western Forces, possibly commencing in July 2011 (on some accounts, 2012), preceded by the integration of the ‘good Taliban’ in the power structure, is now being envisaged. The consequences can only be disastrous.
The ‘London Summit’ (London Conference on Afghanistan, January 10, 2010), represented the ‘consensual’ approach of the international community, led by the US and the UK, outlining the proposed ‘strategy’ to support the Afghan Government “to secure, stabilize and develop Afghanistan”. The Summit led to a measure of optimism, and to at least some positive commentary. Significantly, the Summit included the participation of five ‘moderate Taliban’ leaders – Abdul Wakil Mutawakil, Faiz Mohammad Faizan, Shams-us-Safa, Mohammad Musa, and Abdul Hakim – after their names were dropped from the United Nations’ listing of terrorists.
The London Summit is a clear admission of defeat by the Western powers, and demonstrates that they lack the will and capabilities to fight terrorism within a protracted war framework. Whatever the rhetoric, this is, at best, a plan for ordered flight. It is a plan, moreover, based on a complete misunderstanding of the nature of the adversary, and on the misconception that the Western powers can simply ‘walk away’ from the mess in Afghanistan after ‘co-opting’ the ‘moderate Taliban’ into the ‘political process’.
The reality is that a Western withdrawal will surrender Afghanistan to extremism, and will be seen as the triumph of radical Islam not only by its adherents, but also by hundreds of thousands of fence sitters, among whom a significant proportion will certainly be inspired by this ‘victory’ to join the terrorist jihad. The only consequence of this will be that the West itself – and Europe most particularly – will become the principal battlefield of Islamist terrorism, even as the South Asian neighbourhood comes under unprecedented jihadi attack. As for Afghanistan, once the cover of Coalition Forces is lifted, the moderates would be wiped out. It can also be anticipated that an alliance of extremists in Pakistan and Afghanistan (including elements in the state structure in these countries) will come to dominate the global jihad. This alliance would operate with a new impunity, since it will then be clear that no power in the world has the capacity or the will to intervene effectively in the region. Such confidence can only be increased by Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.
While Pakistan’s internal disorders escalate exponentially, this calculus has evidently not been missed by its leaderships. Violence now engulfs every region of Pakistan. Balochistan, the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), Punjab, Sindh, Gilgit-Baltistan and ‘Azad Kashmir’ – is each experiencing augmenting levels of violence. But, even as the military and political heartlands of Punjab – Rawalpindi and Islamabad – come under direct radical extremist attack, Pakistan has not abandoned its duplicity on terrorism. While selective action has been taken against the ‘renegade’ Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the Pakistan establishment continues to extend support to the Taliban and various warlord factions in Afghanistan, even as it nourishes a multiplicity of India–directed terrorist formations, including the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), the Jaish-e-Muhammad, the Harkat-ul-Mujahiddeen, and the 16-group United Jihad Council headed by Hizb-ul-Mujahiddeen chief, Mohammad Yusuf Shah aka Syed Salahuddin. As Ashley Tellis notes, for instance, in his testimony to the US House Committee on Foreign Affairs, on March 11, 2020,
LeT remains primarily Pakistani in its composition, uses Pakistani territory as its main base of operation, and continues to be supported extensively by the Pakistani state, especially the Army and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI)… The United States should stop pretending that LeT is an independent actor.
Pakistan’s role in supporting terrorism in India and Afghanistan is now one of the world’s worst kept secrets. This was further confirmed, through December 2009, by the Federal Bureau of Investigation interrogation of David Coleman Headley alias Daood Gilani [one of the prime suspect in the 26/11 Mumbai terrorist attacks]; the FBI found that “a section of serving Pakistan Army officers” were working in close collaboration with India-specific jihadi groups like the LeT and Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM). That Islamabad also continues to harbour Taliban militants fighting against the Allied forces, led by US, in Afghanistan, was confirmed, albeit obliquely, from the highest US Office: on February 10, 2009, President Barack Obama asserted that his Administration would not allow ‘safe havens’ for al Qaeda and the Taliban operating with ‘impunity’ in the Tribal Areas of Pakistan, bordering Afghanistan.
And yet it is increasingly evident, now, that the US-led coalition in Afghanistan is only looking for a face saving ‘exit strategy’. A premature Western withdrawal from Afghanistan would, however, have a devastating impact on security and stability, not only in South Asia, but immediately across the Eurasian mass, and beyond, to comprehend a global stage. Unprecedented forces would be unleashed by a perceived jihadi ‘victory’ in Afghanistan, and such forces would not only target the South Asian neighbourhood, but, overwhelmingly, the Western world as well. This is not Vietnam; the US cannot simply turn its back on Afghanistan, without the risk of being attacked on an unprotected rear. The US-Western perspective on AfPak remains incoherent, and, unless drastically re-envisioned, can only add to global chaos.
For all her millennia of history, there is little political wisdom in contemporary South Asia. For centuries now, outsiders have defined the critical turning points of destiny across these territories, and this does not appear to have changed. There is an evident collapse of leadership across much of the region, and an incapacity to capitalize even on the tremendous gains that have been secured in many of the constituent countries. Once again, it seems, the decisions of outside forces will overwhelmingly determine the trajectory of violence and the receding possibilities of peace, in this vast, populous and troubled region of the world.
Ajai Sahni is Editor of SAIR; Executive Director, Institute for Conflict Management. This article was prepared by, and first appeared at, the South Asia Terrorist Portal – SATP – (http://www.satp.org) – produced by the Institute of Conflict Management.
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