Security & peace in South Asia

Maj Gen Amsa Amin ndc, psc (Retd)

Peace has been elusive in South Asia over the past six decades or so. Despite expectations otherwise, global turmoil has greatly increased since the end of the Cold War. Nuclear proliferation, Islamic jihad and militancy, terrorism and war against terrorism etc. have become worldwide phenomena. South Asian countries also have their fair share of all of these problems. Iraq and Afghanistan are not very far from here, neither is Iran. South Asia and the surrounding region sits on a geo-strategically pivotal land mass stretching from the Middle East to the wind-swept steppes of Central Asia. Its shores are washed by the Indian Ocean. The north is bounded by the daunting Himalayas and China. Geopolitics and Cold War of the last half century saw the South Asian countries go through periods of military alliances, non-alignment, military build up and arms race. People have also lived through insurrections, terrorism, border skirmishes, wars, arms race as well as nuclear proliferation. The end results have been continued suffering, abject poverty and a very poor quality of life. The sacrifices did not provide the much sought after peace and stability in the nearly sixty years of freedom from colonial rule. The people of South Asia must now seriously look for alternative ways to achieve peace and security.

Due to obvious reasons the article will mainly focus on Indo-Pakistan situations. They have fought three wars, including the Bangladesh Liberation War. It is needless to say that regional security, stability and peace basically hinges on Indo-Pak relations. Other conflicts chiefly have internal dimensions like in Sri Lanka and Nepal. India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar, though not a part technically, also have local insurgencies and terrorism which, despite transfrontier implications, are basically home grown. Porous borders can and do help unintentional spill over. Sometimes, intentional support to such insurgencies by a neighbour cannot be ruled out. These local conflicts are less critical and therefore will be briefly touched upon.

Rough Road to Peace: Let us call a spade a spade. The common people want peace, the power brokers do not. Therefore much desired peace is no closer than ever before. Road maps or no road maps, there is no straight road to security and peace. Basic contradiction in world politics is in divergent aspirations of the wealthy and the poorer nations. Poor nations need peace and stability for development, while the rich needs military might for domination. The dilemma for the poor is that they are dependent on the rich. This helps power play. Trillions of dollars are spent for military research and build up while billions of people suffer inhuman living conditions and starvation. Millennium Development Goals never get the dues paid. There is no easy road to peace.

The search must still go on in this cold hard world of real-politik.

Global Realpolitik: In The New Freedom, President Woodrow Wilson revealed in 1913: “Since I entered politics, I have chiefly had men's views confided to me privately. Some of the biggest men in the US, in the field of commerce and manufacturing, are afraid of somebody, are afraid of something. They know that there is a power somewhere so organised, so subtle, so watchful, so interlocked, so complete, so pervasive, that they had better not speak above their breath when they speak in condemnation of it.” President Bill Clinton's Georgetown University mentor, Professor Carroll Quigley stated in ‘Tragedy and Hope’ (1966): “I know of the operations of this network because I have studied it for twenty years and was permitted for two years, in the early 1960s, to examine its papers and secret records.” Dr. D. L. Cuddy, in his paper on, ‘The New World Order’ writes about such a thing as a cabal of power brokers who control governments behind the scenes. It has been detailed several times in this century by credible sources.” Michael Moor in his documentary film Fahrenheit 9/11, graphically highlights the interests behind and the background of Iraq war decision making. Control of scarce resources of a region, security concerns and geopolitical domination of a strategic region are underlying purposes of great power play. Poor countries will hardly be able to withstand such power play unless democratic tradition becomes very strong and is duly supported by a certain minimum level of economic strength. These are essential preconditions for building peace and security and stability in any region. Lacking such preconditions, least developed countries like ours, thus face the greatest of challenges. South Asians were always vulnerable and still are to this power play. Addressing the issues will demand tremendous effort to build mutual trust within the region and very pragmatic approach in dealing with the realpolitik of the world.

Indian Ocean Zone of Peace: South Asia is part of the so called arc of instability stretching from the Middle East to the Central Asian plains. Iraq war, Afghan imbroglio, and regime change scenarios in Central Asia and so on do affect South Asian region as well as the emerging new world order. Peace and stability of South Asia will be greatly affected by developments in these countries just as developments in the Indian Ocean will. In a greater study of peace this area cannot be overlooked. For now we will briefly look at the Indian Ocean region and then zero on to South Asia.

Bandung (1955) and Cairo (1964) Non-alignment spirit led to the 1970 Lusaka Conference formulation of the Indian Ocean Zone of Peace concept in the background of intense Great Power rivalry. Sri Lanka was the foremost champion for the cause. UN General Assembly accepted the proposal in 1971. By 1975, the resolution received wide support of 106 member countries voting in favour, with 25 abstentions, none voting against. The Asian Leaders vision was to promote peace and security by preventing nuclear and conventional arms race in the region which was needed for much desired prosperity and economic development. Sri Lankan vision foresaw an eventual evolution of an Indian Ocean Community. The realpolitik determined the outcome otherwise. The realisaion of Zone of Peace remains as far as ever. Meanwhile, India and Pakistan have become regional nuclear powers. Diego Garcia developed from a small communication facility to a major military base. This indicates manifold increase of US strategic interests in the region. Regional tensions continue unabated and there are no signs of it reducing. Thus, out break of wars, uneasy peace and sense of insecurity of India and Pakistan as well as Sino-Indian rivalry for regional domination continues till to day, fuelling a triangular arms race.

The Arms Race: Dr. Ahmad Faruqui of American Institute of International Studies estimated that India and Pakistan together spends annually over US $ 30 billion. It turns out to be much higher in terms of purchasing-power-parity (PPP). Calculations on PPP basis show India spending around US $ 100 billion, the third highest in the world. The highest defence spending is US $ 450 billion by the USA and the second highest is US $ 150 billion by China. 41% of India's defence budget is spent on acquiring submarines, aircraft career, modern fighter jets and tanks. US sale of arms to India and Pakistan has increased manifold. Pakistan increased its current defense budget by 15% which is double the rate of its economic growth.

Condoleezza Rice, the US Secretary of State recently justified sale of seventy five F-16s at US $ 3 billion to Pakistan to meet the so-called strategic requirement to bring stability to the Afghan-Central Asian region, the much vaunted arc of instability. For the first time last August Pakistan tested Cruise Missiles which can deliver nuclear warheads up to a range of 500 kilometers with pin point accuracy. This was to offset Indian decision to acquire US Patriot Missiles. Race for development of ballistic missiles like Indian Agni and Pakistani Ghaury were already going on for some times, but nuclear warhead launching cruise missiles have added a new dimension to it. After a long 10 year hiatus US resumed military aid to Pakistan and signed an unprecedented 10 year defence pact with India. These will have serious implications on arms race and raise strategic questions regarding relations with China. Both historical Sino-Pak and recently warming Sino-Indian relations after long hostilities can get terribly complicated affecting South Asian peace.

Indo-Pak Peace Overtures: Interestingly the arms race has not slowed down the peace overtures or it can also be said the other way round. Peace process has made some progress. It is not laudable yet, but it is on track. Recent protocol to provide early warning to each other about ballistic missile tests is a step in the right direction. Coastal forces’ hot line to ease tension and prevent unintended flare up will surely help conflict management. High hopes have been raised that the problems of Siachen and Sir Creek will be solved by the end of this year. Success of these steps, big and small, ultimately can create the much needed confidence and trust to face the Kashmir and the nuclear issues. These two combined are the internal fulcrum of Indo-Pak diplomacy for ultimate conflict resolution. Sino-India-Pakistan triangular relationship is also a vital factor for South Asian peace. USA already has a major role as well. Here lies the dilemma of peace in South Asia. It involves an almost impossible task of harmonising such conflicting interests.

Despite these complications Indo-Pak relations have definitely warmed up since the bus-ride diplomacy. Much peace rhetoric is flying around. Though not significant yet high profile words of peace do help build some confidence in public perception. The region shared a common heritage of a great civilisation. Historically one could say that diversity of religious and sub-religious cultures have enriched this civilisation. Muslim Mughal Emperors had honoured secular traditions as well. The British for the first time used religion in politics to divide the people to safeguard their colonial interests. The people are still suffering from this hangover. It is truly at the heart of Indo-Pak psychological conflict. Sociocultural antipathy among Hindus and Muslims lie at the very heart of mutual mistrust. It is unfortunate that despite over a thousand years of peaceful coexistence, despite preaching and writings of great Hindu and Muslim saints and social reformers and the great Sufis, distrust continues unabated. This region still needs great minds to help liberate the people from prejudices and distrust giving them a new spiritual rebirth for creating greater insight of the civilisation and help create greater harmony, fellowship and brotherhood. Such an approach can add a new dimension to the entire process.

Other Security Situations: Northern Nepal borders with China. It has a well developed Communist revolutionary movement. Ever since the King dismissed the elected government, political situation has become very unstable. Apart from civil unrest, the communist guerillas are conducting an armed struggle against the King. The King has not yet responded to calls to restore democratic rule. Reportedly, Nepali communists are trying to secure support from such groups from West Bengal and even Bangladesh. Basically it is an internal problem and due process of dialogue and reestablishment of democracy can help contain and absorb the movement in a democratic dispensation. Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE) are holding on to an uneasy ceasefire brokered by the Norwegian peace makers. LTTE is expected to coo-perate to successfully complete the upcoming general elections peacefully. It is widely reported that seeking peaceful solution of the Tamil problem has become the main election issue. As an honest broker Norway is actively engaged with the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE.

Porous borders. Is fencing the answer?

Implementation of the ceasefire agreement will restart after the election. Pakistan is trying hard to contain its Islamic militancy. Government efforts have received wide western appreciation. Apart from urban terrorism, the government forces are grappling with North Waziristan frontier insurgency by cross frontier Afghan-Taleban forces. Bangladesh’ internal security situation has become worse. Islamic extremists have spread to all the districts and are conducting repeated bomb raids. In one estimate 3000 Taleban trained and experienced Bengali fighters had returned to Bangladesh and are training thousands more, including suicidal bombers. The growth of these so-called Jihadi forces are phenomenal. The govern-ment response to deal with them is being considered inadequate. Serious allegations have been made about involvement and support of some Ministers, Members of Parliaments and government officials. This makes Bangladesh situation very critical.

Role of Bangladesh: Bangladesh is the current Chairman of SAARC. More-over, other than pin-pricks there were no major stumbling blocks in her relations with the neighbours. This has accorded a good opportunity to play a significant role in confidence building. But recent developments and certain internal political dynamics have caused loss of national image and have cast a dark shadow on this possibility. Unprecedented rise of Islamic militancy have thrown a great challenge to National security of Bangladesh itself. The government and all its security and intelligence agencies totally failed to provide early warning and prevent a massive 500 bomb blasts, timed and synchronised within 20-30 minutes of each other, at 350 locations spread all over the country, including 50 blasts at Dhaka, the capital city itself - all on the same day on August 17, 2005. Bangladesh is now one of the top terror ridden countries. Government has so far made just about 300 or so arrests. The measures have so far failed to raise much public confidence. The twice postponed SAARC was held under tight security in November 2005. Follow up actions are awaited. The Summit has allowed an opportunity to talk about peace and security in South Asia in general, although contentious security issues are a no go area for SAARC. It has successfully held together for around twenty years. Members should now feel confident about including security and military issues within the agenda. Since Indo-Pak peace process is showing a healthy sign, this is the right time to move the Association’s activities beyond socioeconomic and cultural field and on to strategic and security issues. Kashmir earthquake in October 2005 was an awful human disaster. Bangladesh could have sent couple of much needed helicopters, civil-military doctors team and some blankets. Mutual disaster management participation could help create solidarity amongst the people of the region and confidence building. Despite Government weaknesses, Bangladesh civil society in cooperation with such other societies in the region could initiate a significant dialogue and exchange of views around all the capitals and major cities with the purpose of arriving at a consensus among themselves. They can organise themselves as an active regional society for awareness building and also act as a pressure group on the national policy makers. The enlightened people in politics, the academia, the media, the defense and security experts, human rights activists, lawyers, cultural and literary personnel, NGOs, business leaders and think tanks can all contribute towards this end. Right now such work may be going on in an isolated way and mainly for academic purposes. My proposal is to approach such organisations and people and get them to agree to form some thing like a Council for Regional Peace (CRP) or so. Initial work of coordination and exchange of views can be done in the internet by opening a dynamic web based forum. Ultimately physical moves have to be made to make it an effective pressure group.

The policy makers must carry out a truthful sociopolitical audit to exactly determine profit and loss of our people over the last sixty years. The balance sheet surely will show that this resource rich region would have made as much progress and enjoyed as much prosperity as the ASEAN countries. Their security problems and great power play implications were no less intense and complicated. Their leadership has shown great farsightedness in resolving those problems and laying down the framework for rapid economic development. Of course we have to find our own solutions. South Asian leadership have to understand the failures of the past and chart out a new road map for peace and stability paving the way for development and prosperity.

The author is a free lancer.

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