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Mainstream, Vol XLVII No 11, February 28, 2009

South Asia: Peace and Conflict in the Context of the War on Terror

Monday 2 March 2009, by Ninan Koshy


South Asia has been one of the most volatile regions of the world. The nature of its volatility and that of the conflicts has been redefined by the US-led war on terror in which the rulers of the region have joined. Tensions within the region have been heightened and conflicts have been made more intractable as states sought alliance with the USA. Peace and conflict in South Asia are today sought to be defined in terms of US interests and objectives in the region or in a framework imposed by the USA. The major factor in the new relationship of the US with South Asia, projecting its interests and objectives in an unprecedented manner into the region, is the strategic partnership with India, with its prono-unced military dimension.

Change in India’s Foreign Policy

INDIA was one of the first, if not the first, countries to declare unequivocal support for the US war on terror. India enthusiastically applauded President Bush’s “with us or with the terrorists” declaration. There was a deliberate departure from the decades-old policy of refusing to get drawn into military entanglements with any power. At work in New Delhi was the beginning of the calculated dismantling of the entire rationale of non-alignment and the edifice of an independent foreign policy subjugating India’s national interests to US war plans.

While Indian leaders including Prime Minister Vajpayee claimed that India and US were ‘natural allies’, it was explained this was natural between the two largest democracies. In fact what made it natural was the neo-conservative ideology of militarism as the policy of the Bush Administration finding its ally in the BJP’s ideological commitment to militarism, in a common enterprise against “Islamic terrorism”.

From the beginning of the war on terror, the Bush Administration had made it clear that what it wanted primarily with India was a military relationship. On the eve of his leaving the ambassadorial post in India, Robert Blackwill wrote in a leader page article (“US India Defence Cooperation”) in The Hindu on May 12, 2003:

Taken together our defence cooperation and military sales activities intensify the working relationship between the respective armed forces, build mutual cooperation for future joint military operations and strengthen Indian military capability which is in America’s interest… An Indian military that is capable of operating efficiently alongside its American counterparts remains an important goal of our defence bilateral relationship. What we have achieved since 2001 builds a strong foundation on which to consummate this strategic objective which will promote peace and freedom across Asia and beyond.

Blackwill made the nature of US-India defence relationship abundantly clear. The ‘strategic objective’ is to have ‘an Indian military that is capable of operating efficiently alongside its American counterparts’. The cooperation is for future joint military operations. All this, he candidly admits, is in America’s interests.

It was to “consummate this strategic objective” which Blackwill anticipated, that the (then) Defence Minister Pranab Mukherji and his US counterpart Donald Rumsfeld signed on June 20, 2005 the ‘New Framework for US-India Defence Cooperation for the next ten years’. It stressed that defence relationship would support and be part of the larger bilateral strategic partnership conducting joint exercises and exchanges and collaborating in multinational operations where it is in their common interests. The defence agreement goes far beyond defence matters. Some of the provisions clearly go against the tenets of an independent foreign policy. These include the ‘intention to collaborate in multinational operations’, which means imperial wars waged by the US-led military coalition.

It is important to note that the Defence Agreement was made just twenty days before the much heralded Joint Statement of President Bush and Prime Minister Singh in which the nuclear deal was first revealed. There is reason to believe that the agreement was a condition precedent for the nuclear deal. An article written by Nicholas Burns, the chief architect of the deal on the US side, in Washington Post, put the nuclear agreement in perspective when he described it as “the symbolic and public centerpiece of the new partnership”. He added: “We can do much more to create a strategic military partnership.” Again while presenting the deal to the media in Washington on July 27, 2007 Burns in a prepared statement said: “I think now that we have consummated the civil nuclear deal between us, if we look down the road in the future we are going to see far greater defence cooperation between the USA and India.”

The Hyde Act, which governs the nuclear agreement, clearly brings out the US objectives with regard to India’s foreign policy. The first, perhaps the most important, is to ensure that India’s foreign policy is “congruent” to that of the USA, with this deal expected to “induce greater political and material support to the achievement of US goals”. India’s growing economic and political role in the world is seen as a “new and strategic opportunity to advance US goals”.

The implications of the changes in India’s foreign policy need close examination. It is only by regaining independence in foreign policy that India can effectively contribute to resolution of conflicts and peace in the region.

South Asia—the Central Front in the War on Terror

THE day after he assumed office, the new President of the USA, Barack Obama, said: “Afghanistan and Pakistan are the central front in America’s war against terrorism and the deteriorating situation in the region poses grave threat to global security.” He added that “this is the central front in our enduring struggle against terrorism and extremism”.

In a way there is nothing new in the statement. Already in 2002 it was officially stated by the USA: “September 11 put South Asia on the frontline of the global war on terror.” “It has now become clear that the most vital interests of the USA are affected by events in South Asia.” But it is disquieting to note that he continues to maintain the ‘war on terror’ framework with its dangerous doctrines which violate international law. For him also “America’s war against terrorism” is “enduring” and he seems to believe that it should continue to be the overarching framework of his foreign policy.

Already on October 7, 2001 B. Raman had expressed his concern “over the US projecting the (US-led) coalition’s operation against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda as a war against terrorism with the total emphasis on the military aspect of the operation instead of as a counter-terrorism operation and over the way the rest of the world and particularly the other countries of Asia had accepted such a projection without carefully examining the implications of it.” (Asia Times, April 23, 2003) Some implications need to be mentioned. For seven years and four months, the US has been engaged in a monumentally flawed and destructive campaign that President Bush described as “all-out effort against terrorism and terrorist groups of global reach” with devastating consequences for South Asia and West Asia in particular.

A reading of the SAARC Charter brings out a vital fact that there is no definition of what precisely constitutes South Asia. It may be due to the desire of the founding members to leave scope for expansion. But is Afghanistan really part of South Asia?

This is not a facetious question. Of course, we know Afghanistan was formally inducted as member of SAARC in 2007. By doing so, one could argue that SAARC was legitimising an illegitimate war and occupation, approving US strategic objectives in the region and justifying NATO entry into Asia. This is not to deny that even otherwise the Afghan war had not impacted the original members of SAARC, especially Pakistan and India. It is clear that the incorporation of Afghanistan in SAARC is the result of the eagerness of the US to incorporate the war-ravaged country under an institutional framework so that it can obtain legitimacy.

South Asian nations did not raise any questions about the questionable entry of NATO into Asia to fight a war and then through the induction of Afghanistan appeared not only to legitimise its actions but to welcome it. Zbignew Brzezinki in his book, The Grand Chessboard, defines the North Atlantic alliance as part of an integrated comprehensive and long-term strategy for all Eurasia in which NATO would eventually reach Asia, where another military alliance would connect Pacific and South-East Asian states. This prediction is coming true.

From the beginning of the ‘war on terror’, the US tried to perform a balancing act to keep both Pakistan and India as its allies. The war on terror which was supported by both the countries only heightened the tensions between the two countries bringing the two countries at least on two occasions and leading to an arms race on an unprecedented level. It has led to militarisation of the whole region.

Framing Conflicts under the War on Terror

THE war on terror has refashioned conflict situations in the region. Two of the most prominent conflict situations may be examined: Kashmir and Sri Lanka.

M.K. Narayanan, currently the National Security Adviser, in an article written less than a month after the terror attacks in the USA (in Asian Age online) argued that there was “a connection between the September 11 attacks in the US” and “the ongoing conflict in Jammu and Kashmir”. He concluded that a war against terrorism must address the violence in Kashmir well as in Afghanistan. “Something drastic needs to be done to curb Islamist outfits currently engaged in cascading violence in J&K. ..The Alliance for the Battle Against Terrorism must gear itself to deal with a situation which is fraught with dangerous possibilities.”

The dynamics of the Kashmir conflict underwent a drastic change since 9/11 due to dramatic changes wrought by the US war on terror in the region. Three competing perspectives emanated from Islamabad, New Delhi and Washington. Pakistan continued to describe the happenings in Kashmir as ‘liberation struggle’ and insisted Washington should solve the Kashmir problem so that Pakistan can fully participate in the war on terror. India’s support to the war on terror proceeded on the assumption that the US would have to accept that the happenings in Kashmir are due to ‘cross-border terrorism’. India thus tried to combine the issues of war on terror and Kashmir so as to draw the maximum benefit from the changed international opinion in favour of fighting terrorism lock, stock and barrel. India strongly challenged Pakistan’s credentials to be partner of the US in the war on terror and repeatedly urged on the US to include Kashmir in its war on terror. The US, which needed both Pakistan and India in the war on terror, did not do so.

A recent statement by David Miliband, the British Foreign Secretary, gave rise to high level of moral indignation in New Delhi. He said in an article in The Guardian: “Although I understand the current difficulties, resolution of the dispute over Kashmir would help deny extremists in the region one of their main calls to arms.”. Actually this statement did not warrant the kind of reaction that came from New Delhi. It only reinforced the impression that when it comes to Kashmir, our rulers adopt a denial mode—that there is no dispute and that if at all there is any problem we know how to deal with it. Indian sensitivities on the Kashmir issue are understandable. India can legitimately take credit for the apparently new political climate in J&K. But to treat the Kashmir problem as solely or primarily due to “international terrorism” is to invite the kind of international intervention which India says it does not want. In spite of the present rupture in relationship between India and Pakistan, diplomacy and peace are the only options

Sri Lanka was one of the first countries to use the ‘war on terror’ concept and framework for its internal conflict. Unfortunately, the LTTE by its own actions fitted itself into that framework.

On January 16, 2009 the Wall Street Journal wrote: “For all those who argue that there is no military solution for terrorism, we have two words, Sri Lanka.” “We recount this history at length to make a simple point: Colombo’s military strategy against Tamil terrorists has worked; negotiations have not.” This victory in the war on terror should be a lesson for Israel as it ‘focuses on its terror problem’ and for the US in Iraq, the esteemed Journal advised: “Take note Barack Obama”.

The US embassy in Colombo issued a statement on January 13, 2009 that welcomed the Sri Lankan state’s recent victories in the war with the LTTE and urged the Sri Lankan Government and military to press forward with the destruction of the LTTE. The key passage in the statement said, “The US does not advocate that the government of Sri Lanka negotiate with LTTE, a group designated by America as a Foreign Terrorist Organisation.” While reports about US plans for bases in the island nation are routinely being denied, senior officials of the US Pacific Command have regularly visited Sri Lanka on missions and there are enough indications of US ‘facilities’ being developed.

The subsuming of the ethnic conflict under the war on terror has shifted focus from the underlying political problems and the legitimate rights of the Tamil people. While the mantra of a political solution is repeated, there is no evidence of any clear plan to resolve the problem and no negotiations are in sight.

From 1984 to 1991 India followed a policy of adhocism, ambivalence, adventurism and advocacy towards Sri Lanka. From 1991 its policy may be called ‘non-policy’. It appears that at crucial stages of the negotiations under the aegis of Norway, the Indian Government declined to make any contribution. General statements about solution of the Sri Lanka problem are made but most of them seem to reflect India’s own experience in federalism without taking into account the special circumstances in Sri Lanka.

During his recent visit to Sri Lanka, India’s Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon “agreed that a moment of political opportunity has been made available to Sri Lanka today to bring about an inclusive peace process with credible political representation by the Tamil people in the country’s democratic process”. Menon extended his appreciation of “the positive role played by Sri Lanka both militarily and in the regional context in combating terrorism”. This was of course not only renewed support for Sri Lanka’s war on terror but also recognition of Sri Lanka’s role in combating terrorism in the region.. Such statements invariably raise questions about India’s policy on Sri Lanka.

The time has come for India to re-engage in Sri Lanka maintaining the good bilateral relations and through policies based on careful examination of all issues providing coherent and constructive support in finding a political solution that would ensure the legitimate rights of the Tamils within a united Sri Lanka.

[Paper presented at the National Seminar on “Peace, Conflict and Development in South Asia” organised by Asian Centre for Peace and Development. Coimbatore in association with Centre for Asia Studies, Chennai, at Chennai, January 30-31, 2009]

Dr Ninan Koshy is formerly Director, International Affairs, World Council of Churches, Geneva and Visiting Fellow, Harvard Law School, Cambridge, USA, and the author of War on Terror Reordering the World and Under the Empire: India’s New Foreign Policy.

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