Controlled Contagion In South Asia: By Ajai Sahni
The extraordinary and gratuitous brutality of Islamist terrorists in Syria, the progressive destabilization of West Asia, as well as the cumulative disengagement of the West – led by USA – from Afghanistan, have pushed South Asian conflicts out of the focus of international attention. The process has been enormously enabled by broadly, often dramatically, declining trends in violence and fatalities in this region, suggesting a generally positive direction of change. In many theatres, virulent and enduring movements of terrorism and widespread armed violence have receded, though much remains unresolved. According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) database total terrorism and insurgency linked fatalities in South Asia have dropped from a peak of 29,638 (of which 15,565 were in Sri Lanka alone) in 2009, to just 6,668 in 2013. 1,343 persons have already been killed across the region in the first quarter of 2014, suggesting a continuation of this trend, though developments in the AfPak region have significant disruptive potential in the foreseeable future.
In particular, Sri Lanka has seen no terrorism-linked fatalities after 2009, the year in which the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) were comprehensively defeated, and which saw a peak of at least 15,565 fatalities, according to partial data compiled by SATP. An international network of surviving LTTE elements and sympathisers in the Diaspora continue with propaganda activities, including strident posturing in the Indian State of Tamil Nadu, but the capacity for violence on Sri Lankan soil has been entirely obliterated.
Similarly, fatalities in Nepal have collapsed from a 2002 peak of 4,896, with a sharp deceleration in violence after the Comprehensive Peace Agreement of November 2006, which brought the Communist Party of Nepal – Maoist (CPN-M) over-ground and into the Parliamentary process, subsequently to form a Government after the Constituent Assembly elections of April 2008. Sporadic violence by various splinter groups, including a proliferation of armed formations in the Madhesh region, persisted in the years following, but 2013 recorded no insurgency-linked fatalities, and this remains the case in the first quarter of 2014.
Bangladesh has also seen enormous containment of terrorist formations, with the decimation of the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), the Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB) and Harkat-ul-Jihad Islami – Bangladesh (HuJI-BD) after the serial bombings of August 2005. However, street violence by an 18-Party Opposition combine led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), and including radical Islamist formations, claimed at least 379 lives in 2013. The Islamist radical combine, prominently including Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh (JeI-BD) and its student wing, the Islami Chatra Shibir (ICS), Hizb-ut-Tahrir, and Hizb-ut-Towhid, has sustained violent demonstrations and a campaign of murderous attacks in protest against the successive convictions of senior JeI leaders for War Crimes during the 1971 War of Liberation, and the execution on these charges of Abdul Qader Mollah, the notorious ‘butcher of Mirpur’ and Assistant Secretary General, JeI, on December 12, 2013. A January 2014 General Election that saw a boycott by the combined Opposition, resulted in Shiekh Hasina’s Awami League (AL) securing a whopping 79.14 per cent of the vote and 234 of 300 seats in Parliament, with various allies winning the remaining seats. The legitimacy of the elections has been questioned both by the domestic Opposition and by the international community, as a result of the boycott, but Prime Minister Hasina has remained adamant that a voluntary boycott by the Opposition cannot undermine the constitutional validity of her mandate. While acts of terrorism have virtually disappeared from the Bangladeshi scene, radical Islamist formations continue to engage in massive violence, with the collusion of the Opposition BNP, creating a constant threat to the stability of the state.
A rash of incidents in 2008 principally connected with the incipient Communist Party of Bhutan (CPB), resulting in 10 fatalities, were the last manifestation of extremist violence in Bhutan and, though the issue of the Ngolops (Bhutanese refugees of Nepali origin), who had been pushed back into Nepal, remained substantially unresolved, the country has seen no significant disturbances since.
Even in theatres where terrorist and insurgent violence remains considerable, an overall decline is visible. Thus, India has seen a drop in total insurgency- and terrorism-linked fatalities, from a peak of 5,839 in 2001, to 885 killed in 2013; with the most dramatic plunge was registered in Jammu & Kashmir (J&K), from 4,507 in 2001, to 181 in 2013. Maoist violence, which peaked in 2010, with 1,080 fatalities, also registered a sharp contraction, with a total of 421 killed in 2013. In the multiple insurgencies across India’s Northeast, fatalities collapsed from a peak of 1,317 in 2001, to a total of 251 in 2013. Pakistan-backed Islamist terrorist attacks outside J&K, which resulted in 364 fatalities in 2008, saw 29 killed in 2013.
Nevertheless, developments through 2013 indicated that there was little scope for complacency. Indeed, J&K registered a rise in fatalities, from 117 in 2012, to 181 in 2013, demonstrating the fragility of these gains,. This was compounded by an escalating campaign of cease fire violations by Pakistan’s Army with at least 195 violations recorded through 2013, resulting in 10 SF fatalities, as against 93 such violations in 2012, resulting in three SF fatalities. In the Maoist belt, fatalities rose from 367 to 421 between 2012 and 2013; Islamist terrorist attacks outside J&K accounted for one fatality in 2012, and 29 in 2013. In the Northeast, at least two States registered an increase in total fatalities between 2012 and 2013: Assam, from 91 to 101; and Meghalaya, from 48 to 60.
Moreover, 205 of the country’s 640 Districts continued to be afflicted by varying intensities of chronic subversive, insurgent and terrorist activity in 2013, including 120 Districts where the Maoists remained active; 20 Districts in J&K afflicted by Pakistan-backed Islamist separatist terrorism; and 65 Districts in six Northeastern States where numerous ethnicity based terrorist and insurgent formations operate. This is, of course, down from a peak of 310 Districts so listed in 2010, principally as a result of the abrupt contraction of the Maoist rampage which had escalated enormously in the 2009-10 period. In 2012, the number of afflicted Districts stood at 252, according to Institute for Conflict Management (ICM) assessments.
Significantly, a wide range of extraneous factors, often unrelated to state policy or strategy, have influenced these trends, and grave dangers of reversal – including the impact of developments in Afghanistan and a creeping implosion in Pakistan – exist.
Pakistan, consumed by internal turbulence, continues to externalize its instability through proxy wars and support to Islamist terrorism in Afghanistan and India, even as it seeks to opportunistically harness other insurgencies (including the ethnic extremist movements of India’s Northeast) in the neighbourhood, to its campaign of regional destabilization. Nevertheless, Pakistan has also recorded a decline in domestic violence, though current levels remain alarming, and though much of the decline is accounted for by the diminution in terrorist fatalities that has resulted from the operational paralysis of state Forces. According to SATP’s partial data, at least 5,379 terrorism-related fatalities were recorded across Pakistan in 2013, as compared to 6,211 fatalities in the preceding year [since media access is heavily restricted in the most disturbed areas of Pakistan, and there is only fitful release of information by Government agencies, the actual figures could be much higher]. Much of the decline was accounted for by the drop in terrorist fatalities, from 2,472 terrorists killed in 2012, to 1,702 killed in 2013. Confirming the reluctance of state Forces to confront the terrorists is a significant drop in SF fatalities as well, with 676 SF personnel killed in 2013, as against 732 in 2012. Civilians, however, continue to pay the price for state inaction, with 3,001 killed in 2013, almost the same as the 3,007 killed in 2012. Crucially, the number of civilian fatalities in Pakistan now exceeds the number of civilian fatalities in neighbouring ‘war torn’ Afghanistan (an estimated 2,959 in 2013), widely regarded as the most volatile and unstable country in South Asia. Terrorism in Pakistan has already resulted in at least 1,092 fatalities, including 551 civilians, 183 SF personnel and 358 militants in just the first quarter of 2014.
Despite the overwhelming damage terrorism has inflicted on Pakistan, the country’s establishment shows no signs of abandoning this device as an instrument of state policy, particularly for its strategic ambitions in India and Afghanistan. These proclivities assume dangerous proportions in view of the ‘withdrawal’ of US and NATO Forces from Afghanistan, and the high-stakes scramble for control of Kabul that is expected to follow. Violence has already escalated in Afghanistan, with Pakistan goading its proxies to go for the kill; a total of 7,074 persons were killed in 2013, as against 6,363 in 2012, with civilians taking the brunt of the violence (2012: 2,754 killed; 2013: 2,959 killed). Terrorist and SF fatalities have also remained high, with 2,702 terrorists killed in 2013, as against 2,716 in 2012; and 1,413 SF personnel [including 160 International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) personnel] killed in 2013, as against 893 (including 402 ISAF personnel) killed in 2012. The most dramatic increase was in Afghan National Police (ANP) fatalities, which spiked from 262 to 1,082 between 2012 and 2013.
The outcome of this contest, however, may prove even more devastating for Pakistan than it could be for its neighbours. For one thing, Kabul’s adversaries are anything but united under the banner of the Pakistan-backed ‘Taliban’. A range of tribal and regional warlords, many of them deeply inimical to the Taliban, exercise disruptive dominance over wide areas in the country. The Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara communities who, in combination, comprise nearly half the country’s population, moreover, would resist the Pashtun dominated Islamist formations tooth and nail, and are securely allied to the state institutions now centered in Kabul. The Afghan National Security Force (ANSF), including the Afghan National Army (ANA) and ANP, with a combined strength of nearly 345,000, despite problems, has not proven unequal to the task of confronting Pakistan’s proxies and, even with limited assistance from a residual NATO Force, including the services of US drones, cannot be expected to roll over after 2014. Crucially, despite overwhelming Taliban threats, the Presidential election of April 5, 2014, passed relatively peacefully, with not a single major attack on the polling process recorded through the day. The elections saw a voter turnout of an estimated 58.33 per cent, as against 38.8 per cent in the 2009 elections, underlining the credibility and legitimacy of the process and, potentially, of the regime that would be installed once it is over.
If this assessment is broadly correct, the consequences for Pakistan could prove devastating. An attritional war in Afghanistan, with no clear victor, will eventually – most likely, quickly – provoke a blowback into Pakistan, as Pashtun Islamist extremist forces combine to seek a clear dominance of Pashtun regions on both sides of the Durand Line. An escalating Pashtun insurgency would compound Pakistan’s present problems of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) terrorism, and the multiple insurgencies and terrorist movements already afflicting every one of Pakistan’s four principal Provinces.
Pakistan, thus, remains the sickness of South Asia, threatening other countries in the region with its contagion, even as its own institutions and society succumb to its progressive contamination. Despite repeated exposure of its role in supporting terrorist groups and operations in the neighbourhood and beyond, Western commentators and Governments continue to extend the cover of an incredible ‘credible deniability’ to Islamabad, largely because no consensus is available on punitive action against this persistently rogue, nuclear-armed, state.
Irrespective of the trajectory of current movements of armed violence in South Asia, moreover, the region can be expected to remain plagued by instability. A demographic explosion, coupled by poor – often abysmal – governance undermine the prospects of any easy solutions to its many problems. Thus the year 2000 population of 23.74 million in Afghanistan is expected to rise to more than double to 48.03 million by 2020, and further, to 80.26 million in 2040; Bangladesh, from 128.92 million, through 181.18 million, to 226.66 million; Bhutan, from 564,000, through 717,000, to 950,000; Nepal, from 24.43 million, through 35.68 million, to 46.66 million; Pakistan, from 142.65 million, through 211.7 million, to 278 million; and India, from 1.02 billion, through 1.33 billion, to 1.53 billion, respectively, over the same period. The only exception to this ballooning trend is Sri Lanka, where populations are approaching near stability, at 19.85 million in 2000, to a projected 22.9 million in 2020 and 23.88 million in 2040.
The crisis of governance is visible in a multiplicity of indices. The Global Competitiveness Report lists 148 countries by Public Trust in Politicians; Bangladesh ranks 132nd; India, 115th; Pakistan, 110th; and Sri Lanka, 92nd (Nepal is not included). The Corruption Perception Index of 177 countries, has Bangladesh at 136; Pakistan at 127; Nepal at 116; India at 94; and Sri Lanka at 91. The Worldwide Governance Index of 179 countries ranked Pakistan at 162; Bangladesh at 146; Nepal at 145; India at 143; and Sri Lanka at 126. Significantly, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal are all listed among the 30 ‘worst performing countries’ on the Failed State Index of 2013. Each of the South Asian countries, though with wide variation, also fares poorly on human development and poverty indices, has large underbellies of neglect, polarized populations, and a divisive politics, that lend themselves easily to provocations to violence.
South Asia has tremendous potential, for development and for extreme violence. Which propensity will be realized will depend largely on the sagacity of national leaderships in each of the constituent countries. Regrettably, the evidence of the past years and decades has given little evidence of any surfeit of this attribute in the region.
Ajai Sahni: Editor, SAIR; Executive Director, ICM & SATP ::
About the author: SATP, or the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) publishes the South Asia Intelligence Review, and is a product of The Institute for Conflict Management, a non-Profit Society set up in 1997 in New Delhi, and which is committed to the continuous evaluation and resolution of problems of internal security in South Asia. The Institute was set up on the initiative of, and is presently headed by, its President, Mr. K.P.S. Gill, IPS (Retd).