The Financial Express


Re-configuring South Asia

| Updated: April 28, 2018 18:13:56

Re-configuring South Asia

Two of the dominant post-World War II landmarks across South Asia were India's non-aligned posturing and Pakistan's US military partnership. At this 21st Century juncture, both those long-term identities can not only not be found, but policy positions reversing those identities also riddle the air. What brought about these changes? Answers can partly be found in the exhaustion of the prior preferences, and partly in new techno-economic conditions. The net result may raise the military ante.

Just as Jawaharlal Nehru was an early global advocate of abstaining from global power-politics for the newly independent India, the newly-created Pakistan also found itself as one of the earliest (and most consistent) partner of US Cold War military alliances. Although Alfred Sauvy coined the term 'third world' in his L'Observateur August 1952 'tiers monde' article to refer to an economic breakdown of countries, Nehru's almost simultaneous usage of the term referred, instead, to those countries aligning with neither the 'west' nor the 'east' in the Cold War tussle. He, in fact, was one of the 'founding fathers' of the non-aligned movement, which gained fame from the 1955 Bandung Conference dominated by the 3 Ns: Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt's general who overthrew an aging monarchy; Nehru, India's path-finding prime minister; and Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana's first prime minister and president. India would be acclaimed as a non-aligned leader until it tested its first atomic bomb in 1974. India was moving in this power-craving direction under Nehru's daughter, Indira Gandhi, who, as prime minister, signed a pact with the Soviet Union in August 1971 as a part of the Bangladesh liberation war. That, however, was not the reason why the 'non-aligned' term atrophied. Too many of its subscribers found other alignments far more enticing, and clearly the end of the Cold War removed the rationale for the grouping by the late 1980s.

Not so for Pakistan's US military partnership. In part as an outflow of the Cold War battles in Afghanistan, which the Soviet Union had invaded in late 1979, as a front line state, Pakistan received enormous military support overtly and covertly, not just for conventional combat but also to train insurgents. It was from this maelstrom that al-Qaeda emerged in 1989, first as Mekhtab al Khidamat (Services Office), operating in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and even the United States, before shifting to Sudan in the early 1990s, before returning to Afghanistan in 1996, this time targeting the United States explicitly, under Osama bin-Laden's recalibrated leadership. At the least, Pakistan facilitated his movements in and around Afghanistan, juggling this with its foundational conflict with India, using its good relations with the United States.

Up until this point, its traditional alliance with the United States was anchored upon conventional military exchanges, highlighted by two eye-raising military pacts against the Soviet Union: the 1955 Baghdad Pact, also known as the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO) and  the 1954 South-east Asian Treaty Organization (SEATO). However, by the 1990s, this fulcrum had significantly shifted, as unconventional warfare gained salience in Pakistan's military agenda, not only because of developments in Afghanistan, but also as a new tactic in Kashmir. The end of the Cold War had less to do with this change as new dynamics flooded the scene.

As a gloves-off participant in both Cold War and the US anti-terrorist crusades, Pakistan's relations with the United States were far better when it was under military rule (from General Ayub Khan, through General Yahya Khan, General Ziaul Haq, and finally, General Parvez Musharraf), than under civilian (Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, Benazir Bhutto, and Nawaz Sharif). In fact, since the last military ruler, General Musharraf, rifts between the two countries have gradually widened, in large part due to Pakistan's questionable relations with Islamic terrorist groups (highlighted by harbouring Osama bin-Laden only a whisker away from the country's capital, rather than in the caves of Tora Bora, wherefrom the damaging events he authored were launched). They split when President Donald J. Trump pointed an accusing finger at Pakistan all too publicly for Pakistan's comfort.

Pakistan was, ironically, the pivotal player in the 1971 ping-pong diplomacy that brought China and the United States together. As one of the earliest friends of China, Pakistan still sees China as an instrument to be used against the United States, even as it is facing growing domestic complaints about the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor flooding Pakistan's market with cheap Chinese products while opening up a brand new Arabian Sea port in Gwador. Sensing the increasing fragility in this partnership, Pakistan has busied itself courting adventurous Vladimir Putin's Russia, not to mention playing both Iran and Sa'udi Arabia off in the Middle East. Iran is needed by Pakistan to strengthen an anti-US grouping, in spite of Shi'ite persecution so rampant within Pakistan; and Sa'udi Arabia serves not only as the largest source of foreign remittances received, but also a country where skilled Pakistani military leaders play influential roles, for example, the Sau'udi built Islamic Military Alliance (a Muslim 'NATO), is headed by none other than former Pakistan army chief, General Raheel Sharif.

Pakistan's almost diametric shift from aggressively interpreting Soviet actions to wooing Russia parallels India's original view of a capitalist United States being inimical to the socialism India had long espoused, from Nehru down to his daughter, Indira. India's neo-liberal embrace from 1990 more or less put the ideological battle-front at rest, while the emergent China posed new threats. Small wonder, then, that India gravitated towards the United States. Aligned with Australia and Japan against China in what has been called the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, India has identified two threats: China, as described; and terrorism. No wonder it upholds the same sine qua non stance against terrorists as the United States does, particularly against the slippery positions Pakistan has held on the same subject, and why, behind booming trade relations with China, a 'cold war' mindset cannot be ironed out.

China's threat is more than air. For once, it is surrounded by countries tilting in the China direction: from the traditional Chinese friend, Pakistan, to ideologically-bound Nepal (whose Communist Party bonds with the Chinese counterpart in a way no other global namesake does), to a Sri Lanka, which, in the post-Hambantoto era, is too indebted to China to alter its policy course, and an ambivalent Bangladesh, the one neighbour trying to play both powerful countries off, at times successfully (getting funds for its multiple mega infrastructural projects), but also being stymied by both with others (the Rohingya influx). India's relations with China may be in the mending phase, with trade relations healthy; but when push turns to shove, India's gaps may be what are anchoring it closer to the United States than China.

All in all, South Asia awaits an explosion or two to expose how permanent the fissures we currently observe. If history since 1947 is any guide, the revolutionary impetus has tended to come from Pakistan: in 1971, creation of Bangladesh reconfigured South Asia in such a way that Pakistan had to abandon its SEATO membership; then from the mid-1980s to the present time in Afghanistan, first against the Soviet Union, then the United States in this century, and now ready to poise its fifth-column forces against China should China's Afghanistan interests collide with Pakistan's.

Finally, there is the South Asian 'ground-zero': Kashmir. In what was once dubbed the 'Switzerland of the region' because of its mountainous beauty, Kashmir is today filled with not just land-mines, but also denied, defied youths belonging to a new generation born within this combative atmosphere unable, yet seething to break through inherited traps. Something has to yield, either India's clampdown or Pakistan's encroachments. Or a new element must enter.

There is China, but then there are also Afghan veterans. Remember, neutral Switzerland historically fed established European powers with crucial mercenary soldiers.

Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the newly-built Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.

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