Frontier fears

A recent Democracy Forum conference addressed the causes, nature and extent of cross-border terrorism in South Asia and its neighbourhood

The very real threats South Asia faces from cross-border terrorism and the capacity for localised insurgencies to become widespread were among the hot topics debated at a May 31 seminar hosted by The Democracy Forum at London University’s Senate House.

Dedicating the seminar to the late TDF vice-president, Tom Deegan, the Forum’s president, Lord Bruce, said it would be a fitting legacy to Tom if TDF continues to expose the iniquity of political injustice, erosion of free speech and denial of human rights in South Asia.

In his introduction to the event, seminar chair and former BBC Asia correspondent Humphrey Hawksley spoke of the ‘melee of insurgencies in South Asia’ and how terrorism, wherever it happens is the world, is far bigger than its local elements, with insurgencies always requiring the support of big powers.

With her focus on Iran, Fatemeh Aman, non-resident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center, addressed insurgencies in the country’s eastern and western border regions, considering how the Iranian authorities’ responses to cross-border terrorism have impacted on both the internal politics of the country and its relationships with its South Asian neighbours, especially Pakistan.

She discussed the root causes of terrorism in different regions of Iran and how some insurgent groups such as the Salaafis enjoy the support of the Iranian intelligence community to fight other insurgents.Vis-à-vis Pakistan, Aman said it is ‘too obsessed with India’,completely ignoring its border with Iran, and warnedhow once local insurgencies now risk fuelling instability in the entire region. Since ending insurgencies relies on regional cooperation and intelligence sharing, she felt little hope that it would happen any time soon.

‘Can the Financial Action Task Force, the UN and other international bodies and governments compel Pakistan to give up its jihadi proxies in the South Asian region?’ was the key question posed by Taha Siddiqui, a journalist in exile and founder of safenewsrooms.org. A decision is pending about whether to shift Pakistan from a grey to a black list, but Siddiqui contended it has not done enough to counter terrorist financing and is conducting only‘cosmetic action’ on the ground in the face of international pressure.

Offering a brief history of Pakistan’s ‘obsession with jihadi proxies in the region’ and the reasons behind it, Siddiquialso talked about international commitments Pakistan should fulfil,and how the military protects itself by keeping the threat of India alive,telling the public it is only countering Indian aggression when it is initiating conflicts. He also spoke of his own investigations into jihadi groups operating in Pakistan via so-called ‘charity’ work.The solution to these and other problems might be to build networks on social media with various ethnic and sectarian groups to assess the real situation in Pakistan, rather than relying on information disseminated by the mainstream media or government in Pakistan.

From left Bashir Ahmad, Humphrey Hawksley (chair), Dr C Christine Fair
From left Bashir Ahmad, Humphrey Hawksley (chair), Dr C Christine Fair

For Bashir Ahmad Gwakh of RadioFree Europe/Radio Liberty, a cause for concern was Afghanistan’s potential to become a terrorist hub again if US-Taliban peace negotiations are too desperate or rushed. While it is positive that peace talks are happening,the exclusion of the Afghan government – accused by the Taliban of being a US ‘puppet’ – is problematic, he said, as any decisions made will not be implemented.

Looking at what both the Taliban and the US want to achieve from the negotiations, Gwakh cautioned against talking to the Taliban as if it is a state, because its promises can hold no weight. He was sceptical regarding the group’s claims to have changed and argued that, even if talks succeed, Taliban footsoldiers committed to their ideology will simply go and join other terror networks such as ISIS.Gwakh also addressedthe question of power distribution in Afghanistan, the need for a comprehensive programme of deradicalisation so Taliban fighters can be integrated into society, and the influence of regional countries such as Pakistan and Iran.

Pakistan has an enduring imperative, asserted Dr C Christine Fair from the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University,to use cross-border terrorism in an effort to resolve its basic conundrum: its desire to‘change maps’, but with‘an army that cannot win wars and nuclear weapons it can’t use’. She spoke of Pakistan’s status as a revisionist power ‘obsessed with obtaining territory to which it was never entitled’and how its nuclear umbrella has enabled it to engage with impunity in subconventional warfare with India – though in the last 15 years Pakistan has suffered blowback from its policies.

Audience members at the event
Audience members at the event

Fair highlighted Pakistan’s status as an ideological rather than a security-seeking state – this is clear, she said, from examining the strategic culture of the army, which has a duty to defend the ‘two-nation’ theory that led to Pakistan’s creation. The alternative is to preside over a state that is a ‘failed version of India’. For Pakistan, fulfilment of the two-nation theory legitimises its claim to Kashmir.

If there were peace with India, how would the Pakistan army justify running and ruining the country, gobbling up so many resources? asked Fair. So it will never allow peace to break out. Whenever the two countries come close to rapprochement, something bad happens. Not only are talks unproductive, she added,but they also impose opportunity costs, as India could be spending that diplomatic capital on other, more fruitfulbilateral relationships.

‘We should not be afraid when Pakistan says “I’m too dangerous to fail”,’ she concluded. ‘We should be planning for day when Pakistan does fail so that we can handle the problem.’

Rounding off the proceedings, TDF Chair Barry Gardiner MP, Shadow Secretary of State for International Trade, highlighted the profound influence our neighbours have on us, saying, ‘Scratch history, find geography.’ He also warned against our obsession with the politics of identity and how it is destroying democratic behaviour and the possibility of a truly pluralist society.

Despite the somewhat sensitive nature of the seminar topic, most of the large audience engaged calmly with the speakers, although one disruptive member grew aggressive and had to be removed.

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