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Last Updated: Tuesday, 2 January 2007, 17:41 GMT
South Asia's conflicts - what next?
By Paul Danahar
BBC South Asia bureau editor, Delhi

Nothing concentrates the mind of a politician like a body bag. And in 2006 they stacked up across the subcontinent by the truckload. The consequences of that will decide the shape of the year to come.

'Good' or 'bad' Taleban?

I asked someone senior in the British prime minister's office this year why, after four years of making noises but doing little else, the British were now applying serious pressure on Pakistan's President Musharraf to act in the tribal areas along the Afghan border and rein in the Taleban.

He stated the obvious: "There weren't 4,000 British troops just over the border in Afghanistan before were there?"

The sad truth, which never required the benefit of hindsight, was that if security wasn't provided to the Pashtuns on the Afghan side of the border, then the Taleban would come back.

It wasn't, and in 2006 they came back with a vengeance.

2007 probably won't see the last of them.

Next year, Nato's conventional armies will keep finding themselves hassled and slowly bled by a hit and run guerrilla force that is increasingly applying the lessons insurgents have learned fighting Western forces in Iraq.

Let's hope we journalists get our predictions wrong in 2007 too

Next year the British and Americans will probably finally jump off the fence and side with Kabul and insist that Pakistan seals the border properly and stops giving the Taleban somewhere to retreat to.

But the realities of geography and politics will prevail. In their hearts the Pashtuns know that one day international troops will leave and that no matter how successful the Nato troops may be, some remnants of the Taleban will remain.


There was one group of Pashtuns who knew it would turn out badly all along, because some bright spark from the UN told them.

Pakistan army soldier monitors the Afghan-Pakistan border
Hundreds of Pakistani troops have been killed near the border

Under a cold blue winter sky in a small dusty village near Gardez just days after the Taleban where driven out of Kabul in 2001, I watched as a UN delegation addressed several hundred heavily armed Pashtun leaders.

As the UN's leader waxed lyrical I noticed my translator was tut-tut ting heavily as the speech was translated by another westerner, who clearly thought he was an incarnation of that old master of the Great Game, Francis Younghusband.

My colleague turned to me and said "You know this man's Pashto is not very good, he is getting it wrong". "What do you mean?" I asked.

"Well, he is telling these men that this time the international community WILL make the same mistakes of the past. That this time they WILL leave the job half done".

He shook his head and asked me whether he should warn the UN team about their mistake. But it was too late then and it's probably too late now.

'Good and bad' Taleban

And perhaps only the Pakistanis are smart enough to have realised this.

Maulana Fazlur Rehman
Will Islamic politicians like Maulana Fazlur Rehman still be powerful?

Islamabad always drew a distinct between Al-Qaeda and the Taleban post 11 September, 2001.

Despite American moaning, they began drawing a distinction between 'good' Taleban and 'bad' Taleban.

'Good' Taleban they could control through the spooks in Pakistan's controversial intelligence agency, the ISI. 'Bad' they couldn't and it cost them hundreds of their soldiers' lives during heavy fighting in the tribal areas.

It was also costing President Musharraf credibility within the armed forces as he carried out what many in the Pakistani establishment thought was somebody else's (ie Washington's) foreign policy agenda.

So in 2006 Pakistan stopped beating around with Bush and did a deal in North Waziristan with pro-Taleban militants which formalised what everyone suspected was the unofficial policy of the ISI anyway.

Overnight all the Pakistan-based Taleban turned into 'good' Taleban; as long as they didn't attack Pakistani soldiers.

The move may not have pleased his western chums, but Gen Musharraf knew that he had to do something to stop the Taleban-like militancy spreading out from the border tribal areas into the towns and cities of the North West Frontier Province.

There was a real fear that the relatively moderate Islamic parties that make up the six-party alliance of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, or more importantly its main pillar, Maulana Fazlur Rehman and his Jamiat Ulema Islam party, might become irrelevant.

And so five years on, 2006 saw policy turn almost full circle to something like the pre-9/11 environment.

Knows best?

Why the urgency?

In 2007 Gen Musharraf has elections, both parliamentary and presidential, to finesse. If his actions prove successful in stemming the rise of the religious parties then he'll be able to convince his increasingly sceptical western allies that he really does know best.

To be fair to Pervez Musharraf, even though he may not be much of a democrat in the eyes of Pakistan's chattering classes, they will, by and large, accept that he is genuine about doing what he thinks is best for the country.

Few would argue that was also true of the two people planning to contest polls next year in what used to be the other half of Pakistan.

Haunted by Kissinger

Which brings us to the next question. What is worse - to be a) "a basket case" or b) "a failed state"?

One of a succession of opposition rallies in Dhaka
One of a succession of opposition rallies in Dhaka

Nobody likes being called names but Bangladeshis take particular offence because they have spent the last 30 years trying to live down the "basket case" moniker Henry Kissinger hung on them.

However for the last year or so "failed state" is the phrase banded about by the diplomatic elite residing in Dhaka. And who is to blame?

For many Bangladeshis, who go to the polls in January, the culprits are the two candidates and arch-rivals - Begum Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina.

In the eyes of their critics, these two grand dames of political intrigue have spent their lives bickering and arguing with each other at the expense of some of the poorest people on the planet.

Bangladesh will struggle through an election campaign marred by violence and protest, assuming that is, that someone doesn't find a good excuse first to abandon them altogether and declare a state of emergency.

The result of the election is unlikely to produce a more stable future for the long suffering population.

Break not make

Perhaps the only South Asian politicians in 2006 that diplomats think have given the two ladies a run for their money in the short-sightedness stakes are those residing further south.

Sri Lanka's president (r) hugs his brother who has just escaped a suicide attack
Sri Lanka's president (r) hugs his brother who has just escaped a suicide attack

2006 was always going to be make or break year for the Sri Lankan peace process - in the end, it was break.

No surprise there. Sri Lanka is being led by President Mahinda Rajapakse but being led back to war by his brother Gothabaya, an opponent of talks with the Tigers.

He runs the Defence Ministry with something that can only be described as a passion.

He ended the year narrowly escaping a suicide attack by the equally intransigent Tamil Tigers.

The Norwegian negotiating team can expect to lose their Sri Lankan air miles gold card next year as neither side is likely to be calling too quickly on their services.

So does 2007 offer any hope of resolution of the conflicts blighting this region?

The good thing is that the self-opinionated journalists who predicted what would happen in 2006 were convinced that Nepal was heading down the pan - the self-opinionated journalists were wrong.

The best news of the 2006 was the ending of that nasty, violent and seeming insolvable civil war with the Maoist rebels.

So let's hope we journalists get our predictions wrong in 2007 too.

The debate is now closed. Here is a selection of readers' views.

If South Asia is progressing, it will benefit the world by way of an economic boom. If South Asian countries are at war with each other, it will still help the developed world with sales of sophisticated military hardware.
S Razdan, India

Bangladesh - give some credit here - has a population half the size of US and squeezed in a space size of Wisconsin - yet manages to feed the people of the country and is making reasonable progress despite having no natural resources. Over the past decade Bangladesh has gained a momentum towards the better - there is no turning back. True the strikes (hartals) and blockades are delaying the advancement but these will not be able to stop Bangladesh reaching its pinnacle.
Akhtar Hossain, USA

Paul Danahar has made some good observations on South Asia but has forgotten the main ingredient, India, whose democracy and innovation make it a superior nation. Just look at the melting pot of religions, castes and creeds - and wonder how it has managed to stay on the correct path of development, to the envy of every nation.
John, UK

In Sri Lanka it is likely to get worse before it can ever get better. Unless the Sri Lankan Government is able to grasp the concept of a Tamil homeland and, as a minimum, is willing to devolve power to the Tamils in the form of a federal state in the north and east of Sri Lanka - 2007 will be another bloody year for the island people.
Peter Manick, UK

I think the article is somewhat biased and sensationalist in the sense that it only highlights the negative side of these countries and not on the positives. Take for example the fact that the failed state/basket case Bangladesh enjoyed the highest growth in its economy this year (6.7 percent). I have no doubt that the situation is bad in Bangladesh but its not as the writer makes it out to be. However, that does not sell website hits does it? Death, doom and drama is a more sellable commodity. Journalists need to understand that the days of trying to sell short-sighted articles are coming to an end with the empowerment provided by the internet. Bangladesh is neither a success nor a failed state - rather its a country in transition.
Tarique Haque, Bangladesh

I am not at all optimistic about the prospects ahead for South Asia in the coming year. Firstly I do not believe that the Taleban will be contained in any fashion or manner. Secondly, let us not forget who actually created them! It was Pakistan, financed by Saudi Arabia. Pakistan has always played a middle man role in Afghanistan since the Russian occupation, and now they are still at it. I hope that 2007 is going to be a peaceful year in the region, however if I was a betting man, I would not put a wager on it.
Raj, UK

I hope President Musharraf is voted in for another term in 2007. Bangladesh should be better off with another spell from a strongman from its Arm Forces. Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Nepal and India should try federalism for its minorities. And I hope all South Asian countries truly make their trade agreements based on the European Union model. If they succeed, trade and education will diminish the chances of war in the future.
Manzoor Ashraf, UK

I wish for peace in 2007 but it can only be done if Canada, the US and Nato realise that they are going wrong in Afghanistan rather than putting all the blame on Pakistan. They have to come up with a exit strategy otherwise their taxpayers will keep asking when the mission be completed. India seriously needs to respond to Pakistan's offer of peace and negotiation on the issue of Kashmir. Pakistan needs to focus on democracy, political stability, economic reforms and curb the extremist elements within its own borders.
Raheel Sajjad, Pakistan

The reason India is not mentioned in this article - is because compared to the other South Asian countries, its problems are smaller. While there are religious tensions, they are not outright wars. While there are political problems, the governing bodies are quite stable. While there are environmental problems, they have been largely managed without outside help. While there are economic problems, the government is actively dealing with them. So in many ways 2007 for India will be a continuation of 2006 - nothing earth-shattering and business as usual. The same can't be said about its neighbours.
Vishal Patel, USA

In the year 2006 we became hopeless and we lived in darkness. Here in Afghanistan we are feeling that we have been forgotten once again. All I hear or all I see on the news is coverage of Iraq. Ignoring Afghanistan in 2007 will create more suffering and more deaths of innocent Afghans, so we do not have any hope for a better 2007. Now it looks like the children of Afghan women will be killed in suicides, bombings or roadside bombs.
Rauf, Afghanistan

Nepal - people desire peace, struggling for the right solution. Bangladesh - needs better leadership. Pakistan and Afghanistan - two sides of the same coin, peace is not possible in one nation without the support of other. Sri Lanka - a country with the maximum number of literate citizens in the region, they just need to stop fighting and start talking and I am sure they can do much better. India - even though Mr Danahar forgot to mention it - has a booming economy even if not everyone is benefiting from it. I think that I have good grounds to be hopeful for the region. Apart from anything else, the area is the dawning place of human civilisation.
Kenith Wilson, India/USA

I hate to sound like the self-opinionated journalists who went wrong in 2006 but sadly I am being forced to do so. From what I see, peace in Nepal seems to be temporary because the government and Maoists have not been able to work on even the fundamental aspects of keeping peace alive. No work has been done to bring the human rights abuses by the Maoists to justice and no work has been done to punish the criminals among the royals. Peace is certainly appealing, but for Nepal it is still a long journey ahead.
Bhumika Ghimire, USA/Nepal

South Asia's peaceful and prosperous future is directly related with actions against terrorism. We need to take initiatives to bring peace and prosperity to our region.
Jahan Zeb , Canada

Afghans never accepted occupation. Same is the case of the Nato forces. They will meet with the fate of the former Soviet Union. The right approach is that to leave Afghans alone and they are capable to run the government and reconstruct their country
Muqaddam Khan, Pakistan (Swabi-NWFP)

good side of 2007:more investment in Pakistan in gas pipeline and Gwadar, economic boom to India, maybe peace for Kashmir. bad side: Taliban will grow stronger in Pakistan and Afghanistan
Shamraiz, UK

Mr. Danahar clearly fails to factor in the world's largest democracy representing one sixth of humanity in this equation.
Karan Jumani, USA

I thought India is in south Asia. Are you really interested in just making some talking points or do you really think Afghan will dictate south Asia's future while India is irrelevant. May be you are right to exclude India as she has already joined the major league and doesn't need to be mentioned with minor league.
Aby Mathew,

I think my part of the world is likely to experience more instability. Militant Islam in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan is not likely to compromise with political and societal sanity. Sri Lanka's ethnic strife cannot abate till the Tamils and Lankans agree for a shared homeland. In India the divide between globalised urban and pauperised rural economy is going to generate more tensions. The communal divide will increase as the minorities are being treated as vote bank pawns. I don't see any prospect of improvement, except Internet, communication, software and better consumer facilities. Is that the future of a vast mass of land and people?
Maloy K Dhar, India

South Asia is going to be a hot spot in the year 2007.
Sinnathamby Sundaralingam, Canada

How much India doesn't features in your column for South Asia? Do you not see it making any difference in South Asian politics?
Sandeep Thakur, USA

I hope that in 2007, USA and the NATO forces end their occupation of Afghanistan, Pakistan gets rid of Gen Musharraf and I hope Kashmiris get some relief from the oppression of the Indian forces. I hope freedom of choice and expression prevails in SE Asia in 2007.
Naveed Khan, USA

I think most of these South Asian countries are waiting for charismatic, fearless, selfless leaders who can think outside box and who can inspire citizens to rise above petty small interests. Till that happens, nations like Pakistan, Sri Lanka or Bangladesh will continue to struggle and they will continue to fight a phoney war against terrorism, corruption and poverty. Their response to these three challenges will determine the fate of these nations.
Ashish, USA

This article just states what most people who have studied the war already know. That without solid infrastructure built to support the current leaders in Afghanistan, it will fall to the same people we helped drive out. All the money invested will have been a waste of time and like the USSR the international community will be left bitter and licking it's wounds. The moral is, "finish what you start!"
Eric Hamm, United States of America

These four states, in various states of strife of one kind or another, all have one commonality: they form a ring of disintegration around India. With the constantly touted "Rise of India" and the beginning of the "Asian Century", all of the countries on India's geographical periphery and under India's sphere of influence, seem to be in a steep decline. Of course India has plenty of insurgent problems of it's own. But India is very clever at sweeping many of these conflicts under the rug for the supposed benefit of the outside observer. There is hope abroad in Nepal for 2007 but unfortunately not much for anyone else in the rest of South Asia.
Derek Flood, USA

The Taleban are the people of south Afghanistan. The sooner NATO/US start to realize this, the better it is for them and for the innocent citizens of Afghanistan. The only way forward is to recognize Taleban for what they are, talk to them and try to wean the moderate Taliban away from the hardliners. In this manner, a compromise solution can be reached with a moderate Taleban in power that (a) keep the country free of Al-Qaeda (b) enforce peace and eradicate the warlordism from Afghanistan (c) Canada/UK can declare victory and withdraw their troops.
Muhammad, London

The war on the Taleban started in 2001, right after the 9/11 aftermath. This is now 2007. Six years later, the American, British and Canadian taxpayer is right to ask: when will our leaders realistically complete this mission? If it is winnable then it should be done and over with in 2007. If it is not winnable, well, wrap up and get out of there!
Jean Desjardins, Montreal, Canada

Over a thousand words on South Asia and not one of those words is India? Or is India's story too boring? Come on, surely we have our own troubled regions and colourful politicians to make some news in 2007.
Karan, India

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