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Obama's huge South Asia headache

Guest columnist Ahmed Rashid in Lahore says US President-elect Barack Obama and the West face a massive task if Pakistan, Afghanistan and the surrounding region are to see greater stability in 2009.

Suspected attackers in Mumbai
What happened in Mumbai could also happen in Europe
South and Central Asia are the most explosive areas in the world today and will continue to be so in 2009.

The Taleban insurgency in Afghanistan has expanded to the gates of Kabul and there are several insurgencies underway in Pakistan under the leadership of al-Qaeda, the Taleban and allied groups.

There are a number of insurgencies in India where minorities such as Muslims and Christians feel under threat.

Indefinitely stalled

Nuclear-armed India and Pakistan are at daggers drawn after the Mumbai attacks, which India says were carried out by the Pakistan based group, Lashkar-e-Taiba.

Unless there is peace between India and Pakistan, the crisis in Afghanistan cannot be resolved

The four-year-old peace process between the two countries is indefinitely stalled.

In parts of Central Asia there is increasingly widespread poverty, a collapse of social services and an underground Islamic militant movement.

However the biggest threat emanates from Pakistan, which former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has described as an ''international migraine'' where nuclear weapons, terrorism, political instability and poverty all collide.

All these regional problems threaten to undermine the world's stability - as does the presence of global jihadists who will intensify their operations in Europe, Africa and Asia in the coming year.

Meanwhile the entire region is being affected to some degree by the global financial crisis, the economic downturn and the rising price of food.

Taleban militia
The Taleban plan to put US troops on the defensive

All-in-all US President-elect Barack Obama and the leadership of the West will be faced with a massive mending and problem-solving operation if the region - and the world - is to see greater stability in 2009.

The key is the relationship between the governments and the people.

India's political system is stable and until now has always been able to cope with dissent, adventurism and insurgency but it will be sorely challenged in the coming year which will see a general election and a possible victory by Hindu fundamentalists that could further polarise Indian society.

Low esteem

Central Asian republics such as Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan are all to a varying degree ruled by men who are out of touch with the public mood, accused of corrupt and incompetent governance and who have yet to develop alternative political systems ever since the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Afghanistan faces presidential elections when the government is held in low esteem by the people for failing to tackle corruption and drug dealing.

But elections must be held if there is to be any chance for the state to grow and deal with the huge problems of insurgency and the lack of development and infrastructure following George W Bush's 2001 invasion.

The Taleban are determined to thwart an election and fighting will intensify through the winter and spring 2009 in order to demoralise Nato and force the 20,000 new US troops - due to arrive in the spring - on the defensive.

However, it is probably Pakistan - with its different centres of power - that is key to the future stability in the region.

The army, which dominates nuclear and foreign policy, continues to believe in a national security agenda that sees thwarting and confronting India as its foremost challenge.

President-elect Barack Obama
South and Central Asia will present the new president with a host of challenges

The civilian government headed by the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) is determined to change the parameters of this doctrine by making peace with India and Afghanistan and concentrating upon developing the country.

Other power centres such as the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) have become almost a state within a state, while local and foreign jihadist groups - who now control vast tracts of territory in northern Pakistan - have their own agendas.

Clearly the world can no longer afford to focus indefinitely on Afghanistan while allowing the rest of the region to sink further into confrontation and instability - especially when many of those problems are now deeply interlinked.

Unless there is peace between India and Pakistan, the crisis in Afghanistan cannot be resolved and unless Central Asia is included in a developmental regional process, parts of it will slip further into anarchy.

President-elect Obama and Western leaders have to adopt a comprehensive approach that sees the region as a unit with interlocking development issues to be resolved such as poverty, illiteracy and weak governance.

There has to be a more comprehensive but more subtle approach to democratising the region and forcing powerful but negative stakeholders in local power structures - such as the drug mafias - either to change their thinking or be eliminated.

However finding more international forces to serve in Afghanistan and more aid money for the entire region will be extremely difficult at a time of global recession and when the public in the US and Europe will be demanding such funds be spent at home.

Nevertheless the arrest of 14 people and the charging of six of them - listed as al-Qaeda "terrorists" - for an attempted suicide attack in Belgium in mid-December lay out the very real global threat that springs from the region.

Although of Moroccan origin and Belgium citizenship, the alleged "terrorists" had trained in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border regions.

It is fortunate that this group was caught before they launched an attack, but there are many more such groups activated across Europe and all it needs is for just one to succeed - as in Mumbai - to create a renewed global fear of instability springing from South and Central Asia.

Ahmed Rashid is the author of the recently published Descent into Chaos: How the war against Islamic extremism is being lost in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia.

Here are some of your comments:

Pakistan needs massive reforms to its security sector and governance, but that is not possible unless and until its existential anxieties are addressed comprehensively. The Western governments should first of all get the Afghan government to endorse the Durrand Line once for all. Second, they should pressurise India to come to some acceptable accommodation with Kashmiris and Pakistan over the Kashmir problem. Then, Pakistani security establishment should be made more accountable and transparent, as well as forced to take a clear stand vis-a-vis extremists. Till Indian politicians refuse to address Kashmir and conclude the painful legacy of Partition, things would not improve. Murtaza Shibli, editor, www.kashmiraffairs.org
Murtaza Shibli, London/UK

The problems of Pakistan are not solely as a result of Pakistanis making, they are a result of US, Indian and possibly Iranian and Arab sabotage to keep attention away from them... What is required is a concerted world effort to make India resolve the Kashmir issue as outlined in the UN charter, the world to assist pak in removing the criminals/butchers ie the mad mullahs in Pakistan and invest heavily in the frontier provinces to educate and give jobs to people who for centuries have been abused then isolated and marginalised by everyone. From what Obama has been saying this appears his line too, so all the best to him in achieving something that the world will benefit from in the long term and could use to resolve other regional problems.
S Khan, UK

Ahmed Rashid is very right to say that there are several power centres in Pakistan. The bottom line of the problem of chaos in Pakistan is that the military dominated centralised state of Pakistan is resisting to give their due rights to the various nationalities inhabiting the country. Especially the Pashtun and Baluch youth are attracted to resort to violence because of their political and economic deprivation. Since the birth of the country in 1947, these two groups have been demanding provincial autonomy and economic rights. But the Punjabi dominated martial state of Pakistan has been resisting their demands.
Shahid Ilyas Khan, Istanbul-Turkey

With due respect to the ordinary people of Pakistan, I think there must be a realization that Indians have been pushed beyond limits of tolerance now. Kargil, Kandahar hijack, Parliament attack, Kabul Embassy attack and the horrific Mumbai attack is just too much to bear. The Indians are angry with their governments for sloppy management of security but more so for studied inaction in the face of continued aggression. The government has no space to get back to business as usual with Pakistan. If international pressure does not work to get justice for the Mumbai victims, I see no option but a more aggressive strategy employed by India
Atul Sinha, Bangalore, India

I am hopeful that people of Pakistan, especially the young entrepreneurial and the professional classes, will continue to do their best to help extend the positive legacies of Musharraf-Aziz years. I believe it can be safely said that the communications revolution as well as a significant enlargement of the middle class in Pakistan helped sow the seeds of the end of arbitrary actions by President Musharraf. In other words, Musharraf pulled a Gorbachev (a la perestroika that unleashed uncontrolled energies) by enabling powerful resistance to his arbitrary rule. Some of these changes that Musharraf brought are durable and I hope will make our rulers more accountable. There will still be abuse of power but the media spotlight will hopefully shine brightly on it to the detriment of the abusers. Eventually there will be real participatory democracy to serve all Pakistanis with appropriate checks and balances imposed by a much larger and more powerful and aware middle class essential for true democratic governance in Pakistan, or anywhere else.
Riaz Haq, San Jose, CA, US

The correspondent fails to mention that Pakistan is the epicentre of terrorism. There are two groups of terrorists operating in Pakistan now. There are the Taliban/Al Qaeda who were originally supported by the military in Pakistan and there are the anti-India jihadists mainly originating from the Pak Punjab. The Taliban have now turned on the Pakistan military and govt institutions and are responsible for the terrorism within Pakistan. The anti-India terrorists are still being nurtured by the military as a foreign policy tool to harass and hurt the Indians like the incidents in Mumbai and various bomb blasts. The Indians need to take drastic action, target the terror camps and warn the Pakistan military that if nuclear weapons are ever used on India then Pakistan will cease to exist. The ISI needs to be got rid of.
Uthra, Barnsley, UK

The biggest threat to the world peace is not South Asia. It is the rise of fundamentalism within the followers of Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity & Islam. Is it that hard for the Western press to be objective & fair when it comes to Pakistan? Tribal societies like Iraq and Afghanistan will never become democracies, it is just an illusion of the elites. Pakistan was a secular country until they decided to fight the Soviets. If Pakistan army can use its resources to help tackle poverty and build some democratic institutions then maybe change can come for Pakistan. But for that they need to have Pentagon's permission. Good luck.
K.M Sheikh, Atlanta, US

Ahmed Rashid claims that insurgencies in India threaten Muslims and Christians - they don't! Most victims of insurgencies in Assam (N E India) and a Naxalite campaign in Orissa and parts of Central India have been Hindu Indians. The only relatively stable state in S Asia (and the only truly democratic one) is India! India is currently the second fastest growing economy in the world, notwithstanding the weakening global economy. India's economy, soft power, scientific and technological prowess is causing envy and heartburn among the failing states like Pakistan. Pakistan is the main cause of instability in South Asia.
Sonny Azhak, London

"Unless there is peace between India and Pakistan, the crisis in Afghanistan cannot be resolved". While US interests may be to restrain India from taking any military action that would force Pakistan to shift its military focus to the East is totally understandable. However, New Delhi is sensitive to Washington linking the Kashmir issue to the US-Afghan-Pakistan imbroglio. It needs to be noted that India may find it difficult, if not impossible to oblige the US when the latter directly impinges on India's critical national interests. It would be foolhardy for New Delhi to help pull US chestnuts out of the fire at the cost of US playing the Pakistani hand for them vis--vis Kashmir. President elect Obama's utterances of deploying a special envoy to resolve the Kashmir issue is a recipe for disassociating India from Washington's South Asia policy that is tantamount to interference in India's internal affairs. This has subtly been communicated by the External Affairs Minister, Mr Pranab Mukherjee, in statements issued on December 30
Vijai Nair, Noida. India


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