The folly of a South Asian Anti-terrorism taskforce

NewAge, February 13, 2009

For Bangladesh to be part of a South Asian Anti-Terrorism Taskforce alongside the regional hegemon, India, and with the blessings of global military hegemon, the US, will be tantamount to accepting the context in which these two superpowers define terrorism, writes Mahtab Haider*

IN THE past week, prime minister Sheikh Hasina’s idea of a South Asian taskforce to spearhead regional anti-terror operations has repeatedly been in the news, first taking on a renewed political significance when the visiting US diplomat Richard Boucher seemed to strongly back it, and then faltering when the Indian foreign minister Pranab Mukherjee laid it to rest with as diplomatic a dismissal as it could get.

Without a doubt, governments across the world — not just the region — need to cooperate in countering radical militant groups seeking to achieve political aims through the use of violence, and as such any move that seeks to bring lasting peace to the communities ravaged by these low-intensity civil wars is pragmatic. But the consensus of what must be done ends there, and rightly so. The idea of the taskforce, be it multilateral as the Awami League-led alliance and evidently the US envisions it, or bilateral as Delhi seemed to prefer, is a deeply troubling one for a number of reasons. First and foremost, the government has, till now, failed to clarify what the legal framework of such a taskforce would be – and what jurisdiction the taskforce would have across national borders. Will this taskforce make recommendations to national governments, and will these recommendations be legally binding, or will it organise joint operations with troops co-opted from national armies across the region, and able to respond to terror groups militarily? If the prime minister expects to be taken seriously on this issue — and the issue is inherently serious — then she must surely understand that the gestation period of this idea is now over, and more details need to emerge on the workings of this proposed body. While there is no denying that governments across South Asia are increasingly finding themselves fighting an uphill battle against organised terrorism, and while many of the insurgents or radical militias in question are taking advantage of porous borders to perpetrate acts of violence, it is equally true that most of these so-called ‘terrorist’ groups are home-grown and country-specific, with national, rather than regional agendas. As such, convening a South Asian taskforce to deal with these disparate and isolated acts of violence would complicate matters, creating a legal framework under which one country could interfere in the internal affairs of another.

But talk of the pitfalls of a possible regional taskforce is perhaps getting ahead of ourselves when it comes to the issue of terrorism. There is after all no universally acceptable definition of terrorism, not even in the United Nations, given that in history, it has always been the prerogative of the powerful to denounce weaker opponents as terrorists, drawing attention to their tactics rather than their often justifiable political demands. In Nepal, the decade long Maoist insurgency was originally founded on principles of social and economic justice, and it was a combination of waves of military assaults by successive governments in Kathmandu, troops rampaging through villages raping and killing in search of ‘Maoist insurgents’ that ultimately led to the Maoist high command upping the ante and carrying out an equally horrifying campaign of death and destruction. While the Maoist tactics were certainly deplorable — kidnapping and indoctrinating school children, beheading members of the rural elite, etc — their goals were admirable, and their demands for reforms had been time and again ignored by the elite in Kathmandu before they initiated their so called ‘people’s war’. While the acts of violence in which civilians were killed to advance political aims are certainly acts of ‘terrorism’, would that definition not equally apply to the killings and violence perpetrated by the government in Kathmandu as a counter-terror strategy? How can it be that when the state perpetrates violence — and almost all South Asian nations have a horrifying record of having done so — that it remains outside the ambit of terrorism? For Bangladesh to be part of a South Asian Anti-Terrorism Taskforce alongside the regional hegemon India, and with the blessings of the global military hegemon US, will be tantamount to accepting the context in which these two superpowers define terrorism.

This is clearly problematic given the controversy and the criticism that the unjust US ‘war on terror’ is mired in — in the wake of the devastation visited upon Iraq and Afghanistan — and given that this ‘anti-terror’ agenda is predominantly driven by the US’s economic and geo-strategic interests. After all, India is more or less aligned with the US, both in terms of its economic interests and its geo-strategic interests.

In fact, when it comes to the definition of terrorism, Bangladesh in many ways represents the best and worst of both examples. If this South Asian Anti-terrorism Taskforce had been in existence in 1971, countries across South Asia would, at least, have had to converge in condemnation of the Bengali people’s struggle for nationhood as being a ‘terrorist’ agenda or as being led by ‘terrorists’ simply because Karachi, as the establishment, would have the prerogative of labelling the struggle as it chose to. In similar fashion, while the government in Dhaka was forced to fight a long and bloody insurgency in its own Chittagong Hill Tracts, the problem was largely one of the government’s making, first by flooding the hill tracts with Bengali settlers, which triggered clashes, and then by hardening the ethnic minority contras through the use of brute military force. If there was terrorism in the hill tracts, there was state-sponsored terrorism as much as there was terrorism perpetrated by the Shanti Bahini. A South Asian taskforce could not morally ignore this state terrorism, of the kind, for example, that Delhi commits in Kashmir, or Colombo commits in Tamil-majority provinces, while seeking to counter the ‘terrorism’ of the JKLF and the LTTE.
   There is a further danger associated with the idea of a taskforce that is difficult to ignore. Not only is it morally unacceptable that Dhaka, for example, might have to be complicit in the repression that Delhi commits in Assam, if joint counter-terror operations were to become a reality, it would also make Bangladesh and its people legitimate targets for the violence that the ULFA perpetrates. In
   similar vein, Delhi will certainly not want to lengthen the list of radical groups it deals with in the home front by now committing political will or troops in counter-terror activities in neighbouring states.

Given these realities, as justified as the government may be in seeking a regional compact that seeks to tackle the region’s growing problem of terrorism, the nature of the politics that defines this ‘terrorism’ is country-specific and is best left to national government’s to address, preferably politically rather than through the use of state sponsored violence. Most ‘terrorists,’ who are seeking to achieve political goals, after all, are also desperately seeking public support for their cause, not the public alienation and stigma associated with acts of violence. From that perspective, perhaps it would be far more constructive for a South Asian taskforce for political solutions to the innumerable insurgencies South Asian governments are faced with.

* Mahtab Haider writes for NewAge, a leading national newspaper in Bangladesh.



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