Monday, January 26, 2009

Living Dangerously

South Asian sub-continent has become a dangerous place in which to live not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing

From the Taliban in the north to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam in the south, the South Asian sub-continent is plagued by terrors of different hues and colours. What makes it even more complex is the manifold nature of the causes that drive the young men (and women) of the sub-continent towards the world of death and degeneration. The history of terrorism in the continent is not new, it dates as far back as the mid sixties of the last century when a faction of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) led by its ultra-leftist leader Charu Majumdar and Kanu Sanyal took up arms to start a Maoist revolution. Charu’s ideology gained some fan following in the then East Pakistan, which caused the Communist party in the country to divide into several microscopic factions. The ideological descendents of Charu and Kanu, after abandoning their ideology, have resorted to extortion and smuggling for a living.

Terrorism, in fact, has never threatened Bangladesh’s polity until a bomb blast at a cultural programme of Udichi Shilpi Goshthi in Jessore on March 6, 1999 left 10 people killed and over 100 injured. The Udichi blast, as it is now known, has been the first in a string of terrorist attacks, which have seen the death of about a thousand. In these attacks, non-communal progressive political and cultural organisations were deliberately targeted, after Udichi came an assassination attempt on the life of the then premier Sheikh Hasina, it was followed by a grisly bomb blast at a rally organised on January 20, 2001 by the Communist Party. There was a lull in the attack for a couple of years only to return in full force—in 2004, in an attack on the country’s secular judiciary, two suicide bombers near simultaneously blew themselves up to kill two judges. Even though the country has vigorously launched its own war on terror, executing the masterminds of its homegrown Al-Qaeda leaders, without making South Asia free from terrorism, the country cannot alone win the war against the terrorists.

Actually, it is in this backdrop that has come the Awami League’s (AL) election manifesto, which, without elaborating further, promises to form a South Asian Taskforce to fight terror. The AL, after winning an absolute majority in the elections, has come to power and the government led by the party is going ahead with the taskforce. Foreign Minister Dipu Moni says, “The modalities of the protocol are being discussed and (will be) finalised here for taking collective measures to eradicate terrorism from the region. We have built up an institutional framework, which can be utilised by the member countries to initiate effective actions. Combating terrorism is a task that South Asia needs to pursue relentlessly.”

Taskforce of the kind Dipu Moni is alluding to already exist. “A taskforce is not a standing force, it’s a mechanism in which you exchange opinions and information, where you enhance your capabilities regarding a particular issue. You can have a country task force, a regional task force. There are examples galore where task forces have been formed to address the problem of terrorism. The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation has its own counter terrorism taskforce called APECCTT,” Brig Gen (retired) Shahedul Anam Khan, a national security expert, says.

Another task force that Anam draws example of is coordinated by none other than the UN Secretary General’s (UNSG) office. The body is called the Counter-Terrorism Implementation Task Force; in a famous speech, the then UNSG Kofi Anan outlined the taskforce’s approach to deal with terrorism; he emphasised on five Ds--Dissuading people from resorting or supporting terrorist acts; denying terrorist the means to carry out attacks; deterring states from supporting terrorism; developing state capacity to defeat terrorism, and defending human rights.

But how the proposed South Asian taskforce is going to work has remained anyone’s guess. Anam, drawing example from APECCTT says, “The taskforce can coordinate the implementation of the anti-terror strategy enunciated by its leaders, assist economies to identify and assess counter-terrorism needs, coordinate capacity building and technical assistance programmes, cooperate with the international organisations to implement the strategy, and facilitate cooperation between South Asian countries on counter-terrorism issues. It is up to the governments to thrash it out.”

Anam thinks that the taskforce should by no means become a part of ‘the US-led so-called war on terror.” He says, “The war on terror is a convoluted idea in which all terrorists are Muslims and therefore all Muslims are terrorists. It’s a wrong starter. If you look at the experience of this so-called war in Pakistan you will find that the government there cannot stop US missiles from hitting targets inside Pakistan, and mostly civilians are being killed. When it becomes an operational strategy, a fighting strategy, which has happened in Pakistan and Afghanistan, a country gets embroiled in danger.”

The presence of the US, UK and EU, along with China as observers will surely help the taskforce in its work. But given that it has caused two wars and numerous skirmishes between the sub-continent’s two nuclear neighbours, chances are there that the issue of Kashmir can overshadow the creation of such a taskforce. There is no denying that in the ever-changing world of counter terrorism the biggest weapon that we have at our disposal is intelligence. The terrorists have their own international network, which transcends national boundaries. It is time that South Asian countries unite to fight the menace that has put millions of lives in grave danger.