Friday, December 04, 2009

No terror without safe havens

Do you remember the pictures of Saddam Hussein when he was caught? The dictator who had caused three major wars and sent more than a million people to their deaths looked like a beggar. He lay on the ground, with a bloody mouth, disheveled. It was possible suddenly to feel pity even for him.

V Prabhakaran’s end was worse. The ‘tiger’ who had killed so many lay in the mud with half his head blown off.

The point of invoking those memories is to say that in the end, they were both ordinary mortals. Without the protection of their soldiers and their states – a temporary de facto one in Prabhakaran’s case - they were nothing.

That is the fact which leaders of some of the major insurgencies in India’s northeast are probably coming to terms with now. The United Liberation Front of Asom and the National Democratic Front of Bodoland have been feared forces in Assam. They derived a large part of their power from the fact that their leaders enjoyed safe haven in Bangladesh, out of reach of Indian forces.

Now that haven is gone, and suddenly, the leaders of both these groups find themselves in captivity. They are powerless and their groups are in disarray.

It only took a change in government policy in Dhaka to bring about the sudden change in conditions. The capture of ULFA chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa, which could not be achieved since 1979, was finally done in days, without military action.

There is now a window of opportunity for the Indian government to bring lasting peace to the northeast. The extremists who will never give up their delusions of grand homelands can be sidelined. The corrupt, who make a living out of terrorism, can be safely jailed. The moderates can be talked to, and heard.

A similar chance of peace might have emerged across South Asia if the government of Pakistan were to do what the Bangladesh government did. It is known and acknowledged by pretty much every government in the world that the leaderships of the Taliban, al Qaeda and Lashkar e Toiba are in Pakistan. Dawood Ibrahim has been known to live there for years.

Yet the United States is forced to send 30,000 more troops into Afghanistan and spend 30 billion more dollars because the Pakistanis won’t deliver five or six gents to them. India loses less; it is forced into a silly and pointless exercise of sending dossiers, and a much more useful and necessary exercise of getting its police and intelligence agencies in order.

The al Qaeda is in disarray. The Taliban is divided and on the run. Yet Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar remain sources of power, because they are protected by powerful interests in Pakistan. Their protectors retain them as bargaining chips and pawns, despite the risks to their own country.

President Obama’s Afghan strategy is likely to achieve little without real cooperation from Pakistan. Merely holding Afghanistan’s population centres will ensure status quo at best. Any lasting improvement will come only if the real powers in this game – those who protect Osama and his ilk – stop doing so. That would be real cooperation, and it would help stabilize all of South Asia.

This is not to say that all political violence in the region would end if Pakistan’s military changed its policy. The Maoists in India and Nepal, for example, would still be around. The desire of many Kashmiris for independence or more autonomy would still live on. Governments would still need to address legitimate political and social grievances.

But the random bomb blasts that kill innocent civilians might hopefully become a thing of the past.

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