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Terror sans borders

November 22, 2015


The writer is a political economist.
The writer is a political economist.

TURKEY, Lebanon, Russian plane and France: is the world losing to militants? Ter­ror­ism’s geographical reach today is truly mind-boggling. Militants hold large territories in three major areas: the Middle East from Yemen to Syria; North Africa from Somalia to Mali; and ‘Af-Pak’. Other places suffer frequent one-off terrorist attacks: US, Europe, Russia, China, India, even Australia, etc.

Thus, 75pc-plus of the world’s population, geography, GDP and strongest militaries across five continents are terrorised by groups possessing a few thousand ‘soldiers’, basic weaponry and revolting ideologies. Alar­mingly, terrorist tentacles are spreading further though the Pope exaggeratedly invokes a third world war. Such wars involve direct conflict between global powers, which kill millions. Mercifully, earlier world wars and regional insurgencies were eventually contained and most affected regions are thriving or recovering today.

Many Muslims heed distracting arguments blaming terrorism on Western policies, eg, invading Iraq, arming anti-Assad militants and alienating European Muslims. Western powers are certainly responsible for these actions. Still, militants alone are directly responsible for their reactionary atrocities against Muslims and Westerners since Western excesses could realistically be also challenged through peaceful mobilisation, intellectual critiques and diplomacy. But IS (militant Islamic State group)-type militants can only be contained militarily in league with superior Western militaries, and by addressing root causes.

A Plan B is needed if talk efforts with the Afghan Taliban fail again.

Likewise, many Westerners blame Islam and Muslims generally for terrorism, ignoring Western expert research which delinks religion and terrorism.

However, broad-brush accusations alienate countless Muslims who desire Western cooperation in defeating terrorism. Spectres of civilisational clashes are also misleading. Those involve conflict between core civilisational representative powers. Fringe ‘Islamists’ targeting Westerners and neo-Nazis targeting European Muslims represent neither civilisation.

Though the Middle East is the biggest threat globally, Pakistanis obviously prioritise terrorism nearer home. While Pakistan is stabilising, Afghanistan is not. No clear strategy exists to stabilise it. Hopes unrealistically remain pinned only on coaxing the Afghan Taliban to negotiate. Years of talk attempts have produced no progress but dangerous divisions among the Taliban. The prospects of Taliban unitedly embracing talks remain uncertain.

The US-induced Ghani-Abdullah coalition has produced paralysis and quibbling. A coalition containing them and also the mediaeval-minded Taliban will most likely fail. Thus, a Plan B is required if talk efforts predictably fail again.

America, Russia and China must convince Afghanistan, India and Pakistan to make Afghanistan officially neutral, where neighbours compete economically, not politically. This will delink Pakistan’s Afghan interests from Taliban fortunes and mediaeval goals.

China, which enjoys greater clout than others among critical regional stakeholders, must take the initiative here for its regional economic dreams will remain threatened until Afghanistan stabilises. However, China still behaves like pre-World War II America, prioritizing economics and shunning international politics.

Pakistan represents the lone success story recently against terrorism. However, root causes remain unaddressed. Their resolution requires ‘concomitant governance initiatives’. Politicians should certainly be pressurised to implement those, but by citizens, not impatient, out-of-line ISPR tweets. Even citizens must recognise that prevailing governance levels represent near the best levels Pak­is­tani society can presently produce democra­tically.

Non-democratic alternatives exacerbate problems further. Thus, governance will imp­rove gra­­­dually, not precipitously. Politi­cians’ inertia, besides reflecting venality and incompetence, also reflects delicate intra-society ethnic and political balances and overall institutional and societal incapacities which change gradually. Impatient military and middle-class minds often ignore these complexities.

Harvard’s Dani Rodrick argues that low-capacity countries must often forsake ideal, first-choice strategies that address root causes and instead adopt ‘second-best’ strategies. The army’s capacities to address terrorism’s symptoms are far higher than civilian or even army capacities to address deeply entrenched root causes presently. Thus, realistic ‘second-best’ strategies should include longer symptom-treating army operations as capacities for addressing root causes increase gradually.

Pakistan’s jaunty generals could develop greater humility by reflecting nightly on how two of their ruling predecessors cultivated terrorism’s root causes and lagged behind politicians in even addressing symptoms.

The writer is a political economist.

Published in Dawn, November 22nd, 2015