Wednesday, July 29, 2009

3 Basic Questions for South Asia

The whirlwind of activities involving South Asia the past few weeks have placed economic and security affairs of the region front and center. Highlights include the meeting between Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Sigh and Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari in Russia. Then the Prime Minister met Pakistani PM Yousaf Raza Gilani in Egypt. Next, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to India and the launching of a new nuclear submarine by India had interesting symmetry given the budding US-Indian relationship on economic and security affairs. All of this on top of ongoing military operations in Afghanistan, the conflict in Pakistan, protests in Kashmir and the return of refugee’s to the SWAT Valley. The interrelated links between all regional issues, would suggest a cohesive strategy is in place with the level of discourse between acting states. Unfortunately, the strategies are scattered rather than seamless, and in definite need of strong leadership, regardless of which country fills that leadership role.

When analyzed on a case-by-case basis, positive signs begin to emerge, and regional cooperation appears legitimate, attainable and a sustainable strategy. However, due to the ‘bi-lateral’ approach of dialogue between states, the long term regional goals will continue mired in short term failures. Until historical differences, engagement of civil society and regional cooperation between states becomes a reality; a new conflict will always loom on the horizon. The US, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan have to ask each other three basic questions that encompass the overarching problems, and necessitating a more robust and seamless strategy for the region as a whole. The starting points are:

  1. How do India, Pakistan and Afghanistan come together to for a coherent security strategy?
  2. How will the US be involved, if at all? Moreover, is a US presence in facilitating dialogue welcomed by the three parties, or are they just a ‘meddling outsider’?
  3. Will civil society have voice to ensure communal cooperation, or, will discussions become just another fa├žade of dialogue without verifiable progress on the ground for the people in the greatest need of assistance and security?

Indo-Af-Pak Regional Security Cooperation

Security in South Asia hinges on greater cooperation and trust among India, Pakistan and Afghanistan as a united body in order to fully address the litany of complex issues each country faces. This will necessitate tangible and realistic goals and benchmarks. Historically, the idea of cooperation between the three regional neighbors was laughable at best, due to unresolved historical tensions in addition to the modern complex problems such as poverty, education, hunger and security.

Unless India, Pakistan and Afghanistan can properly address these complex problems and end the tired arguments of old, improvements in regional security will continue to fail. It is time India assert itself and prove that the so-called “worlds largest democracy’ is much more than a propaganda slogan. India needs to take the lead and show greater maturity, realistically addressing the hard questions that are found within each issue across the board, and address the shared historical legacy that continues to haunt them. Afghanistan and Pakistan need a strong regional partner to prevent succumbing to internal turmoil that threatens their very existence. India’s failure to be a larger than life partner with their neighbors will adversely impact their own internal development goals and overall security as a whole.

US Regional Involvement…Is it welcomed or meddling?

Without question the United States Government has a heavy interest in regional security with the continued war in Afghanistan. Moreover, the prospering relationship with India and continued partnership with Pakistan has the US as deeply entrenched in South Asia as it is in the Middle East. However, despite the necessity of US military and monetary assistance, is the USG’s input on regional security and development matters welcomed by all parties, or are they considered a meddling outsider?

India, Pakistan and Afghanistan reliance on USG military and monetary assistance should allow the USG at least serve the role as mediator or facilitator between the neighboring states on all issues. However, the USG continues to only hold bi-lateral discussions rather than regionally, and enabling each state to continue old grievances, and hindering any chance of success on any level.

For instance, India and Pakistan want all the fruits of energy, monetary and military assistance with the USG, but when the USG offers to help in diplomacy, especially regarding Kashmir, the continued response remains, “these are bi-lateral and internal issues that are not up for discussion.” Considering the nature in which the Kashmir issue is inextricably linked to resolving issues of poverty, education, security and development for the entire region, the time has come for the USG to utilize its reputation of fostering dialogue, compromise and agreement. The cost of the Indian occupation of Kashmir and Pakistan keeping the majority of troops on the Line of Control with India, development goals continue to stall greater regional prosperity.

Can civil society trump political corruption and deception?

Given the democratic values proclaimed by India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, civil society is the key stakeholder in all discussions, and should have a seat at the table. Survival of all three states rests in a strong civil society and social structure. Unfortunately, political leadership continues to marginalize and ignore civil society, whether an internal development matter, or larger regional issues such as Kashmir. Once the voice of civil society receives recognition as a legitimate stakeholder to the issues plaguing the region, tangible evidence of progress will begin to appear. Moreover the level in which political corruption continues to upset the social fabric of civil society will begin to dissipate. A strong communal order exists within the cultural framework of the region as a whole. The tribal and/or religious differences are exacerbated in the political sphere via corruption and manipulation. The single greatest asset the region possesses is the communal structure. Yet, it remains the most underutilized.

Until civil society is accepted as a legitimate stakeholder, regional insecurity will continue and development will suffer in the long term. Due to the historical legacy of the caste and tribal systems, the ability for policy makers to understand the needs of civil society remains unattainable. Only the input of civil society can bridge this gap, but it will require policy makers to once and for all recognize their concerns as legitimate.

If these three very general questions are properly addressed, the South Asian region will become a much more influential in international affairs, rather than a flashpoint.

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