11th Asian Security Conference on "The Changing Face of Conflict and Strategy in Asia"

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  • Rapporteur Report on Session II

    February 03, 2009
    Asian Hotspots and American Security Strategy
    Prepared by Alok Bansal and Vishal Chandra

    The session II of the Conference comprised presentations spanning three vital hotspots across the Asian continent - West Asia, Pakistan-Afghanistan region and the Asia-Pacific. The objective of the session was to make an in- depth assessment of the hotspots impacting contours of the Asian politics and the evolving/changing American security strategy thereof as the new US administration takes over. The session assumed significance as the United States reviews its policies towards Pakistan-Afghanistan region and attempts to redefine its role in the West Asian region in general.

    In his presentation on the Middle East, Prof. Hilal Khashan argued that the evolving security situation in the region is “essentially of a national character” that has “transnational spillover dimension” as well as “global reach potential.” The complex security challenge in the Middle East that manifests in two “operational platforms” involving both state and non-state actors is further complicated by the Western interest and politics in the region. Iran, a state actor, was said to be the centre of the first security platform in the region with Gulf, Iraq and the Levant as its operational theatre; and Sunni militant Islam, representing non-state actors, the second platform whose influence and activism in recent years has seen a phenomenal growth in the Arab East.

    The ongoing Iranian quest for a nuclear capability is essentially part of its desire to emerge as a strong regional player, the whole idea being to safeguard its Islamic revolution from all “sources of its strategic vulnerability.” Iran has historically been wary of encirclement and isolation. Prof. Khashan asserted that while Iran is well-positioned to emerge as a strong regional power, the Sunni militant groups who are not a monolith have a grim prospect. He regards, the latter as “unwholesome” and a “local phenomenon.” He was of the strong opinion that Sunni Islamic militancy given its puritan nature and its lack of achievable plans is incapable of withstanding state coercion. On the other hand, he recognized Iran as a rising regional actor well versed in the politics of international diplomacy and brinkmanship. In his assessment, the Islamic militancy in the region has peaked and is declining. However, both share a certain commonality in terms of strong discontentment over Western interventionism in the region.

    Further extending his argument, Prof. Khashan stated that the evolving insecurity in the region is essentially due to unresolved domestic conflicts which are often intertwined with the interests of the transnational actors. He warned against a reductionist approach in comprehending the complexity of the regional politics and the saliency of its religious component. He asserted that acts of both Iran and Sunni militants are “specifically territorial nationalist, and not universalist.” He proposed that though the US was not actually the cause of the genesis of Islamic radicalism in the region, its disregard for Arab sensitivities, especially on the Palestinian issue, has over the period aggravated it in the region. He attributed the genesis of the Arab religious militancy to the erosion in traditional societal bonds and attempts to establish Western-type nation states that often resorted to repression and neglected people’s aspirations. He accounted for Islamic militancy also in terms of lack of national development and prevalent injustice and biases in international system.

    Prof. Khashan concluded by recommending that the recent shift in US policy towards Iran, however slow, must continue. As far as the US policy towards Middle East was concerned, he emphasised upon the need to do away with the “Washington Consensus” which had led to repression of people by the governments in the region in the name of fighting terrorism. He suggested that the road to security and stability in the Middle East is long and requires concerted policy shifts/adjustments at various levels.

    In her presentation, Ms. C. Christine Fair dwelt on various factors leading to the failure of US’ war on terror in securing both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Her presentation problematised various challenges to the US efforts to engage both countries. She stated that the US embraced the notion of state-building in Afghanistan much after the commencement of the Operation Enduring Freedom in October 2001 and not before many (likely) irreversible mistakes were made. The US committed the fundamental mistake of mis-reading the earlier British and Soviet military experiences in Afghanistan. She argued that the international efforts in Afghanistan were similarly ill-configured to deal with the “complex and adaptive system” of threats that involves five kind of actors – Taliban and allies (Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Jalaluddin Haqqani, al Qaeda, and Pakistan-backed groups); organized criminal groups involved in trafficking of drugs, timber and gems; various tribal actors; warlords and their private militias; and government officials in Afghanistan and neighbouring countries providing support to insurgent and criminal groups. In her opinion, both the US and the international community have failed to adopt effective strategies to contend with the above actors operating at different levels and on many fronts.

    Ms. Fair stated that the development of Afghan security forces would be crucial to the future stability of the Afghan state and argued that it is local forces that are needed to defeat the Taliban insurgency and not the international forces. Regarding the recent increase in the end-strength of the Afghan army and police, she pointed to the lack of military and police trainers and questioned the future prospects of sustaining such a huge force given the financial constraints of the Afghan government. It would also undermine the intent of the Afghanistan Compact. This would also further reinforce Afghanistan as a rentier state. Without carrying out parallel reforms in the ministry of justice and interior, establishing a professional police would be unthinkable. She also referred to the risks involved in raising the local defence forces which would negate the achievements of the DDR efforts. On the issue of counter-narcotics, while accepting that the poppy cultivation has registered a decline, she emphasized on the need to do more. She referred to the lack of political will and entrenched corruption in the Afghan government, and severe policy differences among the Western countries on counter-narcotic measures, as reasons for the continuing drug menace in the country.

    On US-Pakistan relations, she said that the US has largely failed in its objective to transform Pakistan into a stable democratic state supporting its interests in the region. Pakistan is today more insecure than it was in 2001. Ms. Fair identified three problems in US policy towards Pakistan: the US largely mis-configured its supply-driven financial package to Pakistan which focused only on military matters and neglected other goals such as political reforms and democracy; shifting objectives of the US; and the failure of the US to forge a comprehensive regional policy.

    She argued that even if Pakistan was not a sanctuary for the Taliban and allies, security and stability in Afghanistan would have still been a far-fetched idea due to various domestic threats and challenges confronting Afghanistan. However, while reflecting upon Afghanistan’s multiple endogenous problems, she stated that the fates of the two countries are intertwined. Worried over prospects of India’s influence in Afghanistan and Central Asia, Pakistan would seek to manipulate internal developments in Afghanistan as it believes that the international community will sooner or later leave the region and thereafter it will have to contend with the geo-political realities.

    Ms. Fair concluded by calling for a change in the US approach towards the crisis in the Pakistan-Afghanistan region. Opposed to the general argument that Pakistan must be “fixed” to ensure the success of efforts to stabilize Afghanistan, she argued that it is the approach of the US and the international community in Afghanistan that needs to be fixed prior to it. Pakistan with a larger population, possession of nuclear weapons, its army, and its competition with nuclear-armed India, will always engage more US interests than Afghanistan.

    She thus recommended lesser reliance on Pakistan for ensuring stability in Afghanistan. She suggested that the US should forge new supply lines that circumvent Pakistan as much as possible; support national reconciliation in Afghanistan; use increased troops to expand Afghan capacity; and refocus on al Qaeda rather than continuing to wage counter-insurgency efforts with resources that are likely to remain inadequate. The above steps would allow US and its allies and partners a greater space within which to put greater pressure on Pakistan to take effective security measures.

    Col. Ralph Cossa in his presentation provided a series of policy recommendations to the new US administration under President Barrack Obama with the objective of building upon the successes of the previous Bush administration’s Asia-Pacific policies. He called for more active US participation in regional community-building efforts, and greater collaboration with emerging regional and global actors like China, Indonesia, and India.

    According to the discussant for the session, one would agree with Prof. Hilal Khashan that the security of Middle East is threatened by a state actor, namely, Iran and a non-state actor namely, Sunni Islamic Movements. Most of the regimes in the region supported by the US and the West by way of their repressive policies have contributed to pushing the population on the path of radical Islam. If CIA had got over its fascination for Shah and had not toppled the government of Mossadeq, Ayatollah Khomeini would have died in exile. In predominantly Islamic societies, if the population does not get a right of democratic dissent, the opposition to the regime invariably manifests itself from the ramparts of the mosque. Various autocratic regimes in the region continue to fuel radicalization of society. One of the reasons why Arab regimes have not been so forthcoming in their support for the Palestinian cause is their discomfort with its eventual outcome of a democratic Palestine. US emphasis on democratization of the region in the long term is a step in the right direction, even though there may be some setbacks in the short term. A democratic Iraq, once it stabilizes, could possibly be a role model for the region and may pose problems for regimes like Saudi Arabia, who will find it difficult to buy the loyalty of their population by ‘bribing them’ to quote a term from Prof Khashan’s paper. However, the assertion that Islamic militancy led by Al Qaeda in the region has peaked and is in decline, is debatable. The US and the West needs to ponder as to how secular members of Lebanese Communist Party joined Hizbullah. It needs to reevaluate its blind support for Israel. The major hot spots in the world today are burning basically because of two states created on the basis of religion, on an ideology that propagates that a particular ethnic or religious group cannot coexist with another. These are bound to fail in the long term.

    According to the discussant, one would wonder about the source of Christine Fair’s assertions that has attributed Indo-Pak mobilization for the movement of Taliban into the tribal areas of Pakistan, because the mobilization started in December 2001 and by then the Afghan territory had come under the control of the US and its allies. In any case there were no regular Pakistani troops deployed in FATA, especially North and South Waziristan, where bulk of Taliban eventually took refuge. Talibanisation of Pakistan was accelerated by the US support for the unrepresentative government of General Musharraf. Iraq War may not have diverted US attention from Afghanistan but it definitely expanded the space available to them rather than constricting it. The discussant agreed with Dr Fair that eventually the security of Afghanistan would depend on the Afghan security forces and a well trained but small Afghan Army is preferable to a larger but not so well trained army. Unfortunately the ANA continues to be not so well trained mainly because the Western instructors do not understand the oriental ethos. On the drug front, there is probably a need to acquire poppy directly from the growers so as to prevent the Taliban from gaining revenues from it, as the farmers are not going to stop growing it as they do not have a viable alternative. The poppy so procured by international agencies may be utilized for legitimate uses like the in pharmaceutical industry.

    Regarding Col. Cossa’s paper, the discussant felt that the paper was a prescriptive policy oriented paper, giving an American point of view on Asia Pacific policy. From the Indian point of view, the very idea of Asia-Pacific construct that consigns India to the periphery from its central position in the Indian Ocean region, is problematic. The paper analyses India’s role in East Asia and highlighted the fact that the India and the US have not seen eye to eye in various forums like ARF and CSCAP.