Continuing Instability in South Asia is in the Cards

Pakistanis watch the New Year fireworks

Though 2010 was relatively peaceful in South Asia – with the exception of the conflict in Afghanistan, the unstable regional security environment, India’s unresolved territorial and boundary disputes with China and Pakistan and continuing internal security challenges are a cause for concern.  After West Asia, this region is perhaps the most trouble prone in the world. With a history of four conflicts in 60 years and three nuclear-armed adversaries continuing to face off, South Asia has been described as a nuclear flashpoint. Hence, in view of the ongoing conflicts and the possibility of new conflagrations, 2011 is likely to be a turbulent year.

The regional security environment in South Asia continues to be marred by Afghanistan’s endless civil war despite the induction of additional troops in 2010 by the US-led NATO-ISAF coalition forces. The situation can be characterised as a strategic stalemate. This will continue with the Taliban and NATO-ISAF forces alternately gaining local ascendancy for short durations in the core provinces of Helmand, Marja and Kandahar. While US forces may be expected to step up drone strikes in Pakistan against extremists sheltering in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas), the results are not likely to appear justifiable in view of the diplomatic fallout in Pakistan. The Afghan National Army is still many years away from achieving the professional standards necessary to manage security on its own. It will, therefore, be difficult for the US to begin its planned drawdown of troops in July 2011.

Pakistan’s halfhearted struggle against the remnants of the al Qaeda and the Taliban, fissiparous tendencies in Baluchistan and the Pushtun heartland, continuing radical extremism and creeping Talibanisation, the unstable civilian government, the floundering economy and, consequently, the nation’s gradual slide towards becoming a ‘failed state’, pose a major security challenge for the region.

The collusive nuclear weapons-cum-missile development programme of China, North Korea and Pakistan and Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons are issues of concern. Iran’s nuclear ambitions and the vaguely stated threats of several of its neighbours to follow suit are a major cause of potential instability in the region. Saudi Arabia, in particular, may fund Pakistan’s nuclear expansion programme as a hedging strategy against the acquisition of nuclear weapons by Iran. Such a course of action would be a disastrous blow to international non-proliferation efforts.

Sri Lanka’s inability to find a lasting solution to its ethnic problems despite the comprehensive defeat of the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) has serious repercussions for stability in the island nation. The resurgence of the LTTE over the next five years can be safely predicted. Bangladesh’s emergence as the new hub of Islamist fundamentalist terrorism even as it struggles for economic upliftment to subsistence levels, could trigger a new wave of terrorism if left unchecked. It can be deduced form recent arrests in the UK and elsewhere that international fundamentalist terrorists may succeed in launching another spectacular strike in the West. A successful strike would resurrect the al Qaeda and enable it to rally its wavering cadres.

The Maoist ascendancy in Nepal and its adverse impact on Nepal’s fledgling democracy, as also Nepal’s newfound inclination to seek neutrality between India and China, are a blow to what has historically been a stable India-Nepal relationship. Simmering discontentment in Tibet and Xinjiang against China’s repressive regime is gathering momentum and could result in an open revolt. The peoples’ nascent movement for democracy in Myanmar and several long festering insurgencies may destabilize the military Junta despite its post-election confidence. The movement for democracy could turn violent if the ruling Junta continues to deny its citizens basic human rights. The spillover of religious extremism and terrorism from Afghanistan and political instability in the Central Asian Republics are undermining development and governance. Other vitiating factors impacting regional stability in South Asia include the unchecked proliferation of small arms, being nurtured and encouraged by large-scale narcotics trafficking and its nexus with radical extremism.

India’s standing as a regional power that has global power ambitions and aspires to a permanent seat on the UN Security Council has been seriously compromised by its inability to successfully manage ongoing conflicts in its neighborhood, singly or in concert with its strategic partners. These conflicts are undermining South Asia’s efforts towards socio-economic development and poverty alleviation by hampering governance and vitiating the investment climate. It appears inevitable that in 2011 the South Asian region and its extended neighbourhood will see a continuation of ongoing conflicts without major let up. In fact, the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan could deteriorate beyond the ability of the international community to control.

Gurmeet Kanwal is Director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), New Delhi. This piece is part of the Atlantic Council web forum “South Asia in 2011,”  a collection of contributors’ reflections on events in the greater South Asia region in 2010 as well as their predictions for the year ahead.

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