Malian soldiers fighting in Gao
The recent announcement that France intends to ‘reoccupy’ Mali and the news of the attack by terrorists on an oil and gas complex in Algeria have reignited the spectre of an unrelenting drive by a diverse but well-organized and well-armed group of terrorists around the world. The Sahel is gradually becoming an exclusive territory providing a fertile launching pad and virtual ‘nationhood’ to a diverse group of terrorists flying the banner of jihad.
France, Germany, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Spain as well as some other European nations, which have experienced terrorist attacks, each has a sizeable immigrant population that, in spite of the best efforts of European countries, has resisted integration into the adopted country’s culture, language and ethos. These significant groups of underclass citizens are a source of deep disaffection, and a major threat to civil society.
France’s rush to prevent Mali from being overrun by Islamist rebels is work in progress with an uncertain outcome. It is, however, an indication of the heightened alarm about terrorism in France, and may be a reflection of a Europe-wide apprehension. In this context, France’s intention to ‘reoccupy’ Mali may signal the 21st-century edition of the white man’s burden.
The celebration of the ‘Arab Spring’, in retrospect, definitely appears to have been naïve and hugely premature, as indeed were the pursuit of victory and return of the rule of law in Iraq and Afghanistan. In other words, the world is confronted by the steady and unrelenting rise of terrorism, which has now become too big to ignore. The growing size and shape of global terrorism and its unintended consequences are indeed acquiring grotesque proportions, while the rest of the world stumbles towards a fearful and uncertain future.
As the uncertain future comes closer, probably the geography which is most intensely threatened is South Asia. Pakistan, which is a pioneer in unlawful nuclear proliferation, is also the birthplace of modern terrorism as well as an important global resource base. Having given a home to the monster of jihad, Pakistan, today, is among the frontline victims of its own making with an unholy mix of Shia and Sunni battles, the rise of the Taliban and several other brands of terrorists and their resource providers. In recent months, more people have been killed by terrorists within Pakistan than in any other country.
India now faces probably its biggest existential threat from external terrorist attacks since Independence with the approaching spectre of the withdrawal of American and other North Atlantic Treaty Organisation troops from Afghanistan in less than two years.
While the allied forces have been fighting a battle in Afghanistan, without an end, for over 10 years, as indeed the former Soviet Union had done — as unsuccessfully — for a decade prior to that, the outcome remains no different from the unsuccessful battles to pacify Afghanistan fought by colonial Britain in the 19th and early 20th century.
Thus, the various scenarios in India’s neighbourhood from 2014 onwards remain hugely and frightfully unpredictable and speculative.
As Europe and the United States of America begin to withdraw their talons from their long and exhausting efforts to spread the mantra of democracy and tolerance and start diverting all their energies and resources towards solving their own domestic problems in order to recover the equilibrium of their civil societies, they leave in their wake destruction, devastation and disillusionment in the Middle East and South Asia, much larger than the two major wars of the 20th century.
Of immediate concern is how the scenario is likely to unfold in Pakistan and Afghanistan from now on, which remains totally unpredictable. What the impact will be on Iran, Central Asia and the rest of South Asia is equally fuzzy. China, with its domestic challenges and ambitions in east Asia, is likely to pose other new and unanticipated scenarios.
Therefore, as Asia enters a phase of extreme uncertainty, can the Middle East, and especially Saudi Arabia and Israel, remain unaffected? For example, the US is expected to be energy self-sufficient and a net exporter by 2020. Saudi Arabia, which has been the principal promoter and financier of the spread of fundamentalist Wahhabism, is increasingly facing growing domestic problems and disenchantment and thus too the limits of its petro-dollar wealth and its finiteness. Finally, the gradual waning of the US’s influence on its key Middle East allies does not bode at all well for the future of Israel, no matter what the posturings.
In a sense, the current disturbances in North Africa represent a phase of the rise of a new generation of global jihadis with a ‘homeland’ of their own, spreading from North Africa, across the Middle East and then on to Central and South Asia and gradually across East Asia.
It has been assumed for a long time, and with some valid argument, that the principal funder of the global terrorist growth is Saudi Arabia, with Pakistan acting as a facilitator state. If large segments of two generations in the Middle East and South Asia are brought up to hate the rest of the world just because they belong to different faiths, then the consequences of having let the genie out of the bottle are indeed too horrendous to contemplate.
Terrorism does not provide a livelihood, as indeed most people in Pakistan, Afghanistan and countries in the Middle East understand. If indeed the huge funds which support terrorism gradually lessen in the future, how will this grotesque movement of terrorism survive? For example, the Somalis have taken up commercial piracy, with some success. But in reality there are not any sustainable occupations which can support nomadic groups which depend on terrorism, blackmail and a degree of State support for their livelihood.
Beginning with the war against imagined ghosts of weapons of mass destruction, the developed world has triggered a chain reaction of war and destruction in Africa and Asia, and from which it is now withdrawing in disarray, leaving behind the new and real WMDs in the shape and form of global terrorism, which is bent on destroying the fundamentals of civil society and civilization as we know it.
If the developed world is now looking forward to a peaceful and once again a prosperous future, insulated from the forces of destabilization it has helped unleash, it would not only be delusional but also naïve to the extreme.
India’s ‘look East’ policy and the awakening of the countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to the challenges posed by terrorism and the ambitions of China are early indicators of the acknowledgment of the real and present danger which our region faces. It is the stuff of nightmares to even begin to contemplate a future surrounded by bumper poppy harvests in an Afghanistan returning to its roots of tribal warlords and a Pakistan consumed by religious rivalries and State-sponsored terrorist groups rather than attending to its own progress and the fulfilling of the demands of its civil society.
It is unlikely that there is a silver lining in the bleak reality, but there may be some saving grace and good innate human instinct which might yet pull all of us back from the brink, and which we must keep searching for, no matter how hopeless the current mess may appear to be. The world owes it to its future generations.