Year-end Review: The Unstable Regional Security Environment is a Cause for Concern
Brig Gurmeet Kanwal

A polycentric new world order, the early contours of which had begun to gradually emerge from the ashes of the Cold War, has begun to fray at the edges. The primary causes for this condition are the growing friction among the major powers, particularly tensions between Russia and the United States vis-à-vis Ukraine and Crimea, China’s belligerent posturing in the South and East China Seas, the triumphant rise of ultra-right wing political parties, dilution in the forces of globalisation and free market economies, and the international community’s inability to comprehensively defeat the forces of radical extremism.

In North-East Asia, though North Korea has halted nuclear warhead and ballistic missile tests that it had been conducted in flagrant violation of UN Security Council resolutions and is negotiating some form of ‘denuclearisation’ with President Trump’s team, the talks are tenuous and could easily break down. The threat of conventional conflict on the Korean peninsula – the 38th Parallel has been a flashpoint since the early 1950s – will gradually recede if the two sides continue to discuss the process of demilitarisation.

In West Asia, while the progress made in liberating the notorious Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) controlled areas in Iraq and Syria has forced the Islamic Caliphate to retreat geographically, its virulent ideology continues to flourish unabated. In fact, a cyber caliphate comprising hundreds of laptop warriors has begun to emerge. It is potentially more dangerous than its geographical counterpart due to the ability of a handful of the faithful to radicalise large sections of vulnerable youth using the Internet.
In Southern Asia, continuing Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan and along the Af-Pak border is the greatest cause of instability. The strategic stalemate between the Afghan government and the remnants of the US-NATO forces on one side and the Taliban and Pakistan-sponsored terrorist organisations like the Haqqani network on the other, is likely to endure. The Taliban now control large parts of the rural areas.

President Trump had begun by reversing his predecessor’s decision to draw-down the number of US forces and eventually pull out of Afghanistan. He had earlier decided to continue operations till the Al Qaeda are finally defeated. He had also called on Pakistan to stop playing double games and to eliminate anti-Afghan Taliban from its soil. He has now unilaterally decided to reduce the number of US troops by 7,000 to half the present number. This move will further embolden the Taliban to refuse to make any concessions in the ongoing reconciliation talks.

China’s growing nexus with Pakistan and the two countries’ unresolved territorial disputes with India continue to pose a formidable national security threat to India. In recent years, the intensity of this threat has not diminished. In fact, the Doklam stand-off near the India (Sikkim)-Tibet (China)-Bhutan trijunction in June-August 2017 has further vitiated the security environment.

Despite misgivings in both countries, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) has begun to take shape. Passing through Gilgit-Baltistan in Pakistan occupied Jammu and Kashmir (PoJK), the CPEC will link Xingjian province of China with Gwadar on the Makran coast west of Karachi. Involving a total investment of US$ 64 billion, the manufacturing, transportation and storage projects that form part of CPEC will be financed entirely by China through soft loans. Pakistan has only now begun to realise the magnitude of the long-term debt burden that it will be saddled with.

Though Pakistan is raising a division of approximately 12,000 personnel to provide security for the CPEC against terrorist attacks, eventually Chinese soldiers are bound to be inducted for this purpose like in Gilgit-Baltistan. Large-scale PLA presence in Pakistan will further destabilise the region. Surprisingly from India’s point of view, India’s long-time strategic partner Russia has expressed its support for CPEC. Russia also held a low-level military exercise with Pakistan and has offered to sell arms to the country. The US administration’s anti-Russia policies are driving Russia closer to China. These developments are detrimental to India interests.

For all practical purposes the US has unilaterally pulled out from the nuclear deal that Iran signed with the P-5+1 despite strong opposition from several regional neighbours like Israel and Saudi Arabia. Arguably, getting Iran to give up its ambition to acquire nuclear weapons was the most significant foreign policy achievement of the US since the Camp David Accords of 1978. The region may soon witness the arrival of another nuclear power – with attendant negative consequences.

Forgotten in the shadow of the conflict in Syria and Iraq is the civil war in Yemen. The Houthis and their allies, who seized Sanaa in September 2014, are locked in a bitter fight with a Saudi-led coalition comprising mainly Arab nations from the Gulf. General Raheel Sharif, former Pakistan army chief, is heading the Saudi-led 34-nation coalition assembled to fight Islamist terrorist groups.

Closer home, of the almost one million Rohingya Muslims who have for long been residing in Rakhine province of Myanmar, over 600,000 fled their homes due to alleged repression by the army. They have streamed across the open border into Bangladesh. Many of them have been attempting to sneak into India. If arrangements are not soon made to get Myanmar to take them back, malnutrition and disease prevailing in the refugee camps in Bangladesh could escalate to insurgency.

In 2018, India’s red lines were repeatedly crossed by violation of the mutually agreed cease-fire of November 2003 by the Pakistan army. There has also been a major increase in infiltration attempts across the Line of Control (LoC) and in the incidents of violence in J&K during 2018. India continued its post-surgical strikes policy of tactical assertiveness under the umbrella of strategic restraint and dominated the LoC aggressively. About 230 Pakistan-sponsored terrorists were killed during the year.

Internal instability continues to haunt the government of Pakistan and its army. Over four years after it was launched, Operation Zarb-e-Azb in Khyber-Pakhtoonkhwa is still to be concluded successfully. A low-grade insurgency in Balochistan, unrest in Sind and Gilgit-Baltistan, creeping Talibanisation, ethnic tensions and a weak economy are a potent mix that could lead to an implosion.

Adding fuel to the fire are the Army’s clumsy attempts to ‘mainstream’ the Hafiz Saeed-led Lashkar-e-Taiba/ Jamat-ud-Dawa (LeT/JuD) to fight the 2018 elections as a registered political party. In October-November 2017, the Army had allowed the Tehreek-e-Labaik, a hard-line militant Islamist group, to blockade the road from Rawalpindi to Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital, despite requests from the Government to throw them out. The Imran Khan Government, elected by the Army’s support, is unlikely to be inclined to bring such activities to a halt.

Varying degrees of turmoil in other countries around India, including Bangladesh, Maldives, Myanmar, Nepal and Sri Lanka, added to regional instability. Narco-terrorism, the proliferation of small arms, the circulation of fake currency notes, trans-border money laundering and the availability of sanctuaries for insurgents, often aided and abetted by neighbouring states, enable non-state entities to challenge duly elected governments. The insurgent movements in India’s North-Eastern States are an example of this phenomenon.

The prevalence of volatility in the region leads to the inevitable conclusion that Southern Asia will continue to remain unstable for some more time to come. The countries of the region must come together in their own interest and agree to systematically plug the loopholes that enable cross-border insurgent movements to flourish.

Sadly, there is too much mistrust among the neighbours. Also, with South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) having become almost completely defunct, nor is it a viable platform available to enable the conduct of long and hard negotiations that would be required for a cooperative security framework to evolve for peace and stability in the region.

(The writer is Visiting Fellow, VIF, and former Director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), New Delhi).

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