SAARC leaders should show vision, courage and sincerity to recognize the regional organization as the only institutional and pragmatic forum to create atmosphere of mutual trust
After three weeks of deadliest terrorist attack which killed 40 Indian security personnel on February 14, rising tensions between India and Pakistan appear to be calming down. Attack was carried out by a local youth in Indian Kashmir, and was swiftly claimed by Pakistan-based militant group Jaish e-Mohammad (JeM) headed by Maulana Masood Azhar. What does this mean? This unmistakably shows the roots of terrorism emanating from terrorist groups from across the border in Pakistan, and the vulnerability of the aggrieved local youth to extremism going to the extent of giving up one’s life.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi warned of a “crushing response.” India said it “would take all possible diplomatic steps to ensure the complete isolation of Pakistan from international community” with “incontrovertible evidence available” of Pakistan’s direct hand in this gruesome terrorist attack. On 13th day of the attack, India launched “intelligence-led…. non-military preemptive action” that, it claimed, specifically targeted at JeM camp in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. This is considered to be the first attack across the international border since the 1971 war.
Pakistan denied Indian allegations, described the increasing violence as “a matter of grave concern,” and attributed it to “the result of the brutalities of Indian occupied forces in Kashmir.” Pakistani Foreign Minister in a letter to the UN Secretary General, drew the latter’s attention to “the deteriorating security situation in our region resulting from the threat of use of force against Pakistan by India.” The letter cites domestic political reasons to have deliberately ratcheted up its hostile rhetoric against Pakistan and created a tense environment. Foreign Minister reiterated the Pakistan’s principled stance on continuing support to the peaceful political struggle of the Kashmiri people for the realization of the right to self-determination as enshrined in the UN Security Council Resolutions.
Islamabad retaliated with air strikes. Amidst multiple airstrikes and border skirmishes from both sides, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan ordered the release of captured Indian pilot as a “gesture of peace”. He asked India: “With the weapons you have and the weapons we have, can we really afford such a miscalculation? If this escalates, things will no longer be in my control or in Narendra Modi’s.” This makes any further escalation of tensions most scary and dangerous with nuclear weapons on both sides.
There was a widespread condemnation of the terrorist attack. On February 21, UN Security Council issued a statement condemning the Pulwama attack and underlining the need to hold those responsible accountable. UNSG called on India and Pakistan to defuse tensions and for “meaningful mutual engagement.” Urging to exercise restraint, China said: “Both Pakistan and India are important countries in South Asia. A stable bilateral relation between the two is essential to peace and stability in the region.” US Secretary of State stressed the “urgency of Pakistan taking meaningful actions against terrorist groups operating on its soil.” A recent meeting of the foreign ministers of Russia, India and China strongly condemned terrorism and “stressed that terrorist groups cannot be supported and used in political and geopolitical goals.” Their joint communiqué said that “those committing, orchestrating, inciting or supporting terrorist acts must be held accountable and brought to justice in accordance with existing international commitments on countering terrorism.” Nepal condemned the heinous terrorist act and as chair of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and urged both sides to seek solution through dialogue and peaceful means in order to ease tension and normalize the situation.
Role of SAARC
Terrorism remains one of the major and most serious threats to peace and security, cooperation and development, and political stability in the region. SAARC—the largest regional cooperation grouping of great potentials—remains stuck by bilateral tensions and terrorism. It is time to accept their existence, and work to create a suitable security environment for advancing meaningful cooperation in the region. Unsettled security issues in the region are generating mega-threats including the scary scenario of nuclear anarchy.
Early on, third SAARC summit in Kathmandu in 1987 adopted the SAARC Regional Convention on Suppression of Terrorism for the prevention and elimination of terrorism from the region. Again, in Kathmandu summit in 2002, SAARC leaders reiterated their support to the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1373 of September 28, 2001 that was adopted following the 9/11 terrorists’ attacks on America. They expressed their determination to redouble efforts, collectively as well as individually, to prevent and suppress terrorism in all its forms and manifestations.
SAARC is put to sleep. At the 18th SAARC summit in Kathmandu, Pakistan offered to host 19th summit in Islamabad in 2016, which is on hold following a terror attack at an Indian army camp in Uri, Jammu and Kashmir killing 17 soldiers. India expressed its inability to attend the summit under the “prevailing circumstances.” It “has been demanding that Islamabad demonstrate visible action toward curbing terrorist activities emanating from it soil.”
Bruce Riedel, leading expert on South Asia who worked as special assistant to US presidents, writes in his book Armageddon: America, India and Pakistan to the Brink and Back: “The Inter-Services Intelligence’s (ISI) flirtation with terrorists has made Pakistan the terrorism capital of the world; it was no accident that Osama bin Laden spent the last decade of his life in Pakistan.”
The growing threat of terrorism, and long outstanding territorial border disputes are compounded by continued reliance on proxy separatists, Islamic jihadists, and rebels as geopolitical tools in the region. Experts predict ‘unpleasant surprises” in the years ahead. Under such circumstances, leaders should show their vision, courage and sincerity and rise to the occasion to recognize SAARC as the only institutional and pragmatic forum to create an atmosphere of mutual trust and confidence to realize potentials of South Asia.
A new beginning is a must in inter-state relations. With SAARC member-states along with SAARC observers that includes China, Iran, Japan, European Union, Republic of Korea, and United States gathering in “the capital”, condemning the terrorist attacks and initiating anti-terrorism and anti-extremism campaigns would send a powerful message to herald that beginning, and project new orientations and approaches on burning issues of the day.
Political scientist Nicholas J Spykman says, “Geography does not argue. It simply is.” Pakistan is a fact of global life, and too important country to isolate. Sincerely working together will be more influencing and impacting on behavior, than “steps to ensure the complete isolation of Pakistan from international community”. Pakistan should give up the approach of bleeding India through the use of non-state actors and learn to live with the ascendancy of India as a global power. Islamabad’s reported crackdown on terrorists should demonstrate credible and visible actions for draining the nurseries of terrorism. India should not insist that regional cooperation organization be run as per its wishes. In a rapidly shifting geo-politics in which the countries of Asia-Pacific region loom larger in shaping global politics, economics and security, peace, stability and development is not only South Asia’s need, it is the world’s prime need.
The author was foreign relation adviser to former prime ministers Sher Bahadur Deuba and Sushil Koirala