Divisive politics impede progress in South Asia

Afghan ethnic enmities, Pakistan's fixation with security and Indian Hindu nationalism risk destabilising South Asia.

    Pakistanis protest against India's intelligence agency [EPA]
    Pakistanis protest against India's intelligence agency [EPA]

    It's back to business as usual in South Asia, sadly. The  window of opportunity that was pried open last November, setting up peace talks between India and Pakistan, and Afghanistan and the Taliban, has all but been slammed shut in the past two weeks.

    Foreign secretary talks between India and Pakistan were to have been held in January, leading to comprehensive discussions on all the disputes that nuance their enmity, the cause of two wars and four localised conflicts since 1947, when they attained independence.

    Inside Story - Pakistan-India relations facing a new setback?

    Likewise, the efforts of Pakistan, China and the United States to set up a result-oriented direct dialogue between the Afghan government and its nemesis, the Taliban, have failed.

    The situation might have been dismissed as bickering between a few Third World countries were it not for the fact that South Asia is where the borders of three nuclear weapons states and the mother lode of global terrorism meet - making it the world's most dangerous flashpoint, potentially.

    Buffer state

    Pakistan is the buffer state of the threesome, which in fact is a foursome because of the rivalry between India and China, in turn Pakistan's key strategic ally since it fought a border war with India in 1962.

    ALSO READ: Are India and Pakistan heading for a nuclear showdown?

    India and China continue to dispute ownership of several areas along their lengthy Himalayan border and, more recently, have become engaged in a competition for influence in the Indian Ocean basin.

    Strategic competition is not the driving force in relations between the South Asian threesome...


    Increasingly, that is becoming a component of the Asia-Pacific-wide tussle for dominance of the West Pacific between an assertive China and the US, the rallying point for Asian countries that feel threatened by China.

    Strategic competition is not the driving force in relations between the South Asian threesome, however. Rather, their inability to engage in sustained, meaningful dialogue reflects an utter lack of political will rooted in historical hatred which, with the passage of time, has become so deeply institutionalised that it is tearing apart the countries from within, too.

    For instance, democratic governments elected in Pakistan since 1988 have all sought to normalise relations with India because the cost of maintaining a national security state has impoverished the economy. Defence expenditure and debt-serving take up three-quarters of Pakistan's annual budget, leaving precious little for development.

    That is rarely mentioned in Pakistan's public discourse, however, because it is dominated by hardline nationalist voices aligned with the military, which is averse to any questioning of its national security policies.

    Shallow form of nationalism

    As well as preventing detente with India, the military's approach has imposed a shallow form of nationalism that does not resonate outside the populous and politically dominant eastern province of Punjab, and demonises other ethnic nationalist movements as treacherous.

    A Pakistani-made Shaheen-III missile, capable of carrying nuclear warheads, is shown off during a military parade to mark Pakistan's Republic Day in Islamabad. [AP]

    The Pakistani military's engagement with non-state militant actors in Afghanistan and India in the 1980s and 1990s came home to roost, first as sectarian violence and then as the full-blown Taliban insurgency it has yet to completely quell.

    In South Asia, Pakistan's case is the norm, not an exception to the rule.

    Mainstream Afghan politics is dominated by former warlords from a civil war that has been raging, in various manifestations, since the early 1970s.

    Symbolically, at least, the Taliban represent the rural Pashtun society of southern Afghanistan, whereas the government is dominated by erstwhile factional leaders of the Northern Alliance, most of whom are ethnic Turks.

    While not a fair portrayal of Afghan society, which has had a strong sense of common national identity for centuries, those domestic political faultlines are both the reason for the Taliban's resurgence since last year and the bickering that threatens to tear apart the National Unity Government in Kabul.

    ALSO READ: The problem with Pakistan's foreign policy

    Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, a technocrat and ethnic Pashtun, wants a negotiated settlement and has demonstrated genuine leadership in his efforts to engage Pakistan as the key facilitator of negotiations with the Taliban.

    However, Ghani has been consistently undermined by Abdullah Abdullah, Afghanistan's chief executive, and his powerful allies, who are driven both by the determination to take power and hatred of their civil war foes, and their backers in Pakistan.

    Thus Pakistan has little motivation to sacrifice its interest of having a friendly actor in power in the southern and eastern Afghan provinces along its western flank, because the alternative is an unfriendly government inclined to work in concert with India to the east to strategically sandwich Pakistan.

    As such, plans for talks in India were shot down, literally, by the non-state militant actors who attacked the Pathankot airbase in January, preventing the planned foreign secretary meeting from taking place.

    Inevitably, all roads lead to India, as it continues along its upward trajectory to becoming a great Asian power. It, too, is suffering a crisis of nationality identity, characterised by the struggle between Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party and the secular, pluralistic opposition.

    The BJP's Hindu nationalism has helped build a false perception that India can afford to ignore a "weak" Pakistan, because it is destined for greatness on the global stage, where it will take on China to eventually supplant the US as No 1.

    Like Afghans' ethnic enmities and Pakistan's obsession with national security, Indian Hindu nationalism threatens to destabilise South Asia.

    Tom Hussain is a journalist and Pakistan affairs analyst based in Islamabad.

    The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



    How different voting systems work around the world

    How different voting systems work around the world

    Nearly two billion voters in 52 countries around the world will head to the polls this year to elect their leaders.

    How Moscow lost Riyadh in 1938

    How Moscow lost Riyadh in 1938

    Russian-Saudi relations could be very different today, if Stalin hadn't killed the Soviet ambassador to Saudi Arabia.

    The great plunder: Nepal's stolen treasures

    The great plunder: Nepal's stolen treasures

    How the art world's hunger for ancient artefacts is destroying a centuries-old culture. A journey across the Himalayas.