South Asia Security Trends: Musharraf Between The Devil and The Deep Sea

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Security in South Asia was in focus during February 2007. The anticipated spring offensive of the Taliban in Afghanistan seems to have virtually commenced with three district centres secured by the rebels during the month. These appear to be opening moves in what is expected to be a bloody summer. Neighbouring Pakistan which many consider to be the key to control the Taliban saw three suicide bomb attacks one of which in a court room in Quetta killed 17 including a sitting judge.

There was no respite for President Musharraf as Western accusations of support to Taliban were followed up by visits of US Vice President Dick Cheney and the British foreign secretary Margaret Beckett seeking greater Pakistani indulgence in controlling the Taliban. Islamabad’s predicament can be best explained by the phrase, “between the devil and the deep sea”. Terror also threatened to mar Indo Pakistan dialogue with a bomb attack on the Samjhauta Express which connects the two countries killing 68 persons mostly Pakistanis. Good sense prevailed and Indo Pakistani authorities concluded the all important visit of foreign minister Kasuri to New Delhi reaffirming their commitment to peace.

This was a good sign for Kashmir, where political realignment sees the moderate faction of Hurriyat Conference increasingly gaining prominence. Indo Bhutan relations received a new fillip with inking of a new Friendship Treaty providing greater latitude to Thimpu in conducting foreign relations. Bangladesh saw a crack down on key functionaries of political parties on charges of corruption and anti social activities as the Caretaker government prepared to place order before democratic rights and sought to clean up polity. Elections appear to be postponed indefinitely. Indo Bangla relations improved considerably with Indian company Bharat Heavy Electrical Ltd awarded key power contract by Dacca after a long time. Myanmar concluded a pact with a faction of the Kachin rebels while the NSCN (Khaplang) camp at Sagaing was raided by the Myanmarese Army during the month. Sri Lanka saw political turbulence as three members of parliament challenged the authority of the President after redistribution of portfolios to dissidents from the opposition. The Cease Fire Agreement is now in a jeopardy with both LTTE and the Sri Lankan government virtually withdrawing their commitment after 5 years of chequered history.

Within India, elections to three states of Punjab, Uttarakhand and Manipur saw a shift in power from the ruling Congress Party to the opposition in two states less Manipur, while announcement of elections to the largest state, Uttar Pradesh in April and May increased the political tempo considerably. The terror attack on Samjhauta Express was a grim reminder of continued vulnerability of the country’s transportation network. Measures for coastal security were also enhanced with an LTTE boat laden with explosives impounded in Indian waters in the Palk straits. Naxal continued their IED operations in Chattisgarh. A strategy session of the high command is said to have been held during the month indicating extension of the struggle to other areas of the country. Elections in Manipur were peaceful but for a strike on a police patrol killing 15 in a deliberate ambush by the militants.

The international focus was on North Korea which finally agreed to wind up the nuclear weapons program after successful six nation talks. Iran however remained recalcitrant. The US demonstrated greater flexibility by accepting a role for Iran and Syria in resolution of the Iraq imbroglio. The situation in Iraq showed signs of marginal improvement due to renewed drive by American and Iraqi forces. Sustained pressure for over three to six months alone will show perceptible results as some reports indicated use of chlorine gas by Iraqi insurgents. Iran suffered a major terrorist attack by Sunni terrorist group, Jumdullah on the Western township of Zahedan, resulting in 17 casualties. The insurgency in southern Thailand showed an upsurge with serial attacks rocking over 45 places during the month, a grim cue to the leadership now comprising mostly of former and serving military brass.

The month of March presages more violence in Afghanistan, Iraq and other parts where militancy is proliferating including in Sri Lanka. The looming clouds of US strikes on Iran however seem to have receded giving some hope for peace.

Rahul K. Bhonsle is a Strategic Risk and Knowledge Management Consultant and writer with specific focus on defence and security, especially in South Asia.