America’s Pakistan Problem

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Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times

Debt-ridden Pakistan is very vulnerable to Western sanctions, yet it is unclear whether US President Donald Trump’s administration is willing to squeeze it financially in a way that could help reform its behaviour. Washington also seems reluctant to strip Pakistan of its status as a Major Non-NATO Ally (MNNA) or target its military for rearing transnational terrorists.

The main driver of Pakistan’s nexus with terrorists is its powerful military, whose generals hold decisive power and dictate terms to a largely impotent government. With the military’s rogue Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) rearing terrorists, Pakistan has long played a double game, pretending to be America’s ally while aiding its most deadly foes that have killed or maimed thousands of US soldiers in Afghanistan. Pakistani forces only target terrorists that fall out of line or threaten Pakistan itself.

The recent media attention on the multilateral Financial Action Task Force’s planned action against Pakistan obscured that country’s success in preserving its status for another two years under the European Union’s preferential trading (GSP+) programme. Pakistan is the No. 1 beneficiary of the GSP+ programme, which grants Pakistani exporters, especially of textiles, tariff-free access to the EU market in exchange for the country improving its human rights and governance. In effect, GSP+ rewards a sponsor of terror whose human-rights record has only worsened.

Trump’s suspension of most military aid to Pakistan is unlikely by itself to force a change in the behaviour of a country that counts China and Saudi Arabia as its benefactors. Only escalating American pressure through graduated sanctions can make Pakistan alter its cost-benefit calculation in propping up militant groups that have helped turn Afghanistan into a virtually failed state, where the US is stuck in the longest and most-expensive war in its history. The US failure to take the war into Pakistan’s territory has resulted in even Kabul coming under siege.

Yet, swayed by geopolitical considerations, the US has long been reluctant to hold the Pakistani generals accountable for the American blood on their hands. Indeed, Washington for years heavily funded the Pakistani military and turned Pakistan into one of its largest aid recipients — a strategy equivalent to feeding milk and honey to pit vipers in the hope of changing their biting habits. Even when the US, after a 10-year hunt, found Osama bin Laden holed up in a compound next to Pakistan’s main military academy, it did not abandon its carrots-only strategy. Such an approach has only helped to tighten the military’s grip on Pakistan, thwarting movement toward a genuine democratic transition.

Worse still, the US has dissuaded India from imposing any sanctions on Pakistan. If anything, India has been pressured to stay engaged with Pakistan, which explains the secret meetings the national security adviser has had with his Pakistani counterpart in Bangkok and elsewhere. The recent launch, with US backing, of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline project illustrates why it is difficult for India to impose even diplomatic sanctions on Pakistan, which maintains a bloated, ISI-infested high commission in New Delhi.

To be sure, the Trump administration is searching for a new strategy on Pakistan. Yet it is an open question whether it will go beyond the security aid suspension, which excludes economic assistance and military training. Aid suspension in the past has failed to change Pakistan’s behaviour.

With Washington loath to label Pakistan a state sponsor of terrorism, it must at least strip that country of its MNNA status, an action that will end its preferential access to US weapons and technologies and deny it the financial and diplomatic benefits associated with that designation. To force Pakistani generals to cut their nexus with terrorists, American sanctions should target some of them, including debarring them and their family members from the US and freezing their assets. Among the half a million Pakistanis living in the US are the sons and daughters of many senior Pakistani military officers.

Pakistan’s vulnerability to potential US-led sanctions is apparent from its ongoing struggle to stave off a default. Despite China’s strategic penetration of Pakistan, the US is still the biggest importer of Pakistani goods and services. US financial and trade sanctions extending to multilateral lending, as well as suspension of military spare parts, can force Pakistan to clean up its act.

To end Pakistan’s double game on terrorism, Washington will have to halt its own double game of rewarding or subsidizing a country that, in Trump’s own words, has given the US “nothing but lies and deceit”. To address a self-made problem, it is past time for US policymakers to put their money where their mouths are.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.

© Hindustan Times, 2018.

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How Can America Change Pakistani Behavior?

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The US has plenty of incentive to put pressure on Pakistan, a country that has long pretended to be an ally, even as it continues to aid the militant groups fighting and killing US soldiers in neighboring Afghanistan. In fact, it is partly because of that aid that Afghanistan is a failing state, leaving the US mired in its longest-ever war.

BRAHMA CHELLANEYProject Syndicate column

LeT-terroristUS President Donald Trump’s recent decision to freeze some $2 billion in security assistance to Pakistan as punishment for the country’s refusal to crack down on transnational terrorist groups is a step in the right direction. But more steps are needed.

The United States has plenty of incentive to put pressure on Pakistan, a country that has long pretended to be an ally, even as it continues to aid the militant groups fighting and killing US soldiers in neighboring Afghanistan. In fact, it is partly because of that aid that Afghanistan is a failing state, leaving the US mired in the longest war in its history.

More than 16 years after the US invaded Afghanistan, its capital Kabul has come under siege, exemplified by the recent terrorist attack on Kabul’s Intercontinental Hotel and the suicide bombing, using an explosives-laden ambulance, in the city center. In recent months, the US has launched a major air offensive to halt the rapid advance of the Afghan Taliban. The US has now carried out more airstrikes since last August than in 2015 and 2016 combined.

Yet neither the air blitz nor the Trump administration’s deployment of 3,000 additional US troops can reverse the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan. To achieve that, Pakistan would have to dismantle the cross-border sanctuaries used by the Taliban and its affiliate, the Haqqani network, as well as their command-and-control operations, which are sited on Pakistani territory. As the US military commander in Afghanistan, General John Nicholson, has acknowledged, “It’s very difficult to succeed on the battlefield when your enemy enjoys external support and safe haven.”

The problem is that Pakistan’s powerful military, whose generals dictate terms to a largely impotent civilian government, seems committed to protecting, and even nurturing, terrorists on Pakistani soil. Only those militants who threaten Pakistan are targeted by the country’s rogue Inter-Services Intelligence agency.

Far from holding Pakistan’s generals accountable for the American blood on their hands, the US has provided them large amounts of funding – so much, in fact, that Pakistan has been one of America’s largest aid recipients. Even when the US found Osama bin Laden, after a ten-year hunt, holed up in a compound next to Pakistan’s main military academy, it did not meaningfully alter its carrot-only strategy. This has enabled the military to tighten its grip on Pakistan further, frustrating domestic efforts to bring about a genuine democratic transition.

Making matters worse, the US has dissuaded its ally India – a major target of Pakistan-supported terrorists – from imposing any sanctions on the country. Instead, successive US administrations have pressured India to engage diplomatically with Pakistan, including through secret meetings between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s national security adviser and his Pakistani counterpart in Bangkok and elsewhere.

This approach has emboldened Pakistan-based terrorists to carry out cross-border attacks on targets from Mumbai to Kashmir. As for the US, the White House’s new National Security Strategy confirms that America “continues to face threats from transnational terrorists and militants operating from within Pakistan.” This conclusion echoes then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s warning in 2009 that Pakistan “poses a mortal threat to the security and safety of our country and the world.”

Against this background, the Trump administration’s acknowledgement of US policy failure in Pakistan is good news. But history suggests that simply suspending security aid – economic assistance and military training are set to continue – will not be enough to bring about meaningful change in Pakistan (which also counts China and Saudi Arabia among its benefactors).

One additional step the US could take would be to label Pakistan as a state sponsor of terrorism. If the US prefers not to do so, it should at least strip Pakistan of its status, acquired in 2004, as a Major non-NATO Ally, thereby ending its preferential access to American weapons and technologies.

Moreover, the US should impose targeted sanctions, including asset freezes on senior military officers who maintain particularly close ties to terrorists. With the children of many Pakistani military officers living in the US, it would also be worth barring these families from the country.

Finally, the US should take advantage of its enduring position as Pakistan’s largest export market to tighten the economic screws on the cash-strapped country. Since 2013, Pakistan has attempted to offset the sharp decline in its foreign-exchange reserves by raising billions of dollars in dollar-denominated debt with ten-year bonds. Pakistan’s efforts to stave off default create leverage that the US should use.

Likewise, Pakistan agreed to privatize 68 state-run companies, in exchange for $6.7 billion in credit from the International Monetary Fund. If the US extended financial and trade sanctions to multilateral lending, and suspended supplies of military spare parts, it would gain another effective means of bringing Pakistan to heel.

To be sure, Pakistan could respond to such sanctions by blocking America’s overland access to Afghanistan, thereby increasing the cost of resupplying US forces by up to 50%. But, as Pakistan learned in 2011-2012, such a move would hurt its own economy, especially its military-dominated trucking industry. Meanwhile, the added cost to the US would be lower than America’s military reimbursements to Pakistan in the last year, which covered, among other things, resupply routes and the country’s supposed counterterrorism operations.

If Pakistan is going to abandon its double game of claiming to be a US ally while harboring terrorists, the US will need to stop rewarding it for offering, as Trump put it, “nothing but lies and deceit.” More than that, the US will need to punish Pakistan for its duplicity. And US policymakers must act soon, or an increasingly fragile Pakistan could well be transformed from a state sponsor of terrorism into a state sponsored by terrorists.

Brahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research and Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin, is the author of nine books, including Asian JuggernautWater: Asia’s New Battleground, and Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis.

© Project Syndicate, 2018.

Rohingya militancy poses a regional threat

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A screen shot from a video released on 15 August 2017, showing a top commander of the terrorist group, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), and four of his followers.

BY 

In Myanmar, one of the world’s most diverse, multiethnic nations, there is a rare consensus — the much-persecuted Rohingya Muslims are outsiders and not part of the country. A military operation to flush out Rohingya militants waging a hit-and-run campaign has led to an exodus of Rohingya residents from Rakhine state, creating a refugee crisis for Bangladesh and, to a smaller extent, India.

India, over the years, has generously admitted asylum seekers or refugees from a host of places, including Tibet, Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and China. But the illegal entry of tens of thousands of Rohingya is seen in India as an internal security challenge, in part because of the threat the Indian government perceives from Rohingya jihadist activities. Rohingya militants have a long history of violent jihadism, including recent attacks on non-Muslim civilians in Rakhine state.

The current international narrative on the Rohingya plight has actually failed to recognize the roots of the present crisis. Contrary to the perception that the Rohingya militancy has arisen from military repression in recent years, Myanmar’s jihad scourge is decades old, with Rohingya Islamist violence beginning even before Myanmar gained independence in 1948.

Rohingya militants have actually been in the vanguard of the global rise of Islamic radicalism since the early 1940s, when they joined the campaign to press the British to establish Pakistan by partitioning India. It was the British who more than a century ago moved large numbers of Rohingya from East Bengal to work on rubber and tea plantations in Burma, now Myanmar, which was administered as a province of India until 1937 before it became a separate, self-governing colony. Rohingya migrants settled mainly in Myanmar’s East Bengal-bordering Arakan region (now renamed Rakhine state).

It was the advance of the Imperial Japanese Army into Myanmar during World War II that first highlighted the country’s Rohingya problem. Communal hatred spilled into violence as the Japanese military swept into Arakan in 1942 and the British launched a counter-offensive, with the local Buddhists largely siding with the Japanese and the Rohingya with the British.

Britain recruited Rohingya Muslims into its guerrilla force — the “V” Force — to ambush and kill Japanese troops. When the British eventually regained control of Arakan in 1945, they rewarded Rohingya Muslims for their loyalty by appointing them to the main posts in the local government.

Emboldened by the open British support, Rohingya militants set out to settle old scores with the Buddhists. And in July 1946, they formed the North Arakan Muslim League to seek the Muslim-dominated northern Arakan’s secession from Myanmar. In the religious bloodletting that preceded and followed the 1947 partition of India, Rohingya attacks sought to drive out the Buddhists from northern Arakan as part of the militants’ campaign to join East Pakistan (which became Bangladesh in 1971).

Failure to join East Pakistan turned many Rohingyas to armed jihadism, with mujaheddin forces in 1948 gaining effective control of northern Arakan. Government forces suppressed the revolt only in the early 1950s, although intermittent mujaheddin attacks continued even subsequently until the early 1960s.

From the 1970s onward, Rohingya Islamist movements reemerged, with a series of insurgent groups rising and fading away. The aim of the groups was to establish an Islamist state within a Buddhist state through jihad and demographic change.

Now history has come full circle, with the Myanmar military being accused of driving the Rohingya out of Rakhine state. But in a development that carries ominous security implications for the region, especially Myanmar, India and Bangladesh, Rakhine is becoming a magnet for the global jihadist movement, with Rohingya radicals increasingly being aided by militant organizations in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

The new breed of Rohingya insurgents is suspected of having links with Islamic State, Lashkar-e-Taiba, al-Qaida and even Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency. After the 2012 deadly communal riots in Rakhine, Ata Ullah, the Pakistani who heads the Rohingya terrorist group, the well-oiled Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, reportedly returned to Pakistan from an extended stay in Saudi Arabia with millions of dollars to wage jihad against Myanmar.

Against this background, India is concerned about the illegal entry of over 40,000 Rohingya since 2012. The government has told the country’s Supreme Court that their arrival poses a “serious security threat” because of Rohingya militants’ links with terrorist outfits. Some Rohingya militants have become active even in India, according to the government.

What is particularly striking is the organized manner in which the Rohingya sneaked into India from multiple routes and then settled across the length and breadth of the country, including in communally sensitive places like Kashmir and Hyderabad. Rohingya settlements have come up even in New Delhi. Because they entered India unlawfully, the Rohingya are classified as illegal aliens, not refugees.

Normally those fleeing a conflict-torn zone tend to camp just across an international border. But the Rohingya entered India not through the long border the country shares with Myanmar but via a third nation, Bangladesh. After having crossed over into India, many Rohingya then dispersed from the Bangladesh-bordering West Bengal and Tripura states to different parts of the country. Large numbers of these arrivals, according to the government, have fraudulently obtained Indian identity cards, thus reinforcing security concerns.

In fact, the Rohingya have approached India’s Supreme Court against their possible deportation. Because they entered from Bangladesh, they can be deported only to that country, not to Myanmar. However, the Indian government has made no attempt thus far to deport any Rohingya.

India is already home to some 20 million illegal migrants from Bangladesh, a figure that is nearly double the number of Mexican immigrants — legal and illegal — living in the United States. But while the presence of the Mexican aliens is a hot political and judicial issue in the U.S., political correctness has inhibited any debate in India for years on how to deal with the illegal Bangladeshi settlers. The United Nations has described the influx of Bangladeshis into India as “the single largest bilateral stock of international migrants” in the eastern hemisphere.

A crowded India is in no mood to accommodate more illegal aliens. The specter of the Rohingya contributing to violent Islamism in India has made them feel unwelcome.

More broadly, the external forces fomenting jihadist attacks in Rakhine state bear considerable responsibility for the current plight of the Rohingya. It is ironic that the Islamic nations aiding jihad in Rakhine and slamming Myanmar are unwilling to give refuge to any of the fleeing Rohingya.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books.

© The Japan Times, 2017.

The long history of Rohingya Islamist militancy

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Brahma Chellaney, Mail Today

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Inside Myanmar’s Rakhine state: Members of the well-oiled Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, also known as Harakah al-Yaqin, which is aided by militant organizations in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

The current international narrative on the plight of Myanmar’s persecuted Rohingya minority has failed to recognize the roots of the present crisis or the growing transnational jihadist links of Rohingya militants, who have stepped up attacks. Contrary to the perception that the Rohingya militancy has arisen from military repression in recent years, Myanmar’s jihad scourge is decades old, with Rohingya Islamist violence beginning even before Myanmar gained independence in 1948.

Rohingya militants have actually been in the vanguard of the global rise of Islamic radicalism since the early 1940s, when they joined the campaign to press the British to establish Pakistan by partitioning India. It was the British who earlier moved large numbers of Rohingyas from East Bengal to work on rubber and tea plantations in Burma, now Myanmar, which was administered as a province of India until 1937 before it became a separate, self-governing colony. Rohingya migrants settled mainly in Myanmar’s East Bengal-bordering Arakan region (now renamed Rakhine state).

Between 1942 and the early 1950s, a civil war raged in Arakan between Muslims and Buddhists. Communal hatred spilled into violence during World War II as the Japanese military advanced into Arakan in 1942 and the British launched a counter-offensive, with local Buddhists largely siding with the Japanese and Rohingyas with the British.

Britain recruited Rohingya Muslims into its guerrilla force — the so-called “V” Force — to ambush and kill Japanese troops. When the British eventually regained control of Arakan in 1945, they rewarded Rohingya Muslims for their loyalty by appointing them to the main posts in the local government.

Emboldened by the open British support, Rohingya militants set out to settle old scores with Buddhists. And in July 1946, they formed the North Arakan Muslim League to seek the Muslim-dominated northern Arakan’s secession from Myanmar. In the religious bloodletting that preceded and followed the partition of India, Rohingya attacks sought to drive out Buddhists from northern Arakan as part of the campaign to join East Pakistan.

Failure to achieve that goal turned many Rohingyas to armed jihadism, with mujahideen forces in 1948 gaining effective control of northern Arakan. Government forces suppressed the revolt in the early 1950s, although intermittent mujahideen attacks continued until the early 1960s. From the 1970s onwards, however, Rohingya Islamist movements re-emerged, with a series of insurgent groups rising and fading away. The aim of the groups was to establish an Islamist state within a Buddhist state, principally through demographic change and jihad.

Now history has come full circle, with the Myanmar military being accused of driving Rohingyas out of Rakhine state. But in a development that carries ominous security implications for the region, especially Myanmar, India and Bangladesh, Rakhine is becoming a magnet for the global jihadist movement, with Rohingya radicals increasingly being aided by militant organizations in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

The new breed of Rohingya insurgents is suspected of having links with ISIS, Lashkar-e-Taiba, al-Qaeda and even Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency. Ata Ullah, the Pakistani who heads the Rohingya terrorist group, the well-oiled Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, reportedly returned to Pakistan from an extended stay in Saudi Arabia with millions of dollars to wage jihad against Myanmar after the 2012 deadly communal riots in Rakhine.

Against this background, India is legitimately concerned about the illegal entry of over 40,000 Rohingyas since 2012, with the government telling the Supreme Court that their arrival poses a “serious security threat” because of the links of Rohingya militants with terrorist outfits and the ISI agency. Some of these militants have become active in India, according to the government.

What is particularly disturbing is the organized manner in which the Rohingyas have sneaked into India from multiple routes and then settled across the length and breadth of the country, including in sensitive places like Jammu, Kashmir Valley, Mewat and Hyderabad. Rohingya settlements have come up even in New Delhi. Because they entered India unlawfully, the Rohingas are illegal aliens, not refugees.

Normally, those fleeing a conflict-torn zone tend to camp just across an international border. But in this case the Rohingyas entered India via a third nation, Bangladesh. And then large numbers of them dispersed from West Bengal and Tripura states to different parts of India. Many of them, as the government admits, have obtained Aadhaar and other identity cards.

Still, the government is reluctant to order an inquiry into the role of internal forces in assisting the Rohingyas’ entry, dispersal and settlement across India. Worse yet, it has passed the buck to the Supreme Court, with Home Minister Rajnath Singh saying the government would await the Court’s hearing and decision on the Rohingyas’ plea against possible deportation to Bangladesh, from where they entered. Thus far, New Delhi has been all talk and no action.

Make no mistake: India is a crowded country that, nonetheless, has generously admitted asylum seekers or refugees over the years from a host of places, including Tibet, Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and mainland China. India is already home to some 20 million illegal migrants from Bangladesh.

But the Rohingya aliens pose a special challenge because of the escalating jihad in Rakhine and some Rohingyas’ militant activities on Indian soil. The external forces fomenting jihadist attacks in Rakhine bear considerable responsibility for the Rohingyas’ current plight.

© Mail Today, 2017.

The danger of all talk and no action

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Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times, October 3, 2017

obliterating-terrorism-in-pakistan-hinges-on-state-fulfilling-its-pledge-1454069531-1848Recently, India branded Pakistan a “Terroristan”. And its external affairs minister told the United Nations that Pakistan, as the world’s “pre-eminent terror export factory”, has just one national accomplishment to boast of. Yet New Delhi is loath to back its words with even modest action, such as downsizing Pakistan’s bloated, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI)-infested high commission in New Delhi, withdrawing the unilaterally granted “most favoured nation” status, leveraging the Indus Waters Treaty (IWT), or halting the barter trade across the line of control (LoC) that the National Investigation Agency has identified as financing terrorism.

Despite playing to the public gallery at home, India has done nothing to treat Pakistan as a terrorist nation. Indeed, behind its rhetoric, India pursues a cautious approach. Successive governments have shied away from slapping sanctions of any kind on Pakistan, yet not been coy to press other powers and the United Nations for sanctions.

India seems reluctant not just to back words with action but also to back words with just words on some issues. Take Balochistan, Pakistan’s Achilles heel that is becoming the new East Pakistan because of military killings and mass graves. When Prime Minister Narendra Modi raised Balochistan in his Independence Day speech in 2016, it seemed to signal an important policy shift. Yet India has remained conspicuously mum on the Balochistan issue. Even as Pakistan uses fake photographs to peddle a false narrative on Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), India is unwilling to spotlight the brutal Pakistani campaign against the Baloch people.

Another example is India’s rhetorical stance that the only outstanding issue on J&K relates to the part occupied by Pakistan. Other than slamming China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative for infringing its sovereignty, India has said precious little to show that it is serious about its claim to that occupied region. It has actually kept quiet on matters of substance, including China’s new dam and other strategic projects in Pakistan-held J&K. Had China been in India’s place, it would have raised a hue and cry over each and every project.

As for lack of Indian action, look no further than the IWT issue. Modi vowed that “blood and water cannot flow together”. But instead of action, what has followed is visible backsliding — from reviving the suspended Permanent Indus Commission to allowing the partisan World Bank to insert itself as a mediator between India and Pakistan. The IWT grants the World Bank no mediatory role. Such mediation, besides setting a dangerous precedent, breaches India’s traditional policy of not allowing a third party to intercede in bilateral disputes. Worse still, the Modi-appointed committee of secretaries on the Indus waters has fallen by the wayside, with not a single new project launched.

On the issue of cross-border terrorism, Modi, after the deadly attacks that followed his surprise Lahore visit, sought to salvage his credibility by launching a cross-LoC surgical strike on militant launch pads. But it was always clear that such a limited, one-off operation by itself would not be able to tame Pakistan. The surgical strike was followed by a terror attack on yet another military base. India must mount sustained pressure to keep Pakistan off balance and deny it room to pursue its strategy of seeking to inflict death by a thousand cuts.

The battle against Pakistan’s state terrorism is India’s fight alone. Why would the United States designate Pakistan a terrorist state when the main victim of Pakistan-scripted terror, India, is reluctant to impose any sanctions on its scofflaw neighbour? Indeed, the Modi government persuaded Rajeev Chandrasekhar to withdraw his private member’s bill in Rajya Sabha for declaring Pakistan a terrorism sponsor. New Delhi is even unwilling to declare the rogue ISI a terrorist organization. Actually, in a stunning display of naiveté, India hosted an ISI-linked Pakistani team at Pathankot so that it could probe the attack ISI orchestrated there.

The plain fact is that India is all talk when it comes to imposing costs on the “Terroristan” next door. India is not the United Nations that can remain content with all talk and no action.

Words not backed by action carry unquantifiable costs. They not only affect India’s credibility but also undermine its deterrent posture. Isn’t it telling that Pakistan continues to gore India although it is seven times smaller demographically, eight times lesser in GDP terms, and militarily weaker? Such aggression is the bitter fruit of India’s all-talk-no-action approach under successive governments. It is still not late to reverse course. The best actions to deter a congenitally hostile foe will be those that speak for themselves.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.

© The Hindustan Times, 2017.

Myanmar’s Jihadi Curse

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It is vital that Myanmar’s military immediately halt human-rights abuses of Rohingya in Rakhine State. But it is also vital for the international community to reject the prevailing depiction of the current crisis, which fails to recognize the long history of violent extremism among Rohingya militants.

BRAHMA CHELLANEY

A column internationally syndicated by Project Syndicate.

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Myanmar’s military has lately been engaged in a brutal campaign against the Rohingya, a long-marginalized Muslim ethnic minority group, driving hundreds of thousands to flee to Bangladesh, India, and elsewhere. The international community has rightly condemned the crackdown. But, in doing so, it has failed to recognize that Rohingya militants have been waging jihad in the country – a reality that makes it extremely difficult to break the cycle of terror and violence.

Rakhine State, where most of Myanmar’s Rohingya reside, is attracting jihadists from far and wide. Local militants are suspected of having ties with the Islamic State (ISIS), al-Qaeda, and other terrorist organizations. Moreover, they increasingly receive aid from militant-linked organizations in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. The main insurgent group – the well-oiled Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, also known as Harakah al-Yaqin – is led by a Saudi-based committee of Rohingya émigrés.

The external forces fomenting insurgent attacks in Rakhine bear considerable responsibility for the Rohingyas’ current plight. In fact, it is the links between Rohingya militants and such external forces, especially terrorist organizations like ISIS, that have driven the government of India, where some 40,000 Rohingya have settled illegally, to declare that their entry poses a serious security threat. Even Bangladesh acknowledges Rohingya militants’ external jihadi connections.

But the truth is that Myanmar’s jihadi scourge is decades old, a legacy of British colonialism. After all, it was the British who, more than a century ago, moved large numbers of Rohingya from East Bengal to work on rubber and tea plantations in then-Burma, which was administered as a province of India until 1937.

In the years before India gained independence from Britain in 1947, Rohingya militants joined the campaign to establish Pakistan as the first Islamic republic of the postcolonial era. When the British, who elevated the strategy of “divide and rule” into an art, decided to establish two separate wings of Pakistan on either side of a partitioned India, the Rohingya began attempting to drive Buddhists out of the Muslim-dominated Mayu peninsula in northern Rakhine. They wanted the Mayu peninsula to secede and be annexed by East Pakistan (which became Bangladesh in 1971).

Failure to achieve that goal led many Rohingya to take up arms in a self-declared jihad. Local mujahedeen began to organize attacks on government troops and seize control of territory in northern Rakhine, establishing a state within a state. Just months after Myanmar gained independence in 1948, martial law was declared in the region; government forces regained territorial control in the early 1950s.

But Rohingya Islamist militancy continued to thrive, with mujahedeen attacks occurring intermittently. In 2012, bloody clashes broke out between the Rohingya and the ethnic Rakhines, who feared becoming a minority in their home state. The sectarian violence, in which rival gangs burned down villages and some 140,000 people (mostly Rohingya) were displaced, helped to transform the Rohingya militancy back into a full-blown insurgency, with rebels launching hit-and-run attacks on security forces.

Similar attacks have lately been carried out against security forces and, in some cases, non-Rohingya civilians, with the violence having escalated over the last 12 months. Indeed, it was a wave of coordinated predawn insurgent attacks on 30 police stations and an army base on August 25 that triggered the violent military offensive that is driving the Rohingya out of Rakhine.

Breaking the cycle of terror and violence that has plagued Myanmar for decades will require the country to address the deep-seated sectarian tensions that are driving Rohingya toward jihadism. Myanmar is one of the world’s most ethnically diverse countries. Its geographic position makes it a natural bridge between South and Southeast Asia, and between China and India.

But, internally, Myanmar has failed to build bridges among its various ethnic groups and cultures. Since independence, governments dominated by Myanmar’s Burman majority have allowed postcolonial nativism to breed conflict or civil war with many of the country’s minority groups, which have complained of a system of geographic apartheid.

The Rohingya face the most extreme marginalization. Viewed as outsiders even by other minorities, the Rohingya are not officially recognized as one of Myanmar’s 135 ethnic groups. In 1982, the government, concerned about illegal immigration from Bangladesh, enacted a law that stripped the Rohingya of their citizenship, leaving them stateless.

Successive governments have defended this approach, arguing that past secessionist movements indicate that the Rohingya never identified as part of the country. And, in fact, the common classification of Rohingya as stateless “Bengalis” mirrors the status of Rohingya exiles in the country of their dreams, Pakistan, where tens of thousands took refuge during the Pakistani military genocide that led to Bangladesh’s independence.

Still, the fact is that Myanmar’s failure to construct an inclusive national identity has allowed old ethnic rivalries to continue to fuel terrorism, stifling the resource-rich country’s potential. What Myanmar needs now is an equitable, federalist system that accommodates its many ethnic minorities, who comprise roughly a third of the population, but cover half of the total land area.

To this end, it is critical that Myanmar’s military immediately halt human-rights abuses in Rakhine. It will be impossible to ease tensions if soldiers are using disproportionate force, much less targeting civilians; indeed, such an approach is more likely to fuel than quell violent jihadism. But as the international community pressures Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi to take stronger action to protect the Rohingya, it is also vital to address the long history of Islamist extremism that has contributed to the ethnic group’s current plight.

Vladimir Putin’s geopolitical chessboard

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, The Japan Times

U.S.-led sanctions against Moscow are helping to create a more assertive Russia determined to countervail American power. The bipartisan support in the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee for additional sanctions, even as a special counsel investigates alleged collusion between U.S. President Donald Trump’s election campaign and Moscow, suggests that the U.S.-Russia relationship is likely to remain at a ragged low.

Despite the Russian economy suffering under the combined weight of sanctions and a fall in oil prices, Moscow is spreading its geopolitical influence to new regions and pursuing a major rearmament program involving both its nuclear and conventional forces. Today, Russia is the only power willing to directly challenge U.S. interests in the Middle East, Europe, the Caspian Sea basin, Central Asia and now Afghanistan, where America is stuck in the longest war in its history.

Put simply, the U.S.-led Western sanctions since 2014 are acting as a spur to Russia’s geopolitical resurgence.

In keeping with the maxim that countries have no permanent friends or enemies, only permanent interests, Russia has rejiggered its geopolitical strategy to respond to the biting sanctions against it. Russian President Vladimir Putin has significantly expanded the geopolitical chessboard on which Moscow can play against the United States and NATO.

Historically, strongman governments facing domestic challenges have whipped up nationalism by rallying popular support against foreign adversaries. Who better to blame for Russia’s economic travails than the sanctions-imposing U.S. and its allies? Putin’s jaw-droppingly high approval ratings contrast starkly with the deepening unpopularity at home of his U.S. counterpart.

Putin has shown himself to be a very skilled player of geopolitical chess. Despite Russia’s gross domestic product shrinking to below that of Italy, Putin has managed to build significant Russian clout in several regions. The blunders of Western powers in Iraq, Libya and Yemen, of course, have aided Russian designs in the Middle East.

Putin has made Russia the central player in the bloody Syrian conflict, fueled by outside powers. Until Russia launched its own air war in Syria in September 2015, the U.S.-British-French alliance had the upper hand there, aiding supposedly “moderate” jihadist rebels against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government and staging separate bombing campaigns against the Islamic State terrorist organization. Russia’s direct intervention, without bogging down its military in the Syrian quagmire, has helped turn around Assad’s fortunes and reshaped Moscow’s relationships with Turkey, Israel and Iran.

As part of his multidimensional chess game, Putin is also building Russian leverage in other countries that are the key focus of U.S. attention — from North Korea to Libya. But it is Russia’s warming relationship with the medieval Taliban militia — the U.S. military’s main battlefield foe in Afghanistan — that has stood out.

Russia’s new coziness with the Taliban, of course, does not mean that the enemy of its enemy is necessarily a permanent friend. Putin is opportunistically seeking to use the Taliban as a tool to weigh down the U.S. military in Afghanistan.

Because of the Taliban’s command-and-control base and guerrilla sanctuaries in Pakistan, Moscow has also sought to befriend that country. This imperative has been reinforced by the continued U.S. unwillingness to bomb the Taliban’s command and control in Pakistan.

The revival of the “Great Game” in Afghanistan is just one manifestation of the U.S.-Russian relationship turning more poisonous. Another sign is Moscow’s stepped-up courting of China. The U.S.-led sanctions have compelled Russia to pivot to China. Putin attended the recent “One Belt, One Road” summit in Beijing despite his concern that China is using that project to displace Russia as the dominant influence in Central Asia.

To be clear, Russia’s growing ties with India’s regional adversaries, China and Pakistan, have introduced strains in the traditionally close relations between Moscow and New Delhi. The paradox is that as India has moved strategically closer to the U.S., American policy has propelled Russia to forge closer ties with Beijing and to build new relationships with the Taliban and Pakistan.

The Russia-U.S. equation has a significant bearing on Asian and international security. Trump came into office taking potshots at the Chinese leadership but wanting to be friends with Russia. However, the opposite has happened: America’s relationship with Russia, according to U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, has hit its lowest point in years while Trump has developed a strong personal relationship with China’s top autocrat, Xi Jinping, who welcomes his mercantile, transactional approach to foreign policy.

This pirouette has happened because, in reality, Trump is battling those who, in the 21st century, are unwilling to forgo a Cold War mentality. Washington may be more divided and polarized than ever but, on one issue, there remains strong bipartisanship — Russia phobia. This has come handy to those seeking to inflict death by a thousand cuts on the Trump presidency, including by calculatedly leaking classified information and keeping the spotlight on the alleged Russia scandal in which there is still no shred of evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Moscow.

Against this backdrop, America’s sanctions against Russia are unlikely to go, despite clear evidence that they are fostering increasing Moscow-Beijing closeness by making Russia more dependent on China. The sanctions effectively undercut a central U.S. policy objective since the 1972 “opening” to Beijing by President Richard Nixon — to drive a wedge between China and Russia.

For Putin, the sanctions represent war by other means and a justification for him to make his next moves on the grand chessboard. With U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker determined to slap Moscow with additional sanctions, U.S.-Russian tensions and rivalries will continue to serve as a strategic boon for China even as they roil regional and international security.

Longtime Japan Times contributor Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.

© The Japan Times, 2017.