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South Asia's Conflicts

What's next?

by Paul Danahar, BBC, January 2, 2007

Perhaps the only South Asian politicians in 2006 that diplomats think have given the two [Bangladeshi] ladies a run for their money in the short-sightedness stakes are those residing further south.

2006 was always going to be make or break year for the Sri Lankan peace process - in the end, it was break.

No surprise there. Sri Lanka is being led by President Mahinda Rajapakse but being led back to war by his brother Gothabaya, an opponent of talks with the Tigers.

He runs the Defence Ministry with something that can only be described as a passion.

 

Sri Lanka's president (r) hugs his brother who has just escaped a suicide attack

Sri Lanka's president (r) hugs his brother who has just escaped a suicide attack

Nothing concentrates the mind of a politician like a body bag. And in 2006 they stacked up across the subcontinent by the truckload. The consequences of that will decide the shape of the year to come.

I asked someone senior in the British prime minister's office this year why, after four years of making noises but doing little else, the British were now applying serious pressure on Pakistan's President Musharraf to act in the tribal areas along the Afghan border and rein in the Taleban.

He stated the obvious: "There weren't 4,000 British troops just over the border in Afghanistan before were there?"

The sad truth, which never required the benefit of hindsight, was that if security wasn't provided to the Pashtuns on the Afghan side of the border, then the Taleban would come back.

It wasn't, and in 2006 they came back with a vengeance.

2007 probably won't see the last of them.

Next year, Nato's conventional armies will keep finding themselves hassled and slowly bled by a hit and run guerrilla force that is increasingly applying the lessons insurgents have learned fighting Western forces in Iraq.

Next year the British and Americans will probably finally jump off the fence and side with Kabul and insist that Pakistan seals the border properly and stops giving the Taleban somewhere to retreat to.

But the realities of geography and politics will prevail. In their hearts the Pashtuns know that one day international troops will leave and that no matter how successful the Nato troops may be, some remnants of the Taleban will remain.

Tut-tut

There was one group of Pashtuns who knew it would turn out badly all along, because some bright spark from the UN told them.

Under a cold blue winter sky in a small dusty village near Gardez just days after the Taleban where driven out of Kabul in 2001, I watched as a UN delegation addressed several hundred heavily armed Pashtun leaders.

As the UN's leader waxed lyrical I noticed my translator was tut-tut ting heavily as the speech was translated by another westerner, who clearly thought he was an incarnation of that old master of the Great Game, Francis Younghusband.

My colleague turned to me and said "You know this man's Pashto is not very good, he is getting it wrong". "What do you mean?" I asked.

"Well, he is telling these men that this time the international community WILL make the same mistakes of the past. That this time they WILL leave the job half done".

He shook his head and asked me whether he should warn the UN team about their mistake. But it was too late then and it's probably too late now.

'Good and bad' Taleban And perhaps only the Pakistanis are smart enough to have realised this.

Islamabad always drew a distinct between Al-Qaeda and the Taleban post 11 September, 2001.

Despite American moaning, they began drawing a distinction between 'good' Taleban and 'bad' Taleban.

'Good' Taleban they could control through the spooks in Pakistan's controversial intelligence agency, the ISI. 'Bad' they couldn't and it cost them hundreds of their soldiers' lives during heavy fighting in the tribal areas.

It was also costing President Musharraf credibility within the armed forces as he carried out what many in the Pakistani establishment thought was somebody else's (ie Washington's) foreign policy agenda.

So in 2006 Pakistan stopped beating around with Bush and did a deal in North Waziristan with pro-Taleban militants which formalised what everyone suspected was the unofficial policy of the ISI anyway.

Overnight all the Pakistan-based Taleban turned into 'good' Taleban; as long as they didn't attack Pakistani soldiers.

The move may not have pleased his western chums, but Gen Musharraf knew that he had to do something to stop the Taleban-like militancy spreading out from the border tribal areas into the towns and cities of the North West Frontier Province.

There was a real fear that the relatively moderate Islamic parties that make up the six-party alliance of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, or more importantly its main pillar, Maulana Fazlur Rehman and his Jamiat Ulema Islam party, might become irrelevant.

And so five years on, 2006 saw policy turn almost full circle to something like the pre-9/11 environment.

Knows best?

Why the urgency?

In 2007 Gen Musharraf has elections, both parliamentary and presidential, to finesse. If his actions prove successful in stemming the rise of the religious parties then he'll be able to convince his increasingly sceptical western allies that he really does know best.

To be fair to Pervez Musharraf, even though he may not be much of a democrat in the eyes of Pakistan's chattering classes, they will, by and large, accept that he is genuine about doing what he thinks is best for the country.

Few would argue that was also true of the two people planning to contest polls next year in what used to be the other half of Pakistan.

Haunted by Kissinger

Which brings us to the next question. What is worse - to be a) "a basket case" or b) "a failed state"?

Nobody likes being called names but Bangladeshis take particular offence because they have spent the last 30 years trying to live down the "basket case" moniker Henry Kissinger hung on them.

However for the last year or so "failed state" is the phrase banded about by the diplomatic elite residing in Dhaka. And who is to blame?

For many Bangladeshis, who go to the polls in January, the culprits are the two candidates and arch-rivals - Begum Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina.

In the eyes of their critics, these two grand dames of political intrigue have spent their lives bickering and arguing with each other at the expense of some of the poorest people on the planet.

Bangladesh will struggle through an election campaign marred by violence and protest, assuming that is, that someone doesn't find a good excuse first to abandon them altogether and declare a state of emergency.

The result of the election is unlikely to produce a more stable future for the long suffering population.

Break not make

Perhaps the only South Asian politicians in 2006 that diplomats think have given the two ladies a run for their money in the short-sightedness stakes are those residing further south.

2006 was always going to be make or break year for the Sri Lankan peace process - in the end, it was break.

No surprise there. Sri Lanka is being led by President Mahinda Rajapakse but being led back to war by his brother Gothabaya, an opponent of talks with the Tigers.

He runs the Defence Ministry with something that can only be described as a passion.

He ended the year narrowly escaping a suicide attack by the equally intransigent Tamil Tigers.

The Norwegian negotiating team can expect to lose their Sri Lankan air miles gold card next year as neither side is likely to be calling too quickly on their services.

So does 2007 offer any hope of resolution of the conflicts blighting this region?

The good thing is that the self-opinionated journalists who predicted what would happen in 2006 were convinced that Nepal was heading down the pan - the self-opinionated journalists were wrong.

The best news of the 2006 was the ending of that nasty, violent and seeming insolvable civil war with the Maoist rebels.

So let's hope we journalists get our predictions wrong in 2007 too.