Will Guns Fall Silent in South Asia?
Will Guns Fall Silent in South Asia?
NEW YORK: “Two signatures” – that was all that was needed, Nepali activist Rupa Joshi wrote last month, “for Nepalis to promise to stop killing each other.”
After a bitter, decade-long insurgency that left more than 13,000 dead, Nepal’s struggle among Maoist insurgents, the national army, political parties and the kingdom’s embattled monarchy may soon be over. Last month, Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala and Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Daha, once known as Prachanda, signed a Comprehensive Peace Agreement. Nepalis and their overjoyed foreign donors contemplate elections in June and a quieter, more peaceful future.
If peace holds, then Nepal may serve as a model for the rest of conflict-torn South Asia. After all, fighting in and about Kashmir has lasted since 1947, Afghanistan has been at war for most of the past 30 years, and Sri Lanka has endured cruel battles between insurgents and government forces for more than 20. Even if peace doesn’t hold, however, Nepal’s experience illuminates the problems of governing unruly states in an ever-embattled region.
There is little question that good governance has failed to take hold in most of South Asia, and the challenge of sharing responsibility for progress rather than allocating blame for shortcomings remains enormous. Political and military leaders – Tamil Tiger founder Velupillai Prabhakaran, Afghan mujahid Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Pakistan’s long line of military-backed presidents, and Nepal’s monarchs and its leading Maoists – have consistently mistaken accretion of power for legitimate authority, bludgeon for competence, and utilitarian alliance for political partnership. But weakness begets weakness, those in power seek more of it, and every interlocutor – citizen, soldier, lender, ally – has been left to cope with the fact of power rather than with the essential demands of citizens on their states.
These factors – deeply seated and home grown – have long been the makings of a regional tragedy that defies even the most agile political actors.
Long-time South Asia watchers catalogue the causes of praetorianism and insurgency like folklore refrains: corruption, poverty, tribalism, civil-military disputes, the thwarted ambitions of the underprivileged and the under-served and ranging ambitions of the power-hungry, imbalances between small and large economies, and, of course, the predations of foreign powers. Frayed links between society and polity – whether colonial inheritance or local creation – repeatedly damage the capacity of states and citizens alike to withstand the inevitable uncertainties of poverty and disappointments of missed opportunities. No surprise, then, each conflict-affected government has failed to live up to its promise and deliver promised goods.
And so wars have returned, in all their humanitarian and political complexity, to cut an insidious, broad swath through the region’s governance. Despite armies, police and patrols, every tactically permeable border reflects compromised political authority – for what is the first job of government if not to protect borders and in so doing, create the conditions for economic stability and progress? Exiled Kashmiri insurgents gain entrance to their country through Nepal and bring Pakistani intelligence trailing behind; drug dealers elude sanction-conscious Iran by traversing the mountain passes to Central Asia, thus compromising the Afghan border; arms trans-shipments make their way to Sri Lanka; and of course, Kashmir’s Line of Control separating India from Pakistan turns porosity into artwork. Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai repeatedly cautions that “terrorism has no boundaries.”
War changes everything, and the longer it endures, the harder it becomes to recalibrate the basic equations of governance. The weak hand that state actors have dealt to themselves, of course, makes commerce complicit in conflict. Thirty years of battle fatigue in Afghanistan have turned tribal leaders into warlords whose economic interests are easier to satisfy by eluding legality – trading opium and weapons – than by following the law. Pakistan’s endless disputes between army and politicians have turned the country’s governing apparatus from one big feudal calculus to one big military calculation. Bangladesh, on the cusp of new elections, has once again hardened personal acrimony into a way of political life that leaves the state open to every kind of criticism.
Nepal’s Maoists parlayed pervasive problems of inequity and unequal opportunity into guerrilla ideology. They also played on civic fears that neither army nor monarch could protect the country. The winners in the peace process include villages ravaged by the insurgency, but surely the first victory goes to the political system itself, championed by a tiny urban elite who labored mightily to liberalize the state so that it can accommodate differences and embrace dissent. This is a break with the past: Maoists earlier turned their back on elections, leaving the parliamentary system to flounder, and Nepal’s new agreement recognizes the sad triumph of aggression in a place once immune to such violence. If peace fails, it will be not only because insurgency breeds freelancing warlords, but also because neither Maoists nor monarch nor political parties will bend far enough to accommodate the other, leaving the state too inflexible to rise above discord.
And if this becomes true, it’s because long conflict erodes citizenship by undercutting access to justice. When Maoists interceded in village disputes, their “people’s courts” routinely cloaked rights violations as populism, and in return, the Nepalese state violated free speech in the name of state prerogative. November’s comprehensive agreement therefore explicitly safeguards the victims of rights abuse. The 2001 Bonn Agreement nominally offered similar promises for Afghanistan – and yet today Taliban routinely impose their own practices to settle disputes, as they did during their first rising, when no one governed the country at all, threatening the fragile constitutional structure of the Afghan state.
This is backdoor terrorism - almost impossible for its victims to reverse without the very state protections that have been rendered inaccessible to them. The contagion of extremism through rights abuse respects few boundaries. Pakistan, for example, has effectively turned over control of its tribal areas to sectarians who levy their own taxes, control roads and dispose justice according to standards far removed from the country’s weakened constitutional law. The government’s decreasing capacity to handle its ever-increasing political insecurities thereby poison the prospects for regional recovery, and turn governance into an on-again, off-again choice rather than a long-term, shared political good.
It’s difficult to separate cause and effect here, but it’s no surprise that Pakistan now seeks direct accommodation with the Taliban, as it did in the late 1990s, and advises NATO to do the same. This mistakes tactical decisions – bargaining with insurgents to facilitate the provision of humanitarian aid – with fundamental choices about national politics, regional stability and governance writ large. The Taliban, after all, are not Maoist nationalists; instead, they have become cogs in a movement that disregards nationalism, negates rights, and destroys both the promise and the reality of justice.
Bowing to brutality is rarely effective or politically astute. If South Asia's insurgents read Nepal's agreement simply to mean that violence wins, they are wrong. Conflict is not a means toward governance, but its end. The Maoists knew this when they left parliament years ago and will learn it again when they participate in elections to re-enter government. This is something the Taliban have not done and are not likely to do. Only disarmament and an end to fighting, whether in Nepal or Kashmir or Sri Lanka or Afghanistan, can turn South Asia away from war and toward the kinds of governance that the citizens deserve.
Paula R. Newberg is an international consultant who has reported on South Asia for more than two decades.