The language of strategic asset reduces the ideas of home, state, country, and continent to movable pieces on the chessboard.
It is strange that even the killing of Osama bin Laden at Abbottabad, near Pakistan's capital, has failed to raise fundamental questions about the idea of creating Frankensteins in the name of strategic assets and the wisdom of the defence experts and strategic analysts. A cursory look at history since the end of the Second World War shows that strategic assets proved to be an albatross around humanity's neck: they played a key role in undermining legitimate political struggles across the globe. Yet the military narrative has not freed itself from the stranglehold of two fatally flawed ideas — strategic asset and strategic depth.
Before exploring the debilitating impact of these two terms —strategic asset and strategic depth — it is important to understand the origins of these terms. They were the product of the colonial imagination where the world was divided among the empires, and the geostrategic pivots determined the expansion or shrinking of any colonial power. One state was pitted against another and people became collateral damage even before the term could gain the current political currency. The Cold War invested the two terms with an entirely new meaning and scale of application and the damage done to peoples and countries across the world was incomparably greater.
West Asian authoritarianism, for example, is in part the creation of the notion of strategic asset in the form of oil reserves. Much has been written, by way of strategic analysis, about the role of the Soviet Union in Hungary, Romania, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia. But its move into Afghanistan is the source of our present concern and the one that redefined international politics permanently. The United States, the Arab dictators, and Pakistan used the Soviet occupation as an excuse to create a political Islam that not only distorted the religion but also unleashed unprecedented violence against its perceived enemies and against itself. The Soviets left Afghanistan by February 1989 but the so-called ‘liberators' never left the country, which has been under one form of occupation or another since 1979. The mujahideen and their jihads were supported, funded, trained, armed, and seen as great strategic assets that could provide strategic depth to bleed the opposition to death. This vision did not take into account the irreparable damage it would inflict upon the Muslim world in general and Afghanistan and Pakistan in particular.
Well-known Pakistani writer Zahid Hussain pointed out the cost to Pakistan during an India-Pakistan-Afghanistan editors' meet. He said: “I think 2007 was the turning point for Pakistan, when almost a dozen militant leaders got together and formed the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). This group had a distinctive agenda of enforcing a so-called Sharia rule in the style of the Afghan Taliban — before that, the focus of the Pakistani militants had largely been on fighting the U.S. coalition forces across the border…. That also changed the perception of how the Taliban and the Afghan Taliban are tied together. It is not only the nexus between the TTP and al-Qaeda; there is also a growing nexus between the banned militant groups and the Taliban, and a new form of al-Qaeda that has emerged. I think probably al-Qaeda has taken a different form, which the Americans have failed to understand. The new al-Qaeda is largely Pakistani. Further, there is also distinction between al-Qaeda and the Taliban: TTP provides the recruits or suicide bombers, but al-Qaeda largely attracts educated Pakistanis who have not been a part of other militant organisations.”
A tenuous peace process, weak governance, a security structure that is yet to gain the confidence or competence to tackle sectarian violence, growing doubts about whether to make a deal with the “good Taliban” or to break the “bad Taliban”, and the wavering international commitment have made Afghanistan more vulnerable then ever before. There is an apprehension in Kabul that with the death of Osama bin Laden, the U.S. might not show the same intensity to wage its “war on terror” as its principal enemy has been eliminated. With multiple players trying to create their own strategic assets, Afghans fear that their country might once again be divided into myriad fiefdoms of warlords and drug mafia. The tragedy is Afghanistan today is much worse off than it was before the Soviet occupation and withdrawal.
This dangerous trend spilled over to India in the form of increased militancy in Jammu and Kashmir, a shocking terrorist attack on Parliament, the monstrous Mumbai carnage, to name just a few of the horrific experiences of the past decade and a half. It is not that India is free from delusions of strategic assets and the grandeur of strategic depth, despite every move backfiring badly — notably with respect to Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. But that is another story.
Till the armed men from across the border reached the valley, a large number of informed Indians understood the Kashmiri struggle, and did not hesitate to criticise the government of India for rigging elections. They refused to accept the BJP's demand for the abrogation of Article 370, which confers a special status on Jammu and Kashmir. However, the overt militarisation of the State inspired by the strategic interests of Pakistan has hurt the people of Kashmir incalculably. In reality, the power enjoyed by J&K today is decisively lower than what was enshrined in Article 370 of the Indian Constitution.
The same is true for most of the Northeastern States as their special status has been hugely undermined by the Armed Forces Special Powers Act and the constant appointments of former Army Generals as Governors, who tend to wield more power than the respective Chief Ministers. India's new strategic interest in using its close relations with Myanmar's military junta to check China's reach to the Bay of Bengal has already taken a toll. The country has virtually ceased its support for the pro-democracy movement and its iconic leader Aung San Suu Kyi and no one knows what the fallouts will be.
The language of strategic asset reduces the ideas of home, state, country, and continent to movable pieces on the chessboard. It is a language that is never peopled; it has no capability to empathise or be poignant; it fails to understand pain; and it has no sense to understand the profound grief of any society that lost its liberal space to a variety of bigots. The security experts' idea of supremacy is directly pitted against the people's deepest dream of living fully while existing. To achieve this, we need to temper the power of the entrenched security establishments and retrieve the space for a larger political discourse.
(S. Panneerselvan is the Executive Director of Panos South Asia. Panos South Asia has been organising an annual editors' retreat that brings together the influential media personalities from India, Pakistan and Afghanistan to increase the information flow to curtail the mutual trust deficit.)