South Asia is a region which is important for its various resources. This includes both natural resources and human resource, which collectively contribute positively to human and environmental security if they are managed appropriately. Though human resources can be used wisely for the region’s socio-economic development, the growing numbers in population and finite land resources burdens South Asian societies with problems of extreme poverty, as human error and extreme weather adds to this burden. The region shows little progress in its overall development as pressing issues of growing poverty drags the region into regression. One of the foremost reasons for South Asia’s inhibition in development is the violent extremism that leads to an increasing number of activities in terrorism and militancy in the region.
Violent extremism leading to terrorism has caused the South Asian region to risk its peace and security. The presence of radical Islamic groups with links to international terrorist organizations is one of the most pressing issues in the region. According to various researches, the conditions in countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan, India and Bangladesh create a safe haven for terrorist groups to nurture followers, organize and operate remotely. What is crucial is to identify the conditions that breed terror in the region. These adverse conditions, which include but are not limited to extreme poverty, nurtures those affected people to become receptive to the preaching of violent religious doctrines. The absence of democratic governance and rule of law, the inability to come to terms with more secular conditions of governance, and extreme corruption, do not help the situation to improve.
As the United States started its counterterrorism mission in early post 9/11 Afghanistan, one of the most violent terrorist groups, the Taliban, was hunted down and its activities shrank dramatically. As Afghanistan borders Pakistan, the militant activities and groups retreated to the Afghan – Pakistan borderlands and Pakistan territories, in trying to gain ground and the opportunity to regroup. Meanwhile, Al Qaeda retreated as the US applied its full force using military tactics to abolish the operations of both Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan. After establishing a new government in Afghanistan with the support of Pakistan and the new Afghan government, the US continued its operations against terrorist groups. However, this led to cross border infiltration by the two international terrorist groups, while the indigenous terrorist groups started actively supporting these deteriorating outfits. Cross-border infiltration extended as far as Kashmir, as the terrorist groups leant support to the separatist movement and extremist groups in India as well.
Meanwhile in India, the separatist struggle continues in the Kashmir region. Pakistan is accused of supporting the Islamic separatists by way of providing training and funding. Apart from battling against the separatists, India is also dealing with other indigenous terrorist groups. However, these militant groups are mainly fighting for equal rights, better living conditions and more autonomy in their administrative activities. One such militant group is the Maoist alliance. However, their links to international terrorism is not as prominent except for weak links between them and Maoists in Nepal.
Bangladesh is also vulnerable to violent extremism as a result of influence from groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Similar to the indoctrination of radicalism in Pakistan through madrasas, in Bangladesh too there is active teaching of radical Islam in similar religious schools. The country is fertile ground for recruiting militants, as it is stricken by poverty and corruption, the same as many other South Asian states. There are also the Rohingyas, the refugees or IDPs in Myanmar who are a group of stateless people who become victimized due to the perceived threat of extremism and who have suffered a great deal but perhaps unfairly.
The above discussion covers a few terrorist groups and movements that destabilize the South Asian region and threaten its peace and security status; of course efforts by the US and other international coalition forces have focused on effective counter terrorist activities in the region.
One reason for a counterterrorism strategy not to meet its expectations lies with the misplaced idea of focusing more on defeating terrorism via military means. Through a strong military presence, the US has made efforts to eradicate terrorism in the region, however these terrorist groups operate as small cells in the region making it relatively difficult to defeat them militarily. Military means, one could argue, can only paralyze their activities temporarily due to the way they organize and carry out their terror activities locally. The counterterrorism strategy focuses also on destroying infrastructure and training camps of terrorist groups in the countries where they are a concern. These efforts have helped to marginalize the activities of the militant groups, limiting the activities to the periphery but care has to be taken to avoid mistakes of destroying the wrong villages or killing the wrong people because such mistakes could be costly as they could result in increased support for the extremists. Domestic efforts of Pakistan, India and Afghanistan have not helped much in fully terminating the operations of terrorist groups within these states. Various ethnic groups such as Pashtuns and other such minority groups may support international terrorism out of sympathy and as allies who share the same religious doctrines, thereby causing global and US efforts in counterterrorism to become more difficult.
Governments need to put much effort into reducing structural violence, which may prompt violent extremism and terrorism. Inequity and poverty can also be direct or indirect consequences of structural violence. Although South Asian countries try their best to become secular states, there is religious indoctrination in the political landscape of all governments in the region. For example, in Pakistan, during former President Musharaf’s time, there were initiatives to close down madrasas where radical extremism and militancy were being taught in the name of Islam. However, this could not be fully operationalized, as enough support could not be drawn to enable such an attempt to succeed. This simple example indicates the difficulty in countering militancy and violent extremism associated with the religious discourses in states like Pakistan and how this creates a very testing space in which to promote peaceful coexistence. As the line of demarcation between extremist groups and religious groups is very thin, this makes it challenging to crackdown on extremists and/or terrorist groups. The political leadership is often unwilling to take drastic measures to stem religious indoctrination that can potentially lead to militancy.
Still there is hope in combating extremism and terrorism, which have to be dealt with on several fronts. The most effective means of doing this is to put an end to arms trafficking by way of strengthening national and international security parameters while continuing military offensives against terrorism. Destroying the military might of terror groups can limit their violence and armed offenses and paralyze the security of their strongholds. While combating their military might, the radicalization that leads to the embracing of violent extremism and terrorism needs urgent attention. The structural violence within religious indoctrination has to be curtailed through policy changes, the rules of law and strict regulation to prevent religious indoctrination and the associated violence. Madrasas that propagate militancy needs to be restructured and reformulated according to rules and regulations promoting de-radicalization and civil harmony. However, governments and international efforts to irradiate poverty can only support such moves to de-radicalize, without such efforts success is unlikely.
As poverty is one of the key drivers that assist extremists to recruit youth to follow radical Islam, indoctrinating them into militancy has become easy. If this type of recruiting needs to be stopped, the youth in the region have to be engaged in the process of development within the respective countries and they should be given an active role in eradicating poverty. Though it seems like a difficult plan to implement, it is of utmost importance to engage youth in productive development activities and to provide them with employment opportunities. Providing access to secular education gives youth a variety of choices to work against violent extremism. It is important to endorse secular education as a means of promoting inclusive living and as an alternative to the preaching of radical Islam. Secular education systems need to be strengthened, and children from a young age need to be guided in embracing the world positively and in perceiving it from an inclusive point of view that will work against radicalism.
Ayodhya Krishani Amarajeewa is currently a Research Officer at Regional Center for Strategic Studies. The views expressed in this post are her own, and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre.