There are three distinct models of counterterrorism cooperation in South Asia. These three models can best be understood in the context of three levels of analysis—global, bilateral, and regional. I argue that the first has been adopted by the United States as a militaristic approach which is most visible in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In contrast, the second has been adopted by India as a hybrid approach focusing on bilateral partnership with the neighboring countries. I also contend that there is a legal and normative basis for regional counterterrorism cooperation among the SAARC nations. But traditional power politics has constrained the operational spaces for SAARC to emerge as a regional counterterrorism actor.
The Global Model
The U.S.-led military coalition in Afghanistan constitutes the most visible model of counterterrorism cooperation in South Asia. It began in October 2001 in response to al Qaeda’s 9/11 terrorist attacks. Although the coalition was launched under the rubric of global war on terrorism, it had mostly focused on destroying al Qaeda’s central leadership structure and suppressing Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan. At the height of the Afghanistan War in 2010, nearly four dozen countries contributed 140,000 troops, of which a decisive majority of troops came from the United States, with its major NATO allies providing the rest of the troops (Figure 1). Although the combat phase of the Afghanistan War ended in 2014, NATO still retains nearly 13,000 troops, which includes nearly 10,000 U.S. troops. These residual troops are stationed in Afghanistan for counterterrorism operations and for training up the indigenous Afghanistan national security forces.
Source: Author; NATO ISAF website.
As the Afghanistan War unfolded in the post-9/11 era, many al Qaeda operatives and Taliban militias found a safe haven in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) bordering eastern Afghanistan. An inevitable consequence was the gradual expansion of the Afghanistan War in the FATA. Since the United States did not declare a war against Pakistan, and the tribal territories in the Af-Pak border areas were quite inaccessible for the U.S. and NATO forces, drone strikes and cross-border special operations became the most preferred strategy for the U.S. and its coalition partners. Since 2001, Pakistan has supported the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan by offering a transit route for NATO’s logistic supplies and by deploying nearly 100,000 troops to suppress the complex nature of insurgency in North Waziristan, South Waziristan, and the rest of the FATA. In return, Pakistan received nearly $20 billion in economic and military aid and was given the status of a non-NATO ally in the first decade of the global war on terrorism. Despite such counter-terrorism partnership, Pakistan’s clandestine support for the three factions of Afghan Taliban – the Haqqani Network, Mollah Omar’s Quetta Shura Taliban, and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Heze Islami group – has been labeled as a dangerous double game. Pakistan has always claimed its support for various Afghan factions has nothing to do with state sponsorship of terrorism. Instead, it is part of a strategic calculation in which Islamabad wishes to establish a balance of power in the future configuration of Afghan politics.
The Bilateral Model
While the first model has largely focused on the involvement of extra-regional powers, the second model has been initiated by India – the largest and arguably the strongest country in South Asia. In contrast to the U.S.-led military coalition, India has successfully promoted the idea of bilateral partnership in the domains of intelligence sharing, border control, joint military exercise, and transfer of criminals and terrorists.
Among its South Asian neighbors, India’s counterterrorism partnership with Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka have drawn considerable media attention. Since the U.S.-led global war on terrorism began in 2001, India has emerged as the largest non-western donor and civilian development partner to Afghanistan. The signing of India-Afghanistan Strategic Partnership Agreement in 2011 has elevated the relationship to a new level. As the U.S. and coalition forces plan for the withdrawal from Afghanistan, India is expected to fill the vacuum by training more Afghan national security forces in Indian military training schools.
The last five years have also seen a growing level of security cooperation between India and Bangladesh. Evidence includes the signing of three agreements on mutual legal assistance on criminal matters, transfer of sentenced persons, and combating international terrorism, organized crime, and illicit drug trafficking. These deals were signed during Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s Delhi visit in 2010. Over the past few years, Bangladesh has also handed over more than half a dozen top-level northeast Indian insurgent leaders including Sashadhar Choudhury, Chitraban Hazarika, Arabinda Rajkhowa, Palash Phukan, Hitesh Kalita, and Anup Chetia – all belonging the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA). India has reciprocated by providing a $2 line of credit for large infrastructural development under the foreign policy goal of enhancing more trade and connectivity at the bilateral and sub-regional level.
Between 2004 and 2009, India worked closely with the Sri Lankan government to assist the latter in its military campaign against the Tamil insurgency. The two countries signed an anti-terrorism agreement in 2013. There are no comparable instances of counterterrorism cooperation between India and the rest of the four SAARC nations – Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal, and Pakistan. The only known high profile case of Indo-Bhutan cooperation took place in 2003-2004, when the joint operations of Bhutanese-Indian security forces destroyed more than two dozen militant camps. With Maldives and Sri Lanka, India signed a trilateral anti-piracy deal in 2013. The need for greater India-Nepal counterterrorism cooperation came to highlight in 2013 after the arrest of top Lashkar-e-Tayyeba leaders from the Indo-Nepal border.
The long-standing Kashmir dispute and the resulting mutual mistrust have made it difficult for India and Pakistan to forge any effective counterterrorism partnership. Although the two nuclear archrivals initiated the first Joint Anti-Terrorism Meeting in 2007 in the backdrop of the Samjhauta Express bombings, the Mumbai attacks in 2008 not only reversed the process but also ended the Composite Dialogue that was initiated in 2004. The January 2016 terrorist attacks in India’s Pathankot Airbase, and the Bacha Khan University in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province illustrate the need for more intelligence sharing and counterterrorism cooperation between the two nations.
The Regional Model
A third model of SAARC level counterterrorism cooperation has emerged in four stages. First, SAARC has adopted an anti-terrorism convention in 1987 and an additional protocol to the convention in 2006. Second, three SAARC desks were established in 1992, 1995, and 2014 to monitor drugs offences, terrorism offences, and cyber crime, respectively. In the third stage, SAARC conference on cooperation in police matters began in 1996 to enable the police chiefs and/or their representatives to develop a network for intelligence sharing. Fourth, in 2002 the Nepal Police floated the idea of SAARCPOL to provide a regional channel for the sharing of information. Although the idea of SAARCPOL was endorsed by the Home/Interior Ministers’ Meeting in 2006, since then there has been no visible progress to institutionalize police cooperation in the fight against transnational crime and terrorism in South Asia.
There are several problems with the concept of SAARCPOL. First, the concept paper presented by the Nepal Police lacks clarity as to the role of various national police organizations and how they will form a regional police network such as the European Law Enforcement Agency (EUROPOL). Second, an institutional moratorium on setting up any new SAARC level agency is in place. The logic behind the moratorium is clear: unless and until the existing SAARC desks on drugs and terrorism offenses are strengthened, and police chiefs’ meetings made more regular, there is little chance for SAARCPOL to evolve from an abstract concept to a functional entity. Third, the mutual blame game and distrust between India and Pakistan has been a major barrier to SAARC’s progress. Any regional counterterrorism cooperation at the SAARC level would require Delhi and Islamabad to put aside their bilateral disputes and strike a deal on making SAARC a meaningful regional institution. A frustrated India has perhaps abandoned the SAARC project and instead focused more recently on supporting the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC). A seasoned Indian diplomat claims the rationale behind the BIMSTEC project is straightforward: “We need to move forward with whatever opportunity exists.”
Three conclusions can be drawn from the foregoing discussions. First, as the U.S.-led global war on terrorism illustrates, the increasing deployment of military forces shrinks the operational space for civilian law enforcement and intelligence agencies. Second, the rise of India and its regional influence is evident in a series of bilateral security partnerships with SAARC nations. Third, regional police cooperation in South Asia lacks conceptual clarity and entrepreneurial enthusiasm of any member states.
Do we really need a more integrated intelligence sharing and police cooperation mechanism in South Asia? A close look at the evolving threat dynamics would suggest an affirmative answer. The emergence of al Qaeda in the Indian Sub Continent (AQIS) to regain its turf from the growing influence of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) sends a clear signal to the South Asian security and intelligence community. Combating the efforts of various home grown terrorist groups and self-radicalized individuals to develop a network with and support structure for AQIS and ISIS requires concerted actions. Perhaps time has come for South Asian leaders to look at the footsteps of Europol to give SAARCPOL a chance to emerge as a regional platform for intelligence sharing.
[Lecture delivered on 22 February 2016 at the ‘4th Transnational Crime: SAARC Perspective’ training course organized by Bangladesh Police Staff College, Dhaka]
ASM Ali Ashraf is an Associate Professor of International Relations at the University of Dhaka, and member of International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), London.