War against terrorism

Updated: Jan 12 2002, 05:30am hrs
At the World Economic Forum meeting on Russia 2001, held last month in Moscow, the closing panel discussion was on the subject of Russia, Globalisation and Europeanisation. Panel members included the American ambassador to the Russian Federation. Not unexpectedly, the Russian support for the US-led war on terrorism and its impact on Russias relations with the West became a prominent discussion topic.

Neither the Russians nor the Western participants had any hesitation in establishing a connection between international terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism. They were obviously not inhibited by the self-created confusion of New Delhis pseudo-secularists in recognising the reality that almost all cross-border terrorism whether in the US, India, Russia or elsewhere has its origin among the believers of Islamic jehad. There were no takers for the theories of some sections of New Delhi elite who believe that running down the majority religion is a necessary credential for secularism.

It was, therefore, not surprising that queries were raised in the panel discussion on whether poverty amongst the Islamic masses was the main cause for terrorist acts by Islamic fanatics. The response of the American ambassador to Russia, who was a member of the panel, was quite categorical. The majority of the terrorists, who attacked American targets on September 11, came from affluent Muslim families, many of them belonging to the most affluent Arab country, Saudi Arabia and poverty was not the cause, nor the motivation for the terrorist acts. The problem lay, the panelists argued, in the lack of democracy in Islamic countries, in the absence of freedom of thought and modernism, the non-existence of an alternative to religion-based education, and the heavy influence of extremist Islamic religious leaders on family life.

There are many causes for the growth and nurturing of terrorism, as well as the resort to violence, in African countries such as Congo, Angola, Sierra Leone, in some Arab countries, Pakistan and Afghanistan. The origins of terrorism can be found in obscurantism, religion, politics, economics and social structures. Amongst this mix of different factors, absence of democracy is clearly a prominent cause of instability in these countries. The question that has not been sufficiently examined is why, from Morocco in the west to Indonesia in the east, no Islamic country has the kind of democracy which we in India or the Europeans and Americans understand.

Conventional economic wisdom holds that natural resource wealth is an essential vehicle of growth for developing countries and the control of commodity prices is a legitimate economic vehicle for growth and prosperity of developing countries. However, in countries where democracy is absent and there is state control of natural wealth such as oil, gas, diamond etc, whoever has the control of the oil field or the diamond mine also controls the nation.

In international parlance, the so-called commodity curse has often been utilised to explain why many of the commodity rich countries lack democracy. If one looks at the members of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries, one sadly but invariably comes to the conclusion that oil is either nationalised or state-owned in each of these countries and each one of them has either military dictatorship, monarchy or religious dictatorship. Moving to another example of state-owned commodity wealth, the chaos and mayhem in Sierra Leone is another example of commodity curse, this time related to diamonds. A number of smaller Latin American countries came to be known as banana republics because colonial companies controlled their only major national wealth, which was the agricultural wealth of banana. In 19th century US, plantation owners enslaved human beings to hold on to their cotton and tobacco plantations, thereby neglecting almost every other alternative source of development, whether agricultural or industrial. And there are many experts who believe that lack of democracy and monopoly control of natural wealth feed on each other to create a climate of terror at home that inevitably extends its tentacles to destabilise its neighbours.

The denial of democracy, the existence of military dictatorship, the use of violence at home and the official governmental support for cross-border terrorism in Pakistan does not quite fit into the commodity curse syndrome. The support for terrorism across its borders has been part of Pakistans policy throughout its recent history, regardless of whether Pakistan is governed by a democratically elected leader or a military dictator. Nevertheless, the international community did not give up its efforts to press General Musharraf to return to the barracks and bring back democracy when the coup took place in Pakistan. Yet, the US insistence on democratic reforms in Pakistan took a dramatic turn for the worse in the wake of its immediate objective of capturing Osama bin Laden.

President Bush has patronisingly described the terrorist attack on Indian Parliament as an attack on democracy and freedom. But the US concern for democracy and freedom somehow sounds hollow when the administration shrinks in the face of the need to take forceful action against Pakistans generals. The Bush administrations response only confirms the rather cynical assessment of the US made by the respected American columnist, Jim Hoagland. Writing in the Washington Post on November 9, Hoagland said that the US demand for support from India and Israel for its war on terrorism boils down to one simple truth: Restrain your own wars against terror so that we can get on with ours. He went on to say that in this cynical exercise, the US administration is shoring up shaky dictatorships that can provide help and political cover in the bombing of Afghanistan, while leaving democratic governments to fend for themselves.

The Indian government ignored this simple truth. The reality is that , in the wake of the December 13 attack, India has to fend for itself as General Powell gives a clean chit to his ally, General Musharraf. Perhaps this is for the better. For the first time, any government in India has taken the step of demanding specific action by Pakistan to control terrorists on its soil, withdrawn the Indian envoy and stopped rail and road communication. It has not waited to be bailed out by the Americans or the UN. Let not India ever again lay out the red carpet to a Pakistani dictator whose suppression of democracy and sponsorship of terrorism have been so blatant as that of Musharraf.

Prakash Shah is a former member of the Indian Foreign Service and Indias Permanent Representative at the United Nations