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South Asia roundup July 7, 2009

Posted by sandygordon in : Afghanistan, Gordon, Sandy, India, Pakistan, South Asia - General, Sri Lanka , trackback

Sandy Gordon

The South Asia roundup section will normally be posted at the end of each week.  It is not intended to cover all major events in all countries of the region, but rather comment on those events that happen to catch the editor’s eye. This week’s offering is longer than usual because of the need to ‘background’ some recent events.

India

In Lalgarh, West Midnapore District of West Bengal, Maoists took over a section containing 17 villages.  In some villages they have been entrenched for almost eight months.  There is a report in The Hindu of Maoist ‘death squads’ operating in the seized territory.  Early last week, the West Bengal police ousted the Maoists from much of the occupied territory.  But the fighting does not appear to have been intense and it is likely that many of the Maoists melted into the jungles of neighbouring Jharkhand, which they know well, and from which they can return at will.

The Communist Party of India (CPI) alleges that the Maoist takeover resulted from years of neglect by the West Bengal governing Communist Party (Marxist) (CPM).  Other reports also suggest local tribals failed to benefit from the CPM’s land reforms.  But Praveen Swami, writing in The Hindu, argues that development was actually taking place in Lalgarh and that Dalits and Adiwasis were benefiting from it.  He claims it was this beneficial development, including the CPM’s land reforms, that provoked the Maoist takeover.

Pakistan

Islamabad too is re-taking territory – in this case the Swat valley in the north-west of the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) and Waziristan in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).  As in Lalgarh in India, some reports suggest that the Taliban ‘melted away’ from the Swat Valley without a serious fight, with the expectation of returning at places and times of their own choosing.  

Meanwhile, the military has been signalling an impending intervention in North and South Waziristan – lairs of the feared Wazir and Mehsood tribes – designated ‘panthers’ and ‘wolves’ by the British. Given the extended terrain and reputation of the local tribes, this will be a far more tricky operation than Swat.  The strategy is to isolate and take out Baitullah Mehsood (alleged assassin of Benazir Bhutto) in South Waziristan, while maintaining the peace with the other Waziristan tribes.  There is good and bad news for the government in implementing the strategy: the Ahmadzai Wazirs in the south have decided to remain loyal, but some of the northern tribes have now broken their two-year truce with the government.

In a significant shift in militant strategy, the military has been attacked in Pakistani Kashmir. The militants have hitherto been ‘hands-off’ in relation to government interests in Kashmir, which is the location of government assistance for their struggle to seize back Indian Kashmir.  Given this logic, the attack is likely to have been mounted by the Taliban in revenge for Swat rather than Kashmir-oriented militant groups, such as Lashkar-e-Taiba. The BBC reports that the Kashmiri militant groups continue to expand their interests in Pakistani Kashmir – including in logging – while the military turns a blind eye.

Against this background, and in the aftermath of the ‘26/11’ attacks in Mumbai, India and Pakistan have been discussing resumption of talks.  India wants any such talks to be contingent on a commitment by Pakistan to crack down on anti-Indian militant groups in Pakistan.  According to the Indian press, the Pakistani civilian government has demurred because it is still  under the thumb of the military, which reportedly still sees India as its premier competitor. And indeed, the Zardari government is now claiming Zardari’s remark that India is “no more a threat” was “blown out of proportion”.  Indian Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna cited Pakistan’s release of LeT chief Hafiz Saeed as a factor in India’s continuing doubts about Islamabad’s sincerity.

Sri Lanka

With  the highly militarised phase of the Civil War won by the government, the focus is now on how Colombo will seek to handle the peace.  Will it attempt to mollify the Sri Lankan Tamil population, including through a genuine devolution offer, or will it adopt a hard-line approach by continuing the military crack-down on the north?

So far, all the signs point to the latter.  Although part of President Rajapaksa’s victory parade speech was in Tamil, the speech was on balance triumphalist. [Open site in The Hindu and go to link under ‘resources’ on RHS -Ed].  In a recent interview with The Hindu, the president confirmed his strong views against “federalism” and in favour of what he calls a [racial] “mix” in politics . The cash-strapped government, fearful of a Tiger resurgence, is even talking about further expanding the 200,000-strong Army by 50 per cent and establishing new bases in the north.

In a signifier of shifting geo-strategic circumstances in the Indian Ocean, the West has been unable to modify the Sri Lankan government’s hard-line position either before the end of the war or since.  Economic threats proved ineffectual  in circumstances in which Sri Lanka has for some time been more dependent on China and regional powers for arms and economic support than on G8 powers.

Meanwhile, according to an article by Sudha Ramachandran, in which she quotes Indian intelligence sources, the Tigers are evidently split, with one faction advocating a non-violent, democratic path and the other the continuation of the armed struggle.  At stake also is ownership of the Tiger’s presumably substantial war chest of overseas funding.

Afghanistan

As the US  commences a major military strike into Helmand province, Washington’s floundering Afghanistan opium poppy policy has changed direction yet again.  Initially after the 2001 invasion, the US turned a blind eye to the burgeoning poppy fields, not wanting to alienate the farmers who make up the majority of the population in Taliban-infested areas.  Then, mindful of the rapid rise in production, the increase in processing of opium gum into heroin in Afghanistan and the link between drug trafficking and Taliban funding, Washington attempted to crack down and destroy opium poppy crops.  This naturally triggered resentment.  Policy has now shifted again and crops will no longer be destroyed. Rather, farmers will be encouraged to grow alternatives through the application of technology and aid.

Sandy Gordon

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