The carnage in Mumbai by young, well trained gunmen is the latest chapter in the world’s most complex web of problems today. Not only is it bound to have new consequences, it also throws up fresh challenges for all concerned, not least for America’s President-elect, Barak Obama.
When a bloodbath in India’s main commercial center is played out on television screens across the world, people who have witnessed events in New York and Washington, London and Madrid, Islamabad and Bali immediately connect with a rapidly escalating phenomenon. India is no stranger to terror. Still, it has suffered a huge shock. The Indian economy, already caught up in a global recession, is bound to feel the impact. Tourism and investor confidence may suffer, at least in the short term. The political fallout may go beyond the resignation of the Home Minister, Shivraj Patil. The country faces a general election in May 2009. The governing coalition led by the Congress Party is under heavy criticism from the Hindu nationalists, as well as the population in general.
We have seen instances of backlash against Muslims in the United States and Europe after 9/11. The Indian authorities will be mindful of this possibility in their own country. Violence against India’s Muslim and Christian minorities has been on the increase recently. The authorities have come under criticism for failure to protect them, too. Fortunately, Islam has deep roots in India and the 150 million or so Indian Muslims were all born and brought up in a secular country. This does not, however, guarantee harmony between India’s diverse communities. Opposition among Muslims against Indian rule in Kashmir, divided between India and Pakistan, has been a serious problem for the central government. Harsh measures by India’s security forces to suppress the militancy fuel the popular discontent even more.
As investigations continue into the massacre, there are accusations and counter-accusations within the governing coalition and between the opposition and the government. Relations between India and Pakistan have plunged following claims that the gunmen may have come by sea from Pakistan and belonged to a group based there. The attackers had AK-47 assault rifles that are manufactured in abundance on the western frontier of Pakistan, where Taleban and Al-Qaeda have sanctuaries and training camps. The sustained ruthlessness and cold-blooded determination of the gunmen to kill until the end was a product of a hardened, well-trained frame of mind.
The president-elect of the United states, Barack Obama, had made the economy his number one priority upon taking office on January 20, 2009. With the recent events in India, he faces another big challenge. Claims of improvement in Iraq are no longer enough to reduce America’s engagement in the Middle East, to concentrate on the Afghan theater and rebuilding the US economy.
The truth is that the web of crises spans from Palestine through Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan to India and further east. The combination of extreme remedies applied as part of the ‘war on terror’ and neglect of the real issue in the Middle East – the Palestinian crisis – by the outgoing Bush administration have added fuel to the fire. The mistakes have alienated many decent ordinary people. The same old condemnations of ‘uncivilized terrorists’ and perfunctory support for their victims seem increasingly meaningless.
A strong sense of alienation, humiliation and injustice pervades the Middle East and South Asia. When the situation is so volatile, local crises feed each other until they become a catastrophe. The chain of events in recent years illustrates the way in which many problems have become one. One-and-a-half million Palestinians remain cut off in the Gaza Strip, virtually imprisoned without sufficient food, fuel and medicine. More than a million of them are registered as refugees with the United Nations. They rely on humanitarian assistance that cannot be distributed as it should. The blockade of Gaza may be aimed at breaking the will of its people to support Hamas, which won the parliamentary elections for the Palestinian Authority in 2006. But the embargo has had the opposite effect. The conditions in the territory are increasingly desperate and desperate people resort to desperate things. Underground tunnels have been dug in to Egypt to secure access to essential goods. The humanitarian situation demands urgent and extraordinary measures to prevent the one-and-a-half million residents of the territory reaching the point where desperation is beyond containment.
The Palestinian problem is central to the wider crisis in West and South Asia. Its solution requires historic efforts involving America and Russia, as well as regional powers including Syria, Iran, Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, India and China. Obama has repeatedly offered friendship and support to Israel – a political necessity for any successful American politician. The time has come to exercise a restraining influence on the Israelis. The president-elect says he is willing to negotiate with Iran – a country which has a nuclear program. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, the United States already conducts discreet negotiations with the Taleban. Israel does the same with Syria. In the light of these overtures, the refusal to hold talks with Hamas does not make sense.
The rest comes after the Palestinian problem. Following prolonged negotiations, the timetable for America’s military withdrawal from Iraq is set. It is to be completed by the end of 2011, provided unforeseen events do not frustrate the plan. For the success in stabilizing both Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran’s cooperation is essential. But the more hawkish the US administration becomes, the less chance there is of securing that vital support. At the same time, cooperation of Syria, another big player in the Middle East, is essential for progress in Lebanon and elsewhere.
The crisis across the triangle that includes Afghanistan, Pakistan and India has both distinct and common aspects. The Taleban are an indigenous tribal movement across the Afghanistan-Pakistan frontier and cannot be eliminated. But it is possible to influence them if conditions are right in both countries and Washington shows willingness to listen to regional experts. America has been heavily involved in both Afghanistan and Pakistan for almost three decades. It played a role in the war. Now it needs to play a part in their reconstruction and stabilization, in the interests of all. Last but not least is Kashmir, a territory disputed between India and Pakistan since their independence from Britain in 1947. The prospects of a resolution to this intractable problem could improve with democratic reforms in Pakistan and with America’s engagement with Pakistan’s civilian political establishment instead of military. Reforms are also needed on the Indian side of Kashmir, where a combination of political failures and heavy-handed military tactics over many years have fuelled popular disaffection and strengthened the militants.