Friday, December 19, 2008

South Asian Marshall Plan

EXCERPT: A "South Asian Marshall Plan" would be a more reliable route to security for both the West and the South Asian region than the current approach of endless war. The current attempt to defeat terrorists through violence plays into the terrorists' hands, costs a great deal, and fails to address the issues that generate the violence in the first place.

NOTE: Thanks to Media With Conscience for publishing the original version of this essay.

TEXT: Although thinking Americans always found the trickle-down theory of wealth (let the rich get richer and enough will trickle down to satisfy the “lower classes”) highly insulting and detrimental to American democracy, the U.S. and the rest of the West have long practiced trickle-down toward the developing world. The revival of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the spread of civil war in tribal Pakistan, and the “canary-in-the-mine” terrorist attack against anyone and everyone within range in Mumbai (not to mention the disastrous rise in the price of grain) together suggest that perhaps conditions are now getting so bad in South Asia that it is time for the West to accept that it must replace the convenient concept of letting drips of Western wealth trickle down to the “developing” (or, today, in some cases—thanks to Western behavior--“declining”) world with a policy of helping them catch up.

Such a “Manhattan Project for the Poor” or “South Asian Marshall Plan” policy of self-discipline and generosity on the part of the West could of course be phrased in moral terms, but my argument rests on security.

The West today is spending enormous sums to defend its interests in South Asia. The Afghan War has cost the U.S. an estimated $184 billion. NATO allies are spending additional billions, with Canada alone having already spent an estimated $18 billion. The conflict is costing Pakistan itself $6 billion per year—this for a country whose inability to fund government services for its poverty-stricken border regions is one of the primary causes of the war in the first place. According to a Pakistani Ministry of Finance official, “the loss of lives and economic cost imposed by the war is now rising to an unbearable level.” With both the Taliban and Washington intent on expanding the conflict, the costs can only go up. Indeed, British costs are symptomatic, seeing a 50% rise in 2008, to an annual cost of $3.5 billion.

One can only imagine the social stability that could be achieved by using such sums to provide economic security to the people of South Asia. One cannot know if this would work, but it is very clear that the alternative—a rising tide of war against all those who protest current conditions—is not working. Rather, it is visibly worsening both local conditions and the security of the West itself. As for local conditions, 60% of FATA’s several million residents (population estimates vary widely) live below Pakistan’s poverty line. And that figure was derived before Pakistan’s brutal August military offensive in Bajaur Agency that left several hundred thousand people homeless. In the words of researcher Ahmed Humayun, who recently returned to the U.S. from the region, “Refugees are scattered across NWFP and eastern Afghanistan, desperately seeking shelter in improvised camps with no electricity or running water. Women find it difficult to maintain veiled segregation, a deep affront to conservative tribal sensibilities.” As usual, despite the approach of winter, funds are being channeled to the military rather than the refugees. What impact this will have on future Taliban recruiting can only be imagined. As for Western security, the Mumbai tragedy speaks for itself.

The logic of this argument rests on the assumption that violence comes from resentment, which in turn comes from a degree of injustice that is both significant and visible. Of course, it is most convenient for the lucky (i.e., Westerners) to pretend that those committing violence against the West and its proxies and allies “come out of the blue,” as some thoughtlessly claimed after 9/11. Despite the hard lessons of the last seven years, wishful thinking seems to continue. In an individual case, that could theoretically be true: one individual might choose terror because of mental instability or some personal grievance. But those who self-servingly make the claim that the West bears no responsibility because terrorism comes out of the blue have never been able to explain why leaders advocating such violence (whatever their personal motivations may be) are finding such an endless supply of recruits willing to give up their lives. Until such Westerners can come up with a plausible argument, it seems reasonable to go with the obvious one: they volunteer to die because they are angry and desperate.

Now that we are past that issue, the challenge becomes one of understanding what makes them angry and desperate. In South Asia, the answer is a bit complicated (i.e., you have to be aware of several different things at the same time), but it is not really all that hard and is certainly no secret.

Many volumes have already been written about the details and more should be, but those details are not critical. The basic message (whether you, dear reader, happen to be just a taxpayer or a president-elect) is that the following are the components (ALL of which must be considered simultaneously [to the attention-challenged, my apologies, but this is the way the world works; if you don’t like it, go to the mall and let someone else make decisions in Washington]):

  • Self-Determination for Kashmir, whose people were cheated out of promised self-determination by Nehru and have been victimized ever since;
  • Economic Security – rapidly declining throughout the region over the last two years because of the rising price of grain (in great measure as a result of Western desires to use valuable agricultural land to produce biofuels);
  • Ethnic Nationalism – thanks to the very conscious British colonial decision to split the Pashtun people up, some going to Pakistan and the rest to Afghanistan; (An estimated 7 million Pashtuns live in the FATA, in addition to 28 million in the Northwest Frontier Province [NWFP] and 15 million in neighboring Afghanistan.);
  • Religious Nationalism – thanks to colonial British policy, exploitation of Hindu nationalism by Indian politicians, Pakistani military exploitation of Moslem nationalism;
  • Poor Governance of Pakistan’s Tribal Regions – due to lack of interest by Pakistani regimes in providing good governance and economic security for its Pashtun tribal people that it has nevertheless insisted upon retaining within the Punjabi-dominated Pakistani state.

That’s about it. Those are the basic issues that need to be addressed. Yes, of course, al Qua’ida is in the region, taking advantage of all the above for its own purposes. Indeed, given all the above grievances, how could it resist? Yes, of course, the West is in the region interfering with local agendas as it pursues its own agenda. Yes, of course, Indian and Pakistani politicians exploit regional tensions, inciting communal hatred for personal gain and, perhaps, out of genuine concern over security; India makes matters worse with its uncompromising treatment of Kashmiris, and Pakistan makes matters worse with its insistence on resolving the Kashmir issue through force. South Asia is, despite India’s admirable record of democracy and recent Pakistani steps in that direction, a black hole of injustice that sucks in every troublemaker in the universe.

I intend no disrespect whatsoever to all the admirable people of the region who are clearly aware of the problems and doing everything they can to address them; quite the contrary. I am making the point that the existence of this degree of injustice generates an irresistible gravitational force attracting both troublemakers and those willing to put their lives on the line in the struggle for justice. Indeed--as is true precisely in the case of Lashkar-e-toiba, which has helped victims of natural disasters, fought for Kashmiri freedom, and no doubt committed acts of terrorism, it is exceedingly difficult to distinguish the one from the other.

To evaluate the utility of a particular government policy (e.g., a Predator attack by Washington, an army campaign by Pakistan in its tribal regions, an Indian military strike on “terrorist training camps”), ask how it addresses these five basic issues. If it does not address them, then it probably makes the situation worse, i.e., it probably decreases the long-term security of Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, and the West.

How to resolve all these issues may not be obvious or simple, but the first clue lies in the word “simultaneously.” Much could be said about the fluidity of a complex adaptive system. To keep things simple, imagine that each of the above five issues is a balloon; the five balloons are connected and floating; you are standing on those balloons and realize they are all slowly losing air. Fortunately, you have the ability to pump air into the balloons. All must be pumped up simultaneously because otherwise the whole system will destabilize and you will tip off into the water.

Back to reality, a statement condemning attacks on India might be coupled with a statement condemning repression of Kashmiri civil liberties and condemning neglect of governance in Pakistan’s tribal regions. Backing for the maintenance of the arbitrary international borders that happen to exist might be combined with calls for local autonomy for, say, Kashmiris and Pashtuns. Aid might be offered on a regional basis in a way that required regional cooperation for all the most neglected areas rather than on a state-to-state basis as a reward for kowtowing to whatever arbitrary, short-term policy the donor state happened to have dreamed up.

The bottom line, then, is that the above five issues need to be addressed simultaneously to resolve the problem. It does not matter whether you define “the problem” as injustice for the people of South Asia or as terrorist attacks that hurt the West: same problem, same solution. The world has become so small and so aware of injustice that injustice in South Asia equals insecurity in the West.

Follow-Up: Dialogue and Research

The goals of this essay were to offer a treatment both balanced and simple, in hopes that this would provoke dialogue. Comments on imbalances or over-simplistic treatment of the issues will be warmly welcomed. Data to explore further will be even more welcome. If readers want a more formal dialogue than provided by comments, I would be happy to moderate it, perhaps on this blog. But much more is needed…

Determining how intervention of various types impacts this delicate situation merits significant research. A potentially valuable first step would be rigorous consideration of complexity theory concepts such as self-adaptation and emergence to provide an intellectual foundation for conducting a well-grounded scenario analysis. The facile but currently popular conclusion that since seven years of war has failed, the solution must be to have more war, seems somehow to miss the mark.

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