Terrorism – the common concern articulated by most South Asian leaders at the United Nations General Assembly
The 76th session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in New York last week was held at a critical juncture when humankind is confronted with challenges as colossal as climate change, the havoc wreaked by COVID-19, the takeover of Afghanistan by a group of hardened terrorists and of Myanmar by the power hungry military, and the divisive impact of the aggressive actions of a resurgent China in South and East Asia, as also in the rest of the world. No region has been unaffected by these challenges, and, as could only be expected, each country sought at the UNGA session to flag the issues that impact it most directly. South Asia was no different, but given the turmoil that has in recent months engulfed an important country of the region, Afghanistan, the shared apprehension of all nations, one notable exception aside, was that of terrorism.
The tiny island nation of the Maldives set the tone for South Asia at the UNGA. With his country in real danger of being wiped off the map in the event that international efforts aimed at arresting global warming are inadequate or are too late, President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih understandably underlined that the climate emergency will be “catastrophic” to all of humanity and that there is no guarantee of survival for any one nation in a world where the Maldives ceases to exist. Citing the report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Solih warned that bigger nations would soon catch up with the state of environmental ruin that small countries now face. Despite the existential threat that climate change poses to the Maldives, Solih did not limit himself to that brewing crisis. He expressed concern over the current situation in Afghanistan, and called for international attention to the long-term peace and stability of the careworn country. He condemned terrorism in all its forms and expressed his commitment to work with the international community to acknowledge and face terrorism in a comprehensive manner.
In her address Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina too highlighted climate change and called for equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines. With over a million Rohingya refugees having taken shelter in Bangladesh, she pushed strongly for a solution to the Rohingya crisis. Hasina also condemned terrorism and expressed concern over the situation in Afghanistan. Displaying a definitive tilt towards democracy, she said, “We envision a peaceful, stable, and prosperous south Asia. We firmly believe it is upon the people of Afghanistan to rebuild their country and decide the course of their future themselves. Bangladesh stands ready to continue to work with the people of Afghanistan and the international community for its socio-economic development”.
The small Himalayan nation of Nepal highlighted its unique structural challenges as a Least Developed Country (LDC) and a Landlocked Developing Country (LLDC). Saying that the COVID-19 “crisis has brought the world to a grinding halt, devastated the global economy, pushed an additional 150 million people into extreme poverty, and threatened to reverse hard-earned development gains”, Nepal’s Foreign Minister Narayan Khadka called for vaccines to be declared “public goods” for the benefit of people’s lives as “Deepening vaccine inequality is leaving adverse socio-economic impacts in many low-income countries”. In his speech, Khadka also addressed the situation in Afghanistan by saying that “Recent developments in Afghanistan are of common concerns to all of us. People of Afghanistan deserve better. We call for an unhindered humanitarian access and full resumption of public services, including health and education for all sections of Afghan society”. Urging all parties involved to ensure peace, security, and stability so that the Afghan people can live in dignity and enjoy their fundamental rights and freedoms, Khadka added, “We also urge Afghanistan to engage with the international community on the basis of the principles of the UN Charter and norms of international law”. Khadka condemned terrorism in all its forms and manifestations, and called for complete disarmament of all weapons of mass destruction in a time-bound and verifiable manner.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi touched upon a range of global issues in his speech at the UNGA, including COVID-19, climate change, and democracy. The equally weighty issues of Pakistan’s sponsorship of terrorism and its role in propping up the Taliban, as also Chinese belligerence and disruptiveness, were also highlighted by him. Although he did not name Pakistan, the nation Modi was referring to was crystal clear when he asserted that “regressive mindsets were giving terrorism a political meaning”. He warned that countries “that use terrorism as a political tool must realize they create a threat for themselves as well”. Modi added, “We must be alert that no country uses Afghanistan’s vulnerability as a tool for its own selfish interests”. Modi also raised concerns about Pakistan during bilateral talks with US President Joe Biden. India’s Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla told reporters after the White House talks that “There was a clear sense that a more careful look and a more careful examination and monitoring of Pakistan's role in Afghanistan — Pakistan's role on the issue of terrorism — had to be kept”.
Another country that was not named directly by Modi in his speech but which quite evidently was in Modi’s crosshairs was China. The reference was unmistakable when Modi spoke of the need to protect oceans from “the race for expansion and exclusion”. During their bilateral talks, both Modi and Biden reiterated their shared vision of a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific region with respect to territorial integrity and sovereignty, and international law. Both leaders also welcomed increased cooperation under the Quad grouping, which features Australia, India, Japan and the United States (US), including in the multilateral domain. The first in-person summit of the Quad was held on 24 September on the sidelines of the UNGA, with China as its focus.
There were suggestions that the China-directed AUKUS security arrangement that was announced by Australia, the United Kingdom (UK) and the US just a few days prior to the Quad summit would render the Quad less important and weighty. These suggestions may have overlooked the strategic elements of the Quad, and the expansiveness of the agenda that the grouping has set for itself. From maritime security to cyber security, from global health security financing to vaccine manufacturing and distribution, from climate crisis mitigation to 5G technology, from science and technology to collaboration in space, the full list is extensive and substantial. As for the aims and objectives of the grouping, the joint statement issued after the summit left little to the imagination when it said that the four members “recommit to promoting the free, open, rules-based order, rooted in international law and undaunted by coercion, to bolster security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific and beyond”. It added that “we stand for the rule of law, freedom of navigation and overflight, peaceful resolution of disputes, democratic values, and territorial integrity of states. We commit to work together and with a range of partners”.
Back at the UNGA, Afghanistan’s participation got mired in controversy amid competing claims for the country’s UN seat after the Taliban seized power last month. Ghulam Isaczai, who represented former President Ashraf Ghani’s government that was overthrown last month, had continued to speak for his country at the UN even after the Taliban grabbed power. He was scheduled to deliver Afghanistan’s speech at the UNGA in defiance of the Taliban. However, on 20 September, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres received a letter signed by Taliban Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi in which he said that President Ghani had been “ousted” and that countries across the world “no longer recognize him as President”. Muttaqi asserted that Isaczai, accordingly, no longer represented Afghanistan. The Foreign Minister asked that he be facilitated to address the UNGA. He also nominated the group’s Doha-based spokesman Suhail Shaheen as Afghanistan’s Ambassador to the UN. Several of the Taliban’s interim ministers are on the UN’s blacklist of international terrorists, so to accede to Muttaqi’s request would have been an aberration. It was also true that President Ghani had fled Afghanistan in a cowardly manner even before the Taliban had retaken the country entirely. Caught in a fix, the UN chose not to take a decision on the Taliban’s request for participation, but it also removed Isaczai from the list of speakers. The end result of this UN decision was that the Afghan people were left utterly voiceless at the UN. As for the Taliban, it could still rely on its patron, Pakistan, to speak for it at the UN and to demand recognition for it.
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan spoke at length about India, especially Jammu & Kashmir (J&K), and said that sustainable peace with India was “contingent upon resolution of the Jammu and Kashmir dispute”. On Afghanistan, Khan sought to cast Pakistan as the victim of US ingratitude and appealed to the world to work with the Taliban. Such talk, especially the allegation of the US being less than fair to Pakistan, has not been taken well by American analysts. Michael Rubin, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, in his article of 27 September titled ‘Treat Pakistan like China on military and sensitive exports’ retorted, “Such comments are rich given Pakistan’s support for the Taliban in Afghanistan, its sheltering of terror leaders such as the late Osama bin Laden, and the billions of dollars in support Washington has provided Pakistan annually. There should be no debate about where the Pakistani government and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency sit. Thousands of Americans are now dead because successive US administrations trusted their Pakistani counterparts or turned a blind eye in exchange for Pakistan’s logistical assistance in Afghanistan”. Describing Pakistan as a “vassal of China” Rubin recommended that the US immediately withdraw Pakistan’s designation as a major non-NATO Ally and “model interactions with Pakistan on those with China”.
Author and senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, Arthur Herman, on the other hand, argued in his 28 September article titled ‘It's time to pull the plug on our toxic relationship with Pakistan’ that “For more than three decades, our supposed ally in South Asia has systematically lied to and manipulated successive presidential administrations – Republican and Democratic – in ways that have made the US and the world less safe. Islamabad has been the recipient of more than $33 billion in American assistance since 2002, including $14 billion to combat terrorism and insurgents in the region even while Pakistan has been busily doing the opposite. In the wake of the debacle of withdrawing US troops from Afghanistan, it's time to radically reassess our policy toward Pakistan. It's time for policymakers, past and present, to explain why we continue to provide assistance to a country that cozies up to our enemies; has proliferated nuclear technology to some of the worst governments on earth; and has betrayed our friendship time and again”.
Anger at Pakistan is no longer restricted to scholarly discourses. The Afghanistan Counterterrorism, Oversight, and Accountability bill moved by 22 Republican Senators seeks an assessment of Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan before and after the fall of Kabul to the Taliban. The Bill has led to consternation in Pakistan, with the chairperson of the Pakistani Senate’s Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs Senator Sherry Rehman noting that it directly mentions Pakistan and calls for an “assessment of support by State and non-State actors, including the government of Pakistan, for the Taliban between 2001 and 2020”. She added, “They are clearly saying that the government of Pakistan has supported the Taliban but it’s disappointing to see that no one has actually put it to the parliament for shaping collective responses nor dispelled disinformation that is damaging and painful”. Observing with concern that the bill aims to penalize and sanction guilty countries, the other danger Rehman pointed out was that the negative image of Pakistan that has been building up could gather critical mass. She said, “It also points to a rise in toxic sentiments about Pakistan on the Hill, which many of us have worked very hard to reverse”.
In the final analysis, while all other South Asian countries expressed sincere concern over terrorism as a consequence of the churn in Afghanistan, Pakistan’s repeated insistence that its terrorist proxy be recognized as the legitimate ruler in Kabul may in due course result in unpalatable consequences for it.