South Asia at War

CAMBRIDGE – Last month’s terrorist assault in Mumbai targeted not only India’s economy and sense of security. Its broader goal was to smash the India-Pakistan détente that has been taking shape since 2004. The attackers did not hide their faces or blow themselves up with suicide jackets. Anonymity was not their goal. They wanted to be identified as defenders of a cause. Unless this cause is fully understood, and its roots revealed across the region, this attack may prove to be the beginning of the unmaking of South Asia.

Regional conflict, involving all of the region’s states and increasing numbers of non-state actors, has produced large numbers of trained fighters, waiting for the call to glory. Within both India and Pakistan, economic disparities and a sense of social injustice have created fertile ground for conflict. The use and abuse of religious fervor, whether “jihadi” or “Hindu fundamentalist,” are striking at the roots of communal harmony across South Asia.

Much of the current trouble can be traced to Afghanistan, whose tragedy could never have remained confined within its designated borders. The dynamics of the region changed when the Afghan freedom fighters of 1980’s were converted into “mujahidin” through a criminal enterprise in which both the West and the Muslim world happily participated. Pakistan, always insecure about India, became the hub of this transformation. The West thought it had moved on after the fall of the Soviet empire, but the region – and increasingly the global community – continues to pay a heavy price for this unholy project.

The ills of two decades in South Asia can be attributed to the Afghan jihad years: the rise of the Taliban, the dominance of Pakistani-sponsored religious fanatics within the Kashmir freedom movement, and the eventual spread of sectarian conflict within Pakistan. In Afghanistan, Pakistan’s military and intelligence agencies sought “strategic depth” against India. Moreover, they wanted payback for India’s role in supporting the revolt in the 1960’s and 1970’s that led to Bangladesh’s independence from Pakistan.